Could or Should a Game Design be Autobiographical?

I’ve a collection of fragmentary expressions of idle thoughts, waiting to be turned into fuller pieces for Painted Wooden Cubes. Some run to a couple of paragraphs, some a couple of sentences; some are what I think represent neat puns, waiting to be used in titles for articles as yet undevised.

Then there are the questions I’ve posed myself: questions I’ve wanted to let run through my mind before sitting down to address in writing – questions to which I’ve wanted to be able to venture an answer, rather than having to offer articles remaining inconclusive.

The question which has sat unanswered in my drafts folder for the longest is the one above: Could or should a game design be autobiographical? It’s waited there six months or so now, returning to my mind whenever I task myself to write something for the site, teasing me, getting in the way of new ideas.

Let’s get it out of the way.

It keeps coming back because it’s a question which fascinates me, but which I can’t resolve for myself. As a writer, I can’t help but feel that any piece I compose, whatever its nature or purpose, must reveal something about me in some sense. Academic articles and inconsequential, formal emails each betray something of me, however impersonal I might wish them to be.

And then the fiction I’ve written cannot help but interact with the notion of autobiography: I write characters with my own name, but then deliberately attempt to distort them from being in my own image: I reverse an aspect of myself, and see how the new character turns out. I don’t pretend that this is in any respect a radical approach to composition. Quite the opposite: I am aware a great many writers  use variations upon the same devices – some more overtly, some less.

This need not be purely about narrative forms: non-narrative poetry may be generated through similar processes, or music might, and imagination makes me confident the same is also true of much visual art.

But what of games? Certain designers offer recognizable patterns in their work: Knizia, Feld, Vaccarino. Ought their design tendencies to be considered expressions of the self?

I suppose they must be, at least in a technical sense. But how useful is this as a means of thinking about the game design process? How important is self-expression in sitting down to make a game? And how important is it in assessing the worth of a game someone else has created?

If an album were described, say, as its artist’s ‘rawest ever expression of himself  or herself,’ I might be pretty curious to listen (depending on the artist in question). If a game were sold as ‘Reiner Knizia’s rawest ever expression of himself’ I’d be absolutely desperate to play.

I ask, largely because I am unable to speak from experience. I am not a designer. The germs of thoughts I’ve had with respect to potentially designing a game have primarily been practical in their origins: realizations that I haven’t seen a particular take on a mechanism utilized in any game I’ve played. Such thoughts I might then toy with coolly, as logical puzzles, as temporary distractions. Very little which I think defines me comes into any of this.

If I’m thinking about themes for an imaginary game, there’s maybe more of my self invested, but not startlingly so: I think the fact that I play with ideas for games about, say, contemporary political processes only says a very limited amount about me.

Do any game designers reading feel differently? Do the processes of play-testing, and players’ expectations of balanced, working mechanisms prevent articulation of the self from being a feature of game design or not?

Three Gaming Resolutions for 2013

No preamble, just ideas:

1. Focus on limited number of games and systems.

I’m relatively content about the frequency with which I buy new items: in 2012 I tended to buy a large new game roughly once every three months (making public declarations that I didn’t intend to buy a big new game until, say, September, helped – knowing I would be embarrassed if I couldn’t follow through with what I had said was a powerful force for me). In addition, I traded a fair number of games, which helped keep on course.

Nevertheless, even buying new games with quite low frequency, I realized I was reaching the point where I would struggle to engage meaningfully with many more different big games and gaming systems. Thus, in 2013, I’m likely to prioritize buying expansions over new games. I want a degree of novelty, and I admit that the excitement that knowing something cool is in the post to me can be a stimulus to get through a dull day, but at this point becoming acquainted with an entirely new game can feel more of a drain that a boost. It’s not just the time it takes to learn the rules of the game, but the amount of thought that must be given to a game before time with it truly becomes enriching – the point where learning a game is replaced by learning from a game. I’ve put in the effort with games like Race for the Galaxy, Agricola and Innovation, and have reached a point where each play of each of these games teaches me something: I don’t see much point in starting from the beginning with close cousins of any of these.

2. Give more time to the little guys.

The exceptions to the above, perhaps, are the brisker, less intricate card games which really brought me into the hobby. A game that is quick to learn is also quick to relearn: thus it’s not a particular problem if a simpler board or card game spends some time out of favour. By further extension, this means possessing more such games is more justifiable (within reason). For instance, I haven’t played my personal favourite, 6 Nimmt!, in some time, but if called upon with no notice, I could  explain the game to an unfamiliar crowd (and do so well), and then play the game itself to a high level.

My last large purchase of 2012 was made up of four smaller card games ordered from Germany, and together, they’ve probably brought me more pleasure than the three bigger games I bought in 2012. I mentioned in my recent review of it that Kakerlakenpoker Royal constituted my personal favourite game of 2012, and I’m entirely serious in feeling that a quick-playing card game of this kind can, if done well, have value which surpasses the complicated big-box board games which have, regrettably, come to eclipse (pun unintended) other forms of game in our hobby. I’ve been revitalized not only by playing this kind of game anew, but by introducing them to others: I’ve found a number of people new to the hobby are not familiar with the unfussy kind of designs which were once felt to be archetypal of modern board and card games. I want 2013 to be a year of simple card games, in my own playing, if not in the wider world of this hobby.

3. Design something.

Just to see what it turns out to be. I’ve been mulling this as an exercise in self-expression for some time: it feels like time to stop pondering, and start something. I’ve no goal to take any idea to the level of publication (I don’t flatter myself to even think I could). However, I’ve also no goal to become a rock-star, yet improvising on the guitar is a great pleasure for me.

Revisions, January 2013: Sid Meier’s Civilization; Hey, That’s My Fish!; Food Chain; Oregon

January 2012 was the first full month for Painted Wooden Cubes. As with so many projects, the site started with a surfeit of ambition and a want of direction. I wrote a great deal that month, largely to see what form my thoughts would take written down. Four of the pieces written at that time took the form of reviews, encompassing the longest, most convoluted game I own, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, and one of the shortest and least intricate I then possessed; Hey, That’s My Fish! 

The breadth of coverage from that month was a valuable means to explore how my style of commentary could address games of diverse styles. It also, I feel, accelerated my comprehension of my own interest in games: in part through working on Painted Wooden Cubes I have come to understand that I like board games encompassing a breadth of styles, but wish to focus upon a limited number of games across that breadth.

In the coming months, Painted Wooden Cubes will probably be restructured to reflect this. I think the site can be more valuable to me personally if it comes to focus more on some of those games I myself focus upon. There are four or five games among those I am most interested in for which I think there is the audience for a deeper resource (which means, sadly, no 6 Nimmt!-specific blog): I intend to select three or so of those, and provide more and deeper coverage of them on Painted Wooden Cubes. I understand that for some the games chosen will not be of interest, but a broad-brush site cannot, by its nature, be as penetrating as a more specialized one.

Feel free, of course, to let me know what you think about these ideas.

Anyway.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game

Original review from January9th, 2012: Arabian Knights

Sid Meier’s Civilization is a game I’ve now owned for exactly two years: it was a New Year’s gift at the start of 2011. I was a great fan of the computer game series, particularly the fourth game in the series, to which I dedicated a lot of time in the years following its release.

Indeed, to a certain extent, the relative demise of strategic computer games was part of what saw me take an interest in modern board games. As I’ve written before, it was through online portal BrettSpielWelt that I first became acquainted with what board and card games have become, meaning, in effect, board and card games were strategy computer games for me for a time (the same, I guess, must also be the case for some users of iOS and Android devices).

As a distillation of the Civilization series, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game continues to bring me a lot of pleasure. I’ve played perhaps thirty times by this point, and still find flipping over the map sections used in any given game exciting: though I know my starting position relative to that of my opponents’ is fixed, unlike in the computer games, it’s fuel for the imagination seeing the varying lie of the land between us.

The enthusiasm I expressed for the game in my initial review remains largely undimmed. My opinions on what represent its particular strengths are also little changed. I said last year that Sid Meier’s Civilization succeeds because in it  you ‘can play the ruthless dictator or benevolent king or queen of your civilization, and not its finance minister or treasurer.’ I stand by this. It’s a game of big decisions regarding orientation – towards war or peace, economy or culture – rather than financial micro-management. I’m very glad it is.

Hey, That’s My Fish!

Original review from 13th January, 2012: Be Gentoo with Me

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I’ve probably also played Hey, That’s My Fish! thirty odd times, though that means it’s taken rather fewer hours of my life than Sid Meier’s Civilization.

If you were to steal any game from my collection, I reckon Hey, That’s My Fish! would be one of the last I’d notice were missing. I find intruiging the spatial challenge the game provides, but it’s not something which occupies my thoughts when I’m not playing: Hey, That’s My Fish! isn’t metonymic of an aspect of my gaming taste (I never catch myself saying that ‘I enjoy games like Agricola, 6 Nimmt! and Hey, That’s My Fish!), and isn’t something I tend to await my next game of fervently.

Still, when it does force itself into my thoughts, as now, I find myself fond of it. Hey, That’s My Fish! is a wonderful item on a table: childish looking, yet an intense, sophisticated challenge. Even in the small box edition I own, the penguins are great toys as well as playing pieces. To a particular audience, it would probably be the ideal game for demonstrating what modern board games can be.

Food Chain (Who Eats Whom?: The Card Game)

Original review from 20th January, 2012: Man Eating Spider

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I was sent a copy of Food Chain along with my prize in a Games for Geekgold lottery at Board Game Geek. A couple of games I’ve reviewed have been gifts, but this constitutes the only unsolicited freebie about which I’ve written (though I wasn’t sent it because of this blog). Perhaps Iwould have praised the game less had I bought it myself: I think the point is not that I wrote with the intention to be generous (I didn’t), but that I wrote with the sense of reviewing for an imagined possible buyer rather than reviewing in myself as an actual buyer. Somebody would buy this game and enjoy it, and I was writing for that person. The problem is that I’m not sure how many people could buy Food Chain and not feel their money could better have been spent on something else.

I guess the chief issue I find myself having with Food Chain (known as Who Eats Whom?: The Card Game for its first edition) is that there’s not often that much fun in working out what to do with a hand of cards. The strength of cards is not nearly as situational as in many of the best card games: a bear or a wolf is almost always a good card to have, a rabbit or mouse almost always weak. Though the game can be won from a weak start, this will tend to be through swapping cards, rather than through exploiting opportunities to do something useful with a poor card. The game by no means provides a bad experience, but there are a great many card games which offer that bit more than Food Chain.

Oregon

Original review from 30th January, 2012: Simple Plans

Oregon Mid-game

Many of my British readers will be aware that discount outlet The Works bought a large batch of modern board games in 2011. Many of those readers will probably have noticed that a fair number of games reviewed on this site were available in The Works at that time. I admit I took full advantage of the sale to explore games I would not otherwise have been able to afford.

Oregon, one of those games, is secure as part of my game collection for the foreseeable future. I love tile-laying, and, while Oregon is not as wonderful a game as Carcassonne, it provides a pleasurable alternative. The choice between placing a meeple or a tile which Oregon offers is typically a challenging one (and not a feature of Carcassonne), while the aspect of hand-management in Oregon is also a challenge Carcassonne does not offer. Carcassonne is by far the more attractive looking game, which counts for a lot; when introducing people to modern board games, I’d more often expect Carcassonne to make the better first impression. Nevertheless, Oregon is a lot of fun as a reconstitution of Carcassonne‘s core elements.

Life of Pi: First Plays with the Latest Agricola Deck

The Agricola π deck, a mini-expansion composed of 12 occupation and 12 minor improvement cards, was released at Essen this year. When the deck appeared in the Board Game Geek store earlier this month, I decided to take a chance on it. I’m no completist, and do not have any other Agricola expansion decks, but a promo can offer a neat way to dabble with something new.

I was not entirely sure what to expect. The artwork on the cards of the π deck suggests it constitutes a toy primarily for the Play Agricola community who designed its cards: the illustrations, even those for minor improvements, feature portraits of the designers, as well as their friends and relatives. In particular, Angry Duck and Retirement appear to constitute in-jokes from which the player not involved with Play Agricola cannot help but feel excluded. Likewise, the family portraits on the Alchemist and the Fertility Shrine are alienating.

Anyway, on Friday my order turned up in the post, and on Saturday I had my first chance to play with the new cards, using them in two three-player games. In the first of those we used six of the seven occupations in the π deck suitable for play with three or less (the remaining one, the Altruist, looked as if it would demand very unorthodox play from its possessor, and therefore we opted not to include it in this instance). We dealt two of these occupations to each player, along with two new minor improvements each. The remainder of cards were a mix of the standard E, I and decks. In the second game, we played with occupations from the base game, together with the remaining six new minor improvements, again giving two to each player.

The first game offered me the Alchemist and the Chisel Maker, along with the Meeting Post and the Fertility Shrine. None of these seemed to constitute a card around which I could build a strategy, nor did any of these cards particularly contribute to creating a killer combination in this instance. In a sense, I was pleased that this was the case. Expansion elements which make themselves heard by overpowering elements of the base game may speak loudly, but seldom sweetly.

In the end, the only occupation I played was the Schnaps Distiller from the K deck. I did, however, play the Meeting Post early in the game. Though I partly played it for a cheap victory point (one wood for one point), the public pool of occupations which the card opens up contributed a fair amount to my enjoyment of this particular game. One opponent kept voicing a desire to recruit the Seed Seller which the other had contributed to the pool. Was it bluff, or was it sincere? It didn’t seem to suit his strategy this game. Would there be any compelling reason to nab the card myself? I decided against doing so, and so did my opponent. However, even though the occupation pool had had little direct impact upon the outcome of this particular game, it stimulated a more dynamic, nuanced form of interaction than Agricola normally musters.

As it transpired, only one new occupation was played by any of us: the Footman. Its power to reserve spaces in order to activate them later was, however, never used too speculatively – largely to grab sowing spaces before having a crop to sow. However, the possessor of the Footman – the eventual winner of the game – suggests even using the card in this way made him tense.

In the second game, I received the Pitchfork and the Shelter in the Field. The Pitchfork seemed tempting, if only for the amount of actions it might provoke my opponents to spend in blocking the reed space. The Shelter in the Field, by contrast, felt more like part of a potential Plan B than a card I would begin the game intending to use. Neither, however, turned out to be part of my game this time. I certainly didn’t need a back-up plan: the gambit of collecting an early fireplace paid off with a handsome meal of sheep, this providing me with a base from which to build a lead over my opponents which was never bridged.

However, Spars and the Gardener’s Bothy did see successful play by my respective opponents, one of whom also enjoyed building a diamond of fields to satisfy the Landscape Design improvement, even if the point yield of doing so was low. It, like many other cards in this deck, offered a side quest to pursue which added to the regular Agricola experience, rather than diluting it. A couple of cards are too situational to imagine they’ll see a great deal of play, but nonetheless the π deck is made up of cards I’m happy to mix in with the others I own, and which I look forward to investigating further.

On Pre-Essen Prejudgments

I will not be attending Essen Spiel this week. I have no desire to collect a suitcase full of the fruit of snap-judgements. My flat is cluttered enough as it is. That said, there would be a lot of talented, interesting people the trip would mean the chance of meeting, but it’s not to be this year.

Anyway, the Essen fair is such a presence in the world of modern board games, and by implication in the world of commentary upon them, that to leave it unmentioned within these pages may carry implications I do not wish.

The thing is, I have nothing to say about forthcoming releases: I’m entirely unkeen on futurology. I will not attempt to boost my critical credibility through scatter-gun predictions about the possible merits of games I have not even played. Equally, I have very little interest in seeing the attempts others make to do so. Call enough games the big new thing, and you’ll be able to say ‘I told you so’ sooner or later; it will, however, be meaningless when you do so.

Relatedly, I have a broad distaste for the idea of want-lists: covetous check-lists of ‘must-own’ games. Pre-Essen want-lists, as a subset of these, tend to stand as particularly depressing, desirous documents of self-delusion: it is hard to see that wanting so many new games so ardently could be entirely healthy.

This is not to say I’m uninterested in news from the fair once it starts to emerge; the trends in games are fascinating to see develop. But the fact so many attendees apparently arrive filled with avarice means that worthwhile response can be difficult to find, at least in the short term. Essen time is not the time of great board game criticism. Those who make hype-lists seldom have it in them to dissect the games they trumpeted with suitable critical coldness: the admission the hype was unfounded – should it need to be made – is a tough one to make.

Why do so many of the board game world’s otherwise better critics fuel the pre-Essen hype-machine? Presumably it’s about raising their individual stock – Essen predictions get eyeballed. Let me see if my own mention of the hobby’s big buzzword of the season brings me attention or not. I’m curious.

In seriousness, I look forward to carrying on this blog at the distance from current events that it usually finds itself. Though, mostly, my engagement with older games is a practical necessity, I do feel it carries benefits for the quality of criticism I can contribute. I will watch what emerges from Essen, but keep my mouth shut until I have anything useful to say about the games which emerge from it. That could be some time.

Closer than Close

I’ve been on my holidays, and with them a three week hiatus from playing games, save for the odd crack at Reiner Knizia’s Ingenious and Robot Master on iOS. On returning home, I was pleased to be able to blow away the post-holiday blues on Saturday with a sprightly four-player session of Airlines Europe, and a couple of two-player games of Dominion.

The former of those proved itself, once again, to provide much of the thrill a more complicated investment game might, without, for better and for worse, much of the associated stress. Wresting control of Jolly Roger Airships, thanks to a lucky mid-game blind draw was buzz, as was being fortunate enough to make an eight million euro investment into the same company the very turn before the second scoring card showed up.

Nevertheless, for all the excitement of each event, its respective impact upon the overall outcome of the game was relatively inconsiderable. Jolly Roger became the most valuable airline, and my stake in it provided me with 14 victory points at the end of the game. However, had I been the joint-largest shareholder, rather than largest outright, I would still have received 11 points for my share in it (meaning that extra share in Jolly Roger was barely more valuable than a single share any other airline would have been). Meanwhile, the eight million euro investment earlier in the game brought only two additional victory points in that scoring round.

In short, those moments which defined my experience of the game had relatively little impact in determining my eventual final score. The insulation against crushing failure which makes Airlines Europe fly as a family game has the regrettable, if inevitable, flipside of clipping the wings of any successes.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that in this game of Airlines Europe, as in others, the dénouement of final scoring well reflected the tone of the game itself: irresistibly exiting for the narrow margins between victory and defeat, but undercut by the sense that the limited difference between triumph and disaster should mean the two imposters were better treated just the same. The winner of this particular game managed 72 points, I had 71, the third place player 70, and the player in fourth 66. Without meaning to cast doubt upon the skill of any player, it would be hard to say the actual winner represented the only possible rightful victor: the final scoring card (shuffled among the bottom ten share cards in the game’s deck) could have come a turn or two later and in doing so produced an entirely reversed result.

The games of Dominion I also played that day provide a note of contrast, in terms of tight scoring and its significance. Each was also pretty close – the former I lost by two points, the latter I won by three. However, unlike in Airlines Europe, victory could broadly be said to have been deserved, and so could defeat.

Partly, knowing exactly when a game will end allows for more precisely reasoned action. An additional key factor, I think, is the fact that victory points in Dominion are not only theoretically trackable, but are realistically calculable (in most cases). This is because victory points are spread across a small number different cards, each of which is only available in limited quantities. It’s not so taxing to keep a mental note of how many Provinces you’ve bought (only eight in total are used in a two-player game), or how many Estates you’ve trashed. Therefore it is not too great a challenge to calculate your score, or that of your opponent, at any given point.

Arms playing Dominion (Photo by Filipe Cunha)

The result of this is that it’s possible during a game of Dominion to make moves knowing yourself to be in a winning or a losing position – something which is much less possible in Airlines Europe. In the first game of Dominion I played on Saturday, for instance, I knew my opponent had a four point advantage over me with only two Provinces left in the supply. Because of this, I gambled – knowing the gambit I was using would, in itself, feel like a deserving winning move if it worked, but knowing also that my opponent’s better play earlier in the game would make her a fit winner if I failed. (For those interested, I trashed a succession of Mining Villages in one turn – an action which gives extra money – aiming to put myself in the position to buy both remaining Provinces in one go. I fell short by the equivalent of one Copper card.) Key moments can directly be understood in terms of their impact upon winning or losing, unlike in Airlines Europe.

I very much enjoy Airlines Europe, and enjoyed Saturday’s game a great deal. However, the suspension of disbelief necessary to feel that the game’s moments of drama really matter is large. A close score is only truly satisfying if victory can be felt to have been deserved (or, by extension, defeat feels warranted). That the exact point at which a game of Airlines Europe will end is unknown, and that victory points are almost impossible to track each hinder this feeling.