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.

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Legacies: S*** Just Got Real

A few more sessions have happened, and we’re up to 6 games with Ted and 5 with Greg. And I want to keep spoilers out of the post and preserve the feeling of a unique experience in both campaigns. But God help me, I have seen things. Dark things. I have seen what Man hath wrought, dark nightmarish scenarios I cannot un-know. In one campaign. And I see no way of keeping it from coloring my decisions in the other.

I can’t even keep them from coloring how I write this article. Just so you know…

*THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!*

Check this pun out, as I SPUN OUT, NERDS! *Car peels out, narrowly missing the Fung Wah Bus. Fung Wah Bus explodes anyway.*

Spoilers

First off, how great is that, a board game with spoilers? Not developing strategies, not expansions, but honest-to-God new information that could sour a person’s experience if you informed them of it. “Luke, I am your father,” “he’s been dead the whole time,” “guess who gets beheaded at the end of this book” spoilers.

Josh and I are at odds on this.

I absolutely hate the idea of running it for you, even if you think you won’t ever play the game.

Josh, well, see if you pick up what he’s putting down:

dude, if you write another risk legacy post with the idea that you don’t want to spoiler it I don’t see how it’ll be very interesting. I think trying to prevent spoilers will make your post weaker.”

And I hate to but have to agree. “Hey, this totally awesome thing happened, but I can’t give you details or it’ll ruin something you may or may not play in the future.” That’s a dick move. So is ruining the surprise. I don’t want these updates to be boring or detrimental to anyone’s potential enjoyment of a game. I’m going to sequester spoilers as best as I can, but make sure you know when you’re about to read one.

Part I: What Man Hath Wrought

While not the most efficient structure for updates, I’m going with chronological order of games played. The excitement derived from sudden reveals, coupled with long wait periods filled with “what-ifs” and “moral quandaries vs. strategic necessity vs. pure fun” cannot, in my limited ways, be captured any other way.

Ted Game 4: I Care About Winning

I won. I should not have won. Aaron had a better-than-even-odds chance of taking my base for the victory. A string of improbable 6’s, one die at a time, kept him just short. Events and scars ruined my holdings in Australia, but my squirreling away of resource cards worth 2 coins allowed me to make a massive push across the board to take every base on the board (4 of us played, Sam couldn’t make it). My spoils are a major city in Ural that essentially makes me the only person capable of taking Australia on turn one without massive losses.

If I split my forces I would’ve had enough to take out Ted as well and open a packet. Afterward I mentioned it to him, then said “Who would do that? That’s the kind of decision that loses a game.” Ted asked me a question he no doubt thought was rhetorical; “Who cares about winning?” I do. I care very much. The games are fun, win or lose, and the Argentinean Butch-and-Sundance holdout from game 3 remains my favorite moment in this campaign. Nonetheless, when I sit down to the table I want to win. I want to sign the board. I want to name continents and forge major cities, I want to name the Earth and be its supreme leader. I can appreciate Ted’s desire to keep the game fun and interesting, and push opening packets over clearer paths to victory, but I’m playing to win, and so are everyone else at the table. People literally bleed over this game, I think I’m allowed to take the victory seriously.

Teaser: Game 5 would flip this mindset right on its f***ing head.

PACKET OPENING: SIGN A BOARD FOR THE SECOND TIME1

Yes, I’ll admit, opening this the second time was a bit underwhelming, but having new missions and material to work with is pretty great.

Greg Game 4: “On A Mission”

I’m able to win game 4, fairly swiftly. I snag Australia first turn, take a couple cities, and improbably I get 2 events back to back, that give me bonuses for having the highest population. I get extra troops, and I change the mission to something I can easily accomplish (take 4 territories over water connections). The second mission is attainable as well, and I take the game. This was a lucky win, as the vent deck and missions kept feeding me great things, and my dice were nigh unbeatable.

For my second win I stamp a major city in Australia. It’s been my base of victory each time, so I want to increase my ability to start there. I call it Helios 1, because I’m playing Die Mechaniker and I think it sounds machine-y. I’ve also been playing Fallout New Vegas, which has a Helios 1 in it. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake.

PACKET OPENING: ALL MINOR CITIES PLACED2

I’m really happy to have this one opened here. It adds a very critical component to the game, one that balances the game and adds fun. For details and my take on it, read below in the endnotes.

Greg Game 5: What Man Hath Wrought

Game 5 has Erik placing directly in Australia, preventing my using it. So, my Major City and Continent bonus get usurped. But that’s not the worst of it.

Winston makes a push against Australia, specifically from Ural into my Major City in Australia. It’s not in my best interests for him to win, as Erik is far away from me, and having him strong and able to fight other opponents is good for me. Plus, Winston has 2 wins. So, when Winston plays a missile against Erik, I play one on Erik’s behalf. That’s two missiles.

Opening packets is fun. That’s the rationale employed when the “three missiles” packet is up for grabs. Not a tactical advantage, because only in very rare circumstances would that third die change to a 6 help anyone. But hey, you kind of gotta know; what’s in that packet?

PACKET OPENING: AS SOMEONE IS PLAYING THE THIRD MISSILE IN A SINGLE COMBAT ROLL3

This section “contains” spoilers, only in that there are spoilers present. This spoiler cannot be contained. Like the consequences it unleashes and the knowledge it contains, any method of story-telling that seeks to usurp even the smallest fraction of this cataclysm will be inescapably reduced to “um, er, ah, well trust me, it was cool.” If you have any desire in playing this game in the future, please stop reading now.

Okay, now that I asked all the target audience to leave, here’s what happened, blog-bots.

When the third missile is played, it represents a nuclear device. The player who plays the third missile chooses which of the two territories gets nailed. This could be an interesting decision for an outside interloper (an inside-outerloper?). For this one, Winston slammed the territory that wasn’t his. The territory gets a large scar with the universal symbol for nuclear fallout. The land is not uninhabitable, but thoroughly toxic. The first time anyone enters they lose half their troops, rounded up. At the end of the turn you lose 1 troop still there. To put it in perspective, you must enter with at least 4 troops to ensure you hold the territory at the end of the turn. It’s a brutal price to pay for a territory. And it’s smack dab on Indonesia, on top of a smoldering pile of high-tech junk where the proud Mechaniker city of Helios 1 stood, for less than 2 turns total. It has left my city and the continent I named a nearly uninhabitable wreck.

And I helped cause it. And it was truly amazing and heart-wrenching. Because no game can offer that kind of penalty to my hubris. This is a mar on the world that will last for-f**king-EVER.

Of note, out of the bubbling pitch comes a new faction: Mutants. They have sweet powers, feed on nuclear fallout and biohazards, and have their own missions and evolution structure. They’re also sworn enemies of the faction responsible for the fallout and have bonuses against them. Way different than the d8s and d10s I thought were in that big pocket of a packet.

Jessica took the win. She basically convinced everyone I was the threat and she the savior. She negotiated a three turn truce to everyone on the freaking board, then went at me until she had the bases she needed. So yeah, this game didn’t turn out too well for me. She named the game “the Negotiator,” though I think we all know what the main event was in game 5.

Part II: Penance and Absolution

The snow is still thick on the ground, and the wind is biting. I give Mark a brief ride from the T to Ted’s house, dropping him at the door while I circle back around to the only place that has parking (without a chair or bin or something to guard it), the metered lot behind the Davis Square CVS. It’s a chilly walk, and I’m focused on moving quickly so I can get out of the cold and into the game. But there’s this thought bouncing around my head; how am I going to implement the 3 missile packet without harming the game unfairly? At this point in the game I hold 2 out of the 4 missiles (Aaron has one and I have the other), so that packet doesn’t open without me. And I know exactly what it does.

The devil and angel on my shoulder keep whispering ideas. “Wait until later games when someone else has a chance to use it.” “Aim it at that smug bastard, he deserves it.” “Only use it when it harms you as well as another.” “Wait until someone uses their missile in a foreign land, then double-drop your missiles and scorch their continent.”

I was torn. Short of microwaving my own brain I can’t keep it out of my head. I had to be fair, but not suicidal. I should be tactical, but use only the information available to everyone. The largest long-game consequence to date must be handled properly.

Game 5: F***it Ted, let’s just kill each other.

There’s one other person at the table who can understand my plight. Ted has been through a campaign before. He has seen many (but not all) of the packets in the game. He’s playing to have fun; more specifically, to facilitate an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table. And he knows what’s in that packet.

I forget who the attacker and the defender were. I do know that the countries involved were China and Southeast. And I do know that I dropped the third missile. Admittedly, after a lot of hemming and hawing on whether I should, Aaron finally said “okay, now you have to, you’ve spoiled enough of it already.” So I fired. The two people who knew exactly what the stakes were met to obliterate each other.

PACKET OPENING: AS SOMEONE IS PLAYING THE THIRD MISSILE IN A SINGLE COMBAT ROLL

I choose China as the spot of devastation, because I’m not about to nuke Arcos I or my entry into Australia. For this game it’s irrelevant; the fallout damage that was isolated in the other campaign due to Indonesia’s island status is felt full-force here. Every neighboring land gets a d6 hit. Ted is wiped off the board, and I follow shortly after. The game lasts just long enough for use to redeploy; Mark wins right after I place, right back in Southeast Asia.

I feel pretty good about this. It seems only fitting that the two people who know the big reveal be crushed by it. At this point it’s too unlikely the packet will be triggered by two other players with one missile between them, before Ted and/or I get the opportunity to press the button. And the pocket is super-awesome. I feel much better now that the burden of information is off and, even though it killed me, the reveal turned out to be as unique and epic for this campaign as it was for the other (more so, perhaps, since the fallout wiped out two factions and opened the game for the others). It is my penance. And next game was my absolution.

Game 6: And muthaf**kas act like they forgot about Rahhal

Let’s take a look at a standard Risk board:

Australia is a pretty sweet plum (which is probably why they colored it like that) because it’s a continent with only one entrance/exit. Defense is as simple as sitting on Indonesia, or better yet Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest place to gain and maintain bonus armies.

Now let’s take a look at our game:

No spot in Australia can serve as a starting point. Southeast Asia has my major city, Arcos I, meaning only I can start there. India has another minor city. And China is now a wasteland. Which means that the closest anyone can start is 3 countries away, perhaps in Afghanistan. From loss of armies in neutral cities, it would take a minimum of 7 extra troops to enter and fully occupy Australia, which is then vulnerable to counter-attack. For me it’s 4, with India and China buffering against counter-attacks. Oh, and the placement of scars means I will always* have Southeast Asia as a starting play.

This game was fraught with peril, mostly in the form of event cards. Some reward you for population, and some penalize you for under-protecting cities or just being near a nuclear wasteland. This game saw me corked in Australia with a measly 2 troop bonus which was quickly marginalized by death to fallout, city riots, and most importantly, my HQ being razed and removed from the board.

It was the best thing that could’ve happened.

With no way to threaten the other players, and nothing of value to take from me (except cards, though the chances of taking me over completely remained low), I was left to rot. Every now and then I would duck out of my hole to claim a territory, a card, and one mission, bringing my point count to 1. An early card exchange by Mark caused a cascade of card trades and brutal battles of attrition that ground down everyone’s momentum without anyone getting their critical 4th point. It’s late, fatigue has set in, Mark is clearing his troops out to allow easier access to bases. On my final turn, another fallout event wipes out everything I have except for a few troops in Australia. It’s grim for me, except I’ve been squirreling away. I have a stack of cards totaling 10 coins.

WHEN A PLAYER IS ABOUT TO PLACE 30 TROOPS AND HAS A MISSILE4

I’m skeptical that 37 troops will be enough to get me the win this turn, and I’m worried that I’ll be subject to massive counter-attack. But the turn comes with a huge boost. This is the only other packet in the game that’s a pocket containing more than just cards. Where the first one pollutes a nation on the map, this one creates new life and alters the geography of the board. The addition?

Aliens.


And Alien Island.

The opener of the packet places all his reinforcements plus 10 alien troops on alien Island. Alien Island is a scar you place in any ocean on the board, and connect two coastal countries to it, that will be connected permanently. This is a major change to the board, altering the geography and potentially re-opening Australia to the world and “fixing” what everyone sees as a broken location too good for one man to claim. So when I get it it’s an extra kick in the face to my opponents; Australia stays sealed, and I use the island to drop right into the nexus of bases in Europe and North America. 47 Troops proves to be more than enough to claim the win. For my victory, I name Australia as a fusion of Die Mechaniker and Alien Influence: Sternenbasis, German for Starbase, written in a combination of symbols and blocky text.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 30 + missiles

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 3 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 1 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital and DO NOT OPEN. EVER.

Looking Ahead

Most of the packets are opened in both games. I’m not too concerned about revealing or unfairly using the information from the 30+ troops packet in Greg’s campaign, as I have less control over who will get it, and I’m fairly certain I will spend cards earlier if I believe it will get me the win. I’m up in Ted’s game, even in Greg’s, and crazy-excited to play the next sessions this week.

1: This packet introduces the concept of homelands. Factions track where you start, so a faction with a majority of starts in a single continent has that continent as their homeland, which means when you can take a resource card you can take any one from that continent, regardless of if you or anyone else currently holds it. It also adds some missions and a new type of scar, biohazard, which is brutal.

2: This packet introduces a draft mechanic. There are 4 sets of 5 cards: Starting Turn, Starting Placement, Starting Troops, and Starting Coin Cards. The Faction cards themselves serve as Starting Factions, of course. At the start of the game, instead of rolling to determine who gets first placement and turn order and all that, you roll dice to see who gets first pick of cards. A snake draft follows, where each person gets a card, then the order reverses each round. This is a great mechanic, and I think the only reason it wasn’t included in the beginning was that the initial games of Risk were meant to be as fast and uncomplicated as possible. Drafting is fun, and with the addition of potential starting coins cards (there’s a pick for 2, a couple for 1) and varying starting troops (high as 10, low as 6, which are big differences for those first turns) the tension and strategic planning happen long before the first troop is on the board.

3: There are a number of other things in this packet. There are missions specific to the mutants, and evolution cards that will give the mutants one of four new powers based on their decisions. There may be more, but the evening was a whirlwind of packets, so I don’t recall all the contents.

*”Always” meaning “until a new rule pops up, or a scar is blanked, or a city is destroyed which may or may not have an effect on starting placement. Packets are mostly out though.

4: The packet has a ton of other stuff too. It contains the Aliens as a playable faction, the Alien Island territory card worth 3 coins, and some missions and events that tie into the alien involvement. There is also the potential for new map-changing scars; ruins, which bulldoze cities. Also of note, the faction responsible gets the “alien sympathizer” scar, giving it a bonus for trading in cards for troops, but costing 2 extra troops to take over a neutral city, which can be a huge cost, especially when our Australia is filled with cities.

Innovation

The digitization of board games is something Brandon and I have talked about as a topic for a post since we started this blog over the summer. I finally took on posting about some of my feelings on it a while back, but when Brandon and I were talking about what should go into the post, we kept talking about the games that suffered immensely. You’re always going to lose part of the game when you’re playing online, the question is how big a part you’re losing and what you’re gaining. Dominion plays better online than most games because it saves you all the time of shuffling, as opposed to Stone Age, which doesn’t really save you time but still makes you miss out on the social interaction that is a large part of why I play games in the first place. The game that we kept coming back to for what a good online experience could be was Innovation, which wasn’t featured in the previous post because it wasn’t online.

“Wasn’t” is past tense though, and it turns out that in the months since I first went in depth on playing board games online, the game that Brandon and I both thought would translate really well to the internet has been brought to the same place you can play Dominion (the other game that gains a lot by going digital): isotropic.org

Innovation is my current favorite game though, so I may be a bit biased. And in honor of its new e-availability, I’m giving you a full-fledged review.

The Basics

Every man's gotta have a codeEvery turn in Innovation you get two actions of the 4 possible. You can Draw a card (from the stack equal to the highest card you have currently played), Meld (play) a card from your hand (it goes on top of cards of the same color if you already have a card of that color), Achieve (if you fulfill the requirements. Achievements is how you win) or use Dogma (use a card you’ve played). First to 6 achievements (in a 2 player game) wins. The rules are slightly more detailed but that’s the gist.

We are men of action, lies do not become us

Each card in innovation has three important things: Its color (Red, Green, Purple, Blue, Yellow. And yes, there are small symbols that let you play if you’re colorblind), its icons (3 icons on each card, of six total icons: Castles, Leaves, Coins, Lightbulbs, Factories, Clocks) and its Dogma effects (what it does). Here’s some cards, see how they have these things?

Knowledge of Anatomy keeps others from wanting to score

Ok can we get to why the game is great now?

Michael Bay's favorite cardFirst off, the theme is one I always enjoy. Yes Sid Meier’s Civilization is an amazing video game, but I think even if it lacked some of its depth I still would’ve really enjoyed it. Thankfully it did have depth, as does Innovation. In the beginning your options are limited, you’re trying to get all five colors on your board, you’re trying to see if you can jump up to the higher leveled cards before your opponent, but usually there’s a “right” play. As the game gets a little further along, it becomes a lot more nebulous. Do I want to use this dogma that lets my opponent jump an age, even if it lets me jump two? Do I want to tuck these cards in my hand? Do I want to cover my strong card with a card that doesn’t do as much but will give me more icons than an opponent? The answer to each of these questions depends on everything else that is in the game. The ability to draw a bunch of cards is good, but if you also have the ability to score cards from your hand? Well, then it gets a lot stronger.

The variability of the game is excellent, and the variability is unlike, say, the cards I love in Dominion because what can be considered a strong card varies not only game to game but turn to turn. The mechanics of scoring and achieving and tucking are all such that many cards don’t get used as you climb up through Prehistory and the Renaissance towards the Postmodern Age. Some games are won with a crazy string of cards played using Mathematics, some games you don’t see Mathematics at all. This variability is a core mechanic of the game and as such it is something that can be a legitimate turn off for some people. I take Innovation less seriously than I do other games because while strong tactical decisions will help lead you to victory for often than not, there are some games where things just don’t go right. You’re stuck with cards that don’t help and your opponent jumps ahead and never looks back. If you can’t let go of losses I’m not going to make a moral judgment, I’m just going to say that sadly, you might want to skip Innovation. But for those that embrace the randomness in the game, there is some really solid and interesting gameplay.

Strategy versus Tactics

Everything in its rightful placeThe first time I teach someone Innovation, I give them one piece of advice: If you’re losing, you want to either collect more icons or get to higher levels of cards. And it really is that simple. Sometimes having a lot of cards in your hand is great, sometimes it’s a liability. The same goes for your score pile. But getting to a higher level of card or having more icons is always good. That’s all the long term planning that Innovation allows. This may seem like a flaw, but it is actually a strength for the game.

A game like Puerto Rico has good tactical decisions but all of them are based on the overall strategy of the game.  No choice stands alone, and the better your overall understanding of the paths to victory and when to take one (shipping) versus the other (buildings) the better you’ll play. The individual decisions are important, but the path can be studied in excruciating detail. Innovation has no study guide. The game changes too much move to move for much long term planning. The joy of the game can be found in finding clever moves you can do with what you have in front of you, or maybe what you think you’ll have next turn. Any planning beyond that will usually be for naught as your opponent demands you trade hands or suddenly has more icons than you of the type you wanted or takes the achievement you were going for.

The Online Experience

Innovation.isotropic.org, I play as either JoshProv or jorsh. See you there!And to bring this full circle: This is why I thought this game would work so well online. Every turn you could examine the board and take your move accordingly. You would have time to read what each of your opponent’s cards are without asking them to “reread it, out loud, just one more time?” You would have a real-time count of icons to make sure you realized that your opponent had more coins than you now or that you were one leaf away from tying it up. And most importantly, you wouldn’t have to say, “Wait, what was I doing again?” because it wouldn’t matter, whatever you can do this turn is what you’re doing.

And it delivers. Innovation isn’t as popular as Dominion on isotropic, but a game can generally be had at any hour, and all the things I could’ve hoped for in a client are there. Yes, the chat features are still rarely used and it isn’t the same experience as playing in person, but there’s no set up or clean up, and once you get the hang of it you don’t even accidentally click a card that gives you no benefit this turn. It allows for more careful counting of symbols and better splay planning. It totals your score. It gives you the automatic achievements when you might otherwise forget them. Playing Innovation online is a really enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes.

And yes, of course, the game is also really fun in person, and once you get the hang of it, plays pretty quickly. I recommend it with two or three players, and the first expansion (Echoes of the Past) makes it even more ridiculous (and I take that as a good thing). I highly recommend Innovation, and will totally teach you if you haven’t played it yet.

Legacies: the First Volley

My initial impressions of Risk: Legacy are positive overall. The first couple games feel, well, a lot like Risk. I think Ted said it best when he suggested from comments he has heard on-line that, “as the game progresses, it becomes less like Risk and more like a boardgame.”

As of now I have played 3 games in each campaign. The two campaigns already feel very different, and while I’m leaning towards one over the other, I think they’ll both be worthwhile.

Merry Band Of Brothers: Who’s in the Game

A game can only be good as its players. Let’s meet the groups.

The Vessennes Players

This group consists of me, Ted, and three of Ted’s friends who I don’t know very well. Their names are Aaron, Sam, and a man who calls himself DoubleMark, I think because there are so many other Marks in the group at large. It’s apparent to me that these are capital G Gamers; they’re in it to win it. Before the game even begins there’s this lengthy discussion about tactics and potential rules changes in the future, balance issues and statistical models people made on optimal plays. If you know a gaming group that has massive post-mortem discussions of a game when it’s finished, imagine that, only before the game has even started.

The Reimann Players

I know this group a little better than the Vessennes campaign, but not much. It’s me, Greg, Erik (a.k.a. Spooky), Winston and Jessica. Erik I know, and Greg I feel like I’ve known for longer than I have; he’s a kindred spirit of gaming. When I suggest that factions should have theme music he’s initially reluctant, then spends the night before sending me beautifully appropriate music for each faction. I get the impression he’s crazy excited about the game, but doesn’t want to show it, for fear of being that guy. F*** that, I’ll be that guy. Winston and Jessica are gamers, but of a more casual nature. Erik loves games, enough that even though he hates Risk he’s willing to play to make it happen.

War. War never changes.

A blow-by-blow of each game may not be the most riveting thing for readers, though rest assured each of the 6 games so far had their moments. In 3 games the maps have taken some interesting turns, and some compelling stories have developed.

The Spoils of War

The game has you track what faction you played, where you started, and whether you Won, Held On, or were Eliminated. Those who survive get to name and place minor cities or adjust the game’s resources by adding coins to territory cards, which increases the number of troops you get when exchanging. The victor gets to sign their name to the board, and can choose one of a number of tasty options:

  • Place a Major City. Major Cities have 2 population, which counts as territories for troops gained at the start of the turn (minor cities have one population). They are also legal starting locations only for the one who placed it.
  • Name a continent. This gives that player +1 bonus troop when they control it.
  • Give +1 or -1 to a continent bonus for all players.
  • Fortify a city. Fortifications add +1 to each defender’s dice when rolled, for up to 10 battles.
  • Destroy a card. Rip it up. Remove it from the game.
  • Cancel a scar. Cover one of the permanent marks on the game.

Vessennes Opener: Hard-Learned Lessons

Ted said he was very much of a mind to do anything that would trigger a packet or inlay being opened, as “opening things is the fun part.” He would be focused less on winning and more on making the game thematic and fun. Knowing ted as I do, I believe strongly that he can only take this so far. He will certainly seek to wipe out an opponent, or fire missiles in a battle he’s in without truly needing to, or fight to place 30 troops at once (all packet conditions), but he won’t ruin his chances of victory by doing so.

The first game proceeds very much like a standard game of Risk. The two main differences are this; most of the territories start empty (every one but the 5 we choose to start), and everyone has “Scar Cards,” decals we can apply to the board to cause permanent bonuses or penalties to one spot. It’s a neat little mechanic, but what’s truly interesting is watching people place them for small gains without realizing the long-term impact they’ll have on the campaign. The effects were felt as soon as game 2, and continue to be a big game changer.

I play terribly. I manage to spread thin and hold North America for a turn, but squander my bonus troops and lose the continent soon after. I never really recover. Aaron wins with a swift charge to a base. With that one, his own HQ, and two red stars (one to start, one for the exchange of cards) he takes four points and the victory. This is a great end condition, as it means you don’t have to conquer the whole board. He places a major city, and the rest of us place minor cities, many in Australia to increase the difficulty of keeping and holding it (this turns out to be a rules faux-pax; hangers-on can only place minor cities or coin upgrades to territory cards in countries they controlled at the end of the game). By then it was too late to start another game. I’m a bit soured on the experience, having gotten trounced, but I’m willing to give it another go.

Vessennes Session 2

Aaron isn’t able to make this one, which is kind of a bummer, but it means the ones who haven’t won yet have a chance to get on the board. After learning a bit more about the game, and remembering how Risk is played, I feel good about this session.

Games 2&3: A Game of Numbers & a Game of Stories

There’s not much to say about game 2. I win, primarily because Sam and DMark are focused heavily on Ted, and nobody notices me slowly building up cards and troops in Australia. An exchange of cards for my 3rd point and a quick dash to a nearby base for my 4th gets the win. It was a game heavy with calculations, politicking, and very standard Risk stuff.

Game 3 I do not win, let me say that now. Let me also say that I had more fun this game than I have ever had in a Risk game ever. And it’s all because of a beautiful narrative the table helped me weave. That great AnyGameGood feeling you get when a game makes you want to tell people about “this one time when I was at war…” This was one of my favorites.

I was playing Kahn Industries. Their flavor text paints them as a faction of cheap labor and mass-manufactured machines of war. Their special ability has you placing a new unit in your HQ each turn. The way we envisioned it, the new soldier is in fact a factory-stamped clone; pale skin, steam rising from the freshly stamped tissues. Bald, sunken eyes and a cheap uniform and blaster. During one of those pushes you sometimes have to do to keep a continent bonus from a breakaway leader, I fight from central Asia across the map to West Africa and Brazil. Then I free move one of the soldiers from my base across the map.

The line is quickly cut off. One three-soldier mech in Argentina, one lone man in Brazil who’s quickly gunned down. South America is very difficult to hold in this map, as it has an ammo shortage in Brazil (-1 to the highest defense die each roll), forcing the player to try to defend from Africa or risk taking a beating in the numbers. So nobody’s keen to be the one to clear it out when it can’t be held. The troops in Argentina stay, without reinforcements, without orders, nowhere to go. I begin to wonder out loud, and everyone at the table is quick to provide their take.

Brandon: What are they doing now? I wonder if they’re writing in their journals about the hells of war. Oof, maybe they don’t have journals.

Ted: They probably don’t have literacy, man.

DMark: Yeah, why would you bother to teach them how to read and write? They’d never live long enough to use it.

Brandon: You guys are depressing me.

Ted: Hey, maybe they at least know how to not starve to death. ‘Day 30. Saw cow. Shot cow with blaster. Cow cooked, cow tasty.’

This went on for a while. Those guys probably have their own language by now, cave paintings and crude tools fashioned from the mech which has been out of gas for (based on what we thought a turn meant in game time) years.

Then the attack came. Sam had been slowly building his rail guns in Central America, pointing them at me menacingly. He has a force of around a dozen. I roll a 6-5. Two of his troops gone. 6-6. Two others drop. 6-4, he doesn’t have enough to beat the 4, two more deaths. With each roll the table gets louder and more shocked at this battle. 2 more drop. At this point Sam knows he can’t take the continent and hold it for a turn. He backs off. Soldier 47 comes through. This band of brothers with all odds stacked against them holds out without a single casualty (presumably by learning the land and using guerilla tactics developed from years of surviving the harsh environment). I don’t win, but Argentina never falls. Hell, they’re probably their own indigenous people at this point.

My father was a sleeve gunner. Not the right arm, the left. He was a man’s sleever.

Everyone seems appreciative of the narrative we’ve woven. Sam yields his right to place the last minor city to me, which is placed in Argentina and named “Ooxstahm,” the people’s word for ‘brother.’ I even use my off-hand to write it to give it that primitive scrawling look; it’s nigh illegible to those who weren’t there. Oh, Ted won.

PACKET OPENING: 9TH MINOR CITY

Ted already knows what’s in this packet, but he’s good about not spoiling the surprise. I immediately recognize some Eurogame elements in it, and agree with Ted’s declaration that “this is where Risk becomes an actual board game.” I just hope it doesn’t become a new way for me to screw myself over early on.

Reimann Session:

Next up is a trio of games at my house. The people playing the game, coupled with the fact that it’s my house and I can relax in it before, during and after the game, gives this group a more laid-back feel for me. Nonetheless, I’m still playing to win.

Side Note: the Differences

I find it very amusing, the way Ted and Greg wish their games to be handled. One stark example is the naming of cities and continents on the board. There’s something epic about stamping a name on the board, and even though naming a continent is not as strong a strategic move as other things a winner can do, it’s a rush to say that an entire continent is named for you.

Ted gave us explicit instructions in this regard: Please do not name anything stupid or jokey, like “Ted is a Bastardville” or “Bonerland” (direct quotes). He wants to frame and hang the final board, and he doesn’t want vulgarity or inappropriate stuff mounted on his wall. I can respect that.

Greg gave us explicit instructions as well: You can name any continent, any city, anything you want, including “Greg sucks balls” or “Brandon is a jerk” or “Bonerland” (again, direct quotes), as long as you write legibly and don’t smudge the ink.

Ted saves the components that are destroyed. They get tucked under the box inlay. Greg’s group shreds them, and Winston takes great delight in reducing a card to fine confetti.

Minute 1. This game has destruction at its core

Game 1: “The Deep March”

Erik’s running late, so we play the first game with 4. The initial placement for this game is nonetheless crowded, with everything placing their base on the eastern half of the board (except for me, where I choose to place in Australia and hole up). The very first turn Jessica uses her starting units to try to eliminate Greg and take his base. It doesn’t work, and the two are effectively crippled for the rest of the game. Wow. That never would’ve happened in the Vessennes campaign. Winston is close enough that swooping in and taking the fallen factions looks plausible, but he’s far enough that it’ll take him some time. Meanwhile, I’m able to sit back, gain extra troops, and get a few cards by using the special ability that allows me to take them when I grab 4 territories, even if they were empty beforehand (a power not available in Ted’s version). It’s a huge boon early game.

In a short few turns, I’m able to march across the board and claim Winston’s undefended base. A turn later I’m able to claim another for the victory. I name Australia “The Imperial Hall of Ra,” in line with the ideas of my faction (Imperial Balkania) and a play on my last name.

In Greg’s campaign the winner gets to sign the board AND give that game a name. I choose “The Deep March” for the global push I make from pole to pole and across the map. The color we infused, of the clip-clop of hundreds of Imperial soldiers marching across the globe, their rhythmic steps heard from miles away in the eerie silence of a still undeveloped world,

Game 2: “Victory…At What Cost?”

The next game I’m kept from Australia, as it’s viewed as too powerful. Erik’s finally able to make it, so the board is much more crowded. Greg mentions, in an almost casual manner, “I kind of don’t want to see Brandon win twice in a row.” It’s just enough politicking to get everyone on board with keeping me out of it. Winston takes the victory by being basically unassailable for the whole game, then exploding with a burst of units. He names a city, the rest of us take a mix of cities and card upgrades.

Game 3: An Unpredictable Table

Midway through this game it becomes very apparent to me that a couple players at the table are prone to unpredictable, often dangerous and ill-advised moves. It’s important to remember, as the areas they inhabit could be hazardous to be near, but also potentially valuable targets if the battles in that region go poorly. That’s what happens this game, as a number of crazy moves from Jessica make for a destabilized and impotent North America, with no real opposition against Winston to build his power base again and, despite starting a point down from the other players, take the second win. Don’t remember what we called it.

PACKET OPENING: SECOND SIGNING

When a player wins and signs the board for the second time a packet opens. While not as massive a change to the game, it still added interesting components that I look forward to experiencing.

WHERE WE STAND

Ted’s Campaign:

Aaron: 1 win

Brandon: 1 Win

Ted: 1 Win

Packets Open: 9 minor cities

Australia is being constantly modified with the tools we have on hand to make it more difficult to take and hold. It’s full of cities nobody can start in, all of them some form of Detroit. DMark hates Detroit, I think. I want to say it’s extreme, but my victories in both games have come from springing forth from Australia.

Greg’s Campaign:

Brandon: 1 win

Winston: 2 wins

Packets Open: Second Win

A second win so quickly is surprising. Not having that starting point is a big deal, but somehow, when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Winston was the one on top. I expect the table to retaliate in future games.

The Question remains…

After three games I can say I’m enjoying myself in both campaigns, but the two feel very different. Ted’s group is fun, but very imposing. There are efforts to get into the mythos of the game, but in the end we’re all gamers, and the games are filled with swift numbers crunching and a huge amount of lobbying to get opponents to hold off attacks on us, or hit people in the lead so we can be left to amass our own army and take over the poor sap we convinced to do the dirty work.

Greg’s game is filled with uncertainty. It’s a spread of experience and tactics, from cold and calculated to random kamikaze. It also seems better suited to thematic involvement, though the best story to arise so far has come from Ted’s campaign.

Will one campaign ruin the other? Ted’s campaign is going to go quicker I think; it’s scheduled next, and seems to have more steam than Greg’s. One packet has been opened on each side; different ones, though the one at Ted’s has more content. Ideally, though Greg’s game will meet less often, more games will be played per session, keeping us level with Ted. The packets are designed to open in swift order, so that should even out quickly, and the foreknowledge of what is in them won’t affect my decisions in-game, towards keeping them closed or forcing them open. I am cautiously optimistic that I can keep one campaign separate from the other, and not spoil them for myself or for the other players.

About Last Night: Unity Games XIX

Brandon:  Unity Games is a convention of sorts, though there aren’t really vendors or panels or stuff you’d normally associate a convention with.

Josh:  They seem to go with “event.”

Brandon:  That’s appropriate.  It is essentially a gathering of board-gamers, organized by the BoardGameGeek community, specifically the New England contingent.  It’s a sort of socialist gathering, in that everyone brings their games, and freely allows everyone attending to borrow and play them, with the implicit agreement that they will not damage or steal the contents.  It totally works.  I was introduced to Unity by a friend of mine when I first moved to Boston five years ago.  I have been attending it ever since.

This year’s event was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Danvers, MA.  Swanky place, it even has a giant indoor water park.  I got up around 8:00 and out the door by 9:00.  At 9:45 I’m playing the first of many games to come (which we’ll give quick reviews of later).

Josh:  This was my first year at Unity, and I honestly wasn’t sure to expect. All my details were, well, not details. Where, when, how much and Boardgames was about all I knew.  So I got up around 10 and left around 11. When I arrived, I put my coat down and immediately found Brandon playing Spinball outside of the main room.

Brandon: Which was a treat since it’s rare, expensive, and I will never own a copy.

Josh: A few other tables with different games were set up and a few people were milling around. The charity auction had a stack of 50 or so games and there was a table with two guys taking money and handing out nametags. I asked myself if this was really it and if maybe I’d end up at my girlfriend’s friend’s friend’s party that night after all.

And then I stepped into the grand ballroom, which was about the size of a football field and filled with about 500 people, all of whom seemed to be immersed in games. Oh. So this is what I’m here for.

Brandon:  Yup.  Unity was in Woburn the last few years, but moved here because there was more space.  IMO there still wasn’t enough.

While waiting for Josh I jumped into a game of Legendary with 4 other guys who have never played.  Quick review: it’s Ascension with Marvel heroes, and not very special.  But hey, new game!  That’s one of the 3 major things I have to do at Unity, play new games.

I’m anxious to get into a game with Josh, so he can start loving Unity as much as I do.  I think my wishes are granted immediately, as we find a 3rd person willing to teach us Eclipse, a pretty robust space exploration game.  So imagine my dismay when we find that the guy has only played it once, doesn’t know how to teach it, isn’t sure he has all the components, and the table we can find to play isn’t nearly large enough.

Josh:  Thankfully we got out of it with a switch to King Of Tokyo, a game I’ve heard as the “light” game that’s worth playing. I don’t remember how long the game took but it felt like 5 minutes and it wasn’t quite as fun as I wanted it to be considering that I had heard it was good, but at least now I know.  I suggested grabbing lunch, in part to find new gaming partners, and in part because it’s a biological necessity to eat and my body was reminding me of that. After a quick bite to eat I returned to the football field sized room and figured now was as good a time as any to figure out what I actually wanted to do here.

Brandon:  Which was a good idea, because I would have been content staying, gaming, not eating, and eventually wasting away.  As opposed to eating my sandwich and bouncing up and down in Subway while Josh wonders why he’s friends with a man-child.

See, Unity is a bit overwhelming.  It is essentially all the games, and almost certainly the people who want to play them (I never did get that Monopoly game off the ground in 2010 though).  Anyone who has tried and failed to get together a game night just once knows how great this is.  It also gives me that feeling of anxiety when I hit conventions; I can’t focus on having fun, because I’m too worried about the stuff I’m going to miss out on.  “Lunch?  Damn man, the demo of Donald Vaccarino’s mad scientist game Nefarious is demoing and we’re missing it!”  Or even better; “We gotta get more gaming in.  this closes at midnight, we’ve only got… 10 more hours!”

So maybe it’s just as well that we sort of split up when we get back.  Honestly I feel a little bad about it; Josh said at lunch that, while my priorities at Unity are to play as many games with as many people as I can, his plan was to play games with me, and also other people that would be fun to play with.  But he sees some improv friends, and I really want to try this Nefarious demo out, so we divide and conquer.

Josh: Keeping track of our afternoons and evenings in tandem is a logic puzzle that would give even expert solvers a tough time. Instead, let me tell you I had a lot of fun, and here are some of my highlights and thoughts on the evening:

  • I found my friends Nick and Casey playing Ginkopolis, which is the game that throughout the day is seemingly always being played near me. There were two games I had never seen/heard of before Unity that got a lot of buzz were definitely Ginkopolis and “that Mayan gears game” (later discovered that it was actually called Tzolk’in).

This ain’t your daddy’s Mouse Trap

  • My initial fear of going to Unity was who I was going to play games with. For me, playing a game with the right person is usually more important than what game we’re playing, so finding Nick and Casey (and their group of friends) was a godsend. I didn’t actually play a single game with either of them, but I played games with people they knew and got to avoid getting stuck in a game with someone who was too competitive or too slow or too smelly. Every game I played was with people I enjoyed who were friendly, smart and just the right amount of competitive. I’d play with any of them again.
  • Village (a worker placement game wherein part of your goal is to kill some of your workers so that they may be placed in the graveyard) may be the most in depth game I’ve played, or it might be a bunch of bullshit where it feels like you’ve got strategies but in fact you don’t. I’m not positive. That said, the guy who won is apparently “the guy who always wins” among his peers, so it might not be bullshit.
  • While we’re on Village: In most game groups there seems to be a guy who has a distinct style of play that when it leads to victory everyone says “oh man, there he goes again.” For me, it’s my friend Dan who figured out the Chapel Strategy in Dominion before the rest of us. In Village, the guy who won’s strategy involved hoarding cubes and then going to market when he could fulfill 4 orders and the rest of us couldn’t fill any. Final scores were something like 73, 51, 46 and 32. Second place isn’t much of a moral victory when first place was that far ahead.
  • Nefarious, on the other hand, I feel more confident putting in the “mostly bullshit” category. Which is too bad. The theme is cool and the gameplay is interesting, but the options felt extremely limited and I didn’t feel like I had much chance for strategy. I’d play again, but I wouldn’t buy it or advise anyone else to buy it either.
  • Factory Fun was played twice, because even in this gaming land of opportunity, where you can go find ANY game you want, this was so enjoyable that everyone agreed to take 5 and run it back. The gameplay is relatively quick, and the only major flaw I found in my two plays through is that the first two grabs seem fairly arbitrary (and if they are supposed to be, then why not just deal out two machines from the start?). By round three though, when you might want to let a part go, it really shines. And the expert maps are… challenging. If you played Pipe Dream on an old windows PC and enjoyed it, then you’ll like this game. Also, if you like yelling “it’s not a dump truck! It’s a series of Tubes!!”, then look no further.

Senator Stevens would be proud

Brandon: I had tons of fun too. Allow me to expound my earlier reviews, give my impressions, and address some of Josh’s points with a few of my own.

  • I remember distinctly a time when I went to Unity with friends and stressed about playing games with them.  We wasted time, didn’t get much in, and had to leave early.  So while I really like going and playing with friends, it’s one of those places where I usually end up throwing myself out to the crowd to find stuff to play and people to play with.  It forces me to be social, and it’s the most forgiving crowd; everyone’s there to game, without shame or hesitation.
  • Legendary.   I really want to like this, but after one play, I can’t imagine breaking out all the components when Ascension plays the same way and has less setup.  You have your starting decks, various heroes to get shuffled, the villain deck which has minions and major villains, the mastermind, the schemes and scheme twists, bystanders, and a big board. You flip villains into a center row, buy heroes, and fight villains if you have the strength, which at the start you almost certainly won’t. You’re supposed to be working together, as there is a global lose condition, but really, whoever gets the most points wins. It’s okay, but not worth the price and time, even with the old-school comic artwork that’s all over everything in the game.
  • Goblins, Inc. was another game I saw a lot of.  I don’t know how it plays, but I sat next to a game and heard, “okay, this turn you have that goblin pilot the head, then he can switch to engineering and begin repairs while we attack.”  I want to be able to utter things like that, that’s one of the great things about board gaming.  You play a goblin team and build robots to do battle with other goblins.  I don’t know about the game mechanics, but the theme sounds great.
  • Nefarious really is mostly bullshit.  I’m glad Josh and I agree here.  I can almost see the steps that led to it:  you have a game with a lot of mad science kookiness, but it’s thin on mechanics.  You have all these ideas that could make the game better.  So you throw them in as “twists” and have the players flip two over to modify the current game.  And you didn’t bother testing them, because hey, the game plays so quick, why bother?  And you end up with a half-game with a half-mechanic that ranges from boring to broken (with admittedly some good cards in the spectrum, not sure how many).  I’m just a little pissed that I was kept from gaming with friends to play it.  Donald Vaccarino made Dominion, for Christ’s sake!  He can do better.
  • The second major thing on my Unity checklist is to play games I have heard about, but won’t get a chance to play due to their high cost, scarce availability, or the knowledge that I could never get a group together to play them.  I didn’t even know Space Cadets was out, so I was super excited to play it.  It’s insanely complicated, and it wore out its welcome before we were done, around the 2 hour mark.  But there was someone to teach it, people to play it, and while it wasn’t the amazing experience I built up in my head, it was still a lot of fun, and I will definitely look to buy it. If nothing else it will be a cool exercise in teaching a complicated game to a group in a reasonable amount of time.

Everyone’s got a job to do. Not pictured: torpedo firing range, sensor kit, captain tearing his hair out.

  • Damnit I wanted to play Factory fun.  And I never did get a game of Eclipse.  Or Ascending Empires.  Or Galaxy Trucker.  I would see games of them going on, and be busy playing another game.  But I had fun.  It’s important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees here.
  • In the wee hours I played Ticket To Ride Nordic with Josh and Samuel, a guy I sort of know from curling.  I won.  It was pretty sweet.

The closing hours

After the Ticket to Ride game Josh headed out.  And for good reason, it was 11:00pm, maybe later.  I didn’t play any games after that (except one round of Loopin’ Louie.  I’m not proud of it).  But I did get to do the last and, I think, most enjoyable thing on my Unity checklist; teach new games.

There were a lot of Android: Netrunner copies floating around (at number 7 on BGG you better believe it), and a lot of people who wanted to play but didn’t know how.  It’s a difficult game to just pick up.  But I was able to help a few people through the initial stages of the game.  I also got to teach Carcassonne, and introduce my own meeple lexicon to a group.  And a few guys were playing Innovation for the first time, and I did a little Q&A for some of the more obscure rules (remember, you can’t get a regular achievement unless you have enough points and a card of that age or higher in your tableau).

Unity isn’t perfect. It’s perennially crowded, loud, and not terribly well-organized. This is what happens when you strip away the trappings of a convention. The booths, vendors, industry moguls and independent developers, the panels and stage shows, and countless advert handouts are shuffled off, and what we are left with is the mutual agreement of hundreds of people whose singular focus is to game. To play games. To teach games. To buy, sell, and trade old and new titles, ensuring that old games find new life, and new games can become old favorites. To devote as much as a full day in the pursuit of that spirit of gaming. It’s a full day of Any Game Good, and I think that says it all.

Unity Games 2011 (you know its from years ago because its so much smaller). My kind of crowd.

About Last Night

Last Night Brandon and I and 6 other people got together to play Boardgames and it was a great deal of fun. I played Dixit for the first time and an old favorite Citadels. Brandon played Puzzle Strike twice. (You can always see what games we’re playing over on the Standings page) Here are some thoughts we had that didn’t deserve their own full on posts:

  • Describing Dixit 

    Dixit is better described as “Balderdash with pictures” than “Apples to Apples with pictures.” Both because its more true and because it makes people more likely to play. It’s still more of a “social activity” than a “game,” but I found it much more enjoyable than Apples to Apples. (Thom asked “so Dixit is like getting punched in the face rather than kicked in the groin?” and I said “No, it’s more like getting slapped in the face. Sometimes you don’t mind getting slapped.”) 

  • The Cult Of The New 

    I feel like with many activities, there’s a sort of cult of the new, and boardgamers do this a great deal. I’ll get OBSESSED with a new game and play it until I get OBSESSED with another game. I’m much more likely to want to buy a new game than to play one I’ve had for a few months. So it was a delight when I realized that we had 5 people which is a perfect number for Citadels, one of my old favorites. Even more delightful was remembering why I loved the game so much – the nerves of “will I get assassinated? Will I be stolen from?”, the feeling that you’ve made a terrible mistake after you pass the cards… It was great to break out an old favorite.

  • It’s The People, Stupid 

    I was once again reminded that playing with the right people is the most important part of gaming. Brandon and I didn’t play the same game as each other the entire night, and instead I played with Melissa (who is a good friend and who I know well) and three strangers. But those three strangers were invested, competitive and fun to game with. A special shout out to Katie, who got absolutely demolished in Citadels, mostly for reasons that were unlucky or random and still seemed to enjoy the experience overall. It is hard to be stolen from seemingly every turn and still not only let everyone else have a good time but have a good time yourself. Bravo.

Josh’s points are sort of chronological.  Since I want to talk about that last one first, I’ll go the other way.

  • The Host With The Most 

    Having a bunch of people at a game night usually means you won’t be socializing with a number of people for the night.  Which I knew would happen.  I was very happy that, at the end of the night, everyone had fun playing games.  But I also know that next game night I intend to make it more focused, so that I’m not concerned with playing host to a large group and I can sit with everyone at a single table and enjoy everyone’s company.

  • Puzzle Strike is way better in person.Online the game tracks players’ discard piles, your current bag’s contents, and it automatically remembers your ante.  It doesn’t forget rules, it keeps your hand organized and easy to use, and the components don’t sprawl out over the table.  As a game qua game the online experience is far superior.  In person you play with friends.  No contest.
  • Dixit Part Deux 

    Dixit is not my favorite game.  But in keeping with the Cult of the New, it has become my favorite social construct to share with friends.  It’s imaginative, easily accessible, Katie’s family (my GF, different from the one mentioned above) loves to play it.  So the disdain on my more hardcore gamer friends’ faces regarding it can easily be overlooked.  We’ll always have Puzzle Strike.

Legacies: Prelude

“So, um, not to be a downer, but how are you going to keep one Legacy campaign from spoiling the other?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. It’s important to me and to Greg, the man who asked it on my previous post Rabbit Rabbit. But let’s back up a bit.

Two years ago…

Michael Bay would love to direct the movie adaptation.

In 2011 Hasbro published Risk: Legacy. Some of you probably felt your stomach lurch at the mention of Risk. When I first heard of it a year ago I was disdainful. It sounded like regular old Risk, only sometimes you had to smudge parts of the map so they became unplayable. A Risk game you had to mar, and then replace if you wanted a fresh board. I (mostly) like what Hasbro has done with the Risk license since its inception. But this one I tossed it out of my mind. But let’s back up a bit.

52 Years Ago…

Whereas this looks more like a Focus Features thing, slice of life and all that

According to the Internet, Risk was created in 1959 by French film director Albert Lamorisse. It came to the United States and, fast-forwarding some years, became one of the most iconic games in the U.S. (to say nothing of its international status), second only to Monopoly. The rules have changed over the years, but the premise is the same; the world is divided into 6 continents, a number of territories, and the object of the game is to conquer these territories, crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women (okay, maybe not that last bit). The game used to be about global domination, meaning it wasn’t over until you either took every last territory on the map, or the last two people got bored and quit.

Risk now has dozens of licensed remakes and editions. The first one I saw was Risk 2210 A.D. I loved it; Risk in the future, with new territories in the oceans and on the Moon, generals that enhance your abilities, cards that don’t just get traded for units, but used to give new powers and tactics. And it was designed to last only 5 turns. Brilliant! Every Risk should have a built in clock like that. Since then, every remake from the classic re-skins to the marketing tie-ins have offered some gimmick or rules change to the classic format. In Lord of the rings Risk, it’s good vs. evil as the ring actually makes its way across the board, and can be captured by the orcs for victory. Star wars: Clone Wars Risk has the proto-Empire place the Emperor on the map after devastating the Republic forces, offering a victory for good if he can be captured. The current thrust of Risk is to release a number of collectors’ edition video-game skins: Halo, Starcraft, Metal Gear Solid, all have Risk games complete with the factions and trappings of their video game counter-parts.*

Still, Risk doesn’t get played much (ever) in our group. The pieces get used for other print-and-play games, but Risk has remained untouched, as it did for most gamers. Then came Risk: Legacy.

Back to 2 Years Ago

You can understand the skepticism from tabletop game enthusiasts. It’s a Risk game. It’s sold at Wal-Mart, right alongside all the party-games and Candy Land clones. Then you come to find out that the game asks you to destroy components as you play. No board game has ever asked that of its owner, and most would view it as sacrilege.

In 2012 the game got a ton of attention. What was it that took 6 months to a year for people to start catching on? In short, a campaign that took 6 months to a year for people to finish. Risk: Legacy’s conceit is that, in the distant future, scientists have discovered a solution to the ever-growing problems of all dystopian futures, such as overpopulation, starvation, massive wars, Mad Max Marauders, etc. they create new Earths. So imagine that each box of Risk is its own pre-fab planet, fresh for re-colonization and subsequent Global Domination. The rules have a 15 game campaign, during which cities are raised and razed, factions grow in power and ability, whole countries are turned into radioactive ash, and by the end, you have a unique war-torn Earth that one person can say they were victorious over after a year’s worth of pitting himself against his opponents. No game I can name (and I can name a good many) promises to offer an experience on such a scale. I want to play it, but getting 5 adults to sync their schedules and commit to not just one night, but several over the course of months, is a lot to ask. So I sit, and dream…

I got this e-mail

November 28th, 2012, Josh and I sit down to play Android: Netrunner, and Josh gets an e-mail. Apparently somebody is fishing for people to get a Risk: Legacy game going. After hemming and hawing about how the guy who doesn’t like Risk gets the e-mail I’ve been wishing someone would drop in front of me, Josh agrees to forward my information along. A solid month of fishing and scheduling later, Greg sends the confirmation of December 28th, 2012.

3 days later…

I’m at my friend Ted’s house for New Year’s Eve. I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned him before, but Ted is a board game enthusiast and part-time designer. He’s interested in risk: Legacy too. I can’t help myself. I ask him to send me the info on the game he’s setting up. A few days later we’re scheduled for a game. So now I’m part of not one, but two epic games.

Present Day

“So, um, not to be a downer, but how are you going to keep one Legacy campaign from spoiling the other?”

A little more about Risk: Legacy. The initial campaign games are quite simple; empty board, handful of troops, first to capture 4 red stars wins (you start with two, and you get them by taking over an opponent’s home base). You play a specific faction that has a unique power. As the game progresses, so do the factions. So does the map; new cities are stuck to the board with decals. So does the rule book; there are large spaces where new rules and components will be added when the conditions are met. You know the conditions but not the components, they’re sealed in packets that you have been instructed to not open until told. The game evolves as you play, with each new packet adding something, and some packets potentially never being opened. It promises some delightful surprises the first time around

So it’s a fair assumption that the second time you come across them is not as great.

If Pandora’s Box had this label…we still would’ve opened it.

As I said before, the game is asking a lot. It’s asking me to make a fairly large purchase (Risk: Legacy Retail Value – $59.99, $46.71 on Amazon.com for Prime members). And after purchasing the game, it asks me to destroy some of the stuff I bought. Immediately, in fact; factions start with one of two powers, and the other one is torn and trashed. Territories can be destroyed, and their cards are to be ripped up or burned. The game asks me to commit to 15 games or risk missing the epic saga and being lost when I come in later. And it’s asking me to only play it with a single group of people, or risk ruining the surprises and suspense for the others. Holy s***, no other game in the World asks that of me! Games want the opposite; they want me to go forth, play openly, laud its praises, spread its joy, and yeah, maybe buy a copy for yourself. Risk: Legacy wants me to take in the spectacle, then rush to my friends and say this:

“Oh man it’s amazing! You gotta try it. No, I can’t tell you what happens, it’ll spoil the game for you, but it’s worth it. No, I can’t play with you, I don’t have the time, I’m playing with this group. No, I can’t play when I’m done, I already know too much. No, you can’t join us, we’re already a few games in, you won’t know what’s going on and you’ll have missed all the cool intro stuff. No no, just pick up a copy, find 4 friends with the time and desire to play a new game of Risk with little to no idea of what makes it any different from regular boring Risk (and nobody to teach the rules) and we can talk about it later! But only a bit, because I don’t want you ruining anything for me.”

I exaggerate a bit, but you see my point. The game wants more from me than any game (good) has ever wanted. And God help me, I want to give it. So badly in fact that I committed myself to two groups. Groups that can’t duck out of for worry that the whole thing comes apart if the full number isn’t there. So for the time being, I’m going to play them both. And so the question remains: How do I keep one Legacy campaign from spoiling the other?

The answer is simple. The answer is… I don’t know.

I’m hoping that Risk: Legacy truly offers the unique experience it promises, and that the two will be barely comparable by the 4th or 5th game. Failing that, I’m hoping to keep the two sessions compartmentalized in my mind. I don’t know a lot of the people in either group, but I know that Ted is a swift, methodical game player, almost procedural, and the guys I know in the other group are more thoughtful, eager to get into the mythos and spectacle of a new Earth to have new wars on. Basically, one game will be an exercise in mathematics and tactical optimization, and the other just might have costumes and theme music.

I know I can doublethink my way past it only so far. At some point, one game will influence the other, and I won’t be able to ignore it. And it’s at that point that I hope I will make the decision that keeps the game as fun as it can be for everyone.

*No word on if Zerg rushing has been nerfed. Little nerd humor there for ya.

Rabbit Rabbit

No no, I’m not referring to the goofy poem and mime game by crazy Czech genius Vlaada Chvatil, that’s Bunny Bunny (Moose Moose). I’m referring to the superstition that saying “rabbit rabbit” the first thing each new month brings you good luck that month, and if said on January 1st the good luck follows you through the new year.

2012 has been a great year for me. I am truly a lucky person, and not just because I played (and won) a bit more than my fair share of games. I won’t clog a board game blog with sappy non-gaming stuff, but I want to thank each and every one of you who read this, as you were undoubtedly a part of making this year so amazing.

Josh and I are excited to continue pouring out our thoughts on this wonderful hobby into the site. For my part, I’m hoping to give you more content, and I already have some stuff I would love to talk about. In 2013, be on the lookout for:

  • More actual honest-to-God board game reviews.
  • A blow by blow of the not one but two Risk: Legacy campaigns I’m a part of.
  • Me to finally admit that Monopoly is pretty much a piece of s***.
  • Whatever kooky crap about gaming occurs to me that I think would make an entertaining read.

And above all, let us not forget what it’s all about; a celebration of games, gamers, and the gaming culture that we love so much. Any Game Good. Let’s spend 2013 proving it.

-Brandon

I’ve never said “Rabbit Rabbit” (and I think only first heard of it on January 1st 2012) and let me tell you, the fact that I can’t find a good link to the improv warm up “Bunny Bunny (toki toki)” is breaking my heart. And Yet!: I too am looking forward to 2013.

2012 wasn’t the best year for me, but after a long December there is reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last. And this site and its mission (spend time with friends, playing games) is a big part of that. My big plans for boardgaming in the new year?

  • Get out to Unity games, or something like that. (My boardgaming social circle has dwindled over the last few years, since friends keep moving hundreds of miles away. Time to repopulate)
  • Get a game of Nomic going. (They never seem to end, but I’ve had three really good experiences with their start)
  • Console Brandon when he admits that Monopoly is a piece of crap, and remind him that his memories of having fun with it are still good. (It’s not like those old movies where you realize the blatant racism or misogyny and can’t look at them the same way. You had good times together! It’s okay buddy!)
  • Get a guest post up (Justus, Shauna, I’m looking in your directions)

Now, let’s have some fun, shall we? Who’s free next Wednesday?

-Josh

We don’t have a picture of us gaming. Because we don’t take pictures while we’re gaming. On account of the gaming. But it does look almost exactly like this. Right down to that ugly white pit stain of mine. Happy Holidays!

Immersion

Fairness, Justice, God-given rights. These are the luxuries of the mentally entitled. Those born into life on Carpellon know better. Our Legacy is a burnt-out rock in deep space, our Destiny is no more than that which we can take from the stars. And we haven’t found a God in the dust and storms.

When Shanix discovered a fleet of decommissioned Terraforming robots from the old Gene War days we took them as no more or less than an opportunity to make out way off this stinking rock and leave our-hand-to-mouth existence behind. “Hero” is just a way for the future to judge the past.

Still, one must always take time to appreciate the simple joys in life. Carax 9 is a tucked-away Artist Colony where the aspiring tortured souls of the galaxy with just enough talent and finance come to crank out the synth-drek that qualifies as art to the people who matter; those with credits to burn and taste that should be. Shanix and I must look like a couple of rubes to these people, but Shan always had a winning smile, and what can I say? The ladies love a tortured soul. A genuine Carpellon sob story gets you a night to forget your woes, and a few shiny trinkets that make a quick buck on the open market. And with a few modifications, the robots in tow are able to scrap some of the unneeded scaffolding to fuel our engines.

Race For the Galaxy doesn’t play like this, not really. It’s much closer to this:

I draw Destroyed World for my starting card. Oh, you choose develop, okay, I play Terraforming Robots. I chose Settle, with that I’ll play Artist Colony and take two cards, one for the rebate and one for the robots.

Games have the power to spark our imagination. Like literature, they can take us places we’d never go, and tell us amazing stories. They can even go that extra mile and allow us to tell our own. Some games are better designed for this than others, but they all have that potential. But is it really the point? A game of Race for the Galaxy takes about 20-30 minutes with 2-4 people who know how the game is played. It’s a fun game, but imagine if everyone was caught up in weaving their own galactic opera. It would take hours! And there’s already a game about creating a galactic opera; Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition. And it takes the better part of a day to play, without getting bogged down in narration. For most games it’s considered needless, but I often wonder if we’re missing out on the chance to treat ourselves and our friends to some beautiful tales using the games we clock through at high speed as the foil for something more intricate.

Be Wary of Houses on Hills*

Betrayal At House On The Hill is a game that thrives on its ability to tell an interesting story. I love the game, and am known to talk about it at length regarding its initial release and discontinuation, its emergent cult following, the online bidding wars for it and the ultimate reprint (oh, and the game’s good too). It’s a good game design, with a potentially amazing theme wrapped around it. Everyone plays an archetypal character from a horror movie; the jock, the old scientist, the gypsy, the 10 year old boy who’s there for some odd reason, etc. You take turns exploring an expanding and architecturally maddening house, encountering such horror classics as a voice in the shadows, a creepy doll that talks, a werewolf, and my personal favorite, a mirror that shows you yourself from the future. In the end, somebody becomes the traitor in a random scenario where everyone must work together to defeat the terror that looms before them.

Alright, rag-tag group of would-be adventurers, let’s get in there. And don’t forget to split up immediately.

Most people will say it’s a great game. I would say it’s two great games, and here’s what I mean. Gamers enjoy it, but they will burn through it the more they play. Cards won’t even get read at times; it’s simply “roll the dice. This happens. Next turn.” Or, “everyone pile into the room that gives you a stat bump.” It’s fun, but in a game-y way.

Then there are those whom I prefer to play with, those who endeavor to get into the spirit of the horror genre. Using character voices, reading the encounters with appropriate gravitas, working together not just to beat a game, but build a narrative, can make for a playing experience that sticks with you the same way a good book, or even a personal event can. When you find yourself recounting a play-through of the game with the same excitement and tone as “this crazy thing happened to me one time” you know you’ve done something extraordinary.

Here’s mine:

In the master bedroom of the home I found a man, unkempt, scars across his arms and a stare that would have frightened most women. But I grew up in the bayou. I know from madness in ways the city-folk with me don’t understand. We made fast friends. I knew him only as the Madman, and I would come to understand that he’s been trapped here for a great long time. The house is loathe to leave its treasures to roam. That’s fine, all the tools we need to defeat it are scattered in its dusty halls and strange rooms.

A madman can be dangerous. A madman wearing plate armor and a magic medallion wielding an axe is a force of nature.

Madman, Armor, Axe and Medallion are all items you can acquire. Strictly speaking you’re the one equipped and the madman’s just there, but this is better.

The mad scientist wandered the basement, away from prying eyes. There was a shift in the wind as he began to read from an eldritch tome. “With this the ritual begins. Soon I will have all I need to close the circle and feed on the power from beyond! Soon, I-

*DING*

He turned, slowly, to view a pair of doors he was sure wasn’t there before sliding open. The dim hallway was briefly lit by the interior fluorescent lights of – he couldn’t believe it – an elevator? His stunned reaction turned to shock at the appearance of that annoying little teenager Jenny LeClerk, and an odd, haunted looking man that looked dressed for a holy war with Abraham Lincoln. The sight would have been humorous, given a few seconds. In half that time, the man became a blur of motion and noise.

“Gyaaaahh!”

The Madman would not let this house claim another soul.

For those of you familiar with the game; the Haunt was triggered, and I quickly found the Mystic Elevator and was able to take it to the floor the traitor was on. All the items I had bumped my attack up immensely, and I rolled absurdly well. The traitor was dropped in a single blow, and the rest of the haunt, I forget which one it was specifically, was easily handled. The point is that the narrative that was woven and shared with everyone involved was much greater than the game itself.

Pickles On Parade.

Of course it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes a game is just a game. And sometimes it isn’t game enough.

Sometimes a game meant to invoke a story fails as a game. I played a card game recently called Anima: The Shadow Of Omega. It’s a pretty bad game.** But in it I saw the potential to tell neat little tales of adventure through the components, in a way that the game may have intended but ultimately failed on. The game, in brief, involves you gathering a team of adventurers to explore far-off places and conduct missions. You gain strength, and ultimately defeat a final mission to win. The game does have a sort of story, but it’s a bunch of unlistenable crap about the City of Infinity and the Orb of Chaos shackled in the Chains of Oblivion or something. The game tries to get you to make your own tale out of it all. Some upgrade cards called “events” use a book as their icon, and contain common story tropes. For instance, I drew “Leading Role,” giving one of my characters a boost in attack, but made him the first to die in a failed encounter. So instead of a pile of numbers, I wanted so much to see my “Dark Paladin” as this dramatic anti-hero doomed to live by the sword alone, until he finds companions who trust him, and ultimately redeem his soul before he’s… randomly discarded by a bad die roll? And now my team is four goofily/scantily clad anime chicks? WTF!

I get the impression they hoped story-telling and imagination would replace a poorly designed game.^ It doesn’t. Any moments of interest I had in weaving a story arc were drowned out in an overwhelming desire to understand, learn to play, and ultimately get through (or in our case, quit) a frustrating game.

Sometimes a game mustn’t be forced to tell a story. Steve Jackson’s Chez Geek is a card game about a bunch of roommates who hold jobs they hate and are seeking to gain enough “slack” points to overcome the varying tedium of their existence. It’s full of that kind of pseudo-satirical humor that’s funny the first time, then just wears on you. Still, the game is good, and its theme is fairly strong. My introduction to it was in high school at a gaming convention. The “Steve Jackson Demo team” (which, in retrospect, was probably just a group of people who knew how to play his games) showed it off, and insisted that the game was much more fun when you role-played it and treated the characters in the cards like people you actually knew in real life. Nobody at the table was really interested. The game is kind of obsessed with sex, which it calls “nookie,” and is scored with a die roll. Gathering a bunch of awkward strangers around a table and getting them to talk about how good or bad the sex was based on the roll is, again, funny the first time only. But apparently…

People seem to like it. This isn’t even half the total expansions out there.

Sometimes you simply don’t have time to appreciate the narrative arc. I recently played Mage Knight at an MIT board game gathering. The evening was fun, and merits a post all its own. But a moment struck me during the tutorial (which lasted as long as a normal game of most other board game I’ve played). The game allows you to negotiate with towns, monasteries, etc., or you can attack and loot them. Good-aligned gamers would balk at the idea, but the game sort of forces it on you, since a pure noble path gets you jack squat, while the marauders of the countryside get the powers, points, and p-bragging rights. So it was with reluctance that I burnt down a monastery to get at the Horn of Glory, an artifact of fair-to-moderate power designed to bring castle keeps to their knees. And there just happened to be one nearby. I thought, this is fantastic! They were probably planning to bring them down themselves, but now I can make good on my moral dilemma and do it myself! At which point I took another hit of evil rep because everything on the map that doesn’t have gnashing teeth and a big “I hate Heaven” sign on its spike armor is apparently a bastion of nobility. And nobody at the table appreciated the moment, as my neophyte status was dragging my turns out in this 4 hour epic struggle between man and math. The game is fun, and it paints a fine picture of these warriors among men carving their legend into the countryside, but it takes a back seat to all the plotting, planning, number-crunching tactical aspects. You know, the game.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? A game is more than the sum of its parts, but how much more? Is this nebulous thing I describe as immersion the reason some of us play games, or is it a condiment, sometimes delicious and sometimes unpalatable, on the side of the main course dish that is the game qua game? It’s most likely in the middle, or more accurately, I believe it is the average of two extremes. Sometimes we want a swift romp through the bits and pieces and fun mechanics of a game, rolling dice and swapping whatever resources the game has in an effort to be the guy with the most points. And sometimes we want to feel like great heroes, or bottom-feeding pirates, great beasts among men and hard-luck detectives striving to make right a world so wrong. And when we do get that feeling, we want to tell these stories to our friends, like we were really there.

There are hundreds of games out there, each designed to scratch that particular itch you and/or your friends have when gaming (and incidentally, Mage Knight is supposed to have an awesome single-player setup, if that’s your thing). It’s an odd place, this subculture of tabletop gaming we laud, but for those willing to brave its waters I guarantee there is something beautiful for you.^^

Take care, and good gaming.

*Especially if those hills have eyes.

** From Fantasy Flight’s website: “The revised edition of Anima: Shadow of Omega has been overhauled to create a more enjoyable and dynamic game experience than previous editions. Revisions include brighter art, enhanced graphics, more durable cards, and an updated rules set that incorporates errata. This edition also introduces the all-new “Crisis!” end-game design which creates exciting showdowns and dramatic finishes for every game.” So yeah, they know the earlier editions are broken. I’m not in a hurry to find out if they fixed it.

^ A bit of internet sleuthing suggests that the card game is based off a role-playing system like D&D.

^^  P.S. I’d like to leave this post with a link to a site I think is amazing. If you like our blog, you’ll love these two UK blokes, as they love board games more than even the self-proclaimed gamers I’ve spent years with. Their site is called Shut Up and Sit Down, and they’ll change the way you think about gaming. And for extra credit, please take the time to watch this 40 minute video of Quinns speaking on the golden age of tabletop game design.

These Are My Friends

In a couple of my earlier posts I talk about board games, the physical games themselves, as friends. Without deeply exploring the underlying commentary one could do on my seemingly devotion to consumerism to the point of anthropomorphizing commercial products, let’s just reiterate that I take my games seriously. And as such, it vexes me when people talk crap about games I like. While fully understanding that not everyone will enjoy every game, I still get upset when people judge games I like as objectively bad, especially when I feel they haven’t given them a chance.

Last Saturday I went to a friend-of-a-friend’s house for gaming. Knowing nothing more than the fact that it was boardgaming, and a different group than the eclectic bunch at NESFA, I took the 5 minute drive to the apartment. There were 5 people; me, my new friend Kevin, the owner and his girlfriend (possibly wife? It didn’t come up.) and another woman who insisted that her status as an orthodox Jew prohibited her from doing work on this the Lord’s day of rest, which meant no driving, no word games, and no ringing the doorbell.

Among the games we played was David Sirlin’s Puzzle Strike 2nd edition. To stretch the friend analogy, PS is like that guy who’s not exactly a bully, not outright mean but somewhat off-putting, but has really cool ideas and is actually a lot of fun to hang around. The guy putting on the gathering, whom we’ll call J, heard of it and requested we play when he learned I brought it. We played a 4 player game, with me trying to explain the game to three people who never played. It was fun, though it did drag on a bit. Afterward, J proclaimed that it wasn’t different enough from Dominion to be anything special. Now, I disagree with this; the combat mechanic is a marked departure from Dominion which, while an amazing game, is largely 2 to 4 people playing a communal solitaire with limited card stacks. The game is very similar, more-so than most would care to admit, but I don’t think after one play-through that statement can be said.

We discussed it a bit, then moved on while I tried to let it go. We played Tichu. Kevin and I lost, from a combination of terrible draws and overly aggressive play. After that Kevin and I played some 2 player Puzzle Strike, which I now believe is the better way to play. interspersed throughout our three games was J’s commentary that the game wasn’t that good. It included an out-loud aside that he would be giving this game a 5.0 out of 10 on BGG (which is pretty bad).

What I should have said was nothing.

What I did say was, “I know initial experience is a big thing, but I think you didn’t get the full scope of the game with just one play. I think you should play it again before you give it a 5.”

What I wanted to say was, “Stop talking shit about my game! You played it once, you have no right to judge. I know you didn’t like it, we’re enjoying it right now, enough with your bitchy commentary.”

It made me feel kind of bad. I’ve said before, in owning a game you become its ambassador.  If I can wax philosophical for just a bit: Games are the language by which many of us socialize. It’s a medium we use to meet and measure our fellow man.  Saying you don’t like a game I enjoy is like saying you don’t like what I’m saying, you don’t like my friends and you may as well not like me. So I felt like it was my fault J didn’t have a good time. It’s a fun game, it’s Dominion with a cool fighting component, why didn’t he like it? Did I explain it poorly? Was it the other people? Or is he just a stupid jerk who doesn’t like fun? Maybe he’s bummed because he lost, but I lost, I’m (mostly) fine with it.

Now, a deeper analysis of the evening might reveal a few extenuating points. For one, I was coming off a somewhat frustrating game of Pandemic with a bunch of people not listening to my sound logical explanations and doing bad plays. Then we lost Tichu. And of note, PS isn’t really my game, it’s a game I own, I didn’t create the thing. People can hate books or movies I like, and I won’t get bent out of shape. But for some reason I hate it when people talk shit about games, especially games I think are great, especially after one play.

Sometimes it’s best to just stay out of it

So why is it that I (and I hesitate to use the word we here) take criticism of certain boardgames so seriously? It’s certainly possible that I’m just being immature in this regard. But I like to believe it’s because games touch us in a more personal way. Passive media such as books, movies, and indeed many video games can and do reach us on a personal level, but they generally don’t require us to make an investment in them beyond time and a certain level of attention. We make our own experiences with the games we play, we have a direct influence on the outcome of this game, and the ending is not written in stone. Perhaps it’s because we have a hand in the creation of this completed game/story/work that I take it personally when people put it down.

Josh is very up-front and unapologetic about the games he doesn’t like. We’ve played a few games of things I love that he says he hates, specifically Thunderstone and Ascension. And while it wasn’t every time, it seemed to be the majority that he’d put down a game after he lost. Normally I’d write it off as sour grapes; after all, the man loves Dominion, and he liked Puzzle Strike (which he won), what makes these so bad?  But once I get past the reflexive ire I realize that Josh isn’t big on the random components, or at least so many of them. He likes having a little more control over his resources and the state of the game.  In Dominion the only truly random component is your draw.  In Thunderstone it’s the draw and the dungeon, and in Ascension it’s the draw, the row, and the dual point system that could tend to fighting or economy.

We’ll be playing Android: Netrunner in a week, and I know that, before we begin, he’ll want to see each card in the box to get an idea of what the decks do. Which isn’t bad, but I’m looking forward to learning the game as we play, being surprised by each card and how it fits into the game and the narrative. It’s a weird thing to have an emotional investment in, but I’m really hoping the game is fun for us. It’s almost like introducing two friends from different circles and really hoping it works out, only weirder because I haven’t even met one of them, who is incidentally not a person but a board game.

As a final thought, it’s worth repeating that board games are about people as much as they are about the game. And if somebody doesn’t like the game I like, that’s fine, it doesn’t make either of us bad people. But it can mean that maybe I don’t want to play with a guy who isn’t speaking my language. Part of being an adult, even one with child-like tendencies like me, is learning that not everyone is someone you need to please. We meet people, learn about them and get a feel for their personality, then decide if this is a person we wish to spend more time with. Just so with games. And if any game good, any person good too. I look forward to seeing if J and I mesh on other games. Josh and I have our disagreements, but he’s a great guy, and he’s my friend. And nobody talks shit about my friends.