Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

Targi (Game Review)

Targi

Targi

Targi is Andreas Steiger’s first board game, but it marks an excellent “standing on the shoulders of giants” leap in game design. It features worker placement, but your most important workers are placed as the result of other actions rather than being directly controlled. Every round, each player places five total markers: three on the outside of a grid, and then two more at the places that the chosen rows and columns intersect. You can’t use a row or column already claimed by your opponent (not even the card at the opposite end), so you may not be able to get to the center cards you intended on.

Some more details: This is a two-player card game, with the actions represented by a five-by-five grid of cards. There are twelve outside actions (with the four corners unusable) that are always the same. The nine inner actions are removed after use and replaced the following round. Half of those cards give you resources, and the other half are “Tribe” cards which you spend resources to build. The Tribe cards give points and special abilities, and must be positioned in the player’s personal three-by-four tableau after being built. On a typical round, every row and column will be claimed, leading to a tight competition in which one or two of your five actions every round will be sub-optimal if not wasted.

Targi play

The resources and tribe cards are solidly designed, but, frankly, unremarkable. They are balanced, and lead to minor differences between players’ positions, so that you have to consider what both of you want when jockeying for cards each round. But don’t expect an interesting engine, or real changes from one game to the next. The theme (the Tuareg desert tribe) is pasted on, and many of the gameplay aspects are arbitrary: You get bonus points for matching symbols on the Tribe cards, the game’s twelve rounds are tracked by a “Robber” token that blocks one of the outside action cards each round, and every three rounds (when the Robber hits a corner card), players need to pay certain goods to avoid losing points. But there’s no flow to any of that. Other than the first round, when the Robber blocks a card that wouldn’t be usable at the start of the game, there’s no meaning behind the order that cards are taken, and those penalties every three rounds are minor and barely need to be planned for.

The system of resources and Tribe cards is good enough to support the game, though. And the mechanics truly do shine. It’s tense, with plenty of trade-offs and interesting decisions, and just enough luck to keep things interesting. There are a lot of small actions to be made, enough so that it seems a little surprising that it fits into an hour. And even if Targi doesn’t offer much theme or engine-building, it it still fun, original, and worth replaying.

Grade: B

 

Storytelling in Games: What about Board Games?

I have one last follow-up to my recent posts about storytelling in games, and then I promise to move on to other topics. Despite my interest in how games can advance stories, I haven’t brought up my preferred medium of board games. The reason is simple: I don’t have any reason to believe that board (or card, etc) games are a good venue for storytelling.

Quite simply, an interactive story depends on the participant(s) trying to guide the events but accepting that a force outside of them is in control. In a computer game, that force is a complex program that can send players through all sorts of paths and consider everything that has gone before when calculating the next event. In a traditional role-playing game, that force is another person, who has planned out a myriad of possibilities and adapts them to the players’ choices. In some more experimental role-playing games, that force is a group consensus, who may not have prepared a story but do have a shared agreement that cooperating to advance the story is the chief goal.

In contrast, a board game is ultimately about who wins and who loses. Maybe there’s one winner, maybe there are teams, or maybe everyone cooperates, but in the end the theme and actions are just fluff. It can definitely enhance the game, but the more you play games, the better you get at looking past that and focusing on the underlying mechanics. I’d say that that’s a contrast to most RPGs, where the people who play them all the time are the most invested in the story. (Even D&D min-maxers are ultimately going to remember the story of how they single-handedly slayed a dragon, not just the loophole that got their strength to 50.)

Most stories are meant to be experienced just once, unless they change each time or are good enough to “re-read”. (Some computer games skirt this rule, but that means that the person is playing it for the game instead of for the story.) In contrast, board games are intended to be played repeatedly. If you tried to design a game full of “plot twists”, they’d either be predictable by the second time you played them, or rely on a lot of random chance. And while many board games do throw randomized plot elements at you, they just feel arbitrary to me. Unlike a computer game or a human moderator, the board game’s plot changes are going to be completely random. They can’t calculate the new status based on previous events, unless the algorithm to do that is part of the rules the players all know about. And in that case, it’s just one more game element to be manipulated by the winner. If players are expected to cooperatively tell a story without just focusing on winning or losing, then by definition it stops being a board game and becomes a role-playing game.

Perhaps a game could have cards or books complex enough to offer unpredictable but fair stories in the same way that computer games are programmed to do. I can’t imagine a way to do that that wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. More practically, I could see a limited pre-planned campaign providing a story along with a decent amount of replayability. If so, that probably wouldn’t fit my group of friends who meet up in different configurations all the time. (Legends of Andor may do that, but just last month I dismissed it as something that wouldn’t make it to my table.)

If you do want to come up with a theoretical way to add stories to board games, I’d suggest looking at the rare games that can provoke actual emotional reactions. These often accomplish it with techniques (like player elimination) that are considered bad design today. I do have a soft spot for social games like Werewolf, though. These let people take on roles and move towards long-term goals in ways that are more circuitous than standard board games. It’s a long way from there to having an emergent plot, though; People definitely tell stories about memorable Werewolf games, but they tend to be very focused on the mechanics.

For now, I’m going to stick to my claim that stories don’t work in board games. The players are too directly involved in the heart of the game mechanics, leaving no mysterious force to bridge the game between storytelling and trying to win. Fortunately, I don’t think that games have to have stories to be good. I’m just glad that there are so many varieties of games out there to meet so many different needs.

Storytelling in Games: Does Music Have To Be Poetry?

I want to follow up on my thoughts earlier this week about storytelling in games. I may have implied that all games need to have stories, or that the quality of the stories is definitely a factor in judging how good the game is. That’s not exactly true. It’s helpful to think of this in the same way we think of using words with music. Yes, some songs include wonderful poetry or tell stories, but that’s not a requirement. There are good songs with simple, inane lyrics, or even with no lyrics at all. While a person could argue that  songs should just be used to deliver poetry, they would need to use a very expansive definition of the word “poetry” and also ignore many qualities that music can offer.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but I think it’s instructive. Music can be focused on poetry, but it doesn’t have to be. And even when it is, we often look for different qualities in poetry that is sung than poetry that is written or spoken. Similarly, stories in games are going to be different than stories in books. When it’s a linear narrative, the point of the story is to give meaning and context to the player’s actions rather than to enjoy the story for its own sake. And when the player can influence the story, that changes everything. How do you discuss or review a story that became unique to you?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Role-playing games and other shared storytelling experiences have been around for a while. And judging from them, the answer to “how do you discuss them?” may be “you don’t”. There are few things more annoying than a person trying to tell you all about their RPG campaign. On the other hand, the fact that people keep trying to do that is a testament to how powerful the story was to them. It just shows that stripping away the interactivity completely changes the value of the story, just as some effective song lyrics are weak when stripped of the music and written down.

My hope right now is to see games defined by stories that are worth coming back to. Do you know anyone who still plays Diablo instead of Diablo 2? Maybe they play Diablo 2 instead of Diablo 3, but that’s because they have quibbles with the copy protection or skill trees of the third one. Even with Diablo-esque games outside the series, such as Torchlight, the general consensus is that one new, better game can completely replace another. Old games are usually just replayed for nostalgia, or because they offered a unique gameplay element that hasn’t yet been made obsolete by the sequels.

On the other hand, people still read Lord of the Rings and The Great Gatsby. I do frequently argue that old works eventually get supplanted by new ones, but certainly not in the sudden way that games replace each other. I couldn’t imagine a new Terry Brooks series suddenly making Tolkien obsolete. Similarly, old songs become less popular as styles change, but their poetry and stories still stand on their own. Even the games that were revered for their stories ten to fifteen years ago (like Marathon and Planescape: Torment) are pretty much completely ignored today.

Maybe technological advances will always make video games fade faster than books or music. I like to think that this is at least partly because we’re still learning how to use the tools of the genre, though. I hope that someday, it will be common for people to play ten-year-old games because even if their mechanics and engine have been improved upon, the stories they tell are unique.

Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

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Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (iPhone Gamebook Review)

Sorcery 1Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an attempt by Inkle Studios to update classic RPG gamebooks to the iPhone. It’s actually a new version of an old Fighting Fantasy volume. Never having played that, I can’t comment on how much this edition changes, but it obviously does adapt quite a bit. Many choices that you have are dependent on other events, and where the book would have to say “if this has happened, you may turn to this page”, the app simply doesn’t show you the choices.

The design does a lot of things right: Your story is shown on a virtual parchment, and after you make a choice, that list of options disappears. That means that the results show up as another paragraph right after the earlier one, creating an appearance of one cohesive story rather than a scattered collection of pages. The writing from one paragraph to the next flows smoothly, with good reasons given for why you made your choice and some variations in the text based on things that happened earlier. The app seems to support many small choices that would feel awkward in book form, but are fun when you’re simply tapping buttons. (And even things like “do you take the right or left path?”, which normally annoy me in these games, are tolerable when making and undoing decisions is so easy.) After every small scene, your next choice is shown as a series of locations on a map. This gives you a visualization of your hero’s cross-country journey, and also provides an easy way for you to tap the old locations to rewind the story. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in reading your whole “story”, you can’t see the previous locations’ text again without rewinding and playing through that point. I didn’t really mind this, because while the text is well-written enough to enjoy in the moment, it wouldn’t really be worth re-reading without the fun of having choices.

The combat system is also very clever. Virtual dice are not as interesting as physical ones, so instead there is a mini-game in which you and your opponent simultaneously choose how much energy to put into each attack. The higher attack always damages the other, but if you “defend” with a very low attack value, you’ll be able to deflect much of the damage while recovering your own strength. Battle has been turned from a passive luck-based experience into one in which you make a lot of important decisions. Even if you don’t have too much information about what your opponent may do, this is still a big improvement.

Sorcery 2The app does a great job of updating an old game system that had been heavily dependent on a specific technology. I was a little more frustrated with the plot they chose, though. You play a promising young hero sent off on a mission of great import to your people, but it’s possible to play through the whole thing without getting a clear description of what that mission is or what this world is like. Yes, an opening dream sequence mentions a magical crown, but it wasn’t clear to me until halfway through my first game that that was my real goal. And even then, I had no good understanding of why it was urgent to find this item that was lost to the ages, what kind of culture my people had (aside from a few undeveloped hints), or even why I was chosen to seek the crown alone. I spent the first half of my first game feeling absolutely no connection to the events in front of me, even less than I’d expect from a physical gamebook. Though the whole thing plays through in a matter of hours, it still took me a few weeks to find the motivation to get through it.

I tried a second time, though, and that went much better. The knowledge of my first game gave the second more of a purpose, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of the different results available. Though you keep returning to the same general path, there are a lot of major branches, and also very different choices within them. This isn’t just a matter of playing through two or three times to see every result, because a lot of encounters will go differently if you found items or information from earlier in the journey. I’m sure this would feel repetitive after another couple games, but I’d probably still be making some major discoveries beyond that point.

A couple other notes: The game has a magic system with many spells, but only a few available at a given time depending on “the stars’ alignment”. Most of the spells require ingredients that you’ll only have if you made lucky discoveries earlier, and because you actually “line up” the star symbols when casting a spell, it’s not always obvious which choices you’d have anyway. In my first game, I thought this was annoying and unnecessary, especially since you are only given the chance to cast spells at specific times. But on my re-play, I found a few interesting things to do that were not immediately obvious, and I see that this system provides a lot of hidden options for people who want to search for secrets. The system of “gods” fared less well, though: As you make choices, your spirit animal changes to reflect the personality you’re displaying. Each one has a flowery, full-page description of its attributes, and this was one of the things that first drew me into the game. After all, traditional gamebooks can’t keep statistics that you are unaware of. But before long, it became obvious that the various gods all offer the same limited options. If they ever gave me new opportunities or changed the results of my actions, I didn’t notice.

The bottom line is that Sorcery! is a huge leap forward for a game system that I thought was bound to old technology. I have more mixed feelings about the story they chose, though. It eventually won me over and proved that it had more subtleties than expected from a 1980’s gamebook, but I can’t overlook the fact that it did not seem interesting for the first couple hours. Knowing what I do now, though, I can recommend it both for its design concepts and as a story worth the time to explore.

Grade: B

Village (Game Review)

Village box

Village

In Inka and Markus Brand’s board game Village, you place family members in various buildings to improve your reputation score. However, the people age and die throughout the game. Success is a matter of adapting to the tempo of the generations so that you get the most benefit out of each family member’s life. This theme of death sounds morbid, but the game treats it abstractly and arguably as part of the natural cycle of things.

Let’s get this out of the way to begin with: Village is not a worker placement game. Everyone thinks it is (even the BGG page lists that as its sole mechanic), but “worker placement” has always been about more than literally placing workers. The term really refers to selecting actions and blocking them from the other players. Here, though the workers gain abilities (“professions”), they don’t return to your supply to eventually free up the space, but they also don’t block other meeples from joining them. Calling this a worker placement game does nothing to actually describe what it’s like.

The main board

The main board

Strangely, though, there is action drafting similar to what the term “worker placement” entails. It’s just separate from the worker figures: At the start of each round, colored cubes are spread around the available action spaces, and on your turn you choose your action by taking an available cube. The cubes are required to pay for certain actions, so you will sometimes pick an action for the cube you need instead of the action itself.

Personal board, with the time tracker, resources, and family members working the "farm".

Personal board, with the time tracker, resources, and family members working the “farm”.

Some cubes are black instead, which bring a “plague” advancing a time marker. Powerful actions also take time. All the meeples have numbered “generations”, and every time a player’s time tracker completes a circle, one of their lowest-generation meeples must be removed. You’ll need the powerful actions to win, but not so many that all your people die.

These family members do various things, either producing goods or providing points by increasing the family’s reputation. Keep in mind that when you train someone to produce a certain good, they won’t be around to do it forever. Also, some of the point-scoring areas are only counted at the end of the game, so there’s no reason to fight for them in the first generation. On the other hand, the “village chronicle” tracks the founders who passed on, which basically brings a benefit for early deaths.

The various things to do aren’t that interesting: Pay time and cubes to generate goods, possibly also training a family member in that skill for a future discount. Sell goods in a market, the place that seems disproportionately responsible for most of the points. Travel through distant lands, which is expensive but pays off well if you can visit all of them by the end of the game. Advance through the ranks of the town hall, gaining abilities that could give you goods, points, or the starting position every round. (Note for action-drafting purists: This game has a simple turn order, so if someone pays to go first, the person to their left gets the benefit of going second without paying anything.) And so on. Thematically, there is a lot of variety, with different levels of competition at different areas. Practically, though, I never felt very driven. You can make a plan (get certain colored cubes or goods for a specific action), but it’s never a long-term plan, and there’s rarely much tension in whether you’ll complete it.

After I played this game a couple times, I figured that I would rate it a B-. It’s got some clever ideas, but with nothing especially interesting about the implementation. It’s worth checking out, but there’s not much reason to stick with it once you’ve played a couple times and gotten used to it. But I’m starting to realize that we’ve recently seen a major increase in the quality of new games. My Origins report had more high ratings than I’ve ever given, and I’m excited about many of the games that I’m currently playing and haven’t reviewed yet. I don’t feel like there’s still much reason to recommend a game just because it adds a few twists to existing ones. Village came out in 2011 or 2012 (depending on your country), and I understand the design philosophy that led to it. But this is 2013, an exciting year flooded with excellent games that provide a more complete experience. It’s time to raise my standards. You won’t regret trying Village, but you certainly won’t miss it if you don’t.

Grade: C+

 

Revisiting Trajan and Castles of Burgundy

As a general rule, I don’t change grades once they’re posted. Reviews are supposed to reflect my opinion once I’ve first gotten familiar with something. If things that I’d known for years were graded alongside new items, it wouldn’t be fair. But on the other hand, if something that turns out to be a real classic after I’ve gotten to know it better, I don’t want to ignore that. So, half a year after initially discussing Castles of Burgundy and Trajan, I’m revisiting the reviews.

Trajan box

Trajan

My B+ grade for Trajan holds firm. It’s a clever, fascinating system with a lot of well-balanced aspects. As I said initially, its action selection system requires you to plan several moves in advance, while the amount of activity means you’ll often have to look for ways to change mid-plan. This is best with the full four players, since that makes it a lot more interesting to try to stay on top of the chaos. Depending on how you count, there are five or six ways to earn lots of points in the game. You’ll need to focus on a few of them each time. But they all take focus, and it’s really common for half of them to be impossible for you by mid-game. With poor planning, you can end up with no real opportunities for a long stretch of time.

In short, I’ve gotten used to it now. The initial overwhelming feeling is gone, with no new depths to replace it. However, it remains innovative and well-balanced after a lot of plays, and it continues to be fun.

Castles of BurgundyCastles of Burgundy really surprised me with further plays, though. In some senses, it does feel generic – You play a bunch of tiles that score in different ways, like a parody of Euro games circa 2012. It’s a perfect implementation of that “generic Euro”, though, with everything still feeling balanced after a couple dozen games. I’ve seen every major strategy succeed and fail, always for fair reasons. While Trajan has a limited number of ways to score big points, Burgundy always provides multiple opportunities. The trick is to recognize which ones will pay off the best, as well as figuring out how many different directions you can afford to go in at one time.

In contrast to Trajan, I find Burgundy most interesting as a two-player game. You can pay close attention to each other’s boards, and it’s a zero-sum fight to earn the most points.

Even after all this time, Burgundy is more interesting than it was when I wrote the initial review. One initial complaint still holds, in that there can be a lot of downtime simply while waiting for opponents to figure out how to allocate their two dice. It is well worth playing, though, and I now consider this to be one of the classics of the past few years. I’m raising its official Cult of the New grade to an A.

Hanabi (Game Review)

Hanabi

Hanabi (picture from BoardGame Geek)

Today we learned that Antoine Bauza’s Hanabi won the 2013 Spiel des Jahres. The Spiel is the most-followed award in the gaming industry, even though it’s focused on family games in the European market. Therefore, every year at this time we get to hear lots of confusion and anger from serious gamers who don’t care for the latest SdJ winner at all. This year, though, something strange happened: the game that won was actually great for gamers of all skill levels! (Also today, Legends of Andor won the Kennerspiel, which is for games that are more serious, but still on the light side of what I usually play. I don’t expect to play Legends of Andor again any time soon, but I have added some new thoughts to my first impressions from Origins.)

On first glance, Hanabi is a pretty simple game: Everyone at the table works together to play cards in order from 1 to 5 in each of five colors. (There are multiples of cards, giving you the chance to discard for a new one if there is nothing immediately useful in your hand.) The gimmick is that you hold your cards backwards, so that you see everyone else’s hand but not your own! As an action, you can choose to give someone a hint, but you are restricted to telling them only about a specific rank or color in their hand. If you do, you must tell them the location of each card matching that rank or color. (So, for example, if you want to let them know about the Red 2 that is playable, but they also have a Green 2 and a Red 3, there’s no way to point out just that one card.) Hints are a limited resource that must be replenished by discarding. Just remember that discarded cards are lost forever, so don’t give up the wrong one!

At first, Hanabi is a fun, silly change of pace from other games. It really is weird to hold a hand of cards that you know nothing about, while looking around the table wishing you could shout out advice to the others. But it quickly becomes tense and tricky. It’s possible to infer a lot of information from what other people say within the allowed system of hints, as well as how they act when they know your cards.

The reason for Hanabi’s wild success, winning over both the Spiel des Jahres jury and hardcore gamers, is that different groups can experience it very differently. If you’re playing with social gamers or kids, you can allow a good deal of table talk. People can groan or cheer when they see a card drawn, publicly talk about how “you really need to hint to Bob about that card he just drew”, or even put emphasis in their voice to say a little more with their hint. It’s still a fun, unusual game that will make you feel clever when you win. On the other hand, more serious gamers can outlaw all table talk, and even refuse to give reminders if someone forgets an earlier hint. Also, it’s easy to finish the game without losing outright (playing three bad cards), but difficult to complete all five colors, so in between is a scoring system that lets you decide what is a “good” or “bad” result for your group. It scales from a silly game that can make kids feel clever all the way up to a many-layered one with logic and communication conventions similar to Bridge. That’s quite a range! (And then there are extra cards to add a twist when the game gets too simple.)

If Hanabi has a flaw, though, it is that range. With most tabletop games, I can sit down at a convention or with friends of a friend, and know what I’m getting into. Here, subtle differences in players’ expectations can completely change the game experience. If you play strictly but someone shares extra information, the game is basically ruined, but if you like to laugh at silly plays and talk through tough spots, anyone who stops you is spoiling it. Regardless of whether everyone has the same approach, you still probably won’t all agree on the conventions used to legally share information. Even within my game group, there are definite disagreements about what is fair, and half of the discussions about this game on BoardGame Geek seem to be about different expectations.

I think that Hanabi is rarely going to be a go-to game for random gatherings. For a known group of friends, though, it’s an excellent experience. Unique, challenging, and fit for whatever level you want to play. Don’t let this Spiel des Jahres winner pass you by.

Grade: A-

 

Board Games on iPhone: Le Havre and Ticket to Ride

For years, I’ve insisted that board games were designed to be played in person, and therefore were generally best that way. But since becoming a father, it’s been a lot harder to find time for in-person gaming. I’ve finally started playing more online, and found that a lot of turn-based games are fun that way. The results are mixed – if there are going to be long delays between turns, it’s generally best to play weightier games where each turn is significant instead of ones where people make frequent simple moves.

Today I’m looking at two iPhone board game apps. I’ve found myself with very mixed opinions about iPhone gaming. It is very convenient to have the apps everywhere I go, and to find out it’s my turn through push notifications. On the other hand, Apple’s Game Center is still pretty frustrating. It’s fine for starting games with friends, as long as you know enough people who have iPhones and want to play the game, but it almost always fails if I try to start a game against random opponents. It seems to be at least partly because Game Center looks for people trying to start exactly the same game as you. I may be happy to play a three, four, or five-player game, but I still have to choose one before Apple will match me. It would be nice to know that, for example, there was a four-player game just waiting on one more person to join before it could start up. It’s even worse when the games have multiple set-up options, because whatever you choose has to be matched exactly by someone else or they won’t join your game. For anything with more than two players, it seems that usually by the time the game starts up, at least one player has wandered off and never thinks to check back. At this point, I’m willing to say that Game Center games are good only for friends or playing against a single random opponent.

The two games I’m reviewing today are ones that I already know and like in tabletop form. I’m not focusing too much on gameplay here, but rather in how well they provide the same experience in mobile form.


Le HavreLe Havre

Le Havre is a long, complex game that requires a large table and involves a lot of cards with detailed text and symbols. I was curious to see how someone could fit all that into a playable iPhone game, and the answer turns out to be that they couldn’t. They make a valiant effort, with different areas of the board that you can tap to expand. In the normal collapsed view, the cards are “stacked” so that the titles are readable as long as there aren’t too many yet. It even shows everyone’s play areas, with the current player’s given a little more space. All the information is there as long as you tap the right spots to get into it. However, it’s very hard to follow. I’m an ok Le Havre player, but I act like a complete novice in the iPhone app because I don’t notice everything that’s going on. Yes, all the information and actions are there (including a slow-to-page-through log of past turns), but I just can’t take it in on the phone.

Part of me feels like cutting the creators some slack, because this was a valiant attempt to fit so much complexity onto a small screen. They definitely did a better job than I would have. But the ads in the app destroyed my good will. It’s a $5 game, a premium price by App Store standards, but it still has frequent ads. Admittedly, they’re for other games by the same company rather than third-party ads. But still, they appear frequently and have “close” buttons that are almost impossible to hit on the first try. I’ve never had so much trouble just trying to hit a simple “X” button, and every time I fail, it takes me out of the app and into Safari. (Also, sometimes you may tap an option on the normal menu, and the app decides that you clicked a not-yet-seen ad.) I don’t know whether or not they intentionally tried to increase their hit rates by making it so easy to follow the advertised links by accident, but they couldn’t have done a better job if they had tried. (Oh, and did I mention that the screechy in-game music is so bad that I need to keep my phone on silent whenever I play?)

I’m told that Le Havre is playable on the iPad, and I can believe that. But it’s sold for the iPhone, and that’s what I’m reviewing. In that format, it’s a confusing, unplayable mess. I give them some credit for the complexity of the implementation, but that’s the best praise I have.

Grade: D


Ticket to RideTicket to Ride

The physical version of Ticket to Ride is one of the classic “gateway” Euro games, and from what I hear, the app has been just as successful. I think it deserves that. It’s a near-perfect implementation of the board game, with all information fitting neatly on the screen. Your hand goes across the bottom, the cards you can draw from across the side, and your specific “tickets” (missions) down in a corner. You do have to cycle through the tickets one at a time, but that’s rarely necessary because the app automatically highlights every city you need to connect. The view of all required cities is usually all you need to know, unless you’re trying to decide which missions to give up on. Keeping track of those locations on the map yourself can be the most frustrating part of the game, so the app has a big advantage over the tabletop version. Though there’s no log of all past turns, it also does a nice job of displaying everyone’s most recent move in a status bar across the top. That bar also summarizes the number of cards and train tokens players are holding, so everything you could normally need to know is covered at a glance. I can think of several more obscure things I’d like to know: How many wild cards did an opponent use when they built that last track, or at which specific point since I last checked in did the available cards refresh? However, I would rarely use this information.

The app’s main flaws are outside of the game. The Game Center hassle goes without saying, and it’s debatable whether Ticket to Ride should be blamed for that. But it’s also difficult to enter and leave your existing games. When looking at a gameboard, the only way to back out to the main screen is a (hard-to-find) button labeled “Quit”, which I was scared to press at first. Then from the home screen, to get back to a game in progress, I have to go through all the steps of setting up a new game, even going as far as the Game Center dialog that looks like I’m going to invite new people! The news items (all ads for Days of Wonder products) can also be annoying, since they add to the count on the app’s icon, making it look like you have games waiting for your move. And you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the news post to clear it from your count.

Still, all these hassles are peripheral to the main experience. Once you actually get a game going, this feels exactly like playing classic Ticket to Ride.

Grade: B

 

Origins 2013: The Other Games

Concluding my three part look at Origins 2013, here are the games I tried that weren’t brand new. Even so, “new” is a relative term. I believe King of Tokyo and Puzzle Strike Shadows are the only ones that even existed at last year’s convention, and King of Tokyo was getting a big promotional push. (I also spent some time with a prototype game and playing a game I already knew. I don’t cover that stuff here, and also don’t go into the games I looked into but didn’t try.)

It’s amazing that I was able to fill my time with new games so efficiently that a debut from last Fall’s Essen festival now seems old. Just a few years ago, I remember spending most of my Origins time in the Board Room, because there  weren’t enough games around the rest of the convention to hold my attention. And even then, a lot of what I played in the Board Room was a couple years old. Board gaming has really taken off, as well as taken a starring role at Origins. Admittedly, this probably gives me a skewed view of the convention as a whole. Not everyone agrees with my claim that the convention is healthier than ever, and that’s probably because I don’t notice how categories like RPGs and miniatures are fading away. My posts about Origins are admittedly biased towards the subjects I care about. However, I can say that in a short time, board gaming has gone from being an unimportant sideline of Origins to the main point. I don’t know whether it will be enough to keep the show going if everything else dries up, but I definitely hope so. This is an incredible event if you’re a board gamer.

And now, onto my first impressions of games.

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