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Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
After an October overflowing with great new-to-me games, November was a return to normality. Eight new games and no real stinkers, but only one definite hit.
I picked up the Sid Sackson reissues box set of Sleuth, Monad and Venture at Essen but didn't have time to play any of them. Sleuth was the one I was most excited about, and it didn't disappoint. As one player commented when I taught it today, "It's just like Clue, but without all the stupid walking around!".
This is indeed a pure deduction game, with all of Sackson's hallmark elegance. It also plays a bit like my recent obsession, Hanabi in reverse: instead of trying to push information out to other players and hope they use everything at their disposal to make clever inferences, in Sleuth you're trying to suck all that information in for your own benefit. I'm still working on my notation system, but it seems quite similar to what is required to solve a Sudoku puzzle.
Another Essen pick-up that hit the table this month, only once so far. I love modern-day themes, and filling a newspaper front-page with articles and photos is a much better fit for a spatial placement, individual player-board Euro than the usual tedious palazzo-building! I also really like the way the game throws a wrench in the careful individual planning by allowing you to buy adverts for call-girls and dump them in the middle of your opponents' layouts!
The rules are a little clunky in some ways and the graphic design is pretty spartan (not that I mind), but on the whole Extrablatt feels amazingly modern for a game published in 1991. Drafting, area majority, auctions - all present and correct. Schmiel was way ahead of his time.
I really like the idea and aesthetics of 'the Polish queuing game', but I'm not convinced I'll want to play it much. It achieves its educational aims of evoking the hopelessness of the queuers and the capriciousness of the system. But once you've experienced that, I'm not sure there's much gameplay to keep you coming back.
I'm always interested to try a new Knizia - I think I'm up to 50 now! From reading the rules, the spatial stock-market of Spectaculum sounded a lot like Paris Connection, once you see past the actively unhelpful pasted-on circus theme. That turned out to be pretty accurate, though the market is more volatile than PC and Spectaculum doesn't have the cleverness of shares and tracks being represented by the same cubes. There's a 'gamers variant' that gives a little more choice in track-building, but I prefer the basic rules. Like Kingdom Builder, I think the constraints are the point, and the basic rules keep the game as snappy as it needs to be for something so simple.
On The Cards
Fluxx for trick-taking fans! It's a deck of standard cards plus a deck of rules cards, four of which are flipped over to define a trick-taking/climbing game. You play a round according to those rules, then the winner takes one of the rule cards as a point, revealing a new rule. I like that the rules only change gradually, and it's interesting to see how a small change can still make a big difference to the play. It's nicely put together, but some rules combinations result in rather odd games.
The second game from the box-set was a rare Sackson disappointment for me. The basic set-collection structure works fine, if not exactly evocative of building a business empire. And the balancing of the low and high-value money cards by allowing low cards to be built up into more valuable sets is classic Sackson elegance (later used by Knizia too). But the random, swingy take-that cards seemed oddly out of place in a Sackson design and the game really dragged for us. I won't write it off yet, but it was not a good first impression.
Decent push-your-luck dice filler with more to it than the tedious Zombie Dice and its ilk. I had fun (and was outrageously lucky!) but it's not particularly memorable. I'd play again if it was around but won't seek it out.
Rumble in the Dungeon
I played Rumble in the House a year ago and found it to be an OK 5-minute micro-filler with a bit of bluff. Rumble in the Dungeon is essentially the same game, with one minor tweak that I quite liked.
Oops, missed this one, which I played in the final hours of November. My regular 2p opponent bought this recently and we were both keen to try it. Unfortunately neither of us knew the rules already, and the rulebook is horrid. The game may be asymmetric, but I found having different thematic terminology for 'draw deck', 'hand' and 'discard pile' for each of the players unfortunate to say the least.
Once we finally got going, I found the game surprisingly simple, though Fantasy Flight did their usual best to conceal that under a layer of unnecessary chrome. The asymmetry is really neat, and I like the mind games. I enjoyed the game, and would like to play again, but I do feel that most of the point of it will be getting in really deep with the deck-building and expansion packs. I don't think I'm interested enough for that to be likely.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
First off, I think Michael Barnes is one of the most interesting writers on board games we have, and I always find his opinion pieces thought-provoking. But his latest: “Fun-First Design”, contains several things I disagree with and I wanted to talk about why.
Up front, Barnes acknowledges the problem with using the word “fun” when we talk about games -- it is subjective and overloaded, thus becoming almost meaningless as a descriptor. But he then goes on to stake out ownership of “fun” for a particular type of games that happen to be those he enjoys, in the process dismissing other people’s idea of “fun”.
Barnes describes a dichotomy between “casual” games which “have a single mechanic and the intent is to entertain and engage the audience without demanding commitment or that drilling-down action through layers of systemic rules” and “hardcore” games, which “insist that the player work for the fun, and in fact that process of working for the fun often is the fun”. But then he begs his own question of “which of these kinds of games is fun to you at the time you’re playing them” by naming the first type “fun-first games”.
Barnes elaborates further on how to identify such games, but in the process almost acknowledges the circularity of his definition: “Fun-first designs also seem to favor heavy interaction, metagaming, and socialization, which is what I’m looking for when I get together with my friends for a game night.” So “fun-first designs”, for Barnes, are designs that engender the experiences that he finds fun.
While I certainly recognise (and often enjoy) the type of game Barnes is talking about, I don’t think “fun” is the right way to distinguish them, nor that these games somehow get “closer to a state of pure intent and the essential purpose of the games medium”.
Barnes also harks back to the dismissive caricature of fans of heavy Euros as ‘fun-murderers’ who aren’t looking for enjoyment in games. “Games are- well, they should be- fun. We play them with friends and family to have a good time, to enjoy ourselves, to laugh, and to interact using the game as a social centerpiece. If you’re playing games for any other reason, as I’ve always said, then you’re doing it wrong.”
But he rather undermines his own argument by describing the different type of fun he has had himself “from the sense of discovery of strategic routes through the mechanics, how the mechanics describe setting and concept, and in the hobbyist notion of drilling down through layers of depth to get at those nuggets of entertainment”.
There’s also a weirdly contradictory aside in which Barnes describes the “elaboration of detail and coordination of mechanics” found in “mechanics-first” games as “in some ways the true technical artistry of game creation”. Here he almost sounds like he’s siding with the Eurosnoots -- surely the artistry of game creation involves more than just clever mechanics.
I have a deeper problem with the idea of “fun-first design” though, in that I don’t think fun is an intrinsic property of a game design at all. Fun is something experienced by an individual, influenced not only by the game they are playing, but also their personal preferences and the social context created by the other players.
Barnes cites Cosmic Encounter as an example of a fun-first design in which “the fun rises to the top almost immediately and there’s no buy-in or lead-in to get to it. I’ve come to treasure game designs that respect my time and practically guarantee that my table is going to have a good time”.
Much as I love Cosmic myself, this is not how I would describe it at all. Several of my best gaming friends would rather gouge their eyes out with a spoon than sit through Cosmic again, and it’s not because they hate fun or because they’re “doing it wrong”. And what’s more, if I was playing with people who disliked it, I’d have no fun either; Cosmic is one of the most group-dependent games I know. As for no lead-in, try playing with a table full of newbies who are still trying to get the eight-phase turn structure and elaborate timing conventions straight.
Another thread running through Barnes article concerns criticism of games. He sets up the article with the idea that his recent review of Abbadon “very nearly undermined years of trying to write “serious” board games criticism” because he “attacked certain aspects of it before giving in to its “fun-first” design”.
This claim seems to rely on the straw man that “serious” board game criticism means talking solely about the features of the game itself -- mechanics, artwork, theme -- and not about the type of experience it creates. I absolutely disagree! Barnes’ Abbadon review seems to be a good piece of serious criticism because it talks about the designer’s intent and the way in which the design choices he made shape a particular type of experience for the players.
Barnes then merges this idea of mechanical vs experiential criticism with his dichotomy of fun-first vs mechanics-first games, saying “It’s hard to apply the same critical rigor and valuation that can be used to quantify what makes a game like Magic Realm or Up Front great to simpler, fun-first fare like Bohnanza or Heroscape.”
Why? For me, good criticism can and should talk about any game in terms of the choices it presents to players, the atmosphere it creates and the type of interaction it fosters. This allows readers to decide for themselves if it sounds like the game will make for the type of “fun” they are seeking, without being told that it’s the wrong kind.
Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:38 pm
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
Apologies for the hiatus - a good chunk of my 'geek time' has been taken up by the Voice of Experience contest recently.
The issue of what constitutes 'theme' never seems to go away on BGG. Here are some thoughts on a classification of four basic types of theme in games. I'll illustrate each with an example from the designer I know best - Knizia.
1. Theme as decoration
This category is for truly "pasted-on" themes, where the chosen setting has nothing to do with the game play and is used purely to make the game look nice. A game belongs to this category if it would feel exactly the same rendered as an abstract.
My Knizia example is Wildlife Safari. Indeed, this game started out as an abstract, later appearing in Norse god and African safari incarnations.
2. Theme as mnemonic
These are games in which the theme provides a vocabulary that makes the game's mechanisms more intuitive to the players. However, there is little substantive connection between the theme and what players actually do in the game. Many Euros belong to this category.
My Knizia example is Ra. The Egyptian trappings make the scoring mechanisms easier to remember (rivers need a flood, monuments survive from epoch to epoch, etc.) and the game is not elegant enough to survive as an abstract. However, it's not clear who the players are supposed to represent in the game, nor does the central auction mechanism have any connection to ancient Egypt. In fact, Razzia! demonstrates that a completely different theme (the mafia) can be used to support the exact same scoring system.
3. Theme as mechanic
In this category, the game mechanics correspond directly to thematic equivalents and taken to an extreme, the games become near-simulations. This is the type of game that inspires arguments about whether the mechanisms accurately represent the situation in question, and which could not be easily ported to a different setting. Many AT and war games belong here.
Worker placement games seem like a slightly cheap way of creating a Euro game in this category. Want to design a game about underwater basket weaving? List all the activities an underwater basket weaver might engage in, put them on a central board, and innovate incrementally on how the players select from those options.
It's quite hard to find a Knizia game in this category, as it's not his design style. Maybe Lord of the Rings (which I haven't played), where a pre-existing story is rendered by leading players through a series of episodes from the narrative?
4. Theme as dynamic
In these games, the game mechanisms may be quite abstracted from the 'real-life' behaviour of the theme. But the dynamics that emerge during game play do have a strong connection to the theme. The game actually makes players feel like they are engaging in the thematic activity presented. Worker placement games often fail here, because while the individual actions are 'thematic', the overall dynamic of exclusion and blocking is not.
My Knizia example is Modern Art. The card play itself, and the varying auction types, are quite abstracted from the real-life art market. But the scoring mechanism and incentive structure encourage players to behave like (a cynical caricature of?) art dealers - talking up artworks they know to be worthless, speculating on bargains and so on.
I'm sure this analysis is not particularly original, and nor are the categories clear-cut. Many games will have elements from more than one category. To take another Knizia example, many would argue that Lost Cities belongs squarely in theme as decoration. Indeed, the basic card play and scoring system has been ported to an Irish setting. However, others have argued that the expedition theme makes the game easier to teach (theme as mnemonic) and furthermore that the risk/reward dynamics correspond to real-life expedition planning (theme as dynamic).
I do think it would be helpful to acknowledge these different meanings of theme when talking about whether or not a game is 'thematic'. Broadly speaking, I would say the first two categories of game are not thematic, while the latter two are different approaches to creating a thematic game. The 'thematic games' subdomain on BGG corresponds more to theme as mechanic than theme as dynamic.
Being more explicit about what type of theme is present in a game would also help avoid the disappointment that arises from mismatched expectations. Although I don't like it much, Panic Station is a recent example of a game that aims for theme as dynamics (paranoia) but has been heavily criticised for poor integration of theme as mechanics. I wonder if some of the many backers of Tammany Hall will be similarly disappointed to find the game is a stripped-down (and brilliant) evocation of political dynamics rather than a detailed historical representation.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
I am proud to present the inaugural Voice of Experience Review Contest.
Given all the chatter about criticism, metacriticism and metatmetacriticism recently, I thought it was about time that those who are interested put their money where their mouths are.
The thread in the General Gaming forum has the details, but to summarise:
The aim of this contest is two-fold:
• to promote critical analysis of board games that goes beyond a summary of the rules, pictures of the components and a brief opinion of the game;
• to encourage in-depth exploration of games in a community that tends to be dominated by first impressions.
Anyone can participate, but you must choose to review a game you have played at least ten times. That’s the “Experience” part of “Voice of Experience”. Otherwise, it's completely open.
I'm very pleased with my panel of judges - some of the finest critical voices on BoardGameGeek - and I hope this is going to be a lot of fun.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
Recently, the geeklist "What game should replace Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride at Target?" rubbed me up the wrong way, and sparked some thoughts about what we gamers mean by ‘gateway’ and the qualities that make a good one.
Two kinds of gateway
First of all, I don’t particularly like the term ‘gateway’ with its implication that these games are mere stepping stones to the ‘real deal’. There are many so-called gateways that I’m more than happy to play in their own right. But since we’re stuck with it, it’s worth thinking about which of these two similar but different things it actually means:
Games that gamers can teach to non-gamers in order to introduce them to the hobby, whether or not they end up going deeper in.
Games that are generally considered to be ‘good’ by gamers, but that a group of non-gamers could easily learn, play and enjoy on their own.
I’m using ‘gamer’ here roughly to mean someone who regards board games as a hobby, owns several non-mass-market games and is at least aware of BoardGameGeek; while ‘non-gamer’ means someone who likes the idea of board games but has probably only played mass-market ones and is largely unaware of the modern games hobby.
I think there’s quite a big difference between these two categories of games. I’ve introduced non-gamer friends and family to a wide range of modern games, feeling comfortable that I could lead them through the rules and steer the game with some subtle hints where necessary. But I most certainly wouldn’t recommend all of those games to a family looking to buy something and figure it out on their own.
It’s gateways of the second type that I think are really the ones that should be on the shelves in Target. In his geeklist, Joel lists some characteristics for the games he's looking for:
1) The game must play in the range of 3-6 players. No two player games. No large games. (So, a game should play at least three players, but no more than six maximum.)
2) The theme should be something family friendly. We're talking "Politically Correct" level theme here. This is obviously subjective. The theme should also be somewhat present. No abstracts!
3) The rulebook aside, the actual rules should at least be easily explainable by a gamer. The ruleset should be easily digestible without a lot (or any) of caveats.
4) The game should be longer than 30 minutes but less than 2 hours. I'm not looking for "filler" or "epic" here.
5) It should appeal to the same types of people that like Catan and TtR.
6) It should be a board game. Not a card game.
7) No co-ops.
8) The game should be "good" and fun for gamers. So... no Kingdom Builder.
I think these are pretty reasonable requirements but they don’t really get to the heart of what makes a good gateway (of the second kind). My key ingredients would be.
Simple rules: four pages tops, including plenty of graphics and examples. Even with a gamer on-hand to explain the game, glazing over quickly sets in if there are too many niggly rules and exceptions.
Familiar concepts: we gamers can become so immersed in our little world that we lose track of how alien our games can be to non-gamers. It really helps if a game uses concepts familiar from mass-market board games. An example: in Settlers of Catan, rolling two dice at the start of your turn and doing what they tell you immediately puts non-gamers in a Monopoly comfort zone; so does the trading/haggling to make up sets.
Strong connection between player actions and game outcomes. I think this might be the most important of all, so I’ll elaborate.
I’m currently reading Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. It’s not about board games in particular, but about games and play in general. Early on they talk about meaningful play and how it is generated. In particular they introduce the concept of discernability:
Discernable means that the result of the game action is communicated to the player in a perceivable way.
If you shoot an asteroid while playing a computer game and the asteroid does not change in any way, you are not going to know if you actually hit it or not. If you do not receive feedback that indicates you are on the right track, the action you took will have very little meaning. On the other hand, if you shoot an asteroid and you hear the sound of impact, or the asteroid shudders violently, or it explodes (or all three!) then the game has effectively communicated the outcome of your action.
Similarly, if you move a board game piece on the board but you have absolutely no idea whether your move was good or bad or if it brought you closer to or farther away from winning — in short, if you don’t know the meaning of your action — then the result of your action was not discernable. Each of these examples makes clear that when the relationship between an action and the result of that action is not discernable, meaningful play is difficult or impossible to achieve.
Discernability in a game lets the players know what happened when they took an action. Without discernability, the player might as well be randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards. With discernability, a game possesses the building blocks of meaningful play.
I think our games have a spectrum of discernability, with one end being discernable and the other opaque. I don’t think that it’s impossible to achieve meaningful play in an opaque game, but I feel pretty damn sure that a non-gamer friendly game needs to be as discernable as possible.
Two train games
This brings me back to the example in Joel’s list that wound me (and a few others) up: Chicago Express, in particular as a suggested replacement for Ticket to Ride on the shelves of Target. Ostensibly, they are similar games. They share a theme of building train routes to connect American cities. They have short, exception-free rulesets. A player’s turn comprises a single action chosen from a menu of three possibilities, one of which is building routes. They meet Joel's criteria for player count and length.
So what’s the problem with Chicago Express as a gateway? First of all, familiar concepts. Ticket to Ride is often called a Rummy variant. I don’t think that’s quite right, but non-gamers are certainly familiar with the concept of collecting matching sets of cards from a draw pile. By contrast, Chicago Express is built on the concept of shared ownership, which is rarely found in mass-market games. Likewise auctions -- they might appear in the rules of Monopoly, but few people play that way.
But more importantly, Ticket to Ride is a classic example of a discernable game and Chicago Express is text-book opaque. Funnily enough, while planning this article I realised I’d written about discernability and opacity before (and prior to reading Rules of Play) in a blog post comment, and I used these exact two games as my example!
I think of opaque games as those in which the link between the actions you take during the game and the ultimate goal is hard to discern, certainly on the first play and often after many more. Whilst in a transparent game it's readily apparent even to a beginner how the things you do are getting you nearer to winning.
Examples: Ticket to Ride is transparent. The long-term goal is points, and you get them by building trains and completing routes, which you do by collecting cards. It's full of mini-achievements which advance you towards winning.
Sticking with trains, Chicago Express is seriously opaque. Sure, you have to make the most money, but each action you take is a complicated trade-off between its benefit to you and to other players, and how it will change the incentives for other players' actions in the future. At the end of a game, it's difficult to look back and identify the 'good' moves.
I guess what I'm getting at is that transparent games let you constantly push towards the final goal, while opaque ones often have you pushing perpendicular. Related to that, opaque games also tend to be ones that are more about manipulating other players' incentives and less about playing your own game.
Because of this, opaque games seem made for a group of players who are going to play them repeatedly and learn together, while transparent ones can be brought out with any group, any time. Opaque games also suffer when players have a range of levels of experience, because the less experienced players can throw the game without even realising. This makes them rewarding, but hard to play often enough to make them so.
I love Chicago Express, but it’s not a gateway of the second type, and in my experience it’s not even a reliable example of the first type. It depends on unfamiliar concepts, it’s opaque as hell, and even a group of hardened gamers new to the game will look back on their first few games having no idea why the person who won did or what the key moments were.
Joel’s response to several commenters making this point in his geeklist was a common one - that we were being patronising about non-gamers’ capabilities and that you don’t have to play the game perfectly to have a good time. On the first, I can only offer my own extensive experience of introducing a range of games to gamers and non-gamers, successfully and less so. On the second, I point back to Salen and Zimmerman’s discussion. Chicago Express only starts to become discernable once all the players know what they are doing, and in my opinion, non-gamers will swiftly become frustrated with “randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards”.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
A recent discussion in the GCL Meatball division prompted me to re-read Nate Straight's excellent post from last year on 'multiple paths to victory' and why they might not be a Good Thing. This is an opinion I've expressed myself and I agree with most of his analysis. But he happened to cite one of my favourite games, Ra, as an example.
Something that happens in many "multiple paths" games [Hansa Teutonica is a recent offender; Ra perhaps an older one] is that the paths are so distinct and have so long a chain running through them that there's little reason for a person on one path to compete over action selection or resource collection with a person on a different path.
I don't think of Ra as a MPTV game at all, and this challenged me to think about why. I hope this doesn't read as just a defence of a personal favourite slanted in a parenthetical remark, but more as an attempt at analysing what MPTV does and doesn't entail.
I think of a classic MPTV game, of the type Nate is criticising, as having a number of well-defined paths or strategies, each of which can result in accumulating enough points to win the game. There are usually roughly as many paths as there are players, and it is difficult to win if you do not follow one of them. The notable properties of these paths are:
They are mostly independent of each other. The resources players collect or the actions they take if they are following one of the paths don't overlap significantly with those corresponding to the other paths. It is usually possible to identify and name the strategy each player is following.
They are self-reinforcing. Once a player has set off down one path, they are strongly incentivised to keep following it, by the game offering increasing marginal returns. This might be through a non-linear pay-off scheme (such as triangular numbers) or through the logistical chains often found in engine-building games.
There are finite total resources/actions available for each path, such that a player pursuing a path on their own will be able to execute it more successfully than they would if another player shares it and competes over those resources/actions.
Points 1 and 2 taken together mean that the opportunity cost of using your actions to interfere with another player’s path rather than advancing down your own is high. This tends to encourage 'multi-player solitaire' dynamics in which each player simply tries to execute his own path as efficiently as possible. The addition of point 3 means that the winner of the game is often just the person who was left to execute their chosen path on their own. As I read it, this is essentially Nate's critique of MPTV.
So, where do I think Ra differs from this schema? I assume Nate regards the different types of tiles and their associated scoring mechanics as being the 'multiple paths'. The main paths would thus be:
Accumulating many river tiles, particularly early in the game, and securing a flood in each epoch to score them.
Accumulating many different monuments and/or sets of identical monuments throughout the game for a large payout in end-game scoring.
Accumulating many pharaohs, particularly early in the game, in order to score for most pharaohs at the end of each epoch.
There are other tiles - gods, gold, civilisations - but since they are scored once and then discarded it's hard to see them as paths in their own right. Three main paths for a 3-5 player game seems to fit the description of MPTV and I would agree that it's difficult to win without doing at least one of these things well. But what about the three characteristics of paths I described above?
Independence. Ra is simply not structured to allow players to collect resources corresponding only to one chosen path. Lots are generated using a random process, and while players are certainly looking for opportunities to isolate lots that are valuable for their path and not for others', this is often not possible, leading players into mixed strategies.
Self-reinforcement. The three paths in Ra self-reinforce to some degree, but not strongly. The points for breadth of monument types scale linearly up to 6 monuments and only then become non-linear (7 types = 10 points, 8 types = 15). Thus it is still worth accumulating a few monuments even if that is not your main focus. You can also collect just one batch of 3-5 similar monuments without being incentivised to pursue breadth too. Points for rivers are also linear. The reinforcement is provided only by the fact that you need just one flood per epoch to score all your rivers, and the effort to obtain it is more worthwhile the more rivers you have. Meanwhile the negative points for fewest pharaohs ensure that there is competition for them amongst players with few pharaohs as well as those with many.
Finiteness. There are indeed a finite number of each tile type (otherwise the draw bag would need to be significantly bigger), but the two points above tend to ensure that each path is contested by multiple players and no one gets a 'free ride'.
Nate goes on to describe an alternative type of game that he prefers -- multi-layered paths to victory' -- using the example of Antike:
You cannot win just by following a "ships strategy" or a "territory strategy". You can only get so far along any of these "paths" before diminishing returns or very high marginal costs [two ways of saying the same thing] sink in.
Rather, in Antike, you have to select a well-balanced portfolio of sub-paths among the options presented to you. 3 territory points, 1 ship point, 2 know-how, and hopefully a few temple kills. This is not very substantively different from 1 territory point, 2 ship points, 4 know-how points, and maybe a few temple constructions. You generally can ignore at most 1 category and still win.
I suggest that the same is true of Ra. For the reasons identified above, a player can rarely pursue a mono-focused strategy, and diminishing returns would kick in if they did. For example, there is no point in having more pharaohs than you need to secure most each epoch, and if this was all you did your final score of 25 would be unlikely to win the game.
Nate’s summing up of multi-layered games:
Rather than the strategies interacting intra-player, they interact inter-player. There is a depth of unfolding interactive complexity that reveals itself as players make their strategic portfolio allocations. [...] There is still some personal optimization to be done, but it isn't introspective naval-gazing.
reads to me like a perfect description of the way a good game of Ra feels to me.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
On having a look around for academic work on board games I discovered the book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. Although it's not just about board games, it sounds like it covers some very interesting and relevant material, and also includes a commissioned essay by Reiner Knizia and game designs by Richard Garfield and James Ernest.
This paragraph from the introduction (free download) particularly appeals to my current interests:
One way to describe the project of this book is to say that we are working to establish a critical discourse for game design. We agree with veteran game designer Warren Spector that "It is absolutely vital that we start to build a vocabulary that allows us to examine, with some degree of precision, how games evoke emotional-intellectual responses in players." As a nascent field of inquiry, there are not yet well-developed ways of talking about games and how they function. What is the point of establishing a critical discourse? Simply put, a critical vocabulary lets us talk to each other. It lets us share ideas and knowledge, and in doing so, expands the borders of our emerging field.
I downloaded the Kindle edition and have begun making my way through it, but it occurred to me that it would be great to read it in parallel with other interested BGGers and discuss how the material relates to the games we enjoy.
If you're interested, let me know in the comments here. As long as there are enough of us to make it worthwhile, I will start setting up geeklists for each chapter in which members of the Book Club can add an entry with their thoughts and then respond to those of others.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
It was Friday March 23rd, 2007 when a good friend I was staying with suggested he teach me some game called Carcassonne. I've always been a games player, but until this point I had no idea that the hobby I've come to love existed. The very next day, he pointed me to a games shop in central London (now defunct) to buy my own copy.
Scarcely did I imagine then that five years later I'd have played nearly 400 different games, own 100 (still pretty meagre by some standards!), run the biggest board games group in the country (with over 1200 members) and have appeared in national print and radio extolling the virtues of modern board games.
As a hobby, modern board gaming has turned out to be perfect for me. Playing games provides both a mental challenge and a wonderful social experience. As well as getting family and longstanding friends involved with my obsession, I've also made a bunch of great friends at London on Board and around the world through BGG, in particular the guys and girl of the GCL Meatball Division.
And it's not just playing games that I enjoy, it's reading, writing, thinking and talking about them. We're lucky to have BoardGameGeek as a central organising forum, for all its failings.
So that's the joys, what about the frustrations? Some are about games, some are about gamers.
Having played 300-odd games, my biggest disappointment is the lack of originality in modern designs, both in mechanics and theme. Although I'm primarily a Eurogamer, I'm utterly uninterested in the latest minor twist on worker placement and resource conversion. I want games to give me new ways of challenging myself and interacting with other players. Recently the marvellous Hanabi has restored my faith that this can still be done, by presenting a co-operative game that isn't just team solitaire.
I suspect that some elements of Ameritrash may appeal to my taste for high levels of interaction and my tolerance of randomness. But why oh why does AT have to be synonymous with orcs and spaceships? These hold as little excitement for me as do the Euro tropes of Ancient Egypt and the Renaissance. Give me more political games like Tammany Hall, more eccentric explorations of science like Phil Eklund's creations, more games that are inspired by strange little corners of history that we don't all already know about.
As for gamers, the biggest blight on my gaming life is nothing to do with stereotypes of smelly, antisocial gamers that I have found to be entirely unfounded. It's the Cult of the New that has people desperately seeking out the shiny rather than appreciating the old and tested. Together with the fact that there are just Too Damn Many games coming out, it makes it a delightful rarity to sit down at a table with a group who already knows the rules and the strategy of the game they're about to play.
I've made an analogy between learning a game and learning a language before. For me, the learning isn't the fun part. It's being able to converse. I'd stop learning new games right now if I was guaranteed opponents for the ones I already love.
Related to this is the phenomenon that Jesse Dean examined incisively the other day: the lack of what he calls a 'critical infrastructure' for the boardgame hobby. Although the volume of content on BGG is impressive, it's hard to find the types of articles I really want to read, if they even exist. I know plenty of people just want to play games and have fun, but some of us are interested in examing board games at a critical, maybe even academic, level, and there doesn't seem to be a platform for that right now.
Maybe there just aren't enough of us for a critical mass (no pun intended!), although there are interesting hints of what I'm looking for in blogs, some of the GCL lists and other sites (Fortress Ameritrash, Opinionated Gamers). But it really bugs me when I encounter the anti-intellectual attitude that even trying to examine games in these terms is contrary to the goal of 'fun'. I'm very much looking forward to Jesse's next blog post with his thoughts on ways forward for the field of board game criticism.
I appear to have written more about the negatives than the positive now, so I should probably stop. You wouldn't be reading this if you didn't share my opinion that this is a marvellous hobby, and one which I don't see myself ever growing tired of. Here's to the next 5 years, and hopefully not quite so many new games!