The Deal with Card Game Spin-Offs

Another Essen Season brings another dribble of card game adaptations of successful board games. Days of Wonder has announced Shadows over Camelot: The Card Game, a much shortened reworking of their 2005 cooperative hit (down from a play time around an hour and a half to one of about 20 minutes); while White Goblin Games will be releasing Rattus Cartus, a sideways step from their two-year-old plague-survival strategy number, now percolated into an influence-gathering, prove-yourself-the-superior-prince-or-princess, card-based affair. Winsome Games’ 2012 Essen set even includes an 1830 card game, though it is described as a two-hour ‘economic slugfest,’ which at least sounds somewhat in keeping with the slow-playing ruthlessness of the series with which it associates itself.

This kind of card game has, of course, been around for some time. I had 1990’s Cluedo Card Game as a child (though I struggle to remember how much it deviated from the board game), while a quick rifle through the Board Game Geek database brings up the Monopoly Card Game from 2000 and a Game of Life Card Game from 2002. I’m sure a more dedicated archaeologist than I am could unearth earlier examples of the board-game-to-card-game conversion.

Of a similar sort of age is the Catan Card Game from 1996 (re-released, re-jigged in 2010 as The Rivals for Catan, and reviewed here). In one sense, this has to be regarded as the source of the trend for modern strategy games to be reconceived in card game form. However, 2004’s San Juan, the card game child of Puerto Rico, almost certainly accelerated the trend, given the positive reaction it has received as a game in its own right (Puerto Rico was a Spiel des Jahre nominee in 2002, while San Juan featured on the list of recommended games, the step below nomination, in 2004; San Juan also spent many years in the Board Game Geek Top 100).

The Rivals for Catan

The Rivals for Catan

The predictability of such releases – the 1830 card game perhaps excepted – may feel reason enough to be weary and wary.  But there’s also more developed, rational room for suspicion of such games. The owner of a board game receiving the card game redux treatment can be forgiven for wondering why he or she needed to buy a costly board game when an ostensibly related experience is now available more affordably (and more portably); a possible buyer, meanwhile, may wonder whether the cheaper spin-off received the same level of care its parent game did.

Additional reason to be suspicious is the thinness of the connection some such games bear to their apparent parent, or the lack of need for them. Alhambra: The Card Game did something no-one was really asking for, scantly recalibrating what was already a lightish, and already heavily card-based game (though, in one of those tricky board game family tree affairs, Alhambra itself drew a great deal from an earlier card game by its designer Dirk Henn, Stimmt So!). Cardcassonne, meanwhile, has so little to do with Carcassonne that it’s hard to imagine it providing the experience anyone who purchased it had hoped: its set claiming mechanism has no obvious link to the main Carcassonne game, and were it not for its name, few would probably make the connection. In short, it might be called a Carcassonne game, but it really isn’t.

But there can be no denying that familiarity does breed curiosity. If, for instance, announced a card game version of Eclipse tomorrow, in two days it would, almost certainly, be top of the hotness list on Board Game Geek. And that’s fine, really. I’d probably be one of the ones driving it there, and I’m no Eclipse devotee. The how-will-they-do-it? aspect of finding out about the conversion would be enough to engage me to at least poke my nose in its direction.

And curiosity means the phenomenon will continue to exist, insomuch as a certain proportion of snoopers will turn into shoppers. Broadly, that’s fine too. But we, as players, can bring demands regarding what we would like these attention-grabbers to do – if something is going to claim my attention, I’d rather, in the end, that it deserves it.

I think there are two main factors typically sought in card game versions of established games; a game which will play well with two, and a game providing a lighter, shorter distillation of the experience its parent game provides. Could these standard expectations become standard demands? I don’t really see why not.

Certainly, the Catan Card Game and San Juan are alike in the significant respect that they each derive from a board game intended for three or more players, but can, in their new card game forms, be played with two (the Catan Card Game is only for two, San Juan for between two and four players).

Two player San Juan

Two player San Juan (Photo by Roberto Duca)

Similarly, where Shadows over Camelot is for three to seven players, Shadows over Camelot: The Card Game is supposedly suitable for solitare play, as well as admitting play by two or more (up to a maximum of seven, as with the original game). Rattus can be played by between two and four players, but seems to be favoured with higher numbers (43 out of 48 respondents to the Board Game Geek player count poll rated the game as best with four); Rattus Cartus, though it actually extends the range of players, allowing for between two and five, gives hope that it will offer a better two player experience, at least upon inspection of the rules.

Often, this greater suitability for play with two comes from removing the spatial aspect of the game which a board tends to host. The area control elements of Rattus, if they may be called that, are, by nature, only constituted by binary tit-for-tat when playing with two. The card game derivation, by abolishing the board, allows for more nuanced, if less directly competitive, playing approaches: the question of which building I use, and how I use it, is broader than the question of how to maximize my population and minimize my opponent’s. I expect my choices might, often, be informed more by my hand of cards than by my opponent’s current situation, but if the game is any good, my opponent’s condition will not be an irrelevance to my playing choices. How much, however, Rattus Cartus will feel like Rattus, I’m not sure. Puerto Rico and Shadows over Camelot are less spatial to begin with, so the card game conversion of each had less of a battle in preserving the flavour of the parent game.

With respect to providing a shorter playing time and a lighter experience, San Juan remains a good example, the Catan Card Game does not. Between two experienced players, a game of San Juan need take no more than half an hour (more players will increase the length a certain amount). The Catan Card Game, by contrast takes about ninety minutes to play: comparable to The Settlers of Catan itself. My personal experience is only with the Rivals for Catan relaunch, but the game length remains as long (and there’s not, for me, sufficient development in any given game to justify the length).

In terms of lightness, the randomness implicit in the shuffling of a deck of cards does not so much give the possibility of lightness, as mandate it. Any card game which features shuffling – either before the game, during it, or both – is fighting its own fundamental nature if it tries to work against, rather than with, the experience of riding the whims of the deck. Even if a card game is an adaptation of a more serious board game, I think the greater onus has to be on being true to the current medium – otherwise the resulting play experience will, almost certainly, be a confusing one.

San Juan lets its deck of cards be a fickle creature, The Rivals for Catan does not (and neither, I understand, does the original Catan Card Game). The latter is the poorer and the tougher to comprehend for this.

There are a number of possible ways to succeed in a game of San Juan, but in any given instance certain of these will not be available to a particular player, insomuch as he or she will not see the cards needed to make that approach work. Good play is, therefore, recognizing the possibilities which are available, and adapting to them. Sometimes, of course, the final component in a well-thought out plan will never arrive (in particular, the game has a number of buildings which give bonus points for possessing other kinds of building – missing out on the right bonus building can often be the difference between winning and losing), but the quickness of the game suits the level of luck involved.

 The approach taken by The Rivals for Catan is rather different. In it, a player can pay resources to search a draw deck (there are three or more in each game), and select a card of his or her choice from it. This does, of course, limit the potential poor luck with cards has to blight a player’s game, but, at the same time, it takes away the flavour of riding one’s luck with ought to characterize a card game. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the draw deck in question should be left unshuffled after the player has selected a card from it: the memory aspect makes the game exceedingly draining. It feels something like playing a card game which doesn’t want to be a card game.

It could be argued that preconceptions are, by nature, unfair. That demanding that card game spin-offs always fit certain requirements (be it only two of them), is too prescriptive. But the issue is that the card game spin-off, by its nature, intends to play into preconceptions. Cardcassonne wants me to approach it generously because of the esteemed family to which it is linked. San Juan, for all it does well in itself, wants to take a certain gravity-by-association from its link with Puerto Rico.  Therefore, when I’m told I should have preconceptions before playing a game, that should associate it with certain experiences by virtue of its parentage, I think there’s nothing wrong in asking a given card-game spin-off to provide the two most desired qualities in the spin-off form: two-player potential, and card game breeziness.

Agricola, and Assessing the Value of Moves Untaken

On a game-by-game level I’m choosy about reading strategy articles. For about half of the games I play regularly, I avoid reading anything of this kind. I know there to have been plenty written about how to succeed at Race for the Galaxy, but I want to learn about its card combinations and hand management strategies for myself. On the other hand, there are games I want to play to the highest standard I possibly can, and that inevitably means standing on the shoulders of others to do so – using their wisdom, and advancing from it. I think each approach has value, and there are enough games I have a chance to play regularly that I can utilize each.

Agricola is one game I wish to play at a serious level. However, there is a curious absence in strategy articles with respect to it: the way in which certain decisions either increase or reduce the space in which a player can perform (both in the sense of possible in-game actions available to perform, and in the sense of the range of table talk and body language a player can use to manipulate his or her opponents). Playing a card from hand is necessary to gain its benefit – but there has been little comment on how this action also has a cost in terms of exposing a player’s goals.

This may be true with respect to strategy articles about other games too. It is simple to calculate how much food, say, the Berry Picker has granted a player in a particular game of Agricola. Or how much use a particular building in Caylus attracts, and how much direct reward it grants its owner. It is, by extension, relatively simple to calculate how much food, on average, the Berry Picker gives in different games with different numbers of players. One could then rank the cards on broadly this basis – as I believe has happened.

Working out what options a move denies a player is an entirely more complex business. This side of the equation is, I think, very much under-considered. But, while it may be essentially impossible to trace, that does not mean it should be ignored, with respect to Agricola or any other game.

That pesky farming game

That pesky farming game (Photo by Tony Bosca)

In Agricola, the three most revered cards tend to be the occupations Taster, Lover and Wet Nurse. The latter two in particular must be played early to be valuable. Because of this, they quickly limit a player’s flexibility.

I will not argue that these occupations are not strong. The Taster is particularly powerful. In that it lets a player jump ahead in the turn order with his or her first worker for a small payment of food, It takes much of its potency from the fact it is essentially unblockable; there is no means by which its owner can be prevented from having first choice of action whenever he or she values this sufficiently to pay for it.

The other two are also potent, but do leave more opportunity for opponents to counter them. The Lover costs a not inconsiderable four food to play, but allows its possessor to immediately claim a new family member, even without space in his or her farm. The card is valued for allowing very early family growth, giving the person who played it an advantage in actions through the opening stages of the game. But, in that so much food must be spent by the player in question, his or her survival at the next harvest can be dicey, and can be made punitively taxing with a little targeted play.

The Wet Nurse, meanwhile, allows a player to expand his or her family at the same time as expanding his or her house (thus saving actions and sparing the need to compete for the  highly-contested family growth action space). It too tends to be of the greatest utility earlier in the game – therefore exposing the individual who played the card. If he or she does advance through this gambit, the gains are clear to all other players.

In short a card which must be revealed early to be of value stands to be as much a curse as it is a blessing.

What then, to make of a card like the Hide Farmer? Its power is solely connected with end-of-game scoring; it allows a player to pay one food per unused space in his or farm in order to prevent these spaces attracting the minus points they would normally. Now deceased Agricola card reviewing site, Agricola DEconSTRUCTED (I don’t get the point of the eccentric capitalization), suggested that ‘converting food on 1:1 basis for VP is awesome,’ heralding this aspect of the card, but then it ultimately awards the card a mark of 4/10.

This, I think, rather misses the point. The Hide Farmer allows a player to intentionally leave unused spaces on his or her farm, knowing they needn’t yield negative points. It oughtn’t, ideally, to be used to mop up the results of sloppy play, but to liberate a player to pursue an extreme strategy. I can largely avoid the ever-fraught contests to collect wood for fences, and invest more in potentially lucrative (and useful) major or minor improvements.

What is more, I can, with the right gloss and demeanour, do this without looking to my opponents like too serious a threat. An opponent familiar with the card manifest might have suspicions, but, I would say, these could usually be defused. And then, one finds oneself able to pursue one’s direction, the victim of little or no intentional obstruction.

Being able to hide one’s success is difficult to value in concrete terms – which is why I believe it to be undervalued, in this game and in others. In this case, it might mean that opponents let that bit more stone stack up before swooping, choosing instead an option that hurts a more openly successful player. One’s neighbour to the right might be that bit more ready to play a minor improvemment which has to be passed on to me. I might not be blocked so readily from becoming starting player.

The same is also true of the Yeoman Farmer – which lets a player escape minus points for not accumulating any of a particular crop or animal, and for not building fields or pastures. In his card by card review of Agricola‘s occupations, Alex Chen writes that ‘If you’re playing decently, he shouldn’t be worth more than 2 points.’ I guess I must disagree – if you’re playing decently, the Yeoman Farmer will inevitably be worth more than two points (if it weren’t, you most probably wouldn’t even play it from your hand, after all). The card can look poor in terms of the points it directly yields, but in terms of how it may distort an opponent’s perception, its value is potentially considerable, and undoubtedly immeasurable.

In a sense, many strategy articles which have been influential seem to lose sight of the fact that they address games which involve multiple players attempting to read and manipulate a system. In short, they mistake the economic structure around which a game rotates for the game itself. Knowing, broadly, the relative worth of wood, reed, stone and clay in Agricola is no small part of knowing what’s going on, but it’s the barest beginning of knowing what really constitutes the game and how to win at it.

A large part of Agricola exists in distorting what other players perceive to be your needs with respect to each resource, and taking advantage of that distortion. Bulldozer wins – establishing an early lead other players cannot restrain – exist, but are rare. In that most Agricola strategy articles I’ve come across have begun and ended with identifying the perfect storm of cards which might allow this barnstorming approach to succeed, there’s an awful lot of game that’s yet to adequately be covered.

Matters of Fact, Part II: False Economies

Last week, I considered the extent to which board and card games ought to be accurate with respect to matters of fact – how much they can, and should, cohere with the world they represent in terms of historical and geographical accuracy.

What about a game’s representation of processes? How likely are these to misinform, and how likely are players to be alert to the fact that a game could be deceptive in this sense? To put it another way, what ought we to make of an economic game founded on mechanisms not found in reality?

Lately, I’ve been somewhat hooked upon German Railways (the Queen Games version of Winsome’s Preußische Ostbahn). It’s a splendidly teasing train game, built on very simple rules: on any turn, a player may either auction a share in one of the game’s companies, build track for a company or pass. A fine piece of work, if anything its greatest fault is its unassuming name. (‘Hi everyone! I’ve got a great new game – it’s called German Railways!’ is an exclamation which cannot help but fizzle out half-way through, no matter how much you believed in it when you opened your mouth. I’m not saying it should have been called Railway Rampage or anything of the kind, but I can’t believe ‘German Railways’ was the best they could do.)

Anyway, German Railways is rather particular in how it handles dividends: paid out by all companies in the game when the networks of any two companies first meet, each share yields a dividend equivalent to the current total income of the company in question, no matter how many shares in the company have been sold. So, for instance, the Berlin-Hamburger railway may at the time of a dividend payment have an income of 12 talers: if one share in the company has been sold, then the company will pay out 12 talers to its one shareholder. If, however, two or three of its shares have been sold, then 24 or 36 talers will be paid out – 12 per share.  In contrast to most other games, a limited dividend pool is not diluted as more shares are sold.

German Railways

Dividend triggering connections in German Railways (Photo by Gary James)

Naturally, this has a dramatic effect on the entire economy of the game, and greatly impacts upon the kind of investment strategies which will be successful.

It also appears to estrange the game from the real world. Were there not limits on the number of shares to be sold in each company (only three are available for each), and were there not a game end condition which tends to arrive swiftly (play concludes when all companies have a network which directly connects to that of two other companies, or when it becomes impossible for this to occur), then limitless money could be paid out. Indeed, even in a particularly attritional game, all players will tend to be much richer by the end of the game than they were at the start (or at least, that is my experience to date).

Of course, it can hardly be imagined that a player would approach a game with only three possible actions as an accurate reflection of real world economics: but is it better to say that a game like German Railways is valued in spite of its inaccuracies, or because of them? What is the relationship between the game’s limitations as a simulation and its value as an exercise?

Part of what makes German Railways an interesting case to consider is that it has a (better-named) sister game, Chicago Express (first released by Winsome Games as Wabash Cannonball), which is built on largely the same fundamentals. However, Chicago Express can be said to be closer to reality in that in it additional shares do dilute a finite dividend pool. If a company in the game has an income of ten dollars, and one shareholder, he or she takes all ten, but if the company has two shareholders, with a share each, then, in this game, they each receive five dollars.

Chicago Express

Chicago Express (Photo by Igor Mustac)

Many might argue that Chicago Express is the better game of the two, but few would do so for reasons of its marginally greater concordance with reality. Its fans celebrate the game for the fact ‘it packs an awful lot of agonizing decisions into the space of about an hour‘ and for the fascination of its ‘shifting alliances.’ Meanwhile, German Railways is praised by its fans for almost entirely the same qualities: for its ‘fascinating dynamically shifting relationships among players‘ and the way that ‘the game state changes quickly and dramatically’ (same page of comments as the previous quote). Realism is pretty much a non-issue in both cases: In these instances, and others, I do not believe that players looking to privilege a form of mechanical accuracy, however that idea might be understood.

Evidently, an implicit aspect of having board games as a hobby, rather than a single game, is the desire to work with different systems, and presumably to gain emotional or intellectual enrichment from drawing connections between those systems. The urge behind exploring new games is seldom, I believe, to find a single most utile system: an 18xx fan, for instance, does not generally approach the system trying to find the one 18xx game which will most help him or her in life and in business. He or she is, I believe, looking for stimulation, rather than practical advice, and, as such admits variety as means of greater stimulation.

Pieces of advice can mostly only be followed individually; though all of my friends may give good advice for a given situation, some inevitably has to be followed to the exclusion of others – a composite, generated from part of one suggestion and part of another still only constitutes a single plan. Stimulation can, by contrast, coexist from multiple sources: consider the effect on the brain of a day playing different games, against a session in which only one game is included. In not seeking authority, conflicting ideas can be left to play with one another. I believe that is a key aspect of my own relationship with strategy games, and I do not believe I am alone in this.

There is a contrast with those game cultures which do often involve exclusive, or near exclusive engagement. For instance, there are, it is interesting to note, any number of books which purport to apply chess theory to other contexts, particularly to business. To a certain extent, it is beside the point whether these books do actually draw upon the mechanisms of chess as analogues for aspects of business, or whether they instead promote as useful more generic personal characteristics which might be found in a good chess player, such as focus and patience. The point is that, with a single source, there is the expectation that utilizable advice can be sought. Chess players may celebrate the novelty the game can produce, even after numberless plays, but it is clear that novel stimulation cannot be the primary driver for returning to the same game repeatedly.

From the perspective of stimulation, there may even be an inverse relationship to a game’s accuracy as simulation. If a game coheres with the world, it may be more approachable, and its stimuli more readily digested (each of which is important in creating a pleasurable, valuable game experience) – but I believe this can often be at the expense of a depth of stimulation.

The curious dividend mechanism of German Railways is, for me, more stimulating than the more conventional one found in Chicago Express: through its idiosyncrasy, the German Railways system occasions more distinct game states, more removed from other gaming experiences. The game does not give me much which can directly be processed as advice, but gives me a wealth of more abstracted, less structured stimulation. It makes me think differently, which in itself is to be lauded. In board and card games, I would contend that false economies are not only to be accepted, but celebrated.

Matters of Fact

If a game is likely to last longer than five minutes, then I want to learn something from it. For this reason, I can’t abide Fluxx or any of its myriad progeny. I love to play, but struggle with the idea of time spent unproductively. Thankfully, productive play is very much possible.

However, to what extent does the game as a learning tool imply a teacher? If the game designer is to be cast in this role, to what extent does he or she bear responsibility that what is learnt is not fallacious?

Broadly, not exhaustively, two chief kinds of learning appear to emerge from playing a strategy game: the learning of facts, and the learning of processes. I will address the former today, and the latter in the near future.

The former category may appear the most straight-foward: a game should be accurate on points of fact. However, this ostensible simplicity can be deceptive.

Accuracy and the play experience can often stand at odds. Indeed, though it might seem initially perverse, I think it is often the case that those factual inaccuracies which least affect gameplay are the hardest to accept. I think players will tolerate certain orders of deviation from reality if they can be seen to enhance the experience a game provides.

For instance, this thread on Board Game Geek reveals how few of the rail and ferry routes represented in Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries existed in 1910, the year in which the game is set. Many (according to those posting, at least) have simply never existed up to the present day. However, the game is widely praised, with many commentators finding the map ‘tight,’ and praising the ‘cut-throat’ two player game it generates. It defies credibility to suppose that the same region of the world, represented using only genuine connections, should have produced as rewarding a player experience. The designer (Alan R. Moon), has departed from reality for the sake of the game.

By contrast, Ian Vincent, the designer of Ticket to Ride: India, reveals in a design diary that the connections depicted in his iteration of the game are almost entirely accurate. However, this is only true in the sense that the game represents railway connections which existed in the year 1911: Vincent’s source map depicts many railway routes which are not reproduced in his entry to the Ticket to Ride series. Moreover, while the India map has been well-received, it’s probably little surprise that  it is the balance of the game, and the freshness of the experience the map offers which have been praised. The accuracy of the map is not celebrated at all.

Thus, it appears that the nature of the play experience these games provide is more important than their accuracy,at least judging by their popular reception. In that Ticket to Ride tends to be perceived as a lighter game, it might be that it is approached with a forgiving mentality with respect to its factual correctness.

I’m not sure. I doubt, thought I concede the example feels silly, that it would be seen as justified if a Ticket to Ride game were to invent a new city for the sake of balancing a map.

Indeed, extending from this, I think there exists a complicated contract with respect to the degree and nature of the deviations from fact which might be felt to be acceptable in a game. An imagined route – in any game – is not a great worry, whereas an imagined city (in a real-world game) would irk most players.

I think on any given point, the nature of the agreement on accuracy between player and designer is more easily felt than defined. To ask designers to be alert to a nebulous feeling of acceptability may sound weak, but I think there’s much that is commonly accepted with respect to what is and is not acceptable.

Of course, this entwines with the scepticism brought to the learning experience. I’d feel betrayed if, after playing Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries, I learnt that Honningsvåg and Lahti had just been invented to fill spaces on the map (they haven’t, unless there’s a vast, weird Nordic conspiracy afoot throughout the internet). By contrast, I don’t particularly care if I can travel between the two by train or not (or whether I could have 100 years ago). I doubt my feelings are exceptional in this respect.

Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries

Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries. Lahti, at the top of the picture, is not imaginary (Photo by Raiko Puust)

This all said, a game which contains errors which do not directly affect gameplay cannot typically use a justification which appeals to the player experience. Such inaccuracies are therefore more unquestionably troubling.

For instance, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (which I have commented on before), uses a map with numerous errors, including depicting a still united Yugoslavia and Soviet Union (though these problems have been addressed with the most recent printing). The mistakes in question have no direct effect on the game (neither Yugoslavia nor the Soviet Union can be controlled), but are distracting, and speak of a design team unengaged with the world about which they are supposedly communicating something.

Soviet Union in Labyrinth

The Soviet Union in 2001 in Labyrinth: The War on Terror (Photo by Carlos Ferreira)

Another issue is that of the frequent impossibility of comprehensiveness. A board or card game, by its nature, can only provide a limited amount of data: with respect to most possible items, comprehensiveness is not possible. A game with a map must exclude certain cities, while a game with covers an historical period could not, of course, hope to address all of its events: the card-driven Twilight Struggle, for instance, inevitably omits more of the story of the Cold War than its cards manage to tell. Even 1989: The Dawn of Freedom (the recent successor to Twilight Struggle), with its much narrower focus, is poorly able to tell the story of that year, limited as it is to 150 or so cards as its medium.

However, it is clear in these games that the information is offered as partial, and therefore should be received as such. That they tell something should be commended: that they exclude is inevitable – though exclusion raises issues of balance, with respect to which sides of the story are left out.

More problematic, perhaps, are those games which appear to be comprehensive with respect to a given point, but do not quite succeed in being so. 10 Days in Europe, for example, in which players tour the countries of the continent, marks many of Europe’s micronations on its map (including, to a pedant’s dismay, the non-sovereign Gibraltar), but excludes them from gameplay. However, Malta is missing from its map entirely (as well as Cyprus and the Caucasian countries – though their geographical place in Europe is disputed by some) . Similarly, 10 Days in Africa includes only Madagascar of that continent’s island nations (thereby missing Cape Verde; the Comoros;  Mauritius; São Tomé and Príncipe; and the Seychelles). Such exclusions are, for me, hard to accept, as it is likely that many players would assume that the games did not make exclusions (and, of course, the 10 Days series is marketed as an educational tool in a way the other games I have addressed are not).

I guess the big point is that I do not feel that factual accuracy in a strategy game should be considered less important than it would be in a trivia game. There may be less factual material in a strategy game, but the issues which arise from its presentation are much more complicated, due to the fluid, intricate frame a strategy game can provide, and due to the need to depart from fact on occasion. Perhaps, to return to the example of Ticket to Ride, a disclaimer can do a great deal: the rulebook of Ticket to Ride: Europe includes the following statement on its final page:

Geographical Note: We strove to accurately represent the political boundaries of Europe in 1901 and preserve the cities’ common name in their local language at that time. For gameplay purposes however, we were forced to slightly adjust the position of certain cities on the map.

It’s not necessarily for the player that this is of the most value: I’m sure many will never have read this, buried in the credits as it is. However, for the creators to include this phrase means the issue of accuracy, and its achievability had been in mind in creating the game. If all designers utilizing real-world material made themselves produce such a statement, I can only imagine it having a positive impact upon their work, and upon the learning experience their games would provide.

Balance Issues

Playing Cosmic Encounter the other evening had me thinking about the often made claim that it is the imbalance in the strength of the various alien powers which is the making of the game. As designer Peter Olotka likeably puts it:

Fair is dull. Unfair is funny and it can be a huge rush when you grasp victory from the jaws of defeat with a supposed namby pamby power.

We want players to be put in alien situations. This means alien!!! 
It means sometime the cosmos sucks. Deal with it. 
It means sometimes you can win in one turn. No one else gets to go. 
It means sometimes all the players in a game can win. 
It means the alien you just played was a clunker and now its a star.
It means you took a desperately out gunned alien to victory because you are so clever that you came up with a brilliant sequence of moves.
It means you can be playing and have no clue what the game win is.

Imbalance may feel like part of the charm of Cosmic Encounter. It does for me. While mutual dependency may be the basis for negotiation to be meaningful (I will give you the wood you need in exchange for the brick I need is meaningful in terms of the outcome of a game), imbalance is the basis for negotiation to be interesting. Cosmic Encounter recognizes this, as does the similarly divisive Diplomacy (each of which I like rather a lot).

In the latter gameItaly’s starting weakness, and Russia’s initial strength, for two examples, sets up interesting starting positions for negotiations: it’s tough in the early game as Italy to be invited into a partnership which offers a fifty-fifty split of conquered territory – but at least you’re seldom feared. On the other hand, it’s tough, as Russia, to convince potential partners you’re not about to stab them in the back.

Eric Hunter records Italy as achieving a solo victory in 3.11% of non-variant games ( if I understand correctly, the statistics apply to standard games conducted through the play-by-email system of – face-to-face statistics would doubtless differ to some degree), while Russia managed the feat in 6.66% of games. Nevertheless, I’d be excited to be drawn as Italy in any given game, face-to-face or otherwise; being in control of an awkward space as the centre of a war-torn continent is  provides a stimulating position to negotiate from – Italy’s weakness demands creativity. If it weren’t difficult to win as Italy, much of the colour of the experience would be lost. Certain situations cannot arise in a game which is more finely balanced: though a game may start with players in equally strong positions, and then see some rise in strength and some decline – forging alliances in a game that starts balanced is evidently very different from doing so in a game with unequal starting positions.

Likewise, the alien powers in Cosmic Encounter mean unequal encounters, which require invention to tackle – convincing other players to ally with you when you’re up against a tricksy alien like the sorcerer (who can chose to switch his played encounter card with the one you played) is tough. It might require promises of future cooperation, or a commitment to make a favourable exchange the next time the chance arises. Either could be an outright lie, of course. But whether promises made are sincere or not, they come about because an imbalance in power means they must.

Allied forces in Cosmic Encounter

Yellow/blue allied forces in Cosmic Encounter (Photo by Aleš Smrdel)

But in other games imbalance can be much harder to stomach, so it is a mistake to claim that it is imbalance alone which is the making of Cosmic Encounter: imbalance in itself is neither desirable nor undesirable – it works in this case as a short-cut to set-up stimulating, unfamiliar situations.

Another game I’ve played a few times recently, Nuns on the Run, I’ve found awfully frustrating because of its unfairness (I’ve returned to it because I enjoy the company of those with whom I’ve played). A racing game with the potential for stealth to be involved, in two of my three recent games of Nuns on the Run I was tasked to navigate a route very much longer than that which the winner was assigned (and, in the third, one which was slightly longer). Had I run as fast as possible in each of the eight or nine turns each game lasted, I still would not have been able to return from my particular destination by the time the winner had finished.

A poor draw of cards in a game of Cosmic Encounter – or playing as an unfavoured race – cannot kill one’s hopes of winning in the absolute way that a poor draw in a game like Nuns on the Run can, because the cards are not the core of the game. An apparently weak alien can make a popular ally, and can force himself or herself into contention to win a given game through this. Low value encounter cards can be difficult to play with, but the difficulty is not insurmountable with inventive play and sharp negotiation. The cards and alien powers are primarily props for the players to interact with one another.

By contrast, in Nuns on the Run, the racing nuns have no means to interact with one another (the player controlling the abbess and prioress who hunt for the nuns may affect all the other players, however).  Unlucky nuns therefore cannot conspire to pull down the lucky one who is blessed with a shorter route. Thus, in this game, the destination card that you are dealt is all that you really play against: you race the other players rather than playing against them per se (dodging the abbess and prioress is a concern, but, if one is playing to win, one must aim to take the shortest route possible as quickly as possible, and simply pray not to be troubled by either of the abbess or the prioress: their powers are limited, and therefore, with any larger number of players, there is a good chance somebody will not meet either).

I want, in any game, to feel I could have won. I don’t need my theoretical chance to be equal to that of other players, I just need to feel I had had a chance. I was astounded, in Nuns on the Run, to meet a game that didn’t give me that. Imbalance can stimulate interesting interactions, but when there is no possibility in a game system to interface directly, it will seldom do other than frustrate, and in this case very much did so.

On Games and Current Affairs

What does it mean for a curious mind to be more interested in staring at a spread of wood and cardboard on the dining table than in watching what’s going on outside the window? Is a deep interest in playing board games a way of resisting engagement with the world?

Certainly, the fact that there are very few board and card games which directly engage with current social and political issues might suggest this much. But diverse people play games. Many must be interested in current affairs, yet there are not games which reflect this.

When the situation in present-day Greece is so dramatic, for instance, why do no games address this? If you are a designer, why not set a game there, rather than producing yet another game about Ancient Greece?

I suppose different designers have different reasons for not using contemporary themes. Certainly, a look at a pair of games which do address recent situations can show there are problems when games address current issues.

Both Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, and Andrew Sherrin and Andrew Tompkins’ War on Terror ask questions of the ideological struggle which characterized the first decade of the century. The former is rigidly po-faced and attempts to tie itself to real events: the first sentence of its rulebook states that it is a ‘card-driven board game simulating at the strategic level the ongoing bid by Islamic extremists to impose their brand of religious rule on the Muslim world.’

However, this attempt at authority through apparent veracity only heightens the extent to which the game’s inevitable simplifications come across as crass pastiches of its subject matter: for instance, the fact that Islamist governance in a country is always functionally equivalent to ‘very poor’ betrays a game unable, or unwilling, to deal in nuance or ambiguity.

But then, it can be conceded that Labyrinth already has a densely written 16 page rulebook in smallish font. Though details are absolutely critical in speaking well on a complicated subject, what could Labyrinth do but squash its details?

Cards from Labyrinth

Cards from Labyrinth. I’ll leave interpretation/critique to you (Photo by Humbert Gonzalo Rodríguez)

War on Terror shows one alternative. Not only does it address the conflict entirely less seriously (the terrorist player must sweat through the game in a balaclava with ‘EVIL’ written on the forehead), it also distances its gameworld from reality (though its cartoony map is ostensibly of our own world, oil can be discovered anywhere, and terrorists can originate from anywhere). Through its humour, War on Terror speaks more effectively than Labyrinth. Its pastiche is of the unhelpful, and downright detrimental, simplifications made by the media (and other public figures) about the war in Iraq and the wider struggle of which it was part, rather than of the conflict in itself. The humour might wear thin with repeated plays (or even by the end of single play), but a wit which outstays its welcome is certainly better in many respects than a charming voice which misinforms.

War on Terror

War on Terror. Balaclava sadly not pictured (Photo by Fran F G)

Designers may well feel reticent to directly address current issues in their games because they do not wish to repeat the failings of Labyrinth, in fudging an issue they wish to clarify. There is, of course, little chance that a game about, say, Greek finance might offend its players sensibilities in the way a game about terrorism could, but it would still have spurious value if its representation of complicated situation were too basic.

However, the example of War on Terror shows that a game can usefully address itself to the world without attempting to simulate it directly. Applying this to my imagined game about present day Greece, it would be possible to follow War on Terror‘s lead, and allow the epicentre of a financial crisis to be in a random or semi-random location. Whether the game dealt with world leaders trying to resolve the crisis (or to limit its impact on their country) or with businessmen and businesswomen trying to work through the crisis, admitting the game was removed from reality would prevent mechanically necessary deviations from fact from undermining its larger thrust – recreating thought-processes and interactions that come about in times of global uncertainty.

Another concern might be that a game which addresses an of-the-moment issue risks having a short shelf-life. I’m not sure how true this might be. Though variables are too numerous, and data not freely available, I would be interested to know whether a game like Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthew’s Campaign Manager 2008, about the US presidential election of that year, has struggled in longer term sales (and I’d also like to know whether its sales benefited in the short term from its connection with then very recent events).

Campaign Manager 2008

Campaign Manager 2008 (Photo by Jason Krozel)

I, for one, hope that specificity didn’t hurt sales in this case, and that it doesn’t in general. While Campaign Manager 2008 uses events from the US presidential election, it is really about electioneering and politicking in general – after all, the players are not (shock) really running for office, just recreating, in a limited way, certain aspects of doing so. I might learn something about the particular election of that year through playing (in that there is factual information on many cards), but more likely my real interest is in the broader processes the game abstracts.

And, herein is the biggest point. I think for some people addressing the world in terms of facts makes the most sense. For some, tackling the world in terms of processes makes more sense than dealing with it in terms of facts. Having data is one thing; doing something with them another.

For those process-oriented people, a game with a current theme might feel, in one sense or another, too rooted in facts. But, by failing to utilize the world as it is now, there must, inevitably, be processes and interactions which have emerged in our time which game designers are failing to explore. War on Terror shows we needn’t let the facts get in the way when dealing with the contemporary.