On Playing Well, and its Relationship to Reviewing Well

In November, the UK qualifying tournament for the Agricola World Championship takes place not too far from me. I toyed with entering, but ultimately don’t think I would very much enjoy the experience. My game play is foremost social and playful; I certainly play to win, but through play I’m ultimately aiming either to establish or strengthen relationships, or to learn something. I don’t think I’d enjoy the kind of play the tournament environment necessitates.

What keeps the idea live in my head, however – what keeps me thinking about a tournament I’ve decided not to enter – is the meaningful knowledge it would bring. Agricola is a game I believe myself to play pretty well. But I don’t have solid evidence upon which to base this suspicion.

When playing with my most regular playing partners, certain facts suggest to me that we play to a pretty high level. For example, my playing partners and I have learnt to recognise certain sequences of moves as potentially indicative that a particular occupation card is about to be played – the steps which suggest an opponent is preparing to whack down, say, the Lover. Such familiarity with the game allows for pre-emptive defensive manoeuvres: the collection of food necessary to pay for the Lover could be frustrated, for instance, by yoinking the food from the Fishing action space a round earlier than might normally be considered justifiable.

But, because I tend to play with players from the same small pool, I’ve little context by which to measure what we do. What appear sophisticated strategies to me might show serious flaws when tested against strong opponents with whom I’m unfamiliar. I wouldn’t fancy myself likely to win such a tournament, but the frame of reference for how good I really am would mean a lot.

And there’s a thing. A while ago, I put a review of Agricola onto this site. A little later, I also put up a piece offering some thoughts about strategy. Because it ranks well in a Google search for ‘Agricola strategy,’ that article continues to be my most read, receiving more hits on almost any given day than anything else on this site. In effect, then, I’m informing a great many people how great Agricola is as a mental challenge, and how best to play it, each without any substantial grounds to be confident I’m a capable player myself.

To write a strategy article of some kind does in inself imply that author believes himself or herself to have a depth of understanding of the game in question. I guess, with respect to Agricola, the fact is that I believe myself to be good at the game, even if I do not know that concretely. To write a review of a game without necessarily being good at it is a rather different case, and in many respects, I think, poses more interesting questions.

Much criticism of board games obfuscates how capable the critic is as a player (or how often the critic has won or lost – which is related, but not analagous: a win in a game of Agricola is a rather more reliable indicator of skill than a win in Fluxx, say). Most reviews which I’ve read or watched, or to which I’ve listened, do not disclose how well the critic plays the game in question, or how often he or she has won or lost.

This is also true of most reviews I’ve written. I restrict my commentary on this site based on my familiarity with a given game (I haven’t written a review of a game I’ve played less than five times – most I’ve played considerably more than this before writing about them); I do not, however, restrict my commentary based on my ability at a given game. I’ve reviewed games at which I seem to be particularly bad (Kakerlakenpoker Royal comes to mind), and I guess I’ve also reviewed games at which I’m particularly good. Seldom have I highlighted how well I seem to play in the review in question. In the case of the Kakerlakenpoker Royal review, I did note my poor results, but this constituted an exception.

Witholding information about one’s results might partly be a critical defence mechanism (both in my case, and in the case of others): I’ve certainly seen negative thoughts I’ve offered here dismissed as the sour grapes of a loser. I think I’m better than that – I believe myself to be level-headed enough to offer commentary which doesn’t project the flaws in my own play onto a game. The fear, I guess, is that making clear how much I’ve won and lost might appear to confirm these dismissive assumptions about me as a critic. In other words, admitting I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve won (which probably should be the case with many multi-player games) might be taken as a licence to read my thoughts as bitterness.

I can also conceive how the reverse might operate – that positive thoughts be seen by a reader as the fruit of pleasure in winning, rather than pleasure in a game itself. This seems a less likely reaction (and isn’t one I’ve seen expressed with respect to anything I’ve written), but doesn’t feel purely a hypothetical possibility. And, in truth, my experience is that a number of games do offer a dramatically better experience for the winner than for any other player.

In a bigger sense, however, the pretence of objectivity is a critical conceit which board game criticism has retained from more developed forms without necessarily recognising the particularity of the game as material for a review to address. In criticism at large, imitating objectivity, however false that imitation rings, is a necessary device to make critical comment valuable. The music reviewer or film critic brings a lifetime of experiences to bear in asserting his or her inclination towards or against a particular work, but must to a large extent mask this to comment usefully. A film reviewer might be disposed to like a particular film because he or she is especially fond of sci-fi. That reviewer fails to act as a critic if his or her comment is only ‘I like sci-fi, so I like this film.’ He or she must point to concrete facets of the film for his or her comment to be useful to the reader: praising an aspect of the plot or lauding the costume design act as points through which a reviewer grounds his or her expression of an opinion. Though knowledge of the reviewer’s tastes is a contextual help, the review cannot operate solely on the level of expressing like or dislike.

The reviewer as a person is biased, but does not act as a reviewer through the expression of these biases alone. The protest of the besotted Justin Bieber fan that the reviewer is biased fails to be cutting not because it is false, but because it happens to be entirely banal as an expression of the truth.

However, the board game – and indeed the video game – each offer a distinct challenge to the critic pretending objectivity: the experience these offer is largely generated by the players. Playing Agricola or Kakerlakenpoker with me is a different experience from playing with anyone else. My tells when playing Kakerlakenpoker are particular to me; my style of play, and of table talk is mine alone. The game reviewer therefore relies on his or her readers, viewers or listeners to exert a greater faculty of translation than does the critic reviewing media which do not offer user-generated experiences. If I praise Kakerlakenpoker for the laughter it generates, the reader has to recognise that this is a feature of the game as my play group and I play it, and not fundamentally a feature of the game in itself. The reader, in effect, has to deduce through the evidence the review offers whether he or she and his or her play group would be likely to gain the same experiences.

Nonetheless, throwing away the pretence of objectivity  does not seem to be an option. Even if qualitative assertions are grounded in play experiences not innate to a game, there still needs to be that grounding in evidence for a review to be more than an empty expression of favour or distaste.

Being good or bad at a game is probably important as part of this evidence. Whether I tend to win or lose is a valuable clue for a reader translating my thoughts. I declared Kakerlakenpoker Royal my favourite game of 2012 – it’s possible the fact I’m not that great at it (though improving), perversely contributes to my enjoyment of it (which I guess is why I felt it important to mention in my review that I’m less than a brilliant player). Structurally, the game is such that a bad player is active more often (failing to bluff successfully, or to call a bluff successfully makes a player active next turn), which does mean, unusually, a fuller game experience for a player who loses.

Winning or losing can, therefore, be seen both as experiences in themselves (and I don’t think anyone needs a reviewer to describe how winning or losing feels in itself), and as the triggers for other experiences (in which case a reviewer’s history of victory or defeat becomes pertinent). An economic game might be a game of wild gambles for a losing player risking all to get himself or herself back into contention, while for a winner, conservative play might be more fit. By contrast, a game with hidden victory points might not be substantially different whether one is heading for victory defeat (depending on how readable one’s current position relative to others might be). A nod to how successful a player the reviewer is therefore would probably constitute a useful tool for readers, viewers, or listeners, even if an objective statement of the reviewer’s ability is, more-or-less, impossible.

Intervention of Life

Outside life is going to keep me from attending to Painted Wooden Cubes for the next two to three weeks (don’t worry, it’s nothing bad). If, while I’m away, you suddenly feel inspired to get in touch to offer me games, work or money (or, hopefully, all three), then do feel free – I’ll still be reachable at paintedwoodencubes@gmail.com.

While I’m here, let me take this opportunity to recommend the following, to look at while I’m away:

Big Game Theory

Brett Spiel

Gamer Chris

Shut up and Sit Down

Cat Roulette

When I come back, I expect you to give up on them all, and never look at them again. Stay faithful.

Cat in box

До скорого, ребят!

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.

Rules Written and Unwritten: On Chris Bateman’s Imaginary Games

A couple of months ago, when this site was still a germ of an idea waiting for a name (which took a long, long time to come – and yes, I did reject other ideas before settling on Painted Wooden Cubes, if that’s believable), I attended a talk at Oxford’s Taylorian Institute given by Chris Bateman, the designer of PC and Playstation game Discword Noir (and numerous others), and author of Imaginary Games, recently published by Zero Books.

Since the talk, I’ve had a chance to look at Imaginary Games and there’s a good deal to like in it. While Imaginary Games begins by highlighting Roger Ebert’s claim that ‘games can never be art,’ thankfully it mostly avoids a hackneyed defence of games as art. It considers what games share with art, but blessedly does not try to collapse one into the other.

I don’t intend to talk about all that Bateman says on the subject – I wouldn’t do justice to a fine book by skimming so superficially over all its ideas.

Instead, I’ll focus on the suggestion Bateman makes that both games and art must be understood as representational, even in their most abstract examples. Bateman highlights Noughts and Crosses as an extreme example, the hash mark grid of which he feels ‘can be seen as a prop prescribing that the players imagine nine positions’ (100) (This, like much in Imaginary Games, very much rests upon Kendall Walton’s prop theory). Similarly, a chess knight is argued to be a spur for imagining a set of rules for its movement, rather than a real knight. Board game pieces, then, are a often a short-hand for rules – even the houses and hotels in Monopoly, another example Bateman highlights, are imaginatively more connected to the game’s rules than to real buildings.

Caption not required (or offered)

This might seem unlike art, but – as Bateman conveyed well in his talk – the viewer must understand certain conventions to appreciate art: He highlighted Picasso’s ‘Head of a Bull’, made from bicycle parts, and suggested that many untutored in art fail to see the bull they represent. Whatever the proportion of people who do and don’t see the bull, there’s clearly much to be said for emphasizing the fact that both art and games depend upon rules to be appreciated. The film Scream comes to mind for me – how little sense would that film make to somebody who had never seen a horror film before? That board game are generally sold with a printed rule-set for interaction with them makes them someone particular as a cultural item, but it is valuable to remember the existence of (at least implicit) rules for interaction with other cultural products.

Head of a Bull

Picasso's 'Head of a Bull'

(Incidentally, a lot of board game rules are implied – and this isn’t a point about badly drafted or translated rules. A board game might include in its printed rule-set that the winner is the player with the most money, or victory points, or the last one with figures on the board, but how many games actually mention that the goal is to win?)

However, in linking rules to props – a useful idea – Bateman appears to blur two concepts: that a game is a prop, and that a game employs props. The point is often the same, that the prop – whether the game, or an item within it – stimulates particular imaginative and intellectual experiences, but Bateman could do more to explain how he feels the prop-within-a-prop relationship functions. It’s something I would like to consider more myself sometime.

Moreover, Bateman offers a hierarchical ranking of imaginative experiences which I find unhelpful: He contends that D&D-style role-play, which requires a great deal of imagination from participants, offers a higher experience than a video game series like Doom, which is situated in a (pseudo) 3d world, visually and audibly rendered for the player (who is therefore argued to need less imagination to participate). It seems to me that Bateman disregards the imagination spurred by a game, but not directly utilized in playing it: The hundreds of Doom wads and mods I remember playing (and the many thousands I never did) testify to a wider game-culture of which the 24 levels (and three secret levels) of the original game represent just a small part (Never mind more nebulous inspiration – how many other games, how much fiction, how much art and music has Doom spurred?). Similarly, though board and games occupy a higher place within this system, it doesn’t seem that the only imaginitive experiences spurred by, say, poker and Puerto Rico occur whilst those games are being played.

The Start of Episode 1, Mission 1 of Doom

The Start of Episode 1, Mission 1 of Doom. I cannot count how many times I've seen this exact scene

Nonetheless, I really found a great deal to appreciate both in Bateman’s talk, and in Imaginary Games. With respect to the latter, I’d also like to mention Bateman’s fine writing style. His voice throughout Imaginary Games is authoritative, yet playful – which I feel represents an appropriate register with which to be talking about games; Bateman, I think, recognizes that to write successfully about games, there must be room in the text to reproduce the fun which lies behind most play; in this much I feel Imaginary Games offers a fine example for similar works in the future.

The Rajasthan-tastic Journey?: A Review of Jaipur

Released in 2009 by Asmodee. Designed by Sébastien Pauchon. For 2 players.

Little. There’s something that rather gets to me about the half-heartedness of compliments which include the word ‘little’. ‘My Neighbour Totoro is a great little film’ or ‘The Master and Margarita is a great little book.’

Jaipur – a two-player, trading-themed card game – seems, to me, the greatest victim of this among board and card games at the moment.  Hardly can the game receive praise without that irksome adjective slipping in somewhere.

For reference, at the time of writing, Jaipur is ranked among the top ten family games on Board Game Geek – that is, if the numerous iterations of Ticket to Ride, and the two versions (to date) of Small World are not counted separately. In the overall rankings it is in 133rd. There can be criticism of how each ranking is calculated, but, nevertheless, Jaipur should have reached the point where its apparent admirers are ready to praise it without dismissing it at the same time.

Midway through a game. A lot of spice on offer, not well reflected by a rather utilitarian photo

Perhaps, though, Jaipur has achieved these high rankings in part because some who have rated it have been generous due to low expectations being exceeded. For me, Jaipur is good, but not great – in either a little sense or not. It succeeds in producing some relatively tough decisions in a short play-time, but it lacks room for inventive play. As a two-player trading game Jaipur is characterized by a back-and-forth motion of cards (through an intermediary pool – players do not trade with each other directly), and mostly ends up feeling accordingly two-dimensional.

In Jaipur, players accumulate cards representing various goods in order to sell batches of the same product to the bank for points. Goods sold earlier in the game receive a higher points value. For instance, the first cloth card sold is worth five points, the next three, then three again, two, two, one, and one. Other goods are of different values – from precious rubies, to leather, which is both the most numerous good and the most pants. Bonuses are also available for selling three, four, or five cards depicting a particular good at a single time (between one and three points for selling three goods, four to six for selling four, and eight to ten for selling five).

Cloth Tokens

Points tokens for cloth. Each time cloth cards are sold, players take the highest value tokens remaining. Sorting out the tokens before each round is probably more hassle than the game is worth, sadly

Each turn, a player can only perform one action. In short, he or she may either collect extra cards (up to a hand limit of seven) or sell a set. Thus, pacing play is one of the game’s key elements. Selling small amounts can often yield the best price per item, but it means missing out on the valuable bonuses for collecting large sets.

When collecting cards, a player chooses from a pool of five face-up cards. Either he or she takes a single card, or trades at least two cards from his or her hand for an equal number in the pool. Herein is one of the game’s cleverest features, in that in order to collect needed cards quickly a player must offer something to his or her opponent. If, say, three spice are on offer, I might have to sacrifice a valuable good from my hand – for instance, silver – in order to take the whole set. This is then available to my opponent on his or her turn. Unless I’ve been very unfocused in what I have been collecting, it’s unlikely I’ll have many cards I want to part with. I can even get some use out of leather if I have enough of it. So to speak.

The exception, perhaps, are the game’s ten camel cards. There’s no love for dromedaries among the merchants of Jaipur. These cards can be collected, or exchanged for new goods cards, but not sold. However, they sit in front of a player when taken from the pool, rather than adding to his or her hand, and more than one can be taken at once without the need to trade-in hand cards. Thus, when a large set of a single type of good appears in the market, it offers the enjoyable possibility to take them in exchange for a wodge of camels: I’m not giving the sap opposite anything sell-able (though the player with the largest herd of camels at the end of the round does get five points for his or her herding skills). However, accumulating camels in the first place can often be risky – taking a load them from the market at once can give your opponent first dibs on a slew of attractive new goods.

Some camels.

I know this looks a lot like the previous image, but the point is that this time there is a pile of camels. Which could be exchanged for all that leather

It is through the camels that depth is added to the experience of playing Jaipur: Sitting outside a players hand, they offer, if you will, a hint of a third-dimension – the one significant complication to the collect or sell binary. They mean that a game of Jaipur cannot be played without some consideration; they prevent the same rhythm of buying and collecting from being repeated each game, in that the point at which taking camels makes sense is not the same every time, and depends on both the amount of goods already sold and the kind of cards left in the deck. However, a lucky player can nevertheless often beat a good one – if, say, I start with three or four premium goods in my hand (rubies, gold, or silver), my opponent will stuggle to win, however shrewd her decisions. A game takes less than half an hour, but the likes of Dominion have shown how much more can be achieved by a card game in that sort of time frame.

Analogue Thinking: Are all Games Digital?

In a recent video blog, Scott Nicholson speaks about attending a talk by game designer Frank Lantz, in which Lantz suggests that all games and sports may be conceived of as digital.

I recommend listening to the talk, ‘The Aesthetics of Games,’ whether your interest is in designing games, or simply in playing them. There’s plenty to think about in it, and I don’t intend to cover more than a fraction of it here. A lot of it I do agree with. However, here I’d like to explain why I find the central idea that ‘all games are digital’ misses something, and is of debatable value in appreciating games.

Thinking specifically with reference to board games, it’s clear that often a player’s choices are both finite and known.

In particular, worker placement games appear digital in Lantz’s sense. Going into the final round of a four (or five) player game of Agricola, for instance, the starting player should have about 30 potential action spaces on which to place his or her first family member. Certain occupations and improvements played during the game might have added new action spaces  (for instance the Clay Deposit and the Tavern); and, if an action cannot be carried out – say if a player has already grown his or her family to the maximum size – those spaces cannot be taken simply to block others. Still, even with a few variables, the number of available choices at a given time is limited, and visible.

The Clay Deposit adds an action space to Agricola...

...As does the tavern

However it feels false to judge the process of playing the game purely in terms of the number of actions available. The options open to a player might be limited but the range of possible reasons for selecting an action is limitless.

A player might chose an action to earn himself or herself victory points, to screw up his or her neighbour’s plans, or to surprise his or her playing partners for its own sake. Or there might be some other entirely less rational reason. Often enough, I’ve been the last player in the last round of a game of Ticket to Ride, with three or four short routes I could claim. If there’s a red route among them, I’ll probably go for that. The combination of nature, nurture and game-playing habit which leads to that choice doesn’t feel like it can be described as something digital.

Aalborg and Kristiansand begging to be connected in Ticket to Ride Nordic

As an exercise, let’s also think about this: What would normally be an awful decision in a given game, and is there any reason why a player might ever rationally make it? It should say something about the range of reasons available for making a decision which does impact upon the outcome of a game.

Sticking with the last round of a game of Agricola (hopefully this will make sense even if you haven’t played), it’s hard to imagine a situation in which the starting player might take an offer of three wood, when six has accumulated on another space. But I don’t think it’s impossible.

If you are the starting player for the final round, and you’re virtually certain the player to your left cannot win, letting her pick up half a forest’s worth of wood should not be a worry. Let’s in addition say your own goal for the round is to build a big, point-hauling improvement which requires wood – for instance, the Mansion. You only need three wood – perhaps if you leave the six wood to your neighbour, she can fence with it on the second pass, and deny that opportunity to a better placed rival, denying her vital points. Perhaps. Probably less than once in a blue moon might anything of the kind arise.

How much wood do you have for the Mansion?

But still, the game offers the space for this kind of thinking. And I see little digital about it.

Moreover, I’d say this is where the game is. Not in the decision arrived at, but in the thoughts leading to it. Would a group of people who all took the uppermost and leftmost legal action space in a session of Agricola be playing the game, or merely pretending to? In short, these unquantifiable flights of thought seem to be what makes interacting with a game ‘play.’

To be fair, Lantz, in his talk, contends that while ‘paintings are about looking,’ a game ‘is like that for thinking and doing’ – about noticing yourself thinking and acting, and the structure it exists within. But where the outcomes of the thought are often very clearly structured in a game – even for the most disciplined of chess players, the thought itself cannot be digital, and – I feel – is not usefully understood to be so.