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Subject: Abundance of Abstracts rss

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David Ploog
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For quite some time now -- around twenty years -- I've been trying to make a mental map of abstract games. It's a hopeless endeavor: new games are invented faster than I can find and read their rules. Even if the invention of new abstract board games was discontinued today, I wouldn't have enough time to work through the lot, and that's assuming 24/7 for the next 50 years.

Why so many?

There are also countless box games (the kind of things BGG was made for), and their number is also growing and, it seems, actually accelerating. But the crucial difference: people make money with box games, or at least try to do so. By contrast, a self-proclaimed "abstracts only" designer would most likely be penniless. The few outs are well known: (1) top tier materials, (2) avoid stuff that looks like Checkers, (3) in particular, prefer hexes, (4) artistic appeal. A few abstracts made the commercial cut: Burms' GIPF project, Hive, Santorini...

But I am not interested in those few, I am interested in the huge mass of games that are invented just for the fun of it (I assume). To give you some ideas how many different games a single person may invent:
Nestor Romeral Andres (>50), Christian Freeling (47), Mark Steere (41), Nick Bentley (28), Luis Bolanos Mures (28).
Please add links to other prolific inventors!

There are notable exceptions: Jorge Arrausi left after three excellent games (Unlur, Buku, Pilari); Richard Moxham's game was Morelli (although he came up with the NECNON system as well). I have no idea which type of designer is more prevalent.

Here are my ideas why so many abstracts are being invented:

No production value attached: while any game (BGG-appropriate, say) is defined entirely through its rule set, I can only think of few types where writing down the rules will pin down something as a new game: card games and abstract games. For box games, you'd at least want some kind of print run. A comparison: lots of people write stuff, but most of the public will only accept something as a book if it has been "published", whatever that means to someone. Same for music: humming a melody or jotting down some notes does not make you an accepted composer.
In other words, the material entrance barrier is low.

It is fun: if you like reading, it can be a lot of fun to write something. If you've learned to play an instrument, it can be fun to compose a piece. And if you like to play, it can be fun to invent rules. Players have always created variants of the games they liked, starting with house rules and going all the way to fully grown variations.

It is easy: now don't get me wrong, I can appreciate how hard it is to ponder balance, and to strive for originality. But it's actually not that hard to just assemble a reasonably good game, if you know what you're doing. For example, the winning conditions linking (often called "connection"), crossing and chain scoring lend themselves to games with agreeable formal properties: forward-moving, no draws (these two mean that matches will always end, and with a winner), simple rules.
Note that this creative process is easier or harder, depending on the topic at hand: it is easier to compose a sonatina than a symphony, easier to write a short story than a novel, easier to create an abstract board game than a box game or a video game (and among video games, it is easier to make a roguelike than an ego shooter, and so on).

Do you see other reasons why abstracts could be particularly popular in this regard? Or do you think I am misled, and abstracts are not special?

[There is a related question I sometimes ask myself: if someone write the score for symphony but it never gets played -- is it really a piece of music? If nobody ever tries some set of rules, is that really a game? I'm sure that some proposals are just that, proposals. Especially when a "game" comes with very many variations right out of the box.]

Regardless of the above, I am faced with a situation where I -- a person very much interested in abstract board games with very little inclination to invent rules myself -- will never be able to get a full view. What are some options now?

1. Encyclopedic approach: Try to record anything that comes up. This has been done at The World of Abstract Games by Joao Neto. The site was abandoned around 2015 but do not blame anyone: the list contains >400 games, and the task to keep it up to date is too much for any single person, I think.
Edit: this geeklist contains >1500 combinatorial games! Also check the links at the top.

2. Swarm knowledge: Rely on the fact that game developers will try to make their games accessible in some form, e.g. on an online gaming page. Then players will be able to test them, and good designs will spread whereas mediocre designs will fade away.

3. Consider game design as a temporary rather than permanent expression: Some types of art, especially installations and improvisational or popular art, are not designed to be eternal. Instead, they're meant to be enjoyed while they last. Typical examples are novels and pop songs. True, some of them will be read or heard ten years from now, but that'll be a tiny minority of what is produced these days. We could see board game designs in exactly the same way.

4. Spreading the gospel: In a market of highly limited attention, try to proselytise people to whatever you think are the top tier games. Note that it is impossible to "fight bad games", even if one wanted to: simply discussing some more or less obscure games raises awareness ("any publicity is good publicity").

5. Formation of subgenres: try to cope with abundance by restricting to a subcategory of games. Example: only PP (= pure placement = pen & paper) games. Classical games. Connection games. Chess variants. Etc. I don't count the restriction to a single ("life style") game because by doing that, you are explicitly not caring about other games from the outset. For this to work, the corpus (here, of board games) has to be big enough, to naturally create such subgenres. I claim that this has happened with the board game explosion in the early 20th century ("game inventors"), if not earlier. (Added on May 1.)

As you might know, I am aiming for 4. I am also talking to people about their favourite games. And I do restrict myself to games with standard boards and undifferentiated pieces.

What is your approach: do you think there's any problem whatsoever? If so, how do you deal with knowing that there are good games you'll never play because you never heard about them? Does it matter whether you're more a developer or more a player?
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christian freeling
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dpeggie wrote:
But it's actually not that hard to just assemble a reasonably good game, if you know what you're doing.
Italics are mine.

dpeggie wrote:
[There is a related question I sometimes ask myself: if someone write the score for symphony but it never gets played -- is it really a piece of music? If nobody ever tries some set of rules, is that really a game? I'm sure that some proposals are just that, proposals. Especially when a "game" comes with very many variations right out of the box.]
There is a deeper related question, is perception a precondition for existence?

dpeggie wrote:
What is your approach: do you think there's any problem whatsoever? If so, how do you deal with knowing that there are good games you'll never play because you never heard about them? Does it matter whether you're more a developer or more a player?
As a species we may have bigger problems so I think it's relative. Good games I never heard about? How many does one need in a lifetime? The mere existence of Go, Chess, Draughts and some known variants gave my own efforts a shadow of futility to begin with. But it was far better to handle than the everyday futility that I tried to escape from, so I'm not complaining. I made games for imaginary players in the hope that some of them would eventually actually materialise.
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Russ Williams
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FWIW I agree with most of your statements here (e.g. about the relative quickness of assembling an at-least-working game - compare e.g. with the time-consuming historical research a wargame designer must do, and that it's impossible to keep up with all the abstracts being made/designed/discovered/published/whatever). I don't seem as troubled by the latter fact, though; to me, that's nothing special about abstracts, but rather just part of life.

dpeggie wrote:
(3) in particular, prefer hexes,
This seems false to me. I don't perceive hexgrid vs squaregrid as being a significant factor in whether a game becomes popular. You mention the recent squaregrid hit Santorini; also see Blokus and Blokus Duo, Rumis, Patchwork, Quoridor, Khet, Pente, Othello, etc not to mention classics like Go, Checkers, Tafl, Chess and various modern variants.

Quote:
[There is a related question I sometimes ask myself: if someone write the score for symphony but it never gets played -- is it really a piece of music? If nobody ever tries some set of rules, is that really a game? I'm sure that some proposals are just that, proposals. Especially when a "game" comes with very many variations right out of the box.]
This is the sort of quasi-philosophical/semantic question which could launch a multi-page pointless semantic debate thread, like the ultimately annoying stupid "Can you shuffle a deck with 1 card?" thread.

Quote:
Regardless of the above, I am faced with a situation where I -- a person very much interested in abstract board games with very little inclination to invent rules myself -- will never be able to get a full view. What are some options now?
Accept that this is a normal part of life? Similarly you'll never get a full view of all the eurogames being made, or wargames, or films being made, or novels written, or comics, or paintings, or songs, or albums, or operas, or history books, or political blogs, or anything else.

Even if there were a convenient continually updated complete list of all abstract games, I believe that it remains true that you wouldn't really be able to explore them all, at least not in any meaningful way.

Quote:
4. Spreading the gospel: In a market of highly limited attention, try to proselytise people to whatever you think are the top tier games. Note that it is impossible to "fight bad games", even if one wanted to: simply discussing some more or less obscure games raises awareness ("any publicity is good publicity").

As you might know, I am aiming for 4. I am also talking to people about their favourite games.
Seems fine and normal that people try to let other people know about stuff which they think is worthy and which other people might enjoy. It sometimes helps a particular creation reach a wider audience.
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David Ploog
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Christian: I wrote assemble on purpose.

And of course, if we see game designers as artisans rather than artists (I know that some designers see themselves like this), then a limited life span is 100% ok.

Christian wrote:
As a species we may have bigger problems so I think it's relative.
Absolutely, but if you argue with "bigger problem" we could only talk about very little. I'm politically active, we're trying to get our children politically active, and one of the reasons why I like simple abstracts is that they're largely shunning the capitalist market logic! That's also the reason why I love to participate although not by inventing more games.

Christian wrote:
I made games for imaginary players in the hope that some of them would eventually actually materialise.
You forgot to say "sports weapon" here

I understand where you've coming from but this point of view is quite elitist. I've said it before, but being a (lousy) piano player, to me this sounds a bit like "I've written down these notes I couldn't play but I hope some professional players will pick it up." (Also note how we're leaving the laypeople here.) And another note: your approach is fine, and I believe that your Chess fixes problems of standard Chess, and I much rather write about Dameo than about Draughts, but the approach does really only work for variants of established games.
For a genuinely new game, say Symple, the situation is entirely different: will it be played at all, in five years, in fifty years?

Russ wrote:
I don't seem as troubled by the latter fact, though; to me, that's nothing special about abstracts, but rather just part of life.
Sure, that's the way to go: interested but detached. Stoic. I am asking these questions mainly because right now (and maybe for one year), any really good games I hear about could make it into my book project. So I better ask now.

And I am a little worried I might miss actual genres. One goal is to exhibit the huge design breadth even under my restrictive assumptions. There probably are really good concepts I don't cover at the moment. (So I am more worried about missing a cool winning condition than missing yet another connection game, even if that was really good.)

Russ wrote:
This is the sort of quasi-philosophical/semantic question
Guily as charged. It was my attempt at making fun of some game designers who, in my humble opinion, sometimes dish out new "games" faster than anyone could test, they themselves included.
I'll not mention names ... in this posting

Oh, and I forgot one motiviation for why I am writing what I write: you often hear people comment on abstracts by saying "you can come up with your own strategies". This is true, especially when compared with established dinosaurs like Go or Chess (where you could rather, given sufficient proficiency, develop an individual style). However, for that to be really true, I don't see nearly enough strategy guides. Especially because it's extremely low-hanging fruit *and* so many games are being played all the time... I hope that when I write something not entirely elementary about Slither, say, but still short and scratching on the surface, then someone else can come in ten years and pick up where I left. I like that idea a lot, it is a big part of my motivation.
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Russ Williams
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dpeggie wrote:
Oh, and I forgot one motiviation for why I am writing what I write: you often hear people comment on abstracts by saying "you can come up with your own strategies". This is true, especially when compared with established dinosaurs like Go or Chess (where you could rather, given sufficient proficiency, develop an individual style). However, for that to be really true, I don't see nearly enough strategy guides. Especially because it's extremely low-hanging fruit *and* so many games are being played all the time... I hope that when I write something not entirely elementary about Slither, say, but still short and scratching on the surface, then someone else can come in ten years and pick up where I left. I like that idea a lot, it is a big part of my motivation.

I can certainly see the appeal of being one of the early pioneers in discovering and documenting strategy of an interesting game.
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christian freeling
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dpeggie wrote:
Christian wrote:
I made games for imaginary players in the hope that some of them would eventually actually materialise.
You forgot to say "sports weapon" here
As a kid I encountered the Coup Raphaël in Draughts.

I was completely stunned by the fact that the player who gave his name to the combination had obviously been able to perceive it over the board. So players being able to do that, something I couldn't even imagine doing myself, became my heroes. Later I encountered Chess and Go and thus could somewhat broaden my inclination to idolise players.
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Craig Duncan
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Quote:
Regardless of the above, I am faced with a situation where I -- a person very much interested in abstract board games with very little inclination to invent rules myself -- will never be able to get a full view. What are some options now?
Markus's annual "Best Combinatorial Games" contest (and Stephen Tavener's assiduous efforts to implement these games in his Ai Ai program) really help good games to get discovered, in my opinion. I'm grateful for their efforts.

Also, I won't be surprised if in ten years' time, say, we have a generic program ("AlphaOmni"?) along the lines of AlphaGo in which you input any proposed rule set and the AI learns it within a few minutes to a superhuman level skill, and then (along the lines of Cameron Browne's LUDI program, which discovered Yavalath) evaluates the game for potential human interest using something like Thompson's dimensions of game quality (depth, clarity, drama, decisiveness).

That future method will have its pros and cons, of course, but it could be one way of culling through the countless abstract games to find some as-yet-unknown gems.
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David Ploog
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Christian: I see. That explains very well how one can end up there!

Craig: I agree. The specific design contest from some years ago ("best unequal goals", "best 8x8 game" etc.) are also very good in this regard. In all these competitions, part of the interested public is at least looking at a bunch of games. That's unequivocally good!

On AlphaOmni (awesome moniker right there!): I am not so sure. In mathematics, people wonder whether proofs will be done by computers in some years. And computer can prove stuff already now. It's just that they don't prove the cool things. In essence, what we can expect from AlphaOmni is directly proportional to how well AlphaOmni can learn what humans want.
This could become creepy

---

I just re-read the thread and I realised that my opener was misleading in an interesting way: I say "hopeless to make a mental map of abstract games". But a *map* is by definition something made for finding your way where you don't know everything. It is not 100% of available information. So if, for example, I compile a list of all the winning conditions used in the genre (and I am doing that), then that could be seen as part of such a map.
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Deep Fish
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christianF wrote:
dpeggie wrote:
But it's actually not that hard to just assemble a reasonably good game, if you know what you're doing.
Italics are mine.

dpeggie wrote:
[There is a related question I sometimes ask myself: if someone write the score for symphony but it never gets played -- is it really a piece of music? If nobody ever tries some set of rules, is that really a game? I'm sure that some proposals are just that, proposals. Especially when a "game" comes with very many variations right out of the box.]
There is a deeper related question, is perception a precondition for existence?

dpeggie wrote:
What is your approach: do you think there's any problem whatsoever? If so, how do you deal with knowing that there are good games you'll never play because you never heard about them? Does it matter whether you're more a developer or more a player?
As a species we may have bigger problems so I think it's relative. Good games I never heard about? How many does one need in a lifetime? The mere existence of Go, Chess, Draughts and some known variants gave my own efforts a shadow of futility to begin with. But it was far better to handle than the everyday futility that I tried to escape from, so I'm not complaining. I made games for imaginary players in the hope that some of them would eventually actually materialise.

1. On Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi, posits (in a rough summary commentary that is from me) that creativity requires preparation (to understand the current models in an area of knowledge), then personal contribution (eg insight, inspiration, variation etc) then social contribution (ie if the former can be accepted and influence the former system of knowing and lead to new "growth". So he provides a social model as well as the individual model of creativity. That it needs to connect to the current culture and be transmitted successfully for use into a new generation as part of a body of knowledge.

2. Idk, but at some level I would guess, that perception creates the limitation necessary for existence in the first place. In evolution there's examples of multiple evolution events of the "same thing". For example colour vision. So it's not that something cannot happen because it does not exist, but that it only comes to exist under limited specific form of information development or specific conditions are met. I would guess the social model of creativity above elaborates transmission at a cultural or social level above say an evolutionary level, but again a similar transmission event is necessary eg the spark must "catch". Otherwise we (well those next in line!) have to wait for another "event/invention or rediscovery" to happen all over again.

3. What drives me is my own experience: I walked into a boardgame shop looking for an xmas group activity for my family to enjoy. It took some years before I became aware of abstract boardgames. If the boardgame shop had stocked them under a section of their own, next to say "wargames shelf" then I would have discovered this category much sooner and presumably a lot more people too. I'd like to try to do something about that if a way is possible.

4. As per 3, if it's trying to design a game, to better collate information about abstracts in some useful form, they're achieving the similar effects one way or another. I guess it does take talent & effort to create and design a successful abstract however !!!

Addendum: I don't know about evaluation concerning the number of abstracts that exist. I think that's something only a designer might really hold insight into? For me, I am aware that intereting forms emerge from abstract designs and this source of variety might be appealing to people who wander into a shop not really knowing anything about board games.
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christian freeling
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DeepFishTaluva wrote:


1. On Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi, posits (in a rough summary commentary that is from me) that creativity requires preparation (to understand the current models in an area of knowledge), then personal contribution (eg insight, inspiration, variation etc) then social contribution (ie if the former can be accepted and influence the former system of knowing and lead to new "growth". So he provides a social model as well as the individual model of creativity. That it needs to connect to the current culture and be transmitted successfully for use into a new generation as part of a body of knowledge.
I appreciate attempts to frame 'creativity' but I'm often reminded of a thing I heard Keith Richards once say: "Never think about what you're doing while doing it". I realise that there are situations where this might put one in immediate danger, but there's a deep and true undercurrent. I never thought about 'how to invent a game' while hunting down a new core behaviour. In retrospect it was never much of an 'action', like something one has to set oneself for, but more a state of mind induced by the smell of prey.

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christianF wrote:
DeepFishTaluva wrote:


1. On Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi, posits (in a rough summary commentary that is from me) that creativity requires preparation (to understand the current models in an area of knowledge), then personal contribution (eg insight, inspiration, variation etc) then social contribution (ie if the former can be accepted and influence the former system of knowing and lead to new "growth". So he provides a social model as well as the individual model of creativity. That it needs to connect to the current culture and be transmitted successfully for use into a new generation as part of a body of knowledge.
I appreciate attempts to frame 'creativity' but I'm often reminded of a thing I heard Keith Richards once say: "Never think about what you're doing while doing it". I realise that there are situations where this might put one in immediate danger, but there's a deep and true undercurrent. I never thought about 'how to invent a game' while hunting down a new core behaviour. In retrospect it was never much of an 'action', like something one has to set oneself for, but more a state of mind induced by the smell of prey.


You're almost certainly "right". But this is describing the individual or personal contribution. In the above "system-social" model, the preparation and acceptance phases before and after this inbetween phase. The personal creativity or "individual brilliance" to use Csikszentmihalyi wording, is an aspect but not the only face of creativity. Another face is how a particular culture encourages and accepts creative input from individuals or not? As to the experience, it's very personal for each person? Th hunting analogy seems so very apt. I always think of swimming after elusive fish in the deeps of the mind!
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christian freeling
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DeepFishTaluva wrote:
You're almost certainly "right". But this is describing the individual or personal contribution. In the above "system-social" model, the preparation and acceptance phases before and after this inbetween phase. The personal creativity or "individual brilliance" to use Csikszentmihalyi wording, is an aspect but not the only face of creativity.
I'm not sure what you mean by 'the preparation and acceptance phases before and after this inbetween phase'.

DeepFishTaluva wrote:
Another face is how a particular culture encourages and accepts creative input from individuals or not?
Oh yes

DeepFishTaluva wrote:
As to the experience, it's very personal for each person? The hunting analogy seems so very apt. I always think of swimming after elusive fish in the deeps of the mind!
It also illustrates a very objective distiction. The by far most usual method of inventing is the 'assembly' type, or 'outside in'.
 
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christianF wrote:

DeepFishTaluva wrote:
As to the experience, it's very personal for each person? The hunting analogy seems so very apt. I always think of swimming after elusive fish in the deeps of the mind!
It also illustrates a very objective distiction. The by far most usual method of inventing is the 'assembly' type, or 'outside in'.
One nice rule of thumb I like to use: if I can't meaningfully, significantly test the game in my head with thought experiments, I look elsewhere.

(which doesn't mean I won't do "real" playtesting too - I always will)
 
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christian freeling
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milomilo122 wrote:
One nice rule of thumb I like to use: if I can't meaningfully, significantly test the game in my head with thought experiments, I look elsewhere.

(which doesn't mean I won't do "real" playtesting too - I always will)
Yeah, I've had my share of misunderstandings on that one.
 
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dpeggie wrote:
What is your approach: do you think there's any problem whatsoever? If so, how do you deal with knowing that there are good games you'll never play because you never heard about them? Does it matter whether you're more a developer or more a player?
I remember going through a phase of "I want to know and try every game I can play with material I own!" Eventually I realized that it was a very silly idea, for many reasons.

Nowadays I still enjoy learning about new games. The best way to do it is to hang out at the right places (like this forum). When I'm the mood, I might take a dive at places like JPN's, but, again, it's for the pleasure of learning about games, an end in itself, because I already have a huge list of (seemingly) great games to play. Of course there'll always be games I don't know about, and I'm cool with that. Maybe I could search deeper and broader, but it gets to a point where it's too much work, and doesn't yield many results.

Now as a player, I don't know. The list that I mentioned is already more than a hundred items long. At the current pace (about 4 or 5 games a year), I estimate it might take more the 20 years to try them all. The gamer in me (I hate that word) thinks that's absurd, that I should be trying a game a month! But the actual normal human being in me thinks that one game a year, perhaps two, is ideal (not only enough, but ideal)! Again, I just choose to forget about it and enjoy the ride.

As for promoting games, I mostly just try to play what I want. A big chunk of my gaming happens in not so frequent, but big meetings, where stricto sensu abstracts are very rare. Yet I have no trouble in finding opponents. Some of them will enjoy it, some won't. Occasionally someone will really like a game, and perhaps seek it out on their own, and the player base will grow, slowly at first, but exponentially. I like to imagine that that's how it goes, anyway.

Actually, I also wanted to host some Dameo workshops, but that idea is still in the ice.

dpeggie wrote:
And I am a little worried I might miss actual genres. One goal is to exhibit the huge design breadth even under my restrictive assumptions. There probably are really good concepts I don't cover at the moment. (So I am more worried about missing a cool winning condition than missing yet another connection game, even if that was really good.)
I know of a few very unusual and less known games. I can make a list. Just not sure if they could be considered new genres, I kinda suck at categorizing things.
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BozoDel wrote:
I remember going through a phase of "I want to know and try every game I can play with material I own!" Eventually I realized that it was a very silly idea, for many reasons.
Sure, as did I.

Quote:
Nowadays I still enjoy learning about new games.
That's a non-trivial statement. I've seen lots of people who are just not interested in New Stuff -- the extreme version of this is "why do I need to meet new people? I already have X friends".

Quote:
I know of a few very unusual and less known games. I can make a list. Just not sure if they could be considered new genres, I kinda suck at categorizing things.
That's okay, I'll be happy with any list

I've looked around a bit because there really had to be some more territory scoring games (in my sense), and indeed I found some: Anchor (Myers), Mobility, Loops (Wittman) are a good start.


I think I can sum up my original posting like this: it is both a curse and a blessing if (almost) every member of some scene/group is also a creator. Note how this is different from science where every serious participant is expected to be a creator, as well.
But science has a thorough system for dealing with this: thorough subdivision into smaller and smaller groups; working groups with teacher/student relationships; a concept of quality which tends to make the more important results also more popular.
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Ok, so here it goes. Some of these games are very original in some aspect. Some are a combination of old things that work marvelously. Some I just don't know. I'm sure you already know more than a few of these:

Alfred's Wyke, Atlanteon, Bug, Byte, Catchup, Dipole, Exxit, Génésis, Majorities, Martian Life, Tiananmen, Phalanx, Splay, Sploof, Symple, Tourrosa, ZÈRTZ.

In time: these are not the kind of games we tend to discuss here, but they are (or can be played as) 2P combinatorial: Homeworlds, Mate, RGB, Ur.
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David Ploog
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BozoDel wrote:
Ok, so here it goes. Some of these games are very original in some aspect. Some are a combination of old things that work marvelously.
Impressive! Many thanks for the list. True, I knew some of the games but not nearly half of them. Some real gems in the set!!

I need to get someone to play Splay, Martian Life and Tiananmen with me.

I've also added one more point to the first posting. It's nothing ground-breaking but I've realised that whenever something becomes too big, it tends to split in sub-things. This happens in all branches of art, in religion, and also in games (make up your own examples!). So that's another, and natural, way of dealing with abundance.
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