I'm currently on a bit of a kick doing some reviews of specialized decks of playing cards. I happen to love Traditional Card Games, and I also love doing card magic, so it won't come as a surprise that decks of playing cards have a real appeal to me.
But the truth is that everyone needs to own at least one good deck of cards. And by that I mean a traditional deck of 52 cards in the normal suits of hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs. After all, there are so many different card games you can play with a standard deck. If you need some ideas, start by checking my GeekList on the subject here.
Now if you are going to own a deck of cards, I figure that you might as well try to get something pretty. Admittedly, the art shouldn't get in the way of the visual clarity of the cards, or interfere with your ability to play the game. But the fact is that there are some amazing decks out there that are perfectly functional to play with, while being stunning to look at the same time. They give you something to admire during moments of down-time, and for many people will enhance the overall playing experience.
It didn't take me long to discover that many beautiful decks of playing cards have been created in recent years. For quite some time already the advances of technology have empowered some very gifted graphic designers with the ability to create some stunning digital artwork on their own PCs. But now they can make their dreams a reality by partnering with online publishing companies, and finally tapping into the marketing engine of the internet. Some of these decks have been created as the result of Kickstarters bringing in over $150,000 in funding! In this article, I want to briefly introduce you to three of the talented individuals who are exploring this new territory with their creativity, and tell you something about their current projects.
Steve Minty (USA): creator of beautiful decks inspired by ancient cultures
Steve Minty is a traditionally educated illustrator and designer, who previously did branding and design for major sport stars and celebrities. He's now given his creativity free reign by doing his own projects, amongst them the design of playing cards. Of all the decks I've looked at personally, Steve's playing cards easily stand out as being among the most beautiful.
He has produced several artistic decks of playing cards, including the popular Muertos series (inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead), the Olympia series (inspired by Greek mythology), and the Anubis and Osiris decks (inspired by ancient Egypt), all available from his personal website steveminty.com. Steve is now working on a deck inspired by Japanese culture called the HANA Luxury Playing Cards, which is currently in the process of being funded on Kickstarter, and is already well over the target.
I love how Steve has worked with different cultures and ideas (and even done some research in the process), and found ways to reflect these insights and observations in the themes, design and artwork of his playing cards. As a result, each deck has its own very distinct flavour, in reflecting either classical Japan, ancient Egypt, mythological Greece, or traditional Mexico. Going back to ancient times also gives you a sense that these playing cards are steeped in a long and rich tradition, and makes you feel a connection with the past.
At the same time, everything about these cards is a truly stunning expression of sheer beauty, from the back designs to the individual artwork on each card. They really do look stunning, especially the Anubis and Osiris decks, these are arguably the most attractive of all the playing cards that I own. Of the three creators in this list, the Steve Minty decks have to take the prize for being the most beautiful, and I just love the way that all the aesthetics come together in a wonderful package.
Giovanni Meroni (Italy): creator of thoughtful decks filled with symbology
Giovanni Meroni is a freelance designer in Italy, who has created the product brand Thirdway Industries, and has a webshop with his playing cards at thirdwayindustries.com. He's done work for big name companies like Vodafone, Nestle, Schwarzkopf, Gucci, Coca Cola, and Red Bull. But as a freelance designer and art director, he also likes to design decks of playing cards, and that's where he gets my attention and interest!
His success began in 2015, with the creation of his classic and crazy Delirium deck, an intricate and modern deck that has the distinction of being chosen as the official 2015 deck of the United Cardists forum. Subsequently he began creating a number of projects that each consisted of a series of three decks comprising a thematic unit, beginning with the Omnia: The First series and its sequel Omnia: The Golden Age series, which are both inspired by several ancient cultures, and are set in the Omnia Universe that Giovanni has imagined. Next up was his Dedalo series, which is inspired by Greek mythology, and tells the story of the Labyrinth of Crete, Theseus and The Minotaur, including the Labyrinth's builder Dedalo. His most recent project is the SINS playing cards, a series of three decks inspired by the literature and art that explores the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Envy, Pride, Lust, Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth), a rich tradition that Giovanni draws on very cleverly and thoughtfully.
When I first stumbled across some of Giovanni's work online, I was just blown away by the classy and elegant appearance of the decks he's created, as well as the way he has drawn on mythology, literature, and art in the creation of his playing cards. I love the style of his artwork, which stands out sharply from the usual fare that is produced by American or even Eurogame artists, and has both a classic and Mediterranean feel, while remaining very playable and usable.
But perhaps what I admire most are the thematic stories behind the artwork. The classic Greek mythology in the Dedalo series of decks strikes an immediate chord with anyone who has an interest in or appreciation of ancient history, and it is very clever how Giovanni has woven the ancient Greek myth into the artwork. But Giovanni has really taken things to the next level by working with the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins in his latest series, the SINS decks. Each of these deadly sins corresponds to a different suit, with the artwork reflective of the concept. The decks create a thematic and artistic unity which is based on a long literary and artistic tradition, and there's a lot of rich symbolism that has been cleverly drawn on, both theologically and artistically. With beautiful and unique artwork that ties in well with a rich theme, steeped in literature and art, these decks are definitely more than just a pretty face, but have real personality and character.
Ben Jones (Australia): creator of innovative decks crawling with Pipmen
Ben Jones lives in Sydney Australia, and runs a small outfit called Elephant Playing Cards. He is currently publishing a special deck of playing cards that he has been creating and developing for almost three years. But he's no one-trick pony, and has already run several successful Kickstarters previously for his Pipmen decks of playing cards. "Pipmen" is a term Ben has coined for the characters on his cards, which he explains like this: Pips + Stickmen = Pipmen. Typical of the decks he designs are "little stickmen figures interacting with the pips to create a unique scene."
As well as several Prism decks, the Pipmen decks that Ben has created are both creative and amusing, and have already proven to be a big hit. But his magnus opus has to be his current Kickstarter project, Pipmen World Playing Cards, which he's publishing along with a Pipmen Collectors Edition deck. Not only is every individual card in the Pipmen World deck a beautiful and clever self-contained picture, but in a truly remarkable way, Ben has designed the artwork so that all the individual cards can be put together to form a larger panoramic image, known as a polyptych. This is truly amazing, and has to be seen to be believed! When the cards are placed alongside one another to form a larger picture, it is very impressive. It is a stunning work of art, that still functions as a regular deck of cards as well.
While I appreciate and admire the earlier Pipmen decks, it is especially the Pipmen World deck that blew me away - I've been fortunate enough to see a prototype copy. First of all, the artwork on the individual cards can be admired and enjoyed, and is sure to create some real talking points. I enjoy studying and appreciating the creative and imaginative artwork on each individual card, and I love how the stickmen interact with the everything. But what really takes this to the next level is how these individual cards combine to make a single larger picture. It definitely has the feel of being a single whole, without ever feeling like a cobbled-together collection of disconnected pieces. It can even be a fun activity to try to complete it as a puzzle. At the same time, the artwork doesn't interfere with the clarity of the cards, because the opposite indices of each card have a very clear statement of what the card is, ensuring that aesthetics doesn't trump playability. Ben has obviously given all this careful thought, so that this deck isn't just going to be resigned into becoming a collector's piece that will gather dust, but can actually be used. It's also being produced with a high quality production that should ensure it proves durable and goes the distance.
I really can't say enough about this amazing deck of cards. Clearly this project is a labour of love for Ben Jones, and I'm very pleased for him that it is finally coming to fruition, and that others can enjoy it. It's a dream come true for him, but it's also a dream come true for anyone who is looking for an amazing deck of cards.
So go ahead and check out some of these talented designers, take a look at what they are making, and consider supporting them. Hopefully this article has aroused your interest in the amazing decks that are available today, and rekindled a desire to try some games with a traditional cards. So why not grab a deck, and get playing?!
Disclaimer: I was not asked to write this article by any publisher or designer. I put this piece together simply because I think these decks are cool, and these creators deserve some recognition and attention here!
Join the discussion: Which of the above decks of playing cards sounds most interesting to you, and why? Have you ever funded a deck of playing cards on Kickstarter? Do you own any special decks of playing cards?
Author's note: A revised form of this article was later published at PlayingCardDecks.com here.
Over the last two years, Eagle Gryphon Games has been publishing a new series of small box fillers called the E•G•G Series. It currently numbers eleven games in total. I gather that a twelfth game will eventually be published to complete the dozen.
The EGG series has proven to be more fun than I was expecting. What I especially like about it is the diversity in the series, which features a range of very different types of games. A diversity of mechanics is represented, including dice throwing, trick-taking, deck-building, set-collection, solitaire, party games, and more. Many are very suitable as fillers. Other positive points include the portability, component quality, as well as the accessibility of most of these games, which will appeal to a wide range of people, including non-gamers.
Here is a GeekList with my overview and comparative take on all the games in the series, including links to my separate reviews for nearly all the titles:
My current ratings for the games in the series: Sluff Off, Fleet Wharfside, SiXes Eggs & Empires, Harald, King's Kilt Dexikon, Bowling Solitaire, Seven7s Elevenses For One Krakatoa (don't own: 12 Days of Christmas)
A big thank you to all those who read any of my reviews over the past year - I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for your support and interest. And my best wishes to everyone for 2017!
Let's be honest, most of us can be sometimes be game snobs - I know I can be at times. If someone tries to convince us to play Monopoly, we can be dismissive, sometimes even condescending and arrogant towards the unenlightened and unwashed masses. After all, they're under in the illusion we still live in a dinosaur age and think that there's something good about roll-and-move games. So if someone has made a 1980s style roll-and-move game, and thinks it's going to be The Next Great American Game, we're ready to spit on them, or at least have a few laughs at their expense. We've seen more than a few failed Kickstarters by such individuals, and often considered them entertainment.
But now imagine that you are that person. That's the premise behind Doug Morse's 80 minute film The Next Great American Game (2015), featuring game designer Randall Hoyt. By his own admission, Randall is not really a game designer, but just a creative guy who has designed a game that he's passionate about, and which he is convinced will be the Next Big Thing. In the film, we follow his determined real life quest to get his traffic-jam themed game "Turnpike" published, and accompany him to a series of disappointing meetings with game publishers, as Randall comes to realize he's made a 1980s game that nobody in today's game industry wants to buy. There's disbelief and disappointment as his dreams are shattered - or can his game be changed in a way that it will find a home with a publisher somewhere?
Randall isn't the only one on the path to enlightenment, however; we are. What is it really like to be someone who thinks he can make it in the world of modern game design, but has no clue about the state of the hobby as it is today? How hard is it to crack the world of the publishers, gain their ear, and better yet gain a contract? This film does a marvellous job of putting us in Randall's shoes, and takes a sympathetic look at a man and his mission. In Randall's case, he's also bi-polar, and the complexities of his mental health also feature in the film, helping make him a sympathetic figure that we come to identify with or at least feel compassion for. Rather than laugh at his ill-informed optimism or chuckle at the misfortunes we see inevitably heading his way when he pitches his game in search of a contract at GenCon, the Chicago Toy Fair, or Origins, by the end we'll feel bad for spitting on him, and perhaps have a bit more sympathy for the unenlightened. Putting me on the other side of the gamer fence for a change made me cringe and feel uncomfortable at times, but in a character-building way.
What do I think?
This film has value in a number of respects, not least as the personal story of a man and his battle to overcome adversity in pursuing his dream. It helps that Randall speaks very candidly about his personal struggles to the camera, and his insights are often thought-provoking and insightful, even if at times they are also painful for us to watch, knowing the inevitable rejection that will come. Given Randall's high ideals for his game, we occasionally feel like we're watching a train wreck about happen, especially as he enters the competitive world of game publishing. We're not at all surprised to see his naivety crushed, as publishers make no bones about the fact that they need to meet the needs of the hobby market, and that his game doesn't really make the cut. The strength of the narrative about Randall's personal journey prevents this from becoming a purely documentary style look at the game publishing world. Not only does it help sustain our interest with a story-line, but it also shows us what this world looks like from an outside perspective, one that we typically don't consider or think about. I also found it fascinating to see in action some of the big name publishers that we often read or hear about like Steve Jackson, Dan Yarrington, and others, and as a gamer I really enjoyed those segments of the film.
This film and its extras should be essential viewing for an aspiring game designer looking to crack the market, but will also be of great interest to any gamer wanting to get insight into the larger world of the board game industry. You might enjoy watching this even if you just want to watch a modern real-life story of a bi-polar amateur game designer who slowly comes to realize his dreams are turning to dust, and who pursues his goal despite the odds. As a story, it's a good one. Without giving away too much, I can say that the film doesn't end in the train wreck you might expect, but there is a note of optimism as one of Randall's other game designs does get some success. More importantly, by the closing credits, I felt that Randall wasn't the only one on the path to enlightenment, but I was too; he'd earned my respect and sympathy, and just maybe changed my own way of perceiving others outside the hobby.
Where can you get it?
There are several options for purchasing this film, with a basic level digital download starting at $14.95. While it's not inexpensive, the price does reflect something of the significant costs that Doug Morse incurred in travelling to many locations in order to make this film. Most gamers will want to go for the higher levels, which give access to several hours of insightful interviews with big names in the industry, including Steve Jackson, Alan Moon, Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and more.
Join the discussion: To what extent is snobbery an issue in the board game hobby? What are some appropriate ways to deal with `unenlightened' individuals convinced they've discovered America's next great game? And if you've seen the film, what did you think of it?
The folks from `He says She says' reviews, Ryan and Amanda (Magus & Princess), are doing a series of `He asks She asks' interviews with a number of individuals in the gaming industry, including designers, developers, publishers, and more. As part of that, they asked to interview me about reviewing, gaming, faith, and BGG. If you want to read more of my thoughts on those topics and more, check out the interview which they've posted here:
Thanks to Ryan and Amanda for this opportunity, and best wishes to them as they continue their series of reviews and interviews!
Update: Ryan & Amanda have since left BGG, deleting all their contributions, including a number of interviews such as this one. For archival purposes and historical interest, you'll find this interview re-posted in its entirety here:
By now most people have seen the official nominees for the 2012 Kennerspiel des Jahres and the 2012 Spiel des Jahres, along with the games that weren't nominated to win but were still recommended by the jury. You've probably also come across the usual circus of discussion that typically follows this announcement, with many folks voicing the usual criticism that the nominations are a joke, out of touch, irrelevant, or ridiculous. I'm not going to join this circus, but I would like to offer a contribution to this discussion, and I'm especially interested in exploring the criticism that the complexity of the winners is decreasing over time.
The Awards in General: How important are they?
First of all, folks somewhat new to gaming may wonder why these awards are even regarded as being a big deal to begin with, and how relevant they are. That's a fair question, given that they are German awards. The question becomes even more pressing considering that it's quite rare that deeper strategy games get nominated. No wonder that each year inevitably we see a repeated discussion about the apparent irrelevancy and idiocy of these awards.
In actual fact, these awards are a big deal, although we should be honest from the outset and simply concede that they very likely are not at all going to be of high relevance to the serious hardcore gamer who wants to see his favourite heavy strategy game from the past year being recognized. Sorry folks, that's just not going to happen at the Spiel des Jahres, because that's just not what they're about! These awards are specifically geared to family style games, and so in general the nominees and winners are games that need to be fairly accessible to the average consumer, and have to be suitable for the mass market - the average German consumer and German mass market that is. We need to recall that the eurogame revolution in the 1990s originated in Germany, and even today that's still where the heart of the gaming industry is to be found. Furthermore there are other awards in Germany that recognize more complex strategy games, the Deutscher Spiel Preis being the most notable one, which typically crowns as winners what we commonly dub as "gamers games", including Agricola (2008), Caylus (2006), and Puerto Rico (2002). In contrast, the Spiel des Jahres is specifically geared toward a slightly different market, at a threshhold not far removed from what we often call "gateway games". With this in mind, it shouldn't at all surprise serious gamers that many of the jury's choices are not challenging enough by the standards of strategy veterans in the gaming hobby.
So why are they important then? Even if they're perhaps not of the greatest relevance to the serious strategy gamer who has advanced well beyond the threshold of gaming, they are certainly relevant to a slightly different market that's looking for something easier to play. In fact, the Spiel des Jahre awards have a huge impact on sales, especially in Germany, but also far beyond its borders. A publisher whose game wins the coveted Spiel des Jahres award has the luxury of including the winning logo on his products, and this credential will inevitable correspond to a huge increase in sales, one source suggesting it can generate sales of up to a half a million copies world wide. From the perspective of the designer and publisher, winning this award is the equivalent of a small coup in the gaming market, and they can count on it continuing to drive significant sales in years to come. This by no means does a disservice to the gaming community; on the contrary, while serious strategy games may seem to get the cold shoulder from the Spiel des Jahres jury, what these awards do accomplish is help introduce many new folks to great games for the first time, and as such they play an important role in expanding the hobby game market.
The Awards This Year: What got nominated?
So what then about the awards this year? In recent times the folks behind the Spiel des Jahres award have taken a slightly different approach, by adding a Kennerspiel des Jahres category in addition to the traditional Spiel des Jahres category, in order to accommodate games that are slightly more complicated and yet worthy of recognition. The first beneficiary of this new award category was 7 Wonders in 2011, which beat out the other two nominees, Strasbourg and Lancaster. Perhaps the first hint of this concept was already evident in 2006 and 2008, when Caylus and Agricola were each awarded a special prize for Best Complex Game.
The nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year are Adam Kałuża's mountain climbing game K2, Andreas Steiger's entry in the Kosmos series Targi, and Inka and Markus Brand's novel take on the worker placement genre Village, which features graveyards to help you deal with the mortality of your meeples and of course earn points. As an aside, it's good to see Kosmos getting back into the limelight, with two of their other games making the recommended list for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category as well.
The nominees for the traditional Spiel des Jahres category in 2012 are Stefan Dorra and Ralf zur Linde's Eselsbrücke, Donald X. Vaccarino's Kingdom Builder, and Rüdiger Dorn's Las Vegas. Kingdom Builder is already quite widely known, and Vaccarino's enormous success with Dominion certainly has done his designer credentials no harm. The other two titles might be somewhat unfamiliar for many gamers, but the designers are all established veterans whose names many of us will recognize.
In addition to these nominees, the jury also have the habit of recommending a number of other titles that weren't nominated but are still worth recognizing. I won't repeat them all here, but suffice it to say that you'll find a complete list here:
The Awards Over The Years: Is complexity decreasing?
As happens almost every year, you'll see detractors and critics pan the nominees and recommendations, suggesting biting criticisms ranging from accusations that the jury are out of touch with modern gaming, that the typical family gamer is evidently getting more stupid over the years, that the jury that dispenses the awards is clearly corrupting the definition of a family game, and that the Spiel des Jahres awards have jumped the shark. We've already made a case for the fact that the awards need to be evaluated for what they are: not as a set of Grammys for the greatest and best games in the eyes of geeky hardcore gamers (which, let's face it, is most of us), but to recognize quality games that can be picked up and enjoyed by your typical family with granny and the kids. Oh, and let's not forget that some of the hardcore gamers are going to enjoy them as "lighter" games, "gateway" games, or "fillers" too!
But having said that, is there any truth to the contention that the complexity of the award winners is decreasing over the years? I decided to find out, by using the average BGG weight as a guide. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the average BGG weight is determined by BGG users who vote using a 1-5 scale (Light, Medium Light, Medium, Medium Heavy, Heavy), from which an average is calculated. As a relative scale of comparison, it can be quite useful despite its criteria being somewhat nebulous and hard to define, because for the most part it is the same people who are making comparisons and assigning these values.
James Fehr kindly pointed out that the average BGG weight of this year's crop of Kennerspiel nominees is 2.5, and the Kennerspiel recommended games is 3.0, while the average BGG weight of this year's Spiel des Jahres nominees is 1.7, and the Spiel des Jahres recommended games is 1.6. So how do the numbers for this year's crop compare with earlier years? Well, I looked them up, so you can see for yourself:
2011 1.7 Qwirkle 2010 1.3 Dixit 2009 2.4 Dominion 2008 1.6 Keltis 2007 1.9 Zooloretto 2006 2.3 Thurn and Taxis 2005 1.8 Niagara 2004 1.9 Ticket to Ride 2003 2.1 Alhambra 2002 1.2 Villa Paletti 2001 1.9 Carcassonne 2000 2.9 Torres 1999 2.9 Tikal 1998 2.2 Elfenland 1997 1.7 The Mississippi Queen 1996 3.1 El Grande 1995 2.4 The Settlers of Catan 1994 2.0 Manhattan 1993 1.3 Liar's Dice 1992 2.0 Um Reifenbreite 1991 1.8 Wacky Wacky West 1990 1.9 Hoity Toity 1989 1.7 Café International 1988 1.6 Barbarossa 1987 2.0 Auf Achse 1986 1.5 Heimlich & Co. 1985 2.8 Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective 1984 2.2 Dampfross 1983 2.0 Scotland Yard 1982 1.3 Enchanted Forest 1981 2.4 Focus 1980 1.8 Rummikub 1979 2.0 Hare & Tortoise
Note that while perceptions of "weight" may have changed over the years, the figures in the above list are all based on what people from recent years think about the weight of the games mentioned, so these numbers are a fair reflection of current opinion. The 4000+ votes that combine to give the 1995 winner Catan an average BGG weight rating of 2.4 are all from the last decade, and probably the vast majority are from the last number of years when BGG membership has grown significantly. Having 4000+ people suggest that Settlers of Catan's weight is on average between "light medium" and "medium" is a fair indication of what people today think about its complexity.
Admittedly the average BGG weight ratings of newer games is somewhat unreliable, especially if they haven't had many users assign them a weight rating yet. In comparison to Settlers of Catan, last year's Spiel des Jahres winner Qwirkle has an average BGG weight rating of 1.7 that is based on only 300+ votes. This means that these voters think it's between "light" and "light medium", slightly leaning toward the latter, but for the most part these are the same people who contributed to Settlers of Catan's weight rating of 2.4 . So despite the smaller sample size, this result is still based on enough data to give a reasonably good point of comparison, and it's quite safe to conclude that most people think Qwirkle is "lighter" than Settlers of Catan by comparative degree of 1.7 to 2.4.
So what does this mean when we look at all the numbers going back to 1979? Would earlier winners not stand a chance of being nominated today, and are the awards being dumbed down, as some have suggested? I don't think so. It could be argued that the three heavier-weights on the list, Torres (2.9), Tikal (2.9), and El Grande (3.1), were out of character from previous years rather than the norm. It's clear that since its inception, the vast majority of Spiel des Jahres award winning games had an average BGG weight of 2 or less, with a few notable exceptions being the three just mentioned. Over the last 25 years the only other winners that have an average weight greater than 2 are Catan (2.4), Dominion (2.4), Thurn and Taxis (2.3), the last two of which were both fairly recent winners! In that regard a fairly good argument can be made that the games nominated and recommended for the Spiel des Jahres award this year and in recent years are quite in line with previous years - aside from the three years when the jury opted for more complex titles. If the complainers had been around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they'd have had reason to complain about the lightweights that were recognized at that time too! Could the "problem" of decreasing complexity be less real than we imagine?
As for this year's Kennerspiel nominees and recommended titles (average BGG weight of 2.5 and 3.0 respectively), they nearly all appear more complex than previous winners, if their current numbers are any indication of their complexity. In that respect adding a separate Kennerspiel category seems to be a good move, in order to recognize games that ordinarily might be considered just beyond the kind of complexity that the jury is looking for in winners of the Spiel des Jahres award. At the same time it's still true that the Kennerspiel games are a long way from being hardcore strategy games. And that's fine, and I doubt that the jury would want it any other way, because recognizing complex strategy games is what other awards are for, whereas the Spiel des Jahres awards are still intended to be a family oriented award geared towards the mass market, with the Kennerspiel going to slightly more advanced games that are just a step up above the usual complexity of the winners. I expect we'll see this trend continue in future years, and I see no reason to complain about it, because it only helps make it possible for a greater variety of games to get recognition.
A Proposed Perspective
So what does all this mean for gamers and how we should view these awards? Well, let's try to be fair when we assess the Spiel des Jahres awards, because we don't help anyone by using the announcement of these nominees as a platform for game snobbery. Instead, why not treat them with some respect, recognizing that they're not firstly of all geared towards folks like most of us. Maybe it's the critics who are the idiots, rather than the jury who are very much achieving what they've always tried to do. Perhaps there's a higher road for us to travel, and that's to be grateful for how the Spiel des Jahres awards accomplish exactly what they set out to do, which is to bring great and accessible games to the family market. And let's be honest, even the hardcore strategy gamers among us need something lighter to play once in a while, even if it is with grandma or the guys at work. And maybe, just maybe, when the occasion suits, there's even a Spiel des Jahres winning game that's just right for us.
Join the discussion: Do you think that the complexity of the Spiel des Jahres nominees and winners has changed over the years? And in your opinion, how relevant are these awards for the gaming industry today?
I'm a Christian. So I'm going to like any game with a Christian theme, right? Wrong.
(Disclaimer: This article is primarily going to be of interest to Christians, and I know that there are many of you here on the site who are interested in the kinds of questions raised by it. You're welcome to participate in this particular discussion if you're not a Christian, but I'd respectfully request that we keep closely on topic, because this is not the place to initiate RSP debates, but only to discuss the particular issue of evaluating Christian themed games from a Christian perspective. So please ensure that the discussion remains positive and respectful.)
The problem with many Christian games
Most of us are well aware that there’s an unfortunate and all too frequent reality that applies to many games which have a Biblical or Christian theme, and that's mediocre game-play. In other words, despite a thick coat of Christian paint, you can't hide the fact that there's a very poor gaming engine underneath. While such games might prove appealing from a pedagogical standpoint, they are frequently so substandard in terms of gameplay that they prove too painful to be worth playing. Apparently some publishers seem to think that Christians will love anything that's overtly Christian in flavour, independent of whether it's actually a good product when judged purely on its merits as a game, and it seems that there's more than enough consumers willing to take a punt on such a product too. Granted, most of the folks who frequent boardgamegeek.com aren't going to be fooled that easily, because what we look for in a game is a solid gaming experience, and we're well aware that while the theme might enhance the nurturing of such an experience, a good theme alone does not a good game make. But aside from Christian remakes of Catan (The Settlers of Canaan) and Carcassonne (The Ark of the Covenant), how many Biblically themed games that are actually outstanding games in their own right can you think of? I think I've made my point.
A second problem that afflicts many Biblically themed games is that in an effort to provide a theme that's going to be attractive to people who take the Bible seriously, the well-intended game goes overboard in handling the theme to the point that it trivializes the divine revelation of the Bible. Any attempt to incorporate Christian themes does come with many pitfalls, because there is always the potential to mishandle Biblical truth or deal with it inappropriately. An example of this is the Redemption CGG, which in my estimation suffers this fate. While Redemption CCG's effort to bring Biblical characters and events to life on playing cards is in itself laudable, this has the very real potential to trivialize the Bible, and in some instance even to create theological problems (see my review where I make a case for this, and also a further article in which shortcomings in the graphic design are identified). In some instances the theme even has the potential to break down, or worse, to become disrespectful, a problem that can be compounded by the artwork. As a result, sometimes the "Bible edition" of a popular game doesn't end up adding anything positive to the original game, but sadly only serves to make it worse.
The solution for Christian games
So what's the solution? Well to begin with, to have any enduring value, a Christian game should first and foremost be a good game. In other words, before we start talking about the paint, let's make sure that the engine is a good one. Let's not compromise quality just because we like the paint colour.
Secondly, if a game is going to have a Biblical theme, it should handle it carefully and respectfully. Anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God will surely agree that its content is weighty, and this leaves little room for cheesy ways in handling serious truths, or for trivializing divine instruction. It's not impossible, but it sure takes a lot of wisdom to do it right.
A case example
An excellent and recent example of a game that does get this right is the new worker placement game from Philip duBarry and Minion Games, Kingdom of Solomon. It's themed around - surprise, surprise - King Solomon and his kingdom in ancient Israel. Players are governors during Solomon's reign, responsible for overseeing some of his building and expansion efforts, by collecting resources and constructing buildings, including the beautiful Solomonic temple. This is a theme that will feel like an exciting novelty to most of us, because it's a radical departure from the standard fare we've come to see, where some themes seem beaten to death at this point - go talk to Tom Vasel if you want examples. All this makes Kingdom of Solomon stand out by virtue of its theme, not just among worker placement games in particular, but among euros in general, and this historical flavour rightly gives it immediate appeal especially to Jews and Christians.
But while the theme is one solidly rooted in Biblical history, and skillfully woven into the game-play, the game doesn’t make the mistake of becoming tacky, preachy or trying to convey a religious message by means of cheesy mechanics, or at the cost of excellence in the game design. For me personally, my Christian convictions will naturally enhance my appreciation for this particular theme and this particular game, but it needs to be recognized that Kingdom of Solomon is first and foremost a good game, strong enough to stand on its own merits and compete with the rest as a game. Let's face it, being a Christian doesn't mean I'm going to like other hobbies just because you give them a Christian coat of paint. Similarly, I like the gaming hobby because I like games, so if you expect me to enjoy a Christian themed game, it needs to be a good game first of all. Fortunately, Kingdom of Solomon really is, in view of the particularly interesting ways it works with the worker placement mechanic. The good news is that while the theme does bring aspects of the Biblical narrative to life in a respectful way, it doesn't at all compromise quality of game-play.
All this means that Kingdom of Solomon is a fully independent and well designed worker placement game that has the maturity and quality to stand on its own two legs, without needing to rely on the theme as a supporting crutch. Granted, it just happens to have a solid Biblical theme, although it's not one that is so over the top that it will send those who are unfamiliar with the Bible running and screaming. But it sure is refreshing to discover a Biblically themed game that is a satisfying, medium weight euro, and that can go the distance on its merits as a game. A game of this sort has real potential to get some mileage in the Christian market, and in my opinion deserves to make its mark there, but the good news is that its appeal should stretch well beyond that. For this accomplishment the efforts of designer Philip duBarry are ones that Christian gamers like myself should applaud, support and encourage. I've just posted a review of Kingdom of Solomon, and I highly recommend you check this game out:
But there is another solution for Christian gamers on a quest for good games, one which is independent of finding a good game with a solid Biblical theme, although efforts to produce such games are certainly welcome and deserve to be applauded. And that's to come to the realization that for the most part the elements that make gaming a positive activity for Christian families and groups usually have little to do with the theme. Certainly there might be games that have to be excluded from play by virtue of their objectionable theme or artwork alone. Similarly there might be games that particularly commend themselves for play by virtue of a particularly positive theme - as was the case with Kingdom of Solomon. But for the most part a Christian approach to games is about the spirit in which it is played, the lessons that are learned from it, and the place that it has in one's life - and that includes demanding high standards from the game-play as well.
Perhaps this could be considered a "redeemed" approach to boardgames, when they are played to God's glory and for our neighbour's good, and when they are enjoyed as a gift from God, and none of this especially demands having a Christian theme. This approach gives room for coming to a positive assessment of and enjoyment of boardgames that more importantly meet the criteria of being quality products on the level of design and components as well, and not merely theme. For me and my family, this redemption of boardgames will be more successful when playing something tried and true like Catan than a game that's overtly Christian but where the gameplay disappoints.
Fortunately this means that Christians have many options when it comes to selecting good games. There are many wholesome games to choose from that don't necessarily have a Christian theme, but give families the opportunity to have an enjoyable gaming session together, and offer good quality gameplay. Sure, Christian gamers will like a good Christian game. But in the end what we really like is a good game - any good game - that we can play as Christians. Now please excuse me, I'm off to go play another game of Kingdom of Solomon, followed by a rousing game of London (first edition).
Join the discussion: What's your take on Christian themed games, and what has been your experience with them? Can you think of other examples of Biblically themed games that also pass the test of being quality game designs in their own right?
I was fortunate enough to play around 50 different new games over the last year, many of which were newer releases. To round off the year, I've compiled and posted my complete overview of the new games I was able to play in a geeklist, along with ratings and a brief synopsis of each game. Check this list for discussion on the individual games:
A full six and a half years after posting my very first session report to BGG, I've reached a new milestone: 100 Session Reports! Report #100 had to be something special to mark the occasion, so I chose a memorable session of Arkham Horror played with my good friend the Masked Man - a game which for us personally marked the end of an era. Here it is:
You can find the complete list of all my session reports here: Ender's session reports [Most Popular] [Most Recent]
This retrospective is simply a self-indulgent look back at the last six and a half years of writing the occasional session report, to reflect on what worked and what didn't, and to highlight some of my personal favourites. My session reports fall into six main categories, which I've listed below along with a selection of some of the most popular in each:
A total of 14 session reports fall into this category, and these proved to consistently be the most popular. These include my most thumbed session report of all, which is of the game Innovation. I'm also pleased with how my illustration of the gameplay of Richard III: The Wars of the Roses turned out, particularly since exploring a block-wargame was something new for me. I suppose what accounts for the success of these reports is that they help show people how a game worked, so they can visually see the game in practice. Some highlights and some of my own personal favourites:
I really enjoy creative writing. Sometimes the muse just flows, and I get into the groove and the words just appear readily. Even so, in most cases a good session report receives the benefit of much editing and tinkering before it is finally published. Session reports are especially rewarding when they convey a sense of story, and some of my favourites attempt to recreate the drama and tension of real-game experiences. I'd like to think that I have some sense of humor, and that this also contributes to making these fun to read. Some highlights and some of my own personal favourites:
A picture can tell a thousand words. In some instances my retelling of the story relied heavily on the pictures, so that the visual images constituted the majority of the report. These are some of the picture-heavy reports that seem to have been enjoyed over the years.
The last three categories of session reports all recount various gaming adventures with three good gamer friends of mine. The first of these is the infamous Masked Man, and no less than about 30 session reports regale some of our adventures together. Please don't be too intimidated by the pictures - you may find that the stories of these games have more charm and humour than you'd expect!
I was fortunate enough to spend an entire week on holidays with my friend Scurvodsky and his family, and we got in a lot of games during this time together. Here are some highlights of the 10 session reports that resulted:
Finally, I also spent a week on holidays with another friend, and this also generated about 15 session reports. These were among my very first session reports, so they were briefer for the most part - but the games they record were certainly no less interesting!
In closing I mention that Mozart78 has been doing a herculean job in going through every single session report on BGG and awarding what he calls the "Excellence in Session Report Writing Awards." I've been fortunate enough to have my session reports chosen a few times, and you'll find a list of the winning sessions here:
Will I write another 100 reports over the next six and a half years? I have no idea. But one thing I do know: reading over some of these reports reminds me of the wonderful experiences games can generate and the lasting memories they can create. For me, session reports help me preserve something of an experience that is precious to me. And that, really, is what gaming is about for all of us isn't it?
Join the discussion: Do you ever write session reports for games that you have played? Why or why not? What do you think is the value of session reports on BGG?
Back in February I posted an article on this blog about the humour in some of the promotional pictures put out by game publishers.
With that still fresh in my mind, it was with great interest that I recently read about The Table of Catan, a custom made and officially licensed table for Settlers of Catan, available at www.tableofcatan.com. After all, who wouldn't want to own a piece of exquisite craftsmanship like this, with the official Settlers of Catan brand? Well... maybe not every gamer, but you have to admit that the custom table actually looks rather impressive!
But now what I found rather amusing were the accompanying promotional pictures on the website. They raise all kinds of existential and pressing questions about the game, and about the game group pictured there! Questions that deserved to be asked and answered by the BGG community!
Exhibit A: Game Board
● Why is a four player game being played on the larger 5-6 player board?
● Why did the green player place her starting settlement alongside the desert and a 3, when there were so many better options?
Exhibit B: Game Group (Part 1)
But wait, we're not done yet:
At least now we've got five players in the game. But there are some odd things going on:
● Why is the lady wearing green sitting in front of the card bank instead of in front of her own colour?
● Why is the lady with the dice about to roll right on some settlements and roads, and cause chaos on the board? And are the other players laughing because they think that doing this is some kind of sick joke?
● Where are all the men gamers? Or is this a ladies night?
And perhaps most important of all:
● WHO LET THE LITTLE KID WITH THE DRINK THAT CLOSE TO THE BRAND NEW TABLE???!!!
● And what's with the sausage rolls on the game table, and so close to the board?
Exhibit C: Game Group (Part 2)
But we're still not finished. Because it gets better:
Order is restored, because dad has arrived! Notice that the game state has not changed at all since the previous picture! Yep, it's exactly the same game. But what has changed is the presence of dad, and the absence of all the food and drinks. Which raises all kinds of new questions:
● What happened to the cans of coke that two players were enjoying in the previous picture? Evidently dad has enforced his "no food or drink at the game table" rule. Did they get to finish their drink?
● What happened to the little girl and her mother? Did they get evicted from the game and the house because of the kid breaking the `no drinks' rule?
● Where is the fifth player? What happened to the lady rolling the dice in the previous picture - did she get sent home as well? And did she take the dice with her?
● Why did the ladies wearing blue and brown get to change places mid-game? In my world that's called cheating!
● Why are the other players all looking at and smiling at dad? Are they sharing a secret joke at his expense?
Inquiring minds want to know!
Join the discussion:What other pressing questions deserve to be asked when you see these pictures? And can you come to any grossly unjustified and thoroughly speculative conclusions in an attempt to answer any of these questions? Let speculation run rife!
I've run several BGG Photo Caption Contests over the years. There have been some excellent entries and winners, and over 150GG of prizes have been awarded. Here are some of the winning entries that I've especially enjoyed from previous contests:
"Hmmmmm, so THIS is where my college fund is going. - Kodos
"The third day of a convention often takes its toll on the mind. In this shot, a sleep-deprived gamer checks his camel for line of sight." - cbs42
Now the BGG Photo Caption Contest returns, and for this edition, I have again picked a number of pictures that are themed around gamers and their antics. Please join in the fun, and share some of your humor, or just enjoy the wit of your fellow gamers! There are some GeekGold prizes to be had!
So why another contest? Well I figured the timing was right, since last week (Friday, May 13, 2011) I reached two significant milestones with respect to my BGG contributions on the same day: 100,000 thumbs, and 10,000 images! Yes, I'll be the first to admit that it's ridiculous - but there you have it!
I decided that running another photo caption contest would be another way of thanking the BGG community at this time. BGG is a place where we can meet and exchange ideas and information about a hobby that we mutually enjoy. In many respects what makes it such an enjoyable place to frequent are these reciprocal connections and exchanges of material, and the willingness of gamers around the world to share their contributions with fellow enthusiasts. It's really the cumulative contributions of a multitude of diverse users that helps make this site the incredibly useful global resource that it is!
To humour myself, I compiled a retrospective of some of my own contributions over the years: