Thursday, August 31, 2006

Give Me a Light ... No, Civ Light!

One of the Holy Grails of modern game design seems to be "Civ Light", a game that inexplicably is like Francis Tresham's 1980 masterpiece Civilization, yet at the same time is not. Every year lately one or two games come out that are proclaimed--by designers, fans, or both--to be this Grail, and every year each and every one fails to live up to the standard--potentially because it sets an impossible bar.

In this article I want to look at first Civilization itself, then the many contenders for the "Civ Light" throne. In the process I'll give each game a "Civ Score", which is a 4-point score based on how well the game mimics the four core Civilization gameplay elements of civilization advance, resource management, trade, and warfare and measure the "Weight" of the game, based on BGG stats. Though both stats are clearly somewhat arbitrary, I think they offer relatively analytical measures of how each game approaches the Civ Light ideal.

Civilization (1980)

Author: Francis Tresham
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Trade, Warfare
Score: 4.00/4 Civs :: 3.80/5 Weight

Comments: Like some of the best board games out there, Civilization is truly a creative endeavor. You feel like you're creating and expanding a civilization because it gains a unique character as you expand it in certain ways across the board and as you select certain civilization advances to build.

I think that the idea of "civilization advance" (or technology, if you prefer) is potentially the core of a civilization game and ultimately the aspect that pretty much no other game has ever duplicated. In Civilization players have numerous different advances they can build, each of which gives some advantage to their civilization, and many of which are built into "trees", where one advance is required in order to purchase another.

Other players consider the trade the most important element of gameplay, and it is a well-developed system in Civilization. There is warfare, and you do have to be careful about how you collect (and use) resources, but the simple idea of trading in order to collect sets of increasing value can make or break your game (and likewise adds another element that many Civ Light games don't have).

It's probably been at least 10 years since I've played Civilization and that falls to its main flaw: game length. Civilization can easily be a full day event running at 12 hours, plus or minus, and in an era where a 2-4 hour game is stretching it, Civilization is pretty much never going to hit the table, hence the desire for "light" variants, by which most people mean: a faster, more elegant version of Civilization that nonetheless has all the core attributes.

Vinci (1999)

Author: Philippe Keyaerts
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Warfare
Score: 1.50/4 Civs :: 2.88/5 Weight

Comments: I don't know that anyone actually ever called Vinci Civ Light, but it wouldn't surprise me. It's a game where you're trying to build up Civilizations in Europe by taking advantage of unique technologies and are trying to gain controls of specific territories whose resources advantage you.

However, the "Civilization Advance" feature is relatively vestigial. Each civilization has its own pair of advantages, and there's no way to improve or build upon them. Likewise, the resource management is solely a player-specific conduit to victory points. The only fully developed Civ system is warfare, and by its core importance, the game is actually distanced quite a bit from Civ proper, which included warfare as an option, not a necessity.

Overall, not a Civ Light game at all, but a wargame that does include the interesting facade of some of the same ideas.

Mare Nostrum (2003)

Author: Serge Laget
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Trade, Warfare
Score: 3.00/4 Civs :: 2.99/5 Weight

I'm surprised this game didn't get more attention as a Civ Light game, though maybe it did back in 2003. In summary, it's got all of the elements, and it was purposefully (and well) designed to fit the niche.

Resource management and trade are both precisely in the Civilization mode, with your collecting typed resources and then trading those to get the right sets to build what you want. Likewise there's a solid combat system that nonetheless isn't exactly the point of the game: you can win without it, but you'll probably have to face it at some time.

Mare Nostrum's biggest failure in the Civ Light contest, and perhaps what knocks it from the competition entirely, is its lack of any sort of meaningful technology. There are Wonders of the World, and they're crucial to the game, but each is unique, and there is no tree, so these just aren't built or used in the same way as technology would be.

Also, the game length is a bit long, trending toward the 3 hour range, when most of these others can eke by at 2. And, I have one game design complaint, which is the ending can be very sudden. But, these are minor in the face of how well Mare Nostrum otherwise pulls off this style of gameplay.

Overall I'd consider Mare Nostrum the current winner of the Civ Light crown, with the major caveat that you have to not consider technology crucial.

Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean (2005)

Author: Andrew Parks, Jason Hawkins
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Trade
Review: RPGnet (B)
Score: 2.00/4 Civs :: 3.06/5 Weight

Comments: In many ways, this isn't a bad adaptation of the most important aspects of a Civilization game.

The trade is best, because it's a complex system that allows trade with both other players and to the game system. Better, the system is set up to make trades mutually advantageous. The resource management pretty closely ties in to that because each player can produce certain resources and has to figure out ways to get the rest.

The biggest failing of Parthenon as a Civ Light game is ultimately in its limited scope--and this may well be an issue that ever contender for the Civ Light crown will face. There are very limited numbers of resources and limited ways to generate there and overall a limited scope for expansion. Technology isn't really built into a tree, and every player is trying to gain the exact same levels of tech, with the only difference being who does what first. You have no way of deciding that you want to head off in a certain direction because you're constrained by what you're allowed to build. Mind you, this all contributes to the tightness of the game, which is what makes it work, but it also keeps it away from being a true Civ Light game.

Likewise, the lack of a a true game board is likely to make anyone looking for a true Civilization game to turn away, and as noted in the overview above, there's no actual warfare either.

On the whole this is only a tiny bit closer to the Civilization ideal than Vinci. It turns out to not be a Civ Light game at all either, but instead a resource management game with a facade of Civilization.

Antike (2005)

Author: Mac Gerdts
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Warfare
Review: GG Top Ten, Mini-Review (C+)
Score: 2.75/4 Civs :: 3.08/5 Weight

Comments: I really wasn't too enthused about this game after two plays, but in weighing it on the Civ Light barometer, I begin to understand better where other peoples' enthusiasm comes from. This game entirely neglects trade, but for the other three aspects of Civilization, it hits almost entirely dead on.

The Resource Management is a core part of the game, and it's both very different from Civilization and well-considered. There are only 8 technological advances, but there is a tiny bit of a tree (with each branch having two nodes), and unlike Parthenon there's no guarantee that everyone is going to hit all the levels. I find the combat somewhat troublesome because it feels too costly and too weighted toward the defender, but that's ultimately an issue of game design.

And it's in game design generally that Antike let me down. Besides not liking the combat dynamics I also feel like the victory points are set up in such a way that the entire game can bog down in some situations. Overall the game's just got too many sharp corners for me.

On the whole I'd say that Antike is a pretty good Civ Light design, minus the trading, but it's a pure indie design with enough awkward play and sharp edges that it'll always have somewhat limited appeal.

Tempus (2006)

Author: Martin Wallace
Major Game Systems: Resource Management, Warfare
Score: 1.50/4 Civs :: 3.24/5 Weight

Comments: Tempus has been long-hyped as Civ Light and is now facing some backlash, and I think it's pretty easy to see why when you measure it up as a Civilization style game.

Tempus gets the weight of warfare about right: it's important, but not central to the game. And that's about where it leaves Civilization land behind. There is a sort of resource management, but it largely centers on board position, and which lands you control and with which pieces at any time--a pretty far stretch from the handheld resources of the most Civilization like games. (There are cards but they're just random special-power cards that you can buy.) There's likewise (and not surprisingly) zero trade.

However, where Tempus falls down (as a Civ Light game), and where it's most likely to disappoint, is on the question of technology. In short: there isn't any. There's a theoretical "technology track", but all players advance along it simultaneously, and at best any player might be one space ahead on any turn. It thus ends up being just another resource to manage.

Don't get me wrong. Tempus is a very clever game that I'm quite happy to play. Its style of resource management, and the strategy that it entails, is quite clever. However, though it has the facade of a Civ Light game, like Vinci and Parthenon it's really a totally different sort of game.


In chart form, here's my rundown of the Civilization-like games, from most to least:

GameCiv. Score
Way too long for a "light" game.
Mare Nostrum
Largely misses Technology.
A bit longer than others.
No Trade. Technology a little light.
Some developmental issues.
No board. No Warfare.
Technology is light & ubiquitous.
A wargame with Civilization facade.
A resource game with Civilization facade.

On the whole, this analysis tells me a few different things.

First, not a single game has passed the 75% level for trueness to Civilization gameplay in a Light format. Mare Nostrum is the closest by hitting 3 out of 4 elements almost dead on, but it's near total ignorance of technology just about knocks it out of contention. Antike is next, but various systems come up short, and I also don't particularly like the development work.

I'll add and clarify that I'm measuring these games based on similarity to Civilization. I think they're all good or better games, with Antike slightly trailing the pack.

Second, I found this analysis interesting for where it shows Civilization-light games being created: 2 French designs, 1 English design, 1 American design, and 1 German design. The Civ Light games are coming from all over, but clearly more from countries with a strong Anglo-American influence (which makes me wonder if we'll soon see Civ Light games from Italy as well).

Third, I increasingly wonder if a Civ Light game might be a mirage. The core element of Civilization as I said, is the joy of creating this unique, expansive civilization. I'm not entirely sure if this can be done in a short game, and looking at how limited the technologies are in every one of these games just increases my belief.

On the other hand, writing this article makes me want to go try my own game design skills at the problem ... which makes me believe that we'll keep seeing entrants in this genre for years, whether the goal be a will o' the wisp or not.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Coldfoot on Customer Service, Rude Bastards and Why You Need to Ignore Them

Today's well thought out, humorous, insightful article on game awards was scrapped to bring you this rant.

Warning: If you are an a-hole, or are offended by the use of that word, skip this blog today.

The snot-nose whiners, and the defenders of snot-nose whiners are at it again.

The always-looking-for-a-reason-to-be-offended, and I-am-never-ever-responsible-for-any-misfortune-I-may-suffer crowds have two main issues lately:

1. Is the customer always right? Is every person who walks through the door of your Friendly Neighborhood Game Store (FLGS) a potential customer who needs his ass kissed and his every whim indulged?

And 2, which I won't be touching on today: Does an obvious pricing error obligate a store to sell an item for said price?

As some of you may know, I drive a taxi from time to time. As a taxi driver I am not an employee, if I don't have customers I don't get paid, as such I do not believe in alienating customers.

What most of you don't know about me is that I may be the most laid back person you could meet. I have been known to pick a drunk out of a snowbank at -50, give him a free ride home, and listen to him call me a faggot for the whole trip. I will normally put up with a ton of crap before I am even tempted to put my foot down.

It is this perspective from which I write.

First and foremost, some of the people who walk through the doors of a business are assholes. Assholes drive off paying customers and good employees. You will find that assholes are tolerated in direct proportion to the amount of money they spend. If you are an asshole, you will find you get better customer service if you are known as a big spender.

Secondly, most assholes know they are being rude. This holds true if the jackass in question is normally a nice person who is merely having a bad day, or if it is a person who is always a jackass. The latter may complain and threaten to never again patronize a business if they are called on their rude behavior, but most jackasses are so self centered that any threat is forgotten as soon as they need something. The former may even feel the pang of guilt after they leave the store.

As I mentioned, I will usually put up with quite a bit of crap just to turn a buck. While that is true, it is also true that I have pulled one particular bitch out of my cab and left her sitting in the street. This particular handicap woman uses her disability to manipulate people, and I, like everyone else, tolerated it for quite a while. After yanking her out of the taxi she is still a bitch, but you know what? She is no longer a bitch to me and she still rides with me, perhaps more often than before.

I have sped up to 70-75 miles per hour and slammed on the brakes to propel one particular jackass into the dashboard. He hit the dashboard twice that night. I have gone on to give this particular asshole many cab rides. When he is drunk he is a loud, unreasonable jackass. When he is sober he is slightly less annoying, but you know what? He still remembers hitting the dashboard and he laughs about it every time he gets in a cab with me.

At the time, both of these individuals swore they would never ride with me, nor utilize my cab company again. I am quite sure that they both told their friends about the mean, unreasonable cab driver they had to endure. They probably milked the story for all the sympathy they could. When the sympathy well ran dry both went right back to calling the same cab company that they had always called as soon as they needed a ride.

I contend that self centered, malcontent, snively whiners (or assholes, if you will) seek affirmation for their actions by posting on the internet because deep down they know that they are wrong. Furthermore, despite their vocal protest to the contrary they will generally not boycott a particular store for long.

More often than not in the horror stories we read about FLGSs the writer will admit some fault, but then completely disregard that fact and place the full blame directly on an employee. Frequently the employee could have handled the situation better. The snot nose whiner will take that kernel of fault on the employee's part and weave a story around it. He will then twist the story around that fact in an attempt to exonerate his own actions. The discussion then centers on how the employee should have responded, instead of how the whiner caused the whole situation by being stupid.

Just because someone is whining, does not mean they not responsible for the situation they find themselves in.

I am sick of otherwise reasonable people reading these stories and focusing on the insignificant point the author wants them to focus on. If the author gets enough sympathy he is emboldened to continue his rude behavior.

Our hobby is pretty marginal as it is. Brick and mortar game stores are not making money hand over fist, they do not need unreasonable malcontents spreading internet rumors about them. Unfortunately this is unavoidable. Reasonable people need to be more critical of the stories they read and quit piling on in their criticism of FLGSs. I say almost unequivocally that the whiner will return to the store where he had his bad experience. He just needed to feel superior for a few minutes by posting a trumped up story on the internet.

The whiner will be smarter when he returns. If he was booted from the store at closing time he will show up a few minutes earlier the next time. If the store wouldn't sell him his games at a 30% discount, he'll ask for a 20% discount. Make no mistake, he will return, and he won't post the story of the excellent service he received when he wasn't being an asshole. Hopefully reasonable people won't boycott the store simply because some whiner needed an ego boost.

Note: Before someone else points it out, I have to count myself as a snively whiner. I had a bad experience with an on-line game store which I wrote about in my blog. Like other whiners I was partially at fault, which I glossed over in the story. (I had never before disputed a credit card charge. Knowing what I know now, I would have handled that part differently.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

That Way Madness Lies

You're not going anywhere until you've cleaned that room like I told you to. I don't care if your stupid friends are playing in ten minutes. You should have cleaned it up this morning when I told you to. You have no one to blame but yourself.

Have fun playing games with the other babies. I can't believe he goes out to play games with his friends.

I know. Isn't it time he grew up?

Hey loser. Watch where you're going. Freakoid.

Hey freak! Yeah, freaky! Hey loser! Kiss this, you faggot. What a jerk.

You're late, again. You're always late. We started playing without you. You'll have to wait.

(Psst, I don't want to sit near him. He smells.)

I don't want to play with him. He's no fun to play with. You play with him.

Didn't you listen when I explained the rules? Hello? Space cadet?

You don't want to do that. That's a stupid play.

Come on. This is ridiculous. This isn't even playing a game. It's no fun to play when one person throws the game. He's giving you the game. He's not playing right. What's the point of even playing?

You're not very good at these games. Why do you play them?

You can't play. It's too hard for you. Anyway, we already said we were going to play this before, and it only works with three players. It doesn't play well with four. You can watch TV.

You have to go. It's getting late. Come on time next time or don't come. When you come late it wrecks the games.

You can't sit there, kid. You got drugs on you? Waiting for a homo to pick you up? Move along. Get out of here.

You're late again. What the hell is the matter with you? Didn't I tell you to come home by 11:00? Didn't I? Answer me. You never listen. Think you're so high and mighty, better than everybody else. Get out of my face and go to your room. You're grounded mister. And you can forget about playing games next week.

Turn off that damn music and go to bed.

Turn off the damn light. What the hell are you crying about? You shut up, or I'll give you something to cry about.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Life of Games

Matt Carlson joins the Gone Gaming crew from over at where he writes a biweekly column about boardgames. Whereas his GamerDad Unplugged columns tend to target boardgamers new to the hobby, Gone Gaming will serve as a regular platform to informally discuss thoughts and analysis more appropriate to fans who are already deeply steeped in the boardgame hobby.

Hello. My name is Matt Carlson, and I like games.

There, I’ve said it and now I can begin the healing process – but I don’t want to be healed. I think it’s because I’m a happy sort of guy. I am usually happy because I like to be happy. I’ve come to terms with that and seek out being happy. One thing I enjoy is playing games. While the word “Play” may give a middle school drama coach a heart attack, for most people it conjures up memories of having fun with other people, just for fun’s sake. Whether its “playing” tag with a bunch of little kids, “playing” a game of casual sports with other adults, “playing” a family board game, or “playing” a computer game, I enjoy playing.

This was true even as a small child. I loved games. For Christmas each child in our family would get a game from Santa. I usually looked forward to that present more than any of my higher-priced toys from my parents and relatives. My family would have official family meetings; each of us children would have a job. I was in charge of “Games and Snacks”, making the family play some sort of game together at the end of the meeting. I even spent my meager spending money on games. Each month my father would take each kid out to dinner alone to talk, AND we would be able to buy anything we wanted from the store (less than $3 if I remember.) I was in heaven because there was a whole series of cheap Disney-brand board games for sale at Walgreen’s for about $3 each. It was a sad day when they eventually raised the prices up to $5. One of the earliest purchases I remember making with my own money was sending away cereal box tops (plus shipping and handling) to buy a football game that consisted of a piece of cardboard with little red sliders on it that you slid back and forth to simulate a game of football. While many of my childhood games have been lost to the ravages of time, I still have a good-sized collection of board games hidden away (or not so hidden) in my house. I’m not so much of a collector as a board game lover that has a hard time parting with any of his boardgame “friends”.

Being a ravenous game-player, I was always interested in playing a game, but to my surprise, not everyone I met was all that excited about it. In the late 70s, I came across a few of the earliest mass market consumer electronic games and I was hooked. Here were games I could play ALL BY MYSELF! I didn’t need to spend the work to drum up two or three more players just to play a game of Monopoly or Payday. As long as I had a battery, I could play my Mattel Football. I was pulled into computer and video games because it was a way to play games. Sure, a little handheld electronic game isn’t going to replace a good board game, but that’s when I stumbled across computer games. Strategic Simulations, Inc (SSI) had published Galactic Gladiators, a science-fiction based squad-level combat game for the IBM PC. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was a wargame that I could play against the computer – no need to try to con my older brother into playing yet another game! As the years went by, I continued to fall into a computer game (and later, with the Nintendo 64 and an actual income, video games) rut, but still preferred to play face-to-face boardgames whenever possible.

In the 90’s, with the arrival of collectible card games and Settlers of Catan I finally hit my boardgame stride. I had a circle of friends who enjoyed playing these types of games, and the new games were such that I felt that I could teach them to most of my friends and acquaintances. This coincided with an increased income and I began to acquire what might be thought of as a game collection. Sure, I had a whole pile of games from my youth, but now I was looking at games with a whole new viewpoint. These new games had all the rich decisions I found in my larger, more complex games, but the rules were simple enough for the games to be easily taught to an unsuspecting friend. Of course, the lure of the quick fix of computer and video games continued to plague me. It was so simple to pick up a game and play whereas a good boardgame required coordination of 4 or more people. But even in the area of video games I remained a fan of games that were closest to what I liked in board games.

In the heyday of the 90s, I started my own web site as a way to spread the good word about the many more cerebral types of computer games out there – wargames, strategy games, etc… This blossomed somewhat and then put me in contact with a new website about family computer gaming, I was able to help out with the site, and in late 2004 even started up a column about boardgames. I figure there have to be piles of people out there who would just love modern boardgames if they would only give them a try. Currently, I write a regular column over at GamerDad entitled: GamerDad Unplugged.

If I can convince just one video game player to pick up a board game and enjoy it, that’s one more person in this world who just might sit down and play a board game with me…

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Museum prep

Our exhibit at the Melbourne Museum starts next Friday, so I've had a really busy week trying to get everything ready. Expect me to talk of nothing else for the next month or so.

We have had some fantastic offers of help, although we are still finding staffing the demo games every weekend a bit heavy going.

Here's where we'll be - it's a little out of the way, but the demo games really move us into the main part of the gallery.

I've built a rudimentary website to provide extra information for people who are interested. This will also include a list of all games exhibited (ideally, of all games demoed each week, but I am not sure my energy will stretch that far after a full day at the museum...)

Trying to select 11 or so games that are "representative" of what we like about games is really really tough. Here's the list we have so far, and the text I've written to accompany the displays. I think we have room for one more game ... maybe

On the wall:

Shadows over Camelot

Serge Laget & Bruno Cathalla
(Days of Wonder, 2005)

Winner of a special “Fantastic game” prize from the German Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) council in 2006, Shadows over Camelot is a co-operative game for up to 7 players.

Players take the roles of Knights of the Round Table, working together to stop the siege of Camelot and complete various quests including retrieving Excalibur and the Holy Grail. Each Knight has a different special ability which allows him to change or bend a rule (for example, to draw 3 cards instead of 2).

The tension in this game comes from the feeling of impending doom as players struggle to balance all the conflicting threats. If that’s not enough, players can use the optional rules to add a traitor to the mix – one (unknown) Knight who is working against the rest of the group.

The very strong and engaging theme of Shadows over Camelot pulls players in to the game, and the high production values and beautiful game boards enhance the gaming experience.

Sunda to Sahul

Don Bone
(Sagacity games, 2002)

This game by an Australian designer is played by 2-4 players, or can be played as a solo puzzle. The theme of the game is the migration of people down the Indonesian archipelago into New Guinea and Australia.

In this simple but engaging game, players place jigsaw tiles to build the archipelago of islands, while also claiming land rights over particular ‘nodes’ (points where several tiles meet). All pieces on a completed island score double points, so players have to balance the need to complete islands with the benefits to them if they extend the island (and possibly place more pieces on it).

A variety of optional game rules which can be combined in different ways extend the game for experienced players.

Don’s second game Freya’s Folly was launched at the international games fair in Essen, Germany, in 2005.

Out for people to play with
(The local distributor has kindly offered us some spare sets of pieces for if when they go missing.

Bernard Tavitian
(Educational Insights, 2000)

Blokus is a very popular “abstract” game – that is, a game that does not have a theme attached to it. Traditional abstract games include Go, Othello, Backgammon and Ludo (and even Chess).

The rules are simple – 3 or 4 players take it in turns to place a piece. The only rules are that a piece MUST touch another piece diagonally (it may not touch along any sides).

A single player can also play Blokus as a puzzle – see if you can get all the pieces of one colour onto the board at once, following the rule that they cannot touch directly but must be connected on the diagonal.

You are welcome to play with this Blokus set, but please make sure that you leave all the pieces beside the board when you’re done.

“Travel Blokus” (2005) is a slightly smaller version for 2 players – and “Blokus Trigon” is a new (2006) version where the pieces are made up of connected triangles rather than squares, and are place on a hexagonal board.

In the display cases:

Nacht der Magier - “Magicians’ Night”

Jens-Peter Schliemann & Kirsten Becker
(Drei Magier Spiele, 2005)

This unusual dexterity game was nominated for the 2006 German “Kinderspiel des Jahres” (Children’s game of the year) award.

Each player takes a piece with a different symbol – crescent moon, lightning, ring or star. Your aim is to be the first player to push a cauldron (red piece) with your symbol into the recessed area in the centre of the game stand. As soon as a piece falls off the game area, a player’s turn ends and the next person can start pushing.
The trick? The game is played in pitch dark – fortunately the symbols on the pieces glow in the dark.

Shear Panic
Fraser & Gordon Lamont
(Fragor Games, 2005)

This is one of the more collectible games in our collection. Released for the Essen games fair in November 2005, the print run of 550 copies was completely sold out before the fair opened. Although originally priced at 25 Euros, there were reports of this game selling for up to 80 Euros during the event.

This was a self-published and home-produced game, but it has since been picked up by a major game company and a re-release is imminent.

The combination of a rule book full of bad puns, some great little sheep pieces and fiercely competitive game play made this a huge hit.

Plus and Minus
(unknown designer, c. 1940s?)

We found a copy of “The most intriguing game ever invented” in a beach house we hired during January 2005. When we finally got around to playing it, we found it to be a great little maths game.

The rules are simple – add the number on your card to the number on the card played by the previous player, then move one of your pawns that many spaces forward, or backward if the total is negative. The goal is to get all of your pieces to land exactly on 25 – if you go over 25, you have to go back to the start.

It took us a couple of months to track a copy down on eBay, but we found it eventually. Maybe it’s not “The game everyone has been waiting for for years!” but we’d agree that it’s “Absorbing for the Adult, Interesting & Instructive for the Children.”

The Settlers of Catan
Klaus Teuber
(Kosmos / Mayfair Games, 1999)

“Settlers of Catan” (1995) won the German Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award for that year, and is widely credited as being the game that kick-started the popularity of Eurogames (European-style boardgames). Players earn raw materials and trade them with the other players, then use them to build cities and settlements, expand their armies and build special buildings.

Settlers of Catan was followed by expansions The Seafarers of Catan (1999) and Cities and Knights of Catan (2000), by a cardgame version (1996), by 5-6 player expansion sets for all expansions, by a travel edition and by the Starfarers of Catan (1999). Starship Catan, a card version of Starfarers of Catan, was released in 2001, and The Kids of Catan, a simple building game for young children, in 2003. More recently, Candamir: the first Settlers (2004) and Elasund (2005) have built on the Settlers success story. There has even been a novelisation of the story of Candamir.

A Mormon adaptation, The Settlers of Zarahemla, was released in 2003, and die Siedler von Nürnberg (The Settlers of Nuremberg) was released in 1999 to commemorate the 950th anniversary of the city’s charter. There are several special editions of the Settlers games, including the very rare “das Wasser des Lebens” or “Whisky Settlers” (1997), a re-theming of Settlers based on the production of scotch whisky and issued in conjunction with the Glen Grant Distillery company. The most notable, though, is the tenth anniversary 3-D “Treasure Chest” edition (2005) which retailed for nearly $800 Australian. Sadly, and for obvious reasons, this edition is not in our collection.

The first Australian Settlers of Catan championships were held in June 2006 at the Australian Games Expo in Albury. The winner, Dennis Bodman, will represent Australia at the world championships in Essen, Germany, in October.

Power Grid
Friedemann Friese
(2F-Spiele / Rio Grande Games, 2004)

In Power Grid, players compete to power cities – by building connections to the cities, buying power plants, and fuelling them with the appropriate raw materials (coal, oil, garbage or plutonium).

Power Grid is probably the “heaviest” (most complicated) game that we have on display here, as there are so many different factors for players to balance – can I afford to buy a new power plant? If I buy it, can I afford to power it? Will I be able to connect to a new city? Would it be better to buy a more expensive but environmentally friendlier wind plant?

Power Grid is probably Fraser’s favourite game at the moment.

Reiner Knizia
(Alea / Rio Grande Games, 1999)

Reiner Knizia is considered one of the world’s great game designers. His prolific output is matched only by his enthusiasm for innovation – one recent game uses a special ink that can hold an electrical charge.

The game Ra features an innovative auction mechanic (players bid for tiles, aiming to collect groups of particular tiles in each of the three Epochs of the game). The player must balance the conflicting needs by collecting a variety of different types of tile but at the same time collecting sets of the same tile. This theme of balancing different requirements is often a feature of Knizia’s games.

Ra is widely considered one of Knizia’s best games, with the main criticism being that the ancient Egyptian theme is incidental to the game.

Reiner Knizia
(Hams im Glück / Rio Grande Games, 2003)

Reiner Knizia is considered one of the world’s great game designers. His prolific output is matched only by his enthusiasm for innovation – one recent game uses a special ink that can hold an electrical charge.

In Amun-Re, each player takes the role of a pharaoh, aiming to build more pyramids than any other. To accomplish this, players first acquire a province, which they can trade and farm. The profits from trading can buy new provinces and building stones to erect pyramids. Players can use power cards and can offer sacrifice to Amun Re to help them achieve their goals.

Tier auf Tier
Klaus Miltenberger
(Haba, 2005)

Tier auf Tier (“Animal upon Animal”) is a delightful and beautifully produced children's dexterity game in which players take turns piling wooden animals on top of one another.

Although this is billed as a children's game, we have found that it is enjoyable for adults and children alike. It's also a game where children have some advantage when playing with adults, due to their smaller and sometimes steadier hands.

Big City
Franz-Benno Delonge
(Goldsieber / Rio Grande Games, 1999)

In Big City, players compete to build a city, adding residential and commercial buildings and factories, as well as tram lines, parks, a town hall and a range of special buildings including shopping malls and cinemas. Before they can build, though, each player must acquire the rights to the pieces of land that they need for building.

Big City is a light-to-medium-weight game and typically takes around 45 minutes to play, of which the first 5-10 are usually spent oohing and aahing at the pretty plastic pieces.

Big City has been out of print for a couple of years now, but copies occasionally appear on eBay and on game trading sites. There are no verifiable rumours of a reprint at this stage.

Puerto Rico
Andreas Seyfarth
(Alea / Rio Grande Games, 2002)

Puerto Rico is generally considered to be one of the three best “Eurogames” ever, and is one of Melissa’s favourites.

The 3-5 players are plantation owners in Puerto Rico, growing a variety of crops, which they sell at the trading post or ship back to the old world. Strategically building commercial buildings to gain an advantage, in each round players must choose a role that will give them a slight advantage - but each other player can also take that action.

Other stuff:

It's been suggested that we should exhibit 2 versions of a game, to show the difference a reissue could make. We're considering

Lewis Pulsipher
(Avalon Hill, 1986 / Fantasy Flight Games, 2006)

Two different versions of this popular medium-weight historical wargame, which re-enacts the struggle for control of the British Isles from the Roman invasion of 43AD to the Norman conquest in 1066.

The new edition from Fantasy Flight games looks much prettier than Melissa’s 20-year-old copy. While the rules have been updated for the new edition, the basic game remains the same – but is now accessible to a new generation of gamers.

We will also have a PC running a selection of Scott Nicholson's video reviews of boardgames:
Video Reviews
Many thanks to Scott Nicholson of for his permission to show these boardgame reviews.

You can see Scott’s reviews at his website, or subscribe to automatically receive new reviews through iTunes.

We also have a folder of game reviews, I've spoken to the museum shop and promised the guy there that I'll give him a list of games we're displaying (with distributors ...), I'm not sure what else is left. I have that nagging feeling that I've forgotten something, though.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Almost--but not quite--roleplaying

A month or two ago I played a game of Fantasy Flight’s Descent with my gaming group. This game is an elaborate dungeon crawl with lots of plastic heroes and monsters. Nothing we haven’t seen before, but it seemed nicely done. I didn’t feel a need to rush out and buy myself a copy, but that may have more to do with the subject matter than any problems with the game. I was never a big roleplaying guy.

But wait, you say—isn’t Descent a boardgame? It really isn’t roleplaying at all.

Well, that may technically be true, but Descent is certainly a second cousin of Dungeons and Dragons, the original and longest-running RPG. As with D&D, in Descent you pick a character, you fight monsters and gather treasure, and you strengthen your character by gathering magic items or by improving your character’s abilities. A game of Descent is meant to be played in one sitting, and is thus a more self-contained experience than an on-going RPG campaign which could last for years. In fact, Descent resembles one chapter of a larger campaign, and I could see some clever Dungeon Masters using Descent to model a dungeon-crawl episode of their own campaigns.

Descent is only one of a half-dozen board games that seem to model the RPG experience. Along with Descent, Fantasy Flight has Runebound and World of Warcraft. Other games of this mini-genre include Heroquest, Dungeoneer, Return of the Heroes, and a Dungeons and Dragons boardgame.

But who is playing these games? And why? I would think that any die-hard roleplaying gamer would prefer a true campaign with all the limitless possibilities that a great DM can offer to players. Wouldn’t a real roleplayer find these games too cut-and-dried, too confining?

Or are these games being played by gamers who aren’t real roleplayers, but who would like to sneak up on the roleplaying experience without actually buying all the costly tomes that seem to be an obligatory part of Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs? Are these games meant to be roleplaying for boardgamers? Are they roleplaying lite?

I’m really just asking the question here. I don’t have any definitive answer.

I do know something about the fun-potential of roleplaying games because although I may not have immersed myself in this world, my brother has. Kyle has been playing and running RPGs since his college days, and he has played D&D, Dragonquest, GURPS, and at least one home-made system that he invented when the others didn’t satisfy. I have learned a lot about these games through brotherly osmosis. A good roleplaying campaign can have the complexity and depth of a good novel. When creating campaigns, Kyle tries to not only include plenty of action opportunities, but interesting characters, gripping mysteries, complex and deplorable villains, and even excruciating moral choices. One of his villains magically poisoned an entire village and then made sure the villagers knew that the only cure was drinking the blood of an innocent girl that the villain left bound in the village square. (I can’t remember if his heroes found a satisfactory way out of that dilemma).

This kind of complexity is exactly the kind of thing that D&D style board games lack. Fantasy board games capture only the most obvious aspects of roleplaying: the fantasy setting, the collection of plunder, the gradual improvement of character abilities, and the fighting. Real character and plot are the first casualties when an RPG becomes a board game. Combat and plunder are certainly enough to sustain a board game, but I still wonder why someone would choose to play Runebound when they could play a real D&D campaign. Or am I overlooking something as simple as a lack of good DMs?

Let me repeat that I am not knocking these board games themselves. Just this week I started doing some solitaire tinkering with Arkham Horror, another Fantasy Flight production. Now, Arkham Horror is not a board game version of Call of Cthulhu, the Lovecraftian RPG or even Call of Cthulhu, the collectable card game which Fantasy Flight also sells. Arkham Horror is a re-design of the 1984 board game that was put out by Chaosium. But it certainly seems like a second cousin of these Call of Cthulhu games.

I bought Arkham Horror last January in my annual games-I-should-have-gotten-for-Christmas-but-didn’t purchase. Some of the members of my gaming group are fond of the game, but Arkham Horror takes too long to play at one of our weeknight gaming sessions, and so I haven’t had the opportunity to play it with a group yet. But we are only eight weeks from Halloween, and the spooky-themed games are going to be coming out of the closet soon. I thought I’d teach myself the game while I had a free moment.

At first the mechanics of Arkham Horror seemed a little too repetitive. A gate opens, and you close it. Another game opens, and you close it. But the Great Old One kicked the collective butts of my investigators, and a challenge is always a good way to hook a gamer. And at least the game didn’t seem too easy (it has a reputation for being too easy—at least for experienced players). In spite of my underwhelmed initial reaction, I wanted to try it again.

And soon I was hooked. I haven’t actually finished a full game yet (I give up if I’ve been playing for four hours and the situation seems hopeless), but I’ve come to appreciate certain aspects of the game. I like the rumor cards that add new threats and mini-quests to the game. I like playing spot-the Lovecraft-reference (I grew up in Rhode Island and am a fan of the old Providence coot). I like the suspense that comes when a really formidable monster finally appears on the board. I even like the epic length of the game (up to a point—I hope no session of Arkham Horror ever drags on for seven hours or more).

I think this year Arkham Horror will be the Halloween game of choice.

But do I have an impulse to check out the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game? Try to find someone who is running a Lovecraftian campaign? No, not really. I guess I prefer to be almost—but not quite—roleplaying.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Six Degrees, The Second Edition

Next month my first article will be published over in Knucklebones magazine. It's a bio on Bruno Faidutti and his games. To celebrate that I'll be publishing a few new articles about Bruno here in Gone Gaming. So, enjoy, and be sure to pick up the November 2006 coverdated Knucklebones when it hits your local game store to read more about "the master of chaos".

Based upon the hypothesis that game design is a particularly collaborative type of creativity, this February I posted an article I dubbed Six Degrees of Collaboration wherein I showed the interconnectivity of the game design world based upon who had done full-fledged collaborations with whom.

I was quick to discover that the center of my chart was Bruno Faidutti, a French game designer who had done work not with just other French designers, but also Americans, Germans, and Italians. He was the lynchpin that hung the whole world of game design together.

Since then I've been occasionally expanding and tweaking my chart, as interest and knowledge strike me. Bruno Faidutti's central role hasn't changed much. His 10 connections on the previous chart have expanded to 11 connections in this chart plus a pseudo-connection. However I've been able to fill in much of the periphery, discovering entire new game companies who connect back to Faidutti.

In the process I also learned a bit more about collaboration ...

Types of Game Collaboration

In my initial article I detailed three different types of collaboration: true collaboration, serial collaboration, and developmental collaboration. To those I add a fourth type of collaboration: supplemental collaboration.

True Collaboration: A (usually) peer-to-peer type of collaboration. Two designers work together in order to jointly create a game. It can be face-to-face or it can be offline. It's the prime type of collaboration described herein.

Developmental Collaboration: A hierarchical type of collaboration. A designer creates a game, then a developer revises it. Typically I don't consider developmental collaboration sufficiently interesting to be listed on this chart (though, make no mistake, it's crucial to the success of most games). However, when developmental collaboration rises to the point where both creators' names are listed on the game box, then it's included herein. This seems to happen most often in American releases, such as Arkham Horror or Runebound.

Serial Collaboration: A hierarchical type of collaboration. One creator designs a game, then another creator designs another game using the same core system. Carcassonne and Empire Builder both offer examples of this.

Supplemental Collaboration: A hierarchical type of collaboration. One creator designs a game, then another creator designs a supplement for that game. Again, this tends to happen most frequently in American releases with Arkham Horror and Dungeon! both being examples on the chart.

Schools of Game Design

We can look at collaborations via another means: the nationality of the designer. Last December I outlined several different schools of game design and differentiated between the national characters of Anglo-American, French, German, and Italian games. As I've continued to build out my "Six Degrees of Bruno Faidutti" chart, it's become obvious that these national characters influence not just the way that designers make games, but also the way in which they engage in collaboration.

Anglo-American Collaboration: Anglo-American engage in collaboration through corporations. We see this through large numbers of American game companies, most prominently TSR, FASA, and SPI. The very similar graphing of Games Workshop shows that this style of working together isn't limited to this side of the pond. These ongoing business relationships make collaborations much more common in the United States, and if Anglo-American games are disproportionately represented in my chart, it's because they also have many more collaborations through their corporate entities.

Also notable is how loyal these corporate entities remain. Very few Anglo-American designers seem to engage in collaborations with more than one company. You have a Gary Gygax who moves from Avalon Hill to TSR or a Scott Haring who moves from TSR to Steve Jackson Games, but these are the exceptions (who helpfully provide us with connectivity), not the rules. More often an Anglo-American game designer seems to remain in collaboration with his choosen company until: he leaves the industry, the game company goes out of business, or he strikes out on his own to form a new company.

French Collaboration: French collaboration was the basis of my original article, and seems to exist as networked collaboration. Designers collaborate with friends in a very freeform manner, and are perfectly happy to design a few games each with a lot of different people. Granted, this definition is currently based largely on Bruno Faidutti's work, but we see similar patterns with his direct contacts, Ludovic Maublanc, Serge Laget, and Bruno Cathala.

Days of Wonder, a French-American company, appears in the chart for the first time in this new edition, and it's remarkable that their pattern of publication seems to match the French networked collaboration model rather than the corporate collaboration model of American companies. Ignoring the public-domain Gang of Four, every Days of Wonder game designer has a Faidutti Factor of 2 or less. With a dozen games under their belt, that can't be a coincidence.

(A suggestion to Days of Wonder for a new marketing slogan: "Two Degrees of Bruno Faidutti, and proud of it!")

German Collaboration: There were comments on my original article asking why the Germans were so poorly represented. Simply: they don't seem to collaborate. More frequently German designers seem to be fierce individualists, or else have one or more co-designers with whom they do lots of work.

In this newest chart I have pushed as many of the German designers together as I could, but they don't actually fall into a cohesive whole like many of the other categories of designers do. Klaus Jurgen-Wrede and Reiner Knizia are only connected through serial designs of Carcassonne on one side and Avalon Hill's developmental design of Titan: The Arena on the other. Nearby Wolfgang Kramer only connects up through a developmental design of Daytona 500. We only get to HiG's Bernd Brunnhofer through Bruno Faidutti's serial design of Democrazy. Friedemann Friesse is at the center of a fine cluster of indie German designers, but you can only get to that through a pseudo-connection from Bruno Faidutti to Marcel-Andre Cassasola Merkle. (The role selection system in Faidutti's Citadels came from Merkle's Verrater.)

Italian Collaboration: Though the Italian side of this chart is still pretty sparse, I did do a lot more work this time looking at the Italian landscape of collaborative design. It looks to me like it's geling around a corporate collaborative model much like the United States, but that it's still in a sufficiently early stage that you can't really connect people yet. As seen in my recent "Six Degrees of Italy" chart (reprinted to the right; click for a larger view), there are lots of separate designer communities, only one of which connected back to the main chart through Venice's Jagd der Vampire. Oddly, I see more three-person and four-person collaborations in Italy than I found elsewhere (including the newly founded group Acchittocca), and so I'm left wondering if the "design studio" is a unique aspect of Italian collaboration.

I think we're really going to see the Italian design community gel in the next five years, if daVinci and other leaders in the market continue to find success.

The New Chart

And so let me finally present the new chart. It has considerably more designers than the old one did. Here's some of the major new discoveries:

Old American company Chaosium was added thanks to a link that didn't exist six months ago: the first Arkham Horror supplements, designed by Robert Vaughn. This let me link in Arkham Horror itself and from there a number of Chaosium employees. I was actually surprised that the Chaosium folks didn't do more board game collaboration, but then they've primarily been a roleplaying company for the last 25 years.

Just for fun, I put myself on this chart too, in the Chaosium section. I've got weak (for board game) connectivity to: Greg Stafford (RPG work), Lynn Willis (RPG work), Kevin Jacklin (RPG work), Charlie Krank (Mythos development), and Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson (Arkham Horror development). If you want you can draw in all those connections on your copy of the chart; the arrangement of the companies is correct for them. And, that would provide a cross-link from Chaosium down toward Reiner Knizia.

But moving back to actual board game connections ...

The new game Funny Friends was another one that opened up connections to several new designers, here Friedemann Friese's aforementioned friends. The connection is weak, because it goes through the serial borrowing of a single game mechanic, role drafting, but it's an openly acknowledged borrowing, so I've included it on the chart.

FASA and Games Workshop both appear on this new chart thanks to a link from Derek Carver that I'd been too lazy to follow-up on in my first iteration of this chart. However I was even more surprised to discover that FASA in turn linked up to Bill Fawcett, who was also already on my original chart. I'd missed his connection because of his alternatively using William and Bill as name in his design work, something else that seems to happen more often in American designs for some reason. In any case, this created a new crosslink on the chart that helps to hold everything together.

SPI and West End Games are two more American companies that appear for the first time, all through Steve Winter's supplemental work on Sniper. (You'll note that all of my major new connections are slightly weak, through supplements or mechanic borrowing.) The SPI section is pretty amazing in how it forms an almost perfect wheel around the late Redmond Simonsen. His influence on wargaming design, and thus board game design in general, can't be underestimated, and I think that's clearly and graphically shown by his position at the center of SPI creativity. Given his love of graphic designs, I think he would have approved.

With all that said, here's some charts. On the left is the old chart, for comparison purposes, and on the right is the new one. Just click on either to see the full-sized chart.

The Old Chart:
The New Chart:


I sure this won't be my last iteration of the Six Degrees. I've still got a couple of old paths that I want to track down, and every month brings new collaborations as well. Me, I'm still waiting for my holy grail: the connection to Klaus Teuber. I think the missing link will ultimately be the Atlantis expansion to Settlers of Catan. I just need to wait for some of Teuber's collaborators there to do more original work of their own. My current money is on Stefan Risthaus as being the one who'll bring Klaus Teuber into the world of Bruno Faidutti.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Special Guest Blogger--R.E.D.

I was searching blogs when I happened upon one written by a young Meeple and he was kind enough to give me permission to publish his first entry here at Gone Gaming. I hope you enjoy this peek into his life as much as I did.

My name is Reginald Eugene Daniel but my friends and family call me Red. My father’s a farmer and I help him a lot by keeping watch over his fields. Not much happens around here usually but it’s a good place to watch what’s going on in the city and surrounding area.

Last week someone finally bought the farm near us. His name is Beauregard Lionel Ulysses Eddrick (we just call him Blue) and he wanted us to share our field with him. Pop got so mad he turned maroon! It didn’t take long for him to call our cousin, Richard Elliot David, to come and help me guard the field. We managed to keep that old Blue from stealing our farm and being able to sell to the surrounding cities. It wasn’t all hard work, though. We went down to the river and made mud balls to throw at Blue. Now that was fun!

My mom’s second cousin once removed on her father’s side is one of the city guards. He says the city is growing so big that they might have to increase the number of guards. Boy, I’d sure like to do that. They get to wear a cool looking uniform and the girls just fall all over them. But Pop says he needs me here on the farm.

When I feel down about that or just feel like talking, I sometimes go and visit the priest in the nearby monastery, Father Gregory. He’s a real nice guy and very helpful even if he is old and his skin is kinda green. He’s very easy to talk to and I even told him about this girl I met who tends the pigs in the field across the road. Her name is Yolanda Eileen something. Her shape is wonderfully flat and she has blonde hair. She’s beautiful.

The most interesting thing that’s ever happened to me was the day I met a thief on the road. We talked for a long time about what it’s like to be a thief and I felt so sorry for him that I shared my lunch with him. I thought he could probably use it since he didn’t look too healthy. His skin was kinda gray looking and there was a big bump on his head. He said thank you very politely and then rode off towards the city. I think about him once in a while and hope he’s doing o.k.

Well, I better get to bed so I’ll be ready for another day of guarding the field. I hope I dream about Yolanda. I wonder what our kids would look like.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Is Ra broken?

There has been much discussion about seating position problems in games, usually but not always centred on Puerto Rico. This is usually a static seating problem, for example if you are an average Puerto Rico player, but sitting the left of a village idiot you will be enhanced to the status of Puerto Rico Grand Master, or so some of the discussions seem to imply.

Why is it that nobody has talked about the dynamic seating issue in Ra? In Ra you don't have the Village Idiot problem, you have the Junk Bidder problem.

The Junk Bidder is the player who has at least two low Sun tiles, usually with values under five. Let us say, hypothetically of course, that you are the player to their left with a God tile and one reasonable Sun tile left. You may, or may not hypothetically speaking, have six different monument tiles and no civilisation tiles.

Round after round, one of the two monuments you want, nay need, comes up. Every single time the bag reaches the Junk Bidder they casually dismiss it and call Ra, meaning that yet again you won't be able to use your hypothetical God tile to pick up that seventh monument type. With the God and a bid you thought that you should be able to pick up both a monument and a civilisation tile for an easy ten points before the end of the epoch without any problems. The first time a monument piece that you want is there the Junk Bidder calls Ra, but you need to pass so that you can use your God tile later. Unfortunately there is enough interest in the auction that one of the other players bids and the Junk Bidder is left with all torturous Sun Tiles intact. The third time this happens there is, again hypothetically speaking, one of the monuments you need and a civilisation tile. Of course the Junk Bidder calls Ra, this time you figure you will just take the two points for the God and bid. Of course you are outbid by one of the other players who both seem determined to leave the Junk Bidder empowered to do their worst against you.

Three vitally important monuments and a civilisation tile have now gone, you still have your God and Sun tile and the Junk Bidder is still sitting with their three and four Sun Tiles that are turning your life in one of abject misery. An epoch that started so well is heading towards an end with a whimper with you turned into a blubbering incompetent wreck who can't get anything.

If this hypothetical game had actually occurred you would have gone from leading in the first epoch with six different monument types to coming dead last at the end of the game.

I suppose I should not discuss this with MrSkeletor or he will campaign against "another broken Reiner".

Speaking of MrSkeletor I must commend him for raising general table banter and trash talking to a new height this week during a game of Beowulf. Has anyone noticed that a quarter of the board is missing? Or did Doug just get a dud copy? However, I digress.

As well as the usual "take the risk, it's only a scratch" and "you don't have three wounds yet" type of comments that seems quite common in our group, MrSkeletor elevated the experience by reading out his interpretations of the thematic descriptions for each encounter along the way. I'm still not entirely sold on the game and the monumental risk taking events that occurred did seem to encourage a little too much "speaking in Danish" from Anna and myself according to Doug, but I would play it again even without MrSkeletor's commentary.

How to spot a gamer child
I had opened up a new game this morning and when I picked up the counter sheet I noticed that all of the pieces except for one red one had fallen out in transit. Daughter the Younger wandered into the room, looked at what I was doing and said "You need to push the red one out Daddy". Now I must stop writing and play a game with her since she has been asking me so nicely (actually saying "please" without prompting). She is requesting the yellow one with red writing and the grey one.

Mmmm Meeples taste like...

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Two-Player IGA Nominees

I won’t make any predictions about who could win or lose the IGA two-player competition because I know nothing about the politics of the organization or what they like to look for. But I’ve played three of these games, and Shannon Appelcline has played the other two, so between us we have something to say about all of them. First, here are Shannon’s comments on Punct and Travel Blokus.

Punct is an abstract game that centers around building connections across the board, with two cool differences that you don't find in most games of the sort. First, you can build three-dimensionally by bridging some pieces over others, and second you can move pieces after they've hit the board.

Despite not liking abstracts in general, I like this one, and would say it's the best 2-player game I've picked up since last year's (very different) Dungeon Twister. On the downside it degenerates into form of trench warfare at the end, with lots of back and forth.

I think Punct has some cachet as the last GIPF game, but I don't think that's enough to offset the non-sexiness of being a pure abstract, and thus I'd rate Punct as a dark horse candidate for the IGA, though a deserving one if it does win. (And I'll comment that Dvonn, a GIPF game, did win in the past, and in the first round of voting even.)

Travel Blokus is this year's 2-player version of the Blokus game, made smaller and more compact for the traveler (though for gamers I suspect its main appeal is the 2-player aspect, not the travel design). As with Blokus you try and get most pieces down through clever play of your shapes to the board.

Like Punct, this is another abstract that I like anyway. It's a very thoughtful game and one that allows for a lot of skill. Sometime's it's even more thoughtful than I'd personally like, but I certainly can't hold that against the game.

However, I couldn't possibly see it winning the IGA. It's a knockoff of an original, with very little to distinguish it on its own. A prize for Travel Blokus would just be a way of saying that the judges regretted not giving Blokus any recognition back in 2000.

Aton is a quick-playing Egyptian-themed gem. Like all gems, it is small, shiny, and highly-polished. Aton is a majority-control game from designer Thorsten Gimmler. It is published by Queen Games, and distributed by Rio Grande here in the USA.

But don’t we have enough majority control games? I mean, with El Grande, and San Marco, and Capitol, and Web of Power, do we really need another one? And what’s so special about this one?

Well, if the games mentioned above are grand but intricate multi-player contests, Aton is a rapier-quick duel. Over a series of turns, two players each allocate four cards to four different spaces to determine their capabilities for that turn. Each card is numbered from one to four. No text, no special abilities. The four allocation spaces determine how many quick victory points are earned that turn, how many opposing markers can be removed from the board, which of four temples your markers can be placed in, and how many new makers you get to allocate this turn.

The game board is divided into four temples, each of which holds several spaces of different colors and some bonus point spaces. Players can earn points for controlling the majority of spaces in one temple, or for controlling the majority of certain colored spaces on the whole board. There are sudden-death victory conditions to keep both players on their toes: if any player grabs all the spaces in one temple, or all the green or all the yellow spaces, he wins instantly. Otherwise, first player to gain forty points wins.

The game supposedly has an Egyptian-theme (two religious factions are fighting for control of the temples) but the theme is paper-thin. As far as I am concerned, this is an abstract token-placement game.

I am not the ideal person to sing the praises of this game because I usually dislike abstract games. And yet I like Aton. It has the elegance of simplicity, and creates dilemmas by offering several alternate paths to victory. Although both players draw cards from their own deck each turn, both decks are identical. Luck is therefore not a huge factor in the game. Aton is simple enough to play with non-gamer friends, but deep enough to intrigue real gamers.

Twilight Struggle is a GMT Games’ grand strategic treatment of the Cold War conflict. Designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, Twilight Stuggle has sent Alan Moon into such ecstasies of gaming rapture that GMT now quotes Moon on their website.

What’s so original about this game? Isn’t it another one of those card-driven games that GMT churns out like Cracker-Jacks? And once you open up the hood and take a look at the engine, isn’t it just another majority-area-control game?

Yes, it is both. And yet how else to turn the non-hot-war aspects of the Cold War conflict into a boardgame than with red and blue political influence markers slugging it out in the far corners of the globe? The area-majority mechanism gives the game a simple but powerful engine while the cards provide theme and period flavor.

One of the innovations of Twilight Struggle is that players are usually required to play event cards that benefit their opponent. One or two cards can be allocated to the Space Race each turn where nasty events are neutralized, but usually each player holds too many enemy-benefiting cards for that strategy to work completely. This often makes each turn an exercise in damage control. A Defcon Status track also makes nuclear war a possibility if the players don’t keep tight control of their own worst impulses. (The very first game I played ended after only a turn or two when the Soviet player accidentally triggered a Dr. Strangelove scenario).

While the card-driven wargame genre has of late been producing increasingly complex games (Here I Stand being the prime example), Twilight Struggle has gone in the opposite direction. This is a wargame that is so simple that many non-wargamers enjoy it.

War of the Ring, Battles of the Third Age is both a new mini-game about operational-level campaigns in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and an expansion for the grand-strategic-level game War of the Ring that won last year’s IGA award in the two-player category.

I can’t give a truly objective opinion of this game because I was one of its playtesters. Probably it’s most unworthy playtester. While playtester Alex Rockwell was e-mailing complex mathematical analysis of all aspects of a new game change to the designers, I was sending statements along the lines of “Sauron keeps winning. Am I doing something wrong?”

War of the Ring, Battles of the Third Age is one of the leading examples of a small trend that is emerging in the gaming field: giving players variant mini-campaigns on the same subject matter as a previous game while simultaneously expanding that original game (The other Fantasy Flight game that does this is the just released A Game of Thrones, Storm of Swords expansion). This gives players a lot for their money.

War of the Ring, Battles of the Third Age contains both a Rohan scenario and a Gondor campaign as well as elements that expand the original War of the Ring game. Both campaigns use army and character pieces from the original game, but have rules that have been adjusted for the operational scale of the scenarios. Combat is handled in more detail, and different kinds of units now have differing combat abilities. These scenarios were designed to have shorter playing times than the original game while still being meaty wargames with plenty of options. Most gamers find the Gondor campaign to be more interesting than the Rohan scenario.

The expansion for the original War of the Ring game includes characters, creatures and military units that only appeared on cards in the original game. Both players get more options at the cost of making the playing time of the game slightly longer. There was some attempt to address the complaints that the game favored the Shadow player, but I don’t think this problem has been completely solved yet (and there are a few players who still insist that the game favors the Free Peoples).

Would the IGA judges give an expansion the two-player award the year after they honored the original game with the same award? I have no clue. I only know that the game is worth buying if you are a War of the Ring fan.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Multiplayer IGA Nominees

There are, over the gaming year, five different major awards. The first two are the German awards, the SdJ and the DSP. Then there's the RPG industry award, the Origins, and finally the American mass-market award, the Games 100. It's pretty easy to pigeon-hole each of these:
  • The SdJ is a German award for a casual or family game.
  • The DSP is likewise a German award for more serious games, though the results have been getting more casual as they've started to let the masses vote.
  • The Origins board & card game awards are, first of all, more beauty contests than anything else, where people vote on companies as much as products. In addition they tend to award American take-that style play. If you're looking for a new Munchkin, look here. (Since splitting into the Origins award & Choice awards, Origins proper has gotten somewhat better, while the Choice awards continue to be about what you'd expect.)
  • The Games 100 are a very eclectic mix, centering on ultra-casual strategy-light games that'll appeal to the (American) mass market, but extending somewhat to more gamist games, thanks primarily to the fact that they get to name 100 picks.
... and then there's the IGA, the International Gamer Awards.

I don't say that out of any disrespect, but rather because I have no idea what they stand for. Chris Farrell made the same comment last year, but based on that year's nominations suggested that there was a "new emphasis on some decent, off-mainstream games". Of course, Ticket to Ride: Europe won, and it was one of the two most mainstream games on the list.

I think part of the reason that the IGA continues to confuse me is because they insist on being international. Of this year's 11 multiplayer nominations, five don't have any real English-world distribution--Antike, Das Ende Des Triumvirats, Indonesia, Jenseits von Theban, and Un Krone und Kragen--though Antike, Das Ende Des Triumvirats, and Un Krone und Kragen are scheduled for September while Indonesia was published in a bilingual edition and has us much distribution as you'd expect for an indie game from Netherlands that's at least trying to get into the U.S. A sixth game, Blue Moon City, is just two weeks' old is in US printing. I honestly can't see how nominating games not particularly available to their primarily English-speaking audience is that helpful to anyone but the most diehard grognards, and I can see how it makes the IGA awards fade right into the spectrum between the SDJ and the DSP--which explains why I don't know what they stand for, because as far as I can tell they're just a second edition of the DSP.

If I ruled the world, the IGAs would explicitly and specifically give awards to gamers' games available to the English-speaking American public, because neither the Origins Awards nor the Games 100 go for that demographic. You could thus use American publication dates rather than German publication dates, differentiating the IGA even further from its German brethren. But I don't run the world, and so I'm afraid that in another year the IGA is going to be even more confused, given the entry of another (as if we needed that) gaming award on the scene, the Geekies.

Enough rant, I want to talk more about the games up for this year's multiplayer IGA.

(If you want to know about the two-player IGA, look to tomorrow's post.)

The Multiplayer IGA Nominees

The IGA put up 11 nominees for this year's awards. Despite the fact that I usually try and get to the new games as fast as I can, I've only played five of them. (Though I probably would have gotten to Blue Moon City last week if Tempus hadn't been available for play too.) Here's my general thoughts on everything I can talk about to any extent, with a bonus comment from Coldfoot, who played one of the six I hadn't.

Antike is a new entrant into the Civ Light category, and its a pretty good contender for that Holy Grail in pure scope of gameplay. You have your technology, your warfare, and your resource management; the only thing really missing from the old Civ formula is trade. On the downside it's a poorly developed game with issues with both combat and victory, where things can go badly if you play "wrong". I've ranted more than once about OK games that could have been truly great if an external developer had gotten to them. This is another, and I doubt it'll win the IGA for reason of these sharp edges.

Blue Moon City is a game that I haven't gotten to play, but that I'm looking forward to. As a Knizian resource-management game I think it's going to be fine release, but the hype I've heard thus far is pretty low key, which suggests to me that this is going to fit right into Knizia's more recent category of strategic games like Tower of Babel that are nonetheless very light weight.

Caylus is pretty clearly the most strategic game on this list among those that I've played. It's Puerto Rico for people who think that Puerto Rico is too simple and short. Like Antike I think it could have been a truly great game if it had some outside development, but unlike Antike I think it's already a pretty fine game (though again it has gameplay problems if you play it "wrong", a recurring theme among indies). If the IGA judges decide on a heavy-weight game, I have faith that it'll be this one.

Des Endes des Triumvirats is a game that I feel is just wasting space on the IGA nominations list, along with Indonesia, and Jenseits von Theban. These games have gotten so little buzz that they're going to be pretty unknown to most anyone who looks at the awards, and I think the public and the awards would have been better served by these games actually showing up in the awards during a year in which they'd seen American publication. And I can't see any of these winning an IGA award as a result.

Hacienda is a decent tile-laying game by Wolfgang Kramer that reminds me a bit of Through the Desert with a lot more complexity. You score points by building sets of land and in the process must manage funds through the placement of animals. It's got a lot of interconnected systems that work together decently well, but never click as a whole. It's a good game that I've played 5 times since its release and that I'd give a solid "B" to, but I don't think it's award-winning material.

Coldfoot offers the following on Indonesia:
Indonesia is clearly the best game among the handful of nominees I have played (Caylus, RR Tycoon, Hacienda, and Thurn and Taxis), although I have high hopes for Antike. There are some production gaffes, which is not that uncommon for these small-publisher games, and there are a jillion cardboard chits, both of which will weigh heavily against Indonesia in the final balloting. Indonesia is a game of production, distribution, business mergers, and expansion. It is almost an exercise in book keeping, still it is less book keeping intensive than some other fine Splotter-Spellen games. There is some hubbub on the net about the so called "shipping strategy", but I'm here to tell you that the shipping strategy is much more viable as the number of players increases. Keep that in mind and don't let the shipping companies go for less than they are worth, which will change with the number of players.

Mykerinos is the one game that I'd previously heard of and was surprised to see on this list. It's a recent Ystari release that had none of the sturm und drang of Ys or Caylus. (Would you look at that ... every one of their games has a "Y", then a "S" in it.) Further, I've heard some concerns about degenerate play. So, I think this one is a pretty longshot for the IGA, but that's spoken from a position of ignorance as I've never played it. (I really should.)

Railroad Tycoon was a game that I was surprised didn't show up in the Origins awards. It wasn't even nominated. (But then, that's always been a problem with the Origins; great games sometimes randomly don't win because they weren't submitted.) In the landscape of American games, I can see Railroad Tycoon as a great contender. It's a great Eurostyle game with some pretty random cards, some kick-ass pieces, and a very long playing time, and thus it should really become the King of the American Games. Among Eurogames, it's a photocopy of Age of Steam with some systems improved, some not, and I can't see the IGA being awarded to a photocopy: if they'd wanted to highlight this game, the publication of Age of Steam was the right time. (But then I would have offered the same argument after last year's nomination of Ticket to Ride Europe.)

Thurn und Taxis is what I see as the other strongest contender for the IGA, with the difference between it and Caylus mainly being whether they decide to honor a light game or a heavy one. T&T is a connection game with aspects of card management, brinkmanship, and role selection. It all fits together into a superb harmonious whole that's enjoyable to play. In many ways it feels like an attempt to create an entirely new and original Ticket to Ride and in that it succeeds, except for the fact that it's a bit more shallow in replayability. I had no doubt that T&T would win the SdJ due to its German theming. That's not going to help in the IGA, which drops it down a little in my handicapping.

Um Krone und Kragen I haven't played due to its lack of release in the U.S. However, it's gotten some nice hype due to its design by Tom Lehmann and its description as "Super Yahtzee". I've heard enough about the game that it's interesting me much more than it originally did, and I'd place it as a dark-horse third-best contender for the IGA, after Caylus and Thurn & Taxis.


That it's for my thoughts on the IGA. I like and respect a lot of people involved in the award, and I have no doubt that a bunch of good games were put up, but I'm still confused as to its reason for existence. The schizophrenic split between the sorts of games you'd see in the main German awards, and the indie games that aren't available in the U.S. anyway confuses me, and so I'm still not sure what the IGA offers that other awards don't. However, I'll keep an eye out for the results, and if the winner is something I haven't played, I'll inevitably make an attempt to try and play it.

For more on the IGA watch for tomorrow's Gone Gaming when Kris Hall will talk about the 2-player nominees with some help from myself.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

From the Book of I Teuber, Chapter 11

1. In the year of Mississippi Queen, during the reign of Knizia the Wise, a Gamer of Gamers came forth from the Bayou and walked amongst the Children of Hasbro. His name was Greg which means "He Who Writes Session Reports".

2. Greg first appeared unto the Children of Hasbro in the Land of the Spielfriek-ites, a tiny land with abundant groves bearing large fruit, and sheltered by great mountains. The inhabitants were few but were eager for the Word of Boardgames.

3. In the Land of the Spielfriek-ites Greg spoke with a knowledgeable voice and the Words he spoke resounded in the halls of kings far beyond the shadow of the Moderator Mountains. He spoke with a kind, yet mighty voice and said, "Hear me ye Children of Hasbro and listen good for I bring unto you the Word of Good Boardgames and Good Card Games from a far land that is called Germany."

4. The Spielfriek-ites listened and all who heard him said, "Here is a good, wise and humble man. Surely he knows of which he speaks."

5. Greg spread the Word of Good Boardgames amongst the Spielfriek-ites and they prospered. They multiplied quickly and the land bore much wool, grain, clay, ore, and timber which was used to make meeples, little wooden houses and colored cubes of varying sizes.

6. Heeding the Words of Greg and other wise men, the Kings, Merchants, Farmers and Priests of the Spielfriek-ites gathered much treasure and their Leaders acquired many followers making them safe from neighboring Kings, Merchants, Farmers, and Priests.

7. However, the next generation in the Land of the Spielfriek-ites grew discontented and bickered amongst themselves. The Children grew haughty and prideful in their knowledge of Games and scorned newcomers who came to hear the Words of Greg and other wise men.

8. That generation's displeasure with newbies was magnified every time one was heard to say, "Hey! I just played this great game called Catan something. Have you heard of it?" and "Gathering of Friends? What is that?" The older generation became jaded by the attitude of the younger.

9. Greg spaketh unto the young people saying unto them, "Have ye not heard my message of Boardgame Evangelism? Or have ye heard and not heeded? Your fields abound with corn, sugar, indigo, tobacco and coffee. Why are ye unwilling to share this bounty with the Children of Hasbro in less fortunate lands?" The young people listened not and continued to throw barbs at newcomers.

10. Greg dreamt one night of a Meeple saying, "The Children of the Spielfriek-ites have turned away from The Message of Good Boardgames and have grown discontented by the words of rules lawyers, chit-chatterers, and malcontents.

11. Neither abandon, nor forget the Spielfriek-ites, for their fathers were good and generous people and their grandchildren will likewise hear and be faithful. Nevertheless venture forth from this land and spread the Word of Good Boardgames amongst the Children of Hasbro in the land of the Geek. And Lo, create the International Gamers Awards to counteract the abomination which is the Games Magazine Game of the Year."

12. Greg arose and left the Land of Spielfriek-ites. On his journey he accepted neither gold nor cash donations, but survived on a stream of "review copies" delivered by the FedEx man every morning with regularity.

13. On his journey Greg met other wise men and created the IGA as the Meeple had instructed. He proclaimed the Word of Good Boardgames, and returned often to the Spielfriek-ites to share and to glean Words of Boardgame Wisdom.

14. One day on Greg's journey a pastel camel stood in his path and proclaimed, "A Spielfriek-ite named Derkes awaits in the Land of Dallas. Seek him out in the lowliest hovel, littered with beer cans and discarded pizza boxes, for he proclaims The Word of Good Boardgames and is a good and faithful servant."

15. Greg gawked at the camel and said, "Art Thou not a camel, how speakest to me as Thou wert a person?" The camel just winked. Greg said, "Surely none but an animal could live in a hovel such as Thou describest?" The pastel camel spat upon Greg, and would respond no more.

16. Greg found Derkes as the camel had proclaimed. Upon seeing Greg, Derkes offered a hand in "High 5" fashion and said, "Hark, The Gamer of Gamers. Two days ago a pastel camel appeared unto me saying, 'A man from the Bayou will arrive in two days. You must copy and paste his Words for all to see, especially for the Children of Hasbro who live in the shadow of the Moderator Mountains, but even unto those who live in the far corners of the Earth.' That smarmy camel then spat upon me, but I see it is You of whom he spoke."

17. Greg spaketh, "Arise, bathe yourself, and begin copying and pasting the Word I have given unto the Children of Hasbro, for I see that you are a True and Faithful Servant of Boardgames. I have an appointment with Prince Aaddam from the Land of Gamefest."

18. Derkes arose, gave Greg a bear hug, a slap on the back, and swore a few times. Between games of Tichu Derkes copied and pasted the Words of Greg for all the True Geeks to see. So spreadth the Word of Good Boardgames unto the Children of Hasbro in the Land of the Geek, and Lo, even unto those scattered beyond the corners of the Earth.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Game Awards, Pro and Con

Board Game Geek announced that it was starting a game award only a few weeks ago, and now come the IGA nominations for best games. It's game award season. Actually, all year is game award season.

Much has been written about game awards, pro and con. In fact, there is really little to say that hasn't already been written somewhere, by somebody. I can sum up some of the sentiments:


Game awards attract mainstream interest in games, which benefit the publicity of games.

Game awards boost sales of the nominated games.

Game awards provide a topic of discussion for the game community, which result in information about games being made more readily available.

Game awards inspire designers to produce better games.

People naturally like to rank things and pick bests. Witness the plethora of top ten lists at the end of every year, as well as the continuing popularity of "list posts" on blogs.

Game publishers and designers really deserve our attention and thanks, and awards are a good means of giving these.


Game awards are the industry congratulating itself, which is both arrogant and full of nothing.

The same games are going to win most awards, so why have more than one? Especially, why have duplicate awards drawn from the same voting groups?

The vast majority of voters will only have played a few of these games; which results in popular games more likely to win, rather than better games.

Games are not meant to be "best" for all types of people, but serve only the target group to which they were marketed. Ranking them is therefore useless.

In particular, why would BGG have a game award when they already have a ranking system. How will they be any different?

How do you decide what games are included, and what aren't, based on publication date? What constitutes a board game, anyway? Or a light game? Or a card game?

And how do you handle game expansions, reprints, print and play games, free variants, and so on?

All well and good, both the positives and negatives. For my own part, I am kind of indifferent to these awards. I've seen too many good games without awards and too many bad games with them. My tastes are also skewed compared to the tastes of the masses, but not directly opposite them, either. So awards serve as no prediction for me as to whether or not I will like something.

When I see game awards, I am only reminded of all of the games that I have yet to play, and of all the other people who seem to be able to get their hands on so many more games than I do. Oh, well. At the very least, it gives me something to blog about.