Talkin’ About Tzolk’in

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

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

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

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

The One With the Gears

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

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

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

This is your brain on Tzolk’in

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

My Kung Fu Is Strong

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

The Competitors


Name: Brandon Rahhal

Age: 30

Blood Type: AB Pos

Fighting Style: Swift Snake, Rising Eagle

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


Name: Josh Michel

Height: 10 ft pole

Political Affiliation: Socialist

Fighting Style: Iron and Mortar

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


Name: Mark Yun

Games owned: Over 9000!

Is Asian: Yes

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

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

How it played out

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

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

Food Scarcity

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


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

I become the two things I hate: Sub Optimal Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

2Not to be confused with “Tactical Bitching.”

Vegas Showdown and the “Suboptimal” play

The Setup

Brandon has invited us over. It’s the day after the anniversary of AnyGameGood.  His former boss Taran is in town, and they used to play games together at/after work. So we came, Taran, Mark, Nicole and I, to Brandon’s place to celebrate with a day of boardgaming.

As Brandon has pointed out, five isn’t always the best number for most games. We also have an interesting variation of experience in the room. Mark is a Gamer at a level that I’m not sure if Brandon or I match (Brandon may disagree). Taran, from what I can tell, is a gamer and has a mind that is used to walking down the paths of “If you do this then I’ll do that and you’ll do this” and Nicole is just starting to get used to thinking that way. I suggest Vegas Showdown as a game that seats five and has depth but will be generally easy to pick up for those who haven’t yet played it. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve enjoyed the few games of it I’ve played.

Midway through the game we’re all pretty close. Taran has a slight lead, Mark is behind but has two rooms that he needs the prerequisites for before he can place them, and Brandon, Nicole and I are in the middle, well within striking distance.

“Oh my god that was so stupid.”

Mistakes happen. Gamers rarely talk about mistakes though, Gamers talk about “moves that are suboptimal.“ And so when I find myself repeating over and over “Oh my god, that was so stupid” and generally beating myself up, Mark tries to console me with “No one likes making a move that’s suboptimal.” He’s not wrong. However, I’d like to argue that there’s a difference between suboptimal and downright stupid. And I just made a move that was downright stupid.

Like in most games like this, I have built a strong economy. The most population, the most revenue, but only one lounge. No Fancy Lounge, no Nightclub, no Theatre. My points are coming from filling my casino and hotel, having the highest revenue and population, and hopefully ending the game on my terms, with my competitors unable to get something they need at the end. I’m in a position with a few turns left in the game where this is looking reasonable. Taran is ahead, but not by much, and I’m going to get the most bonus points at end of game. Brandon or Nicole could certainly come in and snag it, but I’m pretty happy with where I am.

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

This fateful turn Taran and I are the only two who have enough money to buy a room, we both have 33 cash, and only two rooms are within our price range: A Fancy Lounge starting at 25 and the Dragon Room starting at 33. For those who don’t have photographic memories, here are the stats for those two rooms: Fancy Lounge is worth 4 points (and is required to build a 12-point Theatre) and the Dragon Room is worth 6 points and gives 4 revenue. I was in the first seat, meaning I could bid the minimum for the Dragon Room and take it, or I could bid on the Fancy Lounge. Looking at the population and revenue tracks, I have a population of 15 and a revenue of 12, meaning that the Dragon Room not only is worth more points but also will help my economy (which also is worth points at the end of the game).

What did I do? I bid 27 on the Fancy Lounge. Taran bid 33 on the Dragon Room and I started repeating “Oh my GOD that was so stupid of me.”

In the moment I had half thought that since I was going to get the Dragon Room it was too bad that Taran was going to get the Fancy Lounge for only 25. This half thought caused me to try to make him bid a little higher for his Fancy Lounge, which put it at the same price for him as the better Dragon Room. Needless to say that play took me from a chance at the victory to a distant 3rd place.

Technically, I still had all those slots AND a Fancy Lounge. But this is what my casino felt like.

Technically, I still had all those slots AND a Fancy Lounge. But this is what my casino felt like.

“Nobody likes to make plays that are Sub Optimal”

Mark is right. No one likes to make plays that aren’t the best possible play. But sub optimal plays happen all the time, in fact, for most games there are often numerous moves that are all valid options, with personal preference being the deciding factor. Do I pick up a lounge this turn? Do I pay 9 for slots this turn when next turn I could get it for 7? Do I save my money waiting for a high value room to get flipped? These are all questions that get asked and will have different answers depending on the gamer.

Brandon likes to talk about them as “interesting decisions” and I’m inclined to agree. There may be one play that is superior, but there is rarely a wrong answer. Often, these decisions are ones that you wouldn’t be able to figure out if they worked or not until much later, and are based on a number of factors that you can’t quantify. For example, sticking with Vegas Showdown, you might have a play that is optimal knowing what cards are left in the deck and could be quantified, but knowing what choice the other players are going to make in similar situations can’t be.

Suboptimal plays do happen and can hurt you a few points on the final score, whereas mistakes mean the difference between winning and losing. Winning is important to me, but far more important is playing my best. Some games my best isn’t good enough, either because luck isn’t on my side or because someone is a superior player. This can be frustrating as well (unfortunately Brandon had this happen to him the other day when we played Seasons online. He played well as best we could both tell, and neither of us was particularly unlucky, but when the final scores were tallied, I had surprisingly ended up on top. He didn’t take it so well. I don’t blame him), but nothing is worse than a game where you can point to the exact reason you lost an otherwise winnable game and it was because you did something completely boneheaded. That’s the kind of loss that sticks with you through the next game you play and can mess with your mojo. I like to think of myself as a smart guy, and I think that’s not an uncommon thought amongst the gaming community, and it hurts to be proven wrong, even if only for a single stupid moment.

Risk: This Is How The World Ends

Ted’s Campaign

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

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

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

Game 11

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

Game 12!

Sometimes hope is just a word.

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

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

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

Game 13

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

It’s Risk. Says so right on the box.

Greg’s Campaign, Game 8

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 2 Win

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

Ted’s Campaign (Called)

Brandon: 7 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 2 Win

Packets Open: Everything

Talking It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On Monopoly Part 3: Monopoly Streets

I love Monopoly. This puts me in the vast minority of people in every gaming group I’ve been in since I was thirteen. And while I do enjoy the game, and defend it at every turn, I do also understand that it’s a pretty shite game. I have a great deal to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

And I’d like to know whether or not the digitization of the game holds up.

So yes, this is a board game site. And Monopoly Streets is a video game (for all the major consoles). But it IS Monopoly, and Monopoly is a board game. So I can talk about it. You can’t stop me.

Monopoly has come out in many forms. Novelty Monopoly re-skins aside, the game has had many iterations, including releases on every major console since the NES. There are card games, dice games, electronic banking versions, and new designs to the board (my personal favorite is the Onyx Edition, though the deeds and money are a bit too small). But the board game itself has not changed much since the modern version hit the shelves more than 70 years ago. When an edition of Monopoly came out for the Xbox I was thrilled. My good friend and fellow Monopoly enthusiast Nick lives in Florida, and this could have been a fantastic way for us to play Monopoly together.

Except it had no online support. Bull. F***ing. S***. Why the hell would you get a Monopoly video game you can’t play online? What is this, the eighties? And who would sit around and play Monopoly on the Xbox? You may as well break out the board, you’re bound to have a copy laying around. The game went back almost immediately (some in-game achievement hunting aside).

Fast forward a couple years. Monopoly Streets comes out, and delivers online play. The $30 price tag is a bit steep to buy out-right, but I rent it and put it through the paces. So how does it match up? Let’s get into the nitty-gritty and compare the minutiae of this digitized version of the classic game.

If Monopoly was a city I’d vandalize it

The Grand Splendor

One of Monopoly Streets’ biggest selling points is the different boards. You can play on the classic board, or in a 3D cityscape version. They also have a space-age board, cheese board, ice board, etc. They look kind of cool, and for a game lauded as much for its iconic imagery as the game itself, it bears mentioning. But collecting digital versions of boards (and some cost real cash) isn’t at all like owning a physical copy. And the boards have no effect on gameplay.

It’s neat watching your characters march around the board, wearing or riding their pieces. They, and Mr. Monopoly, all have voices, which I promptly muted 30 seconds into the game. When you just want to play the game, these sorts of things need to be skip-able, and thank God, they are. With the exception of the intro and end victory screen, all movement and dialogue is skip-able and mute-able (mutable means something completely different).

The updated boards and pieces (again, some cost real cash, what a rip-off) are a neat addition, but it’s not what interests me. I wanted to see how this stacks up against a live game. The rules, and the people.

Nuts And Bolts

The game itself plays pretty smoothly. You can play with the avatars that each piece has (the battleship has a captain, the top hat is worn by an infant Richie Rich, etc.), or use your Xbox Live avatar, which I recommend, because the in-game voices are annoying as hell, as is Mr. Monopoly. As I mentioned before, you can skip most dialogue, but you’ll still hear the character voices before each roll, so it’s best to turn the voices all the way off and be prepared to hit the B button a lot.

The rules for auctioning deeds in Monopoly isn’t exactly standardized; the auction can be run any way the players wish, though when the auctioneer also has a vested interest in the bidding there’s a conflict of interest. In Monopoly Streets the system is pretty sleek; there’s a 20 second (adjustable) time limit, during which players raise and lower their current bids, all viewable. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, raising to beat someone, lowering to make sure you’re not caught with the deed, trying to get the best value for the purchase. It’s quick, which is critical, but the sliding scale doesn’t have a lot of control; just pressing up doesn’t increase the bids quick enough. There are buttons to increase and decrease the bid by $10, and most times I would just use those, but it would be nice to have a more robust bidding system. The AI can change their bids rapidly, human players should be able to as well.

Trades can only happen with the current player, and then only once he’s rolled the dice. This is again designed to speed the game along, and I like it. It would be nice if players would use mics and chat about prospective trades to speed things along further and minimize downtime, but that doesn’t happen often.

Building can also only happen at the end of your turn. I like this change too; ordinarily you can build at any time, including during other players’ turns (but not between dice rolls and the movement). This has the potential to grind the pace of the game down as folks chime in, and it can cause conflict when there’s a housing shortage. Ordinarily the houses have to be auctioned off, but the rules for that aren’t very well defined. Here there’s no confusion, and it forces you to make a tactical decision before you relinquish the dice. It also speeds things up, which I’m always a fan of.

Overall the game plays very smoothly for a digital version of the original. The original rules are preserved, and a great deal of customization is allowed to accommodate favored house rules, new versions, or little tweaks you think would improve the numbers (houses sell back for less, or more, jail can last more or fewer turns, etc.).

But the question remains; how does it work with other people?

The Humanity

$#!^*@%

There’s online play. And you can still play with people locally on one console/TV. Oddly enough, you can’t combine the two. That seems awfully unfair to me, but what do I know about programming?

When playing an online game, if somebody leaves before they’re bankrupted, the game sends you back to the menu. There’s not a lot preventing people from pissing off and ruining your game. I’ve seen it happen a number of times: system crash, people get tired of watching trades happen, somebody’s just losing and doesn’t want to stick around to their end. Sometimes a bot comes in to replace them, but if the host leaves you’re chucked back to the lobby. It’s a very irritating setup.

It’s kind of funny, the way the lobby is set up. There are ranked matches, which must follow one of the pre-defined rule sets, of which there are many. There are custom matches, where you can play with custom rule-sets, and presumably they don’t apply to your online ranking. And you can sort the games in the lobby by; players in game; alphabetically by rule set; max number of players; and alphabetically by user name. But the funny thing is that there’s never enough games to merit such organization. There’s often not any games at all. Also, you can see the name of the custom rules set someone has set up, but not the rules themselves. And since nobody chats online, you can’t ask; you just have to figure it out as you play. You also need to be careful not to hit “ready” if you don’t want to jump into a two-player game; the game starts when everyone is “ready.”

One unfortunate thing about the game is there’s no enforcement to get a player to end their turn. There’s a time limit, but it gets reset when a player chooses to either build/mortgage, or conduct a trade. Even if they don’t do those things, the clock still resets, so there’s nothing to stop a player from constantly offering trades when nobody is interested, or simply stall the game. And if someone gets frustrated and leaves, it’s back to the lobby. Monopoly can cause raw feelings, which can lead to poor sportsmanship, and that coupled with anonymity usually leads to aborted games.

The Verdict

The game can be easily summed up as: if you like Monopoly, you’ll probably like Monopoly Streets. Still, the Devil is in the details. The graphics are neat if you like that sort of thing. The game implementation is solid, and only frustrating at times. The community is pretty weak, but not yet dead.

It doesn’t fit the scenario I specifically want, that me, my girlfriend, Nick and his wife could play a game together, since the hot seat/online play doesn’t blend (not that Katie likes the game at all, but I feel this would be the best place for her to give it another chance). If it had a better community I’d love it, but that’s something no game designer can simply fix.

UPDATE: The last time I played a match two guys with remarkably similar screen names ended up trading mid-game, before anyone was in trouble, so one guy got everything. The disc was immediately (after submitting Code of Conduct violations to Microsoft on both names) returned to its Gamefly envelope and sent back.

Playing for second

Friends of mine would probably never describe me as conservative. I unabashedly call myself a feminist. My headshot for a theater group I was in had me reading Marx. If you let me, I’ll tell you my criticisms of Obama from the left, and hell, my twitter handle is @TheSocialest.

Recently, however, I’ve been noticing that when it comes to games, that instead of playing to win, I’ve instead been playing not to lose. Semantically, they’re pretty similar, but in actuality, there is a significant difference in the manner of play.

Everyone who plays games with the frequency that I do is going to lose games, but by playing “smart” you can generally avoid big losses and put yourself in a good position to win by the end. Or so I’ve been telling myself. But I’m starting to think that playing not to lose is less about winning and losing and more about avoiding embarrassment. It means playing conservatively, sticking to a strategy I’ve seen work before and one that I know will get me a respectable score, if not the winning score. Its the football equivalent of 4th and 1 and punting even though you’re on the opponent’s 40. Its the type of decision that coaches make to avoid criticism. Its the safe call rather than the best call. And not for nothing, but it goes directly against the way I played in the All Trains Go To Helena game that I’m so proud of.

Even worse, playing overly cautious means that you expect your opponent to screw it up. (Which isn’t effective even when you think they’re screwing it up) Playing for a victory via opponent error is not only a bit disrespectful, but also isn’t that much fun. (This isn’t to say you can’t have fun if you’re losing, or that winning is the only important part. But in a game where the competition is taken “seriously”, the serious doesn’t have to be tournament level, it just means you care about the outcome.)

And that may be the true crime in all this and why it merits a post. Its not fun to lose most of the time, and yes, coming in last can be embarrassing, but if you aren’t stretching your brain a little, why are you playing? Its just a game! It is there to be enjoyed! Playing for second is like being the wallflower at a dance party. Sure, getting out there on the dance floor can a little scary, but only by putting yourself out there and taking that risk are you going to have a good time.

Who Serves Whom

Josh and I had an interesting conversation while driving back from Cape Cod after a recent day-trip.  Like many conversations that take place after midnight, it was sleepy and borderline coherent, but I think it’s worth writing about.  We got to play a few board games, and each one had something to offer to the loose thesis that defines this post: at what point do the games we play stop serving us, and we begin to serve the game?

Carcassonne is a delightful little game that can be taught swiftly and played anywhere with enough table space. I lost by 3 points in a final score somewhere around 100 and change. We discussed the game on the walk to the beach, and we both agree that the game is great with 2 people. It suffers when more people are added, and in my opinion it suffers greatly when expansions are added. Carcassonne has a ton of expansions, each adding something and, actually, you know what, f*** this, here’s the BGG page search for Carcassone, showing all the 40+ expansions, standalone games, and upcoming titles that designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede has wrought.  Game design lends itself to different philosophies. One tenet I heard from a friend (which I don’t entirely agree with, but appreciate its merit) is that there’s little purpose to adding new rules to a game if it isn’t fixing a problem. Basically, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. Carcassonne is a game about haphazard road and city building, lashing tiles onto each other in the loosest ways, and that theme has made it into the design itself, with more and more expansions adding new elements to a game like a bunch of garish modern additions to an old Victorian house. To bring us back to the main idea: at some point in adding to this simple game, you’re getting less out of it than you’re putting in.  At some point, you’re serving the game more than the game is serving you.

When Architecture goes unchecked

Ascension was fun, at least for me. Josh doesn’t really enjoy the game, and giving him the benefit of the doubt it’s not because he lost; something about it rubs him the wrong way. Now, I love the game. My second post here is a testament to it. So in this, we have another component of our talk; what do you do when you like a game and a friend doesn’t? You get more out of it than they do.  Maybe It’s not much more complicated than “not everyone has to love a game, just play something else,” but it’s also a great example of the disparate levels of interest two gamers might put into a game.  But what about gamers and non-gamer type people?

Our final game was Thurn and Taxis. The game requires at least 3, preferably 4, so we got Dan And Emily Lavadiere (heretofore known as EmLav) to join us. Now here’s where we get into the main thrust of my meanderings. Games are supposed to be fun, and you can take them as seriously or flippantly as we want. Dan and EmLav aren’t game people like Josh and I are game people, but they like to play. Usually.

Yes yes, it’s very beautiful, can you take your turn please!?

It’s hard to focus on a game when you’ve got friends around, and drinks, and you’re just not invested in the game. I like EmLav, but when people wander off when it’s not their turn and you have to drag them back, it’s tough to deal with. It boils down to a gap in the interest in the game of the people at the table. Games are there to provide fun for the people. But the people need to respect their fellow players and, I believe, the game. We had fun, regardless, and in the end it wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s what got me thinking about the idea that, on some level, we “serve” the gamer as much as they “serve” us?

Phrasing it this way doesn’t really gel with Josh. For him, it’s more a matter of a low vs. high level of investment with the game. I agree with him, but it helps me to think of it this way. I consider it a question of how much the game asks of us, and how much we expect from the game.

I think of it as a spectrum, where at one end the games serve the people, and at the other the people serve the game. The former lays in a place of pure social interaction, where the game exists to facilitate a gathering of people to enjoy each other’s company. The game is simple, easily teachable, and its outcome ancillary to the jokes and drinks and revelry that is shared around the table. It may not even finish. If people have fun, and the game plays a part, it has done well.

Who takes this game seriously? Give you a hint: you’re reading their site.

BONUS: please write in to request the story of my 5-game tear against Josh, you won’t be disappointed, and I think it’s hilarious.

On the other end, where the people serve the game, imagine a tournament. Any tournament, for any game. The people who excel in tournaments serve the game. They know it, study it, revere it, they have a respect for it that most people will never appreciate.

As a somewhat obtuse example (but a worthy aside, IMO), click here and look at the photos. What you’re seeing is the Settlers of Catan 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Treasure Chest. With an MSRP of $380, the game is a work of art, far more so than any game I have ever played. Made with high-quality resin that feels like stone, hand-painted and made to fit inside a polished wooden chest, this game is a literal treasure to be admired. I have had the luxury of playing one a set like this once, and the people I was with knew how special playing it was. It’s still the same rules and strategies of regular Catan, but with a certain reverence to the game.

Expensive or artistically crafted games are one aspect, but not the only one. A game that takes a great deal to set up is another. Though it can feel like work sometimes, arranging the tokens and cards and pieces and perusing the tome-like rule-book, in the end it has a certain appeal. The game is fun, but you have to be willing to invest some time and energy in it. The game doesn’t just give you the fun; you have to do some legwork.

I have friends for whom the game must serve, and games that are meant to serve. Any Game Good, but not for any person. And if the game doesn’t work for someone it’s not the game’s fault. Josh is allowed to not like Ascension, and I’m allowed to want Carcassonne to stay simple, easily accessible, and not concern myself with a bunch of new mechanics if I don’t think they lend to my enjoyment of a quick game.

I have games for whom the players must serve, and gamer friends who live to serve. Catan, while easy to learn, demands attention. Any war-game I know takes effort, in its setup and the execution of one’s turn, and it does not forgive frivolity. Puerto Rico takes a great deal of assembly and explanation, and in return gives a wonderful experience of managing a hacienda and trade business. Race For The Galaxy gives something similar, at about 1/5th the setup. Both have their place.

I mean this not as a sweeping declaration, or even a tenet of my philosophy, but as a musing on gaming. As a final thought, I think of games, the physical cardboard-and-pewter constructs, as friends in their own right. Some are easy to be around, simple to teach and always good for a laugh. Some require study, an investment of time and interest, and are the source of the most amazing times I’ve had, because of the game as much as the people who care about it like I do.

Sour Grapes and Rotten Apples

“Freakin’ Apples to Apples, man. I hate that game! I mean, you’re sitting there, you’re playing your cards right, you think, ‘hey, yeah, this makes sense, it’s pretty clever,’ you’re trying, God help you you’re actually trying, and then someone says ‘oh yeah, Winston Churchill, that’s funny, we were talking about him earlier, that wins!’ Freakin’ Apples to Apples.”

-Serpico

Apples To Apples is an odd duck. I mean, is it really a game? It certainly has the trappings of a game; it has players, rules, points, and a winner. But does it count as a game, let alone a good game? Do your choices matter?  Does the fact that it’s mostly arbitrary matter?  Let’s chat about this old friend of ours.

My gaming friends revile Apples to Apples. The idea of playing it is laughable, and the suggestion of it is never used sincerely; it’s always a joke, on par with “hey guys! Candy Land!”

I have fond memories of Apples to Apples from college. So I always feel the need to defend it when it comes up as the gaming pariah. “What other game fits a dozen people?” “You’re playing it wrong, you gotta play to the judge at the time.” “It’s better when the judge describes why each card wins and loses.” Apples to Apples is a college friend that I spent many hours partying with, and I hate to see him get talked down on when I’m out with people who think they’re too good for him anymore.  And it makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

See, I haven’t spoken to Apples in years. He’s not my Facebook friend, he’s never invited to my parties, and I had to double check to see if he was still in my apartment. Because honestly, I don’t like him all that much. He’s kind of a dick. He never grew up, and he’s a bad influence on my other friends. Yes, he allows 10 or more people to hang out and share an experience. But what experience? Get drunk and laugh at non-sequiturs? The choices you get to make are bogus, and it reinforces bad habits. Forgive me for being high and mighty, but I don’t like it when people bring that loose, free-wheeling “have fun, don’t worry” mindset to the table. It betrays the rest of us who take the game seriously, and then tries to make us feel like outcasts for it. Settlers of Catan was the shy but well-spoken and genuinely interesting person, but he only worked in small crowds. Apples is the big bad brosef who can’t really function unless he’s partying with a huge group, and that group doesn’t hang out with nerds. It’s like getting a noogie from a game (and no joke, I have wounded myself on that heavy, awkward wooden box with the lid that always slides open).

Shit yeah, we can make this a drinking game. APPLES 2 APPLES 4 LIFE, BRAH!

A2A is the predecessor of Cards Against Humanity. At first glance I didn’t give this game a lot of credit. It takes after its old man a lot, but instead of matching nouns to verbs, you fill in the blanks of an often disturbing card (e.g. when I’m feeling down I can always masturbate to_______) with something equally disturbing (a big pile of dead dogs). We had a party, and someone brought him along. He was, of course, the life of the party, and everyone had a lot of fun hanging with him. Katie said we should buy a copy. My feathers ruffled.

I would be a hypocrite, a betrayer to my own philosophy, if I were to deride Apples to Apples and his kin. People played this game, they had a good time. Any game good. And I have to appreciate where CaH is coming from. It takes the unspoken rule that A2A should be silly, and simply makes it all silly. If everything is ridiculous, then nothing is, and every answer is valid, and everything is simply insane and joyous. But it’s still the kind of game that seeks to stuff my European friends in a locker.

You kids can play what you want. You’re smart, you know what you like. But all I ask is that you keep an open mind. Really think about what your games are teaching you, and if they’re really worth your time. I don’t want you missing out on some worthwhile friendships, or falling in with the wrong crowd, because you were too scared to stand up for what you believe in.

Its not a game! (But its still fun)

When talking about board games, one that gets brought up often and often riles me up is Apples To Apples.  A huge commercial success and a requirement for every floor of every dorm of every college campus, it’s not surprising that it comes up as often as it does when what I want to talk about is which specific Dominion cards I enjoy (Menagerie and Horn of Plenty).  One of the things I find myself saying is “It’s not a game!”, which is technically untrue.

It is extremely difficult to define what a board game is, but an essential component in my mind is competition (The most important component in my mind is that it is fun, but fun is a lot more nebulous. Also finding the balance of fun and serious competition is tough).  And while winning isn’t everything (there are games I have not enjoyed despite being ultimately crowned victor), it is important. Behind that large and potentially obvious statement is something a little more nuanced: not only does there have to be competition, but players need to feel like they have some stake in and influence over the outcome.

Here is where Apples To Apples (and the recently released Cards Against Humanity, or Apples to Apples rated R) falls apart for me.  Technically, it is a game: it has a set of rules,* you sit around and play it and there is a winner. And unless you’re playing with a bunch of assholes, it is generally pretty fun. But the winner doesn’t matter.  I say that not (only) as a competitive person that cares about who wins enough to have it be a column in the Standings, but also because I’ve seen “games” of Apples to Apples continue long after a winner was declared by the rules.

“That’s great!” you might say “It means everyone is having so much fun they wanted to keep going!”  And I agree, it IS great, but it also means that it isn’t really a game, it’s an activity.  AND THAT’S OKAY!  Gamers are defensive about their subculture and can be pretentious about it, so don’t take the label of activity as a bad one; some of the best things in life are activities** that in no way should have competitive parts to them.

But for it to be a “game”, you need to have competition, and for it to be a good game, you want to have both stake in and influence over the outcome.  So we hit the “stake in” part, lets move on to the “influence over.”

“I’m great at Apples to Apples, its all about knowing what sense of humor the other players have.”

Well, yes and no. If everyone is playing to have fun and be silly, then yes, the tools you use to win would be figuring out what other people might find funny. Except that not everyone plays that way (theres always one person who takes everything literally), and not everyone plays the same way throughout the game.  In fact, the biggest chance to effect the outcome is when you are the judge, and then you could turn the game into “which of these cards belongs to the person who is losing?”  But then you’d be playing like an asshole.

But in truth, I come here not to bury Apples to Apples, but to celebrate it for what it is: A really fun party time activity.  In fact, let’s go ahead and talk about fun party time activities, because they’re great!

The Drawing Game

This has been monetized recently as Telestrations, but I remember playing this game in highschool with pieces of paper and loving it.  The idea is simple: Everyone sits in a circle and writes a sentence.  They pass that to the person on their left, who draws a picture to convey that sentence.  They fold the paper so the next person can only see the drawing. The next person has to write a sentence to describe the drawing.  This goes until the person who wrote the original sentence ends up with their paper back.  What you get is a game of Telephone only with drawing and with 8 things going around simultaneously.  It’s hilarious, it’s easy, it’s relatively low investment with a whole lot of payoff at the end.

Brandon’s take on “Deformed Mexican Squirrel”

1000 Blank White Cards

I can’t remember how I found out about it, but 1000BWC has been a favorite small group activity for years.  This link will tell you all the rules and the suggested set up better than I could describe it, but for those who don’t feel like clicking: You have to make your own card game while you play.  Every card must have three things: A title, a picture, and what the card does.  New cards are made before each game and during each game and at the end of the game everyone gets together and decides which cards were the most fun and will get used in the next game.

Improv Games

Alright, so these take a little more bravery, but who doesn’t want to play a round of Busted Tee?*** or Bad Raps?  OK, so it may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for funny non sequitors, you could do worse.

In sum,

If you’re looking for a silly game with a winner, go with something like Balderdash.  If you want a fun activity, feel free to suggest Apples to Apples, but don’t pretend it’s deeper than it is.  It’s fun, and that is enough.

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*I’m not going to go into too much depth on this, because I don’t want to write three or four more paragraphs on it, but another major gripe I have with A2A is that whenever I see it played in a group of 5 or more, there’s a disagreement on whether or not you’re allowed to lobby the judge, and how much, and what exactly you’re allowed to say.  Games with that much disagreement on the rules are bad games.

**Singing, grilling food, drinking beer, comedy, sex, watching TV, catching up with old friends, exploring a new place, building sandcastles, spending time with small children

***For the non improvisors in the audience, Busted Tee works like this: you stand in a circle and everyone chants “Whats on your Tee? Whats on your busted Tee?” One person describes an image “Okay, so its a clock, but instead of hands its got sharks” and the next person says the words that go underneath it “Every week is shark week” or “Ridgemont Highschool class of 1977” or something that either makes sense or doesn’t. Then the chants starts up and the person who was putting the tagline on the image says the next image.