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The Looming Disaster of Current School Re-Opening Plans and Finding Better Ways Forward

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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I need to get this off my chest. Last month Michigan announced it’s approach for re-opening public schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan, which I’ll get into in a moment, doesn’t even pass the sniff test as an effective approach to either instruction or safety. And it’s all going to fall apart the second an outbreak occurs anyway, putting the school building or district into a paralyzing rhythm of successive opening and closing. The plan does little to actually minimize the potential vectors and points of contact.

In short, the plan is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand and hoping the storm will blow over. My spouse is a high school teacher and I have two kids in elementary school. I’m terrified.

Moreover, the plan fails to seize the moment and opportunity to at least try something different. To at least try to build an approach that addresses equity while maximizing protections for people. To at least try alternate curriculums and different modes of instruction in concert with a different structure to schooling, when it’s apparent the old model will likely be inoperable anyway. The plan doesn’t try anything inventive.

So, this article will lay out three thing. #1 - What Michigan’s “plan” currently is. #2 - Why Michigan’s plan, and others like it being adopted across the country is horrendously flawed, and #3 - What we should do instead. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’m trying to think through this all in a practical and pragmatic way based on public knowledge of how the virus spreads and what we can do to stay safe.

#1 - Michigan’s "Plan"

Here’s an article from the Detroit Free Press that provides an overview of the school reopening plan.

Quote:
(1) Staff and teachers would have to wear face masks at all times.

(2) All students would have to wear face masks in hallways and common areas and on buses.

(3) Every student would have to use hand sanitizer before getting on the bus.

(4) Students in grade 6 through 12 would have to wear face masks at all times; younger students wouldn't have to wear face masks in classrooms.

(5) It would be recommended that desks be placed 6 feet apart and students and teachers social distance, even in the classroom.

(6) Schools would have to work with local health departments on screening protocols.

(7) No indoor assemblies with students from more than one classroom would be allowed.

(8) It would be recommended that most meals be served in the classroom or outdoors. It would be recommended that meal times would be staggered to allow social distancing in the cafeteria if it was being used.

(9) Athletics would have to follow the MHSAA guidance and rules. Spectators would be allowed if they are wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.

Pretty incredible plan really. I’m glad that it’s taken FOUR MONTHS to come with this. Sarcasm intended.

Individual school districts are tasked with developing their own specifics within the above guidelines. My school district hasn’t put forth anything to date, with school starting in less than two months its pretty worrying. How can families, let alone teachers, prepare for anything with such a void in what lies ahead? But those concerns aside, the above plan... it’s a terrible plan in my opinion.

#2 - Here is why the plan is flawed and what it fails to acknowledge

It fails to acknowledge that schools - most notably 6-12, would presumably still have conventional class schedules with hall changes and teachers instructing multiple classes per day. My wife, as most other middle or high school teachers do, sees 150+ students a day. Nothing in this plan is geared to minimize the number of contact points. It’s basically business as usual with face masks, and maybe not even that. It’s ridiculous.

It fails to acknowledge that face masks are most effective when EVERYONE is wearing one at all times indoors or in crowded public spaces. If the past months have shown anything, it’s that an awful lot of people refuse to wear masks. If only having some people wearing masks is all we get, it’s a pointless gesture as the health of teachers and students is not really protected at all.. It also fails to acknowledge that wearing masks and trying to talk to a large audience is a challenge. It also fails to acknowledge that most school buildings in this state are OLD and have terrible ventilation and HVAC systems, which diminishes the effectiveness of both masks and physical distancing while indoors anyways.

It fails to acknowledge that “large groups of students” is most routinely experienced in schools not during assemblies (which are easy to avoid) but during passing times. My old high school, which is mere blocks away from me, had 12-foot wide hallways that were a CRUSH of students squeezing through shoulder-to-shoulder each class change. It’s a nice gesture to not have assemblies or large gatherings, but it’s a moot point if your entire school population is crammed into a hallway 6-7 times a day. Circulation plans are only going to go so far. You’re still going to have hundreds of students brushing past each other, sharing different rooms, and getting exposed.

It fails to acknowledge that classrooms are routinely over capacity. My wife has 30-36 kids in her science classroom. She planned out how to accommodate 6-foot physical distancing and her room could accommodate eight kids. EIGHT! Let’s be realistic here: this plan can’t accommodate physical distancing in any way. It is in direct contrast to CDC and global guidance.

It fails to acknowledge that sports are an unnecessary luxury during a global pandemic. Yes, staying active and healthy is important for everyone. And alternative sport programs could be deployed based on personal fitness approaches that don’t bring athletes and spectators into close contact. That sports are even being entertained is laughable.

It fails to acknowledge that, given all of the above, school closings are an inevitability. And the oscillation between in-person versus on-line learning runs counter to establishing any sort of consistency in instruction method and places tremendous burden on teachers to cobble together meaningful instruction in the 11th hour. No one benefits from this. And it still doesn’t address the lingering concerns about access to necessary technology in the first place for less privileged people.

It fails to acknowledge social inequities in our society and in finding ways to be more thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate about an approach that leverages the means of those with privilege to make space and a safer environment for those without. Particularly for the most vulnerable people or those with high-risk family members. As with so much of our policy at large, disadvantaged communities will be hit harder by this “plan” than more fortunate ones.

All of the above underscores the incredible crumbling failure of our system. Of our physical school buildings and administrative and funding systems. Of our leadership. It underscores that our education system, especially under national calls for “getting the country back to work” is viewed as a child care service for a lot of people. The approach above isn’t about effective instruction. And it isn’t even about keeping kids and teachers safe.

This plan is about pushing kids back into school buildings so people can “get back to work.” Except of course, that it doesn’t even do that well, because in all likelihood schools will be shut down periodically anyway putting everyone back to where we were in March 2020 when this all started. It’s a farce. It’s total chaos. And we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.

#3 A different way forward: A equity-based reopening strategy

I’ve done a modest amount of unqualified brainstorming about how school reopening and instruction could be addressed. A lot of it comes down to logistics. I’ll get into the specifics of my ideas in a moment, but it is first important to establish clear goals for the program:

(A) Minimize exposure and points of contact for students and teachers to keep as many people healthy and safe as possible;

(B) Be proactive about deploying curriculum and instruction that will actually be effective across a broad range of learning conditions;

(C) Integrate equity considerations head-on, recognizing that different people have different needs, means, risks, and privileges.

Let’s talk about the specific components that I envision, and which can be used in tandem to meet these goals.

COMPONENT #1: Re-Tool Instruction Methods and Pedagogy
First of all, let’s just acknowledge that the traditional delivery of instruction, especially for grades 6-12, is just not going to work in a consistent and reliable way in the face of successive closures and reopenings.

Rather than trying to do multiple half-measures, we should go all in on virtual instruction paired with more project based and/or self-directed study plans. Building instruction consistently around one set of methods will provide a backbone to delivering instruction that works regardless of whether students and teachers are meeting in person or remotely. It’s one set of instructions, it’s predictable for people, it can be relied on as circumstances change.

Along with this, there needs to be a retooling and adjustment to the curriculum itself for next year. Given that students, staff, and teachers can be knocked out of commission should they get sick with COVID-19, curriculum should be simplified and streamlined with a focus on team-teaching so that multiple teachers can pool their energies and co-teach a smaller selection of courses. This builds in redundancy among the teachers and makes the instructional delivery more resilient.

Furthermore, there is a lot of pedagogical evidence that more project-based and self-directed learning can be more effective for building good critical thinking skills anyway - so why not tap best practice at the same time? The co-teaching aspect is also important in order to free up teacher time for teachers to reach out to students individually who need more support one-on-one. Something that is also in traditional approaches.

COMPONENT #2: Enable remote learning for all students
This moment is an opportunity to address massive social inequality around access to the internet and technology. The reality is that while many people have a home computer and internet access, a large number of people do not. Federal, state, and local resources need to be directed towards equipping all students WHO NEED IT with IT technology to learn remotely.

I say “WHO NEED IT” above because the reality is that many students have access to their own computers or laptops and a good internet connection. This is time to recognize as a community and as a nation that many people are privileged to have access to such systems, but others do not have that access. Given limited public resources, these funds must be directed first towards providing capability for the least advantaged people. This strategy is really a no brainer.

COMPONENT #3: Individualized Participation Plan
There are a number of facets of this strategy, but this is the crux of my entire strategy. Basically it boils down to this: Recognize that different families have different levels of risk and concern with sending their kids back to school AND that different families have different means and capabilities for keeping their kids home versus needing to send them to school. We need to come to grips with this reality and take advantage of the flexibility it affords.

Moreover, we can’t lose sight of the fact that some students have high-risk family members that could easily die from COVID-19 if they are exposed. A good plan needs to provide flexibility for accommodating these families. Doing otherwise is grossly irresponsible at best.

The intent of this strategy is thus: to maximize the number of students who are able learn and participate remotely at all times, and thus minimize the number of students that actually need to be in a school building on a regular basis.

If the prior strategies are implemented (virtual / remote learning and internet enabling all students), then it doesn’t matter if you are learning from home or learning from the school building. Students will be attending all of their classes virtually anyway (more on that in moment) and receiving the same instruction. The difference is giving flexibility for where students are learning from to keep people safe.

How does this work in practical terms? The objective would be to get at least 50% (ideally more and as much as possible) of school students set up to learn from home full time.

Step 1. Identify all the students that can learn from home. This might be older high school students that can stay home on their own (sorry helicopter parents - but it’s time to entrust responsibility on your kids), families where another family member, parent, or guardian can stay at home or work from home in order to keep an eye on their kids, or where families can arrange for a in-home care person/sitters/au pair/grandparents, etc.. The last point can be an opportunity to hire people struggling with under- or unemployment, and would make a great federal stimulus program if paired with child care and educational-related degrees.

To maximize this, we need a national (or at least State and local) call to implore families to do what they can to keep their kids safe at home and able to learn. It will take some arm twisting on some people, but again state or federal stimulus programs can help. Free internet and a computer could be a good enticement.

Step 2. Restructure the school environment for safety for the students that must be in the building. The focus is minimizing points of exposure and contact. As such, all students attending in-person would be organized and housed within a single “home room.” More specifically, home rooms would be organized and structured not based on class or grade, but based on bussing. Kids that must attend in-person and must-ride the bus, would all be grouped into a cohort and share the same bus and room, and thus minimize exposure.

This could potentially mean that middle school and high school students are co-mingled. But you know what? There is good pedagogical evidence and benefit for mixed-age interaction as well. More best practice opportunity.

Inside the home room, students would be individually attending their classes virtually - and thus getting the same instruction as kids that are staying home. Ideally, rooms would be at less than 50% capacity. Other spaces in school buildings should be converted to “home rooms” (gyms, cafeterias, etc.) as well to diffuse the number of students per room. Some modicum of physical distancing could be achieved, which coupled with mask wearing for everyone can minimize risk.

Each home room would then be assigned a single teacher and/or home room monitor (again another employment opportunity) for the year that would monitor the room and provide some IT support for students. In-building teachers at the middle and high-school level would have the added challenge of needing to juggle their own virtual instruction during portions of the day.

For elementary schools, the situation is a bit simpler since the primary teacher would be the full-time instructor for their class, and could provide instruction simultaneously to in-school students and those "remoting" in from home. Elementary classes should again be re-structured around busing to the extent possible to minimize degrees of contact.

Potentially, home rooms could have a secondary person assigned (with a greater level of PPE) that could watch the room when the primary home room teacher has to step out or leave the room. These secondaries would ideally be pulled from teaching staff that teach non-core curriculum (art teachers, music teachers, etc.). This would maintain employment and also be an opportunity to share that “special” with the home room kids in order to break up what will be a difficult time confined to a single room.

Students that need lunches would have room delivery. There would be no passing time in the buildings since students attend all classes virtually from their home room anyway Bathrooms would require routine clearing throughout the day with strict mask wearing and sanitizing. Full-time cleaners / monitors could be another short-term employment opportunity. Kids arriving by bus would get in line with kids walking or being dropped off that they share a home room with, and would enter/exit the building in an organized manner. Everyone in the room would (all ages!) would have 1-2 recess breaks to get outside for relaxing, exercise, etc. Physical Ed could be accommodated a few times a week in this manner.

Putting it all together

The above strategies, working in tandem, make sense to me and follow the general guidance from CDC. Minimizing points of contact is the #1 thing. The above approach would mean teachers aren’t seeing 100’s of students a day, which not only puts the teacher at risk but also all of those students. Instead, they’d maybe only see 10-15 and that would be it.

If a home room gets a confirmed case of COVID-19, potentially only that one home room would shift to being at home (instead of the entire school building). But even sending just the home room back may not even be necessary if home rooms are sufficiently isolated from each other. If so, this would be a great benefit in terms of predictability and supporting people going back to work and maintaining continuity of learning at the same time.

While the above plan is onerous and challenging - it is also an opportunity to test out and experiment with different pedagogies and best practices, while keeping everyone as healthy and safe as possible.

But as with most of the grim reality we all struggle to wade through right now - the barriers to implementing a better plan are political. It’s hard to get people on board with something like I’ve proposed when large swaths of the nation refuse to wear a mask, let alone acknowledge the severity and impact of the virus. It’s hard to get people to come together and work on a common cause, and perhaps even give up a little of their privilege, when our leadership is hell bent on pitching those with more privilege against those with less.

I don’t know what’s going to ultimately happen with my local school district. But I worry about the safety of my wife and my kids. To be frank, going back to school with the current “plan” is quite literally the least safe and highest risk environment I can imagine. In what other sectors of society do you have 1000’s of people packed into crowded rooms, many of which are kids without the proper equipment or discipline to wear masks, sitting in buildings with outdated HVAC, and all talking to each other? It’s a perfect storm.

The pain and the frustration I feel is that there are clearly better ways of handling this. And I’m sure people far more informed and knowledgeable than me have even better ideas. But a better solution is going to take leadership and a willingness to pull the many strings of society together and towards a common goal. And that’s one thing that is sorely lacking right now.
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Thu Jul 9, 2020 5:53 pm
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Warning, Chaotic Thought Storms Ahead: Wingspan, Awards, and Preference Reflections

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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From gallery of Mezmorki

This post is going to be a bit of an outpouring of thoughts, stream of consciousness style.

This fall will mark 10-years that I’ve been part of the BGG community. But of course my gaming life - both video and tabletop - has gone on much longer than that (since the mid 80’s when I was a young lad). More significantly, this fall will mark 9 years since I started this blog. It’s remarkable because this has been one of the few constants in my “hobby” life. Games come and go, gaming groups come and go, … but this blog is always here. Even if I take long lapses in posting, I know that it’s quickly available when inspiration strikes!

My time on BGG has marked an era of sorts for me and my gaming however. Both the depth of conversation here with many of you all, the collectively hemming and hawing we all do over the games and ratings … and all of it … adds a certain formality to engaging in the hobby. The conversations have helped crystalize my own thinking more, and much of the critical analysis that I’ve seen has in turn inspired my own writings, my gaming preferences, and - more tangibly - my game design work.

Golden Geeks and Wingspans

I’ve been thinking more about my gaming preferences recently - in no small part due to the golden geek winners and the fury of conversation about the award process and how the awards do (or perhaps don’t) intersect with the trove of other data and information generated by BGG each and every day. While I don’t put much personal stock in the value of the Golden Geeks (they are a popularity contest which is decidedly anti-geek, right?), they and other awards nonetheless hold a mirror up to the community and let us reflect.

So reflect I shall! First of all, let’s talk about Wingspan. Wingspan is NOT my usual style of game. It’s a tableau engine-builder, with pretty minimal and indirect interaction. I like games in shared-spaces focused on spatial intersections with a high degree of contentious interaction and table-talking. But… my wife had a chance to play Wingspan with a co-worker and was super enthused about the game. What choice did I have? With xmas around the corner it seemed to be my destiny.

I’ve played probably 200 games of Wingspan since December 2019, almost all of it 2-player with my wife. While not my type of game, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the design and gameplay. Obviously it’s wonderful from an aesthetic standpoint - and I love that the theme is about something tangible and real world related (and not related to wars or political conflicts). One could use the game as a means of building their bird knowledge based on image recognition along. It’s great in that respect.

I don’t have a chance to play many games 100+ times, let alone 200+. What’s remarkable is that with a competent opponent almost any game can display a surprising amount of depth - especially when played in 2-player, head-to-head games. Wingpan has become more interesting as time goes on and our experience.grows. And perhaps most significantly, playing it in 2-player mode means that what minimal level of interaction there is, on the surface, becomes significantly magnified when playing hard to win.

There ARE mind games to play and calculated risks to make based on reading your opponent. Seeing a valuable set of resources in the bird feeder or cards in the display, and weighing whether to take them now versus first optimizing your board actions - at the risk of your opponent taking the goods instead! - is frequently a tough call that requires reading into your opponent. Likewise, with only 2-players, the fight over the end of round bonuses can be exacting, pitting players against each other in a tense race. Weave in card powers that leech off your opponent’s actions and well...it’s not really so different from Race for the Galaxy now is it? Which is, of course, another engine and tableau building game with indirect interaction whose depth profoundly opens up the more you play.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Wingspan’s weakest link lies in playing with more than 2-players. Each additional player either multiplies the game length or erodes the value of interaction and paying attention to your opponent by a comparable amount. This is a game that shines when played in 30-40 minutes. This is easy to achieve with 2-players but nearly impossible with more.

All this is to say that it’s no surprise to me that Wingspan is as successful as it has been. It fires on a number of cylinders. It has a unique aesthetic hook, an approachable theme (especially for people tired of the usual thematic tropes), and the gameplay deepens the more you play it.

Now, when it comes to the BGG Golden Geek awards, the debacle of Wingspan winning half of the categories - even seemingly contradictory ones - highlights two things: #1: The Golden Geeks are fundamentally a popularity contents, and #2: as far as organizing a popularity contest goes BGG fairled to uphold its namesake and inject some much needed geekiness into the process. It underscores how little care and value BGG admins seem to place on the trove of data and information in their very own database and in turn their resistance to using (and over time improving) the quality of that data for the community’s benefit.

This recent post looked back at 2017 game releases and used the BGG database to automatically determine the best games across a number of categories that can easily be drilled down using the data. Good or bad, the old sub-domain categories still exist and BGG users can vote on them - and there is an objective number of votes that determine what categories a game falls in. If a game is listed for multiple domains, looking at the numbers usually shows a clear lean towards one of the categories. Combine the domains with the weight ranges and other descriptors and we could auto generate a great set of nominees to then vote on.

But like the fading effort to rework the BGG database that was generating buzz last year, BGG admin seems thoroughly disinterested in making substantive improvements to the database and/or utilizing it in more inventive ways. For us data geeks, there are so many potential ways to use the data - and why not use the data generated itself to tell the story of BGG’s rising stars over the course of the year. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t even “need” an awards process - because we’ve all been involved in the “voting process” all year long through logging plays and rating games. This would be not only a more effective approach, but also a more genuine one that respects the contributions everyone makes to this site every day.

Preferences & The Pinwheel of Joy

All this talk of gaming preferences has me returning back frequently to something I’ve grown fond of using as a lens for evaluating games, understanding my preferences, and even as a design aid. Below (and BEHOLD!) is the Pinwheel of Joy. The basic idea of this was derived from the vastly more complicated looking Genomic Framework for game analysis, which was a magnum ops of sorts in my theorizing over games. The Pinwheel of Joy is a simplification of that framework, but captures the same basic idea. Players, rules, theme, and components come together to determine narrative, challenge, simulation, and immersion - which are the cornerstones of the total experience.

From gallery of Mezmorki


When I find myself asking the most basic of gaming questions - is game X fun? - the pinwheel of joy becomes a reference point. I can zero in to try and understand whether the pleasure I’m getting (or not getting) is based on whether the game delivers a deep challenge, or a compelling narrative, or gripping immersion, or provides a coherent simulation. This approach works in both directions if you will. I can use the pinwheel to understand what I hope to feel and experience from a given game, and then use it to evaluate the game and determine whether my expectations are satisfied or not. Thus, it lets me be more honest and effective in my critique.

The topic of preferences came to light in the follow up to my article about boardgames being better strategy games. While BGG showed general agreement with the gist of the article, on the other side of the fence (i.e. from the 4X video game perspective) the reactions were more varied with many in hearty disagreement. A few particular insightful replies remarked that for most 4X game players - as is likely the case for most videogame players overall - the importance of “challenge” in my pinwheel is likely lower than it is for most boardgamers.

People play video games oftentimes to “be entertained” in a more passive sense, even when playing heavier strategy games (like 4X games). In this case, the immersion and aesthetic experience, feeling like you are part of a narrative, etc, are more important than providing a hard challenge with tough consequential choices. Some games do the latter well, but most don’t place that as the first priority. Hence, this may explain why we see lackluster AI’s despite their being the capability for much stronger ones. The added challenge stronger AI’s would add to the game isn’t really demanded - and in fact may undermine the chill, relaxing tone the game is aiming for in the first place!

All of this resulted in an interesting set of observations about the differences between boardgamer attitudes and 4X gamer attitudes - and in turn might explain why developers are designing 4X videogames they way they are. Unfortunately for me, as someone who places challenge as the number one priority in what I desire from a 4X game, my experiences with most 4X games are lackluster - they just don’t end in a satisfying way like other proper “strategy games” do. But I’ve lamented and argued about this enough before so will spare you all from another rehashing.

It's BGG "Charts" ... not a best game list

On the continued topic of preferences, I wanted to share a thought I had about the BGG ratings. I’ve found it far better to view them not as a listing of the “best” games (with respect to BGG users), but rather as a slow-moving version of music charts (e.g. billboard top 40 and others). As such, they are a reflection of what is popular, liked, and/or highly rated “right now.”

The above point is something I’ve been trying to share and push, especially when talking to new players. It’s easy, I imagine, when starting out on the hobby to look at the rankings and think “these are the best to worst games” and not stop to ask the question about what your actual preferences are. The BGG ratings trend towards heavier and/or bigger games, and BGG overall tends more towards euro-y games, which may or may not align well with the average budding gamer wandering into the BGG ecosystem.

Wrap-up

In winding down, I want to go back to where this post started. Despite my grievances about BGG (and most of these are in the form of missed opportunities rather than acute “problems”), at the end of the day this is a pretty amazing community filled with wonderful and insightful people. The relationships I’ve built here have lasted, and if there is one place on the internet that feels like “home” - it’s here. Thank you all for listening. More to come!
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Mon Jun 1, 2020 2:16 pm
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Springtime Status Report: Games, Behaviors, and Pandemics

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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From gallery of Mezmorki


First of all, if you are reading this, I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. These are crazy times for a number of reasons, and many people are struggling mightily to thrive under the current global situation. It’s hard to talk about gaming and other non-essential items during such times.

But then again, talk of gaming or pleasurable pursuits is a spark of positivity and a shared passion that many of us can connect around and find joy within. So perhaps it’s okay. For my own part, I’m fortunate that both my wife and I are able to continue our employment in relative security - staying home and staying safe. Staying sane is another matter!

Changing Normals

Nevertheless, I wanted to share that professionally I work in the design and planning field, specifically around street design, transportation infrastructure, and mobility planning. We continue to work (remotely!) with municipalities across the country, and it’s been insightful to see the range of challenges that people, communities, leaders, businesses, and others are grappling with right now, as well as the creative inventive ideas they have in mind to respond.

Regardless of your personal experience, the pandemic is a massive disruptor, and behavior patterns have already changed significantly across the country. There won’t be a “return to normal” for a very long time, and the new normal that emerges may very well look significantly different from what it looked like prior to the pandemic.

Through all of this, I try to find silver linings in these changing behaviors.

My family always embarked on evening walks through the neighborhood, and we’d at most pass one or two other people. Now, my neighborhood is abuzz with activity. There are more people walking with their kids, biking, and hanging out in front yards than I have ever seen. I went to a large nature preserve the other weekend. In prior visits we’d maybe see four or five other cars. Last weekend there were about 90 cars in the parking lot with tons of people out enjoying nature (and for the most part maintaining a respectable physical distance).

The frantic pace of life has slowed down, with the torrent of afterschool activities and obligations that once kept us busy screeching to a halt. We, like so many others I observe, are finding more time to spend outdoors and reconnecting with nature and immediate families. People are rediscovering creative pursuits in the interest of keeping themselves busy. These are silver linings and shifts in behavior that I hope becomes a part of whatever “normal” comes next.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Remote Boardgaming

Another silver lining that hits closer to this blog relates, of course, to gaming. At the heart of it is the realization that I can (and have) connected to my long-time friends (who are also my main gaming buddies) more frequently now than I have in many years. Granted, we aren’t meeting in person, but we’ve embraced technologies as a way to connect. And we’re seeing each other’s faces, even if through a screen, more frequently and casually than ever. Whether it’s having a virtual happy hour after the work day, or opening up Discord to have an open video connection to each other while playing a video game, we are, in a strange way, connecting even more.

When it comes to boardgames, the past few years have posed a challenge for my circle of friends. As more life responsibilities pile up, finding the time to meet up and play games gets harder and harder. But in seeking out the need for connection, and in using technology more nimbly, we’ve realized that we are all closer and more easily connected than we thought.

This week we all got our copies of Tabletop Simulator dusted off and tried it out for the first time, despite having it tucked away in our Steam libraries for years. Why weren’t we using this earlier?! We’ve played about 15 games of The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (which I also bought in meat-space), knocked out a game of Blue Lagoon, and dabbled around with a handful of other games we’ve been wanting to play more of: Root, The Expanse, Study in Emerald. All in just a week. Heck, we even launched the Cosmic Frog mod and marveled at that game as the evening wound down.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Granted, Tabletop Simulator (TTS) is a little clunky and rough looking (the UI is pretty ugly I have to admit), but it does work surprisingly well provided the specific virtual game mod is put together throughtfully. For those on the fence or curious, TTS is definitely worth a try as a way to get your boardgaming fix - but perhaps more importantly as a venue for connecting to other people in your life through games. You’ll want to make sure that you use Steam’s built-in voice-communication (or another platform of your choice to share voice and video) while playing. Overall, it’s been a blast and we’re looking to use TTS much more.

At home, we’ve been carving out more time for gaming as a whole family or one-on-one. I dragged HeroQuest off the shelf and started up a campaign with my two daughters (ages six and nine). They are having a good time with it. I’ve played probably 30 games of Wingspan over the last month with my wife (she’s an ornithology fan and teaches ecology and other sciences). We have quite a healthy rivalry going on. Plenty of other games have been put through the ringer as well.

PnP and Game Design

I’ve also found myself with more time to devote to game design projects once again. In a fortuitous twist, needing to work (and teach our kids) from home prompted us to finally buy a printer. Of course I found an affordable color laser printer right as the pandemic was striking. It’s been awesome for working on game prototypes and also printing out PnP materials (I mean, printing out school assignments and work reports!). I continue to work on Emissary, and now that I’m familiar with Tabletop Simulator, I plan to make an Emissary mod to facilitate more player-to-player testing with my group.

I’ve also reccussicated a number of other game design projects. I had been working on a cooperative story-telling adventure game that I’m quite excited about, but was struggling to find time to work on. I’ve made good progress over the past month and have even solicited my children’s help in idea generation and artwork! It’s quite charming. Nothing is quite playable yet but I do want to write up a post talking about it more soon. I think it’s has some legs.

I also dug out my prototype stuff for a Chronicles of Amber-themed card game I was working on, which is in a playable state. It’s a fairly simple game using an expanded deck of traditional rank and suit cards, but has some fun and clever ideas. I’m excited to try and whip that into better shape, and it’s also a candidate for a TTS mod so I can move into the testing phase more easily. Right now, the prototype is playable using the Badger Deck, which is an awesome designer resource unto itself.

From gallery of Mezmorki


On the print-and-play front, I've put the new printer through its paces and build a rather nice (if I do say so myself) prototype copy of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. I've played two games solo so far, and am also looking to dive into on TTS with my buddies. It's a rather fascinating (if still heavily evolving) design. I'll have to talk more extensively on that in the future too.

Road Ahead

That’s it for now! I have a growing pile of articles to write-up - reflections on games, recommendation lists, game designs, and more. Hopefully I can work in a schedule of more frequent posting. Writing is therapeutic for me. Hopefully reading this drivel is therapeutic for you! If nothing else, it’s way to stay connected to a community of fellow human beings.

We’re all in it together.
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Wed Apr 22, 2020 9:15 pm
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The Curious Case of 4X Games, Efficiency Engines, and Missing Strategic Gambits

Oliver Kiley
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I've long been a fan of the 4X genre, while also being frequently critical of it and its many floundering conventions. Despite the renaissance and watershed of renewed interest in the genre, there is a worrying lack of design advancement in my estimation. A recent reddit post and ensuing discussion on r/4xgaming encapsulated nearly all my frustrations with the 4X videogame genre in a single question:
Quote:
Do you know of any [4X] games that will let you fight back after being beaten down, or have the AI be able to come back after you start to gain an advantage over them?
This seems like such an obvious question to ask, and yet it’s one that apparently few, if any, 4X developers have seriously raised, let alone crafted gameplay mechanisms to answer. What’s fascinating about this question is that, while seemingly simple, it nevertheless strikes at two critical points: (#1) the core of what 4X games are; and (#2) the perennial frustrations players have with unsatisfying late game gameplay.

From gallery of Mezmorki


(#1) 4X games are efficiency engine games

What struck me in reading the comments relative to point #1 is that I think my waning interest in traditional 4X games is tied to the realization that these are largely in the same gameplay genre as efficiency engine styled euro games (of which I’m not usually a fan), despite the overt combat-heavy nature of the genre. This quote, in response to the question above, hits it perfectly:
Quote:
I don't think it is generally possible in 4X [games]. The genre is about ramping up production. Once you have a production advantage over someone, they're gonna die.
A production advantage. The early stages of 4X games are always about exploring, and that exploration is always about finding the best opportunities to grow your short and long-term production. Production itself fuels everything else in your empire: development of cities/planets, construction of military units, building research facilities. Heck, most 4X games provide tools or technologies that let you convert production directly into other outputs (research, culture, political influence, etc.). It a fairly standard feature.

Like many euro-style board games that fall into the “efficiency engine” style of game (i.e. most worker placement, resource conversion, tableau-building style games), 4X games are about building a production engine in the most efficient way possible. Once you have a stronger and more efficient engine than your competitors, it’s easy to “snowball” your way to victory. Or more aptly, to “steamroll” your way to victory, as once you conquer one enemy, with their assets under your control you are even more powerful with an even greater production advantage over the remaining players.

To compound the problem, victory conditions are almost always a function of production outputs. Whether it’s an economic victory threshold, or research target, or outright conquest, in all of these cases having more production ties directly into making more progress towards victory. 4X games handle these even worse than euro board games, the latter of which usually provides some decision inflection point where you go from building the engine to instead generating victory points. 4X games usually don’t even provide that.

(#2) The late-game problem

All of this ties into point #2, which is that by the mid-game you usually know if you have a significant production advantage over your competitors, and if so, victory is inevitable.

The reddit post’s question drew a comparison to Magic the Gathering as a brilliant counter example. In Magic the goal is to drain your opponent's life total from 20 to 0. However, being lower in life isn’t a clear indication that you are in a worse position, and players with much lower life than their opponent can routinely stitch together a combination of clever strategic or tactical plays to defeat their opponent. In fact, many decks and playstyles hinge on this exact reversal or “back and forth.”

Sadly, I’m pressed to think of any 4X games where the above “reversals” or clever strategic strategic gambits are a core and frequently experienced part of the gameplay. If it were, I think it would dramatically reshape the late game experience. No longer would having a production engine advantage mean your position was secure and victory inevitable. If you’re opponent was positioning themselves to unleash the civilization equivalent to a Drain Life spell on your empire, turning your strength to their advantage, imagine the surprise and excitement that would result? Is such a thing possible?

What's even worse, is that the one layer of interaction in 4X games, military combat, is often poorly executed with minimal depth or interest at the strategic scale. Tactical level combat, if included at all, is most often determined before the fight based on what each side brings to the table. 4X video games struggle mightily compared to many area control or dudes on a map style board games, where aspects of strategic position and maneuver frequently offer up opportunities for tactical rebounds, reversals, or other strategic gambits.

The Solution lies with a different formula

Building a 4X game that encourages such reversals and back and forth gameplay would require a totally different approach to the victory structure of 4X games (i.e. decoupling victory from the production engine mechanics). Perhaps, it requires restructuring the very nature of 4X games in their entirety. That said, a few avenues of design innovation come to mind.

First, 4X games are usually designed as if they are competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) games, with empires starting out on roughly equal footing and progressing competitively from there. Of course, in practice, most 4X games are played in a single-player manner and the AI usually just can’t keep up or provide a challenge for experienced players. Imagine designing a “competitive” first person shooter game (i.e. deathmatch or team-style game), except you could only ever play against AI Bots that played by the same rules as the human. It would be a miserable failure.

Perhaps, 4X games should try focusing instead on Player vs. Enemy/Environment (PvE) with victory conditions and goals related to overcoming PvE obstacles (like in AI War or Thea: The Awakening). You can still have other players/empires you are competing against (or cooperating with), but the pressure for having a top-notch AI that competes directly with the player is off. Instead, design energy can put into creating global hostility/opposition/enemies that function asymmetrically and can be stacked with whatever bonuses or gameplay advantages to make overcoming it an interesting challenge for players.

Second, and related to the above, is that victory conditions should be decoupled as much as possible from the production engine. The most straightforward way of doing this is by requiring production to be diverted away from things that also benefit the engine itself and instead towards victory steps/goals exclusively. Investment in the victory goals should confer no advantages back to the production engine. It should be decoupled from it. There is ample room for quests or event chains, with no reward other than progress towards victory, to provide a vehicle for this. An ancillary benefit is that such an approach would allow the game’s lore and narrative to be tied to novel victory conditions, instead of relying on the same old victory tropes.

Third, there needs to be more avenues for significant interaction in 4X games. 4X games are primarily one-dimensional games, which is the relationship between board/map position and production. Better map position confers greater production advantages, whether through controlling juicier locations or amassing a larger territory. While 4X games often have systems for foreign trade, or diplomatic exchange, or espionage - these are, almost without exception, playing around the margin of or in direct service to the production gameplay dimension.

As an example of the second and third point using an unorthodox approach, consider King of Dragon Pass, a narrative-heavy strategy game. The brilliance of this game is that there are tons of interactions with rival clans. Often these interactions aren’t about getting production related benefits, but instead learning bits of lore or gaining political support that feeds into the rituals your clan needs to perform in order to become the titular King of Dragon Pass. It’s brilliant, and unites the lore and victory conditions expertly. I’ve yet to see a proper 4X game tackle anything remotely close to this.

More broadly, I think 4X games could make non-combat related interactions far more transformative in their possible impacts and rely on different foundations than the production engine economy. For example, plenty of 4X games have espionage and/or espionage focused empires, and yet rarely is it more than an annoyance to deal with (and is often uninspiring and repetitive to utilize yourself). But what if, like in the Magic the Gathering example, while lagging in your board position (i.e. “low health”) you were secretly building up a clandestine operation that would snatch away a huge chunk of your opponent’s empire or turn their own citizens against them in a highly impactful way. There is tremendous opportunity here, but it’s rarely realized.

Conclusion

Lately, I’ve really scaled back by my interest in 4X games, to the point that any traditional 4X game is a non-starter for me right now. In the same way that I maintain a general distancing from efficiency engine euro games, I think 4X games have slid into the same category. When I try out a new game and am met with the with the same exploration imperative coupled with the same production-derived victory conditions, I’m just not particularly interested. The game might have amazing lore and visuals (ala Endless Space 2), but if it’s not connected to victory in a novel way that fundamentally changes the structure of the game, it’s still the same old snowball/steamroller experience leading to an anti-climactic ending.

I’m at a loss for why more developers aren’t challenging the 4X formula and trying to do something different. So many other genres of strategy games, whether physical board games, tactical RPGs, tactical roguelikes, wargames, and more are fertile grounds for innovation with plenty of creative and inspiring designs. Yet 4X seems stuck in the same rut it has been since the dawn of Civilization (pun fully intended). Cheers.
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Mon Jan 20, 2020 4:41 pm
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A nearly-random perusal of Essen's "GeekBuzz" and what caught my fancy

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
Michigan
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So I was reading the news and stumbled upon a Geek Buzz List related to Essen (which recently ended). Wanting (of course) to stay on top of what all the cool kids are doing, I took it upon myself to breeze through the top 50 or so the most buzzy of the titles to see what stood out to me, given my proclivities.

Really, this was a thinly veiled experiment in confirmation bias.

Here's what I did. For each title, starting at the top of the list, I opened up the BGG game page and spent roughly 10-seconds skimming the summary description. From there, I took a flip through the images (another 30-45 seconds). If the game seemed remotely of interest, I then checked to see if any of my vast, well-gamed, and profoundly insightful geek buddies had anything more to say on the game in question.

To get a few of my biases out of the way, I found myself disregarding, almost immediately, games that did some or all of the following: self described as an engine builder, references resource conversion, calls itself a eurogame, has more table space devoted to personal play areas/mats than a central/shared space, uninspiring visuals. Am I biased? Yes, I am. But frankly there are so many freaking games out there already (and even more frankly I have more than enough on my shelf as it is) that it takes a lot to make a game capture my interest without a more reliable geek buddy recommendation.

So then, what stood out? I have a list of only six games out of the top 60 or so. Order based on their "buzz-level" and not my ranking.

Last Bastion (#15)

A re-implementation of Ghost Stories, which I never played and know little about other than it's cooperative. Anyway, the artwork stood out, and cooperative nature and overall complexity is something that might be fun with my kids and nephews. It's an Antoine Bauza design, for what that's worth (neutral on that). Could be a fun one to try out. (No U.S. release yet?)

Board Game: Last Bastion


Board Game: Last Bastion



Fast Sloths (#20)

Friedemann Friese is a designer I think I enjoy more in concept than in practice. I do like Friday. I tried for 3-years to foist the Fabled Fruit on my friend and family and no one wanted to take a bite, so I traded it away. That said, I enjoy racing games of this sort, and the interplay between cards and crafting and spatial movement in a shared board-space sounds pretty cool. Would totally be a game I'd want to try with the kids. Limited appeal beyond that. My kids like sloths. So there's that. (No U.S. release yet?)

Board Game: Fast Sloths


Board Game: Fast Sloths



Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon (#24)

Bruno Cathala is a reliable designer for me. Jamaica, Cyclades, Kingdomino, Mission: Red Planet, Game of Thrones: Hand of the King are all personal favorites. Ishtar looks vaguely engine-buildy but it appears to all be happening on a shared board space? The component's look awesome and I really like IELLO's production. Always seems to look great and come in at a reasonable price. (Released in U.S, ~$45)

Board Game: Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon


Board Game: Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon



MegaCity: Oceania (#35)

What is this game? Has some sort of crazy hybrid turn-based / real-time system with dexterity and area majority and tile placement? And it looks cool? Is this like the hobby gamer's version of competitive Jenga? Do I want it? (Released in U.S, ~$50)

Board Game: MegaCity: Oceania


Board Game: MegaCity: Oceania




Fuji Koro (#41)

This game feels like a total mess, but specifically the kind of weird total mess with bunch of quirks and "flaws" that I'm willing to forgive in favor of it's imperfect, beautiful charm and ambition. Of course, none of this might really be the case, but this one has the potential to the sort of beautiful mess I'm looking for. Game a competitive or cooperative adventure game of trying to explore and plunder and subsequently escape this moltan-ous cave/landscape filled with dragons and random monks. Looks cool as hell, in the way that only a big beautiful mess of a game can. (Not released in U.S.?)

Board Game: Fuji Koro


Board Game: Fuji Koro




On the Origin of Species (#43)

Last, but not least (cause these aren't in any sort of order), is this fine looking game. Dawrin is awesome. And this game looks awesome. I can't glean much from the information at hand, but it's one of those games that looks to present the player with some a binary choice on their turn, but which cascades into deep and interesting decisions. Remains to be seen how it shakes out in practice. (Released, pre-order? Expensive? ~$70)

Board Game: On the Origin of Species


Board Game: On the Origin of Species




Wrap-Up

So that's my completely incomplete and nearly-random blitz through the Essen GeekBuzz list and what managed to percolate through my highly judgmental filters. Given my interests, what did I miss? How about you? What are you most looking forward to (if anything?). The phones are open. Cheers.
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Fri Nov 1, 2019 8:49 pm
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Smorgasbord: Summer '19 Report

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
Michigan
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From gallery of Mezmorki


Times seems to fly these days.

Here we are, 6-months later, since the last report on my boardgame activities. My last post was about my game collection woes - and perhaps tipped off by a recent thread, I figured this was good timing to circle back on what I’ve been playing of late and how “the collection” is faring.

First of all, I did a little reorganization of my BGG inventory, and if you click HERE you’ll get a list of ~110 games that I “own” and consider principally part of my collection. I realized one little fatal flaw with my usage of the “has parts” tag to denote games that my household owns but that I don’t consider “mine” - which is that I started getting peppered with requests for game parts! Whups!

Now, I simply take all my owned games and then use the “want to play” flag for those games that I could conceivably desire to play sooner or later (rather than never). This gets us to 110 games and excludes from the list all the assorted kids games (2x copies of Candy land, etc.), games I want to sell/trade away, and other games that would require a “family discussion” were I to try and purge them from the shelf. It’s a reasonably-sized feeling list - and while there are few in there still listed for trade, unloading them is a low priority.

WHAT HAS BEEN PLAYED

But enough of that! You want to hear about all the games I’ve been playing over the past few months. I’ll start with a listing and then dive into specific titles in more detail below. Here we go!

* Sekigahara (x3)
* Root (x3)
* Aerion (6+)
* Sylvion (2x)
* Blue Lagoon (~10x)
* Broom Service! (~10x)
* Hand of the King (~12x)
* Ginkgopolis (1x)
* The Game (12x)
* Heroes of Terrinoth (~10x)
* Keyforge! (40+)
* Kingdomino - Age of Giants (~12x)
* Lord of the Rings (3x partial games)
* Raiders of the North Sea (1x)
* Small World (3x)
* Shadows Amsterdam (1x)
* Yellow & Yangzee (2x)
* Wizards Wanted (6x)

From gallery of Mezmorki


Sekigahara (x3)
Last update, I had recently acquired but not yet played Sekigahara. Since then I’ve played it three times and this title has made quite the impression. It’s my first foray into block wargames (and I should mention I’ve only dabbled with wargames overall). My friend and I have been embarking on “Sake and Seki” sessions, when where we split a bottle of warm Sake and replay the famous reunification wars in 1,600 Japan.

It’s not a terribly complicated game - but there are a lot of subtitles to the rules that are easy to miss (or maybe that was the Sake?). We had some fatal rule fumbles in the first two games (realized afterwards), but we’re getting the hang of it now. The interplay between force movement and cards is really tremendous and creates a fascinating decision space and tons of tension and uncertainty about how the battles will pay out. Really enjoying this one more and more with each play.

Root (3x)
Root continues to captivate my friend group as well as the younger generation of kids and nephews - who are surprisingly adept at internalizing all of the rules and quirks in the game. I understand people’s criticism about the need for “player-driven balancing” (aka table talk and negotiation). But for me, this player-to-player interaction and brinkmanship is exactly what makes certain games (e.g. Root) so fun and engaging for me (and explains my general dislike for lower interaction engine-builders).

I’ve kickstarted the second expansion for Root (due later this year), and looking to dive into that when it lands. I feel like I’m just barely getting a handle on the first expansion factions. So much to dig into in this game.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Aerion (3x)
I recently picked up Aerion, which is the 6th game in the Oniverse series. I adore this series, not just for the artwork but for the great solo and co-op gameplay. Onirim has long been a favorite of mine.

In any case, I “think” Aerion might take the cake for my favorite solo game and possibly favorite Oniverse game as well. Aerion tasks you with building a series of airships by managing a flow of cards that emanate from six stacks, which you draft from using dice in a yahtzee-like die rolling fashion. There are clever means of cards affecting dice in turn affecting card draws, that is a delightful puzzle to sort out. But it has enough randomness to force you to adapt and keep on your toes.

As with other games in the series, the box comes with half a dozen “expansions” to layer more onto the game. So far, I’ve found that expansion #1 (flagship) and #6 (with the hellkite) to be a nice balance of maintaining focus on core gameplay while adding just enough other tensions to open up the decision space more. Love this one.

Sylvion (2x)
I also went back to Sylvion briefly, as it had been a while since I played it last. Not too much to report. I like the theme and basic structure of this one, but depending on your card draft and hands drawn, the experience oscillates wildly between overly easy to downright impossible. In some ways, it feels like it plays itself and I’m not sure there is enough player agency in the mix.

Board Game: Blue Lagoon


Blue Lagoon (~10x)
I picked this up a few weeks back on vacation, after eyeballing it a whole bunch over the past few months. I’m so glad I picked this one up - and even more excited that I’ve got it to the table a few times a week! It’s been a hit with everyone: kids, friends that aren't “gamers”, my wife, other people’s kids, gamer friends. It’s quite easy to teach - although for many people it’s one of those games where you just need to play a round and see how the scoring works for it all to click. It’s awesome watching people’s eyes light up when they start to see how it all connects.

It’s also one of those games - true to many of Knizia’s designs - where the depth continues to open up the more you play. There is a ton of nuance in where you place huts, both to make it easier to get onto islands in the second round but also to potentially block your opponents from islands and/or resources. The first round is interesting for it’s Go-like feeling of having this big decision space where you are pre-positioning and scattering your influence in hopes of linking it all together later in the round. Just amazing.

Broom Service (~10x)
My 5-year old - somehow - has processed this game to a freaky level. She’s memorized what all the cards do and has a crazy ability to program out her turns. Anyway - I still enjoy this game and it hits the table pretty often.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Hand of the King (12+)
I’ve had this game for a while, and on a lark brought it out to a family restaurant. I broke it out while waiting for food and the kids took to it immediately. Maybe it’s the artwork (very cool), or that it’s a way for them to “get in” on the Games of Thrones mystique (no - they have not watched the show!). I like this game for its simplicity. It does a great job getting the kids to “think ahead” about making moves that benefit themselves but tempered against not giving their opponent an even better follow-up move. Fun, quick game.

Ginkgopolis (1x)
I dug this one back out with my friend group as we were discussing various game design topics and I mentioned this as an example of a “clockwork” design where there are these different systems that feed into each other. Tile placement and board control connects to card play and drafting, which connects to tableau building, which connects to scoring and back to the board, etc.

That said - my fondness for the game plummeted after playing it again. I was reminded of how utterly fiddly this game is. Passing and managing cards, making sure to check the tableau, placing reminders on new tiles so you remember to sort through the decks to add the cards to the other deck when it gets reshuffled. Juggling tiles and resources and score tokens behind your player screen. I think this is a game I appreciate more from a conceptual and aesthetic standpoint that I do from actually playing it.

The Game (~12x)
This has a similarity to “The Mind” (I’m not up to speed on the origins of these respective titles), as a game where you take turns trying to play cards in numerical order across four lines. It’s okay. Doesn’t do a lot for me and if I’m going to play a non-coordinative co-op I’d much rather play Hanabi.

Heroes of Terrinoth (6x)
I was on the quest for a nice cooperative dungeon crawler game. I’d been eyeballing Warhammer Quest (Card Game) for a long time, and this reimplementation of it seemed worth trying. I really like the mechanics and basic structure of this game. However, it feels overly procedural and doesn’t flow all that well. I also think it misses the appeal of dungeon crawlers with respect to character advancement. “Leveling up” your skills during the game is nice, but no substitute for acquiring skills and gear that persist between games and builds more attachment to your character (like say Hero Quest or Mice & Mystics). The kiss of death on this is that the setup time is agonizing. You have to organize all the stacks of enemy and item cards and rebuild a deck for each mission. It’s ridiculously irritating.

Keyforge (40+)
Oh boy. I’ve really fallen for this game (as you might have noticed from my last blog article). I started with two decks at the start of this summer, and now I have… maybe 18? Anyway - a bunch of buddies have got into it as well, so we all have a fun time playing. It scratches the Magic the Gathering itch without relying on the time consuming card collection and deck construction cycle. It’s great having a fixed deck that you can spend time learning more and getting better at playing, instead of endlessly fiddling with your deck lists. I really enjoy the structure and pace of the gameplay too - very dynamic.

Kingdomino - Age of Giants (~12x)
I’ve enjoyed Kingdomino since it came out, and my 5-year old in particular really enjoys it too. I picked up Age of Giants expansion for her birthday and it’s gone over well. It adds a pretty light layer onto the gameplay along with a fun thematic element. ‘Nuff said.

Board Game: The Lord of the Rings


Lord of the Rings (3x partial games)
This is a case where I owned the game once upon a time, sold it off unplayed, and then re-bought it second hand. Mostly, my kids were interesting Lord of the Rings after we watched bits and pieces of the first movie, and started looking at Lord of the Rings games…. and here we are.

In any event - this game is an oddity in the history of gaming. It was an early cooperative design and one that was structured around a finely crafted set of events following (loosely) the narrative of the books. Parts of the game feel very outdated (I’m playing the original version BTW) from a clarity and graphic/iconography standpoint. It makes the game a little hard to manage (and the kids struggle to follow the phasing and turn structure). I feel like this game could do with a redesign. But even as is, we’ve been having a fun time working through it in stages.

Raiders of the North Sea (2x)
Snuck in a couple of plays of this, one with the gamer group and one with my 8-year old. Not too much to say that I haven’t before. As far as worker placement games go, this is one I find palatable. Reasonably interactive, competing for shared space (reminds me of Caylus in way), quick turns, amazing art.

Small World (3x)
I stumbled back into Small World and have been playing a bunch with my 8-year old. Years ago I played a ton of 2-player Small World, which I vastly prefer over 3+ players, so it’s nice to go back to that. This is a solid and streamlined design. I am on the hunt for the Realms expansion (that lets you build randomized maps) as my only complaint is that the board geometry is fixed and leads to similar gameflows from game to game.

Shadows Amsterdam (1x)
Finally managed to get this to the table at a family gathering, where we played with a nice mix of kids and adults. It’s a really cool concept, and has structural similarities to Code Names (two teams each with a clue giver and multiple guessers). The design is a little fiddly feeling for what it is, and it can be an awful lot to visually parse at times. Need to play it more with some different groups to see how it goes over.

Wizards Wanted (6x)
Ths kids and I have been playing this one quite a bit. Who knew that Mattel was in the business of designing movement programming and resource management, set collection games? The theme here is wacky (kids love it), and the gameplay is a little fiddly at times for what essentially amounts to racing around the board and collecting cards. But there is some enjoyment to be had in puzzling out the optimal moves to get you to where you want to be ahead of your opponents. Amazing components for a $20 game!

From gallery of Mezmorki


Yellow & Yangtze (3x)
Played more games of Y&Y, and deeper opinions are starting to form. Despite being so similar to Tigris & Euhprates at the structural and overall goal level - the differences in these games are really stark in terms of the flow of play. The more I play, the more different these feel.

In general, I like Y&Y for the hex-based system and (most) of the tile actons - like discarding two blue farmers for a catastrophe, or two traders to move a pagoda. The off-board leader abilities are also a nice touch and can add a good wrinkle to the gameplay. However, what I miss from T&E is (1) treasures on the starting tiles as a driver for play (and more interaction) in the early game; (2) the greater stability of monuments creating more geography on the game board and a less volatile landmark to fight over; (3) the system for resolving fights.

The streamlining the fights in Y&Y, while seemingly simpler from a rules standpoint, at times create odd counter-intuitive situations. For example, when a player has leaders in two different kingdoms, despite “winning” one side of their fight, their own leaders in the losing side might nevertheless be displaced. It’s a little strange and disincentives the co-mingling of leaders and kingdoms that is such a cornerstone of Tigris & Euphrates.

I’d love to have a game that blended both games and did so in a more 2-player friendly manner perhaps. Maybe it’s time to restart design work on Rhine & Rhone?

LOOKING DOWN THE ROAD

I set a soft goal (resolution?) to try and get my remaining unplayed games played this year. There aren’t too many on the unplayed list:

From gallery of Mezmorki


* Acquire (low interest - I have a copy for vintage purposes mostly)

* Brutal Kingdom - I bought this on a whim and didn’t really do my homework. Given the player count and style I’m not likely to get this to the table ever. Feels really overwrought for what it is.

* Condottiere - Also bought on a whim. I’m hoping to get this to table. Feels like a great, tight blending of incremental trick-taking and area scoring.

* Domaine - Bought this at a garage sale year. This is great seeming abstract-ish game, based on my solo-play and learning the rules. Feels like it occupies a similarish design space as T&E/Y&Y, as a complex spatial abstract with a layer of theming on top.

* Fabled Fruit - I bought this as a drafting/deck-ish building game (mostly) for the kids, hoping the theme would be of interest to them. But every time I pull it out and suggest we give it a try it gets the vacant stare of disapproval. Might need to go on the purge pile...

* Mission: Red Planet - Benn sitting on the shelf for a while now, sadly. I love Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti games and this one looks like a great combination of elements. I just need to push this one a little to get it to the table.

* Monad - Odd little Sid Jackson relic. No intention or great urge to get it to the table. Mostly have as a collection item.

* Pocket Mars - Purchased as part of homework on other Mars-related games. Seems like a cool, quick playing design. But somehow doesn’t seem all that exciting, so it might be a tougher sell getting it to the table.

* Tea Dragon Society Card Game - Another one the kids don’t seem too interested in playing. I think they’ll like it if I can catch them in the right mood. The game is designed to be played “open hand” which should make it pretty easy to teach. I love the theme and artwork.

* Via Nebula - Picked this up in a math trade, after eyeballing it for a long time. This is kinda-sorta a super streamlined train game but presented via (no pun intended?) a completely different theme. The kids love the artwork and the piggy-meeples. Hoping to play this soon.

* Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow - Not likely to play this anytime soon. Grabbed it for $1 at a garage sale. I think I’d also chose to play Mascarade (different game style I know), over something like this. Could be good to hold onto for the right moment though. Maybe a fun campfire activity with the whole family?

Beyond the unplayed stuff, there are plenty of games I want to get back to the table. A Study in Emerald is #1 on that list. I only played it once (and loved it), so need to bring it back with more people. I’d like to get some games of Tigris & Euphrates in again soon for comparative purposes, and I’d also like to revisit Glen More, which I haven't played in quite some time. Oh, and Inca Empire (aka Catan on steroids). And so many more..

So many games, so little time. Cheers until next time!
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Thu Jul 18, 2019 4:38 pm
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Self-Deception & My Game Collection

Oliver Kiley
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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

Board Game: Root

#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

Board Game: Iron Curtain

#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

Board Game: Antike

#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.

Board Game: Cyclades

#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.

Board Game: Runewars

#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.

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


Lightweight / Quick Games

Board Game: 5-Minute Dungeon

#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

Board Game: Sushi Go!

#7: Sushi Go!

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

Runner ups:
* Sea of Clouds

Board Game: Kingdomino

#8: Kingdomino

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

Runner ups:
* Fairy Tile


Role Selection / Set Collection (Family Game)

Board Game: Broom Service

#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)

Board Game: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers

#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.

Runner-Up:
* 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.

Board Game: Taluva

#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
* IOTA


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

Board Game: Onirim (Second Edition)

#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.

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

Board Game: The Grizzled

#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

Board Game: Mascarade

#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)

Board Game: Innovation

#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.


Board Game: Race for the Galaxy

#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

Board Game: A Study in Emerald

#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)

Board Game: Yellow & Yangtze

#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

Board Game: Eight-Minute Empire: Legends

#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.

Board Game: Raiders of the North Sea

#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!

Board Game: Glen More

#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.

Board Game: Inca Empire

#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

Board Game: Decktet

#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

Board Game: The Fox in the Forest

#24: The Fox in the Forest

DESCRIPTION: Excellent 2-player trick taking game.

Runner ups:
* Odin's Ravens

Board Game: Arboretum

#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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The Inglorious State Of 4X Games

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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Microbadge: The multiverse!  Fan of theoretical physics I don't understandMicrobadge: Hyperion fan - The Shrike is My Hero!Microbadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGGMicrobadge: HumanistMicrobadge: Ask The Next Question
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.



From gallery of Mezmorki


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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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)?

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

“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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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.

From gallery of Mezmorki

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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2017 Smorgasbord Part 1: New Stuff Played

Oliver Kiley
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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.

From gallery of Mezmorki
Father Zargon is Pleased with your Progress


Reflections on the year in gaming


eXplorminate

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+)

Board Game: 5-Minute Dungeon

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)

Board Game: Arboretum

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+)

Board Game: The Fox in the Forest

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)

Board Game: Master of Orion: The Board Game

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)

From gallery of Mezmorki

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)

From gallery of Mezmorki

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)

Board Game: Hit Z Road

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+)

Board Game: Kingdomino

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+)

Board Game: Rhino Hero

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+)

From gallery of Mezmorki

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)

Board Game: Red November

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)

Board Game: Tiny Epic Quest

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+)

Board Game: Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

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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Smorgasboard 2015-16: What's Going On Edition

Oliver Kiley
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From gallery of Mezmorki


Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.

Today’s Menu:
- Boardgames!
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!

Boardgames

I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.

Board Game: Eight-Minute Empire: Legends


Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.

Board Game: Mice and Mystics


I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …

I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.

Board Game: Onirim

Image Credit: KSensei @ BGG


I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.

I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!

Board Game: Keep


I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.

Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).

One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!

Articles & Contributions

I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:

I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.

I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.

From gallery of Mezmorki

"Prodigious size alone does not dissuade the sharpened blade."


Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.

Wot I’m Playing

I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...

Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.

From gallery of Mezmorki


To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.

It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.

To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.

Design Projects

I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.

First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.

I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:

From gallery of Mezmorki


Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.

I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).

I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.

From gallery of Mezmorki


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
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Fri Jan 22, 2016 9:41 pm
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