Friday, February 09, 2007

Die Macher and the Arenas of Fun

Possibly the most impressive game debut that I’ve seen with the Appalachian Gamers occurred a couple of weeks ago when we got together on a Saturday to play a full game of Die Macher. Everyone was impressed with this Swiss watch of a game. James later commented in an e-mail message how surprised he was that Die Macher actually lived up to its hype.

I’ve been thinking about just what made the game so fun, and I’m not sure that I have all the answers yet. But part of it seems to be that game makes great use of multiple arenas.

What are arenas? My definition: arenas are mini-contests within games that have their own little rewards. A simple example would be Risk. In Risk each continent is an arena because players fight to dominate them, and because control of each generates a specific reward (extra armies). Not every game has multiple arenas, of course. Part of the problem that the Appalachian Gamers had with Britannia a few weeks ago was that the game has just one big arena. Everyone fights over British territories. Certain territories may generate more victory points for one person than another, but there is no sense of discreet arenas in the game.

Die Macher not only has arenas, it has a hierarchy of arenas. Arenas within arenas. First, each of the seven territorial elections is its own arena. While all players may win victory points in each election, only the first place winner gets to place a media cube and a regional issue card on the national board. Second, the national board itself constitutes another arena—one that is contested solely by winning the seven regional elections. Third, party membership constitutes another discreet arena—the player with the highest party membership at the end of the game gets extra victory points.

And the hierarchy of arenas? The media cube competition within each region is a mini-contest. The player who places the most media cubes is allowed to tamper with the issue cards in the region, and this gives that player an advantage in the regional election as a whole.

What purpose is served by arenas in a game? For one thing, they break down victory into smaller chunks that are more easily divided among several players. I may have won the election in Brandenburg, but you may have the advantage in Berlin. Ted may have a higher party membership, but James may have more media cubes on the national board. Games are more fun and more challenging when every player seems to be winning somewhere.

Multiple arenas often allow trailing players to start fresh, or at least give them a selection of ways in which to challenge the first place player. In Shogun, players get victory points for getting the most castles, temples, and Noh theaters within each region. If powerful players are battling to construct and capture the most castles within a region, maybe I will try to corner the market on temples or Noh theaters instead. Or maybe I will just concentrate on a different region altogether. These choices are possible because the game has multiple arenas.

One advantage that wargame-euro hybrids have over pure wargames is that hybrids are more likely to have multiple arenas.

Games don’t have to be huge five-hour heavyweights to use the multiple arena mechanism. Aton, a simple two-player area-majority game that plays in twenty minutes or less, is essentially a game about choosing which arenas to fight for.

Actually, just about every area-majority game is a multiple arena game. I’m talking about such renowned games as El Grande, Louis XIV, and Twilight Struggle.

I am so fond of multiple arenas in games that I now consciously look for the arena mechanism in games that I am considering buying. It’s not that a game can’t be good without multiple arenas. But lots and lots of the best middle and heavy-weight euro games use the multiple arena mechanism. Like the multiple-currency mechanism that I wrote about on December 1, multiple arenas is a mechanism that is infinitely adaptable.

And if you are willing to play five-hour games, and you like heavy-weight euros, then check out Die Macher. Everything you’ve heard is true.


Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Some very nice thoughts. I had not thought of it in that way, but I prefer the multiple arena mechanism. I usually see the multiple arenas as multiple paths to victory. However, multiple arenas may express the concept more succinctly.

The only counter-exmaple I see offhand would be Puerto Rico. It is more of a stretch to consider the multiple victory paths as different arenas (shipping vs building, etc...) Perhaps the multiple-arenas concept is best served in more direct conflict-heavy games.

huzonfirst said...

I was thinking about Puerto Rico in regard to this discussion as well, Matt, and I think you're right--one arena. However, PR belongs to that large segment of games where it's important to build a good infrastructure in the early part of the game. The signature quality of these games is that the victory point chart is usually a poor way of judging who's winning. So the two arenas might be VPs and infrastructure (which can include multiple arenas itself). The key skill is usually determining when to move from infrastructure building and switch to grabbing VPs. Many of these games don't have direct competition (so there can't be arenas--each player plays in his own sandbox), but there's plenty of indirect interaction. So Puerto Rico definitely features multi-faceted mechanics, but not because of multiple arenas.

Seth Ben-Ezra said...

This is also a draw for the game Go. Essentially the different areas of the board are far enough removed that they function as different arenas.