Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Washington Post reports on Scurvy Dogs' quest for venture capital

How seldom do we read about boardgames in major media, and yet in Monday's Washington Post, Monica Hesse's article "Pirate boardgame creator rolls the dice on a jolly good pastime"* features game designer Darren Gendron and his appeal for funding to launch his first game, Scurvy Dogs, via Kickstarter.

Many game-familiar readers may already know of Kickstarter, an internet phenomenon for generating venture capital for self-published games and other creative enterprises.  Kickstarter allows aspiring self-publishers to seek contributors in exchange for promotional interests such as copies of games, supplements, and other bonus paraphernalia at graduating levels of contribution.  (Kickstarter's scope extends far beyond games to a broad variety of creative enterprises, such as art, photography, dance, film, and fiction.)

Scurvy Dogs:  Anne Bonny
by Obsidian Abnormal
Monica Hesse finds Darren Gendron and his associates Alex Chambers and Ralph Pripstein in their playtesting laboratory, up to their elbows in pirate iconography, one eye patch short of a cliche.  Clearly they enjoy playing the game, honing its rough spots, and indulging in their tabletop roles as buccaneers.  Gendron intends to publish his creation himself once he has a finished product, but that will require some capital outlay, on the order of $20,000 by his estimate.  And it is through Kickstarter that he hopes to find that funding.

I'll add that I found Gendron's assertion, "We had seen a few games involving pirates before," to be either understated or naive.  A search for "pirates" on boardgamegeek turns up three pages - hundreds of entries - including the recently popular Merchants and Marauders.  Gendron sees a gap among pirate-themed games with respect to the land-based exploits of pirates and seeks to create something new in the pirate game genre.  Nevertheless, Brian Tinsman, author of Game Inventor's Guidebook, warns that a key failing of many new game designers is not adequately researching the market beforehand.  As much success as I would hope Scurvy Dogs to find, I'm not sure I would throw yet another pirate game onto the pile.  (Still, my friend Paul R. insists that market saturation is in the eye of the beholder; even if there are a hundred pirate games, the best game is still the best game.)

Monica Hesse betrays a certain naivete of her own regarding the boardgame world.  Early on, she characterizes Gendron's effort in the context of Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Sorry!, Pictionary, and Clue.  No regular gamer would take this comparison seriously.  Late in the article, though, she puts Gendron's game more properly in the realm of
"designer games" or "Eurogames," most of them published by smaller companies in Europe and North America.  While some have become successes - Ticket to Ride is closing in on two million sales; Settlers of Catan has more than 15 million - it's still a niche market, filled with hundreds of obscure games trying to land on top.
Gendron's Kickstarter campaign appears to have promise of success, even as it approaches its 6 September deadline.  At this writing, the game has over $15,500 in pledges, which is $4000 more than at the time of the Washington Post article just two days ago (and helped, no doubt, by that bit of publicity).

One of the most successful recent enterprises in this regard is Far West, a game set in "a fantasy world based on the tropes of the spaghetti western and Chinese Wuxia, mixed with steampunk elements."  Go figure.  This unlikely-themed concept attracted nearly ten times its $5000 goal in pledges.  At WBC, DiceHateMe featured Carnival, the set-building card game by The State of Games' own Cherilyn "Monkey238."  Carnival's funding currently exceeds its $5000 goal more than twice over, less than two weeks since its kick-off.

But Scurvy Dogs, Far West, and Carnival are not alone.  By my unofficial count, at least 83 games seek funding on Kickstarter at this writing.  There's an interesting question of entrepreneurial economy here:  Just how many games (let alone other creative enterprises) can the world of venture capitalists lift off the ground in a matter of weeks?

So here's to the success of pirates and carnivals and all other conceptions of game themes.  More to the point, here's to the broader exposure and acceptance of quality games among the general public (not just us boardgame geeks).  All the more to play.  Semper ludere.  

*At this writing, this link to Hesse's article is available at washingtonpost.com, but it is reasonable to expect that at some point the article will be archived and the link changed.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tinsman on game design

On Lewis Pulsipher's recommendation, I read Brian Tinsman's The Game Inventor's Guidebook (Morgan James Publishing, New York 2008).  Tinsman, game design manager for new business at Wizards of the Coast, describes the book's target audience as "really just for one person...the lucky person destined to create the next category-defining blockbuster game."  In fact, though, his book addresses anyone who seeks to have a game published, one way or another, with valuable advice and insight toward making a game concept into a reality.

Tinsman opens with a series of anecdotes about four of the wildly successful games of our time - Trivial Pursuit, Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, and Pokemon.  These stories of blockbuster proportions are exciting to read, inspiring to imagine, and yet a little daunting to the hopeful designer.  What are the odds of coming up with the next Monopoly?  Is that too crazy to consider?

Perhaps, but Tinsman offers much more than just a review of the peak games of the age.  He follows with chapters on the nature of the industry, the considerations that publishers have when they consider a new design, and the motivations behind designing (or as he likes to say, "inventing") games.  I found especially interesting his description of the inner workings of a game company and the internal considerations that weigh on whether a game is published.

Tinsman spells out four "markets" for games, and here I could quibble with his taxonomy, but really, his classification works for the purposes of his book, which come down to the different ways to approach design, publication, and marketing.  He categorizes games among the following markets:
  • Mass market (what you'd find in a big box retailer like Target or WalMart)
  • Hobby games (roleplaying, miniatures, and trading card games)
  • American specialty games (a "catch-all" category for small print-run games like strategy games and "how to host a mystery")
  • European market (German boardgames, largely)
  • Others (unique market type games, such as sports games that might sell in sports-related retail outlets, etc)
Okay, that's really five, but he spends little meaningful text on the "Other" category except as an out for the types of games that he doesn't cover otherwise.  Although the average gamer might not break down games into these categories, they work for purposes of addressing the different ways that a designer would approach a publisher with a prototype and the different ways that a game would be published and marketed.

Tinsman provides considerable detail on specific games and companies that he feels the reader should become familiar with.  Many are familiar to the regular gamer, but a few gems emerge that are worth investigation.

Self-publishing had always struck me as a last great act of desperation, but that's not so much the case with the resources available to today's self-publisher.  Tinsman spends some time discussing the special considerations that have to be taken into account to try to bring a game to market yourself.  The upside potential and the downside risk are both staggering.

A nice aspect of Tinsman's format is that he intersperses the book with interviews of key figures in the game industry and "Insider's Views" on publishers, information that he is in a unique position to provide as a longtime member of the industry himself.  He provides remarkably insightful perspective on what designers and industry figures consider in bringing a game from concept to market.  These vignettes make clear that there is more than one way to skin the boardgame cat, and different people have different priorities and visions on what they hope to bring to the gaming world.


With all of this background, Tinsman walks the reader step-by-step through the process of conceiving and scoping a design, developing it, all the way through getting it on contract.  This final walk-through brings all the elements of the book together into a soup-to-nuts accounting of all the steps that a designer will need to follow to make a game concept into something that people can buy, take home, and play.  

Appendices include considerable resources - contact information for game companies, brokers, conventions, as well as sample forms for letters and agreements that the designer will find handy in conducting business with potential publishers.

Brian Tinsman's Guidebook came well recommended by Lewis Pulsipher, and I am not disappointed.  I hope my readers find it as valuable for gaining insight into the workings of the gaming industry as I have.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Revisit: Incan Gold and game theory

[I've been on business travel this week, so in the absence of original material, I'm reposting an article from last spring when I was first discovering Incan Gold.]


We had a family session of Incan Gold this afternoon [original post 16 April 2011].  An interesting development came up when my wife Kathy and I had bailed out of an expedition, and only my two sons Liam and Corey remained to explore the ruins.  One instance each of three different monsters had been turned up, which meant that there was a very real possibility that a second monster of one type would appear and scare the remainder of the party out of the ruins at any point.  But then an artifact showed up, and a very interesting stand-off ensued.  By the rules of the game, if there are two or more people in the expedition, neither gets the artifact, and it stays on the card.  In a subsequent turn, if exactly one of the remaining two people decides to return to his tent, he gets all treasure left on cards from previous turns - including the coveted artifact.  If both players turn back, neither gets the artifact, and the round is over.  If both continue on, both continue to share discovered treasure but risk encountering a monster and losing everything.

What followed was an almost comical staring contest between the two of them to try to figure out whether the other was going to stay or return, and therefore whether to return (in hopes that the other was staying, which would leave the artifact to the returning player) or stay (and keep any subsequent treasure for oneself).

The decision to turn back or to continue is simultaneous among remaining players, so the result is a fairly classic game theory problem, in which the outcome of a decision depends upon an opponent's simultaneous unknown decision.

Own decision  Opponent decides to stay  Opponent decides to go
Stay          Turn over another card    Opponent gets artifact
Go                  Get artifact          Nobody gets artifact


Since "Turn over another card" is mutually risky or mutually beneficial but in no case advantageous for one player over the other if both players stay, then game theory would conclude that the only logical decision would be to go.  But if both players decide to go, then neither gets the artifact.

The piece that's missing in my decision table above, however, is that if either player stays, another card will be turned over, to the risk or benefit of the player(s) staying.  So there might be an advantage to staying if a player perceives a potential treasure greater than getting the artifact.  But that's really unlikely, in fact, so the stand-off will typically end up in both players going back and neither getting the artifact. Having said that, however, the game actually plays unpredictably, and perceived risk and reward tend to rule over cold logic.

We've really come to like this risk management game.  I'm apparently way too conservative, however.  I came in last today, and Corey (10) beat us all.  (I seem to recall that he ended up with the artifact more than once, by the way.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Theme matters? Maybe for getting me to open the box

Last year, when Worthington Games first showed me the box art for Trains Planes and Automobiles, I wrote a post on the importance of a game's cover to getting me to open it and try it out.  Lately I've started thinking the same thing about the theme of the game.  Recent discussions with publishers, vendors, and others at game conventions have made me aware that there is a heightened industry interest in certain themes that seem to sell to American audiences - or at least that the publishers hope will capture interest.

Zombie games seem to be in vogue.  A search on boardgamegeek.com yields over a dozen independent titles related to zombies.  Some time ago, our good friend Grant G. gave our kids a copy of Zombies! (designer Todd Breitenstein, artist Dave Aikens, publisher Twilight Creations).  My reactions to this game have been mixed.  For me, the zombie theme does nothing at all; if anything, I find it a little off-putting.  But I understand that people are into the zombie thing.  Now, the gameplay is rather fun.  Players make their way through a gradually-revealed city trying to find the airport and escape or combat the somewhat-randomly emerging zombie horde.  The tension is quite reminiscent of the classic zombie movies, in which our lowly protagonist only has so many shotgun shells, and you never know when he or she will discover another zombie - or six - around the next corner.  But I have a hard time with the action card art, which is just a little too grotesque for our family's taste.  So we haven't played it nearly as much as the fun gameplay would suggest we might.

(c) Worthington Games
Used by permission

There's a whole vampire thing going in the film and book media, as some readers may have noticed, and that can translate to publisher interest in finding a vampire game that catches interest.  Again, a boardgamegeek.com search yields dozens of titles.  It's hard to tell if any of them is any good; I can't remember anybody saying, "you've got to play this great vampire game..."  On the other hand, if box art is any indication, BloodLust (designer Mike Wylie, publisher Worthington) has got an eye-catching cover.

Space games have been around a long time.  I think their numbers have waxed and waned with general public interest in science fiction movies.  I've posted here a couple of times about my concept-in-progress called "Gold on Mars," as just one example.  It seems a number of new games have come out based on a space theme lately, and I wonder whether it's part of a new trend or just a transitory fad.

If there is publisher interest in seeking designs based on certain themes - zombies, space, vampires - does that mean that people buy games based (at least in part) on theme?  Or is it true that a good game is a good game, and the theme is immaterial to gameplay?

(c) Dice Hate Me Games
Used by permission

Let's consider some unlikely themes - and by that I mean, games I'd never give a second thought based on the game topic.  I mentioned recently that at WBC I playtested a game called Viva Java (designer T.C. Petty, developer Dice Hate Me).  I had read about this game on Dice Hate Me's blog, and really had almost no interest in looking at a game about developing coffee blends.  But my friend Keith F. and I gave it a shot, and we were both surprised at how fun and innovative the game turned out to be.  So in this case, an unlikely theme might have masked a potentially really good game.  Dice Hate Me also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for Monkey238's design, Carnival.  Again, managing a set of amusement rides never struck me as a particularly engaging theme for a game, and yet the more I read about the nature of the game, the more I want to give it a try.

Sometimes a theme really gets in the way of my acceptance, even if I read a strong review on the gameplay.  The Opinionated Gamers recently posted Jonathan Franklin's first impression review of Perfect Stride (designers and artists Kay Darby and Jeff Timothy with T.K. Labus, publisher Fun League), which he describes as "meatier than Mille Bornes or Gamewright's Horse Show [but] lighter than Dominion or 7 Wonders ... an excellent family game."  As I read his description of the solid gameplay, I kept thinking that it would be a game I would enjoy playing - except for the fact that the game art and theme are obviously tailored to appeal to girls who love horses.  That's fine, and if I had a daughter, I'm sure I'd pick it up, but for some reason, in this case, I just can't get past the target audience.  It would be like playing Mystery Date, which could have the best gameplay mechanics in the world, except that I'll never know because I'll never play it.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
In another Opinionated Gamer review on an unlikely theme, Tom Rosen revisits an October 2008 look at Fairy Tale (designer and artist Satoshi Nakamura with Yoko Nachigami, publisher Z-man) in an exploration of games that seem to start simple but gain depth with subsequent plays.  To read Tom's description, the rules are very simple and the game very easy to learn, but as the players gain an appreciation for the card interactions, Fairy Tale becomes more interesting and complex.  For my part, I can easily accept a fairy-tale theme for a game with that kind of emerging depth.

Bruno Faidutti designed one of my favorite recent discoveries, Citadels.  He recently posted an interesting discussion of thematic consistency and the degree to which a poorly constructed theme can get in the way of the acceptance and enjoyability of an otherwise well-designed game.  Dinosaurs are an obviously appealing theme to some audiences, but Faidutti complains that they are terribly misapplied in Carl Chudyk's Uchronia, set in ancient Rome.  Dinosaurs in Rome?  Yes, Faidutti's point exactly.

(My friend Grant G. recently called my attention to a new series of miniatures involving World War II German troops mounted on dinosaurs.  Okay, whatever.)

So like box art, game theme serves as both an invitation and a filter to the potential buyer or player.  Some people will buy a title based on the theme with no other knowledge of the game.  On the other hand, there are some themes that I simply won't touch, no matter how good the game, for reasons that I can't entirely explain.  But in the general case, once I'm playing a game, the theme can become secondary to the gameplay depending on the nature of the game.

In a subsequent post, I'll explore the question of gaming vs. simulation and the role of theme in each.

Friday, August 19, 2011

More Farmers: Farmers on the Moor

One of my acquisitions at WBC (has it been almost two weeks ago now?) was Farmers of the Moor, an expansion to my old favorite farming game, Agricola (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artist Klemens Franz, publisher Z-Man Games).  FotM introduces fuel for heating homes, horses, 14 new major improvements, and two new decks of minor improvements.  A game that was already a fun worker-placement challenge and satisfying farm-building game presents a whole new set of challenges with this well-thought-out expansion.

Farmers of the Moor:  fuel tokens
Agricola already poses the problem of feeding the family at every harvest.  Now FotM adds the requirement of burning a fuel token for every room in the house at every harvest as well.  Fuel comes from cutting peat from the eponymous moors that dot the farm at the beginning of the game, or from trading in wood for fuel.  Clay huts provide some insulation and save on heating fuel; stone huts even more so.  Heating the hut is necessary to keep the family healthy; for every unit of fuel needed at harvest but not available to heat the home, a family member is "bedridden" in the next round.  The only action a bedridden family member can take is to go to the infirmary for the round; at the end of the round, that family member returns home with the rest of the family.

Farmers of the Moor:  Bedridden family members
In our first game, I took advantage of a minor improvement "Thicket," a major improvement "Forester's Lodge," and a horse to build up a big supply of wood.  Unfortunately I lost sight of the need for fuel, and at one point spent all my wood to build a room and build fences for two pastures.  Suddenly I was facing harvest with no fuel, and the entire family was bedridden for the next round.  It was a funny, if bone-headed, mistake, and we all got a good laugh at my family members making their way one by one to the infirmary.  Surprisingly, I won the game, but by the narrowest of margins - my 37 points to my wife's 36 and our friend Theresa's 35.  We were all astounded at how close the game was.

This evening, my wife and I played a two-player session, and we both thought that I was on my way to a strong finish with a stone house, stone oven, and full supply of grain and vegetables.  But my wife made up the difference with animals, the well, and the basketmaker's workshop.  We ended up tied at 46 points.  Again, we were both astounded at how close the scores ended up despite our perception of my lead.  What a fun game.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
And therein lies a clue to the mystery of the success of Agricola.  I am continually astounded at the balance of this game.  There are so many different ways to score points, so many different actions to take, different opportunity trades between one path and another - and yet scores can end up very close, where every point at the end can make a difference.  And FotM seems to have struck that balance even more finely.

What is it about the design of this game that makes it work so well?  Surely some decent quantitative analysis went into the unit cost and point value of the different components, but there's more to it than pure calculation.  The only conclusion I can reach is that it was thoroughly playtested and continually adjusted to refine the game play.  Every effort must have been taken to create a gap, a question, a balance among two or more choices, so that no choice was ever obvious.  Every good move meant sacrificing another good move.  Every opportunity taken meant leaving another opportunity open to the opponent(s).  In this respect, to me, this game is brilliant, and FotM just cranks up the candlepower.

If I can ever figure out how to capture that kind of design genius, I'll have bottled lightning.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A vision of "Gold on Mars"

Hohmann Transfer Orbit  
For some time now, I've been giving a lot of "thought exercise" to my "Gold on Mars" concept for a space-mining game.  One thing that I'd really got stuck on was how to model interplanetary spaceflight.  I'm something of a physics geek but only an amateur astronomer, so I felt as though I had to reinvent the equations for Hohmann transfers from scratch.  (That's kind of dumb, actually, as the equations are relatively common knowledge and generally available online.  But, you know, I'm a mathematician, and I like deriving my own stuff.)

I had something of a breakthrough last night, and with the aid of MSExcel and some internet research on planetary distances, I was able to establish relative amounts of fuel necessary to travel from earth to each of the planets as far as Jupiter.  (For reasons of game scale, I've elected not to include Saturn or the other extremely distant planets in the game.  After all, I need to leave room for an expansion.)

Mars image courtesy of NASA
National Space Science
Data Center (NSSDC) 
The nice thing about having this kind of mental breakthrough and then getting it down in writing is that it opens a logjam of ideas.  So many possibilities start coming to mind - how to scale rockets for different applications, how to handle the business of contracting to build rockets, how to handle the return flight, etc.  So I'm at an exciting if still early stage in design, but the best part is that I'm starting to construct the skeleton about which the prototype will be formed.

I mentioned earlier that Dr. Lewis Pulsipher (designer of Britannia and Dragon Rage) led a seminar on game design at WBC last week, and he said a couple of things that stuck with me.

  • First, a game design idea by itself is worthless.  What is worthwhile is a prototype that can be played, and until a designer has one, he's got no more than anybody else with an idea for a game.
     
  • Second, whenever a designer does get ideas, he writes them down and makes them real.  He doesn't risk forgetting them, but captures them and puts them in his toolbox for future consideration as he assembles the prototype.
     
I could easily do these things and follow many other suggestions he had with a straightforward family game like Trains Planes and Automobiles, but "Gold on Mars" is going to be different.  I feel that it will be much deeper and richer, and so its design and development will demand that much more work and attention.

One last consideration:  If I try to incorporate all of the ideas I have for "GoM," it will be a big, complex, cumbersome game.  A recurring theme in Dr. Pulsipher's talk (and a quote that he cites on every page on his website) is
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery
Indeed, he very recently posted an essay specifically on a comparison between simple and complex game designs.  I have a feeling that a significant portion of late design work for "GoM" will consist of pruning, trimming, and cutting back all the baroque detail that I will be inclined to add in the early design phase.  My hope, my vision, is that what will remain will be a 24-karat ingot of a space game.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ethics in gaming: Reflections on the WBC seminar

First of all, many thanks to DiceHateMe and Monkey238 for their mention of Man OverBoard and Trains Planes and Automobiles on their podcast "The State of Games."  It was great to meet them both and try out Viva Java, which I described in my "Third Day at WBC" post.  I'm very excited for their venture into game development, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for them.

Last week at the World Boardgaming Championships, Joel Tamburo led a fascinating seminar on ethics in gaming.  I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at the directions that the conversation took.  Right away, the group explored the question of whether it is ethically acceptable to lie in the course of a game.  The immediate example that came up is Diplomacy, a game only half-facetiously blamed for ruining good friendships.  A consensus emerged that there is an understanding that in a game like Diplomacy, lying is an expected part of negotiation.  Although success requires alliances, winning sooner or later requires betrayal.  So as long as it is understood among players that lying is - or can be - part of the game, then that becomes part of the game's acceptable code of ethics.

Ethical issues can emerge when games bleed over into real life, however.  If someone's feelings are genuinely hurt by a twist of the knife in a game, it raises the question of whether even perfectly legal game-play can cross a line if it damages personal relationships.  It happens that not all games are for all people; some people refuse to play Diplomacy because it is just too cutthroat for them.  That makes sense, too, because presumably the point of a game is to have fun; if playing under a code of behavior that permits back-stabbing ceases to be fun (for an individual), then the game (for that person) ceases to be worth playing.  I have had two episodes in which perfectly legitimate moves in games actually hurt people's feelings - people very close to me - and led me to adjust the way that I play to accommodate the relationships that I have with the other players.

Another interesting aspect of games that involve lying can bleed over into real life as well.  Sometimes we learn how to lie, or how to detect lying, by playing games in which good lying is rewarded.  Bluffing might be considered lying, so a person who develops skill at poker might also be honing social skills that can be used to take advantage of other people.  One member of the seminar raised the question whether it is morally proper to play a game that practices and develops the "skill of sinning," such as becoming more adept at lying.

I shared an experience I had as a junior office aboard a submarine in the Navy.  It was the custom of the wardroom to get together occasionally at the Officers Club for a game of Liar's Dice.  At one particular session, I was alarmed to learn that I was remarkably good at lying to the captain.  I could just imagine being in a situation at sea in which it would be easier to lie to the captain in the middle of the night than to tell him what was really going on, and I didn't like thinking that I could actually pull it off.  (For the record, I never did, of course.  The Naval Academy Honor Concept is quite clear on this principle.)

I was surprised to learn about games that encourage stealing - Cosmic Encounter, in particular.  I don't mean games like Clue: the Great Museum Caper, in which one player is an art thief who moves around the museum attempting to steal paintings.  I mean that the game motivates a player under certain circumstances to swipe game pieces - like money from the bank - and keep it if he or she can get away with it.  As the others in the seminar described the roles in this game, it struck me as odd and a little outside my comfort zone in terms of what a game should be - or at least, the kind of game I like to play.  And a few others in the group, who were familiar with Cosmic Encounter, said they don't play it for that reason.

The discussion also turned to the question of inappropriate game themes.  I know of parents who discourage or prohibit their children from playing wargames as impersonal recreations of killing on a large scale.  There is some merit to this position as a matter of conscience.  But everyone present at this seminar was quite comfortable with wargames.  One theme that did come up as questionable, however, was that of the murder of an individual.  Joel posed the question regarding the game Kill Doctor Lucky, in which players compete to kill the fictional Dr. Lucky without being detected in the murder.  The tone of the game is humorous, but some might find offensive the notion of trying to get away with murder as the object of a game.  The group did not settle on a firm consensus on this point, though no one singled out Kill Doctor Lucky as an objectionable game in its own right.

I brought up Guillotine as another game with a potentially questionable theme.  Players represent executioners during the French Revolution competing to execute the most prestigious nobles.  The game even includes a few true historical figures - King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre.  But the rendering of the nobles and the action cards and the nature of the game rules are so comical that the game comes off as light-hearted, despite the rather morbid theme.

Subsequent to this discussion, I recently ran across a review of Letters from Whitechapel, in which one player attempts to carry out the role of Jack the Ripper while the other players try to apprehend him.  I find this game a little more disturbing than Kill Doctor Lucky and Guillotine for several reasons.  First, Jack the Ripper was a real serial killer, and his victims were real women.  The notion of playing this role by moving around the board attempting to kill prostitutes crosses a line, for me, because it represents a ruthless real-life murderer who was never caught.  Second, the game art sets a dark, somber tone, not at all a light-hearted deflection of the nature of the theme as in Kill Doctor Lucky or Guillotine.  Had I known about this game at the time of the seminar, it would have been an interesting addition to the conversation.

Surely there are few themes more objectionable to depict in a game than the Holocaust, and yet I'd read an article about a game called Train based on that very topic.  Actually, to be fair, Train wasn't so much a game as a work of art, or a psychological demonstration.  Still, it goes to show that there are some places in history that just aren't appropriate for re-visiting in the form of a game.

(c) Looney Labs
Used by permission
I think the overarching theme that developed from this seminar was that games have their own internal codes of ethics, but that as social exercises, they can also affect relationships.  On the one hand, if someone pulls off a brilliant betrayal in Diplomacy or manages to completely deceive all the villagers in Are You a Werewolf, then the rest of the players can only shake his hand and congratulate him on a game well played.  To some extent, though, trust relationships are formed or developed over games, and their social effects can bleed over into real life.  So we need to be mindful, when we play, that the people and the relationships linger after the box gets put away.

Friday, August 12, 2011

My wife, the maharaja's personal trader - Jaipur

It was time to try out one of my acquisitions from the vendors' room at the World Boardgaming Championships, so for the last two afternoon game sessions, my wife and I have tried Jaipur (designer Sebastien Pauchon, artist Alexandre Roche, publisher Game Works).  I picked this up based largely on a Dice Hate Me review as a good candidate for a two-player game, and it has turned out to be an immediate hit with both of us.

General play description
Jaipur's card deck includes cards representing six different commodities and a number of camels.  A market in the center of the table always contains five cards in any combination of commodities and camels.  At any given time, each player has a hand of up to seven commodities and, in a face-up stack on the table, a herd of camels.  In his turn a player has may perform one action from among several options.

  • A commodity may be drawn from the market into the hand.  
  • Two or more commodities from one's hand and/or camels from one's herd may be exchanged into the market for a like number of other commodities.  
  • All of the camels from the market may be taken into his herd.
  • One or more commodity cards of a single type may be sold.
Commodities are sold for tokens.  Each type of commodity has a separate set of tokens of different values depending on the type of commodity.  When commodities are sold in larger quantities in a single sale, bonus tokens are also collected for even more value.

At the end of a round, the player with the higher number of camels gets a bonus token.  Then players total the values of all tokens collected, and the player with the higher total value wins the round.  The first player to win two rounds wins the game.

General impressions
I have to say, I like this game a lot after just two plays.  There are a few genius elements to the construct of this game.  First, for each commodity, there is one more card in the deck than there are tokens available to sell them for.  Second, the tokens for a given commodity can vary in value, with the more valuable tokens coming up later in the round.  Third, the hand size limits the degree to which a player can hoard a given commodity.  So a crucial element of the game is deciding what to collect, how long to keep collecting, and when to sell them off and free the hand.

The camels also add a decision twist to the game.  It is tempting to simply keep a majority of camels and guarantee the camel bonus token of five points, but camels are useful for exchanging into the market (if there's room in your hand for more commodities).  But putting them into the market means your opponent can take them.  Oh, the agony!

My wife Kathy has managed to win four of the five rounds we have played, which is to say that she won both games that we've played so far, one by shutout.  And not by a fixed strategy or card luck, either.  This game seems to reward strategic flexibility.  There's something to be said for accumulating leather, the most plentiful commodity, to sell five at once and pick up the big market bonus.  But diamonds, gold, and silver are so profitable that perhaps they can make up for the big bonus on leather.  And I already mentioned the agony of the camels...

I'm reminded a little of Ticket to Ride: The Card Game, from the standpoint that both players are drawing from a common pool of face up cards and trying to play combinations out of the hand to collect points.  But right now I'm thinking Jaipur is hands down the more fun game, and I'm sure we'll be playing it more soon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Final day at WBC

Yesterday was the last day of the Boardgame Players Association's World Boardgaming Championships 2011.  A record 1642 people attended WBC this year.  I met other designers, developers, and of course many gamers, including quite a few familiar faces from PrezCon.  And of course vendors, who were good enough to thin out my wallet in exchange for a few additions to my game shelf:

(c) Worthington Games
Used by permission
I've had my eye on Tech Bubble (designer Mike Nagel, artist Sean Cooke, publisher Worthington Games) for quite a while now.  We've really enjoyed push-your-luck games like Can't Stop and Incan Gold, so what I read about Tech Bubble makes me think it will fit right in.

Some time ago I did a survey in earnest for two-player games that my wife and I would enjoy, and Jaipur (designer Sebastien Pauchon, artist Alexandre Roche, publisher GameWorks) came up pretty high on the list.  DiceHateMe had a pretty funny review last April, including the following comment that caught my attention:

  • Jaipur - while sometimes frustrating because of the luck of the draw in the Market - is incredibly fun. Why? I honestly have no idea. There are some games that, if dissected, the parts would make most game scholars scratch their heads and utter a collective “huh?” However, put those parts together and a rare synergy occurs. This is the magic of Jaipur. 

I love games like that.  I happened to see it for 20% off at the convention and picked it up.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
And then I got to the Z-man booth.  As my good friend Grant G. said, "I never met a Z-man game I didn't like."  I was really hoping to find Traders of Carthage, but apparently that's been out of print for a while.  But I did find The Speicherstadt (designer Stefan Feld, publisher Z-man Games) an auction trading house game that I've had my eye on for a while but which sold out at PrezCon last February before I could make up my mind to buy it.  Luckily I wasn't so indecisive this year.

I needed even less deliberation to pick up Farmers of the Moor (designer Uwe Rosenberg), also at the Z-man booth.  This extension to one of my favorite games, Agricola, adds horses and peat to the farm.  I expect Farmers will bring a little "aroma" to our Agricola sessions.

I had, unfortunately, blown my budget by the time I got to the Stronghold Games booth, where I encountered Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War (designer Robert Abbott, publisher Stronghold Games).  Oh, baby.  The DiceHateMe review of this cloak-and-dagger deduction game really brought out the evil laugh in me.  But how do you indulge your inner spy when you've got a bag full of games already?  Well, fortunately, Keith F. felt the same Cold War nostalgia I did.  (Oh, wait, he's not nearly as old as I am ... Keith, what grade were you in when the Berlin Wall fell?)  Nevertheless, Keith picked it up, somehow confident that he'd be able to get me to play it with him a few times.

Keith, Brian, and I sat down for two last games of the weekend - Trains Planes and Automobiles and Citadels, two more games that Keith bought on my recommendation.  (What a trusting soul.)  At the last minute, as the vendors were boxing up inventory, Brian ran back and grabbed a copy of Pandemic, because Keith and I knew that he wanted to buy it; he just needed a little encouragement.

So all in all, the three of us managed to stay entertained.  We drank beer, we competed in tournaments, we played games till 2:00 in the morning, we bought bags of games ... and yet none of us went home with a plaque.  Oh, well.  There's always PrezCon.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Third day at World Boardgaming Championships

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson
Saturday was all about Wooden Ships and Iron Men.  Tim Hitchings set up a fleet action in an engagement between British and French fleets in a hypothetical scenario with several players on each side in which the British fleet attempted to intercept a French fleet leaving port.  Tim gave me command of the British fleet.  The entire action ran about seven hours, with a short break for lunch.  A number of people dropped out, and others dropped in over the course of the scenario.  The battle itself was exciting and engaging, as the British became almost completely surrounded by the more numerous and better-reinforced French.  British superior crew quality and gunnery, however, helped the Royal Navy withstand the onslaught of the French fleet.  Despite one or two of the British ships having to strike colors under heavy rakes from multiple directions, we were able to sufficiently bloody the French that Tim declared the Royal Navy team to be the winners.  He gave me a prize as the best captain in the British fleet.

Later that day, I faced Evan Hitchings in the semifinals in a very even match-up of two 74-gun SOLs.  Again I was able to practice my tactical doctrine of concentrating fire on the rigging of the lead ship to reduce maneuverability, then focusing all squadron fire on a single ship's hull to take it out of action before turning to the other target.  In relatively short order, I had taken out the mast of the lead enemy ship and forced the second ship to strike her colors.  My ships had suffered a lot of damage in the process, however, and after some amount of time, my opponent was able to force one of my ships to strike her colors.  He had also inflicted a waterline hit on the other ship that induced flooding, so that a third of my crew had to be taken out of the gunnery teams to operate the water pumps and keep the ship afloat.  All else being essentially equal, my remaining ship - down one crew section - was not able to keep up in the battle of attrition that followed with the remaining enemy ship.  When the timer was up, it was clear that Evan had inflicted more damage on my ships than I had on his, so he won our semifinal matchup and advanced to the final.  We both agreed that it was one of the most exciting battles either of us had played in the tournament.

Keith and I met Chris and Cherilyn from dicehateme.com in the open game room, where they invited us to playtest a game in development called Viva Java.  The premise is that players collaborate to invent blends of various coffee beans that will be profitable on the premium coffee market.  The game involves a number of innovative mechanisms, the most interesting of which is the formation of players into temporary teams who try to combine their resources to come up with the most optimum blend on the market.  Players can invest in each others' projects if they think they will be profitable.  The cooperation is always transitory and self-serving, so there's a constant interplay to juggle benefits of collaboration with the game goals of beating your opponents.

I have been reading the Dice Hate Me blog for quite some time, so it was great to meet Chris and Cherilyn and discuss their game projects as well as share Trains Planes and Automobiles with them.  Their energetic enthusiasm for gaming is infectious.  Likewise, Josh Tempkin of Tall Tower Games shared some fascinating insights into how he and his partner developed a carefully researched and tested set of design principles on which they base all their game projects.  The results speak for themselves in the gameplay of their project Wartime, which I consider to have the potential to be a groundbreaking development in table-top gaming as a fundamentally new paradigm.

Keith, Brian, and I got together afterward for a number of games - Tikal, Citadels, and 7 Wonders.  Keith had competed in the finals for Conquest of Paradise, and Brian had made the finals for Tigris and Euphrates.  So, in short, there's been a lot of boardgaming going on this week...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Second day at World Boardgaming Championships

Friday morning, I ran a session of Trains Planes and Automobiles for several kids in the Juniors Room between tournaments.  Laurie W. of the Junior Events staff at WBC had played it with me yesterday, and she talked up the game among the kids to help spur interest.  The kids that joined me at the table had a good time learning and playing TPA and really liked it.  Later in the day, I played TPA with my friends Brian G. and Keith F., each of whom had already bought a copy.

I had some free time to try another round of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, and was surprised to learn that I was in the running for the quarterfinals.  I took the opportunity to play another session to try to boost my chances of qualifying.  In our scenario, I had two British 74-gun ships-of-the-line (SOLs), and my opponent had equivalent ships.  From the first turn, I could tell this was going to be an unusual game.  My opponent opened with an innovative tactic; he sent one of his vessels upwind and the other downwind as I approached in order to attempt a rake on one end or the other of my line.  I am rather traditional in my tactics and refused to separate my ships but maintained a close order line in an attempt to overlap fields of fire and concentrate on a single target (as I had against Robert yesterday).  

I focused my fire on one ship's rigging to reduce his maneuverability and render him unable to tack upwind and rake the rear of my line.  Suddenly he turned toward me, rammed my rear ship, and attempted to board it - something I really did not expect.  What followed was a bloody melee over several turns in which my crew barely prevailed.  He fought to the last man in a the battle that left my rear ship with only an eighth of its original crew standing.  Meanwhile my lead ship was engaged in a pounding point-blank exchange of broadsides that left both his downwind ship and my lead ship in danger of striking.  My rear ship freed itself of the grapples from the now-empty, drifting enemy vessel, and re-joined my lead ship.  I was able to engage his remaining vessel from both sides and deliver the decisive blow that force her to strike her colors.  At the end, we both agreed that it was one of the most exciting WS&IM battles either of us had played in a long time.  Unlike the previous day's victories, which seemed to some degree products of dice luck, I felt as though I won Friday's battle largely through tactical discipline.    

I entered the Alhambra tournament, which was very well attended.  I had a strong second-place finish among the six very friendly players at our table (including Laurie W. of the Juniors Room).  As it turned out, only first-place finishers would qualify for the semi-finals, so I was out of the running for Alhambra.  

A little later in the day, Joel Tamburo hosted a seminar on ethics in gaming, an engaging discussion on a rich topic that I will explore in more detail in a later blog post.

That evening, I saw a demonstration of GMT's Washington's War, which looks like an interesting game that explores the efforts of Great Britain vs. the Continental Congress to win the hearts and minds of the colonists during the American Revolution.

Keith F. had seen a demonstration last year of a game called Wartime, an as-yet unpublished real-time board wargame.  Josh Tempkin of Tall Tower Games has it for demo here at WBC again this year, so Brian G. and I had the opportunity to try it out.  The game involves perhaps the most innovative mechanism I can remember seeing in a long time - a set of multiple egg timers for tracking when pieces may move.  All play is simultaneous and open, and the game involves no luck at all.  Players simply move and attack as fast as the egg timers allow them to.  The gameplay gives new meaning to the phrase "fast and furious."  We finished our first game in nine minutes.  It felt very much like a real-time video game, but in the format of a boardgame.  We learned subsequently that later that very evening, Josh sold the design to a publisher.  We look forward to seeing the production version when it comes out.

The three of us got together for a late-night session of Stone Age and were joined by Debbie, whom we had not met before but who saw us setting up and asked to join us.  Stone Age falls into the worker-placement category of Agricola or Pillars of the Earth, but it has some novel scoring mechanisms that take some getting used to.  I really enjoy the game but am reluctant to buy it only because it is another bird of that feather, so to speak.

On our way out, we ran across a game of Lifeboat that was being played by Chris and Cherilyn, the creators of the Dice Hate Me blog and podcast.  It was great to meet them in person.  They plan to have playtest sessions of two of their games on Saturday, so I hope to try them out, time permitting.

My Saturday plan currently consists of joining the WS&IM fleet action, a multi-player event in which each player controls two ships in a large naval battle.  There are several demos I want to see during the day, and the WS&IM semifinal and final will be later that afternoon.  If I take leave of my senses, I may participate in the midnight Wartime tournament, just because that game looks like so much fun.

Friday, August 5, 2011

First day at World Boardgaming Championships

A quick summary of yesterday's events:

I started in Wooden Ships and Iron Men with a single frigate engagement against Tim Hitchings, the event coordinator.  I won largely due to die luck; for a good stretch of the game, I couldn't roll lower than '4,' and he couldn't roll higher than '3.'  It's hard to lose under those conditions.  

I followed with a match-up against Rob from Alexandria, VA, my two Spanish 80- and 74-gun ships-of-the-line (SOLs) against his similarly rated vessels.  I won that engagement as well, partly due to basic naval gunnery tactics (concentrate both broadsides on a single target, take down one mast, then switch fire to hull and blast away) and partly due again to die luck (although not as egregious as in the frigate battle).  I was by no means unscathed; through effective use of chain shot, Rob completely demasted my 80-gun SOL.  At one point he tried to perform an end run by pulling his rear SOL out of line and upwind, away from my fire, then rigging full sails, and attempting to sprint around the far side of his lead SOL to turn down wind and attempt to set up a rake on my rear SOL.  I was pretty tight with my line and maneuver, though, and managed to re-form my line along the wind in such a way that instead of firing on my rear, he faced a combined broadside as he made his attempted raking maneuver. Meanwhile, I was able to keep up the barrage on his lead SOL until she struck her colors.  At that point Rob felt that he was unlikely to pull out a win (particularly under tournament time constraints), and he conceded the battle.

I had an opportunity to introduce Trains Planes and Automobiles to Laurie W. and Jenna S., the adults running the Juniors Room.  (There were few children present at the time, and those were all engaged in other games already.)  The adults seemed interested in learning a new family game, and it went over very well.  I'm optimistic they will look for it in the Vendors Room tomorrow, when Worthington Games will have it available for sale.

I competed in the 7 Wonders tournament at a very fun table of seven people, including Stefan from Montreal.  I came in a very close second place (112 points over two games).  There were 25 tables and 42 seats in the quarterfinal, so my strong second-place finish qualified me for the quarterfinal.  Unfortunately, there I had my worst showing ever, with 36 points and a solid lock on seventh place.  So that was it for 7W for me this convention.  

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher delivered a seminar that amounted to a summary of his lecture notes on game design, with a great deal of Q&A and interaction among the audience members, who included Joe Angiolillo, designer of Objective Moscow and Operation Typhoon (although he denied deserving credit for that latter title), among others.  It was a rich and fascinating session that ran so long that I skipped the Agricola heat scheduled for later in the evening.

After my friends Keith F. and Brian G. finished in Agricola (Keith won his table), we went over to the open gaming area, where I introduced them to Citadels.  Keith won our game, a victory I think I could have snatched from him if I'd properly played the assassin against the architect (rather than the warlord), which would have prevented him from building his eighth district and getting sufficient bonus points to outscore me.  Curses!

Today's plan includes more WS&IM, more opportunities to introduce kids to TPA, Alhambra (or maybe Agricola - there's a conflict), demos of Tikal and Washington's War, a seminar on gaming and ethics, and opportunities to play Battleline, Ingenious, and Liar's Dice.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Final preparations for WBC

I'm making final preparations to leave early tomorrow morning for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend the World Boardgaming Championships.  Besides introducing Trains Planes and Automobiles in the Juniors Room, I hope to attend Dr. Lewis Pulsipher's seminar on game design and play a few games.  The top six on my list are


The first four are among my favorite games; the last two are new to me, and I look forward to learning about them.

I welcome comments from others already at WBC or planning to go.  Let me know what you're most looking forward to!

Games that even the in-laws can play

Okay, to be fair, my mother-in-law may not be a convention-going serious Euro-gamer, but she likes to learn a new game or two, and she has really come to enjoy Settlers of Catan and Guillotine.  Even my father-in-law will jump in for a session of Word Thief.  So when they came to visit over the last several days, while the oppressive heat kept us indoors most of the time, the board game closet got visited quite often.  I had the opportunity to introduce them to a few games that they really seemed to enjoy.

First of all, I gave my in-laws a copy of Trains Planes and Automobiles and took the opportunity to show it off in true family-game fashion.  Although billed as a game for two to six players, I included an optional rule for seven or eight players.  So with both in-laws, three sons, my wife, and myself, we launched into a seven-player session - the only shortcoming being that I had to provide a spare game piece from another game to accommodate the seventh player.  I must say that as the game designer, I do very badly at my own game.  I kept chasing stories in locations accessible only by automobile - Vicksburg, Ciudad Juarez, and Phoenix* - while others jetted around from airport to airport, racking up assignments.  My oldest son Patrick overcame a late start and beat everybody to the final assignment to win the game.  I have to say, we all had a great time, and I'm really hoping to be able to demonstrate this game in the Junior Events room at World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pennsylvania starting tomorrow.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
Our game sessions over the last several days were frequent and fun.  My 15-year-old, usually so impulsive in push-your-luck games, turned out to have perfect timing in Incan Gold and won that game hands-down.  My father-in-law and other two sons pushed a lot of poker chips around the table playing Blackjack, in which my ten-year-old ended up winning his grandfather's house and car (or would have, if the titles were on the table). We had a great session of Apples to Apples that included Patrick's girlfriend.  My wife demonstrated her unstoppable command of word games in Word Thief.  We had several really fun games of Guillotine, which is always good for a laugh.  I was very pleased to engage my mother-in-law in Reiner Knizia's Ingenious, which is both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying - so much so that she insisted on a second game immediately.  And, finally, we introduced the in-laws to the notion of a co-op game with Pandemic, which we lost when the Player Deck ran out before we were anywhere near curing the black disease.  Our family has now managed to lose Pandemic in all three possible ways.

So the in-laws' visit became a smorgasbord of boardgaming fun.  The summer heat was never really a factor as we found great entertainment right in our own home and in the good company of family.  And that's what vacations are really all about.

* Now, I should note that I'm perfectly aware that you can fly to any of these places today, and might even have been able to do so fifty years ago.  But for purposes of making TPA interesting, I only put airports in about a third of all cities on the map, and provided rail service only to another third.  So there are many cities on the map that, in the game, can only be reached by car.  That's what makes it a challenge.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What doesn't work - Monopoly as a case study

I've been reading a lot lately about what makes a game a hit.  While contemplating the factors of success in game design, the mathematician in me immediately wants to consider the counter-example:  What makes a game a disappointment?


Image courtesy of Hasbro
 One game that virtually never gets played in my house any more is Monopoly (designer Charles Darrow *, publisher Hasbro).  The over-riding reasons that Monopoly draws an inevitable veto in my house are that "it takes too long" and "it's just not fun."  These valid criticisms beg obvious follow-on questions:  What exactly is it about Monopoly's design that makes it take too long?  And what makes it "not fun" (at least to some)?  Perhaps investigating these questions can help sharpen the definition of what makes a game a disappointment, and therefore help to delineate the limits of a successful design.

[Now, we have to keep in mind that Monopoly is the best-selling boardgame of all time, a consideration that I will entertain in another post.]

What makes Monopoly take too long?  The game-ending condition is, frankly, merciless:  The game ends when all players but one have run out of money.  This characteristic brings to mind the original Risk, also lengthy because it demands conquest of the entire map to end the game.  In the case of Monopoly, there are other factors that serve to perpetuate the game as well.  The number of developed monopolies that players build will drive the pace of the game.  If there are too few monopolies, people end up moving around the board paying small amounts of rent and collecting $200 at every "Go."  In that case, the total amount of money in play can gradually increase for everybody, and nobody approaches bankruptcy.  By contrast, several high-rent monopolies on the board will drive people to bankruptcy quickly; so once players start building houses and hotels in earnest, sooner or later, somebody is going to go under.

Why isn't Monopoly fun (for some people)?  First, I have hinted several times that I am not fond of player-elimination games.  If the intent of playing a game is to have fun as a group, then excluding people one by one from the game leaves some individuals out of the action while others continue to play.  That works fine in a serious competition or tournament, but not for a social event.  We have a house rule - when I can con my family into playing Monopoly at all - that once the first player goes bankrupt, the game is over, and the person with the most money (cash+property) wins.  With this house rule in force, when the game is over for one person, it's over for everybody - which addresses both the game length and the player-elimination problems.

My father-in-law pointed out a second aspect of Monopoly that he doesn't like that can be summarized as "the runaway leader problem."  If one person is lucky enough to acquire and develop a monopoly long before anyone else, he can develop a commanding lead, to the point that no one can do any serious damage to him, and everyone else will be unable to develop their own monopolies or go bankrupt trying to do so.  The game becomes an exercise in inevitability - watching one real estate empire swallow up all the little guys.

A third reason that Monopoly can fail to be fun is that it often devolves into a long series of roll-and-move with no serious decision-making.  In the early game, players roll and move to acquire property with no real thought required.  In the mid-game, as players assemble monopolies, they face decisions regarding how many houses to build vs. how much cash to keep in reserve. But once everybody's property is fully developed, the game boils down to one of dice luck - I win if you land on my hotels before I land on yours. If most of the game is dice luck, it becomes a laborious version of Chutes and Ladders.

But I think there's more to the game than that.  I've come to realize that Monopoly is a game of property valuation.  Once players decide that obtaining a monopoly - and especially, being the first player to obtain a monopoly - is the key to winning, then trading becomes very important.  And therein lies the crux of the game.  If I offer you Boardwalk and you already have Park Place, what do I demand in return?  What should I be willing to give up for Mediterranean Avenue if I have Baltic Avenue?  Should I take my opponent's cash reserve into account if the deal gives him or her a monopoly on which to build houses?

Once these deals are made, then the real estate landscape is in place, and your rent-collection profile is a product of the way you valued the property you took vs. the property you gave up.  But again, at that point, once all the deals are done and everybody has reached an equilibrium point, we're back to dice luck.  Who lands on whose property first?

Settlers of Catan, the quick, fun
barter-economy game
That got me thinking about Settlers of Catan, a barter-economy development game that is eminently enjoyable and is certainly not a game that takes too long.  That game ends when one player has built up to a certain number of points.  Is there a way to translate that concept to Monopoly, so that I can declare a winner just based on who reaches a certain "tipping point" in development first?

Let's consider what that "tipping point" might look like:  If a player owned all the property on the board, the highest revenue configuration of 12 hotels and 32 houses would be hotels on the dark blue, green, yellow, and red monopolies and New York Avenue, and four houses each on Tennessee Avenue, St. James Avenue, the violet monopoly, and the light blue monopoly.  In that configuration, the total rent for all property on the board would be $20,802.  It might be reasonable to expect that if one player achieves half that revenue potential, then the game is close to a foregone conclusion. 

So perhaps a new game-ending victory condition would be if any player achieves a total rent of $10,400 across all owned property.  I haven't playtested this idea, but it might serve to make the end-game a little more merciful. 

What started this essay as a consideration of perceived design flaws led to an idea to tweak a time-tested popular game.  The fact that Hasbro managed to make fundamental improvements to Risk (discussed in a previous post) suggests that even the best-selling games might bear changes to fix the most compelling complaints.

*Although Hasbro lists Charles Darrow as the sole designer, there is significant research to suggest that Darrow based his submission to Parker Brothers on designs by several other people of a number of similar games, most notably The Landlord's Game by Elizabeth Magie Phillips.