Reflections on the year in gaming
Excuses first. I've continued to be a contributor over at explorminate. Between writing articles and playing the games we review enough to write those articles competently, a fair amount of time has been sucked up, which would otherwise have gone to writing here at Big Game Theory. Woe is having too many games to play!
I'll do a bigger recap of video game stuff in a separate article, but I'll mention the most interesting tidbit for now. Over the summer I wrote an article, All That Glitters is Not Gold, that was a heavy criticism of the state of 4X games and some of the challenges facing 4X game development.
Specifically, the article was about the lack of "polish" (balance, fine tuning, focused gameplay, etc.) among so many big strategy titles. It is interesting coming at videogames from a boardgame player and designer perspective, because polishing a boardgame design is so fundamental to making an enjoyable game for people. In 4X games, this lack of polish is most exemplified in the late game stages, where it's clear to me that relatively little design effort is focused around victory conditions. Imagine playing a boardgame where it just didn't really end, or where all the things and decisions you made playing the game were disconnected from how the winner was determined. Many people don't see this as a problem for 4X video games - but it bothers me quite a bit.
So before I get too enraged, let's proceed onward to the boardgames!
A Shift in Interests
To kick things off, the kinds of boardgames that I've focused on over the past year has shifted in response to life circumstances. Less time for big heavy multi-hour long games has prompted a deeper look into more kid-friendly games that still retain a spark of depth. While I did manage a few games of Runewars earlier in the year (more on that below), other heavier plays have been relatively sparse.
Hence, I'm finding myself drawn to games with some different traits than in the past:
First, are games with less complexity and fiddliness. Not that I cared much for complexity before, but now I'm really not interested in games that require more than about 5 minutes to teach (at the upper end). Even beyond playing games with my kids (the oldest is almost 7), when getting together with friends over a few beverages, lengthy rules explanations are a buzz kill. I want to be able to dump the box on the table and jump right in to the action.
Speaking of jumping right in, long and convoluted setup processes are also starting to bother me, and I'm wary of games that cannot be setup quickly. When kids are involved or any sort of time constraint exists, being able to get into the game fast is a big plus. Having to sift through a dozen baggies and meticulously arrange the starting board setup just isn't something I want to do. I realize that this may limit the scope of games that I find appealing, but so be it.
Along those lines, I also continue to be enamored with games that pack a lot of gameplay into a small package (e.g. box size). My self-imposed collection limit is that I'll keep what I can fit on the game shelf (which is about 2/3 of a largish bookcase plus a few drawers). I simply don't want more games than that - and a side effect is that games with big over-sized boxes relative to either the amount of components or the amount of depth in the game bother me (man - I'm starting to sound like a complainer!). Basically, I don't want games taking up more space than they need to. And on an even more sublime level, I really like picking up game boxes that feel "dense". Of course, this would seem to work against my desire for less complex games with fewer components, but it's really about just having smaller boxes that tightly fit the components.
And then there are the games that I acquire for some 'vain' reason. Maybe it's that the artwork strikes me and I want the game as a physical product, irrespective of it's potential play opportunities. Other times there may be certain mechanics or ideas (or designers) I'm curious about and want to tinker with - even if I'm not convinced the game is one that will hit the table much (if it at all).
Last - I've been paying more attention to cooperative games than usual. As I've been gaming with my daughters more and they are really into cooperative games and working together. They don't seem very interested in the typical competitive approach to gaming. I try to think of Knizia's quote: When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning. And so I stress, for competitive games, that it isn't about who wins or loses, but that we all do our best in pursuit of the game's goal. That said, we've also taken to playing competitive games in a "cooperative" mode where we just add our scores together at the end for a big uber score. Whoever contributes the most gets a high-five.
With these reflections out of the way, let's talk games!
New Games Played
5-Minute Dungeon (rating: 8; plays: 20+)
This is a joyous game to play, be it with young kids or adults. It is a "real-time" game and feels like an inverted version of Pit, in a way. Each player has a deck of cards aligned to their chosen hero class (bonus points for each hero card having a male and female option). Mostly the cards are simply symbols (shields, swords, arrows, spell books, etc.). The group has 5-minutes to work through a stack of dungeon monsters or obstacles by flipping over a card and then frantically playing cards to match the right symbols to clear the current card.
This has been a big hit with groups of kids as well as adults - and I must say the kids do just as well as the adults do! Despite the simplicity of system, it is surprisingly challenging with more nuance and coordinated play required than one might expect. You have to keep an eye out for opportunities to use a special card or ability to save time (and basic cards - because if you aren't careful you won't have enough of at the end to beat the final boss). It's straightforward yet has room for skill development.
Curiously, the mass market version of the game does not include the same difficulty and player count scaling options that the original kickstarter version did - which is a strange omission because it's really important! Without the per-player difficulty scaling, it's much harder with 2 players and too easy with 5 (for example). Anyway, BGG comes to the rescue once again if you check the file section.
Arboretum (rating: 7; plays: 3)
I finally got this to the table for a few plays this year. Unfortunately, this is one of those games where my typical gaming partners bounced right off the game. While on the surface it has the appearance of a straightforward rank & suit style game card, the play itself is very multifaceted (and fascinating I might add), but in a way that also isn't very intuitive. For seasoned gamers this isn't likely to be an issue, but for casual gamers the mental overhead proved a bit much.
That said, the artwork is gorgeous and the gameplay itself is a very clever mix of tableau/network building and rummy-like card draws + discarding. What throws people for a loop is that the scoring is not only contingent on what you've built in your tableau but is also contingent on what cards you have left in your hand at the end of the game. In order to gain the right to score combinations of cards in your tabelau, you have to the have the highest card value of that same suit in your hand. It's almost like playing two games at the same time and needing to win in both to do well. I find it awesome but not everyone else sees it that way. I'll keep it around in hopes of getting more plays.
Fox in the Forest (rating: 8; plays: 5+)
My wife loves the partnership trick-taker Euchre. Alas, that game requires 4 players. Along comes Fox in the Forest, and lo and behold we have a rather clever 2-person trick taker (a rare thing indeed). The game has 3 suites of cards numbered 1-10. Players earn points based on how many of the 13-tricks they take in a round. The interesting thing is that if you take too many tricks (e.g. shoot the moon or close to it) you don't get ANY points. So there is a really careful line you need to walk in order to score well.
Additionally, each of the odd numbered cards has a special ability that goes along with it, like being able to swap the trump card, taking the lead even if you lost the trick, etc. These special cards are essential to good play and controlling the momentum of the tricks. So far, my wife and I both really enjoy this one - despite me getting consistently wrecked by her!
Master of Orion: The Board Game (rating: 6; plays: 1)
This one is a bit tricky. I'll be doing a review of this at some point for eXplorminate, but after one play I'm quite sketpical. For the record, this is definitely not a 4X-style boardgame in the vein of Eclipse, as one might assume based on the Master of Orion videogame license it uses. Rather, this is a tableau-based card-driven engine-builder. Think 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the design forgot to include much by way of player interaction. Whereas 7 Wonders has card drafting and Race for the Galaxy has the role selection (with role leeching) as a means of making the core action dynamic have an interactive element to it, Master of Orion is a straight up action point game. There are practically no interaction points in the game, with players focused almost entirely on their own optimization puzzle. I haven't played a game that felt more like multiplayer-solitaire since... forever.
This is all kind of a shame. I actually like the basic card play and resource mechanics for building your empire. The problem is that, in the absence of an interactive action system, the card effects themselves needed to have WAY more interactive abilities to make me actually care about what my opponents were doing. A bit of a missed opportunity, sadly.
Raiders of the North Sea (rating: 9; plays: 5)
Now this game caught me unaware - but in a truly good way. Remember how, up above, I talked about "vain" purchase decisions? Well, this was one of them. As I considered my collection one day, it occurred to me I didn't really have a viking themed game. I like vikings quite a bit (I even a viking Halloween costume as my go-to outfit), and so this this lack of viking games bothered me. As I found myself at my favorite local game store, I considered the available viking-themed game options and this one jumped out because of, I'll admit, the artwork. The game is gorgeous and the illustrations are just lovely. This was an impulse xmas present purchase for... myself.
I was a bit worried because Raiders is billed as a worker placement game - which normally I don't really care for. But it turns out it isn't really a worker placement game in the normal sense. It doesn't have the same sort of solitary engine-building exercise that exemplifies most worker placement games, as you're never expanding your action (worker) capacity. The place-a-worker and pick-up-a-worker system de-emphasizes competitive placement decisions and replaces it with a more collaborative dynamic. And yet, many of the cards and crew abilities are directly confrontational and there is often fierce competition for the prime raiding locations.
Anyway - this game is a sleeper hit for me. I wasn't following the whole North Sea Saga series much before, but now I am enthusiastically. I suspect after more plays I'll have a more in depth analysis of this game to unveil.
Bonus points for having a reasonably-sized and dense box!
Runewars (rating: 9; plays: 3)
Last year, I mentioned that St. Nick brought me a copy of Runewars. I had a chance to play this epic monster a few times and it didn't disappoint. This is a BIG game - tons of miniatures, tons of tokens, hundreds of cards, modular boards, and so on. I wrote an equally BIG REVIEW of the game for eXplorminate - so if you want the full story check that one.
Otherwise, I'll just say that I'm very impressed by this game and how all the pieces fit together. For each of the avenues of critique I levied at 4X videogames, Runewars offers up a compelling solution. It's a very multi-layered game, but these layers entwine in compelling ways over the course of the game's seasons (rounds) and the rough choices both big and small. A glorious game. Can't wait to play more.
Hit Z Road (rating: 8; plays: 3)
This game killed 3 birds with one stone. #1: I had no game's my Martin Wallace (oh the humanity!). #2: I had no Zombie games (oh the horror!).
And #3: I had no bidding games (oh except Cyclades). Hit Z Road was a chance to remedy all of this lapses in my boardgame collection.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the game, although I would like to get it to the table more and really dig into it. That said, I found the whole artwork and component package to be pretty clever and engaging - and the progression of cards the events that unfold as you get past them builds a cool narrative for the player. The mechanics are solid and I like that the game is kinda-sorta a coop while still being competitive at the same time.
Kingdomino (rating: 9; plays: 40+)
I'm finding that in the absence of other information, the Spiel des Jahres nominees aren't a bad bet, most of the time. I was in the hunt for a family friendly game that I could play with my kids. If I could find something quick to setup, smallish box, and durable components that would be the icing on the cake. When I came across Kingdomino I took the plunge.
After playing 40+ plays, I must say that I really like this game. And Bruno Cathala again reinforces his place as one of my favorite designers. This game has worked well even with my 3-year old. We give her a little slack on tile placement (she doesn't have to stick to the 5x5 grid) and this way the whole family can play together. I love the little details on all the tiles, something my kids noticed right away. While the game isn't super deep, it can be surprisingly cutthroat and competitive at times.
Bonus points for helping the 6-year old with basic math and multiplication.
Rhino Hero (rating: 7; plays: 10+)
Rhino Hero is great. This is a reverse Jenga of sorts where players are tasked with building a tower of cards. I first heard about the game during the research phase of an older article I wrote on competitive and cooperative game formats. Rhino Hero has multiple end-triggers and victory outcomes that are possible. (A) If one player plays out their entire hands of cards, they win. (B) If the building collapses, the player that caused the collapse loses and the player with the least cards left wins. (C) All of the wall cards have been built and everyone wins. The only outcome that isn't possible is the game wining on its own.
All said and done - this works equally well as a kids game or as a drinking game for when adults are behaving like kids.
Jamaica (rating: 7; plays: 10+)
So I was also on a quest for a nice race game, and something that I could play with kids as well. Someone, somewhere, suggested Jamaica and I did a little research before deciding to pull the trigger.
Jamaica is a race game coupled to a pirate theme, coupled to a hand management game. The game plays at a brisk and exciting pace, and the system whereby the active player rolls two dice and chooses which affects the "day actions" versus the "night actions" for all players does wonders to keep everyone engaged and paying attention. While the decision space is small, it nonetheless creates ample opportunity for skillful play. It isn't a deep game by any stretch, but it gets you thinking (and trash taking - like all good pirates).
Red November (rating: 7; plays: 3)
Red November is another game I learned about during my competitive/cooperative game format research. This one is unique because any game outcome is possible: (A) As a fundamentally cooperative game, the players can all win by surviving long enough to be rescued while averting the missile crisis. However, (B) one or some players can win by prematurely abandoning ship - provided that the remaining crew don't survive! (C) The fleeing player(s) can lose if the rest of the crew survives and thereby turns them in. (D) Everyone loses if the ship sinks or gets eaten by a krakken or is crushed by the ocean pressure or the missiles get launched. Oh my!
The game is a little more fiddly than I would've have liked, exacerbated a bit by the absolutely tiny cards with more tiny text. The box is plenty big enough to have contained full size cards, so I'm not sure why it was produced in such a small format. We had a good time with this during our play, but it didn't have quite the staying power of other cooperative games we've been playing recently.
Tiny Epic Quest (rating: 8; plays: 5)
This game meets the criteria for dense games in an... EPIC way! I hadn't jumped on the "Tiny Epic" bandwagon previously, but thought that this one looked like particularly interesting point to jump on board. I'm working on designing a compact, kid-suitable, quest game so figured this one would be good as, umm, research! Turns out it is also a pretty fun game on its own right.
Considering the size of the box, there is a lot packed into the game and a lot of different mechanisms in play. There are movement cards that are drafted to determine how your hero meeples move. There are actions to trigger and plan around on some cards. There are multi-stage dungeons to delve into and goblin underhives to clear. There are quest contracts to fulfill, winds of magic to harness, health and recovery. And of course the customizable meeples with their adorable assortment of wargear and accessories. It's pretty remarkable really.
The gameplay itself is mostly a solitary affair however. There is a bit of interaction through the competition/race to finish certain quest cards first, but nothing too confrontational. And so this is another game that we've adapted to function more as cooperative game. All in all, I happy with game and remain impressed by how much game is packed into such a tiny box.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (rating: 8; plays: 20+)
Last, but not least, we come to the Lovecraftian version of Pandemic. I admit that I hadn't played the original Pandemic, although I have played Forbidden Island, which borrows a lot of the Pandemic DNA. Set collection and getting the right cards in the right hands, the need to get to specific locations to do certain things, and various ticking timers that slowly unravel the gameboard and eventually lead to defeat for the players.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu sticks tight to this formula as well, but features the thematically apt "Old Ones" that herald the end times. As bad stuff happens, old ones are revealed and more bad things happen. The players are in a race close four arcane gateways before big daddy Cthulhu itself shows up and says "you lose!"
I've had a lot of fun with this one playing with my daughter. She doesn't seem to mind the vile creepieness of the old ones at all (should I be worried?) and rather delights in playing the hunter and slaying all the Shoggoth monsters that spawn around the board. As with other Leacock designed coops, the game can suffer from an alpha player syndrome, so with younger kids in particular I put the baton in their hand and ask them what I should do on my turn. Mostly it's slaying shoggoths.
Thus concludes Part 1 of the 2017 smorgasbord. Did others get a chance to play any of these games? Any thoughts or comments you'd like to share? The phones are open!
Part 2 will take a look at what other (older to me) games I've played last year, what games are still sitting on the shelf unplayed, and what games I put on the chopping block.
Beyond that, we'll take a look at some of the video games I've been playing over the past year and what exciting stuff I'm looking forward to in 2018.
Cheers and happy new year!