On Gamer's Games

Wherein I Discuss Those Games Described As Gamer's Games
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Innovations, Reimplementations, and Retreads

Jesse Dean
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Like many members of our wonderful species, I enjoy novelty. I like to try the new, limited edition ice cream flavors that are offered periodically at Publix (right now we have cartons of Pina Colada and Cherry Cheesecake in our fridge), I like to watch the latest and greatest in cinema, and I like to check out new and different board games. This desire for the new and interesting is what has driven me to play 347 different games since February 2008. This translates directly into my own particular version of the cult of the new; I enjoy experiencing these new games, but typically in great detail and only if they bring something new to the table. Of course, not every game will introduce major innovations, but there is a certain level of “newness” that a game has to offer in order to provide the hook to draw me in. I am still working out what level of innovation works for me, but three recent works, 1989: Dawn of Freedom, Ora et Labora, and Titans of Industry have done a good job in helping me to further delineate what I need.

There appear to be four main levels of innovation in board games: influential innovations, incremental innovations, reimplementations, and retreads. Influential innovators are genre-defining games that have ripple effects for years to come. Incremental innovators produce small scale innovations that push forward particular genres, and create new problem solving spaces, but have neither the importance nor impact of the influential innovators. Reimplementations take an existing game’s core concepts and present them in a new way. Retreads reassemble ideas presented in previous games in a new configuration, without doing much, if anything, to introduce something new.

Influential innovators are games that introduce a mechanic or structure that has the right combination of originality and influence that it causes reverberations throughout the industry. Dominion is perhaps the most recent examples of this sort of game, but even within the last decade we have seen games such as Caylus, Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition, and Puerto Rico have a similar impact. For me, these are all quite exciting to play and explore. While I do not end up loving all of them, they are usually interesting enough to at least investigate because they help me to better understand why the game is important, and what its impact has been on further games.

The vast majority of games have more incremental levels of innovation, and their level of importance is less based on how effectively they are able to diffuse into the overall consciousness of the gaming public. Many of the innovations introduced by these games, such as the escalating number of workers of Agricola or the two dimensions of area control in Dominant Species, are interesting and fun but not nearly as significant as the ones introduced by the gaming public by the games in the first class. I am sometimes interested in trying out these games because of potential innovations, but these tend to be played much more frequently according to my general preferences; I am much less likely to try out an incrementally innovative light or medium game then I am to try one of a greater degree of complexity or depth.

The third class of games, reimplementations, is a smaller one that I have really only warmed to recently. These are the sorts of games that feature a very strong similarity to previous games, frequently by the same designer, but are implemented in such a way that they produce a different experience. My earliest real experience with this particular type of game was the Command & Colors series. I was looking to get into a tactical miniatures game, and its prominence in the BGG rankings was enough for me to become interested in the series. My focus at that time was more on finding an individual entry in the series that suited my particular desire for a game I could explore in great depth, rather then a desire to explore the series as a whole. Of course, this ability to find a particular game to suit my needs, in this case Command & Colors: Ancients, itself speaks to the strength of this particular brand of reimplementation. By making it so that each of the games in the series is significantly different, it gives opportunities for both dabblers to find a particular game that is right for them, while still allowing those who grow to appreciate the overall Command & Colors system the opportunity to either explore it in more detail or have the ability to play the Command & Colors game that best fits the needs of a particular moment. I have not personally felt the need to dive deeper into Command & Colors, though the Napoleonic game does look interesting, but I do appreciate what Borg has been able to accomplish with the series. It is an impressive body of work.

I have been less impressed with Martin Wallace’s new implementations of older games, and for many years his attempts clouded my impressions of reimplementations in general. Lancashire Railways was reimplemented as New England Railways and Australian Railways, while Age of Steam was reimplemented as Railroad Tycoon and Steam, and Brass was reimplemented as Age of Industry. While I am not that familiar with the Lancashire Railways line, having only played Australian Railways, I found the Age of Steam and Brass reimplementations to be less than impressive. The first reason I think is largely thematic. The reimplementations that I find to be most successful are those that take a flexible basic system and then fundamentally restructure how the secondary aspects of the system work in order to allow the game to successfully implement the new theme. With the theme being fairly consistent within each of Marin Wallace’s reimplementations, there are fewer opportunities for the raw creativity seen for games where the designer forces himself to adapt the game to an entirely new thematic structure. The second reason is simply that I think they are worse as games then previous entries in the series, lacking the brutality and depth that made the originals so engaging and exciting.

So based on my looks at Martin Wallace and Richard Borg’s designs, it seems that in order for a reimplementation to work for me it needs to feature both an attempt to adapt the game structure to a different theme, and the innovation that comes from this adaption, as well as to retain the general depth and effectiveness of the original designs. The Command & Colors series of games is able to effectively accomplish the first part of this equation. Whether it accomplishes the second part or not is something you will have to ask individuals who have more thoroughly explored the series, but there are two very recent games that I believe manage to successfully accomplish both goals: Ora et Labora and 1989: Dawn of Freedom.

Ora et Labora is essentially a reimplementation of Uwe Rosenberg’s well-regarded 2008 release Le Havre. This is disguised better than it is for the Command & Colors games by the simple fact that the dedication to thematic conversion is far more complete then it is in the Command & Colors series of games. I suspect that this is simply due to a desire to maintain a more obviously consistent central mechanism throughout the Command & Colors games; more significant changes in the service of theme would probably change the game enough to reduce the ease of adoption for those who are interested in trying out another title in the series. Regardless of the reasoning, Ora et Labora’s shifts from Le Havre are significant enough to be interesting, and fulfill both of my criterion as to what makes a good reimplementation. It is so effective that Ora et Labora actually exceeds Le Havre in my eyes, though their differences are such that I could easily see playing either of them if it was not for the greater popularity Ora et Labora has in my local play group.

1989: Dawn of Freedom is not the first reimplementation of Jason Matthew’s Twilight Struggle, but I find it to be far more interesting then 2007’s 1960: The Making of a President. This is because, while 1960 is able to successfully achieve the first of my two criterions, by being a reimplementation that uses a new thematic setting to drive innovation, it fails the second one, by failing to be as challenging and rigorous as the original. 1989 successfully achieves both of these criterions; though I am less certain it is a clear improvement like Ora et Labora is over Le Havre. The similarities between Twilight Struggle and 1989, which are mechanically closer than Ora et Labora and Le Havre, have allowed the designers to include some level of refinement and helpful streamlining that is not quite possible with more extensive reimplementations. These are mostly positive but they attempts also reduce some of the tension in the game, and at first I suspected the games were thematically similar enough to make the reimplementation less effective. It ended up working for me, but I imagine there will be people who find that it is not worthwhile to have both games.

Retreads are games that largely feature mechanics introduced before with either slightly different combinations of previous mechanics and generally minimal levels of innovation. Some of these are similar on the surface to reimplementations, but typically they do not display the level of understanding of the original design, and ways to tweak it in interesting ways that reimplementations have. Titans of Industry is a recent example of this. At its core it is a fairly basic worker placement game, with spaces to collect resources, convert resources into money or VPs, get workers, and the like with the only real twist being that acquisition of buildings is handled by a money-based draft at the beginning of the round. While this is marginally interesting, it is not enough of a separation for me to even count Titans of Industry as even an incremental innovator. The game could quite possible by enjoyable, but it does not do enough for me to even consider justifying it as worth purchasing. Unfortunately a lot of games are like this. While retreads are not the biggest category, it is probably the second biggest, with incremental innovators making up the largest categories of released games.

My views on what makes a good or bad game have evolved at a consistent pace over the course of my four years in the hobby. I have gone from wanting lighter games that were easier to teach to my friends and family to being mostly interested in the more deep and challenging games in the course of this time, and I have no doubt the specifics of my preferences will continue to change. My shifting opinion of reimplementations is an example of this and I fully expect my overall opinions both on this subject, and others, will continue to be refined as I think further about what is a good game and about games in general.
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