Friday, February 23, 2007

Coping with Mean Games

In retrospect, I should have known that Tyranno Ex would be brutal. It is, after all, a game about evolution. It’s only appropriate that the competition be fierce and Darwinian.

Tyranno Ex is an old Avalon Hill game designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel. A few weeks ago the Appalachian Gamers were impressed by Mr. Schmiel’s Die Macher. We soon wondered what else Mr. Schmiel had designed, and we were happy to see that Ted Cheatham owned a copy of Tyranno Ex. Wednesday night three of us decided to try it.

In Tyranno Ex players try to shepherd various species of prehistoric creatures down through time by influencing the environments that supports them. Each species has three symbols on its card indicating what environments it likes. Players place environment tokens on the board in four different sectors in an effort to make the world better for their species. At the end of a turn, species that don’t have any friendly environment sectors available become extinct.

And if that isn’t brutal enough, players then get to send their species to fight other species in the hope of wiping them out. Species which survive the combat round then move down the time track to a higher scoring region.

As you have probably surmised by now, Mother Nature and Father Darwin chew up lots of species and spit out the bones. The game could have been advertised with the catch-phrase Tyranno Ex: Two different ways to lose! More than one player ended a turn with no species at all left on the board.

Please note that I am not saying that Tyranno Ex is a bad game. I actually think it is fairly clever. And I’m not griping because I came in last. I won the game--although my victory had more to do with my opponents destroying each other than any cunning strategies on my part.

What I am saying is that Tyranno Ex is a mean game. I hadn’t played one of those in a while, and my emotions took a hit as I watched my high-scoring shovel-jawed elephant bite the dust early in the game in spite of my best efforts.

What do I mean by the phrase mean game? I suggest that a mean game is one in which even minimal amounts of player progress can’t be taken for granted. A mean game is one in which players are encouraged—or even forced—by the game design to pound on one another. A mean game is one in which lots of precious progress can be wiped out by a combination of bad luck or enemy action. And a mean game is often unforgiving—make a mistake early and you may never recover.

Most euro-games aren’t mean games. Players can screw with other players in Caylus and Puerto Rico, but usually you’re retarding the opponent’s progress more than wiping out his achievements. Even last place players in Railroad Tycoon see their rail networks expand, their incomes increase, and their train runs becoming longer as the game goes on. Sure, there is competition. But you can’t destroy all of the other guy’s assets.

Expectations are different in wargames, or even pseudo-wargames. If you sit down to play Risk, you can expect to lose armies and territories on every other player’s turn. If I play Hammer of the Scots, I expect to get hammered on some turns, and do some hammering myself on others.

Mean games look like euro-games, but have the fierceness of wargames. And so it’s a good idea to adjust your expectations before playing. I found Tyranno Ex frustrating because I’ve been living on a fairly steady diet of easily-digestible euro-games for quite a while. Turning to Tyranno Ex after playing games like Yspahan seemed like taking a bite out of a lemon after feasting on a banquet of sweet apples and pears.

I had a similar experience playing Age of Steam for my one and only time. By turn two I knew I had made a mistake on turn one and that it was going to be impossible for me to recover. I’m usually a reasonably good sport about losing, but I admit that night I pouted. Being out of the game by turn two was just too frustrating.

I’m smart enough to know that my frustration was more a sign that I played poorly than an indication that there was anything wrong with the game. Age of Steam is on lots of folks’ top ten lists. Obviously, there are hordes of gamers who don’t find any meanness in the game to be a drawback.

And I’d be willing to play Age of Steam again and hope that I could be smarter. But I would fasten my emotional seat belt first. I’d remind myself before playing to beware. This is one mean game.

2 comments:

smatt said...

Kris,

I totally know what you mean (no pun intended). Although I don't play many "mean games," I had a bad experience with a "mean rule" a few months back with Cleopatra.

Cleopatra is pretty light, but the rule about having the most corruption (and subsequently being fed to the crocodiles) is pretty harsh. It's still a great rule, necessary even, and I appreciate its inclusion. But in that one game a few months back, I felt like I had it under control.

I played aggressively and when the final count came, I had the most corruption. I was crushed and terribly saddened. I had completely miscalculated (corruption in hand cards killed me), and the meanness of that one little rule filled me with poison. In hindsight, it's actually a pretty funny reaction, but in the moment, I literally got eaten by the disappointment.

For the purposes of having a good time, I agree that it is imperative for a person to steel themselves before playing a "mean game" or a game with a "mean rule."

But are you really playing to win when you do that or are you holding something back?

Pat said...

Actually, this is the main reason I've always disliked Monopoly. You can't win just by making a lot of money; you have to drive all the other players into bankruptcy. Or to put it another way, it's not enough that you succeed -- you have to make everyone else fail. OK, who decided that this sounded like fun? I like the people I play games with, and I don't especially enjoy grinding their faces into the dirt. I'd much rather play something like Bohnanza, in which it hardly matters who actually wins, because everyone is having so much fun.