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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Risk: This Is How The World Ends

Ted’s Campaign

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

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

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

Game 11

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

Game 12!

Sometimes hope is just a word.

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

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

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

Game 13

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

It’s Risk. Says so right on the box.

Greg’s Campaign, Game 8

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 2 Win

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

Ted’s Campaign (Called)

Brandon: 7 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 2 Win

Packets Open: Everything

Legacies: Tyrant

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

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

Dear God, what have I become?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

Two Minds

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

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

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

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

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

An important lesson I almost forgot in the other world.

Greg Games 6 & 7: Misunderestamission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

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

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 5 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital

P.S.

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

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

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

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

The Co-Op Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacies: S*** Just Got Real

A few more sessions have happened, and we’re up to 6 games with Ted and 5 with Greg. And I want to keep spoilers out of the post and preserve the feeling of a unique experience in both campaigns. But God help me, I have seen things. Dark things. I have seen what Man hath wrought, dark nightmarish scenarios I cannot un-know. In one campaign. And I see no way of keeping it from coloring my decisions in the other.

I can’t even keep them from coloring how I write this article. Just so you know…

*THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!*

Check this pun out, as I SPUN OUT, NERDS! *Car peels out, narrowly missing the Fung Wah Bus. Fung Wah Bus explodes anyway.*

Spoilers

First off, how great is that, a board game with spoilers? Not developing strategies, not expansions, but honest-to-God new information that could sour a person’s experience if you informed them of it. “Luke, I am your father,” “he’s been dead the whole time,” “guess who gets beheaded at the end of this book” spoilers.

Josh and I are at odds on this.

I absolutely hate the idea of running it for you, even if you think you won’t ever play the game.

Josh, well, see if you pick up what he’s putting down:

dude, if you write another risk legacy post with the idea that you don’t want to spoiler it I don’t see how it’ll be very interesting. I think trying to prevent spoilers will make your post weaker.”

And I hate to but have to agree. “Hey, this totally awesome thing happened, but I can’t give you details or it’ll ruin something you may or may not play in the future.” That’s a dick move. So is ruining the surprise. I don’t want these updates to be boring or detrimental to anyone’s potential enjoyment of a game. I’m going to sequester spoilers as best as I can, but make sure you know when you’re about to read one.

Part I: What Man Hath Wrought

While not the most efficient structure for updates, I’m going with chronological order of games played. The excitement derived from sudden reveals, coupled with long wait periods filled with “what-ifs” and “moral quandaries vs. strategic necessity vs. pure fun” cannot, in my limited ways, be captured any other way.

Ted Game 4: I Care About Winning

I won. I should not have won. Aaron had a better-than-even-odds chance of taking my base for the victory. A string of improbable 6’s, one die at a time, kept him just short. Events and scars ruined my holdings in Australia, but my squirreling away of resource cards worth 2 coins allowed me to make a massive push across the board to take every base on the board (4 of us played, Sam couldn’t make it). My spoils are a major city in Ural that essentially makes me the only person capable of taking Australia on turn one without massive losses.

If I split my forces I would’ve had enough to take out Ted as well and open a packet. Afterward I mentioned it to him, then said “Who would do that? That’s the kind of decision that loses a game.” Ted asked me a question he no doubt thought was rhetorical; “Who cares about winning?” I do. I care very much. The games are fun, win or lose, and the Argentinean Butch-and-Sundance holdout from game 3 remains my favorite moment in this campaign. Nonetheless, when I sit down to the table I want to win. I want to sign the board. I want to name continents and forge major cities, I want to name the Earth and be its supreme leader. I can appreciate Ted’s desire to keep the game fun and interesting, and push opening packets over clearer paths to victory, but I’m playing to win, and so are everyone else at the table. People literally bleed over this game, I think I’m allowed to take the victory seriously.

Teaser: Game 5 would flip this mindset right on its f***ing head.

PACKET OPENING: SIGN A BOARD FOR THE SECOND TIME1

Yes, I’ll admit, opening this the second time was a bit underwhelming, but having new missions and material to work with is pretty great.

Greg Game 4: “On A Mission”

I’m able to win game 4, fairly swiftly. I snag Australia first turn, take a couple cities, and improbably I get 2 events back to back, that give me bonuses for having the highest population. I get extra troops, and I change the mission to something I can easily accomplish (take 4 territories over water connections). The second mission is attainable as well, and I take the game. This was a lucky win, as the vent deck and missions kept feeding me great things, and my dice were nigh unbeatable.

For my second win I stamp a major city in Australia. It’s been my base of victory each time, so I want to increase my ability to start there. I call it Helios 1, because I’m playing Die Mechaniker and I think it sounds machine-y. I’ve also been playing Fallout New Vegas, which has a Helios 1 in it. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake.

PACKET OPENING: ALL MINOR CITIES PLACED2

I’m really happy to have this one opened here. It adds a very critical component to the game, one that balances the game and adds fun. For details and my take on it, read below in the endnotes.

Greg Game 5: What Man Hath Wrought

Game 5 has Erik placing directly in Australia, preventing my using it. So, my Major City and Continent bonus get usurped. But that’s not the worst of it.

Winston makes a push against Australia, specifically from Ural into my Major City in Australia. It’s not in my best interests for him to win, as Erik is far away from me, and having him strong and able to fight other opponents is good for me. Plus, Winston has 2 wins. So, when Winston plays a missile against Erik, I play one on Erik’s behalf. That’s two missiles.

Opening packets is fun. That’s the rationale employed when the “three missiles” packet is up for grabs. Not a tactical advantage, because only in very rare circumstances would that third die change to a 6 help anyone. But hey, you kind of gotta know; what’s in that packet?

PACKET OPENING: AS SOMEONE IS PLAYING THE THIRD MISSILE IN A SINGLE COMBAT ROLL3

This section “contains” spoilers, only in that there are spoilers present. This spoiler cannot be contained. Like the consequences it unleashes and the knowledge it contains, any method of story-telling that seeks to usurp even the smallest fraction of this cataclysm will be inescapably reduced to “um, er, ah, well trust me, it was cool.” If you have any desire in playing this game in the future, please stop reading now.

Okay, now that I asked all the target audience to leave, here’s what happened, blog-bots.

When the third missile is played, it represents a nuclear device. The player who plays the third missile chooses which of the two territories gets nailed. This could be an interesting decision for an outside interloper (an inside-outerloper?). For this one, Winston slammed the territory that wasn’t his. The territory gets a large scar with the universal symbol for nuclear fallout. The land is not uninhabitable, but thoroughly toxic. The first time anyone enters they lose half their troops, rounded up. At the end of the turn you lose 1 troop still there. To put it in perspective, you must enter with at least 4 troops to ensure you hold the territory at the end of the turn. It’s a brutal price to pay for a territory. And it’s smack dab on Indonesia, on top of a smoldering pile of high-tech junk where the proud Mechaniker city of Helios 1 stood, for less than 2 turns total. It has left my city and the continent I named a nearly uninhabitable wreck.

And I helped cause it. And it was truly amazing and heart-wrenching. Because no game can offer that kind of penalty to my hubris. This is a mar on the world that will last for-f**king-EVER.

Of note, out of the bubbling pitch comes a new faction: Mutants. They have sweet powers, feed on nuclear fallout and biohazards, and have their own missions and evolution structure. They’re also sworn enemies of the faction responsible for the fallout and have bonuses against them. Way different than the d8s and d10s I thought were in that big pocket of a packet.

Jessica took the win. She basically convinced everyone I was the threat and she the savior. She negotiated a three turn truce to everyone on the freaking board, then went at me until she had the bases she needed. So yeah, this game didn’t turn out too well for me. She named the game “the Negotiator,” though I think we all know what the main event was in game 5.

Part II: Penance and Absolution

The snow is still thick on the ground, and the wind is biting. I give Mark a brief ride from the T to Ted’s house, dropping him at the door while I circle back around to the only place that has parking (without a chair or bin or something to guard it), the metered lot behind the Davis Square CVS. It’s a chilly walk, and I’m focused on moving quickly so I can get out of the cold and into the game. But there’s this thought bouncing around my head; how am I going to implement the 3 missile packet without harming the game unfairly? At this point in the game I hold 2 out of the 4 missiles (Aaron has one and I have the other), so that packet doesn’t open without me. And I know exactly what it does.

The devil and angel on my shoulder keep whispering ideas. “Wait until later games when someone else has a chance to use it.” “Aim it at that smug bastard, he deserves it.” “Only use it when it harms you as well as another.” “Wait until someone uses their missile in a foreign land, then double-drop your missiles and scorch their continent.”

I was torn. Short of microwaving my own brain I can’t keep it out of my head. I had to be fair, but not suicidal. I should be tactical, but use only the information available to everyone. The largest long-game consequence to date must be handled properly.

Game 5: F***it Ted, let’s just kill each other.

There’s one other person at the table who can understand my plight. Ted has been through a campaign before. He has seen many (but not all) of the packets in the game. He’s playing to have fun; more specifically, to facilitate an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table. And he knows what’s in that packet.

I forget who the attacker and the defender were. I do know that the countries involved were China and Southeast. And I do know that I dropped the third missile. Admittedly, after a lot of hemming and hawing on whether I should, Aaron finally said “okay, now you have to, you’ve spoiled enough of it already.” So I fired. The two people who knew exactly what the stakes were met to obliterate each other.

PACKET OPENING: AS SOMEONE IS PLAYING THE THIRD MISSILE IN A SINGLE COMBAT ROLL

I choose China as the spot of devastation, because I’m not about to nuke Arcos I or my entry into Australia. For this game it’s irrelevant; the fallout damage that was isolated in the other campaign due to Indonesia’s island status is felt full-force here. Every neighboring land gets a d6 hit. Ted is wiped off the board, and I follow shortly after. The game lasts just long enough for use to redeploy; Mark wins right after I place, right back in Southeast Asia.

I feel pretty good about this. It seems only fitting that the two people who know the big reveal be crushed by it. At this point it’s too unlikely the packet will be triggered by two other players with one missile between them, before Ted and/or I get the opportunity to press the button. And the pocket is super-awesome. I feel much better now that the burden of information is off and, even though it killed me, the reveal turned out to be as unique and epic for this campaign as it was for the other (more so, perhaps, since the fallout wiped out two factions and opened the game for the others). It is my penance. And next game was my absolution.

Game 6: And muthaf**kas act like they forgot about Rahhal

Let’s take a look at a standard Risk board:

Australia is a pretty sweet plum (which is probably why they colored it like that) because it’s a continent with only one entrance/exit. Defense is as simple as sitting on Indonesia, or better yet Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest place to gain and maintain bonus armies.

Now let’s take a look at our game:

No spot in Australia can serve as a starting point. Southeast Asia has my major city, Arcos I, meaning only I can start there. India has another minor city. And China is now a wasteland. Which means that the closest anyone can start is 3 countries away, perhaps in Afghanistan. From loss of armies in neutral cities, it would take a minimum of 7 extra troops to enter and fully occupy Australia, which is then vulnerable to counter-attack. For me it’s 4, with India and China buffering against counter-attacks. Oh, and the placement of scars means I will always* have Southeast Asia as a starting play.

This game was fraught with peril, mostly in the form of event cards. Some reward you for population, and some penalize you for under-protecting cities or just being near a nuclear wasteland. This game saw me corked in Australia with a measly 2 troop bonus which was quickly marginalized by death to fallout, city riots, and most importantly, my HQ being razed and removed from the board.

It was the best thing that could’ve happened.

With no way to threaten the other players, and nothing of value to take from me (except cards, though the chances of taking me over completely remained low), I was left to rot. Every now and then I would duck out of my hole to claim a territory, a card, and one mission, bringing my point count to 1. An early card exchange by Mark caused a cascade of card trades and brutal battles of attrition that ground down everyone’s momentum without anyone getting their critical 4th point. It’s late, fatigue has set in, Mark is clearing his troops out to allow easier access to bases. On my final turn, another fallout event wipes out everything I have except for a few troops in Australia. It’s grim for me, except I’ve been squirreling away. I have a stack of cards totaling 10 coins.

WHEN A PLAYER IS ABOUT TO PLACE 30 TROOPS AND HAS A MISSILE4

I’m skeptical that 37 troops will be enough to get me the win this turn, and I’m worried that I’ll be subject to massive counter-attack. But the turn comes with a huge boost. This is the only other packet in the game that’s a pocket containing more than just cards. Where the first one pollutes a nation on the map, this one creates new life and alters the geography of the board. The addition?

Aliens.


And Alien Island.

The opener of the packet places all his reinforcements plus 10 alien troops on alien Island. Alien Island is a scar you place in any ocean on the board, and connect two coastal countries to it, that will be connected permanently. This is a major change to the board, altering the geography and potentially re-opening Australia to the world and “fixing” what everyone sees as a broken location too good for one man to claim. So when I get it it’s an extra kick in the face to my opponents; Australia stays sealed, and I use the island to drop right into the nexus of bases in Europe and North America. 47 Troops proves to be more than enough to claim the win. For my victory, I name Australia as a fusion of Die Mechaniker and Alien Influence: Sternenbasis, German for Starbase, written in a combination of symbols and blocky text.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 30 + missiles

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 3 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 1 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital and DO NOT OPEN. EVER.

Looking Ahead

Most of the packets are opened in both games. I’m not too concerned about revealing or unfairly using the information from the 30+ troops packet in Greg’s campaign, as I have less control over who will get it, and I’m fairly certain I will spend cards earlier if I believe it will get me the win. I’m up in Ted’s game, even in Greg’s, and crazy-excited to play the next sessions this week.

1: This packet introduces the concept of homelands. Factions track where you start, so a faction with a majority of starts in a single continent has that continent as their homeland, which means when you can take a resource card you can take any one from that continent, regardless of if you or anyone else currently holds it. It also adds some missions and a new type of scar, biohazard, which is brutal.

2: This packet introduces a draft mechanic. There are 4 sets of 5 cards: Starting Turn, Starting Placement, Starting Troops, and Starting Coin Cards. The Faction cards themselves serve as Starting Factions, of course. At the start of the game, instead of rolling to determine who gets first placement and turn order and all that, you roll dice to see who gets first pick of cards. A snake draft follows, where each person gets a card, then the order reverses each round. This is a great mechanic, and I think the only reason it wasn’t included in the beginning was that the initial games of Risk were meant to be as fast and uncomplicated as possible. Drafting is fun, and with the addition of potential starting coins cards (there’s a pick for 2, a couple for 1) and varying starting troops (high as 10, low as 6, which are big differences for those first turns) the tension and strategic planning happen long before the first troop is on the board.

3: There are a number of other things in this packet. There are missions specific to the mutants, and evolution cards that will give the mutants one of four new powers based on their decisions. There may be more, but the evening was a whirlwind of packets, so I don’t recall all the contents.

*”Always” meaning “until a new rule pops up, or a scar is blanked, or a city is destroyed which may or may not have an effect on starting placement. Packets are mostly out though.

4: The packet has a ton of other stuff too. It contains the Aliens as a playable faction, the Alien Island territory card worth 3 coins, and some missions and events that tie into the alien involvement. There is also the potential for new map-changing scars; ruins, which bulldoze cities. Also of note, the faction responsible gets the “alien sympathizer” scar, giving it a bonus for trading in cards for troops, but costing 2 extra troops to take over a neutral city, which can be a huge cost, especially when our Australia is filled with cities.

Playing for second

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Its not a game! (But its still fun)

When talking about board games, one that gets brought up often and often riles me up is Apples To Apples.  A huge commercial success and a requirement for every floor of every dorm of every college campus, it’s not surprising that it comes up as often as it does when what I want to talk about is which specific Dominion cards I enjoy (Menagerie and Horn of Plenty).  One of the things I find myself saying is “It’s not a game!”, which is technically untrue.

It is extremely difficult to define what a board game is, but an essential component in my mind is competition (The most important component in my mind is that it is fun, but fun is a lot more nebulous. Also finding the balance of fun and serious competition is tough).  And while winning isn’t everything (there are games I have not enjoyed despite being ultimately crowned victor), it is important. Behind that large and potentially obvious statement is something a little more nuanced: not only does there have to be competition, but players need to feel like they have some stake in and influence over the outcome.

Here is where Apples To Apples (and the recently released Cards Against Humanity, or Apples to Apples rated R) falls apart for me.  Technically, it is a game: it has a set of rules,* you sit around and play it and there is a winner. And unless you’re playing with a bunch of assholes, it is generally pretty fun. But the winner doesn’t matter.  I say that not (only) as a competitive person that cares about who wins enough to have it be a column in the Standings, but also because I’ve seen “games” of Apples to Apples continue long after a winner was declared by the rules.

“That’s great!” you might say “It means everyone is having so much fun they wanted to keep going!”  And I agree, it IS great, but it also means that it isn’t really a game, it’s an activity.  AND THAT’S OKAY!  Gamers are defensive about their subculture and can be pretentious about it, so don’t take the label of activity as a bad one; some of the best things in life are activities** that in no way should have competitive parts to them.

But for it to be a “game”, you need to have competition, and for it to be a good game, you want to have both stake in and influence over the outcome.  So we hit the “stake in” part, lets move on to the “influence over.”

“I’m great at Apples to Apples, its all about knowing what sense of humor the other players have.”

Well, yes and no. If everyone is playing to have fun and be silly, then yes, the tools you use to win would be figuring out what other people might find funny. Except that not everyone plays that way (theres always one person who takes everything literally), and not everyone plays the same way throughout the game.  In fact, the biggest chance to effect the outcome is when you are the judge, and then you could turn the game into “which of these cards belongs to the person who is losing?”  But then you’d be playing like an asshole.

But in truth, I come here not to bury Apples to Apples, but to celebrate it for what it is: A really fun party time activity.  In fact, let’s go ahead and talk about fun party time activities, because they’re great!

The Drawing Game

This has been monetized recently as Telestrations, but I remember playing this game in highschool with pieces of paper and loving it.  The idea is simple: Everyone sits in a circle and writes a sentence.  They pass that to the person on their left, who draws a picture to convey that sentence.  They fold the paper so the next person can only see the drawing. The next person has to write a sentence to describe the drawing.  This goes until the person who wrote the original sentence ends up with their paper back.  What you get is a game of Telephone only with drawing and with 8 things going around simultaneously.  It’s hilarious, it’s easy, it’s relatively low investment with a whole lot of payoff at the end.

Brandon’s take on “Deformed Mexican Squirrel”

1000 Blank White Cards

I can’t remember how I found out about it, but 1000BWC has been a favorite small group activity for years.  This link will tell you all the rules and the suggested set up better than I could describe it, but for those who don’t feel like clicking: You have to make your own card game while you play.  Every card must have three things: A title, a picture, and what the card does.  New cards are made before each game and during each game and at the end of the game everyone gets together and decides which cards were the most fun and will get used in the next game.

Improv Games

Alright, so these take a little more bravery, but who doesn’t want to play a round of Busted Tee?*** or Bad Raps?  OK, so it may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for funny non sequitors, you could do worse.

In sum,

If you’re looking for a silly game with a winner, go with something like Balderdash.  If you want a fun activity, feel free to suggest Apples to Apples, but don’t pretend it’s deeper than it is.  It’s fun, and that is enough.

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*I’m not going to go into too much depth on this, because I don’t want to write three or four more paragraphs on it, but another major gripe I have with A2A is that whenever I see it played in a group of 5 or more, there’s a disagreement on whether or not you’re allowed to lobby the judge, and how much, and what exactly you’re allowed to say.  Games with that much disagreement on the rules are bad games.

**Singing, grilling food, drinking beer, comedy, sex, watching TV, catching up with old friends, exploring a new place, building sandcastles, spending time with small children

***For the non improvisors in the audience, Busted Tee works like this: you stand in a circle and everyone chants “Whats on your Tee? Whats on your busted Tee?” One person describes an image “Okay, so its a clock, but instead of hands its got sharks” and the next person says the words that go underneath it “Every week is shark week” or “Ridgemont Highschool class of 1977” or something that either makes sense or doesn’t. Then the chants starts up and the person who was putting the tagline on the image says the next image.

…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.