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What are the building blocks of a good board game?

An attempt to combine game theory and empirical "studies" to discover what makes a good board game. The blog goes through various different kinds of game mechanisms and ponders about games from quite a few viewpoints from types of randomization, over-the-table gaming, themes, learning curves, interaction between players etc.

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8. Component quality

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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I have come to understand my own gaming habits and preferences pretty well during this blog's search for what makes good games good. This topic is one which I didn't think of as important at all. That is, until I actually ranked and compared my games. While some blog posts have had rather vague answers, component quality seems of utmost importance to me. That really surprised me much more than my beloved opponent. I never thought I would be a shallow, superficially judging gamer. I have always valued good mechanisms and well thought-out storylines in PC/console games over flashy graphics. Heck, I even still much prefer to play Master of Orion 2, Jagged Alliance 2 and Super Mario Bros. (the original) over the new generation of games with mediocre mechanisms, yet beautiful graphics. I thought this would carry onto board games. Apparently I was wrong.

To me, components should add to the sensation of playing a game. I have never understood the love for chits ,as movable units, nor for using pawns. Boring monotonous boards, typical "around the board" victory point tracks, lifeless cards with no images, simply bad artwork, I am looking at all of you. It has been already pointed out that I enjoy highly thematic games. This topic relates very closely to highly thematic games, as the quality of the components can really raise or flatten the mood around a gaming table. Let's have a look at some component issues in games which do things well, as well as games which do not.

Card quality: Quite a large percentage of games seem to use cards in some way, so they are a good starting point. Excellent, rich and thematic artwork on cards makes them stand out on the table and in your hand. Who hasn't spent some time looking at cool artwork on their cards while an opponent ponders about his moves? Other than nice pictures, cards should definitely be of good cardstock. Handling cards which are too thin and/or fragile is just awkward. For decks which are to be shuffled possibly multiple times during a game, shuffling needs to also be fast and easy. In most games this is not a major problem, but shuffling massive decks can get difficult (R4tG).

I find I really enjoy the art in the cards from Seasons. At a glance, the card images seem to always look like something completely different than what the cards actually portray on closer inspection. Admittedly the game isn't very thematic coherent, but that shouldn't dim the excellence of the artwork. Other games which do a pretty good job with their cards: Descent 2nd Edition and Magic: The Gathering. Now with M:tg I have to point out that I mean the new cards in the last few blocks. Older cards seem to have a significant amount of crappy images on them. I would have liked to see some images on the Overlord cards of Descent as well, but the overall artwork is fantastic as in most FFG games. A few good games which have only mediocre cards are Dominion and Agricola. The worst offenders in decent games I have seen are Pathfinder and Star Trek: Fleet Captains. While I get that ST:FC tries to mimic the Star Trek: The Next Generation feel with its cards, they still are butt ugly and completely bland. Bland is what has to be said about the pathfinder cards as well. The white background of the Pathfinder cards perfectly simulates them having been printed and cut out by some hobbyist making his print-and-play version of a game.

Dice: Another very common ingredient in board games, though not as diverse in quality as cards. I actually have no objection to having just normal six-sided dice in a game, but custom dice are always a nice touch. What I would like to see are custom dice with more than six sides, but those games seem to be pretty rare. Can anyone mention games which have such? When it comes to dice, size and materials matter. If the dice are the size of resource cubes, they just lack something in the feeling of throwing them. Large dice just have more weight to them, to a certain limit. Seasons is another example of good use of dice. The dice are hefty to say the least, custom made and include a plethora of information on every side. Examples of bad dice are thankfully rare, but there are two I hate. In Roll Through the Ages the dice are wooden and the markings seem to rub off after a while. I like wood in components, but as a material for dice I feel it to be unbalanced, fragile and light. The dice just have a cheap feel to them. Even worse are the (thankfully rare) games where the dice have stickers attached to them. Mostly prevalent in children's games, these stickers are notoriously easy to peel away, they never seem to sit perfectly in the indentations truly ooze low component quality.

As for the number of dice rolled in a game, I need to confess that I enjoy throwing bucket loads. This is not to say that every game needs a ton, but it never hurts either. I used to play I.G. in Warhammer 40k, so I used to need both hands (and then some) to throw all of those las rifle dice, and it felt good! No matter that they never actually killed anything... Ridiculous amounts of dice thrown just are funny in a megalomaniac way, but also mitigate swings of luck through sheer amount of repetition. So I need to roll a 4+, a 5+ and a 2-. Ok, hand me the bucket full of dice and I can pretty much guarantee that some of them will succeed.

Chits: Fiddlyness in 2D format! Cardboard tokens have been used extensively since the birth of hex'n'counter war games, but they seem pretty common in other kinds of board games as well. The idea is nice, but many times these tokens tend to be bland, fiddly and flat. As I do not regularly play chitty war games, I am no expert on their tokens, but they do honestly drive me away from the genre. I would much rather play Tide of Iron than a similar game with cardboard chits as units. On the other front, while I praise the FFG artwork, I feel that their games are unnecessarily fiddly. I do not seem to be alone in this statement. Since I spoke of Descent 2nd Ed before, we can use it as an example here as well. In Descent chits are used to keep count of health points, fatigue, conditions, familiars, villagers, masquerade guests and just about every other thing you can think of. Many of these chits are put on (or removed from) the corresponding player boards or the game board possibly several times a turn. All of this amounts to what benefit? Couldn't damage, fatigue and conditions be handled in a more efficient and elegant way? FFG could learn something from modern eurogames.
A game which uses chits well in my opinion is the venerable Space Crusade. In it the tokens represent radar blips with an enemy of unknown strength. The blips move on the Clone Player's turn, act semi-realistically and are only revealed when eye contact is made. At this point the token is turned and a corresponding miniature is placed where the token was. While replacing the token with a miniature is purely bling, it does make the board much prettier than it would be if we played with just the tokens. And that leads to the next section.

Miniatures: Plastic goodness in all its ameritrash glory. I am biased with over 15 years of miniature gaming behind me, but three dimensional playing pieces do enhance my playing experience. There are lots of games which do this well... and haven’t I encountered a game which does this horribly. I applaud Axis & Allies for having nation specific miniatures, while different colored identical pieces would have worked adequately. Descent miniatures are easy on the eye even though I still wish the master miniatures were unique. I also understand they would have been cost prohibitive. On the lower end of the spectrum, Sid Meier's Civilization could really have come up with something better to represent the armies than mere flagpoles. The same idea was used in Twilight Imperium 3 to represent ground troops, but there it seemed more logical a choice as the different races would look rather different as figures. Still it seems a bit lame. Last Night on Earth has some quality issues with its miniatures bending into strange leaning poses, but the figures themselves are nice. Has anyone come across truly bad miniatures? Please enlighten me.

Wooden pieces: While I dislike chits as stated above, I do like wooden components if done properly. Doing it properly does not include "cube pushing" games, but I do have a soft spot for meeples and cubic farm animals. It probably has something to do with the right amount of abstraction introducing cuteness into the game. So sheep and wooden dudes are cute, but cubic resources get no love. Your experiences may vary. Games which do wooden pieces well include Carcassonne, Evo and Shogun. Shogun especially is worth a mention as its mechanism is a bit out of the norm. The battling armies are marked as cubes on the map. When a battle starts, both armies are chucked into the dice tower. Some cubes come through and the one who gets the majority through wins the battle. The ones which got stuck in the tower will include themselves in future battles once some other cube plops them off their resting place.

Wooden pieces can also add to fiddlyness like chits. Even though I do like the wooden cube sheep, Agricola is infamous for being fiddly to set up as well as in between turns. Cubes and disks seem to be standard in gaming, and for good reason. The first edition of Exodus: Proxima Centauri got massively bad feedback for having resource tokens in a cylinder shape. These tiny, highly mobile credits would be knocked over and rolled above and off the table in a heartbeat, if the players didn't pay full attention to their movements. The game designers do get a hat-tip from me though for listening to their player base and changing the entire resource system (and tokens) for their second edition. Another game which could have done with a bit more is Mvnera:Familia Gladiatoria. While it is a minor issue, the game money is represented by tiny, tiny wooden discs. The coins are so small they get stuck to warm palms and will be carried all the way to the kitchen when getting refreshments. Come on gladiators, size does matter when it comes to your coin pouch... While this section may seem like I dislike wooden pieces, the opposite is actually true. I like well made wooden pieces and love the fully wooden games like Quarto, Quoridor and their kin. Evo had really fun little dinosaur tokens and quite a few other games have had well thought out pieces made from wood. Which game do you think has good wooden pieces AND isn’t fiddly with them?

The board: A good board compels to play the game. A bad board looks like an accounting exam. Whatever the theme of a game, the board is the centerpiece and should show and enhance the theme. It should not make boring (subjective, I know) themes even more boring. Whenever I see a game about trading goods on the Mediterranean, one eye closes. When it has a bland, monocolor map, the second eyelid lowers. I understand that the developers try to simulate an old, worn map, but that is no excuse to make it bland and lifeless. Not all board need to have the entire spectrum of colors represented on the table, but the contrasts need to be strong enough. A really good game which has a rather boring looking board is Carolus Magnvs. I have the same issue with it as I do with many other games with a historical setting. The map tiles are completely without life or contrast to them, so much so that they make absolutely no difference within the game. It is really rare for a player to even see the names of the locations, so how can he tie the map tiles to the theme of the game? Games which I consider to have at least graphically well made boards are Eclipse and Twilight Imperium, Sid Meier’s Civilization, Mice and Mystics, Zombicide and Super Dungeon Explore to name a few. The games are very different from each other, but to me all their boards fit the theme and graphical styles of the games as a whole. Which other board games have cool/crappy boards?

Text: Too much, too little? Lame jokes and hidden messages? The amount of text on components varies immensely. While I like flavor text, it should be clearly separated from the actually meaningful parts of the card/sheet. Too much text can also slow a game to a crawl. Munchkin and Last Night on Earth (and all other games from the same publisher as I recall) are one of the worst offenders in this. Their cards include so much text, that new players can be baffled as to what the cards actually do. It doesn’t help that the cards are to be kept a secret until used. Some games also have issues with their fonts, as they use really cursive, fancy fonts which can be hard to decipher. Not a common problem, nor can I recall which games I encountered with this issue. As an example of good text use, I do like Descent 2nd Edition for its quest introductions as well as quest progression flavor texts. They aren’t too long, but still manage to create a mental image of the scenarios. They are also clearly marked and can be skipped when searching for a particular ruling. A completely opposite is shown in at least the 5th Edition rulebook of Warhammer 40k. While the book had pure flavor text sections, the authors couldn’t help but fill the rules section with unnecessary flavor text in between actual rules. The book was so difficult to read that my copy has markers on every page showing which sentences have any weight and which can be skipped altogether. No wonder there are so many rules debates associated with the game.



The games included in my comparison seem to have a positive correlation between component quality and overall quality. Abstract and trivia games were rather problematic to rank when it came to component quality and the beauty of the board. How does one rate a Go board in comparison to a Chess board? I rated a Go board with full points as it can be aesthetically very pleasing, but I have no doubt someone else might feel the same way about a Chess/Checkers/Backgammon board. The cards used in trivia games are simplistic to say the least, but how would one improve upon them? Trivial Pursuit: Disney Edition portrays the animation/movie to which the questions referred on the other side of the card, but that can’t be the best and final way to improve the cards. Can trivia cards be radically different? Can they be improved upon? Does anyone play trivia enough to care?
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Tue Nov 12, 2013 8:51 pm
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7. Expansions

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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Time has flown fast and the small town of Ashburton has become familiar. I didn't plant a single tree, but I have been building rotating milking station for the local dairy industry. Cross that one off the bucketlist... Our stay here forced me to actively search for new players. That was a good thing, as finding a friendly local gamer meant new and exciting games as well as really memorable gaming moments. My newest acquisitions for this time were Seasons, Saboteur and... *drum roll* Magic: The Gathering. For years and years I snidely remarked against M:tg whenever a conversation turned to it. According to me it was just a clever marketing strategy aimed to enslave annoying, noisy teenagers to an eternal race for the most overpowered cards. Money would win games and tournaments had a vicious atmosphere created by egotripping kids slamming cards on the table and screaming the cards' names like pokemon creatures. I may have been slightly prejudiced.

Then one day I got a chance to try the new Magic 2014 computer game. I thought I had to see how the game itself was when taken out of the "angry teen OCD collector" context. I have no doubt that the game has evolved from the first years, but at least the new Magic showed me how wrong I was. Well, not entirely wrong but the game is surprisingly good! Really good! I had never given the game a fair chance because of all the non-game related problems, but the mechanisms of the game are solid and offer an amazing amount of deep choices. The other misconception I had was that the game was purely tactical due to the card drawing mechanic. This too was broken the instant I began creating my own decks from scratch. Magic is a very deep strategy game, the difference just comes from the fact that the strategic part is done when one isn't playing. Forming the idea for one's deck, inserting the bare minimum requirements like lands, adding both offensive and defensive elements with good synergy with each other and the chosen land colors, and finally tying it all into a very lean and competetive package is a real strategic challenge. Bear in mind that I will never compete in tournaments, but I still aim to create all my decks to be competitive against each other for gaming with friends. The deck building also strikes the same long-term tinkering nerve that Blood Bowl and Warhammer 40k strike. We purposely play with 40 card decks in order to force hard choices over what to include and what to leave out. Our cards came as a bulk order of 400 cards. Very few of them have any value (if any) in any tournament, but for casual games they work perfectly. This was a great way to keep a level playing field as well as keep costs down. From those 400 cards I already created four decks and still have plenty of decent cards to make at least a few more competitive decks(compared to the others). Whew, rant over. It's a good game. Give it a try if you haven't already. It's collectible but that part isn't mandatory.

That was a totally, unnecessarily long introduction to today's topic: collectability and expansions. There is nothing new in popular games getting expansions to further suck us gamers dry of our currency, and the trend seems to be getting more and more common. With some games the trend seems to almost imitate Kickstarter projects in that you won't get the "full" game without forking out large amounts of money. The basic game is more like a demo version of the grandeur that the game could be with everything included. Descent 2nd Edition feels heavily like this. While the campaign setting is decent, the amount of variety in the base set is extremely low when compared to the final product (referencing the first edition). Thankfully that could be easily fixed by getting the conversion kit even while I lack the miniatures. I'd even go so far as to call that expansion mandatory to get the most bang for your buck.

Some games have obviously been built with expansions in mind. Many of these games are either card-, or miniature-based games eg. Warhammers, Dominion, M:tg and Munchkin in descending order. I doubt anyone will continue to play Warhammer time and time again with just the basic set, while I personally feel that Munchkin works well even without including expansions. So while all the aforementioned games have a large variety of expansions, not all of them need them as much. As collectability is an integral part of CCGs and CMG (collectable card and miniature games respectively), I will try to steer away from them and towards more traditional boardgames in this post.

So some games are built specifically with a horde of later expansions in mind, while others (especially a large amount of abstracts) are built as a ready whole with no further additions planned. But does the availability of expansions equal the need for them? Can expandable games be played with just their base sets and not worry about forking cash for extras? M:tg is notorious of being a money sink. The marketing tactics of Wizards of the Coast were centered on creating a constant need to update one's deck for years, but the last few years have seen the introduction of duel decks. These ready-made decks can be used to play Magic as a fully working 2 player game without ever needing to expand. That is a definite change in strategy and would allow M:tg to be played outside the moneysink mechanisms the game is so infamous for. Alternatively these decks can also form the basis for starting a collection, so it doesn't necessarily cannibalize WotC's other sales.
Dominion seems mediocre and lackluster without expansions, but really shines when more variety is introduced. The tactics go from obvious to obscure, strategic options can change substantially forcing players to adapt to new and sometimes weird combinations of choices. Munckin on the other hand has similarly ludicrous amounts of add-ons and alternative starter sets (which can be combined), but plays perfectly fine with just one base set. Munckin fans feel free to correct me, but I fail to see how making the game longer makes it better. This is what happens in my experience when expansions are introduced which only benefit a certain character class which wasn't present in the base game. Then when these items appear to anyone besides the specific type of character, the items are practically useless thus lenghtening the game.
So in this short and perfectly subjective analysis, having expansions available does not guarantee their necessity. Unfortunately some games cry out for expansions, but there are none to be bought. One such example is Fairy Tale. This old game by today's standards pretty much introduced card drafting as a mechanism. It is light, fast and rather easy to learn, but takes a while to master. Once a certain level has been reached, the game becomes stale as all the tricks and turns have run dry, however. The drafting mechanism and maximizing one's victory points is an interesting basis for a game, but not enough to maintain long-term interest. The low amount of different action cards and limited variety as a whole bring this game down in my ratings. A simple expansion introducing added variety would do wonders and definitely keep the game interesting for a prolonged time.

In my books, Agricola is an interesting game when it comes to expansions. Quite a few have been made, all seeming fun and interesting. The only reason I will probably never buy expansions for it is that the base game is already so all-encompassing and "ready" that there really is no need for added content especially in the form of more occupation and minor improvement cards. For those that haven't played the game: A sessions lasts about 2 hours, in which time the players (among a whole myriad of things) purchase maybe 1-3 occupations and 1-3 minor improvements. There never seems to be time for cool choices, when there is barely enough time for the absolutely necessary choices. The occupation and minor improvement decks in the base game are already massive, having so many cool combinations that I will never in my life run out of different sessions. Because of this I see very little added value in the expansions. If I will never really see all of the base game in use, why buy more content that won't see use?

Expansions themselves can be divided into add-ons and game changers. Add-ons provide more of the same things which were already present in the base game, while game changers - like the name suggests - change the gaming experience more or less radically. Add-ons give variety and keep the game fresh through added content. These expansions are rather safe purchases if one likes the base game, though can also be of lower added value than game changers. The expansions which introduce new mechanisms, turn 2-player games into multiplayer games, increase or decrease the validity of specific strategies, or change the flow of the game in other ways can be seen as real game changers. While these will take the original game and shape it into something new and different, they can be both risky and rewarding purchases. One meter of seeing how much of a game changer an expansions is, is to check the BGG forums where people complain how the new expansions somehow ruin/destabilize/overpower/invalidate a player's favourite tactic. While this can be a sign of badly implemented changes, it more often than not is the failure to adapt to new challenges. Would you complain when a 3-player chess match turns into a diplomatic exercise with negotiations ongoing on who to attack? No doubt quite a few chess fans would hate the fact that a straight up battle was turned into a popularity contest. Is that a game changer? Definitely. Is it automatically for the worse? No, the challenge is merely completely different than what the base set was.

How do you feel about expansions making/breaking a game? Which expansions seem almost compulsory and which ones are nice to have but definitely not necessary? Have you gotten agitated by what an expansion has introduced to the game? Do you actively leave something out when playing an expansion?
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Tue Oct 8, 2013 5:37 am
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Icons, Tokens and Teaching Games

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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With the ever-changing players around my gaming table, teaching games to new gamers has become a current topic. I enjoy playing games with experienced players as well as teaching games to new, promising gamers. The methods of teaching rules are very different depending on the audience, as I have realized during our adventures on the other side of the globe. So this blog post will discuss game design and development choices as they relate to learning a game.

When I teach new rules to my most experienced opponent (my girlfriend), the rules consist of pieces taken from other games. "At the start of the game we draft cards just like in Fairy Tale until we have a hand of nine. From these we separate them into three decks which are divided into years much like the decks in Principato." Someone can probably guess the game? Teaching games is a relatively easy chore, as there is no need to explain the whys and hows of the rules. Teaching the same game to my mother involves much more thorough examples and talking about the logic behind the rules. "The cards with an arrow pointing down have an effect only when summoned, while the arrow going in circles means that they have a constant effect *after* they have been summoned. The cog symbol is what happens if you choose to activate the card on your turn. You can only do this once per turn per card" Why? Because that's how the game was designed. Could the symbols have been more differentiated? Yes, most likely. Is it a big deal and hard to learn? Depends on what kind of gamer you ask. Inexperienced gamers will have a whole array of questions about the game's mechanisms, most of them something experienced gamers take for granted and as being logical.

Some games are purposely built to be easily taught, while others seem to be near impossible to teach without a very determined pupil. Such games seem to have a high learning curve in the first stages of playing the game. In marketing terms they have high barriers to entry. Other games have a high learning curve in later stages after learning the basics of the game, but that is another topic. The barriers to entry can be created by a multitude of complicating design decisions. A high amount of icons needing memorizing, game length, player amount, text- or math heavy design, theme and terms used, and a high amount of ambiguous choices are just a few of the ways to raise barriers to entry, or scare away new players. Some of these will be discussed in the next paragraphs.

Many family games have traditionally had language free components. This makes localization (selling it to foreign markets in their own language) a simpler task, as only the rulebooks have to be translated. It also usually keeps the rules pretty straight forward and the complexity low. Examples of such games could include wide-spread classics like Uno, Trouble, Snakes & Ladders to newer games such as Carcassonne. While this helps create a nice and neat board with little to no exceptions in the rules, it also limits the depth of the game. If a more complex game uses icons to present the board, it simultaneously creates a need to memorize all the rules relating to the icons. This memorizing aspect also lifts a barrier to entry, as learning the rules seems like a daunting task. A classic example of such a game is Chess. While the game has only 6 icons, memorizing all of their movement patterns, exceptions (in the case of a pawn), queening/promoting, castling both ways, en-passant and stalemate rules quickly becomes a daunting task which scares and demoralizes new players. My girlfriend has never really given the game a chance due to the above, even though she will gladly play games of similar depth and complexity. It has become a kind of boogie monster game for her.

The opposing approach is to create a game with most/all of the relevant information on the game piece itself. This is most often seen in card games and often includes a large amount of exceptions. Munchkin is the perfect example, as it has an innumerable amount of exceptions to the main rules written onto the cards. While the game can be clunky at times, it would be outright unplayable if all of the information was marked as cryptic icons. Having the rules bent and explained in the game pieces themselves lessens the amount of needed memorizing. This can lower the barrier to entry as relating to icons, but could scare players away if English isn't their native language. Games with text-heavy components are much less likely to be localized and can thus deter non-native English speakers from even trying the game. This is doubly true for family games.

Most "gamer's games" place themselves somewhere between the two extremes with varying results. A large percentage of eurogames has entirely language-free components while maintaining high complexity. Their barriers to entry come from mainly the myriad of ambiguous choices and the variety of ways to win, as well as complex mechanisms. Exceptions are presented in tokens and chits, while the rules are kept relatively fluent. Many "American style" games have a very different feel with large decks of cards with layers upon layers of exceptions to the rules. Especially Fantasy Flight Games creates games which have a grand, or epic, feel to them. The flipside of this is an inherent clunkiness, as sorting through all the exceptions does slow the game down until the players are familiar with the game. Descent 2nd Edition is an example of well-presented complexity and rules exceptions. It has enough rules exceptions to shake a stick at, but pretty much all exceptions are written to the cards themselves and only a small part of them are used at any given time. This definitely lowers the need to shuffle through the rulebook and quickens the game. A really bad example of the same idea is Race for the Galaxy. I consider R4tG a good game, but it certainly isn't newbie friendly. The huge amount of (some would say logical) icons on the cards creates a need for massive memorization before any form of strategy can be formed. Stumbling through the dark while others create empires in a blink of an eye is no fun and can seriously deter new gamers from the game. The way R4tG is designed; newbies will always get their butts handed to them in record times, as the game speed follows the most efficient player. As a good player might complete their victory points engine with 3 cards, the new players will have no time to learn the game before it is already over. When they then lose, new players can easily get demoralized by the speed and size of their loss. R4tG is not a newbie friendly game by any measure. While I can safely say that Descent 2nd Edition has much more exceptions to its rules than Race for the Galaxy, the former is much easier to teach to new players due to the way it handles those exceptions.

Unfortunately I have no statistics about my collection due to traveling, but some notes can be made. I have come to realize that my personal preference leans to more American style games. I do enjoy the lean and clean builds of eurogames, but nothing beats the thrill of throwing down a card which allows me to break the rules as well as the expectations and hopes of my opponents. As Arnold said, the best thing in cardboard life is to crush the enemy plans, see their chits driven from their lands and hear the lamentation of their meeples... or something like that. Many of my most valued games have rather heavy mechanisms and intertwining rules which take time to master. Gateway games with quick-to-pick-up rules have their place in the collection as they act as lures, but none can be honestly called my favorites. A game needs depth to have replay value. If that depth can be presented in a way that is easy to learn, all the better. However, depth should not be sacrificed just to make the game more accessible, unless the game in question is targeting families and children.

So which games do you think have balanced their chits, tokens and cards well? Which games are clunky and are in need of redesign? Which games are easy to teach and which ones are definitely not newbie friendly?
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Sun Jul 7, 2013 10:56 am
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5. Social interaction and metagaming

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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Woah, talk about a long interval... A lot has happened in the last months. My girlfriend and I moved to New Zealand mid-February to experience that side of the globe. We are planning on staying here for a year, making a living by doing whatever jobs we get and travelling around. So far I have done construction laboring in Auckland and apple picking work in Hastings. At the time of writing, we are travelling to Ashburton through Wellington and Christchurch. Our new job should be planting trees. For all the cardboard I have bought and used in all my years, I guess it is time to make up for it. Gaming was a bit scarce for a while, but enough about my "real life".

Here we sought out the local gaming clubs and attended them in order to feed our (my) addiction. A new environment meant new people and new games. While I enjoyed the challenge of new games, the new company had its ups and downs. Some club members were incredibly loud and somewhat aggressive in their table behavior, which is a big turn-off for me. Thankfully there was a lot of variety and some player selection created very fun evenings. The new players and the new gaming culture brought fresh metagaming opportunities as well, and that is today’s topic. A quick shout-out and thank you to Florence, as his enthusiasm towards the hobby was a good motivator to write about this topic.

Metagaming refers to social "games" being played above the board itself. For any poker players out there, this topic should be very familiar. The basis of any metagaming is the social interaction between players. The social aspect can be built into the game mechanics and be an integral part of the board game, or it can be in a more supportive role. A good example of a game with social interaction as a fundamental element is Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game. In it, humans try to keep their space ship intact until they reach their destination. Cylons have infiltrated the space ship and try their best to prevent the humans from achieving their goals. Player roles are handed out in secret and could change mid-game. No player knows for certain which of the other players are humans and which players are cylons. As missions and events begin to fail and stress on the space ship mounts up, accusations and blame are handed out like last week's bread. As players try to convince others of their humanity and good intentions, whether they are true or not, the game relies quite heavily on the social interaction of the players. I have rated the game pretty highly as it works really well with the right crowd. Only when people start to mix in-game accusations with personal offence, things get hairy. On the other hand, games which have social interaction as a supportive element are more mechanism-based. A game like Agricola has little interaction between the players, but nothing stops the players from discussing situations and tactics. One might say that other players can enhance the experience, but aren't essential to enjoy the game mechanism.

Metagaming expands on the social interaction of players. In Blood Bowl metagaming can be seen in the skill selection choices of one’s team. The way one develops a team usually depends on the league he is in. If a specific league has a lot of Dodge skill, developing a Tackle skill (disables opponent’s Dodge) is very beneficial and thus likely. If there is a lot of Block, one could give Wrestle to a few players to mitigate difficult ball carriers. The same goes for Strip Ball if the league teams lack Sure Hands. All these decisions depend on the playing styles of other players. In short, the best choices vary from league to league.

Metagaming can be done both subconsciously and on purpose. "Since a player has been dubious in previous games, it is easy to think that he will be a cylon in future games as well." This kind of thinking is most often done subconsciously and without understanding metagaming. All players (excluding character selection) have an equal probability of being a cylon, no matter how the player appears to other at the table, so the above is often stated by new players. The player who plays the metagame on purpose is a much more interesting creature, as he recognizes the aforementioned train of thought and turns it to his benefit.

One way of metagaming within a gaming group is to create a certain image of oneself as a gamer. "Player A is a very solid and trustworthy guy! He can be trusted as an ally." This kind of image can be gained by appearing to be helpful to others, giving tips and having a table behavior worth trusting. If it is done in a metagaming way, all the tips given by player A will also benefit himself, all alliances allow him to prosper. This kind of player can then focus on what helps him the most, as his "allies" will be less likely to go back on their word either, since player A wouldn't do that to them. What I am getting at here is, that player A is calculating this from the get-go and could use the same gamer image to his advantage in not only one game, but also convince others that the same behavior will continue in other games as well. This can be a very deadly illusion in games where stabbing someone in the back in the critical moment can truly change the outcome of the game. The back stabbing could be accompanied by "Oh shit, sorry! I had no idea it would affect you like that, let me make it up to you in some way..." or something like "I hate to do this, but I'm sure you understand that just in this very occasion I have to do it because of..." Sneaky.

Another image I have seen a player invoke is the role of a crazy person. I know these players fairly well and they are very intellectual people. This is the reason I know them to be metagamers, and their real personalities are far from what they show around the board game. "Man, that Player B plays in insane ways, you can never know what goes in his head!" or "A few games back someone attacked player B on the board and player B spend the rest of the entire game pounding on him. You really don't want to attack him!" are good (and real) examples of the crazy person image. No one wants to ruin their entire game by entering into a ceaseless war with another player. If player B has the image of going berserk, it might help him prevent conflict completely. If player B acts in an erratic manner and does weird moves all the time, how can one tell if he is a cylon or a human? In this sense, player B molds himself an image in every game that gaming circle might play. The image is strong, powerful and scary, as the moves of maniacs are hard to predict. Of course it is all just a clever game.

While these gamer images are sufficient as examples, I would be interested in hearing about whether you metagame. Also, what kind of gamer images do people in your group have? Have they been built consciously and do they span more than one game? Player A could very well play some games like player B, as it benefits him more to do so. If you find yourself thinking about why a certain player plays some game very differently than others, it is most likely a very conscious decision on their part. I play most games like Player A, as I find having a trustworthy image suits my role of teaching games to others better. While I teach the rules etc to new players, I am genuinely helping them to learn the basics. It would seem very weird if I were to suddenly start playing like a maniac once they learn how to play. Thus I keep a sincere look and slowly give more and more advice which actually benefits me as well. Alliances seem pretty easy to keep and very rarely do I get stabbed in the back. This helps me focus on one enemy at a time and then return for my ally with "There aren't any more enemis and sadly only one of us can win the game..." as an excuse. Some games are an exception. Metagaming and backstabbery are very important in Munchkin, so there I play a much more erratic gamer bordering on mediocre lunacy. Instead of always helping people, I will very quickly turn events around if it gains me something. Bribery, threats and extortion are not below my methods by any means. "If I come and help kill this monster, you will get a whopping 3 levels while I take the treasures! Thanks for agreeing... now Poof! The monster vanished leaving all its treasure behind but neither of us gains levels. I'll take them all as we agreed. Thanks ^_^" or maybe "If you go help that player, I will curse you both and summon enough monsters to kill you both many fold. Just let that guy take the hit, or else..." Not nice at all, but part of the game.

Now, I have to mention that I would never do such nasty things outside gaming. A game is a game and should not be mixed up with real life decisions. While metagaming can expand to several games, it should never expand outside gaming. I am by no means suggesting that anyone start backstabbing their friends in real life, whether figuratively or literally. You will lose friends fast, and for good reason. Games are games, don't be an asshat. It should also never be used when teaching games, as new players need to get their rules information without biases or hidden agendas when it comes to the rules explanation. While on the topic I could mention that I hate personal verbal attacks while playing games. If someone verbally assaults another player no matter how they played, it is a sign of aggravation caused by again not understanding metagaming and the overall social aspects of the given game. There is never reason to get angry about a move in a game, you can always get back at him in this or the next game. Holding grudges in games and getting back at someone is childish to be sure, but again it could be a clever way to metagame the player B type. Think before you act!

While metagaming could be used in any game, it is much stronger in some. My research showed a clear correlation between socially heavy games and games which had strong metagaming opportunities. If the game had strong metagaming involved, it unerringly had a lot of social interaction as well. Examples of these were Munchkin, Risk and Blood Bowl. The reverse (strong social interaction correlates to strong metagaming) didn’t hold true, however. There are a ton of games which are very socially engaging, but do not create a strong metagaming environment: party games. One can hardly argue against the social foundation of Taboo or Pictionary. Still, the social interaction doesn’t correlate into benefiting from metagaming. One hypothesis I have about this is that the rules of these games create allies and opponents which are then set in stone. No amount of negotiation or back stabbing (within the game parameters) will change adversaries into allies or vice versa.

On to the games themselves. Playing the role of a maniac sheep farmer in Agricola seems a bit lame, but being extremely territorial and trigger happy in Risk will have clear effects on the game. I have rated my games in both social engagement and the strength of possible metagaming. The scale was from 0 to 5 in both categories. While a true 0 would only be received by solitaire games, I have listed trivia games as a 0 for metagaming as well, while receiving social interactivity scores of 2. Sure you create a gamer image in whether you are knowledgeable or not and that might affect team formation in the beginning, but it will have no effect beyond that point. It would be hard for me to imagine helping the opposing player/team or answering one of your own questions incorrectly on purpose. Once rated, I wanted to see if I valued socially inclined games more than mechanism-heavy ones. The resulting graphs show that I prefer socially interactive games. The good games received an average social score of about 3, while bad games had an average of half that. When comparing metagaming strength, the overall numbers were lower, but the differences much greater. Bad games had almost no metagaming involved, while good games had an average of 1.7 even with the inclusion of three party games: Pictionary, Alias and Time’s Up! The highest metagaming scores were given to Munchkin and Risk (5) and Blood Bowl and Warhammer 40k (4). Interesting how two Games Workshop products would rank in my top four in metagaming. Maybe it has something to do with their marketing scheme… ^_^

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Sat May 18, 2013 7:15 am
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4. Preferred amount of players and consistency

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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The world is full of good games, bad games, and anything in between. Not all games are equally good or bad with any amount of players, however. While some games manage to stay consistent with 2,3,4,5 or more players, most games have a "best number" of players. The best number can be witnessed when games are balanced, exciting and fluctuating. The amount of human interaction lowers the effect of runaway leaders and keeps the players on their toes. With the right amount of players, the winner is not determined until the very end of the game. The opposite can be said when the same game is played by less than the perfect number of players, with the winner becoming clear long before the actual end of the game. When a game's winner can be estimated easily before the end, the most exciting part of the game is spoiled.

Game designers always plan their games for a certain amount of players and that amount can be seen on the game boxes. 2-4 is quite common, while Agricola was meant for 1-6. Battlestar Galactica and quite a few other "diplomacy" games have a minimum of 3 players. These are a good indication, but they should not be taken as written in stone. Some games work very well with player numbers not included in the limits. Alias works really well with three players, although it was meant to be played in teams of at least two. Likewise Agricola can be played solitaire as well as in company, but the solitaire game is no where near as involved or intriguing as the same game mechanics used with more players. Some games even go as far as limiting whole game mechanics depending on player amounts. Mvnera: Familia Gladiatoria is rather peculiar, as it completely removes some of the more interesting game mechanics when playing with less than four.

While some games give a rather consistent experience with all amounts of players, some games change radically with the amount of players. While the most obvious change comes from playing solitaire to playing in company, it is only the beginning of the scale. Alcatraz is a very low luck game where each player controls his gang of four criminals trying to escape from their holding cells towards a boat symbolizing freedom. The board abstracts a prison yard where guards attempt to catch fleeing inmates, with the guards' movement speeds being dependent on the movement speeds of the inmates. I highly recommend this game by the way. The game is advertised for 2-4 players. What is not advertised is how it is a totally different game depending the amount of players. Very little luck is used in the game and thus 2-player games turn into a chess-like battle of tactics and calculation. This happens very fast and lasts the entire game. A 4-player game on the other hand is a frantic, chaotic dash towards the boat while wishing for the best. All clever calculations can be turned to dust in a second by the other three players, creating very unexpected outcomes. Here we go into subjective territory, as I claim that playing with three players is the most entertaining and fun way to enjoy Alcatraz. There the mental strain is still present and calculations have value, but the problem of a runaway leader is mitigated by the two other players usually ganging up on the one leading.

Some more consistent games change very little with the changing amount of players. Last Night on Earth feels and plays the same whether it has 2-6 players. With 2 players one player takes charge of all the zombies and one all four survivors. A 3-player game would still include one player controlling all the zombies while two players would control 2 heroes each. In a 6-player game four players control a single hero each, while the zombies are split between two zombie players. The overall game changes very little, though one could argue that especially splitting the zombie horde between two players takes away from the fun of playing them. I am most used to playing LNoE with 2-4 players, but the best number would seem to be 2,3, or 5 players. Another game which doesn't change much is Forbidden Island. While an increased amount of players creates more discussion and social aspects, the game mechanics bend perfectly to any number from 2-6 players. The more players there are, the faster the island sinks in the eyes of a single player. By this I mean that a single player can affect his environment less and less, while the island keeps sinking on every player's turn. A single player is thus more dependent on the other players to keep him afloat (literally), while in a 2-player game both players have a very direct effect on the game. I see Forbidden Island as being just as good with any amount of players, which is rather rare. As the game is cooperative, there is no fear of a runaway leader either.

I have now used the term "runaway leader" several times without an explanation. The term refers to the fact that in some games the person who gets in front, stays in front with little fear of failing, creating a boring game. It could be seen as a race where the leader gains speed boosts, thus all but ensuring victory. In games where players build economies or victory point engines, runaway leaders can be seen when the stronger engine creates more resources which in turn fund an even stronger engine giving more resources etc. If there is no way to stop or slow this cycle, then the early leader will always win the game. In some games it could create utterly boring 3h+ games where the outcome is clear from nearly the get-go.

I have to admit being biased once again, as my gaming circle is rather small. My most common opponent is my girlfriend and a few friends. Thus I don't even own too many games which require a minimum of 4 players to work well. I have wanted to own Battlestar Galactica for quite a while, but seeing how it shines best with 5 players or more, it's unlikely that I would ever get to experience the game at its best. As with anything, I do have my exceptions. These exceptions include Axis & Allies (best with 5), Igels (best with 4) and party games (can be played with 3 with house rules). Due to my bias, it should be no surprise that most of my games suit 2-4 players, are flexible and consistent. The following graphs and paragraphs will discuss my games correlating player amounts and consistency to the overall ratings of said games.



In the above graph we see the stated player amounts of games and our "best amount" marked with a dot. The results were rather surprising. Even though we mostly play with 2-3 players, games of all quality were (by average) better with over three players. The best games actually gave an average of 4.11, meaning that most of the best games are even better when played in a larger group. This would logically indicate that most of our gaming sessions are played with a sub-optimal amount of players and thus could be even more fun. Have we played less fun games than we could have? Have we had sub-optimally fun times playing? Are we "wasting" playing time with too small a gaming group? Heh, while these questions might be of more comical than real value, they might have a point. Can fun/time be measured and increased? I believe they can, though I would never claim that our gaming sessions aren't fun. Perhaps we could have more fun per hour with more players... Thoughts, experiences?



Consistency was measured by how much the game changed with the amount of players, as was explained in earlier paragraphs. 0 meant that the game didn't change at all, mostly due to being limited to just a certain player amount (like BB, Chess etc.) A value of 5 would have meant a completely different game, where the very basics changed and the result could not be identified as the same game as with a lower amount of players. None of our games received this value, so I would once again like to know if any of the readers can come up with such a game.

Even without such a graph, it would be very logical to correlate our high player amount preference to games changing quite a bit with the amount of players. However, that is nowhere to be seen, as an average of 2.5 is pretty low. So the games don't change all that much with the amount of players, but we still prefer 4+ players. So what makes us want more players when the game remains the same? Ahh, here we hit the gold vein: The social aspect. In our minds, we have more fun memories of playing the same games with more people around the table, than with low numbers. We have more interaction above the table through chatting, cheering and jeering and the game itself becomes less of a focus point and more of a social medium. While this might seem obvious, it is very interesting to see in statistics and graphs. It also proves a valuable point about board games being a social catalyst worth studying from many more serious viewpoints. I could very well see board games being studied relating to pedagogical topics on children's education, how people behave in groups, in competitive environments, with new people around them, socializing and networking disabled people, as well as the more traditional topics around problem solving and mathematical development.
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Thu Feb 7, 2013 12:27 pm
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3. Theme

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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There has been some talk about me preferring highly themed games over abstracts. Someone even hinted of an allergy for abstracts. While I do enjoy abstracts as well, I can't deny the allure of a fun theme combining perfectly with good game mechanics. A few games have shown that a strong theme is not enough, however. Wreckage is a prime example of a game where a strong and cool theme is utterly blown away by clumsy game mechanics. In Wreckage the players are in control of highly armed, armored and tuned vehicles. These vehicles (cars and motorbikes) are then let loose in a deadly arena full of cement obstacles, spike traps, mines and gasoline canisters. The game aims to create a brutal death-match where a single mistake may end one's auto-gladiatorial career. Sounds pretty cool to me, with a sort of Mad Max/Carmageddon vibe to it. Well that's where the awesomeness ends. The game is played by choosing action cards allowing the player to change speed, turn, and fire. While that is not bad in itself, the way vehicles move in the game is so awkward, that it makes the player want to crash. If by some small miracle you get to line up your guns against your opponent, it does get a bit more interesting. However, the game includes a homing missile which can pretty much instakill a player. This takes absolutely no skill, just a lucky card draw. Hooray for no skill win! But I digress...

Disregarding utterly failed game mechanics, an interesting theme really makes a game. It has to be clearly said that game mechanics always come first. With that out of the way, an interesting theme can make the game much more fun. Which theme is interesting to who is subjective though. Stock market games, auctions and financial simulations aren't interesting to me, while a good sci-fi/fantasy/horror environment makes me want to at least try a game. This must be some form of escapism inherent in board gamers, as it seems rather common. Quickly comparing game themes, there aren't that many games revolving around every-day life in modern times. "Remember to eat a few times a day, so you don't feel tired at work. Try not to fall asleep in class so your grades don't drop. Roll a die to tie your shoelaces and feed the cat." Sure there are games like this, but they are a severe minority when compared to dragon slaying, unimaginable horrors, shipwrighting, extraterrestrial encounters, warfare and mediterranian trading. Even with the unbelievable success of The Sims franchise, I feel that most of us want to play games about something else than our every-day lives. Even in Sims one can bitch slap the neighbor and create six-way romantic entanglements or love hexadrons (^_^). I doubt many players would even attempt that in their real lives. So why not take it a bit further and drive a dagger through that old witch's heart, rob the intergalactic bank and drive away in a 1930's getaway car firing a tommygun. Wow I really digress with this topic...

My point is now to try to determine if there is a correlation between highly themed games and good games. Then I will categorize games loosely (and solely) by their theme and see which theme is the most prevalent in good games. The first chart shows the games divided by how heavily themed they are. Strong themed games (like LNoE, Blood Bowl and Agricola) feel like the player is really doing what the theme suggests. Playing LNoE on the Hero side really does feel like running from relentless zombie hordes. Starvation and taking care of one's family is very present in Agricola, and Blood Bowl, whew! Talk about a heavily themed game! Every action the player does is in relation to how the various races behave, how fans in a violent world will exact their own justice on the referee and players, how fanatics have little control over their actions. Every cruelly brilliant thing about the Warhammer Fantasy universe comes to life in this game and has real effects on game play. In my mind, few games have a more strongly integrated theme.

Games with medium weight theme have less effect on actual game play, though a theme can be seen in the illustrations and basic back stories. HeroQuest is an example of this. Sure it is a dungeon crawl with all the basic elements of a fantasy adventure. The missing character development (excluding equipment purchases) and very light storytelling have only minor effects on the game play themselves. Munchkin, although a very different game, also has a medium level of theme for pretty much the same reasons as HeroQuest. Here bear in mind that a medium amount of theme does not correspond to a game of medium weight regarding game play mechanics or amount of strategy.

Light games only have a shallow pretense of a theme. The theme may be there to only create a uniform look to the game. Typically the game mechanics could however be used with any other theme just as well. Ubongo has a tribal appearance and is about snatching gems before other players. This however is achieved by Tetris-like puzzle solving within a time limit. The tribal feel does not relate to the gaming experience in any way apart form the illustrations. The aMAZEing Labyrinth is very similar theme-wise. The players search for some kind of treasure in an ever moving labyrinth, but no reason or explanation is given to who the players are, or why they search for the treasures (such as spiders, owls, ghosts and skulls).



While I knew I liked themed games, I had no idea the correlation would be so great. The chart clearly shows that the best games are mostly highly themed as well. Mediocre games have mainly medium or light levels of theme, as well as none in the case of good traditional board games (Chess, Go etc.). The only bad game with a strong theme is Wreckage. Almost all other bad games either have a very light theme, or none at all. The games with no theme are trivia games, traditional board games and pure abstracts. Note that this does not mean all abstracts are bad games. There are a ton of good abstracts and semi-abstracts in the mediocre games category, but it would seem that in order to become a good game on my list, a stronger theme is usually required.

Do I select my games by theme, or are the themes of my games determined by what the new and cool (hyped) games in the market are? With no real way to prove either way, I would have to say that I follow game mechanics 70% of the time, while the theme is a deciding factor for 30% of the games. That can be a very deciding 30% though, as I noticed with Steel Driver. I checked a review video about Steel Driver and noticed myself yawning before it was halfway. The video was some 5-7 minutes long! As I had no trouble watching Undead Viking's overview of Descent 2nd Edition (40+ min), it was a clear sign not to purchase Steel Driver. Bonds, shares, majority ownership, blah. Having a business degree does not mean that I want to play games about business. Then which themes am I drawn to? As mentioned in the beginning, something outside the limits of normal life works well. When I made a chart of all my games, the chart was skewed heavily due to the large amount of traditional board games and trivia games. This can be seen here:





So clearly I had to differentiate the games again based on quality. Now we start to see results, though nothing major. Here bear in mind that a single game could qualify for multiple themes and as such, the numbers add up to more games than I have compared.The differences between the bars in the "Good games" category are minimal. Sci-fi is lower than it would be if I had limitless funds (Eclipse, Space Hulk, Doom, etc etc.), but otherwise the spread seems logical based on the games in the collection. Survival and building games seem to work well, though the latter is a pretty new trend in games and could move lower as time goes by. Mediocre games show that fantasy and warfare games are dime-a-dozen. The themed bad games are mostly children's games. Everyone can guess what bad game is the on about Investment. Yup, Monopoly.

This comparison was purposely done so that game mechanics were avoided in the comparison. These will be the focus of another blog post, as they are easily worth at least one post by themselves. The most keen readers might have also noticed that the amount of compared games has almost doubled (+40). I have added all the games from my history of gaming to the list. Hopefully they will provide better data from more varying game types. Notice for example, that Hungry Hungry Hippos is a pretty highly rated survival game And an awesome game it is!
Like in the first blog post, this graph shows a (very long) list of the games being compared from this point onward. Feel free to comment.

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Thu Dec 20, 2012 3:03 pm
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2. Types of luck

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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My last blog post introduced luck in games. The main perspective was about the amount of luck and how increasing luck made games less stressful. This time we will take a look at how luck is implemented into games and how the different "locations" of implemented luck affect game play.

In this post I categorize games into five divisions based on how chance is included in a game. These are Beginning Luck/Ending Luck and Before Action Luck/After Action Luck/Changing Situation. These will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Beginning Luck: These games introduce luck into the beginning phases of the game. The player will then create their strategies based on his randomized starting position/resources. Usually this includes the differentiation of players based on the draw. Examples can be seen in R4tG’s starting worlds, Agricola’s occupations and minor improvements, Axis & Allies (if nations are drawn as opposed to selected) etc. In all the aforementioned games players have unequal starting positions from which they must compete against each other. In an extreme example, the start would be the only time when luck is used in the game, but at least I have never played such a game. Does a reader have an example game?

Then there are games which include luck in the first stages of the game, but do not create differentiation between the players. A good example of this is Dominion. Though the 10 Kingdom Card decks are randomized, they present all the players with the same strategic options and thus do not create an uneven situation. It is then up to the player to decide which of the drawn cards are worth his attention and which are not. Dominion could be seen as a rather pure example of Beginning Luck, while further phases of the game use low amounts of luck due to the deck building mechanism.

Ending Luck: These games have a high amount of luck concerning the end of a game, while the rest of the game contains relatively low amounts of randomization. To be honest, most of these games tend to be gambling orientated and usually bad games. A pure example of this would be Dice Chess, a game developed by a BGG member whose username escapes me. Maybe someone can remind me? For those who do not know what Dice Chess is, here is a short summation:

1: Play a game of Chess with your opponent.
2: Each player rolls a die. The winner of the Chess match adds 1 to his roll.
3: The player with the highest total wins.

Dice Chess was developed as an example of bad game design, where luck has plays too big a part. The problem with Dice Chess is not only the amount of luck included, but also the way it is implemented into the game. Luck plays too big a role in deciding the winner, while skill has very little effect. This has to do with my first post’s topic, but is also a perfect example of Ending Luck games. Other similar games are often played in casinos and are purely luck based. Slot machines do not care about the technique or skill needed to insert a coin or pull the lever. Even if a person were to stand on their head and pull the lever exactly 96% of its range of motion with their feet with trained reliability, it would have no effect on the result of the game. Some wise-ass will no doubt point out the futility of such skill in a chess game as well. Yes, it is an action done outside the mechanics of the game, but imagine how hard your opponent has to concentrate in order to perform well while you are flapping your legs in the air on the other side of the board. Ok, a bad example is a bad example, no way around it, no excuses =)

While no pure Ending Luck board games seem to be around, many games can be easily won or lost due to luck. Risk is a good example, as no amount of preparation can save a player when he rolls nothing but low numbers in a crucial battle. Admittedly a man advantage will increase the probability of winning, but as all Risk players know, it’s never guaranteed. By the way, I am in no way saying it should be guaranteed. So in Risk, while the game does not end per se, a badly lost battle can effectively shut out a player ending the game for him. A very good comment by Roland Wood was made to my last post regarding this aspect in games. While game duration will be discussed in a later post, the acceptance of Ending Luck can be proportional to the time and effort a game takes. As with Risk, Ending Luck will end a game based on bad luck without a way to recover. After a long game of 2-3 hours, it sucks to have a game fall apart because of one die roll (Blood Bowl, I am looking at you!).

Before Action Luck: The first two examples of luck had to do with the entire gaming experience from start to finish. Now we focus on a more tactical viewpoint. Games which introduce luck before actions are taken are quite common. Each turn they present the player with a randomized change in the situation, but allow the player’s actions to take effect without luck affecting the outcome. Kimble is a perfect example of this. A dice determines the tactical choices of a player. Tons of other old dice-based games have similar mechanisms. Dice are not necessary for this mechanism, however. Carcassonne is a valid example of a game where luck is used to determine the starting point of a player’s each turn, but will not affect his actions beyond that point. Games like Forbidden Island and Pandemic have players create the new situation through drawing cards to sink/infect parts of the board. Then the acting player decides and accomplishes his actions with 100% probability of success. Then the situation is changed once again. Rinse, repeat. The fact that sinking/infecting cards are drawn on the active player’s turn after the player’s actions is irrelevant. They could be drawn at the beginning of the next player’s turn with little difference to the flow of the game.

After Action Luck: These games present situations to the players without luck being a deciding factor. The players then make their choices and roll dice/draw cards to see whether their actions were successful. Risk is again a good example of this. Once a player’s turn starts, he can create new troops and decide where to attack. The situation does not change until all tactical decisions have been made. Then his dice rolls determine his turn’s outcome. As one of my favorite games of all time, Blood Bowl needs to be mentioned here. While being a strategic game, no one can deny the luck involved in the game. Good planning and sound strategy can take a player far, but after most choices in the game, luck is introduced to determine the ultimate success or failure. However, I must also point out that if board games were Blood Bowl teams, then Blood Bowl would no doubt be the Goblins!

Before and After Action Luck: Some modern board games combine the aforementioned categories to create hybrids. Red November has the players running around a submarine trying to fix as many hazardous situations as they can, while drawing new events at the end of each of their turns to create more chaos. Still every action has a possibility of failure depending on the precious time spent on the action.

Changing Situation: These games include luck, or changing condition while the player is making a turn’s tactical decisions. Last Night on Earth enables the opposing player to play event cards in various stages of the active player’s turn, changing the active player’s tactical choices/probabilities while he still can decide on a number of actions. While players do not compete as directly in it, Race for the Galaxy has a similar mechanism. In R4tG a player selects his initial phase to play out. All other players select their own phases or actions. Then all are revealed simultaneously to determine which phases can be played by all players, not just the players who chose the specific phases for themselves. The phases are played in a pre-determined order and the previous phases of the same turn can affect later phases (for example settle to produce). A good player should have some idea of what phases the other players will select and chooses his own phases accordingly. Munchkin also provides a ton of changing situations during a player’s turn as other players either agree to aid, or totally crush the active player’s attempts to win a fight against a randomized opponent.

Then let’s take a look at the statistics. First the Strategic level luck graph. Here I have given an N/A rating to games where there is no randomization, nor is there a way to lose the game with a single streak of bad luck. In those games losing is a process and does not come out of the blue. The Strategic level luck graph shows that good games come in all forms and I am happy notice no trend there. Mediocre games are again ruled by games with little luck involved, which can be seen clearly. While this is understandable in trivia games and the like, it lowers the excitement factor of many games. As in many of these games losing is a process, it can be seen coming. With little luck to turn the tables, this might lessen the gaming enthusiasm and be one of the reasons that said games are in the mediocre category. Winning is not important by itself, but seeing a loss a mile away is not fun either.

Then let’s analyze the Tactical level luck graph. Humph, no clues here either on how good games are good. Both graphs show rather steady amounts in each bar. The missing “Before and After Action” bar is no big deal, as those games seem to be rare anyway. I am more than willing to accept that I just haven’t seen a good game with that mechanism of luck. Many mediocre games have tactical level luck introduced before player action. This might have two reasons. The first is the fact that many older dice-based games limited tactical choices by having the player first roll a die. The other reason is from trivia games’ standard mechanism of drawing cards with questions/drawing assignments/explainable words etc. Bad games also show a lack of luck on both graphs, so one could make an assumption that in order to keep games interesting, there needs to be some chance for the losing player to turn the tables, however remote. Personally I feel surprisingly strongly about this.




PS: If someone is wondering “I wonder how Blood Bowl is seen by the author…” and is interested in seeing the exact ratings per game, I can add them to these posts as well. Who knows, after all the topics have been discussed and if people are interested, I might go through the more interesting games and discuss the topics related to individual games.
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Wed Nov 28, 2012 3:36 pm
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1. Randomness/Luck

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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When pondering the different characteristics of various board games, one cannot get very far without running into randomness, or luck. Luck in games varies from one extreme to another with everything in between Chess to Bingo. Chess has no luck whatsoever, as the board is open to analysis and no information is hidden from either player. This setup creates a 100% skill-0% luck situation, where the more skilled player will always win. Sure there is a remote possibility that a person with no clue about strategy or tactics could play the exact perfect moves and win by pure luck, but that is about as common as a chimpanzee writing a Shakespeare-like novel. Wise-assery aside, luck does not factor into the game. Bingo on the other hand is pure 100% luck - 0% skill. You choose a sheet and then wait for the right numbers to come. The only time when player participation (or skill) is required is when a row is completed and the player must bother to yell out bingo. Let's compare these extremes and see which is more fun.

Chess is a very intense game, where the slightest mistake can, and usually will make or break your game. It is a pure battle of intelligence, wits, cleverness and strategies. In a vacuum the better player should always win, though this is not the case in real life. Restlessness, environmental stress, tiredness or any other mental condition will play a part in the game's outcome. The player's focus must be completely in the game in order to achieve the best result. While I am a competitive person, I find Chess to be more of a mental exercise than actually fun. I do play the game occasionally and do enjoy it, but it would never become an obsession, or a daily game. I feel that a game needs more luck in order to alleviate the mental stress it causes. If the player cannot control everything on the board, it relieves of some of the stress as well.

Bingo on the other hand gives no control to the player, so it could be said that Bingo plays itself. There is absolutely no stress in playing Bingo, no mental strain or feel of achievement when winning. As the game itself is without any aspect to grab the player's attention, it has to introduce external motivators. These would be the monetary assets placed into the game in order to win that packet of coffee, blender, whatever. Imagine a game of Bingo without the betting aspect. Boring as hell, one could be flipping coins for the same level of commitment. Every time a game has to introduce external motivators, it is a clear sign that the game itself is not interesting or fun. The same could be said about all casino games. They all create varying illusions of player control, while the correct choices are mathematically obvious and require very little gaming experience or skill. But I digress...

So Chess is too intense a workout and Bingo leaves player commitment out of the picture. As keen readers might have already figured out, neither are my favorites. I have to admit though, that Chess does have its time and place for me, so I would not be surprised if someone informed me that they prefer Bingo over Chess. Some no doubt enjoy the other side of the extreme more. Anyway, the golden medium must be where the best games are. But how do they scale? For me Go is more enjoyable than Chess because while it is a pure skill game with completely open information to both players, it is impossible to calculate all outcomes of all situations on the board. At that point, no matter how hard the player counts, he must ultimately make the choice using his gut feeling. While this isn't exactly luck, it is getting nearer to it. Here I have to remark, that I never was an excellent Go player (1-3 kyu on KGS), so many can calculate longer variations than I can. On the other end, Battleship games bring in basic levels of tactics, while still relying heavily on luck. Again neither are my favorites, but we are getting closer with Go.

Skipping to the point, my favorite games include a good amount of luck without it overcoming the need for skill. Games like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, Last Night on Earth and Space Crusade are what I enjoy the most. They all have luck in them, but the player's choices can have large effects on how big a part luck plays in the game. Dominion's deck building, R4tG specialization Vs. diversity strategies, LNoE crowd control, teamwork and tactics, Space Crusade team formations, sweeping patterns etc all have clear and undeniable effect on the outcome of the game. Player control is high, while luck is still included to reduce the "seriousness" of playing as well as enabling unforeseen consequences. I like the unforeseen; I like to be surprised while playing.

Ok so the amount of luck is an important part of what makes a game good. No extreme is perfect for a fun, relaxing gaming session. The correct balance is found from between the extremes, but the exact amount must be highly subjective and always open for debate. Luck in gaming does not stop even nearly there, however. In my next posting I will go deeper into luck and how it is implanted into games and how it affects game play.

Finally we have the statistics. Here are most of the games I own listed in order of overall rating. The bars show the relative amount of luck included in the game. As can be seen, there is a slight pattern between the rating and the amount of luck within a game. The games I enjoy the most (rating 9 and 8) have an average of 4.15, decent games (rating 7 and 6) have 3.68 and bad games (rating 5 and below) have 3.88. The highest total was with the 9 rated games (4.17 average) and the lowest were the 7 rated games (3.1 average). This shows that I surprisingly like more luck based games than others. This can be explained by the rather lukewarm ratings of the many trivia games at the low end of the list. Very interesting start, as I would have guessed that I prefer more skill based games!

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Tue Nov 27, 2012 9:20 pm
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Introduction

Antti Karjalainen
Finland
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What makes a good game?

No doubt that question has been asked and answered countless times with very different results. This blog will try to answer that question on a personal level. The research will obviously be based on mostly empirical experiences and very subjective preferences. Hopefully this will blog can still provide food for thought to other board game lovers as well as helping me collect my thoughts into a somewhat (not) coherent whole.

Ok, so I guess the first thing a blog writer should do is introduce himself. Good day! My name is Antti Karjalainen, and I am a board game addict. Well some would say a collector, hobbyist, enthusiast, geek, frequent flier etc., but who are we kidding? An addict is an addict. Apart from the obvious, I am a Finnish BBA graduate of well below 30 years old. I share my apartment with my girlfriend and enjoy too many things to name here.

My gaming history goes way back to my childhood. Games like Afrikan Tähti, Monopoly, HeroQuest, Space Crusade, Pictionary and aMAZEing Labyrinth are engraved into my childhood memories as much as Legos, the Sega Megadrive and legendary computer games. I have always enjoyed games of all sorts, but board games have always been my most loved kind. Even as a kid I knew that electronic games were contemporary, while board games would hold their value through the ages. Now as a proud owner of all the above mentioned games (2x for Space Crusade) I can say, that I was not mistaken. Sure some games lose their flavor and magic, but the classics stay and are cherished.

Zooming to the present, the last year or so saw me investing in some 20-30 board games and expansions to increase my collection to over 50 games. Some were definitely worth every cent, while others were lackluster and clearly overhyped. Finally getting to the point, this blog tries to figure out why other games just are better than others. As a final notice of this intro, I will remind the readers of the topic's very subjective nature. When I claim one game's superiority over another, it is an opinion and no need to begin a flaming war over. My goal is to discover the makings of a good board game as objectively as possible. That said, you are free to disagree with me (please do), I can listen understand opposing opinions. Thanks =)

At the end of each post I will show a graph and some statistics from comparing the games. It is only fitting that the first graph shows which games I have the most fun with. These numbers were taken directly from my BGG account and the numbers correspond to the explanations in said website. These are not all the games I have or have played, but they should be plenty for some meaningful comparisons.


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Tue Nov 27, 2012 9:13 pm
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