Big Game Theory!

Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything.

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Keyforge: IMPACT Deck Analysis

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Like many, I heard about Keyforge, from Fantasy Flight Games, last year, months before its proper release. As a former Magic: The Gathering player (circa 1994-1997 and sporadically thereafter) I was curious about Keyforge and how it would play. As a designer, I was downright intrigued by Richard Garfield's creation. As a gamer staring down the barrel of less free time, the prospect of playing a collectible card card (CCG) game without the expense and time most CCG’s require - what with all the card collecting and deck construction furor - was enough to sell me on the idea.

Fast forward, I’m now the owner of eight decks and have managed to pull a significant number of friends and family under the Keyforge umbrella. Afterall, one does need opponents! Fortunately, it’s been universally well-received among kids and adults alike. It is remarkable in how the procedurally generated decks nevertheless find ways, often clever or unexpected, to shine. I can’t shake the sense when staring at a “weak” seeming deck, that if I keep digging I’ll keep finding lines of play and nuanced card-combos that keep the gameplay fresh and exciting.

As readers of this blog may know, I’m a data geek at heart. And so it should come as no surprise that I decided to dig into the numbers and data behind Keyforge. In particular, I was trying to understand how and why different decks perform they way that they do. Hence this blog post.

The good news is many people before me have had this same thought, and a variety of “rating systems” have sprung out the aether-net to help players better understand their deck’s capabilities. Most prominent is the SAS/AERC system at But there is also the ADHD system, best accessed at, or Baron Ashler’s system for generating a deck’s Expected Win Rates(EWR). ToyWiz has developed some of their own metrics, and connected the whole thing into a storefront for buying and selling decks.

Despite all these rating systems, none of them quite clicked with me. I feel that they didn’t fully or consistently appraise all facets of play and card effects, which results in skewing the perceived worth and values of certain decks. While I have tremendous appreciation for the SAS/AERC system (as it is the most thorough), the way in which SAS card ratings are subjectively determined and how the six AERC sub-values don’t fully cover all possible card effects means that some cards are either over/under rated, or whole swaths of card functionality are devalued. I was determined to change this. It’s data geek time.

IMPACT Deck Analysis, The Making Of

I penciled out an idea for a new deck rating system that was comprehensive and reasonably objective (or at the very least consistent), with how it determined card ratings. Here’s how it came into being:

Step 1 - The first thing I did was establish that a value of “1” was roughly analogous to 1 aember. For those that don’t know, the goal of Keyforge is to forge keys (clever name, eh?), which you do by collecting six aember tokens per key. The first player to forge 3 keys (18 total aember) wins. Thus, the effects of a particular card can be framed in terms of its IMPACT on the flow of aember.

Step 2 - The second thing I did was look across all the 300+ cards and start to categorize the primary effects of each card into a different categories. Some cards generate aember and others steal aember. Some abilities help you draw more cards and cycle your hand faster (giving you more flexibility and options) whereas other cards stall and slow down your opponent (thus hindering their options).

All in all, I identified twelve impact categories for card effects, which can be aggregated further into three big buckets: pacing, flexibility, and board. Pacing relates to effects that either speed up your aember production or stall your opponent’s. Flexibility is about manipulating your options through card cycling, recall effects (e.g. pulling creatures from play back into your hand) and activation, as well as messing with your opponent through hindering effects. Board (i.e. board control) is all about maintaining and leveraging creature and artifact power on the table. You can see descriptions of all 12 impact effect categories further below.

Step 3 - After identifying the impact categories, I developed a scoring rubric for how to assign value to each card based on the strength of its primary effect and modified by contingencies, penalties, bonuses, and other card attributes.

For example, I valued each point of creature power at 0.25, such that a 4-power creature would be valued at “1”, on the premise that a 4-power creature would be expected to survive at least one round and could reap (i.e. collect) one aember. Stronger or weaker creatures would be expected to gain more or less aember in proportion.

There many cards with strong effect, but which are tempered by their effectiveness being contingent on specific in-game situations. Other strong cards might come with a penalty that can potentially harm you as much as your opponent if you don’t plan around it. These contingency and penalty effects, alongside secondary bonus effects, also play into the scoring rubric.

Step 4 - With the rubric in hand, the most laborious task was to go through the 300+ cards in the game and assign impact values to each card. However, this is where the strength of this rating system, I feel, shines through. While each card has a “total impact” value, this value is an aggregation of each of the 12 categories, allowing you to see in exactly what ways a given card’s effects might impact the game.

I was able to weave in some interesting modifiers too, like providing cards with a bonus when they have an “Outhouse” effect. In Keyforge, you are limited to playing and activating cards of only one house (i.e. suit) each turn. But some cards have effects that let you activate “out of house” cards (e.g. outhouse or “house cheats”), which can open up powerful lines of play. Accounting for outhouse abilities is, IMHO, pretty important for a rating system.

Step 5 - The final step was to assemble a tool, in this case a google spreadsheet, that lets users plug in their deck and automatically generate an IMPACT score profile for their deck. Check it out.

Credit goes to Baron Ashler’s Expected Win Rate calculator which provides the technical backend for querying the Keyforge Master Vault API and automatically plugging the target deck’s unique card list. From there, some spreadsheet jujitsu (vlookups mostly) reads the master card rating table for the various IMPACT scores, and from there slices and dices the information in a bunch of different ways - including but not limited to a spider graph. Where would the world be without spider graphs?

So how does this tool work? Read on my friends!

IMPACT Deck Analysis, Tool Description
Click on link above to use the tool

Purpose: The IMPACT deck analysis tool is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of a Keyforge deck’s composition, relative strengths/weaknesses, and potential playstyles.

Disclaimer: As with all Keyforge rating systems, this should not be viewed or used as if it provides an objective truth about a deck’s performance. Many facets of interactions between cards, both within the deck and between an opponent’s deck, are not fully captured by the system. Moreover, skillful play is always a significant factor in determining the winner of a match (as it should be), and so higher or lower relative IMPACT comparisons should be seen as a predictor of which deck will win.

Let's take a look at a personal deck of mine, the aptly named, Oliver, Rock Viking.


The top section of the impact tool summarizes the raw scores and totals across the 12 different IMPACT factors, aggregating these into Pacing, Flexibility, and Board sub-scores.

PACING: Relates to ability to control the flow of Aember, both yours and your opponent's

* Speed: Amber generation from raw aember bonus, card effects, and buffs to any of the above.
* Stall: Aember control or ability stall or delay your opponent from making keys by stealing, capturing, removing their Aember, increasing key forge costs, etc.
* Forging: Ability to forge a key outside of the normal turn process - which can be a huge boost to your pacing.

FLEXIBILITY: Relates to the ability to manipulate your hand/deck or limit your opponent's options

* Cycling: Measure of hand cycling, deck stacking, archive effects etc.
* Recall: Ability to move cards between board/hand/discard, which is a big boost to flexibility (e.g. regrowth)
* Activation: Ability to change the exhausted/ready state of cards, unstun cards, activate neighboring creatures, etc.
* Hinder: Ability to mess with opponent’s flexibility (i.e. make them draw less cards, discarding their cards, forcing house selection, exhausting their cards or stunning cards)

BOARD: Relates to the ability to maintain or exert board presence through creatures and artifacts

* Damage: Ability to target direct damage or issue mass damage
* Neutralize: Eliminate or takeover threats - either single target or global "wipe" effects
* Artifact: Ability to control, destroy, steal or otherwise deal with hostile artifacts
* Power: Ability to deal damage with creatures, offensive boosts and effects (e.g. charging, skirmish)
* Stability: Defensive and staying power of creatures (heal, elusive, taunt, armor)

These twelve impact categories are also aggregated into external vs. internal effects, giving an overall evaluation of how much your deck’s capabilities relate to managing and utilizing your own cards and assets versus interacting with those of your opponent (e.g. hindering effects, direct damage, stealing aember)

Another line of consideration is the distribution of effects relative to cards in your deck. For example, in the deck shown in the image (Oliver, Rock Viking), the Recall Impact of the deck is 10.5, which is linked to just five cards. These type of calculation is aggregated into a diffusion score, which is a measure of total impact divided by the total number of card effects. Deck’s with a lower diffusion value means their card effects are spread out among relatively more cards, which can help improve the consistency of the deck compared to those where a lot impact is concentrated in a smaller subset of stronger cards.


This middle section runs some statistics on the 12 criteria to determine the percentile score of each impact category relative to a larger pool of cards. These percentiles are graphed on the spider chart, giving a quick overview of the relative strengths and weaknesses of a given deck.

For example, in Oliver, Rock Viking, the deck scores above the 85th percentile for hinder, meaning that it has a lot of effects that allow you to mess with your opponent’s stuff. The 2x tremors can stun three creatures each in your opponent’s line (often costing them the bulk of a turn to remove). The 2x Succubus can shrink your opponent’s hand size, limiting their options for future plays. And so on.

NOTE: These percentile scores should be taken with a grain of salt, as they are based on a small sample of about 30 decks. I need to figure out a way to build a more representative sample of decks for calculating percentages more accurately.

The impact + playstyle graph also shows a general relationship between each impact category and its aggression vs. control value and internal vs. external value. More aggressive decks will favor high scores in impact categories like speed, forging, and power - which will try to outpace their opponent through direct aember generation, key hacks, and using masses of creatures to reap. Conversely, a control-oriented deck will use stalling (discarding or stealing opponents aember), artifact stealing, and creature stability effects to control the board space. These two dimensions intersect with impact effects that are more internally focused (e.g. card cycling) or externally focused (e.g. dealing direct damage).


The final section contains a detailed table of results for all of the cards in the deck and types of impact provided by each card. The three columns to the right of the net impact provide a breakdown of some specifics, such as raw amber generation from cards, raw creature power, and the bonuses for outhouse abilities.


The hidden secret of all of this is that “deck construction” is still very much alive and kicking in Keyforge. It’s just shifted from buying individual cards and deck tuning into a scouring the web for interesting decks with particular combination of cards. Central to these scouring activities are tools that help people quickly appraise the composition of a deck and help winnow down the staggering range of possibility.

Now it’s your turn…

Have you played Keyforge? Are you a data junky? Have you used other rating systems? If you plug your deck into the IMPACT system, how does it fare? Does it match your experiences using the deck?

The phones are open!

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Fri Apr 19, 2019 8:13 pm
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Stellaris is Dead... To Me

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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First, a disclaimer: This whole post is like just my opinion, man.

Now onto the grave business at hand…

I was listening to Three Moves Ahead 2018 yearly review of strategy gaming, and the conversation inevitably swung around to how things went for Paradox this year, which unsurprisingly gets us to Stellaris (which has been the hottest space 4X videogame since 2016 - for those that might be wondering). One of the panelists made a comment to the following effect (I’m paraphrasing): I finally have to come to terms with the fact that Stellaris is increasingly not - nor likely to ever be - the game I imagined it would be.

I couldn’t agree more.

Many of Stellaris’s major patches - version 1.6, 2.0, 2.2 - have been riddled with bugs, glitches, and game-breaking jankiness or oversights that have certainly hurt the reception of the game. But for this conversation, I want to set all of that aside. I want us to pretend that these major updates were released and working as intended without the technical issues that have been levied on the fan base and patient customers. I want to pretend the game is working properly because I want to focus the conversation instead on the changes to the game’s underlying design.

When I say that Stellaris is dead, it is not because of bugs and glitches that will - in all likelihood - eventually be fixed. After all, version 1.6 was an utter mess. But by version 1.9 the game was stable and working well. It can happen again.

Rather, when I say that Stellaris is dead, it is because - “FOR ME” - the game’s underlying design has gone in a direction that runs counter to both my preferences, but more importantly, against what I felt the initial vision and dream of Stellaris was in the first place. And not just for me, but for a vast swath of the game's early adopters.

What was this initial vision, you ask?

Galaxy spanning empires and beautiful geopolitical messes… in theory.

Stellaris was billed as 4X meets Grand Strategy, and is developed by the company that is the undisputed master of grand strategy games (Paradox). My idealized vision of a 4X game is one of empire growth and expansion that feeds into a titillating geopolitical strategic experience. By geopolitics, I’m talking about diplomacy, foreign trade, military deployments, competing ethics and national personalities - you know the stuff that Europa Universalis IV is praised for. I thought, that this is what Stellaris would be. That it would take geopolitical strategy and bolt on the initial empire expansion and exploration hallmarks of 4X gameplay. It would be glorious!

When Stellaris launched (again ignoring the bugs and glitches and quality of life lapses in the UI), I felt that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here was a game where you could have a 1,000 stars and dozens of races in all sorts of geopolitical entanglements (Vassals! Subjects! Alliances!). It had an exceptionally refreshing exploration and discovery phase. The warfare system offered up something unique at the strategic level (e.g. accounting for varied types of FTL movement or how federations operated).

The game also tackled one of the big questions that has dogged the genre for years: how do you scale up the size of your empire to dozens or hundreds of systems across an entire galaxy without drowning the player in tedious micromanagement? The answer of course is the sector system, which lets you scale up the level of your management to match, so that you don’t have to deal with the individual planets anymore. The sector system frees you up to focus on the grand geopolitical game. At least in theory.

In those early days, we could opine about all the things that needed improvement: rebalancing combat mechanics, improving the sector AI so it wasn’t a dunce, adding even more diplomacy options, making leaders more interesting, reworking the internal faction system, adding quality of life features, refining the end-game threats. Maybe even adding a cool ethics based goal or victory system.

We got a few of these improvements over the past few years. But we also got a lot of things that undercut, trivialized, or simply did away with them entirely. Whole gameplay systems were replaced with re-designed systems that took the game away from its initial vision (and what compelled me to hold out hope for so long) and turned it into something else entirely.

Lordy, take a look at the new, low-micro planetary management model.

Let me try to spell it out it as concisely as I can. The changes to Stellaris have taken the game further away from its premise as a grand, highly interactive, geopolitical 4X game and more towards an inwardly focused, optimization-based, low-interactive empire management game. I see a very stark difference between an empire management game (think of city management games) that focuses gameplay around internal decisions and optimizations and a typical 4X or Grand Strategy game where the gameplay is focused around external interactions (warfare, diplomacy, trade, etc.).

In short, the changes to Stellaris, on the whole, have shifted the entire conceit of game from externally-oriented to internally-oriented gameplay. Evidence:

* Instead of multiple, distinct FLT (faster than light) modes of travel that created a rich strategic landscape, we now just have star lanes with easy to defend choke-points and brain-dead warfare strategy as a consequence (hold the gap!).

* Instead of messy territorial boundaries that create weird emergent situations and force strange interactions with foreign empires, we have neatly defined and discrete territories with very little uncertainty or dynamism.

* Instead of building a huge empire and being given the tools to manage it at higher level, the game space has been shrunk down.

* Instead of a clean and intuitive planetary management system (if a little micro-heavy outside of using sectors), we now have a labyrinthine horror masquerading as planetary “economy” - which incidentally requires even more micro and attention paid to it (see the diagram above). All of this means fewer planets to control and relatively more focus on the internally-oriented optimization gameplay. God help the AI understand this.

And overall, instead of a daring game of exploration, expansion, and geopolitics, we’re left with a safe game where we can build our little, tall, turtle empire in the corner and not have to interact with other empires much at all. The AI is clearly broken right now - but I suspect a lot of people are just fine with that - because they don’t want to deal with the AI or other players/empires in the first place.

Worst of all, is that so much time and effort was spent reworking existing game systems, which needed tweaking not wholesale replacement, that we’re still waiting for many of things that have been sitting on the wish list since day one. Diplomacy has gotten worse since launch, with whole ideas and mechanics stripped out and replaced with nothing. Sectors were improved - and then their reason to exist was virtually eliminated in version 2.2. Trade was added, albeit through a half-assed global marketplace. Warfare has changed and yet the mechanics around war score vs. war exhaustion feel like they are still going in circles with no clear direction in sight. And of course we’re still waiting for something to spice up the mid- and endgame.

It’s like their empire boundaries naturally conform to the choke points! That’s soooo deep

A good number of people, perhaps even a majority, are happy with the changes in the game’s design direction (assuming the technical issues are fixed). For many people, it seems their enjoyment of Stellaris is coupled to the narratives they imagine for their empire, which are heightened by the more internally-oriented gameplay systems. So for them, the changes may be seen as a positive. This is, I worry, part of a larger trend in strategy gaming towards less-interactive gameplay systems. So to say the least, I’m not surprised.

Call me old school, but I want the narratives I create and the stories I can tell to exist on the grander, galactic, geopolitical stage. On the stage that I thought Stellaris was building. That’s my dream for a 4X meets grand strategy game. But increasingly, this dream is a distant and fading memory. I have little faith that Stellaris will be the game to revive this dream. And so I hold out hope that some other game will.
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Thu Jan 17, 2019 4:07 pm
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Self-Deception & My Game Collection

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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File this post under first world problems. Or privileged peoples’ problems if you want.

After all, how silly is it to cry “woe is me, for I have too many board games on my shelf and it’s causing me psychological grief!” I suppose one small consolation is that at least I can use the opportunity to impart games to people that can put them to use (i.e. play them). But we’ll get to that..

How did this start?

Recently I looked at my BGG “owned game” tally, and was rather surprised to see that it said 179 games. How did that happen? What made it worse is that I know that isn’t even all of the games sitting in my house. There are dozens more kids game procured from garage sales or bargain bins that I never owned up to in my BGG collection.

Now, 179 games may not sound like a lot to many BGG users, but for many others it’s surely a ridiculous number. For me it feels like entirely too much. In an ideal scenario I’d have maybe 10 or 20 games that were the ones I really, truly loved. Okay, maybe 25 or 30 and. And surely not any more than 50. 75 would be right out. But 179? Downright lunacy.

It bothers me to see that number and to know that a great many of those games are sitting on the shelf and haven’t been played in years. Thankfully only a few linger entirely unplayed, as I am pretty good about getting everything to the table at least once. But still, I don’t “feel” like someone that wants to own 179 games.

And thus begins the self-deception....

First of all, are all of these 179 games really “my games”? The answer is no. Quite a few, when it comes down to it, are games that aren’t really “mine.” They are games that if it were only up to me, and I didn’t have anyone else consider (you know, like my children) then the games would be donated to the nearest store ASAP. But I can’t go throwing out my 4-year olds copy of Candyland, or my wife’s copy of Sorry! that she’s had since she was a kid. I’m not a monster.

So I asked myself this: if it were purely up to me, would I get rid of this game immediately? Games that met this criteria I removed from my owned list and shuffled over to the “Has Parts” list. While I was at it, I moved all my miniature game stuff over to that category as well. The six editions of Warhammer 40k, stacks of Battletech books, various CCG leftovers, etc. are categorically a different animal than the “board games” on my shelf, so they’ve been banished from the list. 38 down. 141 to go.

Next up, I got in touch with a local high school that was starting a board game club and wanted games to get their library started. Without further ado I posted a list of all the games on my “for trade” list that wasn’t a high value item (I don’t have many of those anyway). They said they’d take one modest stack (and were quite humble about it). So I did the charitable thing and gave them “two” modest stacks of games instead. 13 more down. 128 games left.

Next up I have 8 games on my trade list. Most of which I’d be fine just snapping my fingers and having them go away. I have copy of “Hegemonic” for trade, but really I have nearly a dozen copies sitting my basement. I like to donate or drop copies of this game off at places I visit (that are receptive to it of course). Ignoring Hegemonic, that’s nevertheless 7 games that I’d part with readily. I moved these to “For Trade” and removed from the owned category. Down to 121.

Last up are expansions. These are included as owned “board games” but also tallied separately under the expansions section. I have 13 of those at the moment. I’m pretty religious about stuffing expansions into base game boxes, and they are sort of a package deal at that point. So that’s 13 more down, bringing us to XXX games. We seem to be getting into more reasonable territory here.

So that leaves me with 108 games. Much better than 179, but still above where I’d like to be.

To Prune or not Prune the Collection?

108 games is still far more than I can reasonably expect to play in any sort of regular manner. There are games I’ve played just once, years ago, languishing on the shelf. And so I have to be honest with myself about answering this question: why do I still have these games? The answer is… nuanced.

There are some games that I own, simply because I enjoy the fact that I own it, if nothing else than for its aesthetic, sentimental, and/or collection value (not necessarily monetary value mind you). If I had all the time in world, I would surely find time to play these games too - but baring that, I get some value out of simply having them.

Inca Empire for example is game that I really liked the one time I played it. It’s also a jaw droppingly beautiful game (IMHO). Even if I won’t play again for years - or maybe never - I still like it on the shelf. Fantasitqa is a game I bought because (a) I love the cover painting by Caspar David Friedrich and (b) I bought it at BGG con during the launch of Hegemonic. So it has some sentiment attached to it.

As I discussed in a previous post of this nature, at this point in the self-deception I find it useful to consider groupings of related or similar games and ask myself: if given the choice between playing A or B (assuming A & B are relatively in terms of style of game, length of play, etc.), is there one I’d always rather play? If so, I should boot the other one out of the collection.

What follows is a list of the 25-games I most want to keep with an eye towards covering my bases in terms of style of game, playtime, likely audiences, and so on. So this ultimately reflects a broad range of games, from those I enjoy playing with my kids to big meaty games that will take a whole afternoon or evening to play. In addition to these top 25, I’ve also flagged about 30 runner ups that I’d strongly like keep to round out the collection. The rest? If they vanished one day I probably wouldn’t bother trying to replace them.

In no particular order...

Asymmetric / COIN-series like

#1: Root

DESCRIPTION: This is an amazing game in a lot of interesting ways, and a fascinating case study on the current market and trends in the design of boardgames. While I'm likely never going to dig into really heavy wargames, this one scratches at the edges of GMT's COIN series games. Asymmetric player factions, plays 2-6 players, has solo/cooperative modes. Feels both sandboxy and tightly designed. Wonderful.

Block Wargames

#?: Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan

I've only played this one once, which was awesome (and just happened recently). I'll see how repeat plays go, but I may need to chisel out a space in the collection for this.

2-Player Light Battle/War Game

#2: Iron Curtain

DESCRIPTION: Basically a 20-minute version of Twilight Struggle that captures the essence of the ops vs. event card play, area majority on the world map, and variable scoring timing that is at the core of the original game. I'm really impressed with how satisfying this game is for being in such a small package. Only complaint is that the box is too big!

Empire Games / Dudes of a Map / Wuero Hybrids

#3: Antike

DESCRIPTION: Fabulous rondal game of ancient civilizations. Has just enough historical notes to make it feel like a proper civilization game but in a reasonable playtime. A few house rules even out the timing of the end game when more players are involved to keep things from overstaying their welcome. A very clean and classic feeling game.

#4: Cyclades

DESCRIPTION: A true hybrid / wuero-style game that combines dudes on a map style area control with a clever bidding system. Awesome pacing.

#5: Runewars

DESCRIPTION: Super impressed by the times I've played this game. A poster child for Ameritrash-style games from FFG.

Runner Ups:
* Civilization

Adventure Games

To be frank - I don't have one of these that sits in the top 25. I am on the look out for an interesting adventure game, and there certainly are tons of them on the market, but none I've played have really grabbed me.

Runner ups:

* HeroQuest - bad boy from the late 80's
* Key to the Kingdom - my daughter loves this hideous throwback. Nostalgia in effect
* Tiny Epic Quest - Zelda inspired compact adventure game. Pretty slick.

I guess I'm still on the hunt for the right kind of adventure game. I do have some ideas sketched out for one that I'd like to make. More to come on that front - one day.

Beer & Pretzels

This is a category where I own a bunch of games but frankly don't have much interest in playing them. Too much chaos and not enough interesting choices. And these can be frustrating for the kids. Doesn't really have an audience anymore.

* King of Tokyo
* Illuminati (this game still has a special place in my heart though!)
* Plague & Pestilence

Lightweight / Quick Games

#6: 5-Minute Dungeon

DESCRIPTION: This is a real-time cooperative card-based dungeon crawler. And it's a blast with almost anyone. Fun times.

Runner ups:
* Rhino Hero
* Pit

#7: Sushi Go!

DESCRIPTION: About all you need to in card drafting game.

Runner ups:
* Sea of Clouds

#8: Kingdomino

DESCRIPTION: Awesome little puzzle building game. Love this one.

Runner ups:
* Fairy Tile

Role Selection / Set Collection (Family Game)

#8: Broom Service

DESCRIPTION: This has become one of my favorite family games. There is a tremendous amount of variability within the game and the various optional/advanced rules that can be tacked onto it. Great deduction and double-think angle.

Runner ups:
* Witches Brew
* Mission: Red Planet (unplayed)

Tile-Laying (Family Game)

#10: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers

DESCRIPTION: A favorite game for me and my wife. Builds on the classic game with enough twists to keep the gameplay fresh and tense after 100's of plays. Great, great game.

* Explorers of the North Sea - tile laying crossed with pick-up and deliver and a simple action point system. Pretty fun game, just not exceptional.

#11: Taluva

DESCRIPTION: A masterful game of multi-level tile laying. Plays quick but has tense gameplay from the opening moments to the end. Really excellent design.

Runner ups:
* Hive

Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling

I also don't own a great game in this category. But maybe that's okay - but I'm sure I'm missing some classics in here.

Runner Ups:
* Roll through the Ages
* Loot

Cooperative & Solo Games

#12: Onirim (second edition)

DESCRIPTION: I like this game *a lot*. Plays well solo or with 2. 7 Expansions in the game box provides all kinds of ways to add variability and different challenges to the core game. Amazing artwork.

* Sylvion - part of the Oniverse (with Onirum)
* Castellion - also in the series

#13: The Grizzled

DESCRIPTION: Both thought-provoking and challenging gameplay. Brilliant execution and handling of the subject matter. Strikes a nice balance between coordinative and non-coordinative play.

Runner ups:
* Hanabi
* Pandemic Cthulhu
* Lost Expedition

Social Deduction / Bluffing

#14: Mascarade

DESCRIPTION: Off all the love letter, coup, citadels style games - this remains my favorite. The game can be a real mind-bender with just 2-3 players but also scales up to being a whole roomful of people activity if you want it to be.

Runner ups:
* Citadels
* Coup

Complex Card Games (Eurogame)

#15: Innovation

DESCRIPTION: Fantastic small box game with big brain-burning gameplay. So much variability and interesting card combinations make this is a solid classic in my book.

#16: Race for the Galaxy

DESCRIPTION: Race for Galaxy is an excellent, excellent game. It really does require that everyone have a firm grasp on the mechanics and the pool of cards in order to make smart decisions. For that reason, I have a hard time getting to the table. Thank god for the digital implementation with a pretty decent AI.

Runner ups:
* Villages of Valeria
* Pocket Mars (unplayed)

Deck-Building / Bidding / Other Stuff

#17: A Study in Emerald

DESCRIPTION: A Study in Emerald (first edition) is the kind of game I'm increasingly being drawn to. It's not perfect and clean and clear. It's convoluted and messy in many ways. And yet it's such a deeply interesting game. The deck building combined with area control and bidding and hidden roles and all of it makes the game almost more impressive as a story generator than as a game. But it's a damn fine game too.

Runner ups:
* Hit Z Road
* Fantastiqa
* Serica: Plains of Dust
* Star Realms

Map-Centric Euros(Area Control & Tile Placement)

#18: Yellow & Yangtze

DESCRIPTION: Could it be that I'm placing this above Tigris & Euphrates. Whatever the reason, it's made it to the table more than T&E and I like hexes more than squares. But seriously - Y&Y is a more approachable if more forgiving game, and yet has a nuance and character all of its own. I think I like it more. Maybe it's not the deeper of the two games, but it's deep enough and balances it well against other aspects.

Runner ups:
* Tigris & Euphrates
* Samurai
* Domaine (haven't played this yet!)
* Acquire

#19: Eight-Minute Empire: Legends

DESCRIPTION: I really like this game for its compactness, quick playtime, and high degree of interactivity. I adore Ryan's artwork as well. Kinda like a miniaturized version of El Grande without quite as much brain burn.

Runner ups:
* Small World (really like this one still, awesome 2-player game)
* Condottiere (unplayed)

Engine Building / Clockwork Games

Clockwork games are my term for games - and generally eurogames - that combine a bunch of a different mechanics together into some big engine building thing. My tolerance is generally pretty low for this sort of thing.

#20: Raiders of the North Sea

DESCRIPTION: I really, really like this game. It reminds me bit of Caylus in that it's a worker placement game that focuses on the jockeying for spaces on a shared board. Awesome theming and artwork seal the deal.

Runner ups:
* Stone Age: I play this one as math practice with my kids!

#21: Glen More

DESCRIPTION: Probably the most solitaire-like tableau building game I have. Nice and small package with a clever tile selection system that nicely balances jumping ahead for a juicy reward against taking more actions. The tile placement puzzles are fun to work out.

Runner ups:
* Ginkopolis: Gosh I really like this game too. Has more shared board space in the area control game, but there are so many mechanics in thi one that it can feel a little incoherent. But I so like it.

#22: Inca Empire

DESCRIPTION: Another game I need to play more. It's like the next step on the Catan rung, with a combination of network building and shared assets. Absolutely gorgeous looking game too. Really need to get it to the table more.

Rank & Suit Style Games

#23: Decktet

DESCRIPTION: Amazing. 6-suited, dual suited deck oozing in mystique. So many amazing games can be played with it.

Runner ups:
* Lost Cities
* Rook
* Wizard
* Pixie Deck
* Badger Deck
* Traditional Cards

#24: The Fox in the Forest

DESCRIPTION: Excellent 2-player trick taking game.

Runner ups:
* Odin's Ravens

#25: Arboretum

DESCRIPTION: A lovely, lovely game. It can be a serious brain burner for sure. Reminds me a bit of golf but with more nuance and depth in the scoring and card arrangements.

Runner ups:
* Red 7
* Lords of Scotland
* Monad

Traditional Abstracts

All excellent stuff - but I prefer slightly less abstract games.

Runner ups:
* Bakcgammon
* Cribbage
* Go
* Othello

Well there you have it. If I had to pair things down to just 25 games, this would be it. To recap:

* Carcassone: Hunters & Gatherers (2002)
* Taluva (2006)
* Antike (2006)
* Race for the Galaxy (2007)
* Decktet (2008)
* Cyclades (2009)
* Glen More (2010)
* Inca Empire (2010)
* Innovation (2010)
* Rune Wars (2013)
* Study in Emerald (2013)
* Eight Minute Empire: Legends (2013)
* Mascarade (2013)
* Sushi Go (2014)
* Onirim (2014)
* Broom Service (2015)
* Raiders of the North Sea (2015)
* The Grizzled (2015)
* Arboretum (2015)
* Kingdomino (2016)
* 5-Minute Dungeon (2017)
* Iron Curtain (2017)
* Fox in the Forest (2017)
* Yellow & Yangtze (2018)
* Root (2018)

Now... How about you?
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Tue Dec 18, 2018 4:12 am
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The Inglorious State Of 4X Games

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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NOTE: This article was originally posted at eXplorminate. Head over to eXplorminate to get your fix for 4X and strategy game news, reviews, and more.

Greetings! If you haven’t listened to the 33rd Strategic Expanse – 4th Anniversary Hangout featuring all of the lesser (I’m jesting) eXplorminate staffers then please stop reading this and go listen to that first. The rest of this little rant (thoughtful article?) will make a bit more sense with the proper context. With that out of the way…

I’m elated that, despite my absence on the podcast episode, my name was referenced (usually couched in swear words) a significant number of times. That means you’re all listening to me, which is good because it makes me feel a little less like a crazy person screaming into the wind – and more justified because I’m sure you’ll agree that I’m right. And if you don’t agree now, then maybe you’ll agree to agree with me sometime in the future. Only time will tell.

Alright, alright, enough of the snarkiness.

This episode, live from the Galactic News Network.

The StraX episode centered on a number of big questions pertaining the 4X genre:

*** What is the current state and market of the genre?
*** What needs to happen to evolve or innovate the genre?
*** What are the low points and the high points in the genre?
*** What are you playing now and looking forward to?

All of these are very serious and important questions. And so are my answers.

State of the 4X Market

Many have described the past few years as a new Golden Age for the genre, while others insist that it was only a Silver Age or, perhaps, a Renaissance. There is no doubt that we have seen more big titles (exhibit A: the 4X database) with bigger budgets and from big publishers, as well as indie games, released to the 4X market than any other time in the past. But looking back, I would not call this a Golden or Silver Age.

Perhaps the Gilded Age is a more apt comparison. We’ve certainly witnessed an explosion in the total sales and number of games being released, as well as an industrialization and commercialization of the genre. But frankly, it feels like a veneer of gold (aka sexier graphics and features) plated over a dearth of design innovation. New shiney look, same old stuff.

What do the Gilded Age and Cthulhu-looking monsters have in common?

Many of the big games are merely a modern regurgitation of the classic formulas, and I’m not convinced the underlying designs are all that much better. The resulting opulence of new mechanical systems and features have added little to the narrative structure or strategic depth of 4X games. We’re still stuck in the same basic pattern of sending out colony ships/pods/carts, optimizing our cities/colonies, incrementing along tech trees, and waging war/diplomacy with typically incompetent AIs in pursuit of boring victory thresholds where it’s evident who is going to win hours before the ending arrives. We’re still stuck, thoroughly, in this colonization paradigm. Maybe this paradigm is, by definition, what a 4X has to be – but I don’t really buy that. I want better.

I would be doing a disservice to the genre and its fans if I didn’t mention that there are games nipping at the heels of this paradigm. Thea comes to mind, with its focus on questing and survival in a hostile environment. Or the promise of Stellaris (delivered on or not?) to be a grand simulation sandbox where all things are possible. Or the focus of Age of Wonders 3 on its deep and diverse tactical combat system. Or Star Ruler 2’s quirky take on diplomacy and planet management. Even the highly asymmetrical factions of Endless Space 2 and Endless Legend are a step in the right direction.

But really, none of that is enough. Maybe I’m hard to please or I just hold game creators to a higher standard. Or maybe it’s as Brad Wardell said in my interview with him: “We [4X] developers kinda suck … There is what we want to do in games and then there is ‘what we’re able to do’ given the size of the market.” Well, the market recently got a lot bigger. What now?

The fundamental question is this: how do we want the genre to innovate? My worry is that we had this big Gilded Age opportunity, where the market turned its eye to 4X games, and instead of offering up something novel and amazing, developers just put out more of the same. I really hope we didn’t miss our window to innovate and gain traction with a larger audience.

I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.

So, how can the 4X genre innovate?

A few things come to mind, but the biggest by FAR, is the need for more varied and engaging victory systems and end-game triggers. This is critical for the future of the genre.

First of all, it has to do with the variety of experiences on offer within the 4X genre. How many 4X games rely on the same old combination of conquest, economic, political, and technological victory conditions? Almost all of them do. And as a consequence, we’re really just playing the same damn race-to-victory game reskinned a dozen different ways. The hoops and hurdles we go through along the way – fighting off barbarians or space pirates, optimizing build orders, chasing pointless quests – don’t make for truly different experiences.

It’s my view that the arc and the narrative structure of 4X games (not the plotline mind you, but rather the story created by the sequence of strategic choices you make) is largely the same. So many of us play out the opening moves (exploration phase) only to abandon it when we reach the point where we know how the rest of the story will go. Once the mystery is gone, the illusion is shattered and our motivation to keep playing plummets.

Shattered dreams, like this broken window.

There are two aspects to this issue of victory systems that are important to acknowledge. One plays into the strategic depth and challenge in games and the other plays into our desire for roleplaying and immersion. I feel, these two aspects are frequently at odds with one another in the design of 4X games – with successful games tending to fall more on one side or the other. Games that appeal to both sides – the “grand unification of 4X games” – seem non-existent.

For example, AoW3 clearly places its design emphasis and victory conditions around strategic warfare and tactical challenges. On the opposite end is something like Stellaris – a great big sandbox where you can live out your fantasy as the hive-mind behind a race of xenophobic hamster slave-masters… Or whatever strikes your fancy. The point being, victory conditions in Stellaris are irrelevant to the game’s larger purpose of letting you craft a story and inhabit a universe. In the third corner of the ring is a game like King of Dragon Pass or Six Ages (admittedly not a traditional 4X by any stretch) – which genuinely puts the narrative first and foremost and structures the gameplay around these events.

Incidentally, the game that has come the closest to this unification is Emperor of the Fading Suns, which is a big beautiful mess of a game. But it takes the idea of a clever victory condition (in this case snatching a certain number of “scepters of power” from the hands of rival houses) to reach victory. You can get these through diplomatic exchange, warfare, or espionage. The key is that these tools are all applied towards a common, narratively-based win condition – they aren’t separate tracks that lead to a divergent victory point. It forces players to adapt and think deeply rather than to merely follow a pre-baked pathway to the finish line. Why aren’t more developers remaking this game (instead of yet another MoO2-clone)?

Empire of the Fading Suns: A forgotten dream of what a 4X could be.

So, I believe that the biggest potential for innovation is the idea of crafting more unique and varied victory conditions that are tightly coupled to the roleplaying and narrative-building aspects of the game. It’s creating new strategic challenges and marrying that to a roleplaying experience. I don’t think this is terribly hard to accomplish and I feel like it can be achieved within the structure of many existing games. Nevertheless, novel approaches to victory are critical for enabling whole new 4X gameplay experiences to emerge.

Let’s consider Stellaris again. What if it was restructured such that multiple crises occur simultaneously (and perhaps in competition with each other) and your faction’s ethics align you with one of these sides? The result is a grueling geopolitical nightmare scenario. But if you survive (and are hence on the winning side), your race ascends to godhood and you win the game. The struggle is real, but the rewards are worth it. Suddenly, the game isn’t about merely surviving and creating your little sandbox story, instead it is connected to a much bigger narrative that has huge mysterious consequences for the how the endgame will play out. It blows my mind that these sorts of ideas aren’t developed or implemented more often.

Amplitude has taken some steps in the direction with faction quests from Endless Legend – but in that case they feel too isolated and disconnected from what the other factions are doing. In ES2 they forgot that idea entirely, it seems. They also missed a huge opportunity to inject a game-winning geopolitical challenge via the Academy quest line. The Academy quest could be cool but it’s implemented in a totally janky and superficial way. It could be so much more. And so could the entire 4X genre.

Not even a Samurai bear could save StarDrive2’s sad ending.

Low points and high points

My low points in the past few years – as it relates to 4X games – are many. The saga of Stardrive 1 & 2 stands out. Not so much because of the developer’s antics (although that has been a challenge) but because SD2 was so close to being a modern MoO2 replacement. I wanted it to succeed so that, if nothing else, we could finally and definitely say, “Here is the modern MoO2 game – it’s great and awesome. Can we move on to new ideas now?” I enjoyed my time with SD2 in particular, but its buggy final state makes me sad.

So many other 4X games, space ones in particular, just failed to grab me. Galactic Civilizations 3, Stars in Shadow, ES2, Stellaris, Dawn of Andromeda, Oriental Empires – I tried and want to like them more, but it’s just the same story each time and I’m looking for a different experience. And for those wondering, despite what Stellaris claims to be, it is far more of a traditional run-of-the-mill 4X than it appears, and from that lens it’s boring. It’s the pinnacle of optimization based gameplay and I just don’t care for it (nevermind that the fundamentals and meta of the game keep changing from version to version). The soundtrack however is freaking awesome. I still listen to that in the car.

“Ahh, it feels so good to be so bad!”

My high points in recent years come down, primarily, to two games.

The first is AoW3, which was released on the early end of this Golden/Silver/Gilded age. The game is often derided as a 4X “lite” but I think it’s all the better for having a clear focus on combat and strategic warfare. The game cuts out the tedious city-building optimization stuff (or greatly streamlines it) and instead focuses on more interesting strategic conundrums: where to position forces, what units to bring to bear, how to hold multiple fronts, how to control objective triggers, and so on. It can be tense and varied, and I think it’s really great.

The other highlight is the Total War: Warhammer series. We can argue about whether it’s a 4X or just enough in the 4X family, but it scratches the itch of building an empire and waging strategic warfare like few other games manage. Almost every choice matters, and the margins for error are slim. The factions all have unique and interesting mechanics, and things like the Vortex campaign are a perfect illustration of creating interesting victory systems that connect throughout the game’s design and strategic decision points. Awesome stuff.

What I’m playing now and in the future

To be honest, I’m on a hiatus from 4X games until the next wave arrives. Mostly I’ve been indulging my inner Warhammer-geek by playing far too much Vermintide 2 for my own good. If you have any interest in Left 4 Dead-style cooperative FPS games – Vermintide is a blast. Pay no attention to the people complaining about loot drop rates and weapon balance. This is a cooperative game – play it for the moment.

Star Traders: Frontiers – another planet, another delectable spice hall!

I’m also really digging Star Traders: Frontier, which is a starship sandbox game (imagine playing Han Solo’s life as a smuggler) from the Trease Brothers. It’s simple but well executed, with elements of Halcyon 6 (also good) and Darkest Dungeon (also good). Reminds me a lot of the X-series of games (also pretty good) but without the first person space sim / flight simulation bits.

Beyond that, I’ve been diving back into board games. I still maintain that strategy video game designers have a lot to learn from board games – particularly when it comes to creating interesting gameplay arcs and victory conditions. Recent favorites include Root, A Study in Emerald (cthulhu meets Sherlock Holmes), Yellow & Yangtze (a civ-building abstract), and Iron Curtain (fight the Cold War in 15 minutes). Good stuff. Root in particular is a rather amazing combination of counter-insurgency inspired wargames (COIN-series) with a woodland animal theme (think Redwall book series). Root boasts an amazing production value, highly asymmetric factions, and lots of negotiation across the table. Puurrrrfect.

As for the future of 4X games, the picture is a little grim overall, but there are a few bright spots on the horizon. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen (and played) of Interstellar Space: Genesis. The game falls within the traditional 4X paradigm (i.e. MoO2-derivative) but it has a lot of unique ideas under the hood. But while the individual systems demonstrate some needed innovation, I nevertheless worry about the overall feeling of the game and whether there will be interesting victory systems to provide a more novel experience. Regardless, it may indeed fill the role SD2 attempted in being the MoO successor we can all point to. Or maybe it will be Dominus Galaxia. That one also has some clever ideas in the works. Fingers-crossed.

Help me AoW: Planetfall, you’re my only hope.

Of course, what I’m most excited about is Age of Wonders: Planetall. I feel like Triumph Studios “gets” what it takes to create challenging and interesting strategic depth in their games. I’m excited about the many ideas they are bringing forth that build on AoW3’s strongest points. AoW3 – more than most other games, had clever victory systems with the Seals and Beacon victory conditions, and I really hope they build something even more novel for Planetfall.

My fingers are double-crossed – not just for Planetfall, but for all of the 4X genre.
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Tue Oct 9, 2018 6:47 pm
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Visualizing the BGG Game Database with Gephi. Whoa!

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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So I stumbled into an interesting post over at r/boardgames from reddit user Shepperstein, who had downloaded a trove of data from BGG’s database. He then used Gephi to create some fantastic network models (aka graphs) depicting relationships between game categories. Very cool stuff. I urge you to check out his post and links to his analysis.

Of course, I immediately wanted to start playing around with the data myself!

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to excel AND I used Gephi several years ago, so I was already familiar with its basic functionality. Shepperstein also kindly provided a direct link to his database, so I could tap into that information directly. Are we excited yet?

Even more, this would prove to be an opportunity to tackle something I’ve long wanted to do. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I’ve always had an interest in game classification and taxonomy. In particular, I’ve had a long-standing attraction to Selwyth’s Alternative Classification of Boardgames, which provides a comprehensive rework of BGG’s category and mechanism descriptors.

One of the challenges has always been finding a way (or perhaps simply the motivation) to “remap” BGG’s category + mechanism descriptors into new classes (based on Selwyth’s approach for example). Ideally, these classes would better reflect the nature of the individual descriptors. For example, the 80+ descriptors in the category field are a total hodge-podge of thematic items (“farming” or “trading in the mediterranean”, etc.), mechanisms, domains (i.e. Wargame or Party Game), and more besides. Likewise the mechanism attribute contains stuff that aren’t really mechanisms at all.

Long story short, I remapped all of the categories and mechanisms from BGG’s system over to an “alternative” system. You can check out the category-mechanism reclassification tables to see what I did, if you’re so inclined. Armed with these reclassified tables and a trove of BGG database… uhh… data… I set about pulling it all into Gephi and having a look at what I could do.

In contrast to Shepperstein’s work, I wanted to use Gephi to visualize not just the BGG categories, but also the Mechanisms, AND do it in a way such that the final output would give an indication what new class the descriptors would fall into. I wanted it so that things Selwyth classified as mechanisms or genre would be identified as such. Of course I also needed to balance this with the ability to logically discern groupings (aka “communities”) of related attributes.

The image below shows the culmination of this effort. If you want to read it, you really need to expand the image link and make it full screen. Have at it, and I’ll provide some discussion below.

A few technical notes about the above analysis.

(1) The database from Shepperstein only includes games from 1990 to 2018, although that still reflects tens of thousands of games, and also tends to be things more recent and more likely to be tagged with mechanisms and categories.

(2) In Gephi, I excluded node records (i.e. the list of descriptors) with less than 50 games using that category. Likewise, I excluded games where the “weight” of connections between any two descriptors was less than 40. This means that if there aren’t more than 40 games that both share a pairing of any two attributes, then the relationship is ignored. With over 18,000 node connections, it made sense to prune out the ones with a fairly minimal impact.

(3) The fainter-shaded outer circles/colors around the nodes correspond to my reclassified descriptors discussed above.

(4) The colored “community” groupings were based on running a modularity statistic (I have no idea what it’s doing, just for the record), but it results in assigning nodes to groupings based on the relatedness to other nodes. After playing around with the tolerances, it ended up with 11 categories that you see in the brighter colors (e.g. all the “Wargame” related stuff are Red).

Now, I think there some really cool things to come out of this graph and the community groupings. Wargames along with their frequently used mechanics (area movement, campaign/card driven, chit-pulling, point-to-point movement) are all clustered pretty well together. Likewise we see groupings around Party games, which also contains the gamut of social deduction-style games.

Given the plethora of cooperative games with horror/zombie themes, roleplaying elements, and adventure, it was neat to see all those clustered together. Of course, this was pretty well intermingled with fantasy games that leverage variable player-powers, fighting mechanics/genres, miniatures, collectable components (i.e. LCG’s). Science-fiction is likewise ensconced in this zone of the graph.

Economic games are in the bottom right, and constitutes the bulk of what I see as mainline euro-style games. I like the little enclave of Route-Network Building, Transportation-theme, Train-them, Stock holding down there. Aka, the 18xx games and their ilk. I do think there is a high level of alignment with Tile-laying games and eurogames, which is why they also fell into the same community.

Another interesting result is that Area-Control / Area-Influence ended up as it’s own community, and rightly situated between wargames and more euro-style economic games. Area control games tend to have more direct player-to-player interaction on a map, and hence are associated somewhat with their wargaming neighbors. Is this the homeland of the wuero?

Abstract games are down at the bottom, at a logical point between both euro-style economic games (which also tend to be somewhat abstract in nature) and Children’s Games, which are also quite abstract (perhaps as a means of keeping things simple in mechanics - or just that they share some common descriptors?).

In the dead center are a few big communities, including card games and the obviously associated hand management, along with Dice and press your luck type systems. Some of these, like cards and dice are so ubiquitous across domains of games that it’s not at all surprising to see them in the middle of the graph with connections to just about everywhere. I tried excluding them from graph and it basically had no structural impact at all, more or less confirming this assessment. Of course you get things like “take that” games and “trick-taking” games are very closely associated with card games, so I left it in for clarity and completeness.

I also thought it was interesting to compare opposite sides of the graph. Wargames are directly opposite to Children’s games. Highly thematic games in the Fantasy/Fighting, Science fiction, and Cooperative realms are all opposite to Economic (euro-style) games and abstract games. Likewise, games that focus on area control/majority elements and derive much of their deep strategic play from spatial positioning and the like are opposite to party and deduction style games, which emphasize an entirely different sort of player-to-player interactions.


Having done all of this, I’m not sure what’s next! I’m tempted to see about refining the database to pull, for example, the top 10,000 ranked games or top 10,000 most owned games - irrespective of year - in order to hone the database around games more likely to be known, as well as grabbing more of the popular (or classic) games from prior to 1990. Much of the database is filled with relatively obscure games or print-and-play projects and don’t reflect fully published and circulated titles. Over 50% of the dataset (~8,200 records) are games with less than 250 owners for example. I also have pulled in BGG ranking data, average weights, number of owned copies, and more - but I’ll need to think more on how to make that interesting.

So for now, I guess it’s time to open the phones! Any reactions? Thoughts or ideas of other ways to slice the data? I’d love to hear from you all. Cheers.
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Fri Aug 31, 2018 2:53 am
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Rhine & Rhone: An express version of T&E (or Y&Y)

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Alright, so having recently acquired Yellow & Yangtze I'm now getting all reinvigorated for the Tigris & Euphrates-style gameplay.

However, one thing about both games is that neither are particularly portable and games can run on for a while. My kids and nephews have really taken to Y&Y (yes!!!!) but sometimes we don't have the time to play a full game but still want something along those lines. Also both games are not very portable. And so I got thinking...

What if there was another two rivers themed game that uses the same mechanics but comes in much more condensed package - both in terms of components and overall game time. The Rhine and Rhone rivers have a nice ring to them, and are both rivers in relatively close proximity in Europe. Both played an important role throughout EU history and interestingly both have their headwaters up in the Swiss Alps but on opposite sides of the continental divide. The Rhine heads north into the North Sea, and the Rhone goes south into the Mediterranean.

Mechanically, to keep things small (and especially the game box) I'd use the "Micro Cards" (1.25" x 1.75" cards from GameCrafter) instead of tiles. Likewise, I'd dispense entirely with the need for a board. Instead, you would set up a 9x9 hex-grid of cards like in the image below. You'd have a set of fixed "River" cards for the Rhine & Rhone to form the basic layout of the map, with spots for the initial Black tiles (like in Y&Y). All the other cards would be face down. When you place new a tile/card, you'd take the face down card and add it to the top of the draw stack.

Here's a layout example showing the river locations and starting black cards.

One interesting thing is that with using cards to build the board, you could potentially have many different game setups recommended in the rules and/or a process for building out your own unique board each time you play. Interesting?

As for the suits/tile colors, the following make sense to me...

WHITE = Clergy (monasteries)
GREEN = Merchants (marker place)
BLUE = Peasants (farmlands)
RED = Lords (keeps)

Players would have a leader cards corresponding to those colors with a unique symbol and/or a special unique shaped/color pawn to mark the leader card as belonging to them. Alternatively, since the board is so much more cramped, I was thinking that leaders might actually just be placed ONTOP of a tile/card, so long as it's placed on or next to a Clergy tile, consistent with leaders needing to be next to red in T&E or black in Y&Y tiles.

All of this leaves the question of what mechanics to pull from across T&E and Y&Y to round this out. My sense is that it's mostly pulling from Y&Y since the gameplay is a little more straightforward.

However, for simplicity I'm ditching the yellow/wild tiles and leader, and instead adding back in the initial "treasures" that start on Clergy tiles like in T&E. Connecting two treasures together allows you to claim one if you have a merchant leader in the kingdom. Treasures count as a wild and the game ends when all the treasures have been taken (or all but 1).

I'm thinking monuments work like in Y&Y - but possibly also are dual colored. Not sure about that yet. Thematically, I was thinking that getting a triangle of 3 cards and would represent founding a "city", which would have a primary color plus another color to it.

Lastly, in terms of scoring, I was thinking of using a very small board with a Ingenious style OPEN scoring system. Basically, there would be 4 tracks for all the resources and players would have a cube in their color (yes, probably need to assign a different color token to each player, e.g. purple/yellow/black/orange or something) to track points earned. There could also be a victory trigger where the first player to get say "9 points" in their lowest color wins.

Thoughts about all of this? I'm kinda excited about the idea of it!
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Fri Aug 17, 2018 3:19 pm
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Emissary: Red Frontier Graphic Design

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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As a super quick follow up to my previous post on Emissary: The Red Frontier, I wanted to mention that I've been playing with a new graphic design base (background artwork) for the game (now that I have this martian theme in mind).

Below is a first cut at the idea, which is to use actual satellite imagery of the surface of Mars as the backgorund. A few Photoshop filters later and you get what you see below.

The cool thing is that a lot of this imagery is really high resolution and so you can use different parts of one image and have, potentially, a unique snapshot of the martian surface on each card. In many cases, you might even be able to lay the cards next to each other and form a larger image (no gameplay impact of course).

It would also be a way to call out and identify different land forms and named geographic features, which would be kinda cool to work in a subtle way. The image above was of a portion of the Melas Dorsa region on mars.

I'm debating whether or not I should try to add some additional detail to the cards as it relates to the different suits / resource types. But for now I'm leaning towards keeping it all quite clean and simple.

Thoughts? Am I on the right track here?
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Tue Jun 26, 2018 7:47 pm
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Rethinking Emissary for the "Red Frontier"

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Emissary is a design I’ve been iterating on for a number of years now. And while the vagaries of life pulled me away from design work, recently I’ve had a window of time to resume my eternal tinkering.

For those unfamiliar, Emissary was created for a PnP design competition to either create an express version of a bigger game or a micro-game (or both!). At the time, I was experimenting with a number of games using the Decktet system, and I came upon the idea to take Hegemonic and distill it down to its 4X roots (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) by using the decktet. The resulting design worked quite well and had a vaguely Magnate-like feel to its balance of resource management, hand management, and area control.


Since then, it’s been a lot of fine tuning over the years to get the balance and pacing smoothed out. The biggest change has been to rethink the victory conditions to be something that doesn’t require as much arithmetic to forecast, as that can be a major source of AP or slowdown. But more importantly, I really prefer games where the victory trigger is discrete. By this, I mean games where there is a single condition that if a player meets it, they win instantly.

Taluva is a favorite game of mine. It’s an abstract tile placement game where you also have three different types of buildings to place, each with their own conditions for placement. If a player gets all of two of three types of buildings down, they win. The backup is that if you run out of tiles, the player with the most huts wins.

I looked into doing something similar to Taluva for Emissary. Eventually, I settled on a system where there are three specific objectives to work towards, and if player can complete two of three they win immediately. One objective, Might, is based on building a region of a certain size (e.g. 5-cards) and having the most influence within that region. Another objective, Economy, is based on building a trade network, with 4-cards of the same rank adjacent. The last objective, Authority, is based on having the most power on Crown cards (and least two controlled crowns).

These objectives do wonders for orienting the gameplay towards more discernable goal posts. They also create more reasons to conduct certain actions, such as “Replace” to swap cards in the map as well as Hostile actions to push players out of key cards. Of course, there is a backup goal system (a much simplified version of the original scoring system) in the event that the map is built out and no one manages to secure two objectives first.

All in all, I really enjoy Emissary and how it’s grown. The latest version of the rules contain a fair number of other streamlining steps to smooth out the actions, turn sequence, and conflicts. The result is a game that, I feel, packs a lot of punch into a small package. It accomplishes my goal of creating choices with tough trade-off decisions and opportunity costs. For example:

* Crowns cards in your hand are strong for winning conflicts, but playing them to the map is also needed to achieve am Authority victory.

* Aces are powerful defensively, but can be discarded for three resources, which can open up a lot of options for the Influence Action.

* Getting adjacent ranked cards is great for building up resources and working towards the Economic victory, but often makes it harder to effectively network a large region of the same suit together.

* Always tough to decide what cards to discard: do you keep a card for future use on the map, for resources when you need them, for winning conflicts?

* Moving influence is a cheap way to get onto a card that would otherwise be expensive to influence, but it is less efficient in terms of actions.

* Exploring is good, but has to be timed to not give your opponent an opening to influence the card first.

* Crowns on the board can help anchor your position on the board, but they can easily cut off regions and make it hard to connect.

* Tier 1 cards are cheap to influence, but don’t let you concentrate power very well.

* Tier 3 cards can let you concentrate power, but often gives your opponent an opening to build onto them as well - and they are expensive.

* Sharing influence on an card with an opponent may get you (or them) bonus resources through trade, but might let them (or you) get closer to meeting a victory condition.

Having patted myself on the back for the design work, there still remained one further struggle.


One of the big struggles in the design of Emissary, around which I finally made a breakthrough, has to do with theme. Admittedly, Emissary is quite an abstract game mechanically, and so any attempts to theme the game need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I was never very satisfied with my efforts to theme the game previously.

Emissary’s theme started out as a play on the Decket’s mythos about being from the land of purple and red and sending Emissary’s to gain influence among various roving clans. It sorta worked. From there I was tinkering ideas for a proper space 4X theme or alternatively some terrestrial fantasy theme.

The challenge is that the design of the game is really dual layered. One layer is the map and specific suits each cards represent. What are these suits? Roving clans? Foreign space empires? Migratory fantasy races? Floating islands? Then comes the question of what the players represent via the layer of their influence over the cards. Is your influence goodwill? Spies and secret agents? Political clout? Mechanically, it was important that a major action be the replace action, allowing you to swap cards on the map around - but it was hard to rationalize what was being swapped from a thematic standpoint.

Long story short, I settled on an idea that I finally feel excited about. It started with a Popular Mechanics article about Mars colonization, that led to me this NASA research paper, about in-situ resource utilization on the Red Planet. It’s a pretty cool read. And so it may be a tad in vogue, but the wheels were turning and I had a compelling idea for theming Emissary at last.

The basic premise is that players represent different enterprises working to prep a new frontier region of the Martian surface for colonization. This prep work is done by working with six different guilds to leverage their expertise in terraforming and building critical infrastructure. The first player able to fulfill two “contracts” (i.e two of the three special victory objectives discussed above) first gain the right to colonize the region and earns the favor of the guilds.

What does this look like in practice?

The resources used in the game, instead of being generic, can now be coupled to basic resource needs for colonization:

* Blue = Water (for drinking and irrigation)
* White = Oxygen (for breathing)
* Yellow = Silica (for glass, dome construction, solar panels)
* Orange =Iron (for construction)
* Brown = Carbon (carbon fiber, plastics, hydrocarbons)
* Green = Plants (food and fiber)

The actions, rather than being so generic, can be framed in interpreted around terraforming and infrastructure building activities:

* Explore = Survey new areas (with a bit of optional terraforming)
* Influence = Build habitat domes and machinery for resource processing
* Collect = Extract and/or produce resources (with partnerships for trading)
* Move = Migrate workers/drones to a new habitat dome
* Replace = Terraform / Reengineer (changing equipment around for a different resource)
* Oust! = Negotiate ownership

Visually, the different types of cards can reflect things in a more thematic way too:

* Origin cards = Contract cards (objectives)
* Tier 1 cards = Barren plains
* Tier 2 cards = Arid foothills
* Tier 3 cards = Rich valley
* Aces = Strategic stockpile
* Crown = Guild outpost

Obviously this retheming will require revamping the background artwork for the game. I have a few ideas for this, but it will take some tinkering before it’s ready for public consumption.

The last element, is the name of the game. While I like Emissary as a name quite a bit, it doesn’t really fit the new theme all that well. After churning through a bunch of different ideas (including lots of really bad puns) I settled on one that I like (for now): Red Frontier. Or maybe it is just Wild Red (like Wild West, but you know, on Mars). Or maybe the full name is: Wild Red Frontier. Gosh, or maybe it’s Emissary: Red Frontier. Hmmm. Seems like there is more work to do after all!

Thanks for tuning in and let me know what you think!

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Fri May 25, 2018 7:32 pm
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Lobotomy Lab: Shipwrights of the North Sea

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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Someone Call a Doctor!

So I have a problem, and the name of the problem is The North Sea Trilogy, a series of viking-themed games by Shem Phillips. I'm not usually one to be suckered into being a completion-ist. But alas I have a weakness for viking-stuff. And when that "stuff" happens to be a boardgame coupled with amazing artwork, it is hard for me to resist (apparently).

After acquiring and enjoying Raiders of the North Sea quite immensely, I soon found myself looking into Explorers of the North Sea, a Tikal-like tile placement and action point game in the same North Sea series. Shortly thereafter, when I was in the store succumbing to that temptation, sitting on the shelf right next to Explorers was of course The North Sea Runesaga, which allows you to combine Raiders, Explorers, and Shipwrights of the North Sea into one multi-game campaign. Of course that also meant that I needed to buy Shipwrights, and so oh my god, what have I done.

My wallet considerably lighter, and with smiles on the store clerks' faces, I ambled home in a state of post-purchase bliss.

It was inevitable that Shipwrights wouldn't really click with me. It was an impulse purchase and had I done my usual due diligence its shortcomings would've dissuaded me from ever purchasing it in the first place. After playing through a few partial games by myself, these flaws were immediately apparent: it is a game with fairly dull decisions coupled with far too much downtime, excessive randomness, and a playtime that overstays its welcome. If it were a 30-45 minute filler game, these faults would be more forgivable, but this is a game that can drag on for hours.

And yet I really didn't want to give up on Shipwrights. Raiders is an absolutely amazing game and one of the few worker placement games that has won me over (primarily due to the more interactive nature of the shared workers and fierce competition for raiding spots). Explorers is a solid game on its own, and seeing as I didn't have a "go to" pick-up-and-deliver game, Explorers fit the bill.

But shipwrights! What would we do with you? The prospect of playing the whole Runesaga is considerably less attractive if the opening act is destined to be a tedious slog.

Something had to be done.

Shipwrights needed a lobotomy.

Fortunately, Shipwrights feels like "almost" a solid game, but the pacing and structure of the turn sequence is all off. The ingredients are all there (components, theme, basic ideas, etc.), but the recipe is has everything put together in the wrong order.

Getting specific, here are the issues I was hoping to resolve by lobotomizing the rule set:

(1) Game lasts too long, and getting it under an hour would be great. This is partly due to the victory trigger (once a player builds their 4th ship), partly due to how slowly resources are accumulated for building the ships, and partly due to a high dose of randomness (which can drag the game out if no one gets the cards they need to build things quickly).

(2) The turn structure is dull and non-engaging for the non-active players. Normally, Shipwrights has players drafting 3 cards during each day (full game turn). Except the drafting structure is based on drafting from a single hand of cards three times - and then going around the table a fourth time with each player resolving all of their actions. Ugh. Very slow and not exciting.

The Procedure

Changes to the End Game & Victory Triggers

First, in order to shorten the game length, I made the end game trigger occur when a player has accumulated 10 victory points (instead of 4 ships). Once triggered, the current day is finished and then one final day/round is played (as normal).

Overall, this change greatly speeds up the game. It also creates a more opportunity to create more cheaper ships, which normally aren't worth much in terms of VPs, but help advance the engine building aspect of the game (constructed ships provide various bonuses and/or penalties to your engine). The game also features a bunch of buildings that are worth VP's too, but these were always very difficult to justify playing in comparison to ships. Now there are a hotter commodity.

Changes to the Turn Structure

The next big change has to do with the turn structure itself. Something I thought was brilliant about Raiders' take on worker placement was that the "place a worker, take a worker" system created a very quick rhythm in the game and minimized downtime. It also made the core action mechanic interactive and engaging for all players at the table, since you can be thinking about how your own opportunities are taking shape the entire time. Nothing like this existed in Shipwrights, despite the game feeling like there should be that feeling.

So, what I did was have every player start with a hand of 3 cards. Then, rather than drafting cards one at a time from a single hand of cards that gets passed around, I had players draft from a pool of cards in the middle of the table (pool size is one more card than the number of players in the game). AND most importantly, rather than drafting three cards across three sounds, and then going around again to play cards, each player drafts one card from the pool and then immediately does the following: play one card from your hand, take one worker action, and take one trade action (you can do these in any order).

This change to turn structure accomplished a few crucial things:

In the original rules, each player's turn could be a bit of a convoluted puzzle of deciding which order to play cards, what worker action to take, the timing of when to trade, etc. By constraining the amount you can do at any one time, player turns take less time (less giant puzzle to solve), which keeps the game moving at a brisker pace.

Secondly, having a hand of cards to play from immensely reduces the amount of randomness in the game - or at least lets players mitigate it better. In the original rules, you had to play (or else discard) every card in your hand each day. Very often you'd get stuck with cards that were useless in the present situation and did nothing to help advance your position. This would lead to a lot of turns feeling like dead turns where you could only utilize a fraction of cards (or even none of them). This also contributed to drawing out the game. But now, with having a hand of cards and only drafting and playing one at a time, the decision around what to play is much more interesting and multifaceted. Key cards can be held and played at more opportune times and dead turns are nearly eliminated.

Changes to Resource Abundance

The final bucket of changes have to do with the supply of resources and workers in the game. The biggest immediate change has to do with trading. In the original rules, trading for goods cost 2 gold and 2 workers. The awful part of this is that each worker you have at the end of day generates a gold to use next turn. Players have an incentive to just sit around and do nothing other than build up a large pool of workers so their gold engine doesn't get wrecked when you start spending workers during trade actions or for making ships. This again stalled the pace of the game.

So I merely eliminated the worker requirement for trading entirely. However, trading was also limited to only being taken once per turn, instead of an unlimited number of times as before. As each day now has three player turns (coupled to their drafting action), you can still do up to 3 trades per day, however you need to think a bit more about the timing of them. But it also avoids potential analysis paralysis stemming from having multiple trade actions all occurring at once. Again, it speeds up the game while making the decisions a little more interesting at the same time. Constraints breed depth.

I also changed the way the "Townsfolk Expansion" works. Each player turn, you can now spend one worker to take a townsfolk board action. However, instead of workers being "spent" permanently to the townsfolk board (to be swooped up by an opponent), they are now placed in a "tired" worker pool next to your player board and won't be available for other actions until the next day. Overall, this adds a bit more flexibility to how you use workers, when you spend them, and how you build up your economy.

Recovery Room

If you're curious to get the full details on the rule changes, check out this post over in the game's BGG forums. It should spell things out pretty clearly.

I've had a chance to play the game with these rule changes in effect, and I was immediately far more engaged and excited about the gameplay. As with any major surgery, there are likely to be unanticipated complications. There might be situations where certain card effects aren't less clear and/or where the balance might be off. I'm not going to lie, there might even be glaring loopholes or exploits that are enabled due to these changes. If so, we can always make another visit to the cutting room.

Your turn: Have you played Shipwrights? What are your thoughts on the original gameplay and what these changes might mean? What about the broader topic of "lobotomizing games" through a fundamental shift in their mechanics? Any candidates in need of a lobotomy?
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Fri Apr 20, 2018 9:13 pm
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2017 Smorgasbord Part 1: New Stuff Played

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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It's been awhile, hasn't it? I suppose that means it is time for the regular yearly gaming update, coupled with the promises to do more frequent updates, right? Promises or no promises, the show must go on! So let's just launch into it.

Father Zargon is Pleased with your Progress

Reflections on the year in gaming


Excuses first. I've continued to be a contributor over at explorminate. Between writing articles and playing the games we review enough to write those articles competently, a fair amount of time has been sucked up, which would otherwise have gone to writing here at Big Game Theory. Woe is having too many games to play!

I'll do a bigger recap of video game stuff in a separate article, but I'll mention the most interesting tidbit for now. Over the summer I wrote an article, All That Glitters is Not Gold, that was a heavy criticism of the state of 4X games and some of the challenges facing 4X game development.

Specifically, the article was about the lack of "polish" (balance, fine tuning, focused gameplay, etc.) among so many big strategy titles. It is interesting coming at videogames from a boardgame player and designer perspective, because polishing a boardgame design is so fundamental to making an enjoyable game for people. In 4X games, this lack of polish is most exemplified in the late game stages, where it's clear to me that relatively little design effort is focused around victory conditions. Imagine playing a boardgame where it just didn't really end, or where all the things and decisions you made playing the game were disconnected from how the winner was determined. Many people don't see this as a problem for 4X video games - but it bothers me quite a bit.

So before I get too enraged, let's proceed onward to the boardgames!

A Shift in Interests

To kick things off, the kinds of boardgames that I've focused on over the past year has shifted in response to life circumstances. Less time for big heavy multi-hour long games has prompted a deeper look into more kid-friendly games that still retain a spark of depth. While I did manage a few games of Runewars earlier in the year (more on that below), other heavier plays have been relatively sparse.

Hence, I'm finding myself drawn to games with some different traits than in the past:

First, are games with less complexity and fiddliness. Not that I cared much for complexity before, but now I'm really not interested in games that require more than about 5 minutes to teach (at the upper end). Even beyond playing games with my kids (the oldest is almost 7), when getting together with friends over a few beverages, lengthy rules explanations are a buzz kill. I want to be able to dump the box on the table and jump right in to the action.

Speaking of jumping right in, long and convoluted setup processes are also starting to bother me, and I'm wary of games that cannot be setup quickly. When kids are involved or any sort of time constraint exists, being able to get into the game fast is a big plus. Having to sift through a dozen baggies and meticulously arrange the starting board setup just isn't something I want to do. I realize that this may limit the scope of games that I find appealing, but so be it.

Along those lines, I also continue to be enamored with games that pack a lot of gameplay into a small package (e.g. box size). My self-imposed collection limit is that I'll keep what I can fit on the game shelf (which is about 2/3 of a largish bookcase plus a few drawers). I simply don't want more games than that - and a side effect is that games with big over-sized boxes relative to either the amount of components or the amount of depth in the game bother me (man - I'm starting to sound like a complainer!). Basically, I don't want games taking up more space than they need to. And on an even more sublime level, I really like picking up game boxes that feel "dense". Of course, this would seem to work against my desire for less complex games with fewer components, but it's really about just having smaller boxes that tightly fit the components.

And then there are the games that I acquire for some 'vain' reason. Maybe it's that the artwork strikes me and I want the game as a physical product, irrespective of it's potential play opportunities. Other times there may be certain mechanics or ideas (or designers) I'm curious about and want to tinker with - even if I'm not convinced the game is one that will hit the table much (if it at all).

Last - I've been paying more attention to cooperative games than usual. As I've been gaming with my daughters more and they are really into cooperative games and working together. They don't seem very interested in the typical competitive approach to gaming. I try to think of Knizia's quote: When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning. And so I stress, for competitive games, that it isn't about who wins or loses, but that we all do our best in pursuit of the game's goal. That said, we've also taken to playing competitive games in a "cooperative" mode where we just add our scores together at the end for a big uber score. Whoever contributes the most gets a high-five.

With these reflections out of the way, let's talk games!

New Games Played

5-Minute Dungeon (rating: 8; plays: 20+)

This is a joyous game to play, be it with young kids or adults. It is a "real-time" game and feels like an inverted version of Pit, in a way. Each player has a deck of cards aligned to their chosen hero class (bonus points for each hero card having a male and female option). Mostly the cards are simply symbols (shields, swords, arrows, spell books, etc.). The group has 5-minutes to work through a stack of dungeon monsters or obstacles by flipping over a card and then frantically playing cards to match the right symbols to clear the current card.

This has been a big hit with groups of kids as well as adults - and I must say the kids do just as well as the adults do! Despite the simplicity of system, it is surprisingly challenging with more nuance and coordinated play required than one might expect. You have to keep an eye out for opportunities to use a special card or ability to save time (and basic cards - because if you aren't careful you won't have enough of at the end to beat the final boss). It's straightforward yet has room for skill development.

Curiously, the mass market version of the game does not include the same difficulty and player count scaling options that the original kickstarter version did - which is a strange omission because it's really important! Without the per-player difficulty scaling, it's much harder with 2 players and too easy with 5 (for example). Anyway, BGG comes to the rescue once again if you check the file section.

Arboretum (rating: 7; plays: 3)

I finally got this to the table for a few plays this year. Unfortunately, this is one of those games where my typical gaming partners bounced right off the game. While on the surface it has the appearance of a straightforward rank & suit style game card, the play itself is very multifaceted (and fascinating I might add), but in a way that also isn't very intuitive. For seasoned gamers this isn't likely to be an issue, but for casual gamers the mental overhead proved a bit much.

That said, the artwork is gorgeous and the gameplay itself is a very clever mix of tableau/network building and rummy-like card draws + discarding. What throws people for a loop is that the scoring is not only contingent on what you've built in your tableau but is also contingent on what cards you have left in your hand at the end of the game. In order to gain the right to score combinations of cards in your tabelau, you have to the have the highest card value of that same suit in your hand. It's almost like playing two games at the same time and needing to win in both to do well. I find it awesome but not everyone else sees it that way. I'll keep it around in hopes of getting more plays.

Fox in the Forest (rating: 8; plays: 5+)

My wife loves the partnership trick-taker Euchre. Alas, that game requires 4 players. Along comes Fox in the Forest, and lo and behold we have a rather clever 2-person trick taker (a rare thing indeed). The game has 3 suites of cards numbered 1-10. Players earn points based on how many of the 13-tricks they take in a round. The interesting thing is that if you take too many tricks (e.g. shoot the moon or close to it) you don't get ANY points. So there is a really careful line you need to walk in order to score well.

Additionally, each of the odd numbered cards has a special ability that goes along with it, like being able to swap the trump card, taking the lead even if you lost the trick, etc. These special cards are essential to good play and controlling the momentum of the tricks. So far, my wife and I both really enjoy this one - despite me getting consistently wrecked by her!

Master of Orion: The Board Game (rating: 6; plays: 1)

This one is a bit tricky. I'll be doing a review of this at some point for eXplorminate, but after one play I'm quite sketpical. For the record, this is definitely not a 4X-style boardgame in the vein of Eclipse, as one might assume based on the Master of Orion videogame license it uses. Rather, this is a tableau-based card-driven engine-builder. Think 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the design forgot to include much by way of player interaction. Whereas 7 Wonders has card drafting and Race for the Galaxy has the role selection (with role leeching) as a means of making the core action dynamic have an interactive element to it, Master of Orion is a straight up action point game. There are practically no interaction points in the game, with players focused almost entirely on their own optimization puzzle. I haven't played a game that felt more like multiplayer-solitaire since... forever.

This is all kind of a shame. I actually like the basic card play and resource mechanics for building your empire. The problem is that, in the absence of an interactive action system, the card effects themselves needed to have WAY more interactive abilities to make me actually care about what my opponents were doing. A bit of a missed opportunity, sadly.

Raiders of the North Sea (rating: 9; plays: 5)

Now this game caught me unaware - but in a truly good way. Remember how, up above, I talked about "vain" purchase decisions? Well, this was one of them. As I considered my collection one day, it occurred to me I didn't really have a viking themed game. I like vikings quite a bit (I even a viking Halloween costume as my go-to outfit), and so this this lack of viking games bothered me. As I found myself at my favorite local game store, I considered the available viking-themed game options and this one jumped out because of, I'll admit, the artwork. The game is gorgeous and the illustrations are just lovely. This was an impulse xmas present purchase for... myself.

I was a bit worried because Raiders is billed as a worker placement game - which normally I don't really care for. But it turns out it isn't really a worker placement game in the normal sense. It doesn't have the same sort of solitary engine-building exercise that exemplifies most worker placement games, as you're never expanding your action (worker) capacity. The place-a-worker and pick-up-a-worker system de-emphasizes competitive placement decisions and replaces it with a more collaborative dynamic. And yet, many of the cards and crew abilities are directly confrontational and there is often fierce competition for the prime raiding locations.

Anyway - this game is a sleeper hit for me. I wasn't following the whole North Sea Saga series much before, but now I am enthusiastically. I suspect after more plays I'll have a more in depth analysis of this game to unveil.

Bonus points for having a reasonably-sized and dense box!

Runewars (rating: 9; plays: 3)

Last year, I mentioned that St. Nick brought me a copy of Runewars. I had a chance to play this epic monster a few times and it didn't disappoint. This is a BIG game - tons of miniatures, tons of tokens, hundreds of cards, modular boards, and so on. I wrote an equally BIG REVIEW of the game for eXplorminate - so if you want the full story check that one.

Otherwise, I'll just say that I'm very impressed by this game and how all the pieces fit together. For each of the avenues of critique I levied at 4X videogames, Runewars offers up a compelling solution. It's a very multi-layered game, but these layers entwine in compelling ways over the course of the game's seasons (rounds) and the rough choices both big and small. A glorious game. Can't wait to play more.

Hit Z Road (rating: 8; plays: 3)

This game killed 3 birds with one stone. #1: I had no game's my Martin Wallace (oh the humanity!). #2: I had no Zombie games (oh the horror!).
And #3: I had no bidding games (oh except Cyclades). Hit Z Road was a chance to remedy all of this lapses in my boardgame collection.

Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the game, although I would like to get it to the table more and really dig into it. That said, I found the whole artwork and component package to be pretty clever and engaging - and the progression of cards the events that unfold as you get past them builds a cool narrative for the player. The mechanics are solid and I like that the game is kinda-sorta a coop while still being competitive at the same time.

Kingdomino (rating: 9; plays: 40+)

I'm finding that in the absence of other information, the Spiel des Jahres nominees aren't a bad bet, most of the time. I was in the hunt for a family friendly game that I could play with my kids. If I could find something quick to setup, smallish box, and durable components that would be the icing on the cake. When I came across Kingdomino I took the plunge.

After playing 40+ plays, I must say that I really like this game. And Bruno Cathala again reinforces his place as one of my favorite designers. This game has worked well even with my 3-year old. We give her a little slack on tile placement (she doesn't have to stick to the 5x5 grid) and this way the whole family can play together. I love the little details on all the tiles, something my kids noticed right away. While the game isn't super deep, it can be surprisingly cutthroat and competitive at times.

Bonus points for helping the 6-year old with basic math and multiplication.

Rhino Hero (rating: 7; plays: 10+)

Rhino Hero is great. This is a reverse Jenga of sorts where players are tasked with building a tower of cards. I first heard about the game during the research phase of an older article I wrote on competitive and cooperative game formats. Rhino Hero has multiple end-triggers and victory outcomes that are possible. (A) If one player plays out their entire hands of cards, they win. (B) If the building collapses, the player that caused the collapse loses and the player with the least cards left wins. (C) All of the wall cards have been built and everyone wins. The only outcome that isn't possible is the game wining on its own.

All said and done - this works equally well as a kids game or as a drinking game for when adults are behaving like kids.

Jamaica (rating: 7; plays: 10+)

So I was also on a quest for a nice race game, and something that I could play with kids as well. Someone, somewhere, suggested Jamaica and I did a little research before deciding to pull the trigger.

Jamaica is a race game coupled to a pirate theme, coupled to a hand management game. The game plays at a brisk and exciting pace, and the system whereby the active player rolls two dice and chooses which affects the "day actions" versus the "night actions" for all players does wonders to keep everyone engaged and paying attention. While the decision space is small, it nonetheless creates ample opportunity for skillful play. It isn't a deep game by any stretch, but it gets you thinking (and trash taking - like all good pirates).

Red November (rating: 7; plays: 3)

Red November is another game I learned about during my competitive/cooperative game format research. This one is unique because any game outcome is possible: (A) As a fundamentally cooperative game, the players can all win by surviving long enough to be rescued while averting the missile crisis. However, (B) one or some players can win by prematurely abandoning ship - provided that the remaining crew don't survive! (C) The fleeing player(s) can lose if the rest of the crew survives and thereby turns them in. (D) Everyone loses if the ship sinks or gets eaten by a krakken or is crushed by the ocean pressure or the missiles get launched. Oh my!

The game is a little more fiddly than I would've have liked, exacerbated a bit by the absolutely tiny cards with more tiny text. The box is plenty big enough to have contained full size cards, so I'm not sure why it was produced in such a small format. We had a good time with this during our play, but it didn't have quite the staying power of other cooperative games we've been playing recently.

Tiny Epic Quest (rating: 8; plays: 5)

This game meets the criteria for dense games in an... EPIC way! I hadn't jumped on the "Tiny Epic" bandwagon previously, but thought that this one looked like particularly interesting point to jump on board. I'm working on designing a compact, kid-suitable, quest game so figured this one would be good as, umm, research! Turns out it is also a pretty fun game on its own right.

Considering the size of the box, there is a lot packed into the game and a lot of different mechanisms in play. There are movement cards that are drafted to determine how your hero meeples move. There are actions to trigger and plan around on some cards. There are multi-stage dungeons to delve into and goblin underhives to clear. There are quest contracts to fulfill, winds of magic to harness, health and recovery. And of course the customizable meeples with their adorable assortment of wargear and accessories. It's pretty remarkable really.

The gameplay itself is mostly a solitary affair however. There is a bit of interaction through the competition/race to finish certain quest cards first, but nothing too confrontational. And so this is another game that we've adapted to function more as cooperative game. All in all, I happy with game and remain impressed by how much game is packed into such a tiny box.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (rating: 8; plays: 20+)

Last, but not least, we come to the Lovecraftian version of Pandemic. I admit that I hadn't played the original Pandemic, although I have played Forbidden Island, which borrows a lot of the Pandemic DNA. Set collection and getting the right cards in the right hands, the need to get to specific locations to do certain things, and various ticking timers that slowly unravel the gameboard and eventually lead to defeat for the players.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu sticks tight to this formula as well, but features the thematically apt "Old Ones" that herald the end times. As bad stuff happens, old ones are revealed and more bad things happen. The players are in a race close four arcane gateways before big daddy Cthulhu itself shows up and says "you lose!"

I've had a lot of fun with this one playing with my daughter. She doesn't seem to mind the vile creepieness of the old ones at all (should I be worried?) and rather delights in playing the hunter and slaying all the Shoggoth monsters that spawn around the board. As with other Leacock designed coops, the game can suffer from an alpha player syndrome, so with younger kids in particular I put the baton in their hand and ask them what I should do on my turn. Mostly it's slaying shoggoths.

Thus concludes Part 1 of the 2017 smorgasbord. Did others get a chance to play any of these games? Any thoughts or comments you'd like to share? The phones are open!

Part 2 will take a look at what other (older to me) games I've played last year, what games are still sitting on the shelf unplayed, and what games I put on the chopping block.

Beyond that, we'll take a look at some of the video games I've been playing over the past year and what exciting stuff I'm looking forward to in 2018.

Cheers and happy new year!
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Wed Jan 3, 2018 9:55 pm
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