A couple of recent gaming experiences have had me thinking about some of my less loved mechanisms. Not too long ago, I played Small World with the Tales and Legends expansion for the first time, and also had a first encounter with the card game Space Beans. Each proved less than enjoyable for me. Here’s why:
Small World: Tales and Legends:
The Event Deck.
Small World in itself tends to offer a decent experience. Though it’s somewhat long for the level of stimulation it offers, it shares with a lot of great games the need for talk to be part of one’s plan. When picking a race, you need an excuse which makes it seem you’ve under-estimated the true power of the race in question, so as not to be perceived as too great a threat. Similarly, every time you attack your neighbour, you ought to have ready a convincing excuse to minimize any threat of revenge attacks. Though I’ve seen Small World played stone-facedly, I’d never want to be part of such a game.
Much of this bluff and bluster amounts to commentary upon the game state, giving persuasive reasons why your plans will not work out. Through presenting a slightly distorted account of the choices available to you, you aim to demonstrate that you’ve not got a credible chance of victory.
An event deck – such as that offered by the Tales and Legends expansion – largely renders this battle of reporting distortion irrelevant. Instead of struggling solely against the potentially manageable whims of other players, one must also face the unpredictable fancies of the deck. Using Tales and Legends, one event card per round is put into play, this card modifying the usual rules of the game. These game provided events overshadow player narrated events, making the game more of a struggle against the unknown than a dynamic struggle against friends. I can’t convincingly explain why I’m not likely to win when the next event might be one that favours me.
Events in Tales and Legends range from the banal – ‘Each swamp is worth one additional victory coin’ – to the cataclysmic – ‘all in decline tokens are removed from the board.’ It barely matters, however, how dramatic each event is in itself: even ostensibly inconsequential events seem to stymie the power of talk.
In general, I think I’ve yet to encounter an event deck which represents anything other than an annoyance. They expose the fact that the claim that a game is ‘different every time’ cannot be advanced as self-evidently positive. Plans in a game need to be meaningful for the narrative built from them to be meaningful: I can’t fool you if the story of my likely failure must be read as empty speculation.
There are times you end up playing a game you’d rather not. And then there are times you end up playing Uwe Rosenberg’s Space Beans. It’s to some extent a spin-off from Bohnanza, at least insomuch as the two share similar, ugly artwork, and the same misfiring bean-oriented sense of humour, but mechanically it’s a very different beast. Where Bohnanza tasks players to trade away unwanted cards from a hand which must be played in a fixed order, in Space Beans, a player may play any cards from his or her hand, but is forced to pass the entire hand to the right after each turn.
Thus, Space Beans is, in a fundamental respect, the opposite of Bohnanza: the older game is about trying, through trade, to reshape pre-determined destiny, while Space Beans is about trying to sculpt a plan in the absence of any information about what is coming next.
That attempt to plan is likely to be futile. The aim of the game is to collect sets of cards of the same colours, two at a time. however, one set is placed face up as its cards are collected, the other face down. If you’re unwittingly attempting to collect the same colour as your neighbour to the left, then you’re pretty much screwed, and, worse than that, you’ve no immediate way of knowing it.
This is not to say that the exchange of hands is always problematic. If something other than one’s hand of cards gives one direction in a game, then exchanging cards, whether or occasionally or frequently, might be fun. If, say, one keeps a role card, a player power, or territory on a board, one can retain one’s goals, even if the tools through which to achieve them have changed completely. If one’s hand of card is all that provides one’s goals, as in Space Beans, the mechanism is disastrous.