October 12, 2012

Collection Conjunction - What’s your Recollection?


I haven’t been in the modern board gaming scene, with both feet, for very long. I played mostly video (PC) games over the years, did a few turns with Magic the Gathering (1993 to 1997 or so), and played Warhammer 40,000 (and related Games Workshop trappings) on and off for about 15 years.
I put one foot in the modern boardgame door circa 2000-2003. Games that got a lot of play time included Illuminati, Munchkin, Drakkon, Honor of the Samurai, and a handful others. These games don’t get the most love here on the Geek, so to appease the masses; yes we did play Settlers of Catan a few times. I also started designing a number of games during this period of time, mostly card based games.

I brought the other foot through about two years ago after stumbling upon the geek (fall 2010). I certainly knew about the assortment of modern boardgames having frequented various hobby stores over the years, but I didn’t really “know the scene” (you know what I mean?). Since finding BGG and getting into the hobby more I’ve built up my game collection, from about 50-60 to around 100 in total.
So What?

I’ve been thinking more lately about the kind of collection I want to grow and what it would include. On one hand, I know I don’t really want a collection any bigger than what I have today (+/- 100). All of our games fit into two cabinet spaces, each about 3’ tall by 5’ wide. Yeah, it’s a puzzle to fit the games in there. And frankly, I’d be fine shrinking the collection a little to ease up the space. Getting down to 60-75 games would be a nice start – but going smaller is a long-term desire. 
Orbital Mind Control Lasers? Anyone?

On the other hand, I do have a huge “wishlist;” although for me it’s more of a watch list. I have a few “must have” games, which are those that I would contemplate buying outright (when I’m in the mood to buy in the first place; which isn’t often). Everything is either a try before I buy or I’m on the lookout to snag it in a trade. Of course things move in and out of the top slot as I read more about a particular game. Yet for me, the biggest deterrent to buying more games is that I can’t really justify it when I already have a number of games that only have a handful (or no) plays and that I want to get to the table more.

On the other hand (three hands eh?), I’m also really fascinated by the idea of a tiny collection, perhaps a dozen games or less. In theory, this pint-sized collection would be comprised of a diversity of game GENRES to cover the majority of potential game situations, including games suitable for kids, beer and pretzels, etc. I once tried to create a matrix based on various GAME TRAITS that would help me identify all the particular “niches” that need to be filled to cover all major types of games, with a variety of playtimes and player counts. The effort exploded into a massive calculation that identified a need for about 500+ (maybe even 1000+) different game types. What was I thinking? There is no way that was going to work.
Most impressive - but not for me

With that out of the way, I believe I’ve arrived at the point of this post . . .

Is it possible for me to build a tiny collection that hits enough of the game genres and situational needs I’m likely to encounter; and consists of games I would be happy to play until I can’t physically or mentally play games anymore. Can I find a dozen perfect 10’s? How big does this tiny collection need to be? I’m not sure this goal is possible, but as Dr. Knizia points out, “…it is the goal that is important, not the winning.” Even if I never reach this perfect pint-sized collection, working towards it nevertheless provides its own satisfactions and visions of minimalistic grandeur.

And the reason to have a small collection? Ultimately, it is because (1) I only want to own games that get played; and (2) I’d rather play game I know I love more, gaining a deeper understanding and skill in the game and exploring its depths rather than bounce between the latest new-to-me games.

So the list below is the result of a little brainstorming exercise, where I spent some time thinking about major “situational axioms” that can drive broad categories of games that fit my preferences and collection goals.

The Harsh Realities

There are two harsh realities to choosing a game. First, are the numbers of players wanting to play a game together. You are not going to play Chess if you have five players. The second harsh reality is playtime. Unless you have unlimited time, the interested players will need to settle on some approximate game length. If you have one hour of time (or are in the mood for a one hour game), you aren’t going to play Twilight Imperium.

Player count
3-4 player
5-6 player
7+ player

The count above seems pretty reasonable to me. There are a lot of games that list bigger/overlapping ranges of course (2-5, 3-6, etc.). But experienced gamers tend to also recognize that certain games are really best with certain numbers, or at least recognize that certain player counts are best avoided.

PlaytimeBrief (30 min or less) ~ under half hour
Short (30-60 minutes) ~ under an hour
Moderate (60 to 90 minutes hours) ~ around 1.5 hours
Extended (90 to 120/150 minutes) ~ around 2 hours
Long (180 to 300 minutes) ~ around 3-4 hours
Protracted (300+ minutes) ~ more than 5 hours

The above seems to be my experience in playing a variety of games and seeing recommendation threads for games. Spoken or not, there tend to be these thresholds of tolerance people have for different length of games, of course recognizing that people’s preferences are apt to vary based on the current situation. This nonetheless functions as a rough guide for how I think about game times.

Game weight

I’m considering this axiom in aggregate, combining both rules complexity and gameplay depth, and relating to some rough measurement how much “energy” it takes to play the game well – either as a consequence of internalizing complex rules or the need to think deeply about decisions (or both).

When it comes to deciding on a game to play, the group has to come to some consensus about what “weight” of a game to play – a decision which is likely wrapped up in next axiom, modes of thinking, as well. As an aside, I think the

- Fly Weight games are those that can be explained in just a minute or two and/or requires little mental energy. Games that basically play themselves fit here.

- Light Weight games could conceivably be played with younger kids and/or adults looking for a less brain intensive workout but still a little thinking. May also be suitable for a beer-n-pretzels oriented evening. Could be explained/taught to new players in about 5 minutes.

- Medium Weight games strike a balance, not a filler but not a 3+ hour brain burner either. Something to pull off the shelf at a regular game night. Can be taught or explained in less than 15 minutes.

- Heavy Weight games that require more focus and intense analysis. Can exceed 3+ hours but doesn’t have to. Typically requires some pre-planning work to arrange a time to play (in the case of longer games). Will typically require some time to explain (15+ minutes) and/or is a highly mentally tasking game.

Game Format

I’m taking a page out of this game Genome Project post, but simplifying the list by combining some of the categories because there is some overlap/nuance that is too detailed at this stage. So we have:

- Competitive multiplayer / low direct conflict
- Competitive multiplayer / high direct conflict
- Partnership – games that really require independent teams
- Hidden loyalties / traitor
- Cooperative / solitaire
- 2-Player / 2-Sided

I’m deliberately making a distinction, in the case of competitive multiplayer games, between those that are low conflict (i.e. closer to race style games) versus those that involve direct conflict (i.e. games with conquests, attacking, etc.). I don’t have a really strong preference; it just depends on the group and mood for what we feel like playing. Some people/groups can’t stand games with a lot of conflict, others despite those without it.

Modes of Thinking

Call it player skills, or genres, or whatever else, but this next set of traits distinguishes games based on the primary kinds of thinking that is required by players.

Race for the Galaxy and Agricola are very different games mechanically and in terms of scope, game length, etc., but they both are “engine building” games that require players to evaluate economic trade-off decisions, manage assets efficiently, and time their moves tactically around the other players. This is, of course, completely different from a game like Go or Taluva, which primarily requires you to focus on spatial planning and maneuvering.

The idea of “Modes of Thinking” is explored in more detail in my prior blog post for those that want to big into it more.

So, the list below contains three big categories I feel are important to consider in terms of modes of thinking. Within each category are a variety of specific genres that are commonly encountered. For each of these genres, there may be (for me at least) a natural pairing or best fit with a particular weight and game format intersection from above. This list adapts and simplifies ideas from Selywth’s “Genres”, combining categories in some places, and also considers this list of “Skills” from the Genome Project.

Predominately Spatial Thinking- Tile Laying / Pattern Building [Carcassonne, Ingenious, Taluva, Set, Qwirkle, Kaliko]
- Network Building [Inca Empire, Roads and Boats, Through the Desert]
- Spatial conflict / tactical positioning + maneuvering [Go, Tigris & Euphrates, Chess]
- Area majority / influence (abstract) [El Grande, Small World, Pandemic]
- Tactical combat [Battletech, Necromunda]

Predominately Economical Thinking
- Empire building (area influence – war) [Antike, Hegemonic, Cyclades]
- Engine / development building (optimization, action cost-benefit, timing, etc.) [Race for the Galaxy, Glen More, Caylus Magna Carta]
- “Economics” (investment, supply-demand, shared economies, payment timing) [Acquire, 18xx, Container]
- Risk management + valuation / “press your luck” / bidding [Roll through the Ages, Magnate]
- Adventure / character development [HeroQuest]

Predominately Intuitional Thinking
- Negotiation / diplomacy (people-centric, raucous) [Lifeboats, Diplomacy, Munchkin, Illuminati]
- Psychology / Bluffing [The Resistance, Battlestar Galactica]
- Speed/Party [Pit]
- Trick taking / climbing / melding [Traditional Card Games, Deckter, Rook, Euchre]
- Deduction / Signaling

Predominately Knowledge + Performance Thinking
Modes of thinking I don’t care for and/or can be covered by “non-game” activities.
- Singing – I can do this in the car!
- Performance – I don’t need to buy anything to play charades!
- Creative – I do this at work!
- Memory – I don’t have one!
- Language / word – hrmglfmmmpf..
- Knowledge / Trivia – Ugh!
- Dexterity – you for foosball?

Holy Intersection Batman!

If we were to plot these categories across a matric, we’d end up with 24 cells to be filled with potential games based on the weight categories and format categories. Multiply this by the 15 “modes of thinking” categories above, and it looks like I’ll need a whopping 360 games! Wait …. That can’t be right. Perhaps it is really just a matter of having representation of the big modes of thinking categories above show up in each of the 24 cells, so perhaps we are left with 72 games. That seems more reasonable to me. Various game lengths and player counts could be likely accommodated within 72 games.

In reality, I can eliminate a number of category intersections based on my gaming preferences. For example, I’m unlikely to be playing heavy two sided games, like wargames, War of the Ring, or Twilight Struggle. The reality is that I don’t have a clear partner to play these games with, nor am I really in the market for one. Similarly, I’m not terribly in love with hidden loyalty / traitor games, so 1 at a modest weight would probably be enough for me for when the social atmosphere is right for this kind of game (and it’s probably something like the Resistance). Similarly, there are more natural connections (for me) between certain weights of games and the kind of thinking required. For example, I’m not really looking for a super heavy psychology/bluffing game, which tend to fit in better with a lighter atmosphere and hence coincides with a lighter game (mechanically anyways). And in some cases, a particular mode of thinking in a game might only exist in one particular format.

The Gestalt Method

So perhaps rather than take the long-winded and ridiculous approach outlined above, it would be worth working backwards instead. And just ask directly … who do I play games with and what kind of games do I/we like to play most? This seems a bit easier approach. So to answer this question, I need in my collection some of the following

Class A
2+ player games that I can play with my wife. These are typically semi-abstract games that can be played in 30-45 minutes and are well suited to multiple back-to-back plays (e.g. best of 3). Moderate luck, moderate conflict is fine, quick to learn with good depth.

Class B
2-5+ player less than 90 minute low to low-moderate weight, possible “beer and pretzel”, games that I could bring to a variety of semi-gamer to partial-gamer meet-ups with family + friends. Lower weights preferred. Humor, take-that, direct interaction, negotiation, etc. a plus.

Class C
3-6+ player “party” game – a fun middle ground for gamers and non-gamers alike should the need arise.

Class D
3-5+ player ~120 minute games playable with my group of close friends. Moderate to high weight. Tactically tight and varied game, often with an economic focus. Mid to Mid-Heavy weight euros here.

Class E
3-6 player 120+ minute games playable with my group of close friends. Moderate to high weight. Big “full featured” games, typically empire/civ/4x style games. Games with a lot of moving parts.

There are also a number of discrete items, either mechanical or thematic in nature, that I’d like to hit somewhere in collection. Where specifically they land I’m not too picky about. These include:

- Deduction / hidden loyalty mechanic
- Cooperative / solitaire capable
- Space exploration + conquest theme
- Historic / real-world Empire Building theme
- Abstract card game/system
- Dungeon crawler/mini’s/board RPG
- Special power card game
- Tile laying/placement
- Abstract strategy
- Negotiation / bluffing
- Humorous
- Some portable games.

Down to a Dozen … or so…

So it’s judgment day, and if I had to purge everything but 12 games (you know, plus or minus) what would I get my collection down to in attempt to meet the criteria above? Here is my attempt to this:

Dudes on a Map: Antike
Everyone needs a “dudes on a map” game and this one does a great job. Works (with some house ruling) for 2-6 players and of course uses the rondal mechanic to great effect. A fast playing light civ / empire building game with a good blend of strategy and tactics in a historical setting.

Runners Up: Cyclades – I like Cyclades for its auction mechanics and short playtime. Stringing together a craft sequence of monster powers to snatch a win is great fun. Very fast paced and short playtime make this an outstanding game in my view. But I like Antike just a hair more.

Gateway Euro: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers
A great and favorite “gateway” tile-laying game accessible to a wide range of audiences with enough depth to standup to repeat plays. Great as a 2-player, works well for 3-5.

Runner Up: I like Roll Through the Ages quite a bit – solid press your luck game with a enough theme to keep things interesting. Highly accessible.

Detective Hats Optional: Citadels
2-6 player game with great deduction elements, pretty simple to learn, works for a wide range of audiences. I like the game most as a 2-player game, but it works well enough as a basic game with lots of players in a pinch (although can be a little slow). Small and portable is a big plus.

Runner Up: 7 Wonders– I have a bit of a love/hate thing with 7 Wonders. It’s a reasonable enough game and I really like that it can accommodate 7 players and still provide a reasonable playtime - for that it serves a real niche. The card drafting is fun but the end game scoring is a total buzz kill for what is otherwise a fine game.

One Game (system) to Bind Them: Decktet
So this is a card game system – but I don’t care. It’s a discrete object to that classifies it as a game. Great variety of games can be played with the Decktet for a range of players. Couldn’t pass this one up. So far, I like Magnate and Goblin Market.

Runner Up: Traditional Card Game

Earth Today, the Galaxy Tomorrow! (4x): Hegemonic
Obviously I’d need to hold onto a copy of my “to-be-published” game. It scratches the itch perfectly (for me) in what I want from a 4x space game. High levels of meta-gaming, deep strategy + tactics, lots of conflict, lots of tension. 2-6 players. Plus I need this theme, I really, really need it man.

Runners Up: Eclipse, Supernova, Galactic Emperor

Pure Euro: Inca Empire(speculative)
3-4 player route-building, leech heavy, indirect conflict euro-game. Perhaps a “train game” at heart minus the trains and investment mechanisms. Interesting combination of different mechanics yields an interesting (appearing) experience.

Runner Up: Alien Frontiers(Speculative) – I like the theme, haven’t had a chance to play it. I like the dice placement mechanic idea a fair amount.

Cruel Intentions: Illuminati
3-6+ player – high on negotiation. Complex and deep but the humor makes it work as a beer n’ pretzels game too with the right group. Lots of variability within the system with the different illuminati group cards, lots of opportunity for conflict and varied strategies. A lot of game in a small package.

Runner Up: ???

Negotiation + “Don’t throw me off the boat”: Lifeboats
(Speculative) 3-6 player big negotiation game that can double as a party game / beer and pretzels if you want to get rowdy with the group. I like the voting mechanics coupled with the silliness of the whole affair.

Runner Up: ???

Party On Wayne! Pit
I do like Pitt quite a bit as a fast paced real-time trading game that gets people yelling. Drinking game variant optional. Nothing much to say – the game just works!

Runner Up: King of Tokyo (speculative) – this game just sounds like a hoot and I’ll probably pick it up at some point. The hoot! factor appears to be present, which is what I’m going for. Plus it embodies what is lauded as a great press-your-luck dynamic

Start Your Efficiency Engines! Race for the Galaxy
Excellent economic engine euro-inspired card game. Lots of replay value. With the 1st expansion (a must) it makes for a fine solo game against the “robot” that I am always happy to play against. Has a space theme, simultaneous action selection, and hits a lot of, ahem, buttons. 2-5 players (with first expansion).

Runner Up: Glen More – I quite like this game and enjoy the variety of mechanisms that lock together. Ultimately though, I don’t need another tile-laying game in the mix and I don’t see Glen More having the longevity and staying power of Race.

Abstract at Heart: Taluva
2-4 player abstract, plays quick, looks awesome, highly spatial. I love the scoring dynamics and interplay. It is a beautiful game to watch unfold.

Runners Up: Qwirkle, Ingenious, Hive.

Pure Hybrid: Tigris & Euphrates
This is my Go. 2-4 player (sadly not more) tile laying game with a tremendous amount of depth. Probably the most strategically engaging game in the group. Heavy game that isn’t too long.

Runners Up: Dominant Species (Speculative) – Cool theme, worker placement meets area control in a rich and deep game. Longer than Tigris, but supports more players.

And a few more (upping the total to 16 games … For Now)

Economic Centric: Acquire(Speculative)
I’d like one game that has a strong “economic” aspect to it, in particular something with an investment / stock holding type mechanism at work. Acquire probably fits the bill, but isn’t terribly thematic.
Runner Up: Perhaps Container? I haven’t played it.

Dungeon Diving: Drakon(kinda)
I’m on the hunt for a better Dungeon Crawl Game – and for the time being Drakon scratches the itch. I also love games in small portable packages, which Drakon is also. Why is this good? Plenty of tactical planning, plenty of take-that-hilarity, with a tense race to the finish. That said – it has some issues, can take too long – and really isn’t a full featured “dungeon crawl” in the sense that you don’t go around killing monsters. Still, it’s fun.

Runners Up: HeroQuest, New Dungeon, Munchkin <gasp!>.

Cooperative Game: ??????
I don’t really have a truly cooperative game in the mix. I also haven’t played a ton of pure co-ops either, so I haven’t found one yet that really resonates with me (Forbidden Island is too simple and Space Hulk Death Angel too infuriating).

Tactical Miniatures Games: ?????
I’m not sure if I’ll have much time for a good tactical miniatures game. I honed my gaming skills on the likes of Necromundaand Battletechand among others. I’m casually on the lookout for a cool modern sci-fi mini’s game that can be played in more time sensitive segments with a wide number of players.

It’s about the Journey, Right?

I started this post with a big idea – and reductionist approach to crafting the ideal game collection, and ended up discarding it favor of a gestalt approach to building an ideal minimalistic collection. In large part, I think this dichotomy is indicative of my interest in exploring a scientific/precisely defined taxonomy aimed at classification of games compared to the need for a practical and functional/useful taxonomy aimed at game selection and/or acquisition.

For me, I’ve become increasingly less interested in trying to pursue a collection based on mechanical diversity (i.e. worker placement, role selection, etc.) and rather my gestalt list is more about the kinds of dynamics and experiential flavor the game provides. That’s how I ultimately want games in my collection to be catalogued by. I don’t find myself (or the groups I most often game with) saying “we want to play a worker placement game,” rather we find ourselves saying “we want to play a brief by fierce game that will make us laugh while we drink our beers and munch our pretzels.”

So having waded through all this, what’s my advice for those looking to build a collection? Keep your eye focused on the kinds of games you want to play, can actually get to the table, and can provide a lifetime of enjoyment should you find yourself stranded on a desert island with a trunk containing at least 12 games but certainly no more than 16; you know, plus or minus a few. Cheers!

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