2013 in Review

From a board game perspective, for me this year has been one of disciplined spending and less disciplined blogging. In the whole year, I’ve spent over £10 on only a single game – Samarkand: Routes to Riches (a 2010 train game in disguise, designed by David V.H. Peters and Harry Wu). Additionally, however, in the year to date, I’ve only made 15 posts on this site prior to this one.

In part, the two are connected: I feel diminished need for novelty in the games I’m playing, and have less immediately communicable novel thoughts to put here. There’s a lot of pleasure in learning something new from a game on the fiftieth time playing it: that thing, however, tends to be pretty nebulous – after all, it resisted pinpointing in the first 49 plays. When that game is one which tends to be dismissed as trivial by most regular board game players – Ticket to Ride, for instance – any post about such a nuance is not likely to find the audience which would appreciate it. Getting that kind of nebulous thing into words is a lot of work, and the incentive isn’t there.

Returning to my buying habits, I have purchased a few expansions during the course of the year: indeed, most times I’ve felt inclined to reward myself with something new, I’ve bought an expansion rather than an entirely new game. Among these have been the first and third volumes of the Ticket to Ride map collection series (Asia and Africa respectively), a couple of the Cosmic Encounter expansionsand the Wisdom and Warfare expansion for Sid Meier’s CivilizationThe Board Game. Don’t expect reviews soon for any of these: I’m playing each frequently with two, but I know I won’t be able to convince my board game club to play any one of these enough for me to feel qualified to pronounce judgement.

I don’t feel any hunger to nominate a game of the year, for broadly similar reasons. Maybe Zooloretto: The Dice Game. But in my affections it’s nowhere close to Kakerlakenpoker Royal (my favourite from last year). I don’t feel this has been a stellar year.

In terms of my personal most rewarding gaming experiences, I particularly enjoyed taking Hanabi on a visit to my parents – they ended up asking to play each day of my week long stay. After I left, my mother even ordered a copy to give her friends for Christmas (and presumably play with them). Based, in part, on this experience, I’m excited to introduce my parents to Ticket to Ride via the team play variant the Asia expansion introduces. I think it’ll suit their quiz game derived proclivity towards playing as a partnership.

I’ve also stumbled into designing a card game, and that’s brought a fair few kicks so far with the private, unexpected moments of enlightenment it has provoked. At the moment, it only exists as a couple of hundred index cards with scribbles on them: however, preliminary playtests with the game in this form have me thinking there is something there worth building upon. The game is a trading game set in the world of today, and features very liberal trading and deal making (sneaking out of the room to forge a deal in secret is encouraged: eavesdropping on such trades is also highly endorsed). The game also features, I think, a couple of neat twists on action selection which should promote both the formation of contingent alliances and suspicion of the partners in those alliances.

The game, codenamed Trust, is something I’ll be posting about here in the coming year. Hopefully, however, someone else will also produce something to excite me and get me raving here. Few games may have really excited me this year, but I’ve not lost my hunger to seek excitement in games.

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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.

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.

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.

Events Beyond My Control


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.

Space Beans:

Passing Hands.

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.