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

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.

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.

On Monopoly Part 3: Monopoly Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Monopoly was a city I’d vandalize it

The Grand Splendor

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

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

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

Nuts And Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Humanity

$#!^*@%

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

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

Playing for second

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

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

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

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

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

Who Serves Whom

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

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

When Architecture goes unchecked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menagerie, Fairgrounds and Horn of Plenty

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

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

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

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

Menagerie

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

Horn of Plenty

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

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

Fairgrounds

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

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

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

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.