The Player as Mechanism

I’d like to draw your attention to a recent, and pretty splendid, Kotaku article by Quintin Smith. In it, Smith extols the tactile qualities of board games. He argues that ‘play is how we form emotional connections’ and that ‘the purpose of the game-as-object is to make it easiest to foster those connections, allowing everybody to invest in what’s on the table, right down to building it up and breaking it down.’

There’s something in this: poetry, at the very least. A valuable stimulus for thinking about games in a particular way. A beautiful little lie to have us thinking positively about those boxes cluttering the flat, perhaps.

And a lie it may be, if we let it be. Certainly, it’s would be easy to think Smith’s ideas nonsensical. To consider the board game which sits between us as a means to connect better has a certain strangeness to it. If we meet to play a game, inevitably there’s a respect in which less of my attention is on you than it would be if we meet at a cafe with no agenda other than to talk. With a cup of coffee the only device to punctuate possible pauses in conversation, we’re going to have to find something to talk about.

Whether it be a first date, or a weekly get-together with a group of friends, a conversation can, of course, fall flat sometimes. But if an emotional connection is formed in this straightforward situation, it’s probably going to be between those conversing. Make an object part of the interaction, though, and someone is going to become attached to that, and quite possibly to that alone.

At Oxford on Board there are people I see just about every week, about whom I know practically nothing – nothing save, I guess, a broad idea about their respective tastes in games.

I think an uncomfortable truth of board gaming is that many regular players see their opponents as the mechanism, rather than seeing the game in this light. You fill the role of making the other pieces move, of changing the state of play, but that’s it. The excitement for such players is what’s left after you’re done – they’re playing with the choices you’ve left behind, rather than playing with you.

Every week at Oxford on Board I see people pulled into playing games it’s evident they will dislike (and I’m sure this is not exclusive to our club): the owner leaves happy that he or she got to play his or her game, with little or no concern for how his or her opponents may have felt.

I can believe Smith’s approach is different. I can believe the game is the mechanism in his view – a means for players to share experiences. Elsewhere in his article, Smith recounts the story of a recent game of Memoir ’44: Overlord, in which the participants ‘played wearing wobbly helmets and camo trousers of impossible size,’ because ‘when you augment a game’s components to such a ridiculous extent, you can’t help but share something, and remember that game for the rest of your lives.’ It reminded me of the idea of wearing a suit to take charge of the FA Cup final in the computer game Championship Manager / Football Manager – a phenomenon which has a Facebook group with 13,000 members. Both ideas are likeable in a very broad sense.

In each case the game itself appears a bit buried by the experience built on top of it. So what?

The challenging aspect of this way of thinking for those who take board games seriously, be they collectors or critics, designers or other devotees, is that it diminishes the importance of the game itself. Those whose only interaction with board games is to hype up and hold a game of Monopoly or Risk every two to three years – who stage the game as an event, perhaps as part of a party, embracing the disappointment and disputes those games bring as part of the event – are using the game as the platform for an experience, and thereby can probably be said to have a more healthy relationship with the game in question than many of us probably do. The game in these cases is an excuse; a reason to interact with the other players in a particular way – play fights, mock anger, braggadocio. The players bring the fun (in part, of course, because they have to – Monopoly and Risk alike are parsimonious in offering enjoyment themselves).

What’s good and bad in this is that the experience is dependable. The game itself is squeezed out: the player is not so much playing Monopolybut playing at playing Monopoly – doing all those things you’re meant to do while playing, acting out all the huffs and strops that you’re meant to have while playing. The unpredictability that can be a part of modern board games can be harder to fit with this approach (though Smith’s game of Memoir ’44 demonstrates how a dynamic game can provide a secure foundation for silly fun).

I guess the point I want to applaud is seeing value in interactions and in experiences, rather than items. Playing board games is a hobby which can easily consume time, and anything to which you give large amounts of time shouldn’t be allowed to consume what’s valuable in you. Play with your opponents, not with a string of game states. Play playfully. Play bad games to spend time with good people.

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Where You Been

Hello!

For the past month, due to the demands of work, I’ve mostly had my head full of outmoded, alternative theories of evolution, and my fingers aching from trying to offer useful interpretations of the response these ideas received. An unshakable head cold made these ideas immovable, even long after I had finished work, such that in the evenings I’d find myself pondering whether a recipe for lasagne had any evolutionary connotations (the pasta transformed, changed its state as cooking progressed). I felt it best to avoid putting anything on Painted Wooden Cubes during this time. Nobody needs an occultist evolutionary interpretation of Zooloretto.

I have, however, managed to fit in a few games, a number new to me. Two were newer games (from 2012), and I’ll focus on those here.

I’ve played Tom Lehmann and Joe Huber’s Starship Merchants three and half times since the beginning of April, and enjoyed it a great deal. In itself, Starship Merchants offers a trim, brisk economic game of a kind that rather appeals to me. Its board constitutes a rondel of four spaces, each representing a stage in the business cycle of the asteroid mining company players are tasked with running. Each turn a player may either take an action in the space he or she occupies, or move to the next space, taking an action there if possible and if desired. The stay-or-go dilemmas the game presents are very readable (there’s no struggle to assess one’s legal options), but are frequently challenging, and significant nevertheless: in that Starship Merchants borrows the system of vehicle obsolescence from 18xx, timing is key. Staying, say, in the shipyard to buy an extra ship might be worthwhile, even if a loan is needed to do so, in that it can force the pace at which other players can complete the business cycle: the cost of loans becomes rather easier to stomach if it’s possible to send other players’ older ships into obsolescence.

However, a particular attraction of Starship Merchants, for me, has been its suitability for the game club environment in which a lot of my play takes place. Enough is readable for new players to enjoy their first game (important when most games will feature at least one new player), and, I think, enough is in the game is enjoyable to those who want a build-up-my-own-little-kingdom quality in their games. Starship Merchants neither confronts its players with auctions, nor  with the need to set a value for a company being floated. It also allows players to customize their spaceships with upgrades, meaning the game can be played with a paths-to-victory mentality (though I’d like to believe bitter economic sabotage can win out over this – I have, however, come second in all three of my completed games).

Starship Merchants

Starship Merchants: Four action spaces

I reckon this one will stay in pretty heavy rotation for some time to come. We’ll see.

Also new to me this month was Sebastian Bleasdale and Richard Breese’s Keyflower, which I’ve now played twice. An admittedly sweet-looking worker placement game about building a New World settlement, it’s a lot of things Starship Merchants isn’t. Where Starship Merchants offers readable but challenging decisions, Keyflower offers a challenge largely because it’s hard to read. There’s so much going on that, before you start to choose an action, it’s fatiguing just to work out what you should be choosing between. By the last round of the game (when playing with four), there will be (if my memory doesn’t fail me), 28 possible action spaces to use, in addition, potentially, to 15 simultaneous auctions to participate in. What is more, most of those action spaces will be in front of other players, perhaps oriented away from you, their powers possibly obscured by meeples which have already used them (but not blocked them – tiles can be used and re-used in a single round).

What is still more is that each of those action spaces may be or may not be in an upgraded state. It’s a lot to keep track of before even thinking about strategy and good play.

Though, as a paths-to-victory game, certain action tiles will likely become less and less appealing as the game progresses (you might focus on collecting tools or resources, or accumulating extra meeples), and though there’s a price for using tiles owned by an opponent (meaning some legal choices may not, in fact, be worth considering), I’d be inclined to suspect that successful play in Keyflower, as in other worker placement games, will include a certain level of unexpected, opportunistic use of usually sub-optimal actions – grabbing a tile at auction  to deny points to a successful opponent, say, or picking up a resource which has not featured in your plans for a possibly decisive point or two. Thus, following the evolution (there’s that word) of the array of action spaces does appear key in Keyflower. It’s a challenge which promises a headache, but doesn’t, to me, promise a great deal of intellectual stimulation.

Keyflower: Rather more than four action spaces

Keyflower: Rather more than four action spaces (this picture doesn’t show any tiles being auctioned – mentally insert them, please)

I also played a couple of older games that were new to me. I played Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer’s Maharaja once, and hope to play again, as well as Bernd Brunhofer’s Saint Petersburg, which I’d rather avoid playing ever again. Between the two experiences, I find a reminder that the wish for a return to design principles of an earlier time is in part informed by the optimism of nostalgia. Maharaja is clean sort of area control game which can be played and explained quickly, but has one especially neat element which twists things – players can steal one another’s position in turn order – a fact which results in some pleasingly tough choices. Saint Petersburg, however, shows that clean can also imply sterile. It’s an early tableau-building game, and I very much missed the wild powers found in more contemporary games in that genre such as Innovation and Glory to Rome. In Saint Petersburg, the vast majority of cards offer either money or victory points (or both) and nothing more. The question ‘Is this it?’ ran through my head roughly every 30 seconds for the duration of the game. But that indeed was it. Sometimes the evolution of game design really is progress.

Upset the Rhythm: A Review of 23

At a large games club, as Oxford on Board is becoming, if you want to play a particular game on a given night it’s often necessary to have a strapline to tout the game in question. When snap decisions are being made, snappy rhetoric is a valuable tool.

However, I confess that some of the epithets I catch myself using in these circumstances crush me a little bit, even as the words are exiting my mouth. Describing Airlines Europe as ‘an advanced Ticket to Ride,‘ for instance, might have been enough to secure myself some playing partners, but it somehow manages to be unflattering to both games at once. Still, when faced with either Hansa Teutonica or Lancaster as alternatives, I feel able to say that desperate action was necessary.

With a similar brutality towards facts, as well as similar success in persuading people to play, I’ve often touted Christoph Behre’s 23 as ‘something of a reverse No Thanks!‘ Without doubt, it gives a distorted impression as to the rules of 23 – as a game it’s mazier than my pat phrase might suggest, with more meaningful choices than No Thanks! offers. However, I do think the sales device conveys the broader tone of the game with reasonable accuracy: 23 and No Thanks! alike are about agitating your immediate neighbour through the efficient use of chips and numbered cards.

The two games also share the quality of testing the willingness of players to hurt themselves a little in order to hurt other players more. In No Thanks!, collecting a card which would complete a run for another player can be hard to swallow (you’ll certainly hope that someone else will do it for you), but might sometimes be the only way to prevent a player cruising to victory. In 23, by comparison, it’s about having the stomach to take minus point chips in order to employ special actions.

In its raw state, 23 runs all too smoothly. Players aim to rid themselves of a hand of cards (of numbers between one and 23), in turn placing one or more cards onto a common discard pile (more than one card can be played if all cards are of the same face value: there’s one number ‘1’ in the game, two cards of number ‘2,’ and three of everything else). The cards played must show a number equal to or higher than the card which is currently top of the pile. So, for instance, if the top card of the pile shows the number ten, the number three card still in my hand is going nowhere.

Playing a card of the same value as the current top card is free, as is playing a card which is of a value immediately above the current card (so if the current card is a ten, playing another ten would be free, as would playing an 11). Playing a card of a higher number means incurring a minus point for each number skipped (so, if I played a 13, I’d have skipped 11 and 12, and so would have to take two minus points). Any player who manages to play all of his or her cards has three minus points wiped from his or her score.

When dealt a hand which contains a well-spaced selection of cards, simply following the game’s own rhythm might well be a player’s best option. If one’s cards are less amenable, then trying to punch the game into a different pulse rate might be necessary. There are a few ways to do so. For the cost of one minus point (recorded by a purple chip), a player can pass, letting the turn go by without playing a card. By taking two minus points, however, a player can both pass, and force his or her immediate neighbour to play. This can backfire, of course, if you’ve guessed wrongly about what your neighbour is holding, but can be brutal.

Other devices mean forgoing possible positive points: each player starts the game with three green chips. If any of these are kept until the end of the game, each one is worth two points. However, these chips can also be spent to really warp the rhythm of the game: giving up a green chip allows a player to either increase or decrease the value of the current card by up to five (meaning, if the current card is a ten, I could use a green chip, and play anything from five to 15 without penalty). Of course, any player who has compliantly followed the game’s own rhythm might be thrown entirely out of step by a substantial judder in either direction.

Often the decision either to spend a green chip or to take a purple one is an ad hoc response to the current game situation. However, 23 pushes its players to imagine the game ahead, planning potential skips and backsteps, through the neat device of making each player discard three cards, from fifteen, prior to the game. Thus, you cannot help but have a vision regarding those points at which you might play a green chip to skip forwards, or to double back.

My hand in 23

My hand (but not my hands), after discarding three cards. I’ve kept a lot of doubles, which can allow me to play my hand quickly, but keeping nines, tens and 11s is asking for trouble – the game will move too fast for me to play all of these without spending at least one green chip to lower the current number

Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how important this planning stage is to the pleasure 23 gives: without it, players would lack a sense of ownership over their fates. With it, there’s a sense of investment, and a tension – an almost inevitable struggle to bring the real game into concordance with the game you planned in your head.

One other particularly canny aspect of 23 is the way is the control players are given over when to withdraw from a round. At any point, any player can stop playing cards, and instead take one minus point for each card he or she is still holding: though costly, this can be very potent indeed. By nature, it forces a dramatically different form upon the game for the remaining active players: a player folding early in a three player game, say, effectively leaves a two player game between those remaining – which means more numbers for which no active player has a card, and therefore more cost to skip those missing numbers. In a two player game, this can be especially lethal: leaving a player either to play out his or her hand alone, potentially paying heavily to skip numbers, or to take an unplanned hit in also folding.

Also, setting aside questions of strategic richness, I want to emphasize very strongly that upping and quitting is a massive pleasure. Whether it works out or not with respect to winning the game, slamming your hand down and resigning from a round unexpectedly early is a whole joy of its own: it’s not quite ripping off your tie and marching out of the office, but it’s the same quality of experience, just less strongly expressed. And a round of 23 is short enough that you only need sit for a minute or two before those suckers who didn’t dare quit finish: you’re not left waiting long enough to have to rue your rashness.

I heartily applaud Behre for this aspect of 23: more ‘bugger this’ opportunities in games, please (or more chances to meaningfully say ‘No thanks!,’ if you will).

The situation after the first round

Purple minus point chips racking up in a two player game

Finally, 23 astutely knows what is best in terms of its larger structure. Where many lighter card games allow players to determine for themselves how many rounds to play, 23 insists that it should be played over two. The trick is that the green chips players are given at the start of the game are not refreshed before the second round. Thus, the economical use of them becomes a defining element in the experience of playing 23. An awkward hand for the first round of a game might tempt the player to part with two or more green chips in that round, but doing so means being especially vulnerable in the second round. However, a chip kept until the end of the game may well have missed a moment to be employed to greater, more aggressive (and thus more enjoyable) effect.

Thus, playing 23 is a dynamic experience. It can virtually stall sometimes – passing might, in certain circumstances, become a default option. Another round, by contrast, might blister past, accelerated by the play of green chips. However, this inconsistency in pace is entirely due to the action of players: you will, very often, be glad to break the flow of the game. 23 is resilient enough to be pleasurable whether a given round dawdles or sprints. It’s also resilient enough to work well with either two, three or four players. And it’s particularly wonderful how often you can sack it in mid-game and still win.

Winning Formula?: A Review of Crazy Lab

Crazy Lab, designed by Jordi Gené and Gregorio Morales, and released last month, is a curiously tricksy trick-taking number. A spin on the Sticheln formula, whereby each player is trying to avoid winning cards of a certain suit, Crazy Lab is lighter than its predecessor, but nevertheless conceals some strategy. The multi-suited cards used by Crazy Lab (showing flasks with liquids of multiple colours) are a neat novelty, but can often make it difficult to read the best choice in a given situation.

Partly, Crazy Lab is light insomuch as it limits its players’ choices. Unlike in Sticheln, in Crazy Lab a player’s pain colour is determined before the game begins. Each player’s first action, before looking at any of his or her cards, is to select one of the game’s five colours to avoid. Each player’s choice must be different. It might be that I choose to avoid yellow (that being an unpleasant colour, after all), and then find I have a hand full of yellow. Que sera sera. So be it. Пусть будет так.

Crazy Lab also restricts choice in the sense that trump for each trick is beyond the control of players: before every trick is contested a card is revealed from a deck dedicated to dictating trump colour. This causes much play to be reactive: attempting to control the game is not a realistic goal in Crazy Lab. If I win a trick, and thereby become starting player for the next trick, it’s very difficult to know whether that might help or hinder me, in that I don’t know what colour will next be trump. Grabbing a trick that brings a good haul of points is thus a calculated risk: I might face a situation in which I cannot avoid receiving a large number of negative points from the next trick.

It should, however, be said that the trump colour deck is at least partly player composed. In addition to his or her regular cards, each player has four cards (in all the colours other than his or her pain colour): each player contributes two of these to the trump deck. It’s difficult to attend to the flow of this deck, but, in each game a player at least knows two colours that will be trump, albeit not when those times will be.

In addition, Crazy Lab is light in that limits its the ability of players to analyse their positions relative to one another as the game unfolds. There are 95 regular cards in its deck, ten of which will be dealt to each player: thus, even with five players, just over half of the game’s cards will be in play. This means card counting is largely meaningless: attempts to deduce whether a given opponents has a strong or weak hand are likely be futile, given the limited information available. But then, a trick-taking game consisting of only ten tricks can probably be expected to be pretty light (multiple rounds could be played, though this is offered as a variant in the rules, rather than as a standard way to play).

Moreover, Crazy Lab asks each player to choose a colour in which to gain points (unlike in Sticheln, in which any card not in a player’s pain suit counts positively towards his or her score), but keeps this information secret. This colour cannot be one of the two which the player has offered for the trump deck. It might be deducible – if a player makes a serious attempt to win a particular trick, there’s probably a reason why – but it is not necessarily the case that the colour each player desires will be clear by the end of the game. This again serves to give Crazy Lab a very insubstantial outward impression.

Indeed, a new player starting his or her first game of Crazy Lab might well be confused by the absence of information available to give direction. Choosing which colour to collect can be tough; figuring out how to go about collecting it without exposing oneself can be even tougher.

This morning, as an experiment, I tried out a couple of three player games, in which one of the three players, Random Stephen, simply played the first card from his hand each turn, and also chose his positive colour, and contributions to the trump pile at random. Here’s what Stephen was confronted by at the start of the game:

Crazy Lab Hand of Cards

Random Stephen (played by a model) considers his hand of cards prior to the game. There’s quite a lot of purple, his pain colour, in his hand. However the two cards with a green six are strong, insomuch as six is the highest number in the game. Stephen could be pleased with his lot

Stephen, playing normally, might be quite excited by the powerful green cards in his hand. He could select green to be the colour in which he gains points (unlike in Sticheln, for those familiar with it, the number shown on a positive card is important in calculating score: if Stephen picked green, and won one of those green cards, it would be worth six points). He could, however, add green to the trump deck, perhaps picking blue or orange as the colour in which to gain points. Whenever green would be revealed as trump in that case, Stephen would be highly likely to win the trick, and could still give himself a good number of positive blue or orange points in doing so.

In actuality, it turns out Random Stephen nominated yellow his positive colour, twit that he is.

Here’s a trick, mid-game. Stephen’s card, played first, is the left-most in the picture:

Result of a trick in Crazy Lab

Questionable play from Random Stephen: leading with a purple five when the trump was purple was not likely to end well (given Stephen is trying to avoid purple)

I suppose these examples are silly. In the end, the two real players scored plus 9 and plus 10, Stephen plus 2. In a second game, the scores were plus 31 and plus 19 to the two humans, plus 7 to the lamentable Stephen.

In each game, it was only really in one or two tricks that Stephen showed himself to exist only as a fabricated personality given to a dumb experiment – most dramatically in the incident above, which netted Stephen minus 6 points, all told. In that Stephen himself did not know what colour he was collecting, he masked his aims well.

And therein lies the rub. A game of Crazy Lab appears to be about one or two key tricks, though which tricks are key will be different for different players. There might be one or two times in a game when the colour you’re trying to collect is the current trump colour. This is where Crazy Lab presents a challenge – to make the most of such tricks, while, if possible, hiding that the trick in question was one you actually wanted to win. There might be a bit of managing one’s talk, attempting a bit of misdirection – but too much might draw suspicion. It’s possible, of course, to win points when one’s desired colour isn’t trump, but this is more likely to be the product of opportunism, rather than skilful play.

The rest of Crazy Lab feels like a muddle: trying to offload cards that are either detrimental to your plans, or, more often, irrelevant to them, hoping they won’t reach someone who actually wants them. For a new player, this muddle might, broadly, be bewildering: it’s often not really analysable which card is best discarded – in contrast, I guess, with most trick-taking games. Naturally enough, such decisions will cause some players to stutter: it might feel, to some, as if there should be an objectively best choice, and the best course of action should be analysable, when, frequently, this is not the case.

For me, though, Crazy Lab is, broadly speaking, an enjoyable muddle. A good amount of the time, you can revel in slapping down pain cards on other players, secure in the knowledge that there’s no way you could or should be trying to win a given trick. You can enjoy being out of control in Crazy Lab in a way you cannot with other trick-taking games, because here there’s no realistic means to ever establish control.

Time, as it does with ostensibly simple games, might reveal a few more nuances to strategy, but Crazy Lab will doubtless remain a game in which a lucky player will often outdo a capable one. However, Crazy Lab possesses many qualities which are desirable in a ten minute game: it’s simple to teach and play, and somewhat silly, but not at all banal.

Gunboat Diplomacy and A Game of Thrones

When an idea becomes heated enough, it can convert that heat into kinetic energy. An idea possessed of such momentum does not remain confined within a single mind: it passes through individuals, paying little heed to the apparent truism that there needs to be a connection between thought and thinker.

In the past couple of weeks, such an idea ripped through Oxford on Board – the games club I attend. I think essentially the idea was to make an event of a game in order to elevate the shared experience it offered: in other words, to play a big game together, in order to be united in having played a big game together. The game in question in this case happened to be the Game of Thrones board game: the force of the idea led to two members buying copies, which were yesterday played simultaneously. I don’t doubt the wish for shared experience could have found its focus in another game. In many respects I wish it had. However, sometimes one has to be there.

I had read that A Game of Thrones: The Board Game leant heavily in its design on Diplomacy – the archetypal negotiation-driven conflict game, and a game of which I am fond. Though I realized that to my taste many of the extra mechanisms in A Game of Thrones would feel superfluous, I was expecting to recognize the heart of Diplomacy within it. I did, I guess, but only in the same sense that a Francis Bacon painting recognizably depicts a pope.

I couldn’t help but feel that much of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game was engineered to limit the importance of negotiation – which is a bit like trying to make a whist variant which limits the importance of taking tricks.

Uncertainty, in A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, made long term plans little more than flights of fantasy (so to speak).  At the beginning of each round the draw of a card would determine whether or not reinforcements would be available on that occasion: this made grabbing new territory a pure gamble rather than a calculated risk: if reinforcements were permitted, one could consolidate one’s new territory, if not, one faced being spread too thinly, and thus open to attack both in one’s new regions, and in those left underprotected as a result of the advance. Similarly, an unexpected change in tie-break conditions could mean one’s upper-hand in a border dispute evaporating without warning.

Meaningful negotiation requires meaningful evidence: you need to be able to show your neighbour that you cannot hurt him or her in order for trust to be established in a pact. A joint plan of attack requires knowledge about what both parties stand to gain. Though you might try and deceive an opponent by misrepresenting evidence – suggesting, say, a ship in water bordering common territory cannot possibly have malicious intent – for this to be believed still depends upon the idea that evidence is readable. In A Game of Thrones, too many random events renders too much evidence unreadable. Because the rules of a particular round may differ significantly from the last, the readings of the game state upon which mutual plans might be founded become little more than palmistry.

The winner of our game, playing as Martell, attacked both his neighbours, Tyrell and Baratheon, within the first few rounds. In contrast, in Diplomacy immediately alienating both of one’s direct neighbours would mean certain defeat. In that game, one needs to cooperate to advance, at least in the early stages of the game. The excitement comes from the knowledge that all the while one’s partner remains, fundamentally, an enemy. If one’s enemies are never more and never less than enemies, that richness is entirely lost.

In part, it should be said, luck allowed our winner to achieve that result: he was joint-last at the start of the final round. However, further mechanical elements of A Game of Thrones made this anti-cooperative victory possible.

Where, in Diplomacy, only one unit can occupy each territory, and all units are of equal strength, in A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, neither of these facts is the case: large armies of more powerful units can occupy single spaces. This means that an individual player is more able to build a potent force by himself or herself, and will therefore have less need for support from third parties in attacks. Relatedly, it limits the spread of units across the board, in that more units will likely be needed to stay home to defend heartland territory. Thus, players will have less chance to enter direct contact with an opponent starting in an opposite corner of the board.

In sum, I was reminded of the ‘Gunboat’ Diplomacy variant: one in which negotiation is strictly outlawed. In a game played by these rules, the individual flavour of each country is much diminished: knowing one’s neighbours only by a pepper of rifle-fire makes them largely indistinguishable from one another. It’s the need to explain one’s motives, to justify the unjustifiable, that makes playing as each power in Diplomacy the great experience it is.

Indeed, as the game, in regular Diplomacy, is the diplomacy. Moving the pieces around the map is not the game, only the record of what has happened in the game. A Game of Thrones mistakes the board for the game, and is a gross contortion of Diplomacy as a result.

There’s to be a follow-up game next weekend. In spite of all my reservations, I may still get involved. Shared experience is a powerful thing.

Revisions, February 2013: The Rivals for Catan, If Wishes Were Fishes!, Notre Dame

Three reviews from February 2012 to look back on. No considerable shifts in opinion, but nevertheless lessons learnt with time:

The Rivals for Catan

Original review from 5th February: Two Princes (or Princesses)

Rivals for Catan, the dice

The great majority of my play of board and card games is with two. This lead me to The Rivals for Catan, the two-player only Catan card game. From a distance it appeared, when I was assessing whether to buy a copy or not, to avoid a problem if I feel exists in many two-player card games, which is a certain two-dimensionality: passing cards back-and-forth, back-and-forth until the music stops and whomever happens to be leading is declared the winner.

Partly, I favour what might be considered a solitaire element to this empty to-and-fro:  building a personal machine, though innovative combination of the cards one has the chance to gain. This exists in Rivals for Catan, insomuch as you harvest resources by yourself, and then creating buildings which take advantage of those resources. Though there is direct competition for two victory point markers – a trade advantage earnt through having the most of one symbol on your cards, and a military advantage earnt through having the most of another, points from buildings are more important to settling the winner.

However, The Rivals for Catan frustrated me. That frustration is expressed in my initial review, and I traded away the game shortly after. The game is long, and much is decided by the roll of dice. In that a single six-sided die determines collection of resources in this game (in contrast to the two resource dice in The Settlers of Catan) there’s no tendency for particular numbers to appear more frequently: a machine based on, say, rearing sheep, can be scuppered by poor luck. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, because of the die determines resource collection, one cannot make any firm plans before one’s turn in most cases. As a result, The Rivals for Catan is not a game I feel any considerable nostalgia towards.

If Wishes Were Fishes!

Original review from 13th February: What’s the Catch?

Ready to start a two-player game. The worms (those purple things) are wonderful, squidgy, tactile items

By contrast, If Wishes Were Fishes! is a game that remains dear to me, and, fortunately, is one that I can find many willing partners to play. I love the peculiarity of a solid game of marked manipulation coupled with silly illustrations of fish and huge squidgy plastic worms.

My abiding memory of this game is of those wonderful worms: I love pulling and squeezing them. They also win the game goodwill with some players less familiar with modern board games, meaning If Wishes Were Fishes! can be a neat way to introduce those people to more strategic games.

I’m not quite sure how a game like this was ever released, in that styling and substance are so ostensibly distant from one another, but I’m sincerely glad it was.

Notre Dame

Original review from 19th February: Ignoble Deeds

Notre Dame itself

It probably wouldn’t constitute a surprise for me to explain that this review of Notre Dame was the most trouble to write of anything I’ve put on this site. Being a Stefan Feld game there’s a whole hodge-podge of rules here to wade through before being able to say anything of more value. In general, I want in a review, to cut through the rules of a game, and get to what the point in playing it is; I want to explain what experiences a game provides, and what lessons there are to it. What in the game gives you a buzz? What kind of moments do you reflect upon after playing? Is the core of the game concerned with the thrill of subterfuge and deception? Is it about second-guessing your friends and yourself? Do you face a test of character whereby you must leech off your neighbours to win? I want, if you will, to find the soul of a game.

In Notre Dame there’s little if any identifiable soul. It’s hard, if not impossible, to look back on the experience of playing and find value to it. The mess of rules masks an absence at the core of the game.

The suggestion in my initial review, that you must perform ignoble actions to win in Notre Dame may be true if one takes the game’s internal logic at face value: you may very well tolerate a rat infestation in your quarter of the city, and you may very well pray that everyone but you donates to the cathedral. But there’s too little heart here to make an advancing plague of rats more than the progression of a black cube along the track, and donating to Notre Dame never transcends placing a cube on a beige space at the centre of the board.

The game works in one sense, various approaches can win, but there’s no useful product to that work. Maybe the same seems true with respect to my review of Notre Dame: I’m not sure if, for the reader, there’s all that much value in reading about a game I relate to so little. But considered as an experiment, reviewing Notre Dame taught me a good deal about myself as a player, and something about what it’s meaningful for Painted Wooden Cubes to offer as a blog: there’s more soul in celebrating that which has heart, than in sniping at that which lacks it.