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.

Advertisements

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.

The Collectable Card Game: they all end the same way

A few weeks back, Brandon told me about a new game he was excited about. This is not an uncommon experience, Brandon’s exuberance for new things is one of his finer (if occasionally good naturedly mocked) qualities. He has diligently tried to get me to enjoy Disc Golf, Monday Night Combat, Dominion and plenty of other things with varying degrees of success (I prefer Ultimate, I prefer MW3, Dominion is one of my all time favorites).

This time the new game was an online card game called SolForge.

Brandon:  Oh yeah, I think this game’s gonna be sweet.  It’s designed by Gary Games, the guys who do Ascension, and Richard Garfield, the originator of Magic: The Gathering. It’s a CCG, free-to-play, and as you play cards, leveled-up versions enter your deck.  It’s a cool idea that couldn’t really be implemented physically, and I’m hoping it marks the start of a new wave of digital board games using cool new ideas that only work in the digital space.

Josh: It does look cool! And while I don’t love Ascension as much as Brandon, I would certainly try another game by the creator. But in the description of the game there was one little thing that made me pretty discouraged: “It’s a CCG”

Magic Powercards

This isn’t Magic for most people…

Brandon:  I want to get indignant for this.  But at the same time I think I know exactly what you mean. 

Josh: I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering in my teen years. I have vague memories of the first time I was in Davis Sq (where I now live) visiting the two cardshops that sold Magic cards and had places to play. At my parent’s house I still have stacks and stacks of cards, and almost collected every card in the Weatherlight set. But there came a point when I realized that as time moves forward, so must your collection, lest you be left behind with inferior cards. Cards that were once powerful were made better in the newer expansions and unless you bought more and more and more cards, you’d never be able to compete. Quitting Magic coincided with my first plays of Dungeons and Dragons and Settlers of Catan. After spending hundreds of dollars on Magic cards, the thoughts of a one time purchase for similar levels of entertainment were delightful. While the core mechanics of M:tG were a lot of fun, I found far far more enjoyment out of building decks out of “proxy” cards; index cards on which was written the stats for the card it replaced. The “power creep” is what renders every CCG unenjoyable for those who do not want to devote more and more money for a game that rapidly finds itself jumping the shark. Combine this with the random nature of buying packs of cards and you get an addiction that while healthier than gambling or cocaine, follows the same pattern.

Brandon: It’s kind of funny we’re talking about this right now.  I went to a game gathering around the street from my place this weekend.  the place was the clubhouse for the New England Sci-Fi Association (NESFA).  Among the many and varied events I experienced, one was the back store-room.  Amongst the duplicate (and sometimes triplicate) copies of every Dominion expansion published, there was a stack of plain white boxes with old Magic cards.  I was told no less than 5 times over the course of the day that I could take them, as well as a couple comments that they would be thrown out, or shunted to a free pile for an upcoming convention.  These things really do pile up.
 
I should say I actually like M:tG, except for the abrasive community and the deck-building and the cost and the tendency to random bad draws ruining a hand.  Which should imply that I hate M:tG. But I honestly think SolForge will fix these four things specifically.
Josh: See, I loved the deck building, and didn’t even mind the random bad draws part too much, but the cost is what did me in. Both in terms of time and money. I’m not sure how SolForge can fix these problems and still be “collectible” because you can make lots more money if there are more things to collect and this is the trap that every CCG falls into. I’m not saying that the want for expansions to a game you like isn’t a legitimate one or that companies shouldn’t try to get more money out of something worth playing, mind you. If Nintendo had come out with Super Mario 64 II with no new powers, just new levels? I would’ve bought it in a heartbeat. Dominion continues to come out with expansion after expansion, and while power creep is a bit of an issue, everyone’s playing from the same pool of cards and you can simply not buy the newer ones and get away with it just fine. And yes, for some CCGs, even M:tG, you’re not required to buy new cards to continue enjoying the old ones.  But it’s “Collectible,” it’s right there in the title.  More cards come out, new options, and you really do have to buy them to get that full experience, or avoid the game getting stale after multiple plays.  I’m not sure how SolForge can promise to not fall into the usual CCG moneygrab if it offers you random cards via “booster packs.” The gameplay behind the shell does indeed look cool. The concept of level upped cards in a deck is fun, but I can’t see myself spending any money on a game that requires me to keep spending or risk losing out on what makes the game great.
6000 commons and uncommons

…this is what Magic looks like

Brandon:  I see what you mean.  And that’s a big part of what makes Dominion and the dozens of games now like it so successful; everyone gets to play from the same pool of cards.  Still, you do spend money on Dominion in order to enjoy it.  And I know what you’re thinking, Dominion plays fair and balanced without the expansions, it just offers more choice.  But tell me, doesn’t playing with the base set devolve into purchasing the 3 good cards each draw, ignoring the other crummy ones?  Your favorite cards are from expansions, not because they’re more powerful, but because they offer more choice, more flexibility.
Conversely, you can “get away with” not constantly upgrading your personal CCG deck some games.  Old Magic decks still contain the same fun of the game.  I’m admittedly not arguing for tournament play, and not just because my argument doesn’t hold up there.  But with friends, Magic is still fun with old decks, or janky promotional 40-card packs they give away at conventions and game store events.
 
So, in the midst of all this CCG talk, there’s really one thing I want to know:  can I convince you to try this game out with me?  We can try it, evaluate, decide if it merits more investment.  Just like any CCG, or indeed, any game that allows us to play for free.
Josh: I still do, and still would play with the base set Dominion, but I see your point about old MtG with friends. It holds some appeal, certainly. As for SolForge, I’ll certainly try it. Any Game Good. Just don’t expect me to put any money into it.

The Digital Divide

A few months back, I approached Brandon about this idea I had for writing a blog on boardgames together. “It’ll be fun,” I told him, “we both love boardgames, we both have strong opinions on them, and it’ll give us an excuse to hang out on a regular basis.” I had other ideas I thought would be cool that I relayed; having friends write guest posts (which is still an option, if you’re reading and want to run an idea by us), showing games turn by turn with recaps as to what we were thinking (if done well, I think this would be awesome with Diplomacy), maybe even starting up a game of Nomic (ok, maybe this is still a bad idea). But really the biggest impetus behind starting this blog was to spend more time with a good friend. See, Brandon and I had done theater together for the past couple of years, but our sketch show got canceled back in April, and the play we were working on together over the summer had a firm end date of July 13th. Sure, we could call each other up and make a plan to hang out, but it wouldn’t be consistent. And what better way to spend time with a person I enjoy spending time with than board games?

More recently, Brandon convinced me to signup for Yucata, a website where you can play board games for free (80 different ones, at last count) in a sort of play-by-mail system. Specifically he’s talked about a couple of games he finds especially interesting, A Few Acres of Snow and At the Gates of Loyang and so I signed up. I’m not new to the digitization of board games. I spend a decent amount of time over at Isotropic playing Dominion, and when I have time at a lunch break at work I’ve been known to bang out a game of Stone Age at BoardGameArena.com. Isotropic and BGA are both fast ways to play games that I love for experiences that are… lonely, actually.

This isn’t a new feeling. One of technological isolation wherein even though we are so well connected we feel alone. But the difference in feel is particularly striking when it comes to board games. The best interaction you’ll get from people in isotropic is a little self deprecation, maybe a comment on “i think you’ve got me”, or “one more?” More often though you get a “gl and hf” at the beginning and a “gg” at the end. There’s no commentary on an interesting play, there’s no pleading for “he’s gonna win if…” or the post mortem “I totally could have won if only…”. Just the bare minimum. Good Luck and Have Fun. Good Game. Or sometimes just “faster plz.”

gl and hf

Standard social interaction in online gaming

As a social person, this kills me, and usually prevents me from staying focused on the game at hand. I’m often multitasking, as the game rarely moves quickly enough to command my undivided attention. In person, this problem is solved by conversation, often about the game, but just as often just being jokey. My friend Jess and I make up little songs (greatest hits include “Every Game has the Longest Road” for Settlers, and “Slots” for Vegas Showdown) much to Brandon’s chagrin. Brandon (and I) will peer into the theme of the game for side entertainment. I even like the whining and moaning (to a degree) when someone’s game isn’t going well, because you have to be somewhat invested to whine, and the person losing is a lot more likely to talk about strategy, balance, and fun in a game than the person who’s trying to pretend they aren’t winning. (What Brandon termed “tactical bitching,” is a different thing, but even that I don’t mind quite as much as most people do.)

In fact, the thing that I am most surprised in how different a game feels when playing online versus when played in person, is my level of expertise. In a game like Dominion, where the game moves much more quickly online than in person (the thing that takes the longest in person is shuffling and reshuffling your deck. Computers do that instantly and that is very nice) and as such some games can be completed in 5 to 10 minutes, I do feel like I’ve gained a certain expertise that would have taken much much longer. The availability of players, at all hours of the day means I’m a much stronger Dominion player (at least, in two player games). Conversely, in games that take longer, the boredom and multitasking kick in and I find myself unengaged, which often results in solid, but not innovative play. I have a certain familiarity with Stone Age, but since I’ve only played it once in person, I don’t think I’m particularly that good at it. A player who is newer to the game probably will have more insights than I will, because I’m used to not paying attention. This problem is even worse on Yucata, where games can take days and you can have multiple games going at once. Keeping long term strategies separate is very difficult if you’re playing multiple games. And evaluating a strategy that you used is then impossible.

Playing online can leave you without the social aspect and without the strategic aspect of gaming, but I’m still playing. Brandon and I haven’t started up a game of A Few Acres Of Snow yet, but its pretty cool that we can try it out for free and when we aren’t in the same room to see if we like it. When a friend of mine moved to France he left me some games, and I had seen Stone Age before but had never sat down and played it, so online was a nice way to be introduced to a game that other people in my circle had played some before. I know which Dominion expansions I really like (Seaside, Prosperity, Cornucopia) and the ones I’m not a huge fan of (Alchemy, Hinterlands) even though I don’t own a few of them. And there are certainly worse ways to kill a lunch break.

Menagerie, Fairgrounds and Horn of Plenty

I play a lot of Dominion. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s one of the best games of the last 5 years in that it both introduced a new mechanic to games (deck building) and is loved by, well, everyone that I’ve ever heard of playing it. My ex-girlfriend and I had Dominion as one of our favorite activities. So in sum, if you haven’t played it but are reading this: ask me to play a game, I’ll say yes, and you’ll like it. Why? Its short, it plays really well (and slightly differently, which I take as a good thing) with 2 or 3 or 4 players, its relatively quick to pick up, and with 7 expansions, each game is different than the last.

Except, well, when you end up playing a lot of games of Dominion (and with the help of the free online site http://dominion.isotropic.org/play, I have played hundreds of games), some games don’t feel that different. Some cards are bought every time they’re in the game (Chapel, Laboratory, Pirate Ship) and some cards are almost never bought (Adventurer, Chancellor, Secret Chamber all come to mind). Far more often then I’d like there are 5 or more piles that are never touched because the optimal strategy was clear and it didn’t involve half of the cards that were options.

Every new expansion in Dominion has brought about new mechanics (Seaside brought planning for next turn, Prosperity brought in the big money, Hinterlands brought cards that do something as you buy them), but Cornucopia did something different. Rather than introducing a new mechanic, it introduced a new strategy: variation.

The Cornucopia expansion doesn’t entirely fix the problem of not utilizing a larger number of piles, but it does provide three cards that encourage dabbling into piles you might otherwise ignore: Menagerie, Fairgrounds and Horn of Plenty.

Menagerie

Menagerie doesn’t reward variation as much as the other two, (in fact, the best use for it seems to be as a counter to Militia), but when you have a good Menagerie deck going, its a lot of fun. Any sort of +action card (Festival, Fishing Village) along with a card that makes you discard (Horse Traders, Vault and yes, even our old friend Secret Chamber) or trash (Develop) cards keeps the menagerie train going, often to excellent results. Two of my favorites to combo it with are Inn and Hamlet, because they give you both +actions AND discarding. Of course, playing with a Menagerie and a Horn of Plenty leads to even better results.

Horn of Plenty

Horn of Plenty is probably my favorite card at the moment because it doesn’t do anything crazy (look at the preview cards for Dominion Dark Ages if you want crazy), but can make you do things a little crazy. Suddenly you decide that maybe you don’t want another silver, but will give that Chancellor a go. I’ll admit: I have fallen victim to the siren’s song and tailored my deck towards having Horn of Plenty buying me 5 and 6 cost cards before. But even more often, I’ve used it to produce a 6 Province beat-down. It’s a five cost card that I often keep track of in the later stages of the game, as it has the ability to do things that other 5 cost cards don’t.

Unlike many 5 cost cards, it needs some help; you can’t just stock up on Horn of Plenty and hope that works out the way you can with Laboratory or Treasury. This fact shouldn’t be understated. The fact that Horn of Plenty is powerful but also can significantly slow down your deck if you try to stock up on them is a feature that I really enjoy. It requires not only seeing a good combo, but recognizing that having too much of one part of that combo can kill it. In this way, Horn of Plenty functions less like a treasure card and more like a terminal action (Festival and Library go well together, but you want more festivals than libraries). The nuance required for Horn of Plenty to work well is just as true for Fairgrounds.

Fairgrounds

Fairgrounds is again a game changer, but in a different way than Menagerie or Horn of Plenty, in that it provides a different path to Victory from the usual “race to 5 Provinces,” especially in a two player game. And part of what makes it so viable is that it can slow the game down, if you’re going Fairgrounds strategy while your opponent is going for Provinces, they suddenly need to get to 6 or 7 Provinces rather than just 5. Those extra couple of victory cards can bring some engines to a screeching halt. All you need to do is end the game with 15 different cards in your deck. This isn’t the easiest thing, seeing as there are only 17 cards in a standard game. But things can get easier with Young Witch (1 extra pile and the likelihood that you end up with a curse) or a number of Alchemy cards (Potion adds a pile and often slows the game down).

Fairgrounds isn’t an autowin by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a card with a strategy that must be respected, as getting 6 Victory Points for a cost of 6 is very strong. Playing a Fairgrounds deck will often lead to smaller unexpected combinations of cards that while they wouldn’t win a game by themselves (Hamlet and Watchtower) can make a significant impact.

These three cards aren’t the entirety of the Cornucopia expansion, but they are the reason why the Cornucopia expansion ranks highest in my mind. Any time I can go back and play with cards in prior sets that I’ve played with over and over and feel like I’m doing something new, the more I get out of the game.

Era

My old boss and I used to play Dominion and Ascension after work. I always found my boss to be a little uptight, and with his work ethic I never thought I’d convince him to play board games at the office. At first we played at the end of the day when all the work was done. Then it was towards the end, when work was almost done and we could multi-task. Then it was at the end of an early day, where non-essential tasks could be put off until tomorrow. To an outside observer it may seem that we were goofing off, but I always thought that the team-building and personal connections we made while gaming were integral to our success as a two-man team.

Teaching a new board game is one of my favorite activities.  At some point I should clean up and post my old essay on the subject. It is a stark microcosm of the bond between teacher and student. When I taught my boss Dominion it felt amazing, empowering, as it was one lesson I could give him, as opposed to the multitude of lessons he had for me on the job.

When he took a position in Texas I was happy for him, and simultaneously nervous about how I would fill the role of two people, when he was already doing two person’s worth of work. The work took care of itself, however, and it wasn’t until later I realized what I was truly lacking was someone I could relate to through gaming. Every time I looked at the games, tucked away in our corner of the lab like a dirty little secret, I felt a twinge of regret, and eventually I removed them from the lab entirely, certain I would never find anyone interested in them at a place I spent a third of my life, give or take.

The lab recently brought on a team of interns. I didn’t get one, which sucks, but that’s beside the point. After a couple weeks I thought it might be fun to see if they were interested in board games after work one Friday. Two of them were very excited, and once all our work was done I jumped in to teaching Dominion.

So you’re saying running this $50,000 machine is like playing a game? Damn, Dominion’s only $40, I’ll go with that!

I forgot how much I missed making gaming part of my professional environment. Becoming reacquainted with the starting card set and watching people slowly figure out the basic strategies is always fun for me. And it made me realize that teaching a game, especially one as systematic and detail-oriented as Dominion, is akin to teaching junior scientists about the work I do. It validated the work I’ve done and the knowledge I have gained in my years of employment here. And introducing one of the finest board games of the current generation of gaming to new people again felt amazing, like inaugurating a new era of board game appreciation to my co-workers. The outcome of the game isn’t important; I won, but whatever :). It just feels good to bring fun back into the office.

I look forward to our next game.

The time I told my girlfriend she could concede. Then she beat me.

As someone who plays games in a variety of settings, something that comes up often is the relationship between winning the game and having fun. While in a perfect world, everyone would have fun all the time when gaming, whether they won or not, sadly, reality sneaks in and finds you in a game you know you’ve lost but isn’t even halfway over yet.  I’ve been in a game of Dominion where my opponent had taken a path to drawing his entire deck each turn and in doing so, would make sure to attack me with multiple cards. Or the game of Race for the Galaxy where my opponent had multiple six cost developments working in tandem while I was still struggling to get my consume x2 VPs engine going. In either case, I see no issue with stopping a two player game when its clear who the victor is going to be.

Well, I’ve been on both sides of these games plenty of times and so in a game of Dominion recently where I was trouncing my girlfriend, G, I told her that she could concede if she wanted to. Here’s that story:

Game: Dominion

Cards: Transmute, Vineyard, Apothecary, Scrying Pool, Courtyard, MenagerieSteward, Coppersmith, Smithy, Fairgrounds

Pregame thoughts:

So there are three important things to notice about this set in my estimation:

  1. There are no split buys
  2. There are no split actions
  3. There are no five cost cards

These three things make me assume that it’ll be a generally boring game, especially since the steward allows you to clear out your estates and coppers fairly early on. Then it just becomes a race to golds and from there a race to five provinces right? The alchemy cards are relatively weak without any extra buys, which makes the cards I’d focus on be the Steward, Silver, Smithy, and Gold (in that order).

The Game Itself:

We both buy Stewards on our first turn, while I buy a Silver, she buys a Smithy. We both begin cleaning out our decks and while I buy almost nothing but currency, she buys, well, everything. A Potion here, a Menagerie or two there and suddenly I’m buying my first Provence while she has no Golds. I’ve had a couple of nice draws (turns where I had exactly 6 while she kept getting stuck at 5) and I’m buying my second Provence when she decides to grab a Transmute even though she Stewarded away two Estates already. In short: things look grim and she’s already mentioned more than once that she screwed this one up.

I don’t disagree. Instead as I buy my third Province I sheepishly tell her that she can concede if she wants to. She won’t hear it. We’re both a bit stubborn, but this is the sort of situation I worry about when trying to bring someone into gaming. If they weren’t a big boardgame person before and they have enough bad experiences, then they don’t want to play anymore. So even though G is mildly obsessed with Dominion, I worry about the 6-2 beatdown I feel is coming.

But it never comes. She hits the Transmute/Estate and then a Transmute/Vineyard. I start getting 5 instead of 6 and foolishly buy a Coppersmith rather than a Smithy (honestly, an incredibly dumb move that I have no real reasoning on what I was thinking. I think I had two hands of Gold, Silver, Copper, Copper, Provence in a row and rather than just grabbing the Gold I thought maybe I’d grab a Fairgrounds later). She buys her first Provence and her second Provence in consecutive turns. She buys her third on her next reshuffle. My Golds that had been paired together earlier in the game now made sure never to be in the same hand, and with my 1 Smithy and one courtyard I found myself getting a Duchy “just in case.” She’s meanwhile grabbed an Apothecary that hits three Coppers and Transmutes a Transmute into a Duchy. She buys a Fairgrounds for good measure but by the time I get my fourth Provence its too late, she has me by a Duchy and a Fairgrounds and I’m left trying to go back a few moves to see how on earth that just happened. Final score: G 31 – Josh 28

The Post Mortem:

I don’t have the suckerpunch feeling that might happen if this was in a tournament, but afterwards the general feeling I have is just confusion. How did that happen? G, meanwhile, is doing a little wiggle of a happy dance in triumph. Overconfidence can bite you, and that’s the only explanation I have. Rather than buying that third Provence, when things were looking so good, I should’ve bought another Gold. Rather than taking the Steward’s +$2 later on, I should’ve trashed the Estate and Copper in my hand to grab another Silver. Rather than seeing the mess of cards in G’s deck, I should’ve realized that those Menageries she bought early would be hitting a lot more often now that she had diversified.

Really though, its as simple as this, just because things look bad doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way, especially in a game like Dominion. And if you don’t mind a good beatdown every once in a while, you’ll steal a few victories that will leave your opponents scratching their heads.