A Beautiful Moment, or Double Check Your Tickets To Ride

    I married a beautiful woman who thinks I’m great, and yet we can’t seem to meet in the middle, board-games wise. Something about the games we do and do not enjoy don’t seem to match up. When she wants a fun co-op or silly party game I want a resource-management territory grabbing drag-out fight. We find a few games we both dig on, but our relationship is built on things other than gaming, and I can’t believe I can say that without flipping the f*** out. Guess I’m growing up.

    The issue is multiplied when her parents are involved. They’re not big gamers; very few parents are. I bring a game to every gathering of the family, and I see success about 30% of the time. Aside from their beloved go-to game Sequence (which is essentially a piece of crap, sorry Nana and Papa), it’s hard to get a game of anything going, though Carcassonne saw some play time. Once.

    This 4th of July weekend saw us taking a trip to Cape Cod to spend some time at her parents’ cottage. These trips always have a moment where we eyeball the alpha shelf and decide what games have a chance of hitting the table. We usually bring two. We’re both sick of Dixit, and Carcassonne isn’t around. I decide on Vegas Showdown (it did not get played). And Katie chose the game that’s near the top of every gate-way and family game list you’ve ever seen, Alan Moon’s classic Ticket to Ride.

And It’s Alright!

    As you can probably guess, this is the game we played. I enjoyed it so much, I thought a little recap of the night would be fun.

 

Derailed At The Track?

Mary and Brian are kind, generous people who love me and like their daughter very much. I think they’re amazing, and I’m excited to teach them a new game. So I’m sort of grinding my teeth when, 20 minutes after we sit down I haven’t gotten to sentence 1 of the rules because, at all times, at least one of them is off doing something else. They’re hosts in a new house and things need to be cleaned, put away, adjusted, etc., so I’ll cut them some slack. And you can’t really say anything to your in-laws about paying attention or you come off as priggish. We’re gonna get the game going, I know it, I just gotta…

I know someone’s going to forget a rule, I can taste it in the air. When Brian and Mary both exclaim, “oh, I thought gray was a color, you didn’t say that. I’ve been waiting for them forever!” I was amused and humbled. Remember, no matter how many times you say a rule, there’s a great chance someone’s going to miss it when it comes up. Still, things are going well, everyone’s having fun, and aside from a few odd plays which prompt some more rules explanations and helpful suggestions, we’re racing toward the end-game.

 

The Couch Shot

It’s a curling term I made up for a very specific instance. It’s when you’re playing against your SO as skips, and you make a shot so amazing against him/her that you’re going to be sleeping on the couch that night. So, here was mine…

Katie’s Blue, I’m Black, and Miami is looking mighty nice. I didn’t snap pics of my hand, but I had a fistful of purples. It would be so easy to jam that Miami path. It gets me points, I’m dead certain it stops a ticket of hers, and it would essentially guarantee me the win.

I don’t do it. I decide it really isn’t worth it. Screwing people over in a game, even if it’s opportunistic and totally in line with my victory, is a bitter pill. This is my family, I can’t do that. Besides, I’m pretty confident I can put in a good showing elsewhere and get the win that way.

HUBRIS!

I end up using those purples on that 6-train path to Toronto. 15 points is a sweet deal any way you slice it. I do it as my last turn, leaving me with 0 trains. I did have the chance to do it on my penultimate turn, and use my 1 remaining train to complete a critical path, but I was worried I’d get blocked. That last turn allowed Katie to place a few final trains.

Our final scores I forget, though I do remember that Katie and I were super close. I go to my tickets, expecting a grand flourish only to realize that holy shit I forgot to take the path to Denver! I didn’t snap that pic, but Denver was a 4 purple train path away. That little mistake cost me an 11 point ticket. With that, Katie and I were tied. Same tickets accomplished. She had longest path across Canada, and took the win.

I was, in truth, extremely happy the game concluded that way. It couldn’t have been closer, and she deserved the win. I was also very frustrated with myself. That Miami play would’ve been a winner. Placing the 1-train and 6-train moves in reverse order would’ve been a win. Taking another look at my tickets at any time before the final play would’ve been a win! I mean, damn!

And knowing that Katie was enjoying my impotent nerd-rage making her own victory that much sweeter is, well, it has to be why people play games in the first place! If I won, well great, I’ve played ToR a lot, Katie a little bit, her parents maybe once years ago. But to line up a sweet victory for someone like that (and no, I didn’t do it on purpose, I was trying and I lost), to be a facilitator of joy like that? Well AnyGameGood, my friends!

Tinker

Factory Fun: Blitz

In brief, Factory Fun is a game where you pick up a piece of factory equipment each turn, and construct a network of pipes to connect its in-ports to the right materials, and its output into giant waste bins, or into other machines. Points are awarded for machines, reusing materials, and minimizing building costs. It’s Pipe Dream the game, and it’s brilliant. And long. And a brain-burner. Every time I’ve played I’ve wanted to jump in and play again immediately, but didn’t have the time or mental fortitude to subject myself to the end-game again.

I see a way to scrape 5 points more out of this.

Also after every game, Josh (who is, like, super good at this game, you guys) says he likes to rearrange his board at the end to see what the most efficient setup could be. Or rather, he’ll do that to other boards, as his is usually pretty tightly designed. But aside from some minor tweaks we never really do it.

I have argued from time to time that we never mess with our games enough. It is true that we buy a game to play that game, with its rules, its pieces, its play-tested, balanced, and refined expression of the writer’s vision to provide a fun, specific experience. Plus, changing a game takes work. But in doing so we miss a great opportunity, the ability to muck around with the rules, to file the edges, re-wire the engine, strip and polish the cogs, and give the game a fresh perspective. We get to enact that most marvelous of play types, tinkering. We get to re-engage our imagination, fiddle with the box and bits like so many Lego promising infinite potential, and play a game we like! And if we fail, it’s only a game, right?

So it is with that in mind that I considered a little tweak to Factory Fun I simply call Blitz rules. You take 5 machines, flip them, start a timer, and construct your factory from whole cloth, attempting to build the highest scoring factory in the least amount of time. Then, do it again. Adjust machine numbers for difficulty, and use the clock as a score modifier. You’d get all the madcap excitement and interesting gaming bits of Factory Fun in a fraction of the time (our average hovered around 2 minutes a round). So how does it stack up?


First Impressions

One thing became readily apparent in a couple iterations; Josh is way better at this game than I am. I was hoping to get a small set of data points that would point us in the right direction for fair tweaking. Specifically, how much is a minute worth, really? Ideally a sloppy but faster built factory would be worth close to the same as a better built factory that took longer. The problem with determining this was that Josh builds factories that are routinely cheaper, better, and quicker than mine. Which is fine, really. We aren’t seeking to make the game more balanced. Or to drastically change the game, which is fun regardless.

This new mode is fun too, at least I’m getting a kick out of it. Despite getting beat by Josh in every round I’m enjoying seeing how quickly I can put something together. After 3 rounds we speculate on a few things:

  • Pieces with high output are now way better than high point/low output machines. With the luxury of having multiple machines to work with you can drive toward the bonuses quicker. In the original game they’re good, but usually more difficult to implement. Here it’s easier, and creates swingy scores depending on your draw.
  • On that note, drawing multiple “end machines” (ones with a black output at the end, usually simple machines with good points) makes for low scoring but quick rounds.
  • 5 Machines works as a starting point; enough to provide a decent amount of confinement in your factory and force interesting choices, but small enough to keep a round to ~2 minutes. Any fewer would take out most of the challenge of placing and make good machine pairing too random. More would probably work.
  • The times were very close together. If time is used as a sort of point modifier, it would need to be measured in seconds, which is very confining. In one round I took a large amount of time moving my whole configuration around the factory to find the space. It sparked the idea that there should be a point where simply stamping a crappy, inefficient factory should be preferable to taking twice as long to shave off a few points of building.
  • Physically placing pieces takes time. It occurred to me that it would be easier, and I think way more fun, if we had dry-erase mats to draw the piping on.
  • For purposes of fun I think we succeeded. For purposes of balancing this wackadoo variant we need more play-testing.

That last one was important to me. It made me appreciate how much time and effort it takes to make a game click together, all the mechanics coming together to make the experience line up with the theme and purpose of the game. I like Factory Fun, but I think turns can take too long when people hem and haw for minutes about the piece they just picked up. At the same time, I see exactly why it is designed the way it is. Adding one machine at a time gives you a new puzzle each turn. And each turn is untimed for a reason; the game is testing your spatial orientation and how you process multiple pathways, but not how fast you can do it. You could play a variant where you pick up a fresh machine each time you finish placing the previous one, but it would be a headache, and take away that rush the start of each round where people scramble to choose the right machine for them, laugh at your friends swearing at you for taking their ideal green/orange processor, only to realize you done f***ed up good, son, that piece of junk ain’t fittin’ nowhere good.

Everything in the original game is there for a reason, and the act of tinkering with it made me appreciate that more.

Oh hey, Josh is doing Christmas Magic the Gathering the Show December 21st at the Catalyst Comedy Club. So, there’s that.

Differences

The new rule set is definitely quicker, at least round-by-round. It’s also, in my opinion, more accessible in terms of time; you can play a few rounds or a whole bunch, modifying the rules as you go. As long as each round uses the same rules for everyone it should maintain an internal balance. Ooh, would that work, allowing a “start” player to change the rules each round?

The clock is a good addition. Even without knowing how points should be awarded/penalized based on time taken, having a speed element is a good pairing to having all your machines at once, which makes construction much easier.

Player interaction in the base game is low, but still allows for people to peek over at other players’ machines and discuss good moves (depending on who you are, this can be a blessing or a curse). In Blitz there was less of that, as there’s little one can do to improve on a machine being built in one turn. Maybe more machines a turn, more players, or a heavier emphasis on quickly building.

We had time for one more tweak Josh suggested, where we start with 5 but have 5 machines in the center you could add if you were feeling bold, with the stipulation that you could take no more than 3. I had a hard enough time with the pieces I had, while Josh was able to snag 2 great machines for his set. More machines is a good idea, and drawing them from a pool re-introduces that nice frantic bit the original game has, but without trying it more I couldn’t say how I liked at; as it was it served as another way for Josh to rack the points up on me.

Conclusion: Will We Play Again?

At that point Mark came in, and it was time to put the experiment away. I do hope we get a chance to play around with it again. I think it has a lot of potential as a viable alternate rule set, and even if it doesn’t, the mere act of tinkering with a game we love to see if we can make it better, or at least good in a different way, is a worthwhile experience. It is, after all, a game about tinkering with the pieces of a whole to make it better.

In Fact Sometimes That’s Not Right To Do

Please allow me to paint you a scene, dear reader. Indulge me in my hubris as I relate a little gaming anecdote and, in its embellishments and lengthy prose, attempt to put us all in a more receptive mindset to a topic that’s been on my mind. Do not fear, children of the internet age; for those of little attention I will post a succinct summary soon after, for those who proclaim “Too Long; Didn’t Read!”

You see, I don’t speak about my manner of employment much here. This is, after all, a place of gaming, and precious little of that happens where I work. Truth be told, not much of anything happens where I’m concerned nowadays. I’m not at liberty to speak to much of it, though most would find it tedious at best regardless. Suffice to say, I have a great deal of free time at my 9 to 5.

I am often amazed at how much media one can absorb online. But when one’s rifling through news sites, webcomics, board game blogs and podcasts has become too much, sometimes a person just wants to play a game. Thankfully the internet does
not disappoint. Still, it’s one thing to peruse written works online, quite another to watch videos, and yet another thing to actively play games in blatant disregard of your office’s internet usage policy. When I do game it must generally be either very quick, or very slow.

Josh and I will occasionally play a 2 player game online; most recently it was Seasons through Board Game Arena. There are lots of good reasons to play with friends of course, and one of them is you’re all much more likely to be forgiving about turn times. We would turn the clock off, and we completely understand if someone has to step away and actually do work instead of play. It happens to Josh more often than it does me.

The seasons are so magical, they pass at different times.  See what I did there?

The seasons are so magical, they pass at different times. See what I did there?

On one occasion I was unsure if I’d have time to play (or more accurately, if any walkers-by would notice my transgression of gaming at work), and when I finally committed to the time Josh had just started a game of Innovation on Isotropic (of which the newest expansion, Figures In The Sand, is now available). I decide to find another game, and settle on a 2-player Race For the Galaxy session with someone who doesn’t seem too hardcore.

See, Board Game Arena keeps a lot of stats on its games and players. Each game has an “average” play time, and players’ play times can be tracked. Paying members (which I am not) have access to this information, but anyone who creates a game can set criteria for those joining, and limit players to those with particular rankings, high player recommendations, or a certain number of games which would suggest they know how to play, and quickly. Lollygagging is frustrating when you’re gaming online, I get it. I have never played Race online, and I don’t want to upset anyone, which of course is an absurd thing to be concerned about. But I am, and I find a game I think will be forgiving, and we dive in.

Race has an average online play time of 8 minutes. Whenever you have a turn, BGA sends you a doorbell chime to alert you. The rapid pace and multiple steps in a game of Race means the site is constantly chiming at you, and of course the faster you play the more frantic it can get. It’s been a while since I’ve played, but I’m able to lock into a quick produce/consume strategy. Meanwhile my opponent is throwing out cheap developments and planets twice as fast as I am. I don’t want to disappoint my opponent, or get caught gaming at my desk, or do a stupid move, so in my mind a simple game becomes this grand mental effort of strategize, implement, hide browser, return and re-evaluate, repeat.

It’s over almost before I realize it. Final scores, Me-42, Opponent-39.

The adrenaline dropped out of my body and I sank into my chair. What the hell happened? Was that a game or a quickie? It felt like hate-sex in the break-room before a conference. I felt dirty, used, and even though I won the feeling of accomplishment was coupled with a sense of longing. This isn’t what a game is supposed to feel like.

TL;DR: I played an online game so super fast it made my head spin, and I’m not sure I liked it.

Often times the people I play games with have a sort of “fun optimization” mindset. A fun game of 2 hours is not as preferable as 2 fun games of 1 hour each, or one of those played twice. Or sometimes, 5 or 6 successive games of something that takes 20 minutes. I once played a game of Dominion with a couple of people who played a whole f***ing LOT of Dominion. Our games took around 15 minutes, and my heart was pounding rapidly by the end of them. To which they replied, “oh, yeah, that’s about our average time.” Seriously? I mean, I get it. I don’t like feeling like my time is wasted playing a game. Sitting and waiting for a turn to happen is boring. But being pressed to optimize your turn and act quickly, in the effort of finishing in some arbitrary time limit is just as annoying. Even knowing the game and very capably playing it in record time (I won the first of those Dominion games as well as that Race game mentioned above), there’s something unnerving about clocking through a game so fast. Isn’t there time to savor?

Game Time!

(By which we mean the time it takes to play a game)

Every game published has a little block of information it, similar to the nutrition label on your canned corn. It will tell you the number of players, the recommended age range, and the estimated time to play. Which is great, but honestly it’s not as informative as one would think. And honestly, do believe everything you read?

It’s half passed time a f***ing 8 was rolled!

Fudge Factors

Number of Players

The more people playing, the longer the game. For some games this is just an additive property. For example: a turn takes about a minute each per person. The game has a hard limit of 30 turns. With 3 people, that’s 1 ½ hours. For 4 it’s 2 hours, etc.

Sometimes it’s a geometric increase. When everyone can participate in a person’s turn, the more people you have the more time each person’s turn will take. Example: For a 2 player game involving trading, the two players can manage trades very quickly. With a third person, each turn a player could conceivably speak with both players to make the best trade. The more players, the more discussion required, the longer the game will be.

Type of players

Players take different amounts of time for their turns (in games where turn time isn’t defined). Some take longer to strategize, some play very swiftly. Experience with the game is a big factor here. We have our own rough mathematical functions based on the players. One or two new players = 1.5x max estimated time. All new players = 2-2.5x time. Each Analysis Paralysis player adds a portion of time to the game based on the depth of strategy.

It’s also worth discussing in this section the kind of person and the kind of people playing the game, which are different.

Persons vary. Some are talkative, some are quiet, some are fervently interested in the game, and some are happy to spend time with friends who happen to be playing games. Independent of the kind of gamer they are, people’s personalities make a difference in play and, consequentially, on game duration.

People, by which I more accurately mean group dynamics, also vary. I think that online play is very quick compared to live, not just because the rules and physical components are streamlined, but the interaction is much different. There is no real conversation, no discussing turns, no real interaction with the other players save for that which is explicitly codified in the game. When I play games with the MIT group it’s very quick; experienced players, intensely focused on the game. I’ve played for years with some of these guys, and I don’t know their jobs, families, or in some cases their last (or first) names. When I play with friends at someone’s home the game tends to be much more relaxed. Experience is usually a factor, but so are the jokes, hints, jibes and general table-talk that may or may not pertain to the game at hand. These aren’t bad things, they’re just an addition to the experience of gaming with friends.

Environment

If you’re at a gathering at a game shop or convention, you’re surrounded by an abundance of games you’ve never played and people you don’t know, all united by a single thing; your desire to play games. That’s the focus, that is the singularity of contact with these people, and as such it is the focus of attention. Little to no time is spent on distractions chit-chat and the like.

If you’re at your Best Man’s apartment, cracking beers and jokes, discussing the upcoming wedding, the game is not the only thing in your life at that point. It’s going to share its time with the other things in your lives.

If you’re at a friend’s birthday/gaming party, it’s somewhere in the middle. Catching up is nice, and you’re there to spend time with friends, but you’re also there to game.

Time-to-Fun

All if this is a clinical examination of the duration of time a game might take. But perhaps that is not the metric we should pore over.

I was talking about Monopoly to Ted and Rebecca once. They’re sharp people, and usually have good insight into a game’s inner workings and what makes it work or not. One of the issues brought up with Monopoly was something I hadn’t considered before, something they called the “time-to-fun ratio.” The idea being that while Monopoly may be fun (and most people contest that claim), the amount of fun is too low for the time it takes to finish a game. A game that was just as fun, but condensed into a much faster game would be better. Or a game that took as long, but was fun the whole way through, would definitely be preferable.

While a bit over-generalized, I like the idea of a quantifiable amount of fun. Like if fun had a unit of measurement, like energy. The Whimsimeter. The Joviule. Grins-per-inch. Of course this doesn’t take in to account the type of fun we’re having, suggesting that our fun should have a purity rating, or density. Perhaps a conversion factor of fiero to friendship. Maybe a series of bar graphs listing the different elements of fun in their varying amounts. It could be the GMO labeling movement of the boardgaming world. “Carcassonne Inns & Cathedrals! Now with more Meaningful Choices!” “Cards Against Humanity, with fortified Friendship.”

Quantifying fun is a serious business

The Point being…

Yes, of course, thanks commentary/header. The point being that the length of a game is significant, but it is not necessarily a measure of the quality of a game, or the amount of fun one has while playing it. Faster isn’t always better, and not all the fun is derived from the board and bits and rules. A game is more than the sum of its parts.

A game should be savored from time to time. Race For The Galaxy is an excellent example; it’s an 8 minute games of resource management that could easily be a half-hour sci-fi serial of how empires are built if we gave it that chance. Battlestar Galactica, The Resistance, and any other co-op/traitor game’s enjoyment lays in the time between turns, the accusations and calculations, the nebulous element that only human interaction can provide. I’m not saying every game has to be a drag-out affair, but once in a while it’s worth it to take a breath and savor the moments that comprise the game.

Talkin’ About Tzolk’in

(We talked about the title for an hour and that’s the best we came up with. We hate us too)

Last night was game night with Josh and Mark, quite literally; we played one game.  A game that started late and ended later, clocking in around 2&½ hours.  And every single moment of it was fun, from the explanation and the grousing over the density of information on the board, to the constant declarations of “I have no idea how this game works!”  From turn 1 in its almost sinister innocence to the final desperate turns of the wheel where every point feels like the shot that may finally silence your enemies.

Josh: The game is Tzolk’in: the Mayan calendar.  Brandon and I had both seen it all over Unity Games, and though we both found lots of other things to do, seeing it in Mark’s crate of games the last few times we’ve gotten together has made me more and more intrigued. Even midway through the explanation of the rules I had a big grin on my face because this was going to be strange and fun. I was right.

It was a brain-burner for us, and among other things it rekindled my recently waning love for games that are all about cubes, food, workers and the mass accumulation of points. We have so much we want to say about the game, the people, and the evening, so let’s dive in.

The One With the Gears

There are better reviews for the game than I could make out there, so here’s a brief synopsis. You’re a Mayan tribe, you have workers, you have to collect food to feed them and resources to build stuff. You can improve your harvesting or building ability, get more workers, etc. It’s very much a worker placement and resource management game, right down to the drab colored cubes for wood, stone, and gold.

The component that makes it stand out, literally and figuratively, is the giant gear in the center and the smaller gears around it where workers go. The giant gear is the Mayan calendar, and each turn has it scooting your workers forward on tracks. The longer you wait, the better that worker’s prize when you pull him.

Mark put it (mostly) well: “It’s a resource management game where time is a resource.” Very close, but not exactly. Time is how long it takes to play. Tim-ing, or more accurately, turns, are the resource. And the exchange rates of turns, points, food and resources is a delightful puzzle. And it’s fun to turn the gears.

This is your brain on Tzolk’in

(Quick aside, Space Dealer and its recent remake Time n’ Space have you flipping sand timers to conduct your moves in real time. Time is a resource here).

My Kung Fu Is Strong

Before the game Josh and I talked a bit about style of play, and how some games are better than others at giving you that feeling of control. Some games are procedural number crunchers, while some allow you to modify your tactics and apply your style. Tzolk’in does this, making you feel like your civilization lives and breathes your will.

The Competitors


Name: Brandon Rahhal

Age: 30

Blood Type: AB Pos

Fighting Style: Swift Snake, Rising Eagle

My habit in gaming is to make quick moves and jump to the lead early on. The purpose is to get quick infrastructure and exploit benefits early on. If resource production can be enhanced early, it’s best to get to that quickly and lean on that advantage in an attempt to ride the power curve to the end. Its weakness is that it makes you a quick target, and can be prone to burning out too early and leaving nothing for the end-game. Driving the pace of the game is essential.


Name: Josh Michel

Height: 10 ft pole

Political Affiliation: Socialist

Fighting Style: Iron and Mortar

Josh is all about building a strong foundation. Ramping up resource production in a steady, level manner, creating a civilization (or casino, or dominion, or what have you) with immense strength and unparalleled prowess. It’s primary weakness is found in the transition from infrastructure to point acquisition. Without good timing and a solid understanding of the game system, that shift can be delayed until it is too late and the opponent has come in for the kill. If the right timing is found, however, you will find yourself pounding at the stone and the sea, an inexorable force with no signs of slowing.


Name: Mark Yun

Games owned: Over 9000!

Is Asian: Yes

Fighting Style: Iku Kyuu Nyuu Kon (One Shot With All My Soul)

Mark is a strong gamer, and can digest systems quicker than most of us. But what he is most adept at is finding the one straight shot that will obliterate the competition. In Netrunner it’s the 8 damage swing. In Pixel Tactics it’s a swift 3 card combo that leaves you reeling. In resource games it’s finding his strategy, putting the pieces in place, and making a sudden, stunning rush on the points track. It’s why I never underestimate him in any game. If there is any weakness in his style it’s that, in seeking out the one big move, he will occasionally miss smaller more nuanced moves between the cracks, little things that would garner more points.

How it played out

I started out by jumping on the tech tree, looking to exploit food and wood bonuses. An oversight in the rules (+1 food or +1 wood, not both for a single space) worried me, but I stayed with it. Josh began in a similar way and was able to build his infrastructure later, but stronger. Mark started with an additional worker, and ran towards getting more and finding ways to feed them. This would give him the flexibility to lay the foundation for a big rush.

With a bit of early gain, I decided to leap on the Chichen Itza track, which is specifically for gaining points and little else. It was time consuming and had its risks, but nobody else followed me on it, and it allowed me an early lead. Josh managed to gain massive amounts of resources and start building rapidly. Mark acquired a number of end-game points and rushed forward in the end. It’s very difficult to determine who’s where points-wise, but we’re all feeling a mix of “I’m in good shape” and “I just f***ed myself over.”

Food Scarcity

Josh: An interesting part of many worker placement games is the decision of when to get more workers. Getting more workers is something that has to be timed, and comes with the cost not only of obtaining but maintaining that worker. It’s always a risk. Mark had a technology that started him with an extra worker, and Brandon went down that track fairly early on. About midway through the game I realized I had plenty of food, and that I probably should have grabbed an extra worker a few turns ago, but was instead nervous because the half year was about to come up. As the game progressed, I found myself throwing good money after bad by repeatedly passing up the new worker because I had thought the moment had passed and the immediate gains I was making would be more important. I was very wrong, and though the final score was close, a few minor changes could have made it disastrously bad for me.


Being overly conservative about my workers is in part due to the feeding mechanic in Tzolk’in being very unlike Stone Age, a worker placement game I know quite well. Tzolk’in’s corn does double duty, being used in feeding workers and allowing more flexible worker placement. This makes it fluctuate significantly and it’s far less predictable when you’ll have the corn cover all of your people. Tzolk’in’s version of the Stone Age field isn’t a place where everyone can always put a worker and reasonably expect it to feed itself. It has a wheel where you might have to wait a few turns, and that scared me into usually having plenty of corn left over, waiting for feeding time. That extra corn was a wasted resource, and in a game that requires you to manage a few different systems of resources, having one run inefficiently can bog down the whole system.

I become the two things I hate: Sub Optimal Redux

Two kinds of people annoy me when I’m playing a game; those who take forever to complete a turn, and those who whine about losing when they’re winning or have won. This game I became both.

There’s a lot to process in Tzolk’in. My turns took a bit of time. At least once I took time hammering out the details of a turn and its long-standing implications, and it paid off. At least once I took the time to pore over the turn and ended up shooting myself in the foot. One of those “this isn’t sub-optimal, this is terrible” kind of turns.

Josh: Brandon put a worker in the farm track, expecting to get wood, not realizing that since there were no longer any wood tiles, the only thing he could get was corn. This meant he had a series of essentially wasted moves, culminating in the loss of a crystal skull and thus some points from the blue “uses a crystal skull to get lots of points” track.

And I’m convinced it’s cost me the game.

Mark’s a sharp guy, and he’s played the game before, so I’m always wary when playing against him. The last three times I’ve played him in a game I’ve had an early lead and he has snatched victory from me. As for Josh, our recent games taught me this; when I think I’m in good shape I get beat. When I think I’m losing, I get beat horribly. So I don’t dare let myself think I’ve won.

And then I win. It’s not by a lot, but it’s enough.1

Josh: I found it very interesting that after the post about a Vegas Showdown mistake and the idea of Sub Optimal moves, we had both in this game. Mark made a few suboptimal plays at the very end. I have found that while overall strategies of mine aren’t always the best, I’m very good at finding every last point when I know the game is going to end in a turn or two. Mark was lining up for a big-point Monument for his final turn. Looking at the options available, he quickly grabbed the Monument and let the other workers do nothing, as he was now out of resources. I was looking at it and figured out a way for him to squeeze more resources out of the tech tree, giving him enough to not only get his monument, but also to use his last worker to buy another 8 point building. Those 8 plus the 2 extra from his Monument would’ve put him in the lead, and made Brandon’s mistake the one that cost him the game. Instead, the final numbers tallied up to have Brandon escape his mistake. Brandon outplayed us, and it was nice that the final score played out that way.

The term for people who take too long to play is Analysis Paralysis, or AP player. I propose that there should be a term for when one complains about losing and then wins. Maybe call it “Whining while Winning.”2 If it’s popular enough we can truncate it to “whuffing” or something.

Final Thoughts

Recently, and with increasing frequency, a game comes along that everyone in the world seems obsessed with. Tzolk’in was played constantly at Unity games this year. It’s 17 on Board Game Geek. Mark has brought it to every game gathering we’ve had since he purchased it months ago. At times it felt like the entire world wanted me to play this game. And now I finally realize why. Which means playing The Resistance is way overdue.

Tzolk’in is amazing, and the most fun I’ve had with a Euro-style game in a while. My apprehension at seeing drab cubes was lost in a wash of color and theme; The bright artwork and tribal feel, the interlocking systems, and those iconic and fiendishly clever gears, serve to make this a holistic marvel. My victory, carved out by the fervent worship at Chichen Itza, makes the victory feel less like a math problem I solved and more like a victory for my tribe through abject worship. It’s an expressive and challenging game that I’m seriously looking forward to playing again.

1Final scores: Brandon-60; Mark-53; Josh-52

2Not to be confused with “Tactical Bitching.”

Looking For Group

A Team of Like-Minded Individuals

The next big battle in the console wars is underway. The knock-down drag-out fight between Sony and Microsoft, with Nintendo yapping and biting at heels like a spry old Shih Tzu, has the techno-foes trading blows over system power, online security, indie game development, and a number of other issues. But very little of what I’ve heard (mind you, I have not been paying much attention) talks about how much more fun the games will be. Processor power and stronger graphics engines are lovely, but nobody is talking about increased interconnectivity with players, beyond a few “post scores and issue challenges through social media to your friends!”, which isn’t a meaningful connection.

The strange thing is, it wouldn’t be difficult. Imagine sitting in front of your Xbox, firing up a digital reconstruction of a game, and simultaneously opening up Skype to connect with friends. The game doesn’t even have to be tightly programmed, it could just be a graphical construct that allows dice rolling and piece movement. We could have a new era of tabletop gaming, something that could one day mend the rift of live tabletop and isolated console gaming.

I love both video and board games, but as far as interaction with people, live tabletop gaming cannot be beat. Thus it is a point of frustration for me that actually getting people to the table to game cab be such a Nightmare.

Whyyyyy is nobody showing up?! (heh, me and my puns)

Time and Space

That’s what you need to put a group together. Well, you need the people of course, and the desire to play, the physical games themselves, etc. But once the desire is there, and since everyone I know has at least a few games ready to play, it all boils down to the time to play (and learn) games and a place to play them. Time and space are the dwindling and scattered resources of planning.

Mark: Want to get a game thing going tonight?

Me: Yeah, of course I’m interested. Where should we do it?

Josh: We’re about to eat dinner, but we might be interested after. I don’t think we’re coming out to Watertown though.

Mark: Well, I’m in Melrose, and you’re on your way home to Watertown (Google maps estimate: 1 hour with traffic). What about Josh, he’s roughly between us (~22 minutes from both our homes).

Josh: Nicole and I are out for tonight, thanks though.

Me: I just got in, I don’t have it in me to go back out for an hour drive in traffic. Maybe some other time.

That Kind of Party

There’s something to be said for an impromptu game session. For most gatherings though, you need to plan it ahead of time, just like if you were planning a “normal” party. More so I’d say, since for most parties I’ve attended all you need is booze and space for people to stand around, drink, and socialize. For gaming, people need to know rules, be physically and mentally invested in the game, and be willing to adhere to certain customs not necessary in other parties; keep drinks and snacks off the table, don’t walk off in the middle of the game to chat with someone in the other room, don’t get into side conversations, and take the game seriously.

Me: (before many parties) You think I should bring a game or two, in case people want to play?

Katie (+a few others): I don’t think it’s that kind of party.

Me: …I know.

Normal Party vs. Board Game Party (as the internet, vis-á-vis Google Images, sees it)

Looking For Group

When you get older, your free time becomes scarcer and more precious. Certain life matters crop up, things like jobs, bills, kids, fund-raisers, that sort of thing.

Sukrit: My mother is visiting this weekend, so I’m out.

Mark: Flying to San Francisco for work. I’ll be there next week.

Josh: It’s my last show that night and after the show I plan on being extremely drunk.

Me: I’m getting married in X months (in which 8 ≥X≥0)

Gaming becomes one more thing you have to prioritize. I know people who are passionate about anygamegood, even if they don’t call it that. And they lament the occurrences when their gaming sessions have been knocked off of one or more persons’ list of priorities. It’s even more frustrating when it’s done on incredibly short notice (often the day of) and it’s treated as simply not a big deal.

Ted (on absences from the Risk Legacy campaign): “We all have things to do in our lives, of course. But for me it’s like this; if you’re interested in gaming you make time for it. If you can’t make it, fine, but don’t say you can make it and then just blow it off.”

Auston (author, games designer, and avid blogger): “I just feel like people are scheduling the game, and if somebody, anybody, calls them, my game is the first thing to get dropped.”

And therein lie the issue. I believe the perception of gaming gatherings is that of a frivolous activity, a source of amusement and diversion that begins, ends, and in the middle is filled with inconsequentiality. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe that, to a degree (it’s right there in the mission statement), but I would never call gaming, or the act of planning or reneging plans, as inconsequential. I believe it’s important to remind ourselves, every now and then, that play has its own important place in human interaction. I hold games in high regard, and the people who play them are closer to me than others. It is a social gathering that to me is not as arbitrary as eating a bunch of caramels.

Party Size

Before game night begins, I have to decide who I’m inviting. It’s more complicated than you’d think. You can’t just invite all your gaming friends and see who shows up. Well, maybe you can, I can’t. Josh and I have a spreadsheet of our gaming friends to keep track; it’s around 20 people, incomplete. If half those people showed up every time it would be bedlam.

Every game fits a certain number of people. Some are broader than others, but most have a recommended number. Just so with game nights, especially when I have certain games I’m hoping to play.

# of people

1:    Well, they do make a lot of neat board games with 1-player variants. Try Mage Knight, or Chrononauts solitaire.

2:    Duel night with a good friend/rival. Netrunner, Pixel Tactics, Twilight Struggle. Puzzle Strike and Innovation fit more, but are great 1-on-1. If this is what I’m looking for, I’ll ask one person at a time until I find somebody. Sometimes this can result in an unexpected cancellation and a ruined night so, to call it back, I do enjoy console games.

3-4:    Tons of games fit this number optimally, and it’s a good figure to shoot for if you want to have a low-key gathering with your friends. Which is why we never have it. This is the razor’s edge of gatherings; you either invite the exact number you’re looking for, and everyone bails, OR you invite a few extra friends, figuring that somebody won’t be able to make it, and everyone shows up.

Josh: “Improv people are notoriously flaky. I invite them, but I don’t count on them replying quickly if at all.”

5:    This is a tough number sometimes. Not a lot of games work with 5; they generally run long , there’s a large gap between turns, and the asymmetry precludes 2v2 setups. Still, it’s not hopeless. Co-Op games like Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot work this way, and Betrayal at House on the Hill is pretty good with 5.

6:    There are games that fit 6, but I personally believe they’re the kind of games you plan for. Diplomacy, Twilight Imperium, and other large-scale games are great, but they’re the kind of games I want to specifically plan for, not drop in for a game night of indeterminate attendance and “what do we want to play” syndrome. More likely this is splitting into two games.

7-8:    Now you’re getting into definite 2-game territory. 7 is particularly difficult, since there are very few (non-party) games that fit 7, and I personally can’t name one. Even Dixit, a quintessential party game, only fits 6. 7 has to be 5&2 or 4&3. 8 provides more flexibility, but again, it will be 2 games.

9-12: This number frustrates me. We end up with it sometimes, when I haven’t had a game night in a while and want to see everyone. Or when I send a blast invite to make sure I’ll have enough people and, improbably, most of them actually show up. At this point, not only are we playing two games, they’ll take up the full evening. We won’t get a chance to play or chat with the other half of the group, which is fine when everyone is having fun, but it can be a drag gaming with 5 and cleaning up for 12. And considering our group isn’t big on Apples to Apples or other large party games, there’s no other recourse.

13: At this point you’d better just hire a hobbit to round out the numbers.

13 is unlucky. Also, these guys are certain to f*** up your table

Plan Ahead

As I said before, planning a game night takes as much time as planning any other party.   I try to give at least a week, but the more people you’re looking to invite the more time you want to give them.  (And sometimes I ping guests who haven’t replied, as most people don’t RSVP anymore.)

I usually send out a list of games I’m hoping to play beforehand (Josh is a bit more loose, there are pros and cons to both).  If you know the number of people playing it’s easier, and will prevent wasting time deciding on what to play.

Finally, and most importantly, it is good to remember that game gatherings are fun.  It can be frustrating when your plans for an epic sit-down of Twilight Imperium get snuffed out, or if your multi-hour 12 man game extravaganza becomes 3 people playing Catan again.  But instead of focusing on how things went awry, consider how nice it is to play games with friends.  You can’t control other people or their plans, but you can plan ahead, and if your friends are looking to game, they’ll make time.

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Anygamegood.  To celebrate (and also, coincidentally, since my friend and former boss is visiting from Texas) we’ll be doing a day-long gaming session at my place.  Hope everyone is getting some good gaming in this weekend.

Risk: This Is How The World Ends

Ted’s Campaign

Sam wasn’t able to make a number of the games, so we had a lot of 4-player sessions. This changes the texture of the game immensely. The map has more space, so placement order isn’t as critical. This changes draft priority, and allows for later conflicts and more time to bolster one’s armies. It also keeps one more faction out of play, which prevents them from acquiring knock-out or missile powers, which effectively removes them from the game.

It’s a long list of “if this than that” and “what ifs” in Risk: Legacy. That is, I think, one of its major strong points; our world is unique, it developed as only our could. Ours is a story nobody else has.

Unfortunately that isn’t a happy story for everyone else it seems.

Game 11

Sam is able to make this one, which is kind of exciting. He’s low on missiles, and everyone underestimates him. I hope to get a large exchange of cards late and win the game with a single push. I wait just long enough for Sam to do a smaller push and wipe me out, claiming my considerable card stack. He wins next turn. It’s two victories for the guy who didn’t have any going into game 9, so it provides a bit of hope for the campaign.

Game 12!

Sometimes hope is just a word.

I won. It was another game of someone having a lock on their turn, but somebody sneaking in a moment earlier and taking the victory. It wasn’t guaranteed for me, a lot of rolls had to go my way. But as Ted has said, “if you have a 40% chance of winning with a course of action, it’s worth trying.” So I gambled, pushed across the board, and took enough bases to win. If anything, it continues to demonstrate how important it is to protect your base.

This is my 6th win, and it gives me a plurality. Games 13-15 will have no bearing on who wins the campaign, as nobody can match my 6. Ted says a couple things, boiling down to, “Congrats, even though it’s not a game about winning, but we’ll keep playing, because it’s still fun.” Imagine my dismay when I found out he didn’t really believe that.

See, I’m usually the first person to get to Ted’s, as my work lets out earlier than everyone else’s, plus I live closer. So we have time to chat about the game before it gets underway. And again I had to hear Ted talk about how un-fun the game has become, and how it’s (mostly) my fault. I felt bad about it the first time this was thrown at me around game 8. But I’ve done my best since then to play tough but fair, and not politick or twist the game around. I don’t need this again. At some point it needs to be said. There was terrible play early on, a bunch of people made bad decisions and fought the absolute wrong opponents, and Ted didn’t try hard enough. I may have done some early prodding, but I’m not the sole architect of the game being so busted.

Game 13

I win the draft and take Mutants, the only time I’ve played them. At this point most of the people in the table are anxious to crack open the final packet, the Capital City. We start with the appropriate mission (randomly I swear), and a territory card that works for it comes out a few turns in.

This is where it becomes obvious how busted the game is. Aaron has a great chance to take the territory needed to make the mission happen. However, my stack of missiles is enough to keep it protected, even when Ted (the one who owns it) is playing missiles to help Aaron take it. He’s rebuffed, and I take it my next turn, giving me two points. I lost my base earlier, but I’m able to take it my next turn, though with only 3 armies on it. So when I’m at 3 points I see Ted checking his options. At this point I feel compelled to say, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but you should really defend your base.” He does, sort of. He ups the army count from 4 to 7, though he has more he could use. So when my turn comes around, his is the most reasonable target to go for. Even after the Capital City battle, and even after I spend missiles to defend my base, I still have 1 to use against him. I’m able to swing a double loss into a double win with it, and I have more than enough strength to take the base and the win.

I feel crappy for doing it, and I apologize to the table. The campaign is called here, as nobody wants to watch something like that again.

Aftermath

So yes, the game got busted. I took some wins I shouldn’t have, obtained a stronghold, gained an advantage too difficult to overcome (with 3 other people; it would’ve been much different if Sam could’ve made it). But After mulling it all over again, I’m pretty sure that I’m done apologizing for this sort of thing. Ted said that games aren’t about winning, they’re about competition. Yeah, I get what he means, but it’s a game, moreover it’s Risk. Says it right on the box, above the word Legacy. It’s an Ameritrash classic which has always been about random swings, massive armies, and grinding everyone else at the table into dust. The fact that it has a 15-game meta framework does not change that core stylistic design. I agree that the game is somewhat broken, but sometimes the players are too.

I hate that I have to feel crappy all over again while I type this. I hate that I’m in a position where I have to apologize for playing my best. I hate that everyone thinks it’s the game that’s screwed up and not their own stupid shitty play. It’s Beyond Boardwalk all over again; a lot of new mechanics and cool choices, but the same game at its core, with hurt feelings and sour looks when you lose.

You know what? Fuck it. I won, I’m not going to feel shitty about it. Besides, the other campaign manages to be balanced, despite having similar issues.

It’s Risk. Says so right on the box.

Greg’s Campaign, Game 8

So, that stronghold I had in Australia in Ted’s game? Jess has one in South America here. It’s not as great, as it still has two entry points and her city is surrounded by ammo shortage scars, but it’s still nice to have a guaranteed quality starting location. The faction she gets has an “ignore ammo shortages when defending” bonus to it, so her setup is pretty good.

The factions here aren’t fully loaded with powers and scars, so it’ll be interesting to see how they develop. The Saharan Republic has a sweet one-two combination of being allowed to use their redeployment in any territory they control, and being able to reinforce to one unoccupied territory per turn. I use it to get around the nuclear fallout in Australia. It’s not a great bonus, but it keeps my base protected, as the mutants are on the other side of the map.

I get a nice set of cards, but I don’t get to use them. Jess manages to take a few quick cards, and when nobody expects it (and I’m in no position to stop her), she turns in cards, marches through two bases and 9 territories, and grabs 3 points in a turn. I believe her base was a critical component, not because of the continent bonus (which I don’t believe she ever held), but the unbeatable population amount which gave her some great events.

Aftermath

This gives her two wins. At 8 games, everyone has two wins, except for Greg who hasn’t gotten on the board yet. It’s odd for me, knowing what’s in the remaining packets, and seeing how the game could play out. It’s difficult to keep that knowledge from coloring my decisions. Still, this game is progressing much differently, with a completely different set of players, so I’m excited to see how this one ends.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 2 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 3 missiles

Ted’s Campaign (Called)

Brandon: 7 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 2 Win

Packets Open: Everything

Resource Management

Josh and I had a delightful game gathering over Memorial Day Weekend. In attendance were Me, Josh, Katie, Nicole, Fraley, Perich, and Sylvia. 7 people can be a tough number for a gaming group, as none of the games we’ve brought fit 7. Fortunately, we’re able to move past that “what are we going to play” phase of game night and get to playing in different groups and configurations. Among the games played were Factory Fun, Innovation, Castle Panic, Dixit, and Galaxy Trucker. Galaxy Trucker is the one I’d like to talk about.

Shipsmiths

It’s a work in progress. But I swear she flies.

I love Galaxy Trucker. I love playing it and I love teaching it. It was Nicole’s third game, Perich’s first, and my… I dunno, 37th? Well, enough that Perich referred to me as a “practiced shipsmith.” The game specifies that it can be punishing, and that any player who made a profit by the end wins (though “some are bigger winners than others”). I confess, dear reader, that I did not adequately pull my punches when ship building. I don’t think I stole critical pieces or put time pressure on anyone, but I did come out with superior ships, though in round 3 large chunks broke off mine, which was simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating.

After the game, Perich asked Nicole and me what general guidelines he should be following in building ships. For what it’s worth, he took second place with a very respectable score. And he did it with very slim ships.

I’m not a genius, but I fancy myself a pretty good Galaxy Trucker player. I told him, “it’s important not to block off sections of your ship by placing pieces with too few outward connectors. Each square of your ship should be looked at as a resource, a place to put something in your ships of some use. Specific ship pieces are important as a resource, but your most important resources are time and space.” Then I thought, “Wait, was that poignant?”

Resource Management

Resources are defined as “a source of supply, support, or aid, especially one that can be readily drawn upon when needed.”  All games have at least one resource. No, seriously. Every game you will ever play has resources. Some are obvious; wood, grain, ore, cash, energy, etc. Some aren’t called resources, though of course they are; workers, deeds, territory. Some aren’t even considered as resources, though again they are, and sometimes more important than the obvious resources you’re given. For example, Scrabble is a game about building words to get points. You draw letter tiles from a bag; that’s an obvious resource. It’s also the least important one in the game. The biggest resource the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, or more specifically, your ability to memorize and access those words.

Here’s a more eccentric example. The Resistance is a game about hidden roles and espionage. The game itself is fairly simple; two teams, resistance fighters and spies, try to win three missions. The spies know who’s on whose team, and the resistance has to smoke them out through accusations, extrapolation, and sometimes outright guessing. The game has no traditional resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I would say the most important resource you have is trust. You earn it through lies and clever play, and you lose it through missteps or simply being in a bad situation with more consummate charlatans.

What I’m getting at here is that being aware of what’s available to you is important in understanding a game, and in making strong decisions. Good games are all about interesting decisions, and those decisions are informed by what you can do in a game, and what you can do is defined by what resources to bring to bear.

The Wide World of Gaming

Athletes and professional video gamers view their time, their physical endurance and their mental acuity as resources. The French Open is happening right now, and already there are talks of Rafael Nadal struggling to close out his first round. It happens every year, and every year since Rafa’s 2005 victory he’s won the French Open (except 2009, and we’re all happy Federer finally got one). I don’t think Nadal is struggling, I think he’s conserving himself. He doesn’t need to use all his strength to defeat lesser opponents.

The other day I was reading an old book on Pac Man strategy. Yes, really. The book talks about using your time well, resting during the intermission scenes, and staying relaxed and focused. Fighting game professionals don’t go all out for their opening matches, as the mental fatigue drastically reduces their strength in later rounds, though sometimes they’ll attempt to finish matches quickly to give themselves more time to rest. RTS masters are as concerned with time and momentum as they are with the game’s endogenous resources. And anyone who thinks the resources in poker are limited to your chip stack will be sorely and expensively mistaken.

Billy Mitchell knows what I’m talking about

But Back To The Point

My advice to Perich crystallized a thought that I sort of knew but never put into words. For my part, I love games where the resources aren’t just measured by tokens or currency, but also by creativity and time-management. Every game has a resource, and as such, resource management is part of every game. And sometimes the key is to be aware of which resources are the important ones. After all, if we hadn’t managed our time so well we may have never gotten to play at all.

I’m pretty adamant about the importance of theme and story in games. A fun game (and a great game night) is more than the sum of rules, pieces, and mathematical combinations that make up the game system. Games are a sort of living art. But I also hold in high regard the actual quality of the play itself. So next time you play a game, keep in mind that you have a lot more to work with than the cards in your hand, the cash under the board, or the tiles in the rack. And of course, be brief with the jawing and debate of the evening’s game selection, and get to gaming!

Talking It Out

I’ve said it over and over again, but the most fun part about games remains the actual human interaction you get while playing. And while any game will allow you to talk about the local sports team while you play, not every game lets you talk about the game you’re actually playing. Some games, like Settlers of Catan, force you to talk about what you’re doing; you have to talk to each other to trade. Other games aren’t as encouraging, but allow for it by giving everyone enough information to discuss moves (Stone Age, Industrial Waste), which leads me to say things like “really? I thought you’d be going for the field this turn.”

I played a game of Chess a few days ago for the first time in what has to be years and was struck by the way my playing of other games had influenced how I treated it. Chess is similar to Puerto Rico (alright, Puerto Rico is similar to Chess, it’s been around much longer) in that there is no randomness; every play can be analyzed on a “if I do X then you do Y then I do Z and you…” train of thought until the end state of the game (potentially, of course, unless you’re playing Deep Blue, then it is definitely). It’s strange how this affects table talk. You could tell your opponent when they are leaving their queen vulnerable or you could try to talk them into making a mistake, but neither is very satisfying. The latter feels mean and the former feels like you’re just playing yourself.

Talking strategy ended up costing me, as I told my opponent when they made a particularly bad play, and let them take it back (Also costing me: the hubris of thinking I was a superior player). Later when I made a play that was not obviously bad but led to me losing a rook and being out of position, my opponent’s first words were  “wow, that’s a great move” rather than what I ended up saying “Man that was over aggressive. That probably cost me the game.” (Spoiler alert: It Did). If I had shut up I would have been in a much better position, but, well, I enjoy talking too much.

A much more fun game happened a couple of weeks back, when my friend Mark, Brandon’s friend David and I took a first crack at Snowdonia.* Mark had only played it a couple of times and it was the first time for both David and I. Snowdonia was very Euro in that everything you could do would give you points (or cards that would make other moves stronger further down the road), and the game was entirely about maximizing what points you could get with your two workers each turn. I found it agonizing in the best kind of way.

My agonizing and talking about each individual move ended up making the game take longer than it should have, and David, apologizing profusely, had to leave with the game only midway through. What followed was one of the more interesting things I’ve done gaming-wise in quite some time: Mark and I decided to play David’s turns for him, as well as our own. This allowed us to discuss how the game was progressing, what moves might be optimal and why, but doing it in the third person rather than asking for our opponent’s help with our own moves. It didn’t feel like that game of chess, it felt like a co-op game where we happened to be playing against each other. “David’s” moves were never to block the other person’s or to directly get out of the way. We played “David” as we thought the real David would play. I walked out of the game with a better appreciation for the strategy than almost any other maiden voyage with a game. I got indirect advice and answers to my “why isn’t this the obvious play?” question without giving away what I wanted to do. Digging deep into the game was one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had boardgaming in quite some time.

From this unique experience I made a realization that bums Brandon out. His new favorite game is Android: Netrunner.** The game seems pretty well put together, and even while seeing that it has potential I didn’t find myself enjoying it. I’ve come to realize that it actively discourages table talk.*** The megacorporation plays cards face down. Everything it does is in secret, and the hacker can spend significant resources only to find that what the megacorporation has been hiding was a trap the whole time. It requires bluffing and has numerous important pieces of information that are hidden. Any discussion had about the game has to be taken with a large game of salt, as it starts to feel like the battle of wits from The Princess Bride.

"Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy"

“Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy”

The tension built up from a game of Netrunner is probably what some people love about it. I’m not here to say that they’re wrong, just that I need that tension released. A game that should have no table talk but still felt fun was a recent game of Noir**** that I played with Brandon and Katie (Brandon’s fiancé). The game is fairly simple and not without its flaws (the game ended in a 2-2-2 tie as we all figured out who the other person was and there was no way we’d then end up next to each other without getting hit first) but it led to a beautiful moment where I moved Katie’s character out of the way of Brandon’s (I had figured out who they both were but Katie didn’t seem to have known) and whispered “I’m saving your life” which caused Brandon (and then me) to break into hysterical laughter. This tension breaking discussion about the game was probably not helpful in terms of winning. If Brandon didn’t know that I knew who he was, he may have been more reckless about his own movement and let himself end up next to me. But because the game moved quicker (and because I had had a couple of beers), I was more willing to give myself a slightly lower chance of winning to get some more enjoyment out of the game.

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent…

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent… 

Now, obviously, not everyone gets pleasure from boardgaming the same way. Some people want their game to tell a story and hate that euro games use little wooden cubes. Some people want to wreck each other’s shit and some people want to play Dominion without any attack cards. Brandon loves the mindfuck that is ever present in Netrunner and I hate the way it makes me shut up. Before Innovation took the crown of my new favorite game, Stone Age was the reigning champ for quite some time in large part because it encouraged me to ask why someone made the choice that they made, because if I were them I would’ve gone the other way. In improv, its bad form to talk about what you’re doing, but in boardgaming? I find it delightful.
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*Snowdonia is a very Euro-style worker placement game, but unlike most worker placement games I’ve played, you only get two workers per turn (eventually you can get up to 4, but it is costly).

** Netrunner is a card game set in a dystopian future wherein a Hacker tries to get into a megacorporation’s mainframe. It isn’t really a deck building game, but I don’t know how to describe it.

***To be clearer: it discourages helpful table talk. It highly encourages you to lie to your opponent and to get them to make mistakes. Given the option between antagonistic table talk and none, I find myself (personally) wishing for none.

****Noir is a game where the board is a grid of faces, and you are trying to figure out who everyone else is, and then move your card next to theirs so that you can kill them, before they do the same to you.

Legacies: Tyrant

When I started board gaming I was fanatic about the victory. From first-time plays to games I consider myself a veteran of, my every move contained in it the singular purpose of securing victory. As the years progressed I loosened up on the “play to win” mindset and embraced the heart of gaming, to have fun. I still think playing to win is important, but I try to not let it get in the way of fun. This has probably influenced my shift in taste from euro-style cubes and economies games to more thematic and colorful gaming options (the new age of games that provide both has also helped).

But you know how when you grow and change as a person, but things from the past put you in something of a regressive state? Like how high-school reunions, or meeting with old friends or family members you haven’t seen in a while, sort of makes you more of the person you were then. Risk Legacy, as we became starkly aware of in our most recent game, maintains the essence of classic Risk at its core. And in playing it, I may have become the gamer of old; the young boy hungry for victory, but equipped with the skills and tools of a gaming veteran. And I may have ruined the game for everyone.

Dear God, what have I become?

Ted game 7: On a mountain of skulls, in the castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood.

If you read the last Legacies post, you know our situation in Australia. If you didn’t, don’t worry, I’ll recap and you can avoid the spoilers. Basically, Australia has always been a sticking point in Risk: a continent with only one way in or out, it’s easy to defend and quite useful. In our game, a combination of game-changing scars have made Australia a juggernaut, but only for the one guy who can access it in the starting placement without killing himself; me.

The game was so rapid, the post-mortem was longer than the game and was very emotionally charged. Here are some bullet points from the game to provide context:

  • Mark can’t make it, so we have 4, which spreads us out.
  • I get a great starting draft due to some bad draws by a couple people. I’m able to take the first turn, 10 armies and 2 bonus coins. Placement order and faction don’t matter for me, as I have a guaranteed starting spot and most any faction that isn’t bad for taking cities is good for me.
  • I flood into Australia and start grabbing bonus armies before anyone can respond. And nobody responds after that.
  • At one point Ted gets two cards totaling 6 coins. It’s a big early grab, so I point it out. It’s politicking, which every Risk game has, right?

Let me expand on this one. Ted is somewhat notorious for his ability to sweet-talk players at a table when he wants to. I want to point out that this isn’t an indictment; I think it’s great that he’s so brilliant at it. His advice always helps you out, so it’s good advice, and it just happens to also help him out as well. I call it the silver tongue, and ever since I figured it out I’ve been trying to learn it.

Ted doesn’t use the tongue in this game, but it’s pretty much impossible for him to convince anyone of that, except me, who still treats him as the smartest, most dangerous player in the game based on tactical ability alone. I have used table-talk to leverage players against Ted, but most times I don’t need to; even when I win, people discuss ways they need to shut down Ted when the next game comes around. So when I say he’s got 6 coins, everyone flips out. And nobody even notices or cares when I get 7. Except Ted. Whom nobody is listening to. So:

  • Everyone focuses on Ted, even after I start my attack, even after it’s (to Ted and me) readily apparent I’m poised to claim the game. For the fourth time. And I don’t say anything.
  • Ted makes a push but can’t get 4 points. My next turn strafes the board, giving me a mission point and 2 other bases, securing the victory in 3 turns.
  • Everyone gets pissed.

Wait, what? Why is everyone pissed? And why do they seem pissed at me? It’s Risk, this sort of thing happens, right? Right, guys?

Aftermath

The first thing I say after the game, highlighting that I didn’t and wouldn’t say it during the game, was “guys, it was me, you should attack me, not Ted, me.” Then Aaron said he still thinks Ted was the imminent threat. Ted was upset and more or less said I was making the game not fun for him by politicking against him each game. Which I wanted to defend myself by saying A) it’s part of the game, B) everyone always attacks him anyway, even when I sit and say nothing, and C) What am I supposed to say? “Hey guys, you gotta get me, now, I’m going to win?”

A discussion opens up on how one could break my stranglehold on the map. I give advice. When I wonder aloud, “why am I helping in the architecture of my own defeat?” Ted promptly responds, “We need your help to fix this, otherwise the game will stop being fun. Seriously.”

Recounting the whole post-mortem would be as tedious as recounting a Risk game itself. Despite many salient points, in the end let’s just say that there were some dejected players, arguments and accusations, a mixture of emotions ranging from excited to apologetic, back to indignant and all the way around to self- aversion. Oh, and an agreement to crack open the infamous DO NOT OPEN EVER packet.

Two Minds

If you took some sort of psychic hatchet and cleaved my essence roughly down the middle, you’d get two gamers. Let’s call them by my names, Brandon and Rahhal.

Brandon’s the fun-loving guy you call by his first name, maybe even shorten it, like “Sup, B?” He knows that priority one is to enjoy the game and the people you’re gaming with. He’s a big fan of co-op games, social activity stuff like Dixit and the Big Idea, and weaving beautiful stories through the narrative of a game. And he absolutely hates the idea that he’s causing the people at the table to have less fun.

Rahhal is a rougher guy, in part because everyone calls him by his surname, which was more-or-less a sign of disrespect where he grew up. Rahhal only knows how to play hard, at all times, and measures his worth in victory. He thrives on the intellectual conflict found in gaming, and would never sacrifice solid play for laughs or even hurt feelings. After all, why play a game if you’re not playing to win?

I should note that I, Brandon Rahhal, (usually) reconcile these two when I play, making for a gamer that plays strong but not mean, fun but not foolish. What I’m getting at here is the game currently has these two personas at odds. Playing on my major City is the quickest path to victory, but many at the table call foul, and while I’m not the architect of this heinous scenario, reaping the rewards is causing some bad blood at the table. Playing anywhere else might balance a game, but it’s clearly a worse play that I’m only doing to make others feel better. It’s Risk, raw feelings happen.

I could go back and forth on this all day (which Katie and Josh can attest to). As a final thought, I just hope that last game was a fluke of circumstance, and the next game will have a balance of tactics that gives everyone an equal chance of victory and an enjoyable time for all. After all, it’s not just about winning.

An important lesson I almost forgot in the other world.

Greg Games 6 & 7: Misunderestamission

This is another example of games I thoroughly enjoyed despite losing. It was also a delight because the person who made it so fun, the person who has, according to him, “never won a game of Risk in [his] life,” won both games. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first game Greg places right next to me in the opener. The way I see it I have two options. One is to run away, try to set up in South America and make that my base of operations, leaving North America to him. The other is to try to crush him immediately. The area gives him bonuses that are penalties to me, and his faction has bonuses to attack me. The longer I wait the easier it is for him to kill me. So I charge him first. With 4 missiles I figured it would be easy. But the war of attrition ended up crippling me, re-affirming the fact that attacking the first thing is fairly insane.

Erik grabs Africa, takes two bases, and the win. It’s kind of awesome to see his eyes light up.

For the next game Erik takes the Mutants. Admittedly, I’m coming back to this post a while after the game, so I don’t remember much. But I remember Erik’s play of the mutants. Each faction has a certain flavor, and mutants ostensibly crawl from the wasteland of nuclear fallout. Waste, in fact, is the milieu of their wrath, as their 3-unit figure is a militarized garbage truck.

So Erik, adept in improv comedy and appreciative of a game’s mythos, paints a vivid picture of these trash-hoarding marauders. The truces, alliances, conflicts and battles are peppered with what the mutants are doing. Some of my favorites:

“Across the border into South America is thrown a half-eaten bag of skittles. I don’t think I can be any clearer.”

“Before the battle, a dirty stuffed animal half-filled with raw meat is thrown across the border.”

“A large neon sign is erected, pointing towards Kamchatka with the phrase “My brother lost his retainer and now everybody is mad.”

“Thrown across the border is a can with no label, but a note that says ‘we want our stuffed animal back.'”

-When making an attack into Ural from Russia – “The mutants are all wearing t-shirts they say ‘No, YOU’RE AL!” (I fell out of my chair laughing at this one)

Erik won, through a combination of beneficial events, missions, and superior firepower. He named that one “Beware of mutants bearing gifts.” I said during the game, “We’re all idiots. See, we’re going back and forth, jockeying for position and territory, trying to win a war that will be erased as soon as the game is done. Erik’s writing the narrative of a faction, his contributions will endure. He’s playing the long game.”

Quick Edit: As of this post three more
games in Ted’s campaign happened, and we cracked the DO NOT OPEN EVER pack. It did not fix the board, but the ass-kicking I received from the Aaron did. He won game 8, somehow I got game 9, and Sam finally got on the board with game 10. I don’t think a whole new post is necessary for the games. If you really REALLY want to hear about them leave a message below and I’ll tell you how I got crushed, hint about the new package, and talk about Sam’s first win so far into the game.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 3 missiles

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 5 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital

P.S.

I thought I’d talk a little about gamer cred. I’m not a sociologist, but I’m fascinated by the idea of sub-groups and their idiosyncrasies and similarities. Nearly every group of people with a common activity as an identifier has its own sort of ranking based on that activity. In short: Within gamers, a societal clique historically known for being identified as outcasts or below the social level of, whatever, “normal” or “cool” or some horses**t, there’s still an element of who ranks as hardcore gamer, as elite tabletop warrior or Johnny-come-lately player who doesn’t “get it” like the old salts do.

“Casual gamer” is not a term to be bandied about.

In my first post I referred to Winston and Jess as “gamers, but of a more casual nature.” I meant no disrespect. These Legacy campaigns are my first time to meet a number of people. Aaron, Mark, and Sam launched into rules minutiae and opinions before the box was cracked. Jess and Winston did not. That, and 3 games of Risk where a couple bad plays were made. And not for nothing, Winston won 2 of them, that’s not easy.

After my first game of Mage Knight, a lengthy and dense mathematical fantasy game, I voiced my opinion that the game was overly lengthy and prone to some issues. One of the players said, “yeah, it’s really a game for gamers.” He meant no disrespect either, but I remember being very upset by the comment. So to those I offended, I apologize. And I do hope we have many chances in the future to show off our respective capital G Gamer credentials.

The Co-Op Conundrum

While I like winning, – and trust me, I do – the primary reason I play board games is not to crush my enemies into a fine dust, but to spend some time with friends in a way that I enjoy. The best games are ones where it is fun when you’re winning, but it’s also fun to lose. So in theory, Co-Op games would have an immense appeal. You have to interact with the people you’re playing with, and if things go well then everyone wins. A well designed Co-Op game can offer all the avenues for clever plays that a standard game does; you just use your ingenuity against the game itself, rather than an opponent. In fact, for all their potential, it might be in some ways surprising that I don’t play Co-Op games very often.

“I like this game because most Co-Op games feel like the smartest player in the room is playing while everyone else just watches” – Erik “Spooky” Volkert, about Sentinels of the Multiverse

Maybe I keep playing Co-Op games in the wrong setting, but Erik’s take on them rings true.  A game that requires the cooperation of all players requires a very similar level of experience and a boatload of trust to work out well, more so than any other game. When a player makes a mistake it no longer screws things up for that singular player but rather it can affect everyone’s chances of winning. The result is generally the person who formulates the overall plan of attack ends up directing all of the action.

Of course, no one is required to listen to the person trying to direct the action. A group can try to play a game based around cooperation as a bunch of separate entities, but not only does it not generally work but it also defeats the purpose of playing a Co-Op game in the first place. And when that group does eventually lose – and if the game is at all well-built, they will – there is a level of frustration that the “smarter” player will experience that is beyond most anything else in gaming. When you lose a regular board game, there can be a certain level of frustration, sometimes directed at yourself for a stupid play, sometimes because someone else played kingmaker and you weren’t king. But the frustration of someone who was supposed to be on Your Team making you lose is a level far beyond, because it’s something that is out of your control but feels like it should be. And if you win despite some poor play by one or more of the players? Then you (I) get the feeling like maybe this game wasn’t well balanced. A good Co-Op game is one where you feel like even if you play well, it’s still possible that you lose.

So, let’s step back to Sentinels of the Multiverse and all its comic book glory.

First off, the theme is strong, and the mechanics feel pretty natural. Sukrit’s character keeps discarding cards to deal damage to himself and the villain, Brandon’s Hulk-like hero Haka is a tank by drawing lots and lots of cards and then discarding them rather than taking damage. Spooky takes a versatile but weak bard-ish guy, I grab a martial artist/janitor, Roger ends up with the Batman equivalent and when Dave comes in right as we’re about to begin he finds himself with the Flash.

Each turn involves a little bit of strategizing as we decide what has to be done this turn and who can take care of it. This is where Sentinels of the Multiverse shines. Since everyone has a hand full of cards, it is difficult and would be extremely time consuming for the person who knows the game best (Spooky) to look at each player’s hand and figure out what would be optimal. There’s too much information to process and the fact that they are “hands” means that even though this is a place where information is of course both public and worth sharing, the tendency learned from games of poker and rummy and the like growing up is to hold your cards so no one else can see. This hidden information tactic and pure multiplicity of options are both really solid attempts by the designers to avoid the takeover by the smartest player in the room. That is, unless they lean over and peek at your hand because hey, you’re new and not sure what you really CAN do, and, well here, let me help you out here…

Which ended up happening, rather consistently. I’m not mad about it and there were fairly good reasons. Roger is still pretty new to the complicated board game thing, and poor Dave walked in right as we were beginning the first turn, so he had to try to pick the thing up on the fly. Both of them sat next to Spooky, who brought the game and really wants people to like it.* So what happened felt like a four player game, with the four people who are all Capital-G-type Gamers.

This brings me back to the appeal and frustration I’ve had with most Co-Op games. If we in the gaming hobby want to bring others into the hobby, and think that Co-Op is a good way to do it, we need to sit back, let people understand what they’re doing, and probably lose a few games. And if we want to be just part of the machine that defeats the game, we need to be playing with people whose moves we respect and who will in turn respect our moves.  I haven’t really sat down and played a Co-Op game with Brandon, but I bet it’d be a lot of fun, and no matter what game it was, neither one of us would sit back and let the other assume that they were the smartest player in the room.

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*As a side note, I totally caught myself helping out my girlfriend in a competitive game of Factory Fun last night, where I managed to snag her one extra point in a game she eventually won by two points (afterwards I was thankful my influence wasn’t the deciding factor). When you’re introducing someone to a game I find it natural to want to help them out so they can feel the full richness of the game, but I’m coming around to the “dammit, just let them play!” train of thought. After all, not only did she win, but for all my smarts and the fact that I bought the game, I only came in third.