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.

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Talking It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacies: Tyrant

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

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

Dear God, what have I become?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

Two Minds

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

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

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

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

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

An important lesson I almost forgot in the other world.

Greg Games 6 & 7: Misunderestamission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

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

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 5 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital

P.S.

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

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

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

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

Innovation

The digitization of board games is something Brandon and I have talked about as a topic for a post since we started this blog over the summer. I finally took on posting about some of my feelings on it a while back, but when Brandon and I were talking about what should go into the post, we kept talking about the games that suffered immensely. You’re always going to lose part of the game when you’re playing online, the question is how big a part you’re losing and what you’re gaining. Dominion plays better online than most games because it saves you all the time of shuffling, as opposed to Stone Age, which doesn’t really save you time but still makes you miss out on the social interaction that is a large part of why I play games in the first place. The game that we kept coming back to for what a good online experience could be was Innovation, which wasn’t featured in the previous post because it wasn’t online.

“Wasn’t” is past tense though, and it turns out that in the months since I first went in depth on playing board games online, the game that Brandon and I both thought would translate really well to the internet has been brought to the same place you can play Dominion (the other game that gains a lot by going digital): isotropic.org

Innovation is my current favorite game though, so I may be a bit biased. And in honor of its new e-availability, I’m giving you a full-fledged review.

The Basics

Every man's gotta have a codeEvery turn in Innovation you get two actions of the 4 possible. You can Draw a card (from the stack equal to the highest card you have currently played), Meld (play) a card from your hand (it goes on top of cards of the same color if you already have a card of that color), Achieve (if you fulfill the requirements. Achievements is how you win) or use Dogma (use a card you’ve played). First to 6 achievements (in a 2 player game) wins. The rules are slightly more detailed but that’s the gist.

We are men of action, lies do not become us

Each card in innovation has three important things: Its color (Red, Green, Purple, Blue, Yellow. And yes, there are small symbols that let you play if you’re colorblind), its icons (3 icons on each card, of six total icons: Castles, Leaves, Coins, Lightbulbs, Factories, Clocks) and its Dogma effects (what it does). Here’s some cards, see how they have these things?

Knowledge of Anatomy keeps others from wanting to score

Ok can we get to why the game is great now?

Michael Bay's favorite cardFirst off, the theme is one I always enjoy. Yes Sid Meier’s Civilization is an amazing video game, but I think even if it lacked some of its depth I still would’ve really enjoyed it. Thankfully it did have depth, as does Innovation. In the beginning your options are limited, you’re trying to get all five colors on your board, you’re trying to see if you can jump up to the higher leveled cards before your opponent, but usually there’s a “right” play. As the game gets a little further along, it becomes a lot more nebulous. Do I want to use this dogma that lets my opponent jump an age, even if it lets me jump two? Do I want to tuck these cards in my hand? Do I want to cover my strong card with a card that doesn’t do as much but will give me more icons than an opponent? The answer to each of these questions depends on everything else that is in the game. The ability to draw a bunch of cards is good, but if you also have the ability to score cards from your hand? Well, then it gets a lot stronger.

The variability of the game is excellent, and the variability is unlike, say, the cards I love in Dominion because what can be considered a strong card varies not only game to game but turn to turn. The mechanics of scoring and achieving and tucking are all such that many cards don’t get used as you climb up through Prehistory and the Renaissance towards the Postmodern Age. Some games are won with a crazy string of cards played using Mathematics, some games you don’t see Mathematics at all. This variability is a core mechanic of the game and as such it is something that can be a legitimate turn off for some people. I take Innovation less seriously than I do other games because while strong tactical decisions will help lead you to victory for often than not, there are some games where things just don’t go right. You’re stuck with cards that don’t help and your opponent jumps ahead and never looks back. If you can’t let go of losses I’m not going to make a moral judgment, I’m just going to say that sadly, you might want to skip Innovation. But for those that embrace the randomness in the game, there is some really solid and interesting gameplay.

Strategy versus Tactics

Everything in its rightful placeThe first time I teach someone Innovation, I give them one piece of advice: If you’re losing, you want to either collect more icons or get to higher levels of cards. And it really is that simple. Sometimes having a lot of cards in your hand is great, sometimes it’s a liability. The same goes for your score pile. But getting to a higher level of card or having more icons is always good. That’s all the long term planning that Innovation allows. This may seem like a flaw, but it is actually a strength for the game.

A game like Puerto Rico has good tactical decisions but all of them are based on the overall strategy of the game.  No choice stands alone, and the better your overall understanding of the paths to victory and when to take one (shipping) versus the other (buildings) the better you’ll play. The individual decisions are important, but the path can be studied in excruciating detail. Innovation has no study guide. The game changes too much move to move for much long term planning. The joy of the game can be found in finding clever moves you can do with what you have in front of you, or maybe what you think you’ll have next turn. Any planning beyond that will usually be for naught as your opponent demands you trade hands or suddenly has more icons than you of the type you wanted or takes the achievement you were going for.

The Online Experience

Innovation.isotropic.org, I play as either JoshProv or jorsh. See you there!And to bring this full circle: This is why I thought this game would work so well online. Every turn you could examine the board and take your move accordingly. You would have time to read what each of your opponent’s cards are without asking them to “reread it, out loud, just one more time?” You would have a real-time count of icons to make sure you realized that your opponent had more coins than you now or that you were one leaf away from tying it up. And most importantly, you wouldn’t have to say, “Wait, what was I doing again?” because it wouldn’t matter, whatever you can do this turn is what you’re doing.

And it delivers. Innovation isn’t as popular as Dominion on isotropic, but a game can generally be had at any hour, and all the things I could’ve hoped for in a client are there. Yes, the chat features are still rarely used and it isn’t the same experience as playing in person, but there’s no set up or clean up, and once you get the hang of it you don’t even accidentally click a card that gives you no benefit this turn. It allows for more careful counting of symbols and better splay planning. It totals your score. It gives you the automatic achievements when you might otherwise forget them. Playing Innovation online is a really enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes.

And yes, of course, the game is also really fun in person, and once you get the hang of it, plays pretty quickly. I recommend it with two or three players, and the first expansion (Echoes of the Past) makes it even more ridiculous (and I take that as a good thing). I highly recommend Innovation, and will totally teach you if you haven’t played it yet.

Legacies: the First Volley

My initial impressions of Risk: Legacy are positive overall. The first couple games feel, well, a lot like Risk. I think Ted said it best when he suggested from comments he has heard on-line that, “as the game progresses, it becomes less like Risk and more like a boardgame.”

As of now I have played 3 games in each campaign. The two campaigns already feel very different, and while I’m leaning towards one over the other, I think they’ll both be worthwhile.

Merry Band Of Brothers: Who’s in the Game

A game can only be good as its players. Let’s meet the groups.

The Vessennes Players

This group consists of me, Ted, and three of Ted’s friends who I don’t know very well. Their names are Aaron, Sam, and a man who calls himself DoubleMark, I think because there are so many other Marks in the group at large. It’s apparent to me that these are capital G Gamers; they’re in it to win it. Before the game even begins there’s this lengthy discussion about tactics and potential rules changes in the future, balance issues and statistical models people made on optimal plays. If you know a gaming group that has massive post-mortem discussions of a game when it’s finished, imagine that, only before the game has even started.

The Reimann Players

I know this group a little better than the Vessennes campaign, but not much. It’s me, Greg, Erik (a.k.a. Spooky), Winston and Jessica. Erik I know, and Greg I feel like I’ve known for longer than I have; he’s a kindred spirit of gaming. When I suggest that factions should have theme music he’s initially reluctant, then spends the night before sending me beautifully appropriate music for each faction. I get the impression he’s crazy excited about the game, but doesn’t want to show it, for fear of being that guy. F*** that, I’ll be that guy. Winston and Jessica are gamers, but of a more casual nature. Erik loves games, enough that even though he hates Risk he’s willing to play to make it happen.

War. War never changes.

A blow-by-blow of each game may not be the most riveting thing for readers, though rest assured each of the 6 games so far had their moments. In 3 games the maps have taken some interesting turns, and some compelling stories have developed.

The Spoils of War

The game has you track what faction you played, where you started, and whether you Won, Held On, or were Eliminated. Those who survive get to name and place minor cities or adjust the game’s resources by adding coins to territory cards, which increases the number of troops you get when exchanging. The victor gets to sign their name to the board, and can choose one of a number of tasty options:

  • Place a Major City. Major Cities have 2 population, which counts as territories for troops gained at the start of the turn (minor cities have one population). They are also legal starting locations only for the one who placed it.
  • Name a continent. This gives that player +1 bonus troop when they control it.
  • Give +1 or -1 to a continent bonus for all players.
  • Fortify a city. Fortifications add +1 to each defender’s dice when rolled, for up to 10 battles.
  • Destroy a card. Rip it up. Remove it from the game.
  • Cancel a scar. Cover one of the permanent marks on the game.

Vessennes Opener: Hard-Learned Lessons

Ted said he was very much of a mind to do anything that would trigger a packet or inlay being opened, as “opening things is the fun part.” He would be focused less on winning and more on making the game thematic and fun. Knowing ted as I do, I believe strongly that he can only take this so far. He will certainly seek to wipe out an opponent, or fire missiles in a battle he’s in without truly needing to, or fight to place 30 troops at once (all packet conditions), but he won’t ruin his chances of victory by doing so.

The first game proceeds very much like a standard game of Risk. The two main differences are this; most of the territories start empty (every one but the 5 we choose to start), and everyone has “Scar Cards,” decals we can apply to the board to cause permanent bonuses or penalties to one spot. It’s a neat little mechanic, but what’s truly interesting is watching people place them for small gains without realizing the long-term impact they’ll have on the campaign. The effects were felt as soon as game 2, and continue to be a big game changer.

I play terribly. I manage to spread thin and hold North America for a turn, but squander my bonus troops and lose the continent soon after. I never really recover. Aaron wins with a swift charge to a base. With that one, his own HQ, and two red stars (one to start, one for the exchange of cards) he takes four points and the victory. This is a great end condition, as it means you don’t have to conquer the whole board. He places a major city, and the rest of us place minor cities, many in Australia to increase the difficulty of keeping and holding it (this turns out to be a rules faux-pax; hangers-on can only place minor cities or coin upgrades to territory cards in countries they controlled at the end of the game). By then it was too late to start another game. I’m a bit soured on the experience, having gotten trounced, but I’m willing to give it another go.

Vessennes Session 2

Aaron isn’t able to make this one, which is kind of a bummer, but it means the ones who haven’t won yet have a chance to get on the board. After learning a bit more about the game, and remembering how Risk is played, I feel good about this session.

Games 2&3: A Game of Numbers & a Game of Stories

There’s not much to say about game 2. I win, primarily because Sam and DMark are focused heavily on Ted, and nobody notices me slowly building up cards and troops in Australia. An exchange of cards for my 3rd point and a quick dash to a nearby base for my 4th gets the win. It was a game heavy with calculations, politicking, and very standard Risk stuff.

Game 3 I do not win, let me say that now. Let me also say that I had more fun this game than I have ever had in a Risk game ever. And it’s all because of a beautiful narrative the table helped me weave. That great AnyGameGood feeling you get when a game makes you want to tell people about “this one time when I was at war…” This was one of my favorites.

I was playing Kahn Industries. Their flavor text paints them as a faction of cheap labor and mass-manufactured machines of war. Their special ability has you placing a new unit in your HQ each turn. The way we envisioned it, the new soldier is in fact a factory-stamped clone; pale skin, steam rising from the freshly stamped tissues. Bald, sunken eyes and a cheap uniform and blaster. During one of those pushes you sometimes have to do to keep a continent bonus from a breakaway leader, I fight from central Asia across the map to West Africa and Brazil. Then I free move one of the soldiers from my base across the map.

The line is quickly cut off. One three-soldier mech in Argentina, one lone man in Brazil who’s quickly gunned down. South America is very difficult to hold in this map, as it has an ammo shortage in Brazil (-1 to the highest defense die each roll), forcing the player to try to defend from Africa or risk taking a beating in the numbers. So nobody’s keen to be the one to clear it out when it can’t be held. The troops in Argentina stay, without reinforcements, without orders, nowhere to go. I begin to wonder out loud, and everyone at the table is quick to provide their take.

Brandon: What are they doing now? I wonder if they’re writing in their journals about the hells of war. Oof, maybe they don’t have journals.

Ted: They probably don’t have literacy, man.

DMark: Yeah, why would you bother to teach them how to read and write? They’d never live long enough to use it.

Brandon: You guys are depressing me.

Ted: Hey, maybe they at least know how to not starve to death. ‘Day 30. Saw cow. Shot cow with blaster. Cow cooked, cow tasty.’

This went on for a while. Those guys probably have their own language by now, cave paintings and crude tools fashioned from the mech which has been out of gas for (based on what we thought a turn meant in game time) years.

Then the attack came. Sam had been slowly building his rail guns in Central America, pointing them at me menacingly. He has a force of around a dozen. I roll a 6-5. Two of his troops gone. 6-6. Two others drop. 6-4, he doesn’t have enough to beat the 4, two more deaths. With each roll the table gets louder and more shocked at this battle. 2 more drop. At this point Sam knows he can’t take the continent and hold it for a turn. He backs off. Soldier 47 comes through. This band of brothers with all odds stacked against them holds out without a single casualty (presumably by learning the land and using guerilla tactics developed from years of surviving the harsh environment). I don’t win, but Argentina never falls. Hell, they’re probably their own indigenous people at this point.

My father was a sleeve gunner. Not the right arm, the left. He was a man’s sleever.

Everyone seems appreciative of the narrative we’ve woven. Sam yields his right to place the last minor city to me, which is placed in Argentina and named “Ooxstahm,” the people’s word for ‘brother.’ I even use my off-hand to write it to give it that primitive scrawling look; it’s nigh illegible to those who weren’t there. Oh, Ted won.

PACKET OPENING: 9TH MINOR CITY

Ted already knows what’s in this packet, but he’s good about not spoiling the surprise. I immediately recognize some Eurogame elements in it, and agree with Ted’s declaration that “this is where Risk becomes an actual board game.” I just hope it doesn’t become a new way for me to screw myself over early on.

Reimann Session:

Next up is a trio of games at my house. The people playing the game, coupled with the fact that it’s my house and I can relax in it before, during and after the game, gives this group a more laid-back feel for me. Nonetheless, I’m still playing to win.

Side Note: the Differences

I find it very amusing, the way Ted and Greg wish their games to be handled. One stark example is the naming of cities and continents on the board. There’s something epic about stamping a name on the board, and even though naming a continent is not as strong a strategic move as other things a winner can do, it’s a rush to say that an entire continent is named for you.

Ted gave us explicit instructions in this regard: Please do not name anything stupid or jokey, like “Ted is a Bastardville” or “Bonerland” (direct quotes). He wants to frame and hang the final board, and he doesn’t want vulgarity or inappropriate stuff mounted on his wall. I can respect that.

Greg gave us explicit instructions as well: You can name any continent, any city, anything you want, including “Greg sucks balls” or “Brandon is a jerk” or “Bonerland” (again, direct quotes), as long as you write legibly and don’t smudge the ink.

Ted saves the components that are destroyed. They get tucked under the box inlay. Greg’s group shreds them, and Winston takes great delight in reducing a card to fine confetti.

Minute 1. This game has destruction at its core

Game 1: “The Deep March”

Erik’s running late, so we play the first game with 4. The initial placement for this game is nonetheless crowded, with everything placing their base on the eastern half of the board (except for me, where I choose to place in Australia and hole up). The very first turn Jessica uses her starting units to try to eliminate Greg and take his base. It doesn’t work, and the two are effectively crippled for the rest of the game. Wow. That never would’ve happened in the Vessennes campaign. Winston is close enough that swooping in and taking the fallen factions looks plausible, but he’s far enough that it’ll take him some time. Meanwhile, I’m able to sit back, gain extra troops, and get a few cards by using the special ability that allows me to take them when I grab 4 territories, even if they were empty beforehand (a power not available in Ted’s version). It’s a huge boon early game.

In a short few turns, I’m able to march across the board and claim Winston’s undefended base. A turn later I’m able to claim another for the victory. I name Australia “The Imperial Hall of Ra,” in line with the ideas of my faction (Imperial Balkania) and a play on my last name.

In Greg’s campaign the winner gets to sign the board AND give that game a name. I choose “The Deep March” for the global push I make from pole to pole and across the map. The color we infused, of the clip-clop of hundreds of Imperial soldiers marching across the globe, their rhythmic steps heard from miles away in the eerie silence of a still undeveloped world,

Game 2: “Victory…At What Cost?”

The next game I’m kept from Australia, as it’s viewed as too powerful. Erik’s finally able to make it, so the board is much more crowded. Greg mentions, in an almost casual manner, “I kind of don’t want to see Brandon win twice in a row.” It’s just enough politicking to get everyone on board with keeping me out of it. Winston takes the victory by being basically unassailable for the whole game, then exploding with a burst of units. He names a city, the rest of us take a mix of cities and card upgrades.

Game 3: An Unpredictable Table

Midway through this game it becomes very apparent to me that a couple players at the table are prone to unpredictable, often dangerous and ill-advised moves. It’s important to remember, as the areas they inhabit could be hazardous to be near, but also potentially valuable targets if the battles in that region go poorly. That’s what happens this game, as a number of crazy moves from Jessica make for a destabilized and impotent North America, with no real opposition against Winston to build his power base again and, despite starting a point down from the other players, take the second win. Don’t remember what we called it.

PACKET OPENING: SECOND SIGNING

When a player wins and signs the board for the second time a packet opens. While not as massive a change to the game, it still added interesting components that I look forward to experiencing.

WHERE WE STAND

Ted’s Campaign:

Aaron: 1 win

Brandon: 1 Win

Ted: 1 Win

Packets Open: 9 minor cities

Australia is being constantly modified with the tools we have on hand to make it more difficult to take and hold. It’s full of cities nobody can start in, all of them some form of Detroit. DMark hates Detroit, I think. I want to say it’s extreme, but my victories in both games have come from springing forth from Australia.

Greg’s Campaign:

Brandon: 1 win

Winston: 2 wins

Packets Open: Second Win

A second win so quickly is surprising. Not having that starting point is a big deal, but somehow, when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Winston was the one on top. I expect the table to retaliate in future games.

The Question remains…

After three games I can say I’m enjoying myself in both campaigns, but the two feel very different. Ted’s group is fun, but very imposing. There are efforts to get into the mythos of the game, but in the end we’re all gamers, and the games are filled with swift numbers crunching and a huge amount of lobbying to get opponents to hold off attacks on us, or hit people in the lead so we can be left to amass our own army and take over the poor sap we convinced to do the dirty work.

Greg’s game is filled with uncertainty. It’s a spread of experience and tactics, from cold and calculated to random kamikaze. It also seems better suited to thematic involvement, though the best story to arise so far has come from Ted’s campaign.

Will one campaign ruin the other? Ted’s campaign is going to go quicker I think; it’s scheduled next, and seems to have more steam than Greg’s. One packet has been opened on each side; different ones, though the one at Ted’s has more content. Ideally, though Greg’s game will meet less often, more games will be played per session, keeping us level with Ted. The packets are designed to open in swift order, so that should even out quickly, and the foreknowledge of what is in them won’t affect my decisions in-game, towards keeping them closed or forcing them open. I am cautiously optimistic that I can keep one campaign separate from the other, and not spoil them for myself or for the other players.

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.

On Monopoly part 2: Beyond Boardwalk

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 lot to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

This weekend was no exception.

Lots of people in the world love Monopoly. Some like it for its artistic merits, some appreciate the history (did you know that Monopoly games sent to POWs in World War II had hidden cash, maps, and tools to help soldiers escape?), and some crazy individuals are really excited about playing the game itself. A couple of friends named Noel Gunther and Richard Hutton got together with some friends around 1985, and realized why they stopped playing when they grew up. The game has issues; too long, too much luck, too much dead time. They set out to create a list of rules changes that would give the game more skill, more risk, more challenge and, ideally, more fun. They published a book in November 1986 called Beyond Boardwalk and Park Place (and you’ll have an easier time finding the book at your local library than that Amazon link), which codified their rules changes, added some history and a few gags, and made out to change the face of Monopoly. I’m told it didn’t sell well.

Cut to 2009. My friend and fellow games nut Toby (name changed to protect him) sends me a PDF of a book he found at the Worcester public library. I’m hooked on the idea, but I can’t get anyone to play the damn thing until years later, and that breaks bad due to a massive divergence in investment at the table. But I never lost hope, and this last weekend, in a campground it Pittsfield MA with a group of like-minded nerds, I finally got the session of Beyond Boardwalk I wanted. The results were mixed, but positive overall. I think.

Gentlemen, I’ve brought you here to discuss a proposition…

The Rules

I’ll assume you know most of the rules of Monopoly, but I’ll highlight a few overlooked ones. We didn’t use every rule Beyond boardwalk states, but we did use most of them. I’ll explain them here, as well as why I think they work so well.

1) Deeds now cost twice their list price to purchase outright. Otherwise they go into auction, starting at half the list price plus $10.

In Monopoly everyone starts with $1500. The total cost for every deed in the game is $5690. There’s enough money in the system to buy everything, and there’s very little consequence to buying everything you land on. This changes that. It Introduces a lot more auctions, yet gives an option to buy the deed with no contest. This way, every purchase you make is important. Buy too much too soon and you’re busted. The auction base price insures nobody can buy a deed for less than its mortgage value and sell it for a quick buck. On that note:

2) No mortgages. Deeds can be sold back to the bank for half price.

The way most Monopoly games work is, once you have your winning Monopoly, everything else gets mortgaged for cash. $10 and $20 rents are insignificant at that stage. So the board looks like a wasteland with a few high value locations designed to crush an opponent. With this rule, you need the cash, you have to lose the deed. And since you probably paid more for it than what you’re getting, it’s a loss some cannot afford to take.

3) $1 bills are gone; round all fees up to the nearest $5.

Everyone was all for this. Sometimes it’s fun to gripe over 2 dollars, but Monopoly has never been decided by single digit fees.

4) While in Jail, you cannot build, you cannot bid on deeds, and you only collect half the rent to which you’re entitled.

In the late game, Jail is super awesome. There’s nothing to buy, the Go money isn’t significant, and moving only increases your chances of hitting an opposing player’s monopoly. Not moving for up to 3 turns is great, usually, so this rule makes it much more of a risk.

5) Fees from Chance, Community Chest, Income and Luxury tax are paid into a Free Parking Pot. Hit the spot, get the pot.

This is in there because money exits the system so quickly, so this is a way to put some back in. Plus it’s fun to hit, honestly. Nobody landed on it, so it’s irrelevant.

6) You can only by houses immediately before you roll on your turn.

The optimal strategy in Monopoly is to build right before an opponent who could hit your spaces rolls. You minimize risk of getting hit with rent you can’t pay, and maximize the chances of that invested capital paying off immediately. Now there’s risk. It also speeds the game up, and gets around house auctions when there’s a housing shortage.

7) Uneven building

This house rule has been floating around for a while, and for a game with little disposable cash it’s a good strategic and pragmatic inclusion. Basically, once you have the monopoly, you can build freely. This means you can get a 3-house hard hitter without buying the other stuff up. It allows for another strategic element and, mini-spoiler, if one of the players used it better he would have won soundly.

8) Cash on hand is hidden information

The standard rules of Monopoly state that money is on the table, and if someone asks you are obligated to tell them how much cash you have. For a game with a lot of auctions, it’s important information, especially when you play with aggressive players who like to bluff you with up-bidding when they’re effectively broke. It’s another strategic element, and benefits those who are paying attention.

9) Trading options are expanded beyond assets.*

Officially, you can only trade deeds, cash, and that the “get out of jail free” card. This game allows house rule trades. A few quick examples are; immunity, short or long-term; forcing opponents to not trade with others; split income for Monopolies; etc. This can lengthen the game, but the wheeling and dealing is a critical component of Monopoly, and this has the chance to reward savvy players greatly. Our own addendum to this: trades and deals were fully binding. No promising free rides and reneging.

We didn’t use a rule that made the utilities part of the railroad system, because we felt it made railroads too powerful. We also updated the Income tax and Luxury Tax costs to current Monopoly standards ($200 and $100 at all times, respectively), and we were off.

The Four consulted the Codex, and did consign themselves to the Fates. The Game had begun.

Before The Storm

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

There were four of us: me, John Fraley, Auston Habershaw, and John Serpico, in that order. A prototypical game many months prior showed me that Fraley and Serpico would play with the kind of high-level competitiveness I was looking for. And based on stories of past games and what I knew of the man, Auston would be a strong fourth. He was also willing to play. Early on a small fight about starting pieces leads me to believe that I have picked the right men. Right next to us a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity was being played. The massive juxtaposition of these games, in play and in community, did not escape me, and while laughter was had, my stalwart companions and I silently agreed to solder through this gritty expanse that is a Monopoly game.

Early Play

I try not to discuss strategy too much when playing a game. If someone is new, and they ask my opinion, I’ll give it, but not otherwise, for many reasons. One is that it bogs down the explanation of the game. Another is that it’s usually un-welcome; you don’t sit at a game to have it played for you, and God Damn it if I can’t get that thought through to some of my hard-core gamer acquaintances. And unless you’re trying to sweet-talk and subtly manipulate other players into doing what you want (a somewhat dirty, but totally legal tactic; I call it Silver Tongue, and Ted Vessenes is a master of it) it hinders your chances of winning. The Beyond Boardwalk game I envision is full of cutthroat men eager to leverage every asset they can bring to bear. So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I kept mostly silent when I saw some dangerous early mistakes being made.

Everyone at the table seems to think that, now that deeds cost twice their list price, that they’re actually worth that. Auston plows through with the habit of buying everything he lands on outright, while auctions see deeds going for very close to double the list price. That’s all well and good when these are deeds you need, but nobody really needs them. If you land on a deed, send it to auction, and buy it for less than twice the list price, you saved yourself some money. But if someone else landed there, and you dropped that cash , you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. So it was that I held back, hung on to my cash, and waited for people to drain themselves. Auston was tapped fairly quickly. Serpico and Fraley lasted longer, but their purchases were too unfocused. I fought to get a couple of the light purples and little else. To be fair, they never panned out.

At one point I have one yellow, Serpico has the other. Someone lands on the third, and Fraley and Auston bow out of the bidding quickly. Up until now deeds have been going for hefty costs. So when Serpico bids around $200 for Ventnor, low by any standards, I simply let him have it, to some confused looks. Now I decided it was time to discuss a bit of strategy.

“Anyone know why I did that?” I ask, in my best educator’s voice. Silence. I’m not hiding my money that well, so they know it’s not lack of funds. “Serp and I already have the yellows. Whether he or I have the third, we still have it between us, and one is just as good as two.” Auston picks up on what I’m getting at, Fraley gets it a minute later. I hope I don’t sound condescending in my explanation; I genuinely want the people I’m playing with to learn Monopoly and play it better.

I wasn’t bragging. I swear.

Somewhere along the line Serpico gets Boardwalk. When Park Place gets hit, Fraley and Auston aren’t in any position to bid. I convince Serp to let me have it for the low price of $250, and in exchange I give it to him in exchange for the yellows. It’s good news for me and Serp, bad news for Fraley and Auston.

Mid Game

All I have for deeds are two light purples that didn’t pan out, and the yellow Monopoly. And I couldn’t be happier. In plain Monopoly, you can buy deeds crazily. Even when you don’t need them, the trading fodder is a wonderful thing to have, and the ability to simply block Monopolies is often reason enough to sit on a deed. But what many people don’t realize is, once you have a monopoly of sufficient strength, everything else is ancillary, if you have money to develop it. And all my not-buying is paying off now.

With uneven building I decide to spread a few houses between two deeds. It’s early enough that I could spend heavily on development and not worry about hitting a big rent, but also early enough that too many deeds are out there to be out of bidding power. Still, I try to take advantage of the situation; a couple of players are coming up on my area, with a 6 and 7 putting them on Atlantic and Ventnor respectively. The timing is too good to ignore. I don’t recall if it paid off the first time, but it did at least once, and in a game as cash-strapped as this, once is enough.

Fraley and Auston are suffering, but they have potential between them. I have cash to develop, but I wait. And it’s a good thing I do; the third Orange goes up to bid. Auston can’t get it, but if Fraley can they’ve already talked out some trades that give them monopolies. So I do what might be the most tactical and vicious thing I do this session; I buy it. I have the money to outbid, and I have every intention to sit on it. Without that lynchpin to make the trade, Fraley and Auston don’t have a deal to make.

My yellows begin to pay off. The writing’s on the wall for Auston. Cards Against Humanity roars on in the background providing numerous raunchy laughs to everyone, but here in Atlantic City we’re settling in for the grind.

It’s hard to determine when Serpico is feeling down, or when he’s trying to garner some sympathy through tactical bitching. What’s tactical bitching? Flashback…

BBQ’ing in Serpico’s backyard, a bunch of nerds are talking nerdy stuff. A discussion of the game Small World comes up. Erik is telling a tale of a friend who would whine and moan every time he was attacked. “Oh come on,” “Aw Jeez,” and my all-time hated one, “I’ve lost now,” all come spilling forth. Until the last turn.

“Okay, I’m going to attack [REDACTED].”

“Aww, damn, I… oh wait, I’ve taken all my turns, never mind.” His whining is that calculated kind of manipulation to throw people off his scent. I’ve known players like that. I hate players like that. Serpico hates players like that. So imagine my surprise when…

“The game’s pretty much done, I’m screwed. I just wanna build my house, just to be part of something.”

Here’s the thing; whether or not you think you’re out, you’re not out, so I don’t buy it. We know the score. You stamp three houses on either dark Blue, you’re not out. The one thing that throws me, however, is that he builds on Park Place, not Boardwalk. My guess is that, at the time, a 7 would’ve landed an opponent there, and once he committed to building there he stuck with it. But Boardwalk isn’t that much different from getting hit, probability-wise. In fact, it gets hit more, on account of the Chance card that sends you there. Hindsight is 20-20, and a couple of people did hit Boardwalk while it was still undeveloped. That would’ve been the turning point for Serpico. And while he moaned about being out, I was quick to note that he only needed one person to hit him and he was essentially the victor.

Therein lays one of the problems of Monopoly. You only feel good when other people are getting screwed. Every time someone skirts by your properties it’s a kick in the teeth. No matter how much you tweak the game, at its core you’re still at the whim of the dice.

Feels this way sometimes

End Game

Things are looking down for Fraley; he hits Serp at Boardwalk for a decent amount. But now is the perfect time to enact another one of Beyond Boardwalk’s more interesting rules

10) Voluntary Bankruptcy

The way it works is, at any time when you’re not in debt you can voluntarily declare bankruptcy. You turn in all cash and deeds to the bank. You then get Baltic, Mediterranean, and $800. If anyone owns them they get $120 per deed, plus full price for any houses and hotels on them. Auston gets $240, Fraley passes go and has $1000 to work with. He doesn’t build on the Browns (another change in the new Monopoly sets; the “dark purples” are now brown).

It’s a funny scenario. There are now a bunch of deeds in the bank that nobody but one guy can afford. He’s able to buy the same deeds that got him in trouble, but way cheaper. It’s like Freddie Mac all over again.**

Auston bankrupts on my spot. There’s a bit of argument as to what happens with his deeds. The official rule is this: when a player bankrupts on a player, all his assets go to the player who took him out. I get the deeds, but I don’t have the cash to improve on them. Not letting others have them is good enough.

Fraley can’t get a monopoly. Serpico finally hits my yellows and has to break down his dark blues. That’s effectively game end, so we call it. I win, and I thank everyone profusely for the game.

The win doesn’t feel like I thought it would. I think it’s because Monopoly is a game about crushing your opponents, and it doesn’t feel great to do that. You want everyone to have fun, and it’s hard for everyone to have fun in Monopoly; it’s usually just the one guy at any given time.

Post Mortem

One exchange Fraley and I had during the game I found very heartening:

Fraley: “Hmm. I learned something during this game.”

Me: “…Uh, are you going to tell us what that is?”

Fraley: “No.”

Me: “Hmm. Well, let me ask you this. Are you not telling me because it’s information you hope to use against me in a future play of this?”

Fraley: “Yes.”

Me: “Well that’s way better than knowing what it is you learned. I look forward to our next game.”

I still love Monopoly, from the stretches of tedium to the brief moments of triumph and defeat when that one (un)lucky roll hits. I’m becoming more acutely aware that I may be the only one, or at least one of a few, too few in my circle to get a game going. But I won’t stop fighting for it.

* Auston told us that when he used to play with friends they would sell die rolls. Like, if another player needed that 7 to hit a deed they wanted, and another player rolled it, they’d look at the dice, look at the player, and say, “for $100, that could be YOUR seven…” It never occurred to me that your roll could be a sell-able asset. I think I wouldn’t like it, but it’s a neat idea.

** It’s not like Freddie Mac

On Monopoly, Part 1: Home Sweet House Rules

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 lot to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

It was true for me as a child, and it is true today.

Look at this Suave motherfucker

When you’re a kid you don’t usually appreciate the subtleties of a complex board game. Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Cooties, Hi-Ho Cherry-O, these are your choices. They teach us simple things like counting, pattern recognition, colors, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit about probabilities and a lot about luck. They are designed to entertain children, and give families an activity to share. Monopoly does these things, but ask your parents if their goal in playing Monopoly was to teach you about savvy trading, auctioneering, probabilities on dice rolls, return on investment and cost analysis. Their goal was to keep their kids from chewing the house down. And the things that make that more effective are; lengthening the game, not eliminating players, not punishing kids who will throw fits, and generally keeping the “game” as an activity to share, not a cutthroat endeavor to reduce your opponents to nothing but pocket lint and a scowl.

I loved this game as a kid. I’d rope anyone willing to play into a game. I have very vivid memories of dragging my brother Ryan into a game, watching him get totally bored, and throw the game so he could do other things. I loved hitting Free Parking and raking in free cash. I loved that everyone could gather around the game and be a family. I don’t remember how most games turned out, but I remember a lot of smiles.

If I had to teach young me how the game was really played, I’d probably hate myself.

My uncle Sammy (actual uncle, not the guy with the flag suit) played games with the kids. He would’ve taught me how the game was truly played, if doing that didn’t harm his chances of defeating the kids. He played with a rule that, if you built, you didn’t “get to roll.” It’s in quotes, because rolling dice is super fun for a kid, why wouldn’t you want to do it all the time? Well, the same reason jail is super sweet late game: movement is a liability. If you can build one house a turn and stay anchored, holy shit balls, do it! He’d also fake dice rolls, fast-move pieces and grab the dice to cover his tracks, not pay you rent if you didn’t ask for it immediately after he landed (whoops, already rolled, not paying now), and do what it took to win.

What a fuckin’ shitheel.

Nobody in the family talks to him anymore. Still, I learned about shrewdness from him. I also learned about cheating. Not the cookie-cutter black-and-white “cheating is wrong kids!” stuff you get from Sesame Street and after school specials. I got the more subtle, more real-world lesson: Cheating is fine, if you have no shame. If you get away with it, you have nobody but yourself to answer to. And it’s a truly wretched endeavor.

But Monopoly is an iconic piece of Americana. It has an interesting and storied history, and has become an internationally recognizable game played by millions. It has seen dozens of iterations, and decades of play-testing, and continues to be updated. The Luxury and Income Tax costs have changed to reflect the U.K. version, and a speed die has been added to current prints that, well, make the game go faster (It was used in the 2009 National and World Championships). Nearly everyone you know has played Monopoly at some point.

And nearly every last one of them has never played the original rules.

So it wouldn’t be until years later that I would finally get the full rules, and their importance for the game. Common complaints about Monopoly are 1)It’s boring, 2) It takes too long, 3) eliminating players sucks, 4) it’s completely random. There are more, but most are variations on those ideas. So let’s address house rules, and how some of them pertain to these complaints.

Free Parking money and double salary for landing on GO are common house rules. They add money to the system, and in a game where bankruptcy is the end condition, giving more money to players prolongs the game. A more nuanced change it makes is that cheaper Monopolies lose their potency, as their rents become more inconsequential. If the game goes long enough, there could be so much money that nobody’s going to go bankrupt, and nobody has the wherewithal to just stop. It’s the main reason gripes 1 and 2 exist. But kids love luck, and parents love a lack of mayhem, so keep those dice rolling!

Another rule that you’d have to be a sado-masochist to try to teach children is that of the auction. When a deed is landed on, and that person doesn’t want to buy it, the deed goes to auction. Without this, deeds don’t get purchased as quickly, and the game drags. Some savvy players will push the deed to auction even though they want it, so they can try to snag it cheap. Or they’ll try to finagle other players into buying it at higher prices to sap their opponents’ cash. But try to get a kid to sit still for that.

Did you know that there’s a reason there aren’t enough houses and hotels for every deed? That’s on purpose. There are 32 houses and 12 hotels in a Monopoly game (plus a couple extras for when your kids lose or swallow a couple of them). When they’re gone, they’re not available until someone sells houses or builds hotels to free some up. While we’re at it, properties must be built up evenly. When you build a house on a new monopoly, the next house has to be on one of the undeveloped deeds. The third must be on the remaining slot. Then it starts over. It’s a bit lofty an idea for a kid; some adults refuse to get it. My favorite tactic in Monopoly, when I can do it, is to obtain cheap monopolies, say the light blues and pinks or oranges, and the dark purples (brown in the new set) if I can, and buy as many houses as I can. Even if an opponent gets their monopoly, they can’t improve on it, and I just have to wait it out. But try explaining to a kid the those extra houses aren’t for sale, and no, they can’t have any even though other people do. Or if they have houses, but can’t have hotels, because they can’t build the one more house to get all their deeds to four, so hotels are out of reach. Then explain even building to them. Then listen to them yell about it not being fair. Then try not to eviscerate anyone in the household before blowing your own head off. Or hell, just take the other Monopoly set you have because the first one got wet or bit or something, and use those. It’s just going to be easier.

As for gripes 3 and 4, well, yes. Eliminating players sucks. Most Euro games don’t have player elimination, because making your friend sit out while everyone else gets to play sucks, or worse, they get to have fun elsewhere while everyone else is stuck in a game they don’t like and won’t quit for some weird reason (maybe they were taught as kids that quitting is bad, and the thought of leaving a game nobody likes is somehow the same as that). The game is random, but within a set of probabilities. Dice rolling frequency is basic knowledge any gamer should have, and it’s not too difficult to teach kids. Catan teaches it far better than Monopoly, but Monopoly applies it in a different, more tactile manner. And the official rules keep the game moving, allow for more interesting choices, and make the game a more “game-y” experience than most people remember from their youth.

But Monopoly remains the same at its core; get rich, reduce your opponents to bankruptcy, feel kind of awkward about it when you’re done. That hasn’t changed, and as my recent play-through with hard-core gamers and a hard-core rules update, it’s still exquisitely bitter-sweet. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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.

…Huh

I like games where you don’t have the final scores until the end. If you’re paying attention you can usually determine who’s winning, even who’s won before the final scores are tallied. But there’s something amusing about playing a game to the end, counting and re-counting the final scores, and then just sort of saying, “…huh.  I guess you won.”

I don’t track information, at least not consciously. I like to play games by instinct. I keep a vague notion of who’s making the most headway, what resources everyone has, and feel my way through the strategy as I play. So when I’m in a game with hidden scores the end can be surprising. So it was with our recent play-through of Puerto Rico.

There were four of us playing; Me, Josh, John Fraley, and G. All of us were coming from a game the week prior fresh in our minds. We know the rules, we got a glimpse of strategies we like and, as Josh has said, we knew just enough to get into trouble.

Fraley won the previous game, by a margin so thin that if we had missed a rule regarding the harbor (+1 per delivery, not per phase) he would’ve been in second by 2 points. As it stood, we couldn’t track how many points were lost to that, but we figured it was more than 3. Fraley has a strong analytical mind. His day job involves gathering, processing, and interpreting data, so in a game with many moving parts he usually keys into what works.

At the start of the game I assume he’s off to an early lead. His buildings all work for him, he’s trading well, and everything is staffed. I look like I’m in the dumps, after I’ve missed the boat on goods delivery, pun intended. I’m doing well economy-wise, and I’m looking to buy buildings to gain points and offset my shipping deficiencies.

Midway in I get my favorite two buildings, wharf and harbor. Wharf gives you your own boat to ship goods. Harbor gives you points for shipping goods. The strategy is obvious, and is part of the longest examples for rules clarification in the book. They’re also expensive, and not worth much if you get them too late, but once you have them they’re easy to leverage. Meanwhile Fraley has bought the first 10 cost building (and will buy another by the end of the game), G has a decent but inefficient plantation going; she’s got two coffee fields staffed but neglected to pick up a roaster until late.  Josh has a harbor of his own and is producing a lot of goods. He’s got a good head for role selection, but he trips up one turn with role selection.  He chooses craftsman, I see he’s got good to ship but his position is bad, so I take captain and he loses a great deal to spoilage. I ship when I can and try not to waste money on buildings that won’t help in the late game.

When it’s over, we all flip our points and count the numbers. I comment that it looks like Fraley ran away with it. His response was “I feel pretty good about it.” We break it down by trade points, building values, and bonus points from the large buildings.

the world in black and white

Huh. I guess I won.

Once it was done, Fraley and I had this stunned expression, as we both checked the points again. And again.  Fraley was close. If one were to point out the deficiency, you could just look at the points from goods shipping. I lost sight of that mid-game, and just tried to push as much as I could.

Eurogames like Puerto Rico pride themselves on the lack of random influence. All information is public, actions are chosen and shared by players, and everyone has access to the same material, starting plantations aside. When you win, it’s all based on your skill as a player and your ability to read the situation and adapt to the developments of the game, while following a strong strategy. Had I followed and processed everything in the game I would’ve known how it was shaping up. But the feeling of surprise at the end, and the rush of the thrill of victory after everyone had left, are the reason I love gaming so much.

Ignorance may be bliss, but the reveal can be a pretty sweet plum too.