Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Showing posts with label Race for the Galaxy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Race for the Galaxy. Show all posts

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Most highly-rated out-of-print games

I was listening to The Geek All-stars Episode 87, in which Dan Patriss and his band of merry geeks list their Top 11 Stefan Feld designs, and someone mentioned in passing that a few of these well-regarded games are relatively unknown by game hobby newcomers because they have been out of print for some time.  That got me to thinking about how many excellent games are difficult or impossible to obtain because no publisher is printing them.  Hence the inspiration for today's post - a survey of the most highly-rated out-of-print games on boardgamegeek.com.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gameplay vs. simulation

A favorite debate among my friends and me is the question of realism vs. playability.  Last spring I touched on this topic briefly in a post following a game of Rail Baron in which I reflected on changes in game design practices since the 1970s.  My friend Paul R. is a strong advocate for realism in strategy games.  He approaches a game as a model of real-world decision-making.  If you look at the Avalon Hill marketing from its heyday, much of the appeal came from the concept of putting yourself in the place of Napoleon, Lee, or Eisenhower to see whether you would be able to match or exceed the achievements of the great leaders of the past.

Paul R. and I have played several games of Stonewall Jackson's Way, and more than any other game I've played, I think this game best accomplishes what AH set out to do.  Generals - I mean, players - must balance urgency of the battlefield against the fatigue of the troops.  Coordinated attacks are not as easy when your corps commanders are lacking in quality leadership.  And the more I think about SJW, the more clearly I understand what makes it a realistic game.  The unpredictable elements of the game correspond to the unpredictable elements of battle.  The conditions that are under a general's control in battle are under the player's control in the game.  So the bottom line in SJW, and perhaps the defining characteristic of a realistic game, is that a player can make decisions in the game based on how he would make decisions in battle.  "I'd better not march in column along this road so close to the enemy."  To the extent that this correlation works, the game models real-world decision-making and can even be considered a simulation of the battlefield decision-space.

The problem I have seen in efforts to simulate real-world problems in games is that the methods often sacrifice playability.  In my Rail Baron post, I mentioned that frequent table-lookups interrupted the game flow.  I mentioned how Tobruk was notorious for requiring continual dice-rolls and table references every time a tank fired a round.  Whereas the effects of armor-piercing rounds on various tank types were arguably well modeled in that game, the tactical flow completely broke down as tank-by-tank, turn-by-turn fire and movement bore no resemblance to an actual World War II tank skirmish in Libya.  The realism trees got in the way of the simulation forest, so to speak.

Age of Renaissance:  commodities cards
Paul R.'s principle objection to unrealistic games, though, is that their design makes little attempt to simulate real-world mechanics but instead imposes artificial behavior for the sake of constructing a game system.  The commodities cards in Age of Renaissance are played at the discretion of the people holding them, so that a player can have cornered the market in wine, for example, but it will never pay off if an opponent controls the timing of the play of the wine card.  To Paul, people buy wine every year, so it ought to pay every turn; and if I have a monopoly on wine production, they ought to pay through the nose (so to speak).  Rather, the designers of AoR introduced this "market timing" mechanism to force a different kind of market confrontation to the game, an element (in my mind) that adds a new tension to the gameplay but which frustrates Paul's sense of real-world market mechanics.

Paul R.'s specific issue with Eurogames is that they don't necessarily gain playability when they sacrifice realism.  Here is an excerpt from an email response to my post last October on approachability:

For any new rule introduced, the designer should ensure the new rule adds either realism, or playability, and be aware of the impact on the other. 
As I see it, the objective is to simulate the processes (mechanics) of the real world, as well as historical or at least realistic boundary conditions, to the extent possible without making the game unplayable. There is a balance, which will vary from game to game, as it should. Players can then seek the balance between playability and realism that best suits them, on that occasion. 
However, ... I find with some recent games -- more often with the Eurogames focusing on optimization of unrealistic mechanics dealing with construction or economics -- the designers introduce mechanics (rules) which add neither realism nor playability, but seem to subtract from both. As a result, the game is difficult to learn, and not realistic. The game ends up being a struggle between players to be the first to understand the artificial mechanics, to "solve the puzzle."  In follow-up games, victory goes to the first to optimize the unrealistic mechanics. The better examples of these games allow multiple ways "to solve the optimization puzzle." 
Why would the designer add artificial mechanics which don't increase the playability? I think it's based on a different perception of what a "game" is supposed to be. Some players see it as a puzzle to solve. Others, including myself as a wargamer -- see a game as a simulation of the mechanics of the real world.
Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
I think I see where he is coming from here.  In a game like Race for the Galaxy, there's a set of strategies that work well for winning the game.  Those strategies, however, do not necessarily emerge to the newcomer as obvious logical steps.  They bear no relevance to the theme of the game - space colonization - nor are they a straightforward logical deduction from the mechanics of the game - hand management and simultaneous role selection.  Rather, the strategies depend on familiarity with the deck and the inter-relationships among the cards.  I think Paul R. feels that he ought to be able to learn the rules of a game and then apply a certain degree of logic to fare well in playing it, without having to "know the tricks" of what cards to keep, which cards to play when, and what to look for to come up in the deck.    

I don't necessarily object to games as puzzles, but I certainly see Paul R.'s point.  Moreover, familiarity with the deck can certainly skew the "historical simulation" of a game.  In History of the World, if you know the Romans are coming, you might play the Macedonians differently from what you would do if you really were Alexander the Great with no foreknowledge of the Roman empire.   

For my part, I like a good game.  SJW is a good game, and part of what makes it good is the degree to which it seems to simulate the real-world battlefield decisions that faced generals like J.E.B. Stuart and John Pope.  At the same time, Agricola is a good game because its mechanics require planning and forethought as well as taking one's opponents into account - even if it doesn't model in any realistic sense the challenges of farming at the dawn of the Renaissance.  In an email interchange among my gaming friends, I concluded that "a game is enjoyable if it's a shared mental challenge where you can look back and see which decisions led to your result."  Whether that comes in the form of a real-world modeled decision-space or an abstract game with a pasted-on theme doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thoughts on approachability

[I'm still on vacation away from the internet, so today's is a re-post of an excerpt from an article from last October.]

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
This week our friendly neighborhood Game Parlor in Woodbridge is having a 20%-off moving sale on nearly everything that's in stock, so the other day I picked up Race for the Galaxy (designed by Thomas Lehmann, published in the U.S. by Rio Grande).  I'd had this on my list since I'd solicited my friends for two-player game ideas to add to our afternoon game session library.  I'd had a lukewarm experience with it at Congress of Gamers a year or two ago, largely because the people I played with were very experienced players and not altogether patient or thorough in explaining the rules.  But I read so many good things on boardgamegeek about it - especially in light of our fondness for Puerto Rico (designed by Andreas Seyfarth, also Rio Grande), with which a number of reviewers compared it - that I thought it was worth a try.

I was very methodical in going through the rules myself and then reviewing them with Kathy.  I think as we played the first time through, we agreed that we understood the mechanics of the game, and the goals, and even how to devise a strategy.  The thing we found frustrating in our first play-through was the abundance and density of symbols on the cards and their varied significance.  I think we went around two or three times on how the "Contact Specialist" worked.  I'm sure veterans of this game are used to the conventions and know what to look for and how to apply the symbols to the game mechanics, but we were each struggling to understand what we were looking at as we played along.  Both of us are confident, though, that's a game that we can learn and come to appreciate.  I'm looking forward to trying again.

There's a lesson here somewhere for me as a game designer, I think.  It's one thing to have a game that is complete in its rules integrity and components, that is a beautiful construct in both form and function, that aficionados come to appreciate for subtlety, nuance, and replayability.  But what about a game's approachability to the novice?  The analogy I think of is a mansion on a mountaintop.  It can be a marvelous engineering construction, stunning in appearance, awe-inspiring in surroundings, luxurious in furnishings ... but if visitors have to climb a rock face to get there and appreciate it, not many people will try.  So I'm coming to appreciate that even an intriciate, complex game needs to have a welcome mat, an entrance ramp, some way of introducing the novice to the game.

Agricola family board
RftG does this to a certain degree, with pre-selected starting hands for the players.  Settlers of Catan has its beginner's board layout; Agricola has its family game.  I remember Avalon Hill developed a rules construct called "Programmed Instruction," in which rules were divided into sections that built on one another.  The new player could read the first section, then play a scenario that depended only on the  rules in that first section.  A second section would introduce more rules, components, and options and would be followed in turn by more scenarios.  Starship Troopers and Tobruk, among others, had this kind of graduated rules approach. 

I don't know; am I asking too much?  Is it reasonable that a gamer should struggle with a game the first time through, until they say, "oh, that's how that rule works," or "that's what that card does"?  Every first-time player of Agricola goes through this, surely.  It's not that I want to play simple games; I just don't want learning a new game to be a struggle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My top ten card games

Inspired by Dice Tower Episode 206, Chris Norwood (GamerChris) recently posted his favorite card games.  Since inspiration begets inspiration, I thought I'd explore the topic myself.

Before I get into my top ten list, I'll mention that the definition of a "card game" might be ambiguous. I think Alhambra qualifies, for example, because the card play (among four suits or "currencies" of a range of values) drives the purchase of the tiles that are placed for scoring. But I wouldn't include games that just "have cards in them," like Agricola or Clue, because card play isn't the primary aspect of the game (even if they are essential to the mechanics). I'm not sure how to write the definition of a "card game," but I'd be curious to know people's thoughts on which games are close to the frontier between card games and "other games" and how you decide on which side of the boundary a game falls.

My honorable mentions would include:

Chrononauts: A goofy title from Loony Labs that my wife really seems to like. I prefer Martian Fluxx, but this one is also a likeable game.

Incan Gold: I'm always fascinated by the way teenagers play push-your-luck games, so this is a fun one to play with my kids. I never know what they're going to do.

Guillotine: The artwork in this Wizards of the Coast title still makes me chuckle.

Triumvirate: A recent discovery that I am only beginning to appreciate

Mille Bornes is a nostalgic favorite that has fond memories going way back to when I was growing up.  It was a family favorite then and still sees the light of day from time to time even now.

So, my top ten card games:

10. Alhambra: I used to dislike this game because I thought it had a "run-away" aspect to it, in which an early leader was hard to catch. That is, until I thought I'd run away with a game in the PrezCon semifinals and then lost somehow in the final scoring. Perhaps I completely misplayed near the end, but I prefer to think that my worthy opponent had a more subtle appreciation for the game and how to score big without leading in many categories.

9. Munchkin: My kids have taken a sudden recent liking to this game, and I like anything I can get my kids to play. Another good one for laughs.

8. Empyrean, Inc. This is a regular go-to game for my wife and me, a surprise hit we received as a gift. We love this game so much that we started to wear the cards out, so I bought a backup copy.

7. Martian Fluxx: A genius little game from Loony Labs. What a crack-up.

6. Down in Flames III: Zero!: A very clever card-play mechanism for air combat

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
5. Race for the Galaxy:  This is a game I want to like more than I do. My wife and I found all the symbols confusing and frustrating, and we haven't played it since. Having said that, I'd still like to try it with a fresh (patient) group and find out why people rave about it.  (San Juan is worth mentioning here as something we explored as an alternative to RftG, but I think we found it a little simplistic and perhaps disappointing. We kept thinking, "Why don't we just play Puerto Rico instead?") 

4. Battle Line: Great mind-bending game with my wife, except that she always wins.  What is up with that?

3. Condottiere: I haven't had a chance to play this nearly as much as I'd like. I fell in love with it in just one session. I wish I could play it a lot more to fully appreciate it.

2. Pacific Typhoon: Very fond of this game with a bigger group of people. I love the historical photographs. Very clever game-play structure that motivates some pretty lively negotiation.

1. 7 Wonders: Currently my favorite game of all. I will play this at the drop of a hat.  Will Wonders never cease?