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.

Advertisements

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.
——————————————————————————————————————–

*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.

The Collectable Card Game: they all end the same way

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

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

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

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

Magic Powercards

This isn’t Magic for most people…

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

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

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

…this is what Magic looks like

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

The Digital Divide

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

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

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

gl and hf

Standard social interaction in online gaming

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

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

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

Too Many Ingredients Spoil the Soup

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

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

Overview

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

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

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

Recap

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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.

One of the Best Games I’ve Ever Played: Second Place

Note: It’s been a couple years since this happened. Not all the details are fresh in my mind. But I’ve told this story enough that it seems prudent to tell it here. Maybe for the last time.

Really, everyone reading this blog should know about PAX and PAX East (though I’ve included links for you just in case). When the East Coast version of one of the greatest new gamers’ conventions came to Boston I was very excited. Held in the Hynes Convention Center (before it was clear the venue was too small to house the whole thing and moved to the BCEC), there was far too much going on for one person to internalize. On day one I went in without a plan, missed a few cool panels, and wondered what I would do with the rest of my time.

On day two, I knew.

Tournament

Mayfair games was having a tournament for what is probably their most popular title, Settlers of Catan.* This wasn’t the PAX-standard 1 day fun-fest, with the winner receiving a medal and a previous blog post. This was a National Qualifier. The winner got an expenses paid trip to Origins and a ticket to compete in the National Semifinals tournament; the winner of nationals gets a trip to Essen Germany to compete in Worlds against the bar-none best players in the home of the game’s creation.

I love Catan. It’s the game that introduced me to the wider world of strategic board gaming. Before it was Monopoly, Sorry, Scattergories, Pictionary, and other family-friendly party games. Now it’s Carcassonne, Caylus, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, and countless other rich, complex and beautiful creations. And I wanted to be a part of this grand exhibition.

The format was as follows: 4 preliminary games of 4 people, attendance permitting. Wins and total score are tracked. The top 16 overall winners, determined by win count, then point count, go to the semifinals. Four tables of 4 players play, with the winner of each going to the final table.

Let the Games Begin

I play well, but lose the first game. I’m stressed about it, because I don’t know how tough the competition will be. I consider my 7 as possibly beneficial, but wins are what matters here. A switch clicks in my head. For the next three games I have a laser-like focus. I’m particularly proud of game 3, where I do a quick trade to get a ninth point built, then drop largest army for a two point bump, giving me the win and an additional point for the tie-breaker. When the prelims are done I’m at 3 wins and about 38 points. Despite the lack of sleep and crappy food I’m eating at the convention center, I feel amazing when I find I’m going to make it to the semis. The feeling is only slightly dampened by the realization that a bunch of people don’t want to play Catan the whole convention and bow out, leaving the lower folk to sneak in. It does become a point of contention in the semifinals.

I arrive at the convention to be placed in the enormous queue before the hall opens. The tournament is scheduled to start before the queue finishes, which worries me. The tournament heads have my number, and I’m able to tell them I’ll be there, quote, “even if I have to chew my way through.” They think it’s funny.

Semifinals

The player sitting across from me is Katie. I remember because it’s the name of my girlfriend, and because, as it turns out, she wasn’t able to make it to qualifiers but manages to step in to the semis since not enough of the qualifiers show up. I’m kind of pissed. I’m even more pissed when I realize quickly how sharp a player she is.

Lots of people have played Catan. Lots of people think the game is great, but fairly simple after 10 or 20 games. Lots of people think there’s a great deal of luck involved with the dice.

Lots of people don’t know the game.

There’s a great many variables to keep track of. In addition to resource and probability, there’s also the viability of specialized port strategies, total resource potential which lends to specific strategies, and most importantly, player behavior. The core balancing mechanic of Settlers of Catan is primarily of a social nature. The Robber Baron, and the tendency for trade, are driven by players, who are at times driven by personal feelings. The robber usually hits the player in the lead, and trades are usually more harsh for the breakaway leader, but that’s not always the case. Rude players get attention, vengeful players start vendettas, meek players get overlooked, and smart players know how to play this meta-game. So when, two turns in, Katie is nay-saying her own position and declaring she’s out, while maintaining a strong presence, I do not allow her to sway the masses. It’s obvious she knows the game, and despite not actually qualifying, she’s the one I keep my eye on.

My setup is strong, and personality is jovial, and my trades are good. I’m able to sneak the longest road in, while downplaying its use as a couple victory points that don’t actually earn me anything. A couple swift builds and port trades later, and I’m able to claim the win, faster than anyone else that round.

During the down-time, I’m trying to keep focused. I want to see the final board, I want to see what the total pips are for each resource, their proximity to associated ports, the overall potential of expansion vs. opposite port vs. city & dev card strategies. I’m praying for a victory on the last semifinal table by the guy from Nova Scotia, because he can’t take the prize as a non-US resident, and that doubles my chance for a trip to Origins. He doesn’t pull it off. The winner there is a… well, it’s odd. He’s non-descript. Tall-ish, white, blond hair, I think his name was John but I can’t be certain.

The final table is, in clockwise order; Me, Anna, John, and some girl who had just learned to play that weekend.

All Finals competitors got this t-shirt.  It’s faded, but the memory lives on.

The Final Table

The opening placement takes longer than I’ve ever seen. Everyone is amped and deep in thought. I’m nervous because Anna has opted for an aggressive strategy; she’s going for the same port I’m hoping to build on my earliest convenience, blocking my road and initial build and giving her that much more board space to work with. Our game won’t be decided on the 10th point; it will be decided on the 3rd. It’s a race for the two resources we need. We both know it. So while it isn’t a surprise, it was an unfortunate circumstance, that when I proceeded to roll a seven the first four (possibly 5) turns I had, I hit the same person. It made me feel like a jerk, but that one spot was more critical than anything else, and everyone knew it. I was vocal about lamenting that I had become the villain of the game (in hopes of garnering, if not sympathy, then some sort of understanding that would keep me from being villainized).

It was 9 points for me, 9 for John (mostly through victory points, but it was kind of obvious), while Anna and the other gal were far behind. And that’s when it happened. Anna targeted me. All barons went to me, all trades went to the other guy. She king-made the game. It was a bitter moment for me, one that I can’t see how I avoid. She stamps her setup right next to mine. She passes it off as strategy, but there’s no point other than to fuck me over. After 2 years, it turns out that while writing this I’m still a little bitter. And then I realize, all over again, that I played an amazing run of games, and I can be proud of what I accomplished; second place, one point from . And I have to admit, it was fun.

For his part, John was an amazing player. The nondescript description I gave earlier was meant as a compliment. In juxtaposition to my vocal, heart-on-my-sleeve style, John was quiet, stoic, observant, and a very strong opponent. I’m glad that if I didn’t win he did. Oh yeah, and the other gal got proposed to by her boyfriend right after the game, so yeah, she’s fine.

Finals players also received copies of the game. The winner got the game used for finals.

Epilogue

Mayfair holds this tournament every PAX East now. I went in 2011 and got to the semifinals. Anna was there, and snuck in at position 17 after someone dropped. She was at my table, placed right next to me again, and succeeded in boxing me out. I was vocal in my irritation, and while we griped over it, someone else took a development card victory from nowhere.

I didn’t compete in 2012. Too busy demoing board games for attendees.  But I’m looking forward to 2013.

————————————————————————————————————-

* I’m not linking it. It’s f*ckin’ Catan. It’s the blog background at time of posting. If you don’t know it, turn to the gamer next to you and ask to borrow theirs, because they damn well have a copy.