If I’ve ever included an exhortation to buy a game in a review, or ever beseeched readers not to purchase one, I apologize. I don’t believe I have ever done so: I have certain rules for myself in writing this blog, not all of which I wish to place on record. One is not to make the implication that the only way to value a game is to own a copy.
However, as I add more and more reviews to this site, an unwanted implications about my view of value of games seems to emerge. A tide of reviews, whereby a given game floats briefly into sight, and then is addressed no more, misrepresents the sustained interest board and card games frequently offer, and which is of particular importance to me.
I don’t deny enjoying the mental fireworks a new game can produce, but that’s not what motivated me to start this site. By revisiting games reviewed previously, I want to make more of the question of lasting value, and to consider, in some respect, the changing experience growing familiarity with a game can provide.
Onwards and backwards, then.
Original review from December 15th, 2011: A Few Acres of Sand
At the time of my review, I had owned a copy of treasure hunting game Tobago for about six months (though I had played a friend’s copy before), and I had probably played in the region of a dozen times. I reckon that since then I’ve probably doubled the number of times I’ve played. I don’t keep a precise record, and nor do I wish to start.
I did not have hesitation in making Tobago the first game reviewed on Painted Wooden Cubes. It’s engaging as a physical item, it’s approachable to players unfamiliar with modern board games, but it provides opportunity both for broad strategic vision to be realized, and for moments of tactical inspiration to emerge.
As one of the most beautifully produced games I’ve seen, Tobago justifies its existence as a board game rather than, say, an iPad app: its three interlocking wedge-shaped boards contribute to a more enticing presence on the table than a standard rectangle might, while the island furniture has heft and tactile appeal – it still pleases me each time I play that the statues are pretty heavy, and have a rough surface that actually feels like stone.
Tobago‘s approachability lies in the fact that its core idioms can be translated into the rhetoric of a former generation of family board games. Each player has a personal playing piece which moves around the island, a device which can help those acquainted only with traditional games to avoid feeling lost. Similarly, the process by which the location of each treasure becomes defined, while not exactly deduction, ought not to feel wildly unfamiliar to a person who has played Cluedo. To those with less experience of modern board games, getting to grips with Tobago doesn’t doesn’t have to feel like learning a new language.
Its scope for strategy is in the potential each player has to manipulate which treasures are likely to be discovered, when, and by whom. The opportunity to provide the first part of a treasure map is particularly important. Starting with a map piece which determines that a treasure is on the beach will immediately leave a small number of possible locations – perhaps ten or so. Starting with the reverse – a map piece which explains only that the treasure is not on the beach, leaves probably a hundred places in which the treasure might be. The choice is therefore not inconsequential.
Amulets, which appear on the edges of the island and allow special actions, tend to provide tactical opportunities. These make possible, for instance, snatching a treasure from under the nose of another player by moving extra distance. Deciding when amulets are best used – and, on the other hand, when a turn is best devoted to collecting amulets – represents another choice to which brainpower can usefully, and meaningfully be devoted.
Some, I believe, have suggested Tobago becomes stale with repeated play. I disagree. Though the nature of its decisions does not change greatly from game to game, the best choices do differ. Each play will present the dilemma of whether to use an amulet or not, or whether to start a new treasure map with a limited or wide range of possible locations. The answer to each is sufficiently situational that the thought process will be new each time, even if the question is familiar.
Indeed, the primary issue I have in personal experience with Tobago is the dismissive approach to it I’ve encountered among those who play modern games frequently. I suspect the respects in which it recalls established family games work against it here: it seems often to be dismissed as retrograde eye-candy.
I’ve rarely made much of playing partners and playing environments in my reviews proper – such concerns are awkward peripherals to include in commenting on a game in itself, but I think, regrettably, this is a game is particularly apt to be given unfairly short-shrift by this kind of player. I’ve tried emphasizing that it’s a stock game in disguise – a claim I think true – but I haven’t found this approach a huge success in interesting seen-it-all-before players.
Original review from 18th December, 2011: The Rajasthan-tastic Journey?
Jaipur, a two-player trading game, had at the time of my original review established itself as a wife-game of choice among that large, vocal part of the Board Game Geek fraternity with interchangeable, nondescript wives. It is still very popular in this capacity with that audience. I felt its acclaim not entirely warranted at the time of my review, and still feel unimpressed now.
I had owned the game for just over a year at the time of writing the review. I have since traded it. I was ready to part with it because it didn’t provide sufficient interest to me to feel much more than a means to kill time. As I made much of in the original review, its interaction is very two-dimensional: the choice on each turn is always one of collecting or selling. When playing, I find myself feeling I’d rather just have a conversation, to enjoy a more varied back-and-forth.
It’s not a game I would ever find myself thinking about during quiet moments. With some games I’ll find myself, say on the bus or in the kitchen, pondering the feasibility of a particular play-style I haven’t explored, or the potential to get a given card combination working. That never happened with Jaipur. The experience of it did not evolve, and never felt especially enriching. I haven’t missed it.
Original review from 31st December, 2011: The Game as Mirror
Onirim, by contrast, I think about a fair amount: more than I actually play. I guess its evocative art, and the theme of exploring a labyrinth of dreams, contributes to triggering idle rumination. In a way I don’t with Jaipur, I find myself getting lost in the mathematical possibilities the game offers, sometimes months since I last played.
I’ve had a copy almost two years, and have probably played fifteen times in that time. Not a great deal, perhaps, but, for me it’s about revisiting the game as an imaginative experience, rather than mastering its strategy. Just as a good film can be watched too frequently, I think the particular, special mood of this game is not best penetrated by frequent play. The game is about getting lost; it’s not a game at which to get too good.
As such, perhaps peculiarly, my goal has not been to explore the whole of the game. I guess I’ve learnt a bit about successful play in my time with it, and I do utilize that when playing, but it’s one of a very small number of games I play repeatedly with which I’m unconcerned about my success rate.
Make of that what you will in processing my still wholehearted recommendation of Onirim.