Vegas Showdown and the “Suboptimal” play

The Setup

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

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

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

“Oh my god that was so stupid.”

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

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

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

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

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

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

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

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

“Nobody likes to make plays that are Sub Optimal”

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

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

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

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.

Risk: This Is How The World Ends

Ted’s Campaign

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

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

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

Game 11

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

Game 12!

Sometimes hope is just a word.

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

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

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

Game 13

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

It’s Risk. Says so right on the box.

Greg’s Campaign, Game 8

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 2 Win

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

Ted’s Campaign (Called)

Brandon: 7 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 2 Win

Packets Open: Everything

Talking It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacies: Tyrant

When I started board gaming I was fanatic about the victory. From first-time plays to games I consider myself a veteran of, my every move contained in it the singular purpose of securing victory. As the years progressed I loosened up on the “play to win” mindset and embraced the heart of gaming, to have fun. I still think playing to win is important, but I try to not let it get in the way of fun. This has probably influenced my shift in taste from euro-style cubes and economies games to more thematic and colorful gaming options (the new age of games that provide both has also helped).

But you know how when you grow and change as a person, but things from the past put you in something of a regressive state? Like how high-school reunions, or meeting with old friends or family members you haven’t seen in a while, sort of makes you more of the person you were then. Risk Legacy, as we became starkly aware of in our most recent game, maintains the essence of classic Risk at its core. And in playing it, I may have become the gamer of old; the young boy hungry for victory, but equipped with the skills and tools of a gaming veteran. And I may have ruined the game for everyone.

Dear God, what have I become?

Ted game 7: On a mountain of skulls, in the castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood.

If you read the last Legacies post, you know our situation in Australia. If you didn’t, don’t worry, I’ll recap and you can avoid the spoilers. Basically, Australia has always been a sticking point in Risk: a continent with only one way in or out, it’s easy to defend and quite useful. In our game, a combination of game-changing scars have made Australia a juggernaut, but only for the one guy who can access it in the starting placement without killing himself; me.

The game was so rapid, the post-mortem was longer than the game and was very emotionally charged. Here are some bullet points from the game to provide context:

  • Mark can’t make it, so we have 4, which spreads us out.
  • I get a great starting draft due to some bad draws by a couple people. I’m able to take the first turn, 10 armies and 2 bonus coins. Placement order and faction don’t matter for me, as I have a guaranteed starting spot and most any faction that isn’t bad for taking cities is good for me.
  • I flood into Australia and start grabbing bonus armies before anyone can respond. And nobody responds after that.
  • At one point Ted gets two cards totaling 6 coins. It’s a big early grab, so I point it out. It’s politicking, which every Risk game has, right?

Let me expand on this one. Ted is somewhat notorious for his ability to sweet-talk players at a table when he wants to. I want to point out that this isn’t an indictment; I think it’s great that he’s so brilliant at it. His advice always helps you out, so it’s good advice, and it just happens to also help him out as well. I call it the silver tongue, and ever since I figured it out I’ve been trying to learn it.

Ted doesn’t use the tongue in this game, but it’s pretty much impossible for him to convince anyone of that, except me, who still treats him as the smartest, most dangerous player in the game based on tactical ability alone. I have used table-talk to leverage players against Ted, but most times I don’t need to; even when I win, people discuss ways they need to shut down Ted when the next game comes around. So when I say he’s got 6 coins, everyone flips out. And nobody even notices or cares when I get 7. Except Ted. Whom nobody is listening to. So:

  • Everyone focuses on Ted, even after I start my attack, even after it’s (to Ted and me) readily apparent I’m poised to claim the game. For the fourth time. And I don’t say anything.
  • Ted makes a push but can’t get 4 points. My next turn strafes the board, giving me a mission point and 2 other bases, securing the victory in 3 turns.
  • Everyone gets pissed.

Wait, what? Why is everyone pissed? And why do they seem pissed at me? It’s Risk, this sort of thing happens, right? Right, guys?

Aftermath

The first thing I say after the game, highlighting that I didn’t and wouldn’t say it during the game, was “guys, it was me, you should attack me, not Ted, me.” Then Aaron said he still thinks Ted was the imminent threat. Ted was upset and more or less said I was making the game not fun for him by politicking against him each game. Which I wanted to defend myself by saying A) it’s part of the game, B) everyone always attacks him anyway, even when I sit and say nothing, and C) What am I supposed to say? “Hey guys, you gotta get me, now, I’m going to win?”

A discussion opens up on how one could break my stranglehold on the map. I give advice. When I wonder aloud, “why am I helping in the architecture of my own defeat?” Ted promptly responds, “We need your help to fix this, otherwise the game will stop being fun. Seriously.”

Recounting the whole post-mortem would be as tedious as recounting a Risk game itself. Despite many salient points, in the end let’s just say that there were some dejected players, arguments and accusations, a mixture of emotions ranging from excited to apologetic, back to indignant and all the way around to self- aversion. Oh, and an agreement to crack open the infamous DO NOT OPEN EVER packet.

Two Minds

If you took some sort of psychic hatchet and cleaved my essence roughly down the middle, you’d get two gamers. Let’s call them by my names, Brandon and Rahhal.

Brandon’s the fun-loving guy you call by his first name, maybe even shorten it, like “Sup, B?” He knows that priority one is to enjoy the game and the people you’re gaming with. He’s a big fan of co-op games, social activity stuff like Dixit and the Big Idea, and weaving beautiful stories through the narrative of a game. And he absolutely hates the idea that he’s causing the people at the table to have less fun.

Rahhal is a rougher guy, in part because everyone calls him by his surname, which was more-or-less a sign of disrespect where he grew up. Rahhal only knows how to play hard, at all times, and measures his worth in victory. He thrives on the intellectual conflict found in gaming, and would never sacrifice solid play for laughs or even hurt feelings. After all, why play a game if you’re not playing to win?

I should note that I, Brandon Rahhal, (usually) reconcile these two when I play, making for a gamer that plays strong but not mean, fun but not foolish. What I’m getting at here is the game currently has these two personas at odds. Playing on my major City is the quickest path to victory, but many at the table call foul, and while I’m not the architect of this heinous scenario, reaping the rewards is causing some bad blood at the table. Playing anywhere else might balance a game, but it’s clearly a worse play that I’m only doing to make others feel better. It’s Risk, raw feelings happen.

I could go back and forth on this all day (which Katie and Josh can attest to). As a final thought, I just hope that last game was a fluke of circumstance, and the next game will have a balance of tactics that gives everyone an equal chance of victory and an enjoyable time for all. After all, it’s not just about winning.

An important lesson I almost forgot in the other world.

Greg Games 6 & 7: Misunderestamission

This is another example of games I thoroughly enjoyed despite losing. It was also a delight because the person who made it so fun, the person who has, according to him, “never won a game of Risk in [his] life,” won both games. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first game Greg places right next to me in the opener. The way I see it I have two options. One is to run away, try to set up in South America and make that my base of operations, leaving North America to him. The other is to try to crush him immediately. The area gives him bonuses that are penalties to me, and his faction has bonuses to attack me. The longer I wait the easier it is for him to kill me. So I charge him first. With 4 missiles I figured it would be easy. But the war of attrition ended up crippling me, re-affirming the fact that attacking the first thing is fairly insane.

Erik grabs Africa, takes two bases, and the win. It’s kind of awesome to see his eyes light up.

For the next game Erik takes the Mutants. Admittedly, I’m coming back to this post a while after the game, so I don’t remember much. But I remember Erik’s play of the mutants. Each faction has a certain flavor, and mutants ostensibly crawl from the wasteland of nuclear fallout. Waste, in fact, is the milieu of their wrath, as their 3-unit figure is a militarized garbage truck.

So Erik, adept in improv comedy and appreciative of a game’s mythos, paints a vivid picture of these trash-hoarding marauders. The truces, alliances, conflicts and battles are peppered with what the mutants are doing. Some of my favorites:

“Across the border into South America is thrown a half-eaten bag of skittles. I don’t think I can be any clearer.”

“Before the battle, a dirty stuffed animal half-filled with raw meat is thrown across the border.”

“A large neon sign is erected, pointing towards Kamchatka with the phrase “My brother lost his retainer and now everybody is mad.”

“Thrown across the border is a can with no label, but a note that says ‘we want our stuffed animal back.'”

-When making an attack into Ural from Russia – “The mutants are all wearing t-shirts they say ‘No, YOU’RE AL!” (I fell out of my chair laughing at this one)

Erik won, through a combination of beneficial events, missions, and superior firepower. He named that one “Beware of mutants bearing gifts.” I said during the game, “We’re all idiots. See, we’re going back and forth, jockeying for position and territory, trying to win a war that will be erased as soon as the game is done. Erik’s writing the narrative of a faction, his contributions will endure. He’s playing the long game.”

Quick Edit: As of this post three more
games in Ted’s campaign happened, and we cracked the DO NOT OPEN EVER pack. It did not fix the board, but the ass-kicking I received from the Aaron did. He won game 8, somehow I got game 9, and Sam finally got on the board with game 10. I don’t think a whole new post is necessary for the games. If you really REALLY want to hear about them leave a message below and I’ll tell you how I got crushed, hint about the new package, and talk about Sam’s first win so far into the game.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

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

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 5 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital

P.S.

I thought I’d talk a little about gamer cred. I’m not a sociologist, but I’m fascinated by the idea of sub-groups and their idiosyncrasies and similarities. Nearly every group of people with a common activity as an identifier has its own sort of ranking based on that activity. In short: Within gamers, a societal clique historically known for being identified as outcasts or below the social level of, whatever, “normal” or “cool” or some horses**t, there’s still an element of who ranks as hardcore gamer, as elite tabletop warrior or Johnny-come-lately player who doesn’t “get it” like the old salts do.

“Casual gamer” is not a term to be bandied about.

In my first post I referred to Winston and Jess as “gamers, but of a more casual nature.” I meant no disrespect. These Legacy campaigns are my first time to meet a number of people. Aaron, Mark, and Sam launched into rules minutiae and opinions before the box was cracked. Jess and Winston did not. That, and 3 games of Risk where a couple bad plays were made. And not for nothing, Winston won 2 of them, that’s not easy.

After my first game of Mage Knight, a lengthy and dense mathematical fantasy game, I voiced my opinion that the game was overly lengthy and prone to some issues. One of the players said, “yeah, it’s really a game for gamers.” He meant no disrespect either, but I remember being very upset by the comment. So to those I offended, I apologize. And I do hope we have many chances in the future to show off our respective capital G Gamer credentials.

The Co-Op Conundrum

While I like winning, – and trust me, I do – the primary reason I play board games is not to crush my enemies into a fine dust, but to spend some time with friends in a way that I enjoy. The best games are ones where it is fun when you’re winning, but it’s also fun to lose. So in theory, Co-Op games would have an immense appeal. You have to interact with the people you’re playing with, and if things go well then everyone wins. A well designed Co-Op game can offer all the avenues for clever plays that a standard game does; you just use your ingenuity against the game itself, rather than an opponent. In fact, for all their potential, it might be in some ways surprising that I don’t play Co-Op games very often.

“I like this game because most Co-Op games feel like the smartest player in the room is playing while everyone else just watches” – Erik “Spooky” Volkert, about Sentinels of the Multiverse

Maybe I keep playing Co-Op games in the wrong setting, but Erik’s take on them rings true.  A game that requires the cooperation of all players requires a very similar level of experience and a boatload of trust to work out well, more so than any other game. When a player makes a mistake it no longer screws things up for that singular player but rather it can affect everyone’s chances of winning. The result is generally the person who formulates the overall plan of attack ends up directing all of the action.

Of course, no one is required to listen to the person trying to direct the action. A group can try to play a game based around cooperation as a bunch of separate entities, but not only does it not generally work but it also defeats the purpose of playing a Co-Op game in the first place. And when that group does eventually lose – and if the game is at all well-built, they will – there is a level of frustration that the “smarter” player will experience that is beyond most anything else in gaming. When you lose a regular board game, there can be a certain level of frustration, sometimes directed at yourself for a stupid play, sometimes because someone else played kingmaker and you weren’t king. But the frustration of someone who was supposed to be on Your Team making you lose is a level far beyond, because it’s something that is out of your control but feels like it should be. And if you win despite some poor play by one or more of the players? Then you (I) get the feeling like maybe this game wasn’t well balanced. A good Co-Op game is one where you feel like even if you play well, it’s still possible that you lose.

So, let’s step back to Sentinels of the Multiverse and all its comic book glory.

First off, the theme is strong, and the mechanics feel pretty natural. Sukrit’s character keeps discarding cards to deal damage to himself and the villain, Brandon’s Hulk-like hero Haka is a tank by drawing lots and lots of cards and then discarding them rather than taking damage. Spooky takes a versatile but weak bard-ish guy, I grab a martial artist/janitor, Roger ends up with the Batman equivalent and when Dave comes in right as we’re about to begin he finds himself with the Flash.

Each turn involves a little bit of strategizing as we decide what has to be done this turn and who can take care of it. This is where Sentinels of the Multiverse shines. Since everyone has a hand full of cards, it is difficult and would be extremely time consuming for the person who knows the game best (Spooky) to look at each player’s hand and figure out what would be optimal. There’s too much information to process and the fact that they are “hands” means that even though this is a place where information is of course both public and worth sharing, the tendency learned from games of poker and rummy and the like growing up is to hold your cards so no one else can see. This hidden information tactic and pure multiplicity of options are both really solid attempts by the designers to avoid the takeover by the smartest player in the room. That is, unless they lean over and peek at your hand because hey, you’re new and not sure what you really CAN do, and, well here, let me help you out here…

Which ended up happening, rather consistently. I’m not mad about it and there were fairly good reasons. Roger is still pretty new to the complicated board game thing, and poor Dave walked in right as we were beginning the first turn, so he had to try to pick the thing up on the fly. Both of them sat next to Spooky, who brought the game and really wants people to like it.* So what happened felt like a four player game, with the four people who are all Capital-G-type Gamers.

This brings me back to the appeal and frustration I’ve had with most Co-Op games. If we in the gaming hobby want to bring others into the hobby, and think that Co-Op is a good way to do it, we need to sit back, let people understand what they’re doing, and probably lose a few games. And if we want to be just part of the machine that defeats the game, we need to be playing with people whose moves we respect and who will in turn respect our moves.  I haven’t really sat down and played a Co-Op game with Brandon, but I bet it’d be a lot of fun, and no matter what game it was, neither one of us would sit back and let the other assume that they were the smartest player in the room.

——————————————————————————————————————–

*As a side note, I totally caught myself helping out my girlfriend in a competitive game of Factory Fun last night, where I managed to snag her one extra point in a game she eventually won by two points (afterwards I was thankful my influence wasn’t the deciding factor). When you’re introducing someone to a game I find it natural to want to help them out so they can feel the full richness of the game, but I’m coming around to the “dammit, just let them play!” train of thought. After all, not only did she win, but for all my smarts and the fact that I bought the game, I only came in third.

Playing for second

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

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

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

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

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

Who Serves Whom

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

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

When Architecture goes unchecked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sour Grapes and Rotten Apples

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

-Serpico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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