Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

Origins 2011 Wrap-Up

I just got back from five days at Origins, the annual gaming convention in Columbus. I had a great time as always. While the convention encompasses non-computer gaming of all sorts (minis, CCGs, role playing, and so on), I always go for the board games. Specifically, I go to check out new games I haven’t played before. Here is my report of the convention from that point of view.

(Sorry, I didn’t have a camera with me. I’m still relatively new to blogging, and I didn’t think to bring one until it was too late. I’ll remember next year!)

I think that three main themes dominated the convention this year:

  1. Pretty much everyone I talked to, from friends to vendors to people on Twitter, agreed that the convention was slower this year than last year. Whether that meant fewer new good games, fewer attendees, or less money spent, everyone says it’s going downhill. I agreed that it felt a lot slower, but I’m not so sure now that I look back. I remember people complaining about how there were not enough good games last year, but I still found a lot of good ones then. I thought I had a lot of downtime this year, but looking back at 2010’s notes, I played approximately the same number of games (32 last year, 31 this year). I’m not going to bother calculating the total time they took, but it does seem that I just forgot about the downtime I had last year. Admittedly, I did learn fewer new games this year (19 instead of 24), but I blame that on my own unpreparedness. I’ve been getting ready for a wedding instead of researching the games I needed to find, and I arguably shouldn’t have taken five days for this at all. (On Sunday, I discovered several games I wanted to play, but I didn’t have time for all of them. Had I known about them ahead of time, those numbers would be closer.) So while there were a few worrisome signs of cutbacks, I think that this meme grew mainly out of human nature. We’re always comparing the present to the best parts of the past.
  2. Pure Eurogames are falling out of style. Last year, the big theme I noticed were that Euro- and American elements were finally being mixed together. My theory was that Eurogames were established enough that the American designers could draw on them successfully, and that Eurogamers were now thoroughly used to the basic mechanics of their games and ready for something new. This year, that has accelerated. There were a few good Euros out there, but they weren’t the ones with buzz. The dice games, dexterity games, and battle games were what everyone wanted to talk about this year. That makes sense, as the tastemakers in the Euro scene have always been eager for the next big thing. Five years ago, every new twist on area control and resource production was interesting to us. Three years ago, Agricola was ground-breaking. Today, all those things are familiar and dull. But making a balanced, replayable space battle based on flicking tokens around the board? That’s new.This ties in to my earlier point. The general consensus always seems to be that there aren’t enough good new games, but I still can’t keep up with them. The only problem is that as we get more familiar with the options, it’s harder to make everything seem new. Given that reality, I’m amazed by how much innovation I’m still seeing.
  3. Dominion is still a big deal, and now the deck-building knock-offs have arrived in force. Thunderstone is now established as a major game, and Nightfall, Ascension, and Resident Evil are jockeying for their position next. The retailers were giving these the sort of major promotional support usually associated with collectable card games, so they must expect huge results from this genre.I’m already on record complaining that all the new games have missed the elements that made Dominion great, without finding anything worthwhile to add. Overall, I found this new crop to be just as disappointing, but there are some glimmers of hope. Most importantly, though, I could still see a lot more games of Dominion being played than every other deck-builder combined. That game still has the fanbase it deserves.

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Cargo Noir (Game Review)

Cargo Noir boxWhile bidding games are incredibly common in the current board gaming scene, Cargo Noir manages to find a new twist on the mechanic. Each turn, a player has a few ships that they can send out to offer money for a set of tiles. Those tiles won’t actually be purchased until the player’s next turn, which gives every other player a chance to make a higher offer on those same tiles. If the initial offer is outbid, the player who made it will need to either withdraw or raise their bid on their next turn. Because this is a new offer, it will be yet another time around the table before the tiles are actually won.

The result is a game in which many potential auctions are taking place at once, but most of them only receive a single bid. When someone is outbid, it’s a big deal: At a minimum, that person has just wasted one of their limited actions from the prior turn, and if they still want those tiles, they will need to wait at least another round to get them. The game lasts a mere 10 or 11 turns (depending on the number of players), so a one-round delay can be pretty significant.

Most people find this system a little unintuitive at first – they expect this to be a standard auction game, in which players get a chance to bid back and forth on a contested item within one turn. But once everyone understands the concept, it’s simple and elegant. The goal is to bid high enough to discourage other players from getting involved in the auction at all, but not so high that money is wasted: Earning more money requires a ship action. Wasting money effectively means that later actions will be lost to pay for it.

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The flow of the game is very natural. Start your turn by seeing which of your bids from the last turn have survived uncontested, collect those tiles, and then send your ships out for new bids. Additionally, decide whether to cash those tiles in for points, or keep them for a later turn. (Yes, this is a classic “earn one resource, and then use it to buy points” Euro-game.) Turns move fast, and the fact that each action takes a round to resolve means that there is a feeling of continuity from round to round.

This system has a few flaws, too. Most notably, outbidding someone sometimes feels like too powerful an attack. Even if the other player is willing to bid higher for the tiles, they are still forced to lose an action and wait longer for the goods. Attacks in bidding games don’t usually feel so direct. Worse, they can sometimes feel arbitrary. You may find yourself willing to spend three coins to buy three tiles, and see that two other players have each made a bid of two coins for three tiles. With the way tiles are valued, it often makes no practical difference to you which auction you bid on, but the choice will have huge repercussions for the player who gets blocked! Expect accusations of “king-making” to come up a time or two each game.

The way the tiles are valued is interesting, but probably a little too simple. There are nine types of goods, and the most points can be earned by cashing in a set of matching ones. Sets of all-different ones can be cashed in as well. In either case, sets become much more valuable as they get larger, but only a limited number of tiles can be saved from turn to turn. Players will usually do best with the simple task of collecting different tiles, but matching sets are necessary to reach the highest-point cards. This choice creates a nice tension, but I do wish there was a little more to it. Too often, the different sets of tiles available feel more or less the same as each other, which leads back to the problem in which deciding where to bid has less to do with its value to you and more to do with which other player you want to hurt. Cargo Noir is a good game, but if it could have found a scoring system with the variety of Ra’s, the bidding choices would be much more interesting.

The game is published by Days of Wonder, which means that despite the pasted-on theme, it comes with high-quality bits and detailed artwork. This is nice, even if it is a little more extravagant than needed. For all the attention to the game’s appearance, though, it seems that someone could have put some effort into making  sure that all the pieces fit back in the box easily. There are ways to squeeze everything in there, but none of them are as simple as they should be.

All that said, Cargo Noir is a better game than many of Days of Wonder’s recent offerings. I don’t find the auctions themselves compelling enough to return to this one regularly, but the auction system is original and elegant enough to ensure that it won’t be forgotten.

Grade: B

7 Wonders (Game Review)

7 Wonders BoxIn some ways, a game that works for more than five people is the Holy Grail of the industry. In my opinion, even going past four people causes long delays between turns, and introduces too many factors that feel outside of a single player’s direct control. But when a group of friends gets together, it’s easy to end up with too many people to comfortably play one game, but not enough to split into two groups.

7 Wonders’ claim to fame is that it works for up to seven players at once. More importantly, though, it keeps everyone consistently engaged through its breezy twenty- to thirty-minute playing time. Its mechanics make this so simple that after one game, it seems amazing that no one has tried this approach before. Basically, there is no downtime because every player is making their choice simultaneously every turn. Choose one card to play, and pass the rest of your hand to the player next to you. Sure, other games have used this card drafting technique before, but 7 Wonders also addresses the other source of slowdowns in games with too many players: All your interactions are with the people to your immediate left and right, so you don’t need to get bogged down keeping track of more than two other players.

The game itself is a fairly straightforward entry in the “civilization light” genre. Each card gives you resource production, points, or abilities. There are too many resources to personally cover all of them, but you can buy the ones you need from your neighbors. Just keep track of what they are producing so you don’t duplicate their efforts, and so that you can build the ones that they’ll want to buy from you! Also watch their military strength, because at the end of each of the three rounds, your comparative power will gain or lose you points.

7 Wonders Play7 Wonders offers a decent amount of choices. You can earn points through cards, advancing your personal “great wonder” track, matching symbols, getting money, or having a stronger military than your neighbors. The “Guild” cards that appear at the end of the game even let you score points for how advanced your neighbors are in various categories! It’s impossible to excel in every area, but they are well-balanced enough that you can ignore any of those and still win the game.

It feels surprisingly meaty for a twenty-minute game, but there is a lot of chance hidden behind the mechanics. Drawing the right cards, especially when those big Guilds are dealt out at the end, makes a big difference. And while it may be fun to ignore the player on the other side of the table, it can be frustrating to learn you’ve lost to someone you weren’t even able to interact with. For that reason, I suspect that these mechanics wouldn’t work in a much longer game, as much as I wish they could. It’s not too frustrating to lose a filler game by chance, but it would be a deal-breaker if two hours of planning fall apart through no fault of your own.

The game also becomes a little repetitive before long. Despite the many paths to victory points, and the different “Wonder” boards that each player is dealt, the various strategies don’t really feel that different after several plays. They’re all based on getting resources, playing cards, and watching to make sure you bury any card that your neighbor desperately needs. There are already expansions on the horizon that promise to add more variety, but I’m not sure how well they’ll succeed. 7 Wonders feels like it has as many elements as its short playtime can support. Anything different enough to actually increase the replayability would probably be too overwhelming. On the other hand, designer Antoine Bauza has already made one near-impossible task look simple. If 7 Wonders could keep me interested through a seven-player game, then I suppose that the expansions could hold more surprises of their own.

Even after the initial rush of newness wears off, I don’t expect this game to stop being fun. And because it fills a niche that nothing else in my collection does, I’m sure it will remain in use for a long time. Looking for a filler to play as your friends are arriving, or when you’re winding down for the night? This works no matter how many people are there with you, and it feels heavier than just about anything else that plays so quickly. 7 Wonders not only has an original design, but is going to keep hitting my table long-term.

Grade: A-


A Theory of Fun For Game Design (Book Review)

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

Have you ever wondered what makes games fun? Sure, you can talk about how you enjoy the challenge or the novelty, but what makes those things fun? What does “fun” mean, anyway? In A Theory of Fun For Game Design, Raph Koster tries to answer the fundamental question of how games work by defining “fun” itself. Though his background is in video games, he finds common ground with everything from sports to role-playing.

According to Koster, games appeal to us because our brain rewards us for learning new things. Games present a structured, learnable system, in effect providing us a lesson that can later be applied to our more complex reality. In fact, Koster takes this to its logical extreme, saying that games are part of the same medium as training drills and school. “Fun is just another word for learning”, and if we don’t normally perceive learning as fun, that is more a failure of school lessons than with the medium itself. After all, our brains are wired to want to learn.

It’s a compelling theory, as figuring out new challenges is a fundamental part of games and it explains why a game will not be fun for someone if it is too simple or too complex for them. Koster builds up this point with a breezy description of cognitive theory, throwing around terms like chunking and explaining levels of consciousness to quickly lay a foundation for the way he sees our relationship to games. This simple style is complemented by the cartoons that are found on every even page. They help the book fly by, partly because those pages read so quickly, and partly because they make it so easy for the reader to peak ahead and suddenly become committed to the next page. They also are effective at driving home Koster’s points; Whether it’s his game design experience or understanding of cognitive theory, he knows that using a second source to repeat a point to a reader will make it much easier to accept.

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Why Dominion Works (Games)

In late 2008, Dominion introduced the concept of deck-building games. Almost 2 1/2 years later, you’d think that we would have some new games that build on that idea in exciting new ways. Surprisingly, though, we’ve seen only a series of knock-offs that miss the fundamental things that made Dominion so great. A few days ago, I found myself caught in yet another Dominion-vs.-Thunderstone discussion, so I think it’s time to explain once and for all what aspects made Dominion so successful.

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Game Reviews from 2010

After posting last week’s article about board gaming in 2010, I realized that it would be interesting to actually review those games that I played at least five times. I’d planned to skip that, because I’m not trying to just cherry-pick the things that I’ll review positively. But a few of the games I played repeatedly turned out to be disappointing once I really got to know them, so there is a good deal of variety in there. This list may not have any horrible games, but it certainly has some mediocre ones, and it’s worthwhile to think about what made them that way. Also, I definitely seemed to be drawn towards the more unique games to play repeatedly, so this list is fairly interesting.

Of the twenty-one games that I played five or more times, I excluded the nine that I’d already known before 2010 started. That left me with twelve, listed below in alphabetical order.

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The Year In Games

I just added my 2010 stats to Mark Jackson’s annual Five & Dime list, and it got me thinking about the board games I played last year. (Yes, of course I keep track.)

The “Five & Dime” list is a count of all games that reached the threshold of either 5 or 10 plays in the past year. In my case, 2010 saw 10 games played 10 or more times, and 11 more played at least 5 times. If you’re looking at my gameplay statistics, that tells half the story. The other half is that I played 153 distinct games a total of 388 times.

My full Five & Dime list, along with what it tells me about the year, is below the cut.

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