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.”

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Looking For Group

A Team of Like-Minded Individuals

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

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

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

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

Time and Space

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

Mark: Want to get a game thing going tonight?

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

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

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

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

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

That Kind of Party

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

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

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

Me: …I know.

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

Looking For Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party Size

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

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

# of people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan Ahead

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

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

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

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

About Last Night: Unity Games XIX

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

Josh:  They seem to go with “event.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This ain’t your daddy’s Mouse Trap

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

Senator Stevens would be proud

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

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

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

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

The closing hours

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

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

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

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

About Last Night

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

  • Describing Dixit 

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

  • The Cult Of The New 

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

  • It’s The People, Stupid 

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

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

  • The Host With The Most 

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

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

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

Legacies: Prelude

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

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

Two years ago…

Michael Bay would love to direct the movie adaptation.

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

52 Years Ago…

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

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

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

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

Back to 2 Years Ago

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

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

I got this e-mail

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

3 days later…

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

Present Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immersion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Wary of Houses on Hills*

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

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

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

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

Here’s mine:

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

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

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

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

*DING*

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

“Gyaaaahh!”

The Madman would not let this house claim another soul.

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

Pickles On Parade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe

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

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

Take care, and good gaming.

*Especially if those hills have eyes.

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

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

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

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.

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.

Too Many Ingredients Spoil the Soup

I hear about looking at the past through rose-colored glasses with movies a lot, but it happens with board games too. It’s a part of why I still love Monopoly. Solarquest, a similar game but in space (not space-themed Monopoly, the rules and board were different), held a lot of my childhood attention, but quickly faded in college when I realized how broken the system is. Some games hold up; I still like Settlers of Catan, and Risk is alright for what it is. But one game that has not held up so well, as evidenced by a recent play-through with a couple friends, is my previously loved expansion to Settlers; Cities and Knights of Catan.

This old tarnished box contains the set of Settlers, Cities & Knights, the 5-6 player expansions, strategy notes, and 13 years of memories.

Overview

Nearly everyone is familiar with SoC. Not a lot of people have played with expansions. C&K is a nice idea on paper, expanding previously nebulous concepts into larger game mechanics. Specifically, development cards and “largest army” are replaced with progress cards and knights. Cities now produce commodities for certain resources, and those commodities buy city upgrades. These upgrades provide players with a chance to earn progress cards in one of three categories; commercial, scientific, and military. This is where the previous development card powers go; monopoly, road building, year of plenty, etc., are now expanded into a number of different powers, some good, some great, some not so good. They’re earned by using a third die, the “event die,” which shows what type would be produced, and a red d6, which represents what level of that upgrade you need to earn a card.

Knights are no longer one-shot cards. You build knights, feed them, and place them on the roads you build. They can block cities, sever longest road chains, displace other knights and oust the robber baron. They also serve to protect the island of Catan; that event die has 3 spots that show a barbarian ship. After 9 total rolls of that, the barbarians show up, with strength equal to the number of total cities on the board (everyone starts with 1). All active knights become inactive, and you compare cities vs. knights. If the knights equal or beat the barbarians, the one who contributed most gets a victory point. If there’s a tie for contribution, those players get a progress card. If the knights aren’t enough, the one who contributed least loses a city, replacing it with a settlement. For ties, everyone who contributed least loses a city.

There’s a lot more “player interaction” in the game. By that I mean there are more ways to screw your opponents over. Knights can bounce the robber baron around, and a number of cards take resources, cards, or even knights from other players. The delicate balance of social interaction is negligible here, because everyone generally has what they need, and trading isn’t nearly as useful. The barbarian ship is a rough addition as well. If you’re in a position to get knights, chances are you have a lot. It’s not uncommon then to be in a position where you could activate all your knights and get the static victory point, or just contribute some and let the barbarians destroy somebody else’s city. If you’re lucky you can get multiple cities down, and everyone losing a point and a city is way better than gaining a point that doesn’t do anything.

Recap

We talked a bit about “tactical bitching” in a previous post. I’ll admit I was in a good position early on, but not so good as I thought I should be targeted. In retrospect, most of my bitching was of a calculated variety. I ran away with the game, which is what usually happens in a C&K game. There are ways to screw your opponents, but it’s generally a “rich get richer” setup to the game. Once I got one of the super-powerful commodity upgrades (produce a resource of your choice when a roll gives you nothing) I probably should have been hit with every card, baron, and trade designed to block my progress. And it would have been miserable. As it is, I got hit with every spy and many theft cards. And it wasn’t enough to stop me, not even close. And I still felt pretty put upon.

I remember the game as a super-fun addition to a game I already love. More toys, more powers, and more interactivity make for a better game, right? When it was over, I enjoyed myself, and I won, but I also felt bad, almost guilty for winning. Josh and I discussed it afterward. One thing he said stuck out:

“Nobody likes it when their stuff is torn down. In Catan you build roads, you work towards a goal, you have that feeling of progression. In C&K your stuff can get torn down, and nobody likes that.”

I think that’s a big part of it. There are a couple other little things I could point to. The Progress cards are imbalanced; some are crazy powerful, some are flat-out useless except for specific situations. The game has many avenues for points, so the game goes to 13, but it’s much more obvious who’s going to win earlier than that. In the end, the overall issue with me is that, where SoC is more often than not a slow-burning, close race throughout the game, C&K is a vicious scramble in a sand pit, with a king of the pile sussed out early, and a number of people getting bulldozed over the course of the game.

Final thoughts

I think it’s a shame that the C&K expansion isn’t out for the Xbox Live version of the game (it exists on other online sites that use the rules but eschew the licensing issues). But there’s a reason it doesn’t exist in a larger arena, and why there aren’t tournaments for it. The expansion is fairly imbalanced, not quite broken, but in the end it isn’t worth it to lash a bunch of pieces to a simple game.

I still think the expansion is neat, but yeah, it’s a lot of components that clog up an otherwise elegant game. The new stuff isn’t balanced, in game power or game pace. The game takes longer, and those extra minutes aren’t filled with a lot of joy. I think it’s going to be a while before this gets pulled out of the box again.

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.