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Subject: BGTG 104 - Boardgame Themes (with Greg Pettit) rss

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Mark Johnson
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BoardGameGeek » Forums » Gaming Related » Podcasts & Blogs
BGTG 104 - Boardgame Themes (with Greg Pettit)


[The website for the blog & podcast now requires the "www" in the url, so update your bookmarks to http://www.BoardgamesToGo.com . Thanks!]

Themes in boardgames are a favorite subject of mine. I'm sure I've said before how interested I am in the themes these games of ours have. Some themes instantly attract me to a game, while others are an immediate turn-off. When I'm playing a game, I particularly enjoy historic theming on the cards, or historic notes within the rulebook. You'd think that makes me a theme-gamer. I certainly thought so. But then I thought about the games that were my favorites, and in many cases they are those elegant German-style games that are pretty spartan when it comes to theme compared to recent titles from Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder. In fact, I don't care for the those other games. In some cases it was because I didn't care for the theme itself (e.g. fantasy battles or dungeon crawl), but in other cases I didn't like how the themes I do like (e.g. gaslight London) overwhelm the game mechanics, taking aware from their elegance.


Enter Greg Pettit, who suggested that there are two distinct types of themes in games. Some provide the evocative experience with art, special rules, a story arc, character roles, and so on. That's what Greg calls "theme as narrative." The other type Greg calls "theme as metaphor," and it usually relates the subject of the game into its mechanics. Some games exhibit both types, others skew strongly toward just one type. I imagine everyone can appreciate those few games that manage to succeed with both of these thematic types, but when it's one more than the other you'll find your gamer preferences shining through. In my case, it's for theme as metaphor, which is why I prefer Vinci to Small World, or Entdecker to Blackbeard.

In this podcast Greg & I talk all about this topic, consider several games under his descriptions of theme, bring in the topic of simulation in wargames (a little), and think about why we prefer certain games and not others based on the way they implement their themes. In the next message I've also posted a poll where listeners can rate a bunch of popular games low/medium/high in theme as metaphor, and theme as narrative.

http://www.BoardgamesToGo.com

-Mark
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Here's the poll I mentioned. Please don't vote until you listen to the podcast, and hear Greg's description and discussion of these two types of theme. Thanks!

Just leave blank any game you aren't familiar enough to vote on. (I did.)

Poll
1. Rate the following games for theme as METAPHOR.
  Low Lo/Med Medium Med/Hi High
Acquire
Settlers of Catan
Tigris & Euphrates
Agricola
Battlestar Galactica
Descent
Tichu
Carcassonne
Brass
Puerto Rico
Twilight Struggle
Through the Ages
Dominion
Race for the Galaxy
War of the Ring
Pandemic
Ra
Small World
Vinci
GIPF
Memoir '44
Ticket to Ride
Notre Dame
2. Rate the same games for theme as NARRATIVE.
  Low Lo/Med Medium Med/Hi High
Acquire
Settlers of Catan
Tigris & Euphrates
Agricola
Battlestar Galactica
Descent
Tichu
Carcassonne
Brass
Puerto Rico
Twilight Struggle
Through the Ages
Dominion
Race for the Galaxy
War of the Ring
Pandemic
Ra
Small World
Vinci
GIPF
Memoir '44
Ticket to Ride
Notre Dame
      30 answers
Poll created by MarkEJohnson
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Joe Berger
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Hi Mark,
really really enjoyed the podcast. I'd love to do the poll, however there are a number of games here I ain't ever played! Call me casual. So shall I just rate those medium on each, or might you redo the poll including a button for NA. Thanks again for doing such interesting stuff out there.
 
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arnodestang wrote:
Hi Mark,
really really enjoyed the podcast. I'd love to do the poll, however there are a number of games here I ain't ever played! Call me casual. So shall I just rate those medium on each, or might you redo the poll including a button for NA. Thanks again for doing such interesting stuff out there.

You should leave blank any games you haven't played.
 
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Mark Johnson
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Yeah, I just edited the poll to make note of that at the top. Just leave any lines blank that you want to. I did!
 
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Chris B
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Great show Guys. I really want to fill out this poll, but I just cannot separate these two distinctions in my head. I listened to your show, and I understand what you're saying, but these two things mesh to well together, and I think of both of these things when I'm thinking about a game so well together, that I have a lot of trouble quantifying where these games lie on this scale. Perhaps after thinking about it for a night I might be able to come back to this and fill it out. But when I think about Acquire, I just cannot separate metaphor and narrative in my head when thinking about the theme. I only think about the theme.

Ed: Well, that was a lot of the same words that all said the same thing. See how you guys have messed up my head tonight...
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MarkEJohnson wrote:
Some games exhibit both types, others skew strongly toward just one type. I imagine everyone can appreciate those few games that manage to succeed with both of these thematic types, but when it's one more than the other you'll find your gamer preferences shining through. In my case, it's for theme as metaphor, which is why I prefer Vinci to Small World, or Entdecker to Blackbeard.


-Mark


Hi Mark,

Great podcast. It was well argued and it's a very interesting subject to explore. I think in the first of your examples above you are really preferring Theme as Narrative over Theme as Metaphor, though. Vinci and Small World play amost identically, so the Theme as Metaphor is basically the same. The reason you prefer Vinci is that the Narrative Theme of succesive historical conquests of Europe is more interesting to you than fantasy conquests in a fantasy landscape.
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Max Maloney
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It's a tricky subject, as the poll already reveals (imo). For example, Tigris & Euphrates gets a pretty decent average vote for "theme as metaphor," even though we very nearly have empirical evidence that this is untrue: the game is well known for being hard to understand for first-time players. This is the very definition of theme as metaphor, so it should be low.

Similarly, Agricola is getting pretty good ratings in that category. But what about farming informs the basic game mechanic that only one person can do a given task? If I plow my field, you can't plow yours? How does the metaphor of farming make that mechanic intuitive?

I believe both these games are stronger with theme as narrative, with Agricola having a particularly strong narrative theme (not everyone agrees on T&E).
 
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I posted about this at the blog as well, but this is probably a better place to have the discussion anyway....

I pretty strongly disagree with this division of theme, at least as far as I understand it. As far as language goes, however, I'm a pretty simple-minded guy so I'll go to Webster:
Quote:
- narrative: the representation in art of an event or story; also: an example of such a representation
— metaphor: figurative language; a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them

To me it is the narrative part that really makes a game thematic: a highly thematic game tells or shows an event or story. How does it show the story? By using metaphor: little tokens suggest an analogy to a person or group of people; the closed-fist auction mechanism suggests a silent auction. You guys are using "metaphor" to specifically relate to game mechanisms; I see no inherent connection between the two.

Also, you talk about several games on the podcast. Many times, though, you cannot even agree whether a game is mostly theme-narrative or theme-metaphor! So what is the point of making the distinction?

Even if we say that "metaphor" means "mechanism", I have a hard time calling "story" and "mechanism" completely independent variables. Doesn't mechanism x time = story (more or less)? Plotting these on an x-y axis therefore doesn't make much sense to me: that y axis should be angled to about 30 degrees!

Finally, on the idea that theme is simply something that makes the game easier to learn. I strongly disagree -- I don't think there's an inherent connection there. Does the theme of a book make it easier to read? Maybe; only if you are interested in the idea, because it's easier to focus on something you care about. Theme does make the game more fun to play (or the book more fun to read), but "theme" is the idea or story that the game is about, regardless of whether or not that makes the game easier to learn.
 
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Wow! Snoozefest captured my original thoughts on the matter, but I found myself arguing for the two axis theory as I wrote them down. So, I started graphing it, and realized that the two axis theory give us four quadrants. The confusion is that one quadrant is generally regarded as bad games, and is therefore ignored:



In the end, what many tend to think of as the "theme axis" is the red line (hey, there's snoozefest's 30 degrees!) that runs through the three quadrants of "good games".

So, in the end, we have looped back around to the beginning, and there is really only one line which forms the basis for scaling theme.

PS - sorry for the horrid graphics, MS Paint was all I had at the moment.
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That quadrant graphic is exactly what I had in mind, though I never mentioned it in the podcast, unfortunately (but I have since said so in a post on the blog).

However, I disagree that the lower right corner is "bad games." I think games in this category would include games like Arkham Horror, Mall of Horror, Twilight Struggle, and Descent.

Clearly, this has stirred up some good discussion, which is great. I need some time to collect my thoughts before I can give deserving responses to these great comments.
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Gregarius wrote:
That quadrant graphic is exactly what I had in mind, though I never mentioned it in the podcast, unfortunately (but I have since said so in a post on the blog).

However, I disagree that the lower right corner is "bad games." I think games in this category would include games like Arkham Horror, Mall of Horror, Twilight Struggle, and Descent.

Clearly, this has stirred up some good discussion, which is great. I need some time to collect my thoughts before I can give deserving responses to these great comments.


Having not played any of those games, I can't comment on them specifically. Anybody near me that wants to test my theories?

Seriously, the lower right quadrant are games where one asks, "how does that mechanic have anything to do with that story?" Is that those four games your mentioned? Surely Descent, at least, has some rules that make sense as a metaphor to the game, right? After all, both Descent and TS are getting pretty good scores in the "metaphor" poll.

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Gregarius wrote:
...the lower right corner... I think games in this category would include games like Arkham Horror, Mall of Horror, Twilight Struggle, and Descent.

So you're saying that for these games, the mechanisms don't relate well to reality?
Twilight Struggle: a game about alternate history, where similar events as ours might happen in different order, with different outcomes.
- Reality: over the course of time, stuff happens. Superpowers try to use stuff favorable to them to gather support in areas of the world they care about; certain areas are important earlier than others. Historically, there was this space race thingie, where a whole lotta stuff had to go just right to get a man ON THE MOON!
- Game: you get a random hand of cards (stuff) each turn (time). You (superpowers) play cards (use stuff) to build influence (gather support) based on the order you think they're important (score cards). If you want, you can try to get a man on the moon; but a lot of stuff has to go just right (get the right cards, roll as needed on the table).
Descent: a game about dungeon exploration
- "Reality": a party of adventurers goes into a dungeon, explores, fights monsters and takes their treasures. When fighting, sometimes they miss, sometimes they take a head off. When they're injured, they run back to town to rest.
- Game: select a character to play; each has different abilities; exert yourself (take a fatigue counter) to do something extra hard; roll dice to represent randomness of combat; go back to town to heal/reequip.

Obviously, it's not a perfect fit: you're playing TS for a few hours, not 40 years; when you're about to fight a room full of monsters, you don't freeze time and plan detailed tactics every few minutes. But it's not a simulation, it's a game! (BTW, I don't think players should have so much time to plan in Descent)
 
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Gregarius wrote:
However, I disagree that the lower right corner is "bad games." I think games in this category would include games like Arkham Horror, Mall of Horror, Twilight Struggle, and Descent.

This was my biggest disagreement with what you said during the show. I thought your "two types of theme" concept was very clever and important, but I don't see how you could call, for example, Arkham Horror low on theme as metaphor.

As I understood you, theme-as-metaphor is theme that helps you to understand how the game rules work. Doesn't the theme of Arkham Horror tell you exactly how the game will work? Great Old Ones are god-like horrors; fighting them will be difficult and you'll probably die. A motorcycle is faster than walking; if you have one you move further in the game. Flying monsters can find you more easily; when one is in "The Sky," the streets are unsafe locations. And so forth.

It seems as if you're conflating low theme-as-metaphor with rules complexity, which I think is a mistake. A game like Arkham Horror or a complicated wargame has rules detailed enough that you cannot easily internalize them and have no real chance to guess how they work. This potentially creates confusion because a game with a poor theme-as-metaphor would also have rules that are tricky to learn but it would be for different reasons. If we took the Arkham Horror rules and used them to represent the Cold War conflict, then you would have poor theme-as-metaphor and it would be very difficult to understand the game.
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I'm not sure how the 2-axis, 4-quadrant model is going to come out. That's why we posted the poll, to get people thinking along those lines so we can see what comes of it. But a challenge is having a common understanding of the distinction made between metaphor and narrative, and I confess to struggling with it myself.

I think another way of making a distinction is to consider the different reactions to two favorite games: Tigris & Euphrates, and Vinci/Small World. With T&E, I think it's very interesting how some people find it excessively abstract and difficult to understand (internalize), while others feel that it's very thematic and for them it makes perfect sense that red tiles are treated differently (internal conflicts) than the others--it's because they represent religious power. It's the same game, the same rules--why do gamers see such different things when they think about T&E's theme?

It's a little different with Vinci/Small World. There, what I heard was a surprising number of opinions that Small World had a lot of theme, while Vinci did not. I completely disagree! I think that they both of have strong themes, one just happens to be more sedate, with the ebb & flow of the tribes or civilizations of early Europe, while the other theme is more lurid, with fantasy races. There again, why do gamers see such different things when they consider the theme of Vinci? Not whether you enjoy the theme or are bored by it--why do some fail to see theme at all?

Finally, consider the extreme example of themed Monopoly sets. If you get Simpsons Monopoly, or NASCAR Monopoly, there's no question that the artwork, character/property names, and production goes all out to strongly invoke the theme. But the mechanics don't (at least I think they don't change those). That must be some other definition of theme.

That was the point of the podcast & our discussion, that there are different definitions for theme in games, and misunderstandings between gamers about those definitions is what generates such different viewpoints.

I like historic (some say boring!) narrative themes rather than fantasy ones, but in all cases I want the themes to have some real connection to the mechanics of the game, which is what we called metaphor.
 
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Dormammu wrote:
It seems as if you're conflating low theme-as-metaphor with rules complexity, which I think is a mistake. A game like Arkham Horror or a complicated wargame has rules detailed enough that you cannot easily internalize them and have no real chance to guess how they work. This potentially creates confusion because a game with a poor theme-as-metaphor would also have rules that are tricky to learn but it would be for different reasons. If we took the Arkham Horror rules and used them to represent the Cold War conflict, then you would have poor theme-as-metaphor and it would be very difficult to understand the game.


I have been thinking about this also. There are games in which the theme doesn't help completely internalize the rules simply because the rules are so complex. The rule-set cannot be internalized all at once. In fact, if the measure of metaphorical theme is internalizing the rules, then complicated games automatically fail. (Good-bye ASL!)
 
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I'm going to have to agree with Snoozefest on this one. I think you have to think of Theme on a one axis scale. I still can't get it done on two axis. I understand what you're saying, and your reasonings for wanting to introduce/think about a second axis, but I don't see it at all.

I find descent highly thematic narratively and metaphorically according to your definitions, you admitted that it is very easy to project metaphor into any game if you think about it. Which is why I think the two axis system breaks down.

Since Metaphor is so subjective (although narrative is pretty much a lock that we can discuss one way or another.) then I believe that yes, you cannot think of these two things on two separate axis and consider them separately.

Feldmafx's 30〫line is essentially what I would discuss, though I would move his 'bad games quadrant and quantify those games on that line somewhere based on my feelings. I can't quantify 'metaphor' and 'narrative' separately.
 
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Okay, I haven't had any time to think out this reply properly, but I don't want the discussion to go too far without throwing in my two cents.

First, Snoozefest, I don't know why you felt it necessary to bring out dictionary definitions of "narrative" and "metaphor." Words adapt and change and can be used in multiple contexts. I at least appreciate the fact that you use the word "mechanisms" instead of "mechanics."

But those are just the words I chose because I liked them. I can think of many other ways to express what I was thinking. Theme as Story Telling and Theme as Learning Tool; Goal-oriented and Task-oriented; What and How.

When I say, "The goal of this game is to make your palace the most beautiful by hiring the best craftsmen, artisans, and materials available"-- That's narrative.

When I say, "You need money to buy materials (represented by these cubes), which can be refined by craftsmen (exchanged for different cubes), and then put in your palace by artisans (exchange particular cube sets for cards of value)"-- That's metaphor.

I understand how some specific actions can be difficult to distinguish between the two, but I don't know how to make you see that there is actually a difference between the two.

Dormammu- From here on out, I will stop referencing Arkham Horror at all. I've only played it once, and that was a long time ago. It's not fair for me to use it as an example when it's clear that I don't know enough about the mechanisms to do so. I apologize.
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Two examples of high theme-as-narrative/low theme-as-metaphor:

Tobago, which I believe Mark mentioned in the podcast. The narrative theme of this game is very clear. Treasure hunting on a tropical island. Teams tooling around in SUVs looking for clues to the whereabouts of lost loot. It tells a story. However, the theme-as-metaphor is terrible. You would never guess at those rules systems based on the story. Specifically, sharing in loot based on clues contributed to it? How do I share something that another player found on the other side of the island? And movement: why is movement unlimited within a single terrain type, regardless of what terrain it is? It's easier to move across water in a jeep than it is to leave the water to get onto open plains? Very anti-intuitive based on the theme.

Second example is "commercial family boardgames." Frequently these sorts of games, such as Life or Pay Day, tell very clear and obvious stories. The theme-as-narrative is concrete and strong. You could narrate a game of Life as a biography. But the rules are so random and nonsensical that there is absolutely no theme-as-metaphor. You couldn't infer from the story of Life when and why things will happen to you. In these games, this disjunct is less apparent because the rules are so simplistic that it doesn't need theme-as-metaphor to teach you the game. If you can roll a die or spin a wheel, move that many spaces and read the text on the board, then you can play. But the theme isn't helping you at all.
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Gregarius wrote:
Dormammu- From here on out, I will stop referencing Arkham Horror at all. I've only played it once, and that was a long time ago. It's not fair for me to use it as an example when it's clear that I don't know enough about the mechanisms to do so. I apologize.

I should emphasize that I thought 95% of what you said on the podcast was spot on. I only pointed out the few areas I disagreed with in the spirit of helping to refine your concept.

It's a fantastic idea you raised.
 
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snoozefest wrote:
Gregarius wrote:
...the lower right corner... I think games in this category would include games like Arkham Horror, Mall of Horror, Twilight Struggle, and Descent.

So you're saying that for these games, the mechanisms don't relate well to reality?

No. When did I ever say anything about "relating well to reality?" This isn't a political discussion, where you can argue against me for statements I haven't made.

Quote:
Twilight Struggle: a game about alternate history, where similar events as ours might happen in different order, with different outcomes.
- Reality: over the course of time, stuff happens. Superpowers try to use stuff favorable to them to gather support in areas of the world they care about; certain areas are important earlier than others. Historically, there was this space race thingie, where a whole lotta stuff had to go just right to get a man ON THE MOON!
- Game: you get a random hand of cards (stuff) each turn (time). You (superpowers) play cards (use stuff) to build influence (gather support) based on the order you think they're important (score cards). If you want, you can try to get a man on the moon; but a lot of stuff has to go just right (get the right cards, roll as needed on the table).

Your simplification is interesting, and if I were arguing that "high metaphor" equaled "close to reality," you might have me. But explain to me how playing from a hand of cards relates to actions in the world? How could I be forced to make an action that I knew in advance would have wonderful consequences for my opponent? How do I know that certain events are destined to happen? Why does the scoring happen only when a card is played?

Quote:
Descent: a game about dungeon exploration
- "Reality": a party of adventurers goes into a dungeon, explores, fights monsters and takes their treasures. When fighting, sometimes they miss, sometimes they take a head off. When they're injured, they run back to town to rest.
- Game: select a character to play; each has different abilities; exert yourself (take a fatigue counter) to do something extra hard; roll dice to represent randomness of combat; go back to town to heal/reequip.

I've never played Descent, so it was a poor choice. I imagine that it is at least somewhat similar to Space Hulk, though, so I think I understand what you're saying. You don't think rolling dice is a poor metaphor for combat?

Quote:
Obviously, it's not a perfect fit: you're playing TS for a few hours, not 40 years; when you're about to fight a room full of monsters, you don't freeze time and plan detailed tactics every few minutes. But it's not a simulation, it's a game! (BTW, I don't think players should have so much time to plan in Descent)

My original comment here just said that I didn't think games with low metaphor and strong narrative were "bad," but now I find I'm defending something else entirely. Notice, I said "low metaphor." In the podcast, I specifically stated that *all* games have a measure of *both*. My scale is about the degree. Clearly, you disagree with me about that, and that's fine.
 
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I can agree with Max on the high narrative / low metaphor quadrant. My thoughts went immediately to mass-market game, such as Life or PayDay. "Bad games" is too broad a brush.

I haven't played Tobago, but it's high on my wishlist!
 
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Dormammu wrote:
Tobago, which I believe Mark mentioned in the podcast. The narrative theme of this game is very clear. Treasure hunting on a tropical island. Teams tooling around in SUVs looking for clues to the whereabouts of lost loot. It tells a story. However, the theme-as-metaphor is terrible. You would never guess at those rules systems based on the story. Specifically, sharing in loot based on clues contributed to it? How do I share something that another player found on the other side of the island? And movement: why is movement unlimited within a single terrain type, regardless of what terrain it is? It's easier to move across water in a jeep than it is to leave the water to get onto open plains? Very anti-intuitive based on the theme.

I agree completely. In the podcast, I listened to Mark discuss it, but forgot (or was sidetracked) and never gave my response. I agree that Tobago is high on narrative and low on metaphor, for these reasons and the ones Mark mentioned.

One of my biggest problems with the game centers around this axis, actually. It doesn't make sense to me that you can *choose* which specific clues to add to particular treasures. It seems more natural that you would just pick a treasure, then turn up the next random card onto it. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't, maybe it makes the treasure impossible (false lead). However, that might be better metaphorically, but it is certainly much worse strategically and probably much less fun.
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Dormammu wrote:
Gregarius wrote:
Dormammu- From here on out, I will stop referencing Arkham Horror at all. I've only played it once, and that was a long time ago. It's not fair for me to use it as an example when it's clear that I don't know enough about the mechanisms to do so. I apologize.

I should emphasize that I thought 95% of what you said on the podcast was spot on. I only pointed out the few areas I disagreed with in the spirit of helping to refine your concept.

It's a fantastic idea you raised.

Aw, shucks. Thanks.

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I've never done a poll on BGG before. Does everyone get to see the results as they're accumulating? Or just me because I created it. (Hmm, I just realized I could log off BGG and come back to the page to see for myself.)

There are some very uniform results for some games, and interesting scatters for others that might help our discussion . . . but with only 8 people voting so far, I need to wait until we get more data.
 
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