Talking It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Invested

Friends in the Business

Since moving to Boston I have been very fortunate to meet a number of friends. Most of them were big board game aficionados. And a few were avid game designers.

Two friends were named Rob. One was named “Fake Rob,” not because he was less corporeal than the other, but because he was one of the lead minds behind Cambridge Games Factory ,* a local company that helps board game designers develop and polish their games and sell them under the CGF label. He always brings play-test and beta versions to game gatherings, so he got the moniker “Fake Rob” for always playing “fake” games.

Here’s a logo.

There’s something special about play-testing a board game. Being a part of a developing product, contributing to what makes it work, what makes it fun, is at times a very fulfilling venture. I love playing games, but I also love the opportunity to teach them to new people, and I love being able to give a developer feedback on what I think works and doesn’t. I’ve never designed an original game, but I’ve tinkered with old ones, added rules I think make the game more interesting, or make them flow better. When they work you feel pretty good, and when they don’t you generally shrug them off and move on. But sometimes you don’t, you can’t.

When you design a game, commercially or for fun, or you help develop it in the beginning, or even if you paid a great deal for it, something happens. You become invested. You want the game to succeed, you fight to make it fun, you’re upset when it isn’t, and you’re elated when it works. Its success is your success, and its failings become yours. Such is the case for me, and the soon-to-be published card game Grimoire Shuffle from Level 99 Games.

Here’s another logo

I gave to the Kickstarter that’s funding this and several other games. I won’t write about Kickstarter itself, but I will say I gave to this company partly because it’s a worthwhile project I want to see succeed, and partly because I’m getting some cool games at discount prices. And as a backer I was given links to download a print-and-play version of Grimoire Shuffle. While I didn’t design the game, and my $50 was by no means the tipping point in a very successful KS project, I still felt kind of bad-ass printing the game, cutting the cards into the right size, placing them into sleeves, and assembling the components for a game that most people won’t get to see for several months.

The First Playthrough

My first chance to play the game was a Monday game night. Six people played; Me, Josh, Jess, Dan, Sukrit, and Katie. The game is a team relay race through an ever-shifting library. Players use magical books to move through the library in different ways. Some books allow you to blow players back, some shift rooms, others allow you to pass through walls, etc. The catch is you never get to choose your own book; the team leader, which rotates regularly, chooses his teammates’ books, and the opposing leader’s book. It’s on him to set the stage for the best strategic movement of his team. He will fail often.

And put them back when you’re done!

A first play through of any game can be difficult, and one where the rulebook isn’t totally finished can add issues. Some things we forgot; I made the board too small. Other things were misprinted; the special rooms were named differently than the cards that caused them to be played. Some rules were just frustrating; you could give the opposing leader a book, but the best books you always kept, and one team had the only books that allowed movement through walls, which was a huge factor.

If THIS guy hasn’t made it out yet how are WE supposed to?!

In the end, we called it after one point scored, which took about an hour. There was an air of frustration, and a bit of disappointment. But I wasn’t willing to give up on a game I felt invested in.

Feedback

Brad David Talton Jr. is a fairly accessible guy. His e-mail is out there, he recently did an “IAmA game designer for Reddit” post, and he’s currently asking backers for their feedback. So I wrote him. I mentioned a couple rulebook grammatical issues and oddities, and how the game itself was frustrating at times. And he responded. He suggested a rule that a book is discarded and replaced form a team each round.

It was a simple exchange, but it felt cool to play a game and give the creator direct feedback, and then have him reply and update the game based on it (the new rulebook has that rule, so the other play-testers must have been having similar issues).

The Second Playthrough

This time it was 4 people; me, Katie, Fraley and Melissa. The game played a lot more smoothly, and the act of discarding a book each turn added a very exciting element. Leaders now have this additional factor to consider. At least one book has to go to the opposing team, and if you want to save a certain book, you have to give it to a teammate, because there’s no hoarding now. You could give it to the opposing team and hope it makes its way back to you, but that’s very unlikely. It makes the decision a more interesting one, and when a game gives you that moment where you hem and haw and agonize over what decision is best, it’s doing a wonderful thing.

We played to 4 books. Both teams played well. This second game gave me a much better picture of how the game as a whole is supposed to feel. There are some good strategic moments in the game, but the majority of the game is set in madcap, back-and-forth tug-of-war antics on the board. Once everyone realized that we weren’t playing a game where you think ahead 3 to 5 moves it progressed much more quickly.

Melissa and I won, 4 to 2. Afterward I sent Talton an e-mail about the game, our thoughts, and my thanks for the opportunity to help with the game. He hasn’t replied, but I’m sure he appreciates the feedback.  He wrote back a week later, giving his thanks and actually changing a game component I suggested was too powerful.  Sweet.

I’ll save you some time; it isn’t really like this

Gaming is more fun when you’re invested.  I’m using that word very deliberately, and with many meanings.  One meaning is a person’s emotional investment in the game as an activity.  Games work best when you care deeply about the outcome, otherwise why play?  the immersion in the activity is what makes it great.  Johan Huizinga calls it the “magic circle.”  While the game happens, it’s the most important thing in the world, and when it finishes, you can walk away.  Investment also refers to one’s personal connection to the game itself, the product that makes the game possible.  Printing the sheets, cutting and shaving the cards to fit into sleeves, printing a nice rule-book, and prepping the game for play gives you a small sense of pride.  And while it’s not an “investment” per se, putting money into a project to help it succeed gives you the teeniest tiniest sense of ownership in the final product, and it’s good to see something you like enough to donate money to is coming along nicely.

Grimoire Shuffle is an amusing game. It isn’t perhaps as amazing as I was envisioning it, but it fits the bill of a game that fits in your pocket, is (fairly) easy to explain, and has a decent depth of strategy. I’m guessing that repeated plays with different people will result in varied games based on how people prefer to play. If everyone tacitly agrees that they’re playing a thought-provoking, in-depth strategy, we will play that. If everyone is set to play a fast-paced race through the swiftly shifting shelves we will play that. Either way, I’m looking forward to the final product, and the games we’ll have.

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* The first board game I played when I came to Boston was a nearly finished version of Glory To Rome, published by CGF. It’s a very cool game, and I highly recommend it. The designer, Carl Chudyk, also made Innovation, which won BGG’s Best Card Game for 2010, and will certainly come up on the site at some point.