Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Winning Alternatives

It doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning's winning. --Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious

Winning: All-or-nothing?

As I noted last week, regardless of what the game ending scores are, the vast majority of games are simply won or lost. It doesn't make a difference in Puerto Rico whether you win 75 to 54, 36 to 35, or even 44 to 44 with an extra doubloon. Either you won or you lost.

This all-or-nothing scoring can compromise the integrity of a game. The fact that a win by a point or a tie breaker is as good as a mile influences the way that strategies and tactics are employed in the game. Whether it is sacrificing points in order to ensure the end-game, stalling for time, or trading with an opponent while in a winning position, the fact of an all-or-nothing victory asserts itself.

But not all games are like this.


I'm hoping someone will point out another games, but the only standalone game that I could think of that includes multiple kinds of wins is Cribbage. The game of Cribbage is played to 121 points. A simple win is when your opponent has scored 91 or higher points. If your opponent scored less than 91, you have "skunked" him; less than 61, you have "double-skunked" him.

If the game was being played for money, you traditionally earn more money for the greater kind of win.

The Honorable Win

The type of win you score against your opponent or opponents cam affect the social aspect of the win. Go is a traditional example, but the same idea can apply to other games.

In Go, there are honorable and dishonorable wins. A win can taunt an opponent or respect an opponent. The difference is not necessarily by the point differential but rather by the tactics used to gain the victory. The specifics are beyond the scope of this article.

In other games, the difference in scoring can be a factor of whether an opponent feels like they have played a competitive and challenging game or whether they have participated in a route. In a sports game, for instance, a large margin of victory is an embarrassment. Also an embarrassment is playing an opponent who is clearly not making an effort.

You can change the nature of a win or loss by the sportsmanship you exhibit after the game.

Cooperative/Solo Games

In this example, the game is scored at the end, and your margin of victory is recorded. Whether you have won or lost this particular instance of the game, the score you've achieved is compared to previous plays of the game. If you have beaten your previous score, you can consider this a win; otherwise, a loss.

In truth, this still devolves into a simple win or loss result; only the yardstick has changed.


Similarly, many games are actually a series of smaller games played one after another. Duplicate bridge, for example, or a sports tournament.

The interim scores you achieve for each particular game in their series may have significance on your overall score. Therefore, you are enjoined to not only win games but maximize your scores in each game. This is really no different than simply trying to score the most on each turn of a regular game; you're simply playing the games as turns in a larger game.

However, good sportsmanship requires you to make a good effort against all opponents, and not to ditch, stall, or throw games just because the game is irrelevant in the series.


In games where real money or prizes may be won or lost, the margin of victory can be significant.

An obvious example is Poker. After a night of Poker, there is a large difference between having won a majority of hands versus winning all the hands. The final score is the amount of money you take home.

Some tournaments may also reward extra money for achieving a certain win percentage overall.


There are "games" without traditional styles of scoring at all. Most gamers would probably call these "activities" rather than games. For instance, cooperative games where you always win, or what is called "New Games", which are fun group activities.


I described the problem with the all-or-nothing win above: instead of playing the best that they can for the entirety of the game, players sometimes go only so far and then say "good enough". Furthermore, players use this knowledge as a tool to "game" end the game, rather than strive to achieve the best score that they can, which is possibly more within the spirit of the game.

On this latter sentiment, I acknowledge that there will be some disagreement; nowadays we think that any tool used to win within the confines of the game should be used. We try to "solve" a game win. While not thoroughly opposed to this view, I think it lacks a certain something in the way of sportsmanship.

On the flip side, there are problems with simply applying gradated wins to friendly games.

Firstly, people don't necessarily want record of their scores kept indefinitely. One of the nice things about games is that we start with a clean slate. Games could get discouraging if we enter them knowing that a victory will simply raise our win rate from 2/100 to 3/101, or 1005 points in 67 games to 1032 points in 68 games.

Sometimes I'm "playing", and sometimes I'm relaxing. This may be a teaching game or a game right before bedtime.

Secondly, the final scores in games are not necessarily accurate reflections of skill levels or play results. A 32 to 30 to 27 game of Puerto Rico might be a masterful win, while a 65 to 53 to 41 game might have been easy sailing. This is because the game provides multiple paths to victory points and multiple end game conditions. Also, while not overly luck driven, luck, and the poor right-hand opponent, still play a part in your victory.

Thirdly, comparing scores, especially in multi-player games, is only useful against the same opponents. The record of my wins against Mary, Joe, and Susan has no real relation to my record against Tom and Cynthia. Not only are the opponent levels different, the number of players was different, and the rules may even have been slightly different (open vs closed holdings, for example).


Cribbage offers the first solution to these problems. Both our games, and our game styles, should encourage not only beating our opponent, but different levels of winning.

Casual players can still play Cribbage as win or lose, and they can do that with any other game, as well. Game designers should include in their games different win levels. In games that can end either with high or low scores, the win levels may have to reflect percentage differences. New games could be designed with alternate winning levels in mind.

Secondly, new games could explicitly indicate rewards for certain levels of achievement, such as skunking or double-skunking. If the game says, "Winning by 1 point is a win, by ten points is a Whammy Win, and by fifty points is a Super Whammy Win", incentives are provided to do more; essentially, you are combining the play against your opponents with playing against the board.

Gross steps like 1, 10, and 50 are not actually a perfect solution; in this case, 39 points is the same as 10 points, which is what we are trying to avoid. The best solution would name every point its own level, e.g. 1 point = weak win, 2 points = soft win, 3 points = plain win, 4 points = average win, etc... up to a bit more than is possible.

Thirdly, games are really played against yourself, anyway. Excluding luck factors, you win by making "good" plays or by properly capitalizing on your opponent's errors. You can keep your own logs of games played, if only a mental one. If you play against many opponents, the different levels of the opponents should average out in the end. If you play against only a few opponents, such as at a game group, your scoring measures your growth against yourself, but will probably be less than meaningless as far as any type of real world measurement.

You then use an honor system when choosing to include, or not include, games that "count" or "don't count" in this score.

Fourth, you can make the results of a game influential on future games in a minimal way. A game company could design a whole line of games around this idea, or the entire board game world could adopt one or more systems that interact between games.

Total scores achieved under certain conditions, registered on certain sites, or simply from the last game, could determine the color of your playing piece in the next game, starting position, "banker", title, or some other prestige-based incentive.

Finally, you could simply play every game for money, awarding payment based on the final scores. As no grandfather of mine ever said, you play for money "just to keep it interesting."


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Recent plays

Not much to say this week; while this is usually the quiet end of the year, after a relatively quiet 6 months or so I'm suddenly drowning in work. I worked 14 hours last Sunday, and have about the same to do today. Hence, not much gaming.

Well, except for the gaming at work.

I have a contract (quite independent of the people we know who work there) to do some work in Fraser's building - and that meant lunchtime games!

Tichu and Panther (Mü) were the games of choice.

Games night at home last Friday saw a festival of lightness - Loopin' Louie and Diamant. I'm keen to get a copy of Incan Gold, as well, because Diamant is definitely my filler of choice.

Unavailability of babysitters (my parents were busy, and my brother and his wife are in literally daily expectation of their first baby) meant that even though I was in the Gamers@Dockers building on two consecutive Thursdays, I had to leave and come home to collect children from school and daycare. But last Thursday I made up for that, turning the kids over to mum and dad and heading in for Teh Gamez.

Game 1: The Princes of Florence (played previously 3 times on BSW, never in real life).
This really is my strongest 10-rated game, ahead even of Goa.

I was a little nervous as the pieces were distributed - would I remember how to play? Would I love the game as much as I did online? - but we quickly got into the swing of the game and I had had such good teachers on BSW that the game felt very familiar.

A stupid newbie error in Round 6 and a stupid idiot error in Round 7 cost me a convincing win (I came in second by 1 point) but this game has skyrocketed up my "must play" list.

Of course, to do that, I would have to punch it first...

Game 2: Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck (Pickomino)
It loses something without the BSW sound effects. Huge dicefest, but fun.

Game 3: Funny Friends
I'm really conflicted about what to write here.

First, the rules SUCK. Trying to find something - ANYTHING - that we were looking for, was nearly impossible. I've been thinking lately about what makes for good rules, and this game just doesn't cut it.

We had a lot of fun playing this game. And I won, yay. But underneath it all, there isn't really that much game there. I can see that Funny Friends can be great fun to play, especially with the right group of people (::wishes once more to go to BGG.con::) - but if I really want to talk about sex I can just go play Attribut. It's faster, and you never need to wonder what the little symbols mean.

Online gaming has been a little busier. I'm really enjoying Die Säulen der Erde (Pillars of the Earth) on BSW, as well as the usual werewolf game and a smattering of others. Musing about rules and translating rules (in the post-Essen frenzy, there are always chances to get in some practice).

The good thing about the excess of work is the extra cash it should bring in. While I need to be responsible with most of it, I'm sniffing around the new releases and considering what to buy. Unfortunately, there is probably too much German for my game group on the cards for Die Säulen der Erde (well, excepting all our german friends), so I will sadly hold on for an english-language release of that.

For today, though, I will leave you with a photo of my adorable children. Who I haven't done much gaming with lately.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Suspicion, Blather, and a Sense of Growing Menace

We had seven gamers present the other night at our gaming group. Seven is a difficult number with games. Many of the best middle and heavy weight strategy games play at most five or six players. We ended up playing Shadows over Camelot. This was my first time with this cooperative game.

For those unfamiliar with the game, let me just say that the most important mechanism in the game is the possibility that one of the players is a secret traitor who is trying to sabotage the work of the other players. The greater the number of players, the greater the chance that there will be a traitor in the game.

Camelot draws some extreme reactions from our crowd. Ted thoroughly dislikes it. He claims that each turn fails to provide players with interesting decisions, that the best moves are often obvious. And he claims that the game takes too long and moves too slowly, and that the game’s pace is usually hampered by the enormous amount of find-the-traitor blather that inevitably occurs.

James feels that the find-the-traitor blather is whole the point of the game. He seems to believe that the only way to keep the pace of the game from bogging down completely is to make each player’s turn quick and simple which then allows players to devote most of their time and energy to looking for signs of treason in others. This creates a constant flow of semi-facetious comments whenever a player makes any move that doesn’t immediately benefit the group as a whole.

“That’s the best you could do—traitor!” is a typical remark.

“Hey, I didn’t see you finish that quest on your turn,” the player might reply. “Some might regard your delay as…oh, treason!”

My reaction to the game embraced both Ted and James’s feelings. They are both right.

I agree with Ted that the optimum move in Camelot is often obvious. There frequently aren’t a lot of interesting strategic decisions. And you can spend an awful lot of time waiting for slower players to take their turns while listening to a lot of less-than-witty banter about what each and every player is up to. I can see why a serious gamer could long for meatier fare while playing Camelot.

But even while I was hoping the game moved faster, part of me was intrigued. Playing spot-the-traitor is interesting, particularly because any decent player will give the other players very few clues to work with. The clues are seldom conclusive, and paranoia makes any sub-optimal move seem suspicious. By the end of the game, Ted correctly identified the traitor in our midst, but I was surprised that he could be so certain.

And the whole cooperative thing generates some serious suspense for me. I don’t know why, but the creeping doom mechanisms at the heart of Camelot and Lord of the Rings (the other most famous cooperative game) keep me riveted. Maybe its because we see evil progressing almost every turn, and the games make this progress quite concrete. It’s hard not to feel a sense of menace watching the enemy catapults increase around Camelot, or watching the heavy Sauron marker advance toward the Hobbit heroes in Lord of the Rings.

Maybe the thing to do would be to play Camelot with fewer players. My turn would come around a bit faster, and there would be fewer players participating in the trash talk.

The cooperative genre is one of the more undeveloped genres in gaming. I know that Vanished Planet is a cooperative game (I haven’t played it), and that Republic of Rome blends both cooperative and competitive mechanisms, but I don’t think there are too many other popular mainstream games of this type.

Let’s hope some clever game designers tinker with this genre. Give us some interesting strategic decisions along with the sense of growing menace and the result could be a very popular game.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Games to Watch For: Essen '06

For the last year I’ve listed what I think will be the most interesting and exciting games coming out of the major game shows. You can find my previous discussions here: Essen '05 Preview; Essen '05 Follow-up #1; Essen '05 Follow-up #2; and Nurnberg '06 Preview.

This last year I've gotten a little bit discouraged on the topic because I've had a lot of trouble actually getting to play last Nurnberg's games. (I've played about half of the ones I noted thus far, and a few of the remainder like Leonardo da Vinci, Gloria Mundi, and Augsburg 1520 either just appeared in the last few weeks or else still aren't out.)

I considered just dropping this feature this year, but have instead decided to cut it back. So, I'm listing the five games that really caught my eye from this year's Essen. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm a big fan of sequels, and that's primarily because I think those games have a much better chance of success, because the old game is well-known and loved. Thus, games of that sort have a notable presence in my listing. But I've also tried to figure out a few brand new games to watch for from this year's Essen.


URL: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/25234
More Info: http://blog.battlelore.com/en/
Authors: Richard Borg
Synopsis: tactical war game
Background: Medieval / Fantasy Realms
Like: Commands & Colors: Ancients, Memoir '44
U.S. Publisher: Days of Wonder

Richard Borg has continued to put out variants of C&C system, but the amazing thing is that they play very differently. Memoir '44 is a quick, tactical game while C&C: Ancients is longer and places much more emphasis on board position and the back and forth of warfare. It's hard to see exactly how BattleLore will play, but it's obvious that it will be very different from its predecessors. Among the prime differences: a new war council of characters who may use special priestly, magic user, and other powers to influence battles; lore tokens which are a resource used for these powers; and creatures who are particularly hard to defeat and have special powers of their own to confound enemy troops with. This game is also clearly intended to be massively expandable, and may ultimately turn out to be the board game industry's answer to Warhammer.

The Columns of Venice

URL: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/25114
Authors: Christian Fiore, Knut Happel
Synopsis: role selection, resource-manage & column building
Background: 2nd Century Venice
Like: Elasund
U.S. Publisher: None Announced

After putting out mostly light games in recent years, this new Goldsieber production is apparently a bit more for gamers. Each round a player uses characters from his handful of cards to build Venice's columns. Districts and bridges are then placed upon those columns, but if you use other peoples' columns you'll have to play them for the privilege. Reports back on the mechanics are positive, but the game also has some great looking components, with fields of pillars, topped by ownership markers, topped by cardboard districts and bridges coming together to look really pretty. Unfortunately Goldsieber really hasn't had any American partners these last few years. Their last great game, Kreta, still hasn't been published here, so I'm not sure I have much faith that this new one will be seen anytime soon either.

Fight for Rome

URL: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/25234
Authors: Klaus Teuber
Synopsis: resource management & troop building
Background: 5th Century Rome
Like: The Settlers of Catan, Gloria Mundi
U.S. Publisher: Mayfair Games

After a couple of more variant games, Klaus Teuber returns solidly to his Settlers of Catan roots, with this new historical game, set around the Fall of Rome. However this time around you're gaining resources when you pillage and conquer cities, then you're using those resources to build up new troops. Reports contend that it's much more of a gamer's game than the original, but all of the elements of the original are back, front and foremost: production, trading, and building. You just get to move troops to sack (neutral) cities as well!

The Pillars of the Earth

URL: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/25234
Authors: Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler
Synopsis: resource management & cathedral building
Background: 13th Century England
Like: Caylus
U.S. Publisher: Mayfair

This game is based on a licensed property, which usually knocks my interest down a bit. However, it's been getting good press from Essen. Some people have called it a mini-Caylus. During your turns you're trying to balance the acquisition of craftsmen and resources, to avoid paying taxes, and to then use those craftsmen to turn resources into victory points. There's a catehedral being built too, but that's just a timer for the end of the game. Though it's called mini-Caylus, that means it's "only" a 2-hour game.


URL: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/24508
Authors: Marcel-André Casasola Merkle
Synopsis: Tile-laying & settlement building
Background: South Seas Islands
Like: light-weight Java
U.S. Publisher: Rio Grande Games

In some ways this game reminds me of an inverse Escape from Atlantis. Players slowly build up an island as volcanoes erupt from the sea, and as they do they settle it. However, new volcanoes may upset carefully laid plans. The game sounds like it's probably pretty light, but it's gotten some good attention from players at Essen.

Although I've kept my list short this time, I'll offer up a short list of five other games which caught my attention mainly due to their publishers: 24/7: The Game, by Sunriver Games; Imperial, by Eggert-Spiele, published in the US by Rio Grande; Perikles, by Warfrog, published in the US by Fantasy Flight Games Space Dealer, by Eggert-Spiele, with no US publisher announced; and Yspahan, by Ystari Games, published in the US by Rio Grande. If I was going to expand this list past five games, I'm sure at least a couple of those would be on it. (Space Dealer and Yspahan seemed to get the best attention of the lot.)

The one other game that seems to be getting some notable buzz at Essen is Alea's Notre Dame. It's just a prototype now, and it'll be released next year, and so it'll probably be on my Nurnberg list, but in the meantime people seem to say that Alea is back on the right path, putting out actual strategy games, not just more rum & pirates.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Games in the News/The Curmudgeonizing of Coldfoot

A little late today, but Blogger was down.

You can't make this up:

CANBERRA, Oct 17 (Reuters) - A board game glorifying race riots that gripped Sydney's beaches nearly a year ago might be banned to prevent further violence, Australian authorities said on Tuesday.

The game called "Cronulla Monopoly" invites players to "Win back Australia" by buying and selling land in the southern beach suburbs hardest-hit by clashes last December between white Australian youths and ethnic-Lebanese Australians.

But wait: Reuters had it wrong

The Age, Oct 17, (Asher Moses)The authorities are powerless to remove from the internet a downloadable board game based on the Cronulla riots.

The game has recently surfaced on the internet and appears to incite racial violence.

Dubbed Cronulla 2230, the game resembles the iconic Monopoly board game, and is designed to be printed out, then be played offline.

Powerless to remove a Monopoly clone from the internet? Powerless? Get Hasbro involved. Once Hasbro realizes Race Riot Monopoly is in the news they will have the purveyor buried in cease and desist orders by noon.

Can the articles masquerading as mainstream boardgame news get less appealing than that? Oh yes they can. This piece comes from the business section.

The Star Online, Oct 2, 2006 While he is driven by a great passion for property and is an advocator of gaining financial freedom through property investment, Dr Peter Yee also sees the need to adopt a holistic approach to balance all aspects of one’s life.

“When you are financially free, it is easy to balance other aspects of your life, including maintaining good physical health, pursuing new knowledge and skills, and making time for the family, relatives and friends,” he said.

The award-winning Success board game co-created by Dr Peter Yee and his business partner Alexandria Ng created the idea for the Success - The Achiever’s Board Game to educate people on how to balance their lives using property investment while balancing other aspects of their lives - health, career, finance, personal growth, education, relationships and social community aspects.

Hmmmmmm. The Ungame for CEOs. Suddenly Race Riot Monopoly doesn't look so bad.


Boardgame Burnout?

Another Essen has come and gone and ya’ know what? I found I didn’t really care this year. I skimmed some of the reports, I looked at the pictures more closely, but not the pictures of the games. I found the pictures of the hall and participants to be much more interesting.

I’ve pretty much stopped keeping up with the latest game releases and news. Instead of pre-ordering the latest, hottest games, I see which my local game store gets into stock and do a little research before I decide which to buy.

I am looking forward to BGG.con, but the games are secondary. I am mainly looking forward to meeting people who have only been avatars until now.

I now have my work schedule whittled down to 60-65 hours each week, and the kids are back in school, so I am able to get some good sleep during the day. This is quite an improvement over my summer schedule, and lately I have been able to squeeze in a few games. The truth be told, I would almost rather sit at home and watch "Over the Hedge" with the kids than spend an evening gaming.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Good Scoring Game

What makes a good score for a game? This is almost the same as asking: what makes a good game?

Is a game good when one player simply wins and all others don't? When all players score very closely? When players score proportional to their strengths?

Let's take a look at a few case and see what we can tell about the games from the final score. Some scores leave fingerprints with which we can tell not only the game but a bit about how it was played.

In the following game ending scores patterns, I examine games that produce different types of scores. But note: my method of scoring might appear to be different from the scores the game assigns. For instance, in Blokus you score the number of points remaining on your pieces, but you could just as easily score the number of pieces that you have placed on the board. The difference between these two methods is either subtly psychological or a matter of convenience.

0-0-...-1This is a game that has no gradual scoring element. It is not a race game, because the progress of the loser in a race can be recorded. One person simply wins.

"First to guess" is an example of this type of game. The game ends when one person has completed a task that is not progressive in nature. The second player receives no partial progress score because there is no way to tell when he or she would have finished the task.

This is unlike a race game, where you could say that the second player ended with "the legs and arms done, and only the face remaining." You can add granularity to this game by allowing each player to continue until they have completed the task.

For instance, the first to guess writes down the answer, verifies its correctness, and then records the time it took him or her to complete the task. Each player continues to do so until everyone is finished or a time limit has been reached. The resulting scores will then not be 1-0 but the times taken to complete the task.

Other types of games may appear to score this way, but don't. For instance, a game of combat where each player controls a single unit may appear to be a 1-0 game. But in all likelihood, the losing player can estimate how far he or she was in completing the task before his or her opponent won, e.g. number of rounds remaining or damage inflicted.

Does a score of 0-+-1 make for a good game? It makes for a quick moving party game, where the movement of each round is more important than the quality of the results.
Here we have an extremely low scoring game. Every success is a huge advantage. The game won't end in a tie if the game is designed to end immediately when one person acquires the game ending score or condition.

Generally speaking, what distinguishes this scoring type from the following one is that there is only one way to score. There may be multiple paths to gain each objective, but only one objective yields points, and each objective is one point each. Also generally speaking, final scores are in the low single digits.

An example of this type of game is Yinsh. The first player to remove three rings wins. Another example is Cosmic Encounter.

Does this scoring type make for a good game? Yes, assuming the following: 1) That ties are not decided by some arbitrary mechanism. If they are, then the scoring rules should be rewritten properly. For instance, that X's are 100 points each, and Y's (such as cash remaining) are 1 point each. That doesn't really change the rules, but it gives the scoring a semblance of sense. 2) That the length of the game is appropriate to the scoring. 3) That the skill necessary to achieve the results is also appropriate.

In a game of this type, the scores are so close as to eliminate the idea that a score of 5-3 is somehow better than 5-4. Players will look only at the end results, and gladly trade progress with their opponents once they have a lead in the scoring. Unlike other games where a larger differential in scoring can be achieved, differentials in scores at the end of these games have no significance as to the strength of the players.

As score of 0-2-2-2 indicates a poorly designed game, unless the game is a negotiation game, in which case the tied results indicate an alliance.

A score such as 2-2-3 indicates either a) that the winner gave up what was needed in order to win, b) that the player's strengths are very close, or c) that the results were as much a matter of luck as of skill, while a score such as 0-0-1-4 was probably an unsatisfying game, either due to unbalanced skill levels or disproportionate luck.
This is a low scoring game, similar to the previous scoring type, but usually indicating that points can be scored in multiple ways.

4-7-10 is instantly recognizable in my group as the end score for a game of Settlers of Catan, 8-9-10-13 for Cities and Knights. In the latter case, I would be willing to guess that the Longest Road was stolen and a metropolis built in a single turn. Not only that, but players 3 and 4 made the mistake of forgetting that the ultimate winner may have been behind a few points but was well within reach of winning. They probably overlooked the point from the Merchant, too.

The example of 4-11 is a typical short table tennis game, and probably serves as well for other dexterity games such as Crokinole and so on.

Many war games probably fit in here, as well. A few units versus a few units, or a few units versus number of rounds left before a mission would have been accomplished.

This scoring range is not good for games where there are fewer strategies for scoring. As an example, some of Knizia's shorter games have end scores like these, and I am generally left unsatisfied as a result. The scores don't really reflect either the true nature of the skill of the players or the luck involved in the game. In fact, they seem rather arbitrary, most likely the result of a single leap forward that could have happened to anyone. Colossal Arena is an example, as is Quo Vadis.

Maharaja is also a game in this scoring range that would have been better off in the previous range of 0-3. There is only one way to score points in Maharaja, and the last three points seem to have been added just to extend the scoring range.

If the scores are very close, such as 10-9-9-8, the game was probably exciting and fun. If too far apart, such as 13-7-2, the game was probably lackluster. If 10-3-3-2, as was the scores in a game of Settlers that I once won, the game wasn't fun.
Here are a great many Eurogames, such as Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, El Grande, and Taj Mahal, to name only a few.

With little exception, scores in these games progress through several stages at the end of various rounds, actions, or events. This is true even if you don't keep score on a scoring track, and also true if some of the scoring is kept hidden, so long as the bulk of it isn't.

There are different progression types for this type of scoring. In some games, the initial scoring is low, and near the end of the game there are sudden leaps. This represents a build up of infrastructure cashed in before or at the game's end. Players that are losing may only know that they are losing at the very end of the game. The lack of point differential early on hides this fact. Players who didn't know they were losing may feel like the scoring came out of nowhere; in bad games, it may well have.

Another progression is a simple and steady progression. Unless the game is auto-balancing, such as Traumfabrik or Power Grid, where movement forward represents an expenditure of resources that other haven't expended, the game will develop clear winners and losers early on and probably be boring for the losing players. This is especially true if the same items used to score are those that produce the resources necessary to score, such as in St Petersburg.

Simple progression may work fine for games where the scores in each part of the game are NOT based on infrastructure build-up, such as trivia games or sports. That opens up the possibility for a late game comeback.

A score like 35-46-63 may be a good game in the former type of progression, but bad in the latter type. A score of 10-12-72 is probably bad either way.

Scores of 98-99-100 also may be good or bad. My feeling is that it is probably bad, although I'm aware that most people probably feel differently. When the differences in the end scores are so low in proportion to the scores themselves, it may represent a fiercely close game that was exciting all around. But it may also represent a win by a simple margin of turn order or lucky draw, or a game where no particular strategy or tactics made any real difference to the score, other than basic common sense.
The next order of magnitude's scoring illustrates my problems with close ending scores. 403-403-404? Is that really a victory? What about 40,000-40,000-40,001? Of course it depends on the length of the games and the granularity of how points were collected. But unless we're talking about a ten year game, an ending like this is meaningless.

Balanced yet diverse ending scores such as 155-267-415 are probably the result of someone failing to accomplish a major challenge in the game. The result of this failure knocked the player out of serious contention. An example of this is Modern Art, where an entire series of paintings failed to score any points.

In a sense, therefore, this is a little like the second scoring type, where only players who have achieved the basic objectives will reach the final stretch, and the scoring then comes down to their secondary achievements.

Regardless of the final scores in a game, the end result of just about any game is the same: 0-...-1, i.e. one winner and several losers. Aside from negotiation games and team games, where a few of those 0's may also be 1's, there are very few exceptions to this. Can you name any?

The answer to that question, and alternative solutions to simply winning or losing, will be the subject of next week's post.


Friday, October 20, 2006

A game that should be reprinted: La Citta

I played La Citta for the first time a few weeks ago, and I got my butt kicked. Badly. I ended up in last place. That’s not too surprising considering that some of the players I was competing against were veterans. What is surprising is how much I liked the game considering my disappointing performance.

La Citta is an out-of-print game that was designed by Gerd Fenchel in 2000 and was distributed by Rio Grande Games in the USA. It’s a tile-laying game about building cities in Renaissance Italy (although there isn’t a lot of Renaissance flavor in the game).

Players get points based on how many population figures they have in their cities. Each turn, players may take one of several actions, but most actions are either directly or indirectly related to placing building tiles on the board to improve the various cities. Farm tiles provide food for the population figures. Market tiles allow the city grow beyond a fixed size. Most of the tiles feature one, two, or three colored-coded attributes which can be used to attract population points from other cities.

And that is the essence of inter-player conflict: the cities with the highest numbers of colored attributes attract people from nearby cities with fewer markers. A city that is surrounded by more developed cities can see its population quickly dwindle as citizens seek the comforts of more advanced urban areas (that’s what happened to me).

One of the Catch-22s of the game is that people-luring players must have a food supply for all the immigrants, and a player with more citizens than food can face severe penalties. The need to keep placing tiles to make your cities more attractive is often in conflict with the need to place more farm tiles so you can feed all the hungry mouths that your dazzling urban landscapes attract.

Why did I enjoy this game so much? Partly, it is theme. The building-placement aspect of the game reminds me of the computer game Civilization (although the resemblance between the two games ends there). I like games about building empires, and La Citta qualifies even though the clash of city-states in the game is more beauty contest than war.

And La Citta is a beautiful game. With the exception of the population figures which were a drab gray, the game was a joy to look at. The board and the tiles are pretty, and just looking at the game was as pleasurable for me as a game of Railroad Tycoon. It’s fun to watch the creation of an attractive world.

Is La Citta a perfect game? No. I don’t believe I am the first reviewer to note that once a city has begun sliding into decline it can be almost impossible to reverse the slide. This is what made the final rounds of the game frustrating for me; there aren’t enough random elements in the game to make a comeback from behind anything but nearly impossible.

But this judgment may not be as valid for games with fewer than five players. Players do have tiles which can allow them to create an extra city, and this may be a viable option in a board that is less crowded than it was in our five-player game. I’d like to play with fewer players and experiment.

I suspect that La Citta would be more appealing if there were a few variants for the game. Some players might appreciate a little more randomness on occasion, or just another way to play a game that has become overly-familiar. Fans of basic La Citta shouldn’t object as long as the basic game was still an option in any hypothetical reprint of the game.

My criteria for whether I want a game to be reprinted or not is simple: if the game was reprinted, would I pay good money for it? And the answer for La Citta is yes. I would buy it. I hope that someday this game is available again.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Doctor’s Fast Food Puzzle and My Fun with Kanoodle

From Last Time

Roman Puzzle Clue: Eight-letter word, three Roman numerals, 4,950,000
Answer: SLAMWICH (L x M x IC = 50 x 1000 x 99 = 4,950,000)
Alternate Answer provided by Jonathan Franklin: OLYMPICS (very bizarre that the Roman Numerals were not only the same but in the exact same spot!)

Doctor’s Fast Food Puzzle

I was driving down the street when I noticed that a fast food place had a peculiar quality to its name. When I read the syllables backward (just reversing the order of them), I got something that a certain kind of specialist doctor probably had to take in med school. The fast food business’s name is seven letters long with two syllables, and the answer is phonetic. What is it and what do some specialty doctors have to take in med school?

My Fun with a Little Brainteaser

Let me start off by saying that I’m a fan of Blokus. We never play this game at game night, and I’ve only logged a few games overall (less than ten), but I think it’s a cool, light game with some interesting things going on. When I read that it was from Educational Insights, this blew my mind.

Educational Insights games have typically disappointed me. Like Ravensberger games, I’m usually left wondering why anyone would play these games. I looked at their website, and it seemed they had a wide assortment of games and puzzles to please a impressive range of ages. But for my tastes, their games weren’t all that.

Blokus was an exception to the rule, basically allowing the tiny thought that perhaps not all their products sucked eggs. This left the door open just a crack to stumble upon the best little brainteaser I’ve come across in a long time: Kanoodle.

Kanoodle is a tiny briefcase filled with different-sized pieces. Each colorful plastic piece is a series of spheres stuck together, resembling Blokus pieces. You have the four-in-a-row, the stepladder, the plus-sign, etc.

A little booklet is included which provides several linear puzzles. Basically, you dump all the pieces out (twelve in all), and you put some back in the mini-briefcase as per your visual instructions to a particular puzzle. The puzzle is then to figure out how to put in the remaining pieces. Kids seem to really enjoy this section because they are able to follow the picture (like putting Legos together) and then get a puzzle out of it.

The reason I like Kanoodle is the extra step the designers took, probably what they were trying to accomplish all along. After you’ve exhausted the possibilities with the linear puzzles, there is a short section for three-dimensional puzzles, specifically five-level pyramids. That’s right, folks. You can make pyramids with these strange pieces.

I opened Kanoodle and went straight for the pyramids. There are seven puzzles in the very back (for the avid brainteaser hunter, these seven are all that matter in the whole booklet). I solved the first few pretty quickly, as they provide a lot of information about the placement of pieces. Each puzzle takes more and more info away, though. Puzzles Two, Three, Four, and Five each took substantially longer than One and subsequently all had exciting A-HA moments.

Puzzle Six took me over a week. I had taken Kanoodle to the bathroom with me and solved it while on the jon. It was much better than reading. I whooped and yelled, but my excitement didn’t make any sense to anyone else.

Puzzle Seven is still kicking my butt.

At World Games, we got in six Kanoodles and sold them in under two weeks. This is pretty unusual for a new product. It might partly be because I enjoy it so much and play with it on the counter. I’ve ordered more for Christmas, but I’m sure we’ll sell out again before then.

I love this little brainteaser, and while it’s not a game, it is certainly a challenge that puzzle-solvers will enjoy. Keep in mind that I’ve recently played Goa, Balloon Cup, Power Grid, Ghost Chase, cribbage, and who knows what else, but I keep going back to Kanoodle. I think that says it all right there.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

From The Hooey Gazette

Sunday police arrested Harvey Simpson*, who has legally changed his name to El Grande, for shoplifting tools from a local hardware store. Simpson was detained by a store employee who noticed that a laser level he’d hidden in his pants had been accidentally turned on, producing a red dot on the front of his jeans. When police arrived, they found a set of wrenches, a Makita cordless drill and a DeWalt hand sander hidden in his clothing along with an assortment of flashlights, measuring tapes and a T-square which was in his sleeve and caused him to keep his arm at a right angle.

This reporter interviewed “El Grande” and was told that he planned to hock the tools in order to afford more Euro-games, whatever those are. Simpson will plead temporary insanity due to an addiction to these games. He hoped that bail wouldn’t be any higher than 3 Talents.

*The name is fictional because this is, of course, all hooey.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Devil's Advocate: Ten Reasons that Board Games are Bad For You

10. Board games can be expensive

Not compared to video games, sure. And before you tell me all of the other things that cost more money than board games, take a look at how much money YOU have spent on board games in the last few years.

With the exception of some of the less interesting, ubiquitous, or older games, board games cost money. Modern board games cost $20 or $30, often more, and most people don't buy only one. And need I mention collectible card games?

If you need activities to fill your time, if you need entertainment, there are countless activities that you can do for free, or for a lot less money. Reading, writing, art, walking, gardening, volunteering, and talking are just a few examples.

9. Board games are anti-social

Again, not compared to video games. But playing a game means ignoring everyone else for the hour or two that the board game takes to play.

Board gaming is a world of its own; that's why you like it, right? Everything and everyone else gets ignored during that period. In fact, while the game has no inherent importance of its own, people playing board games tend to treat everything and everyone else as less important than the game they are playing.

However many people are playing a game, everyone else not playing the game just doesn't matter. Once the game starts, they are not invited. Compare this to so many other activities: watching a movie, having a conversation, or playing a friendly sport, and you see how board games are more exclusive than inclusive.

8. Board games encourage gambling

Strategy. Tactics. Hah. You play games to win. And all winning comes down to one of two things: bad sportsmanship or good luck.

We'll start with the easy ones: rolling around dice, picking cards. Shouts of glory and victory. Yay! Oh boy! Your lucky numbers came up! Woo hoo! That makes you what? A gambler. Right. You weren't playing for money, but whatever the reward for which you were playing - glory, excitement, prestige, self-satisfaction - winning through dice rolling or card picking is what I call gambling. Don't tell me that there's anything valuable about gambling, other than making a whole lot of other people into losers.

Now we'll talk Chess, and other "no luck" games. Winning at chess is as much a matter of luck or poor sportsmanship as in any other game. If your opponent is stronger than you, or equal to you, you win if your opponent makes a mistake. That's a matter of luck. If your opponent is worse than you, you win by taking advantage of your opponent's mistakes. In a friendly game, that's poor sportsmanship.

What do you learn from winning when your opponent makes a mistake, or from seeing your opponent about to make a mistake and not warning him or her? Whatever it is, I don't want it in my house.

7. Board games are sedentary

Ever notice how many overweight people show up at those board game conventions? Board games leads to fat. Fat leads to heart attacks. Heart attacks leads to suffering.

Keep trying to convince your fellow players that they should shower, groom themselves, look better, etc. Who do you think you're trying to kid? People who play board games want to sit on their butt. If they had enough energy to shower, they would exercise instead of playing games; it feels better, and you don't need other people to do it.

6. Board games require multiple people

Speaking of which, the number one reason people don't play board games is that it requires multiple people to play.

It's hard enough fitting time for something useless and trivial into one person's hectic life. Fitting it into more than one person's, and then ensuring that the this time overlaps exactly right and for the correct length is asking a lot. Whole families get wrecked trying to coordinate this. Whole lives stagnate for this.

Did you ever plan a board game meetup: "Are you free Monday at 7:00?" "No, how about Tuesday at 9:00?" "I can't Tuesday, I have to get up from the couch. How about Monday at 8:00?" "Monday night's no good. I have to find the remote control. How about Wednesday?" After ten hours of this conversation, the rest of these two people's lives might as well be written off. And try that with multiple people.

And I haven't even talked about the great "lure people into playing board games" phenomenon. You not only get to wreck a few hours of your own life with a useless, trivial activity, you get to wreck whole days, and then wreck other people's, as well.

5. Board games are restrictive

Board games really only teach one thing: following rules. Something we need so much more of in today's society. Board games are so severely restricted by rules, that anything that may be considered creative is disallowed: it's not in the rules.

Sorry, my mistake: board games also teach people how to whine about rules, twist rules to their advantage, break the spirit of the rules in favor of the letter, or vice versa, and argue about the rules.

Anything learned in the board game stays in the board game. Being a master of Puerto Rico doesn't lead you to be a better person, teach you how to earn a living, or even help you run a shipping business.

4. Board games are competitive, and in a bad way

Board games grew out of an era when competition made sense. Today, activities based solely on competition are a relic of a bygone era. Many psychologists and social workers today will tell you that competition brings out the worst in people.

We bring people together in order to bring them joy, and we end up with a fierce fight to win at any means possible, followed by a whole bunch of "losers" and one hated "winner". How many children do you know who have cried at board games? Thrown pieces, thrown the board, hit other kids? Is that the right environment for children? They don't get enough of that elsewhere?

Competitive games don't let you achieve your full potential. Even a skilled player will lose to a more skilled one. How is that a useful lesson? Both players have achieved a lot, but one is a winner and one is a loser. Isn't there room for more than one winner in this world? How do you feel about being called a loser after you worked hard and did well?

In today's world, what we need are cooperative activities. Cooperative activities still require good behavior and teach social skills, but the end result is something productive and shared by all the participants. Each person can feel good about his or her contribution. Rather than a board game's rules teaching you when you can act or not act, the players learn the free-flowing communication that is so necessary everywhere else in life.

3. Board games lead to arguments

Or fights. Or the dissolution of friendships. Sometimes, even violence or murder. How many of you have never fought during a board game? How many of you have never fought as a result of a board game? One hand? Two hands?

Deep discussions about philosophy, politics, economics, and so on; if kept civil, at least they can lead to something positive. What do you get when you break up a friendship over a board game? A pile of cardboard and wooden bits.

2. Board games discourage real communication

Whether it's the people who can't talk while they are thinking about which wrong move to play, or the people who obsessively tell everyone what to do, board games are not hotbeds of real communication.

You don't open up in a board game to talk about your feelings or your future. You talk about rules and movements. You tell people to keep their grubby paws off the game before they've washed them. Or you tell people to shut up and take their turn, already.

1. Board games are a waste of time

It's not that they don't teach anything, it's that a) the same lessons can be learned more efficiently elsewhere, and b) there are other more important lessons to learn, too.

You've heard about how a board game can teach this, or a board game can teach that. The vast majority of board games are retreads of games that we've already played before. The lessons were learned five hundred games ago. You're not playing games to learn any lessons. You're playing them because you're lazy and you want to beat up other people who haven't yet learned the lessons that you've learned.

It's like rereading the same books, over and over, and then buying the next book in the series where the only thing that has changed is the name and occupation of the bad guy.

Meanwhile, there are so many other important lessons to be learned and tasks to accomplish. There are poor people to clothe, house, and feed, lonely people who need company, wars that need solutions, better and more effieicnt ways of doing everything, and a whole world to clean up.

You graduated board games a long time ago. Move on.


(That was harder than it looked.)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Last 30 Days

This is a newish feature on BoardGameGeek which shows you the games you have logged as played in the last 30 days, with the recommended image for each. It seems to have a slight bug at the moment for games that are newly entered to the database showing as a blank entry but I am sure that will get ironed out soon. To access this for any user, go to their profile page and click on the Last 30 days link next to Played.

So here are my play counts (face to face only) from the last 30 days.

Blink - 29 plays.
This is being requested a lot by both Daughter the Elder and Daughter the Younger. The pace of play is considerably different depending on which daughter I am playing. Frenetic with the Elder, considered but increasing with the Younger. A game of speed where you are matching on number, colour or pattern.

Mü und Mehr - 22 plays.
If we don’t have four for Tichu then this has become the standard default game for lunchtime at work. We mostly play the Panther game which is a variant of Hearts (or whatever it is called in your neck of the woods). Nastier than Hearts, in that you can drop points cards on the first round.

Loopin’ Louie - 12 plays.
A very recent acquisition. Most adults I have shown this to have initially scoffed at it, then they have played it once and then again, and again!

Cat & Mouse or The Simpsons Itchy and Scratchy Game - 10 plays
A reasonably nice little abstract game where the aim is to have five of your counters showing. Our edition is Simpsons themed, which is probably a mistake given I doubt that people attracted by the Itchy and Scratchy pictures are necessarily looking for an abstract game and also the people looking for an abstract are probably looking for something that looks a little more like Yinsh as opposed to a cartoon.

New Mastermind - 8 plays.
A re-release of Mastermind where they have improved the concepts of some of the components. The code is now set in a separate unit and little sliders come out of the main board removing the requirement for the old black and white pegs. If they had spent a little bit more money on living up to the new design it would be even better, the code doesn’t click into place very well and tends to move if you move the code device and the pegs don’t sit in the board very well. Daughter the Elder got this a birthday present and requests it quite regularly.

Tichu - 8 plays.
When we have exactly four people at lunchtime games and a deck handy this is the game of choice. Also if Anna is waiting to play something else at Gamers@Dockers.

Marrakesh - 7 plays.
One of the games that Daughter the Younger deduced how to play recently just by watching the rest of the family play. We have this on loan and are not looking forward to returning it to its rightful owners. A kids game, but can teach them a bit about probability and strategy when trying to avoid losing camels to the sandstorms. I’ll particularly miss Lawrence the lame blue camel.

Geistertreppe or Spooky Stairs - 6 plays.
Another game on loan that will sadly have to be given back. A simple roll and move game with a great twist that converts into a magnetically assisted memory game. It is hideously expensive in Australia otherwise we would buy a copy today.

Sequence - 6 plays.
This game is twenty-five years old and I first saw it about six weeks ago. Not a bad game for its day and probably more accessible to the general public since its main components are two decks of normal cards.

Niagara - 3 plays.
We only played this for the first time on Friday night. One four player game and two three player games. Since Jane demolished us in both of the three player games I suspect you have to play it a bit more competitively with only three players compared to four players where the grab four of a kind was not quite as viable as a strategy.

Piggy Back - 3 plays.
Still one of Daughter the Younger’s favourite games. This is a cute roll and move game with a built in self balancing mechanism, plus it has the great piggy meeples. Highly recommended for small children.

Halli Galli - 2 plays.
Still a big favourite with Daughter the Elder. Another fast and furious game, when we play the rule “if it is contested the person who’s hand hurts was the one at the bottom and thus the winner”.

Sleuth - 2 plays.
I think I have my notation system for this worked finalised now. The next step will be to try and actually win! Each time I play this I think to myself it must be time to try Cluedo with Daughter the Elder.

Top Dogs - 2 plays.
Probably best as a kids game, it feels like it is trying to be a bit more with some elements of bluff or hand management, but on my limited number of plays I don’t think it quite succeeds at reaching that extra level.

TransAmerica - 2 plays.
In my opinion this game is underutilised as gateway game. It is both quick and simple to play, but does contain some depth to it.

Age of Steam - France - 1 play.
The only official expansion I don’t own, but the only one I have played. There is something wrong about that previous sentence really. Quite an interesting map, Paris is a multicoloured city but not everyone is going be able to connect to Paris. Which strategy do you choose?

Cartegena - 1 play.
We don’t play the face up cards variant.

Great Wall of China - 1 play
I need to play this a bit more, currently we seem to get stuck in wars of escalation over particular segments of wall. I am sure there is some validity in abandoning some of the big battles and going for other sections of less value, it just hasn’t happened yet.

I have… - 1 play.
Definitely a game for little children. Given its target audience I am surprised that it isn’t made with better card stock.

Kings Keep - 1 play.
Played it once four player, it felt like a good filler game, but ran a bit long. I doubt that I would want to play it with more than five, but I would like to try it again with five or less to see if there are any different strategies available.

Lost Cities - 1 play.
It doesn’t come out every day, but it comes out regularly.

Louis XIV - 1 play.
I have yet to see a copy of this without Melissa’s Player Aid, now that could be because my sample set is four or five copies, but it is a mighty fine player aid.

Make ‘n Break - 1 play.
This could be total garbage, but we are happy to believe that the Australian distributor ran out of this game because we were demonstrating it at the museum and it was a huge hit there.

The Same Game - 1 play.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the best variation of a traditional memory game there is.

Sherlock - 1 play.
Not a traditional memory game, but a very good one.

Die Sieben Siegel - 1 play.
It looks like my attempt to get official recognition that Die Steven Segal is an alternate name for this game has failed. A pity, because I always have problems finding the proper name to record my plays.

I might try an extract like this again once we are well clear of the museum demonstration period.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Charcon Report

My apologies to Gone Gaming fans for not posting an essay last Friday. A West Virginia thunderstorm knocked out my power and telephone service at a most inconvenient time. It has happened before and will doubtless happen again.

I don’t know who started the rumor that I was ill, but I assure everyone that I am perfectly healthy. Nevertheless, the flood of get-well cards and e-mails from Gone Gaming fans was touching. I especially want to thank whoever it was who sent the Railroad-Tycoon-O-Gram. Imagine my surprise when I answered the doorbell and found a pretty blonde in bib-overalls and engineer’s hat with a soot-smudged nose greeting me with the now-famous phrase: “Age of Steam may take more brains, but I’m the gal with the plastic trains!”

Well, on to Charcon. The first annual Charleston game convention was a success. The organizers hoped to get two hundred attendees, but over four hundred showed up. Congratulations to Nick Gillespie and Travis Reynolds and the rest of the Charcon organizers. They’re planning an even bigger convention next year.

Miniature games were the heart of Charcon. Anyone who attended Origins this year and who saw Nick Gillespie’s huge Lord of the Rings models has an idea of the level of miniature games available at Charcon. I saw miniature games at the con that I never even knew existed before.

Ted Cheatham and Charlie Davis held down the fort at the Appalachian Gamers booth. There was a considerable library of games available to any newbies who wandered over. My Game of Thrones tournament on Sunday was pretty much of a bust because of a lack of boardgamers at the early hour of noon. But in the early evening, more boardgamers showed up, and I was able to pull out A Game of Thrones (with expansions) and teach the game.

Renowned boardgame collector David Fair took requests from Appalachian Gamers, and brought some games that we don’t have. So I was able to try a few games that were new to me as well as play some old favorites. Here’s what I played:


I took part in a fine six-player game of Power Grid on the USA map (and didn’t win). PG is one of my favorites. PG doesn’t need me to defend it, but I mention this game in the hope that the one or two gamers who have never tried this classic will be inspired to seek it out. If you like medium-to-heavy weight economic strategy games, you owe it to yourself to check-out this treat.


Somehow I managed to miss this quick two-player card game up until now. I usually don’t care much for games this quick and light, but The Duel may be an exception to the rule. The Lord of the Rings theme and John Howe artwork didn’t hurt.


Another classic that I had never played. This real-estate negotiation game reminded me of the Philip O’Neil self-published game Ransom (Chinatown is the older game so Ransom is the derivative game, not Chinatown). I am probably not a tough enough negotiator to win this kind of game, but it is a shame that Chinatown is out of print.


On paper, Byzantium is exactly the kind of game that I love: a medium-to-heavy strategy game with plenty of options. And it’s by Martin Wallace, one of my favorite designers. And yet after playing a game, I don’t feel the desire to run out and buy it. I’ve pondered this for a while, but I’m still not sure why I was under-whelmed. Maybe it’s because I can’t help comparing it to Struggle of Empires and feel that SoE is the better game. Maybe the lack of army attack options in Byzantium was a factor. In Age of Empires armies can be transported all over the world in an instant by fleets; in Byzantium my armies often seemed to have much more limited actions (of course that could be my fault rather than the game's because I could have placed them badly to begin with). But my next Martin Wallace purchase is more likely to be Perikles or Struggle of Empires rather than Byzantium.


This is the game that lived up to its billing. In many ways, this is exactly the kind of game that I usually don’t like: light in weight and with a pasted-on theme. But the simple mechanics, fast pace, and exotic artwork won me over. (A fast pace may be the one quality of a good game that I most often overlook; but speedy play probably adds to the subconscious appeal of many games). Blue Moon City will most likely go on to my To Buy List.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mathematics & Game Design, Part One

I've written more than once that I don't like game designs that require me to do math. More specifically I'm talking about games like Santiago, Power Grid, and several others which have a strong mathematical basis and a strong ability to analyze that math during game play.

You see, I think games should be entertaining: it's why I play them: to enjoy myself and to have fun. And, I don't have a lot of fun when I sitting around adding, multiplying, and dividing (except, perhaps, in the case of a game of Primordial Soup).

Worse, I increasingly think that games which have a strong mathematical component have a core flaw in them related to victory. This flaw comes about because there are generally three types of players who might be playing these games:
  1. Some players will be totally oblivious to the underlying mathematical basis of the game, and will play by gut because it's their only way to do things.
  2. Some players will understand the mathematical basis of the game, but will choose to largely or entirely ignore it because it detracts from their fun to carefully figure things out.
  3. And finally, some players will embrace the math, carefully calculating and recalculating every move against the mathematical basis which is laid bare.
Now the flaw arises from the fact that player type #3 will generally win these games if the underlying mathematics are actually sound. Worse, he'll probably do so by minutely analyzing all of the options, each turn, to the point where his turns might take two or three times as long as his opponent's. I don't find it particularly endearing for a game's main path to victory be raw time put into the game, yet for many mathematically based games, that's exactly what happens.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think that the flaw is having mathematics at the basis of a game. On the contrary, that's often good game design as mathematician Reiner Knizia has proven through many a game. Instead the problem is placing the mathematics so close to the surface, and making them so static--so unchangeable--that you can calculate them without any fudge factor, revealing exactly the valuation of any move.

Auction games are in particular danger of hitting this pitfall, since you're expending limited resources in order to gain victory in some form. Things get even more dangerous when you're actually making your purchases with the commodity that will ultimately be used for victory points, as this allows for a simple apples-to-apples comparison if the math lies too near the surface.

However, there are ways to combat all of these problems. One of the easiest answers is to introduce chaotic player interactions, so that valuations depend upon the actions of other players. Another is to give players more explicit ways of changing valuations. A third is to introduce a few levels of abstraction between purchase and victory.

A few different games reveal how these methods can work, and when they didn't ...

Santiago: In this game a set of plantation tiles is revealed, and then players bid for selection order among that lot with money (victory points).

The problem for me arises in the very mathematical results of the tile placement. Whenever he makes a placement a player scores an amount equal to the number of his control markers times the number of connected plantation markers of the same type.

Thus it's pretty easy to make a calculation that goes like this: "There's just one good tile for me, and that's the double-marker banana. If I purchase it the overall banana field goes from size 6 to 7, and my number of control markers goes from 2 to 4. Thus the tile represents a 4x7-2x6=16 point gain for me. The next best tile (after carefully running through calculations for all of them) just nets me 6 points, so going first represents a 10 point gain. Thus, if I bid 10 I breakeven. The bid's gotten to me, and it looks like I need to bid 4 to take it. I guess that's worthwhile, since it's the same game as my second choice."

Now granted, there's chaos here, because other players going after you could mess up your calculations, and a tile can become worthless if water doesn't flow to it (though as a first player, you'll also often have the ability to place where there's already water). Nonetheless, the math is so close to the surface, that it seems pretty clear that a careful calculator will do better than a gut-feeler.

Don't get me wrong, I think Santiago is a fine game, with quite a few interesting gameplay elements. However, I can only play Santiago when I'm pretty tired, because when my brain is fuzzy I don't automatically start doing all the calculations. When I'm tired enough, Santiago is fun.

Boomtown: In this game, a set of cards are revealed, and then players bid for first-place selection among them with money (victory points). Last-place selectors also get rewarded with some bonus cash.

On the base level, this game's a lot like Santiago. You're bidding with victory points (money) for victory points that are pretty directly related. However after that it goes further afield in some good ways.

First, Boomtown doesn't require the same type of calculation as Santiago. You're bidding on mines, and the value of each mine is printed on the mine. However, each mine also has a secondary value: it can produce money (victory points) during the game if it "produces", and that's determined by a 2-12 roll each turn.

Now, I suppose you could try and calculate a mine's valuation if you wanted:
Value of mine = value + (value * probability * number of expected turns remaining)
However, probability of this sort just isn't as natural of a calculation as the simple multiplication of Santiago. I don't have to stop myself from doing it, and I suspect it doesn't even cross the minds of most folks. (It really didn't cross my mind until I started in on this article.)

Better, Boomtown further obfuscates value by giving additional points for majority control of the five different colors of mines. This results in both short-term payments from other players and a payout from the bank at the end. Thus, certain colors of mines are much more valuable to certain players, but the exact amount of that value isn't clear.

This sort of inclarity (or abstraction, to paint it in a more positive light) can really benefit a game because it takes away the advantage of the math-hounds. Sometimes Boomtown is still a little too mathy for me, but I'm more likely to play it and enjoy it when I'm not tired.

Ra: In this games, sets of tiles are revealed, and then players bid for entire lots with special "sun" tiles.

First, it's clear that Ra does have a mathematical basis. You just have to look at the list of scores for different items, which vary widely, and were probably very carefully considered, to see that. However, Ra does a lot to abstract those tile valuations by introducing multiple levels of uncertainty.

First, unlike both Santiago and Boomtown you're not bidding with victory points. Instead, your sun tiles affect your buying power in future rounds, but in a way that's not entirely direct. At the end of the game sun tiles are turned in for victory points, but in pure competition to other players, a competition where you won't know your standing until the last moment unless you really carefully monitor all the plays.

Second, there are a few tiles that have direct and immediate point values (gold and a first civilization), but other tiles have solely speculative value (additional civilizations, monuments). You're counting on being able to make additional purchases later in the game in order to give them value, and again while this valuation could be determined to some extent by a probabilistic calculation, it's not ever done.

Third, some victory points (for pharaohs and final money) come about through player competition, and as with the colored-mine competition in Boomtown, this introduces a lot of uncertainty into the calculation.

Fourth, I think Ra makes a very good move by giving people the ability to buy an entire set of tiles rather than singletons. With a singleton purchase the human instict is much more to try and make a valuation, but with a lot everything starts to get lost in the static, and you just start looking at the high points and low points.

And then you make a decision by gut.

Some people complain about the randomness of Ra, and this goes to the exact strengths that I see. There is uncertainty, granted--chaos and speculation--but it's that same thing that keeps the game from becoming a number-crunching exercise that you could set up on a spreadsheet, where he who takes the longest turn wins.

Reviews: Boomtown (B+), Ra (A), Santiago (B)

Next Time: Though I think math should largely be hidden from players, designers absolutely need to think about it. In my next column on this topic I'm going to talk about a few game designs that failed the sound-underlying-mathematics test, and I'm even going to show the math why.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

M:RP, P:RotA, H!TMF!, FoD

It's that time of year again. The time of year when Alaskans get money from the state just for living here. I invested my portion of the state's wealth with a guy from Nigeria. He has a foolproof plan to make millions, and by this time next year I hope to be retired and gaming full time.

In the meantime boardgaming in these parts has been lean for the last couple months. Time for blogging has been even more scarce. However I have had the opportunity to play a couple games that haven't gotten as much attention as they deserve.

First up, and for the second time this week, is Mission: Red Planet. Bruno Faidutti and Bruno Cathala have teamed up to nearly double the yearly output of French culture with this gem of a game.

In M:RP players send astronauts to various regions on Mars. The player with the most astronauts in each region earns points for controlling that region. There are also secret goals that are dealt each player, and each player has the opportunity to acquire more secret goals as the game progresses. The comparisons to El Grande are unavoidable. Even though Mission Red Planet is not as heavy as El Grande let me stress that M:RP is not a "dumbed down" version of El Grande. M:RP is a well designed, original game in its own right.

Both El Grande and Mission: Red Planet are area control games. Both games require tokens to be moved from supply to a staging area before they can be moved to the board. Both games allow players to affect their opponents in small ways, such as removing opponent's men from the board or the staging area. Both games allow players to move their own men about the board in small ways. There are three scoring rounds in both games. And I could continue with similarities.

There are also substantial differences in the games. For starters the theme of M:RP fits much better with the mechanics of the game, hence the theme does not feel tacked on. There is a role selection mechanism that I am told resembles Citadels, a game I have never played. The players with the second and third most men in a region do not score points. M:RP has an exploration element. Men removed by opponents are dead and not available for future turns. And I could continue with differences in game play.

Mission: Red Planet seems to straddle the line between American theme, and Euro simplicity and depth. It should appeal to both camps without alienating either.

DW and I don't see eye to eye on many games, unless we agree they suck. M:RP is a notable exception, although DW is wrong on one point: It did take entirely too long to get the box open.

Fury of Dracula got a little buzz when it was re-released due to the fact the original version was fetching astronomical prices on E-Bay. The buzz ended fairly quickly.

I waited as long as possible to try FoD due to the comparisons to Scotland Yard.

I. Hate. Scotland. Yard.

Fury of Dracula turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of recent months, perhaps as big a surprise as Tempus. FoD was as good a game as I had expected Tempus to be, whereas Tempus sucked beyond belief. (As a side note: I can't believe I waited with bated breath for over a year for the English release of Tempus.)

One player takes the role of the Count, the other players are teamed up to hunt him down. Dracula must move each turn and secretly records his path using cards. There is one card that corresponds to every city on the map. When the hunters run across Dracula's trail, Dracula must reveal the city card. Dracula may have left a trap in the city, in which case the hunters need to resolve it before moving on. Random cards come into play that may benefit or hinder either side. Unlike Scotland Yard the hunters need to kill Dracula in order to win, not just land on him.

You will probably find yourself referring to the rules frequently in your first couple games. Fury of Dracula does have a strong theme, and with the strong theme comes the corresponding non-streamlined, non-intuitive rules. Unlike Scotland Yard, FoD is engaging for both the Dracula player and his pursuers.

So Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean was supposedly designed by a couple guys who teach corporate workshops on teamwork? Could be. Don't let that deter you from trying the game. The implementation of the corporate version into a boardgame was very well done by Z-Man Games.

Players take the role of Aegean islanders competing to finish the game with the most developed island.

Take the building and trading elements from Settlers of Catan, add steroids, add some civilization building elements, add both basic and rare commodities, add some exploration, add some Barry Bonds' "herbal supplements", add a twelve round time limit and you have the framework for the game.

Parthenon is hindered from getting an internet buzz because of the fact that you can and will get screwed beyond recovery early in the game if you are unfamiliar with the game. Let me stress: once you get that first game under your belt and are more familiar with the calamities that can befall you, you can better protect yourself. Parthenon is a game that gets better with familiarity.

Perhaps I should have added "risk management" to my earlier description of the game.

Hey! That's My Fish! OK. So this one has been getting some good buzz. Just let me reiterate that is as good as the buzz would lead you to believe. Good, quick, family-friendly filler.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

IP Followup

Shannon wrote about IP, and I would like to follow up.

For background information, I, like Shannon, am not a lawyer, but have done substantial research into the issues. I have written posts about these issues on my own blog, including a call for open-sourcing basic mechanics in games, and lists of recent game patents.

As Shannon mentions, the primary means of legal protection through courts are copyrights, trademarks, and patents. You could also add trade secrets to that, but we're talking here about published material, not unpublished.

The Clown Code

The first thing to note is the addition of the word "legal" in the last paragraph. While it is true that legal protection is limited and sometimes expensive and difficult to obtain, that doesn't make it the only protection available to content creators.

As some of the commenters to Shannon's post mentioned, members of the game community instinctively recoil from purchasing products where they feel an injustice has been performed, even if no legal code has been broken.

There is strong precedence for this reaction. For thousands of years we have had ethical codes in place in society, ones that enforce rules that are either too petty or two obvious for the law to pay attention to. Various philosophers call this the "Social Contract".

More than a thousand years ago, clowns and performers would not copy each other's particular face make up or routines, according to the "Code on non-infringement", sometimes known as the "Clown Code".

With or without any laws to tell us, humans instinctively know that it is ok to compete with other people but only fairly.

Laws and Ethics

Laws tend to take over when we fail with ethics. It is usually that mutant person who arises one day without ever having graduated from childhood and notices that a customary practice that people observe, or "etiquette", is being arbitrarily followed. Unlike stealing his baby sister's doll in the play room, no one is going to spank him or put him is his room if he violates this custom. And woo-hoo! He is being individualistic. He is breaking out of the artificial constraints of society.

And right there along with him you can sometimes find his confused parents or teachers who have told him all along that he should speak his mind, challenge assumptions, not repress his feelings and instincts, and generally go for it.

The trouble is that there is no inherent solution to all behavior. Life has to remain gray in some areas. The more laws you create, the more complicated life is going to become. The more you will be missing the point, and the more you won't actually be solving anyone's problems; you'll be creating new ones.

But no laws leads to complete moral ambiguity and lack of repercussion. It's that happy ever-shifting middle ground that has to exist. We call that "Manners" and "Etiquette", and if people would understand that these are just as important as laws, despite the fact that no government is going to fine or jail you for non-compliance, the better off we will all be.

Manners and etiquette have their own means of enforcement, do remember. As some of the commenters mentioned, these include shunning, boycotting, denouncing, and/or refusing to have anything to do with an offender.

The Problems With Existing IP Laws

Now for another line of thought. What are IP laws, again, and why do they exist?

Remember, a human's natural state is ethics, not laws. Laws are brought in, one would hope, only to prevent the most egregious abuses that Manners can't deal with, such as murder, rape, theft, and so on.

The natural state of humans is free expression. If I see something, I can talk about it. If I hear something, I can repeat it. Ethics tells us to acknowledge the source, but law doesn't (often).

If I see something, I can imitate it, be it a roof, a wheel, a spear. It is only when we introduce market economies that things begin to deteriorate with this model.

Now you have the situation where someone has a bright idea, but it will cost him time or effort to realize it. He doesn't need it for himself, like a spear or a roof. Yet after creating it, the world will benefit. A natural state implies that as soon as others understand the idea, they can also do it.

But what happens is that this guy says to himself, "Eh. Not worth the effort." And then we all lose out, because the idea never gets communicated.

To solve this, law came up with the idea of limiting the absolute freedom of expression of people in order to allow someone the ability to recoup on publishing his invention, e.g. to make it worth the effort. This is a huge thing: to restrain free speech, the rights of millions, now billions, of people to encourage a person to contribute to the benefit of mankind.

What things could possibly benefit mankind to be worth this suppression of basic rights? Apparently, the law framers decided: writings, music, performance, architecture, processes, and inventions (the former as copyrights, and the latter two as patents).

Even from the get go, however, it was understood that this right suppression has to be worthwhile for the public, and just enough to encourage the producer and no further.

That is why some things, such as recipes, fashion design, and game ideas, have never benefited from this legal protection. Is it really worth limiting the rights of billions of people to express themselves just so that we can have a new cut of clothing? Or a new recipe? Or a new game?

The answer is generally no. Some games, of course, could be argued to be of great benefit to mankind, but that is more the exception than the rules.

The fact that the overwhelmingly vast majority of all writings, songs, movies, and so on are also of no benefit to mankind is a potent argument, of course, but more for the idea of abolishing these protections altogether, not for similarly applying them to games, thereby compounding the problem.

It is only in the last century that our IP laws have really gone down the tubes, however. As more laws are made, and as the twentieth century turned into a great law-fest, progressed through the sixties into a dramatic loss of ethics, and turned out more and more people who want to do whatever they want to do, we find more and more ethically-challenged individuals who step boldly up to the gray lines and say they can do what they want because the law doesn't tell them not to.

And thus, at a point where any well-mannered child could tell you that copying a game and reselling it is immoral, we can't seem to get adults to agree on this. And even the best intentioned ones think that the solution is to make more laws and more rules to try to enforce this, which in the end will create yet more gray areas and more conflict.

To whit: this problem is already solved by Manners and Ethics. Taking it into the realm of Law is just one more nail in the coffin. For every law created, one problem gets solved and three more are created.

What Sells Games?

Nevertheless, what really sells games, anyway? The mechanics? I think not.

I have argued against this before. If you produce a great game that requires a checkerboard and 24 pieces to place, I may buy a copy. If you produce another game with slightly different rules and requires a checkerboard and 24 pieces to play, odds are I'm not going to buy the next game but I will play it anyway. If you make a third, I can guarantee you that I won't buy it and will play it anyway. And that's even if you spent twenty years designing each one.

You may have spent it, but you are selling the wrong thing. I do not owe you money for thinking, nor do I owe you money for publishing information. The market supports items that have real value; I, as a consumer, get to decide what has value unless limited by ethics or law. And in my humble opinion, I am neither legally nor ethically obligated to give you money for an idea that uses common items that I already own. You are going about it the wrong way.

You shouldn't even be trying to sell a game idea that requires no new components. There are many other ways to make money other than trying to sell ideas. You can consult, you can teach, you can attract investors, you can lecture, and so on and so on. The possibilities are endless. To assume that an idea has to be sold is tantamount to destroying the social contract from the other direction. Otherwise, if you don't tell let me play your game, I'm not going to tell you where the bathroom is unless you pay me first.

People don't buy games by and large because of the ideas. They buy it for many other reasons:

- Branding: Numero uno, most likely. Either the branding of the licensing, or the branding of the publisher, the designer, the game series, or so on.

- The components: If I want the components, I'll buy them, knowing exactly what I'm getting for my value.

- The convenience: If I don't want to cobble together my own game, I'll buy yours, assuming that the price is less than my effort.

- Loyalty, status, etc. And other reasons.

The Upshot

Go ahead and make a carbon copy of Settlers of Catan for a third the price. You know what? It won't hurt the original game seller in the least.

Settlers of Catan is a brand, first of all, and the game is bought due to word of mouth and component quality. The game is part of a series that fits together, which the cheap version probably won't. It is sold by a reputable company that will provide service for missing or broken components.

Anyone who buys it probably wasn't going to buy Settlers, anyway. Many people who buy it will eventually hear of Settlers and buy the better version.

And anyway, Teuber, Kosmos, and Mayfair are all off on creating new projects anyway, taking the risks and producing other games, which are not going to be copied until they are already successful (because why bother copying it, otherwise?) and therefore will already have a lead in the marketplace and loyalty with gamers.

And that's the point: not to ensure that anyone gets rich off of what he already made, but to make sure that the incentive was just enough to get it produced and no more, and to encourage you to get started on the next one.

Richard Borg will have little trouble selling a Napoleonic C&C.