My Top Ten Games

Because it’s been a busy couple of weeks with the holidays, I thought that this week I’d bunt and write a column about my top ten favorite games. Two things to note:

A) Everything below second place is vague and could shift up or down several places depending on my mood.

B) A lot of these games start with the letter C for some reason. I don’t know why.


10. Sentinels of the Multiverse

I haven’t played Sentinels in a while, partially because I’m burned out and partially because you can’t play it with people with uneven experience levels, but it’s the game that, more than any other, got me into game design. It also opened me up to co-op games; most co-ops before it were blisteringly hard by default and Sentinels had a much wider range of difficulty levels. The idea that co-op games can be fun while not being incredibly tough was something I brought with me to Tiny Trainwrecks. It’s also an incredibly thematic game; I really felt like a superhero fighting a villain when I was playing.

  1. Roll For The Galaxy

I play a fair number of engine-building games and something I like about Roll in particular is how powerful it makes you feel. Some games tax you or make you deal with resource scarcity; in Roll For The Galaxy, you’re only limited by the number of dice you have on your turn, so even if you have a lean turn you don’t feel like your engine is irreparably behind. There isn’t a lot of interaction, but the interaction that exists is very interesting and rewards careful observation of your opponents’ situations.

  1. Trains

Deckbuilders aren’t my favorite genre, but I make a special exception for Trains. The actions you take will genuinely affect your opponents in one way or another, and while it’s easy to figure out the basics, there’s a huge amount of space to grow as a player. I also appreciate the diverse strategies in the game; you can charge towards valuable cities, spread out as fast as possible, or stay lean and purchase VP cards. Trains: Rising Sun is a little messier, and I don’t like attack cards in this system, but it’s still fun.

  1. Citadels

Citadels was an impulse buy from a local game store in San Mateo and one that I’m deeply grateful I made. It’s a very clean, elegant game that somehow proves to be both tense and hilarious; the draft segment makes you think and the economy always keeps you hungry. Despite never having won a game of Citadels, I’m a huge fan of it (and basically every Faidutti game) because it keeps me in the game the whole time.

  1. Castles of Mad King Ludwig

There are several things Castles has going for it that I enjoy. Strategies vary greatly depending on the available tiles and bonus cards, requiring you to improvise for every game. Additionally, even if you’re in last place, building your castle is fulfilling and makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something. However, Roll For the Galaxy does these two things a little more tightly, so why is Castles ranked higher? The answer: Theme. Castles’ (slightly) more grounded theme makes games a little more impactful and adds a dash of humor that gives the game a slight boost above Roll.

  1. BattleCON: Fate of Indines

BattleCON isn’t an objectively better game than the five previous ones on the list, but it is a game that was practically made for my specific enjoyment. I’ve always been a fan of fighting games, and BattleCON preserves the strategy and bluffing from the genre while removing the need to practice combos over and over again. It’s also extremely anime. Fate of Indines’ comparatively small cast of characters is more of a benefit than a drawback, as it gives you more time to master one and doesn’t intimidate new players with variety.

  1. Codenames

There are only a few games that made me excited just from hearing a description of the rules, and Vlaada Chvatil’s masterpiece Codenames was one of them. As soon as I purchased a copy, I ran game after game for any group of friends I could find, and all of them appreciated the game’s simplicity, tension, and massive amount of room for lateral thinking. Add the short playtime and near-infinite replayability, and you get more than an excellent game: You get a modern classic.

  1. Libertalia

In addition to having low player downtime and a unique puzzle to solve, Libertalia is one of the funniest board games I have ever played. There’s very few moments that top, to name a few examples, everyone at the table revealing a Brute and punching each other off the ship, everyone dodging a series of cursed Incan pendants by attacking a ship with all cabin boys, and defeating a Captain by surrounding him with beggars and draining the hapless Captain’s player for fifteen doubloons. As I mentioned previously, Libertalia is also super easy to teach, as the game’s complexity is limited to the cards. There’s very little to complain about this game, except that, similar to Citadels, I have never won a game in the 10 or so I’ve played.

  1. Conspiracy: Take the Crown (Magic: The Gathering)

During the summer of 2006, I asked a friend to teach me how to play Magic, which introduced me to a hobby that I continue to pursue to this day. Conspiracy: Take the Crown is an expansion designed specifically for drafting, featuring heavy multiplayer and political elements. The set has a lot of things that I adore, ranging from the fun and interactive draft segment to the over-the-top combat. There are probably other expansions that are more challenging at a professional level, but I have never had more fun playing Magic than when playing Conspiracy: Take the Crown.

  1. Cosmic Encounter

I’ll keep this brief because I already wrote an article about Cosmic Encounter, but this is a game that was 40 years ahead of its time. Some of the ways it fixed the problems with the political game genre haven’t been replicated since, and the varied alien powers make it one of the most impactful games ever created. I own every expansion of the Fantasy Flight edition, along with an aftermarket box insert, and it’ll probably take me half my life before I get tired of playing.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it, my top 10 favorite games. If you want to discuss, that’d be cool. Thanks!

Rough Drafts

There’s basically two kinds of game mechanics: Ones that are hefty enough to require the game to be about them (hidden movement, worker placement) and ones that are usually added in a small amount to a more complicated game (bluffing, dice-rolling). Falling half-and-half into both camps is my pet mechanic, card drafting. When used properly, drafting can be a tense and challenging mechanic that adds a lot of strategy; when misused, it obscures information about the other players’ plans and leads to a lot of blind fumbling in the dark. This week, I want to go into what drafting adds to a game and how it can achieve that goal.

The following is a description of the most common kind of draft, for those unfamiliar: Each player has an identically sized hand of cards. Acting at the same time, each player selects one card out of that hand and passes it to a player next to them. The process repeats until there are no more cards to draft. In some cases, the process ends once each player has two cards, and the remaining card is discarded. Notable drafting games include 7 Wonders, Sushi Go, and Shadow Throne.

Arts and Drafts

Good draft elements in a game should do the following:

  1. Signposting. When you draft, you should have enough guidance as to what to pick (especially early in the process) to make the process manageable without being easy. There’s multiple ways to accomplish this: You can make some cards more valuable to pick early, like the resource cards in 7 Wonders, give players larger hands than player count so many of the cards “wheel” around back to you, or simply make some of the cards more powerful than others.
  2. Information on your neighbors (and ways to make use of it). One of the best elements of drafting is it allows for games with high player counts without making players have to keep track of what everyone’s doing; because almost every hand is going to be filtered through your immediate neighbors, they’re the only ones you really have to pay attention to. Therefore, good drafts make it so you know what your opponents are doing and you can capitalize on it, either by pursuing a different strategy or cutting them off from what they need.

Side note: Magic: The Gathering drafts give you very little information on what your neighbors are drafting, but this is mitigated a little because the starting hand size for each of three drafts is a massive 15 cards, giving you many more data points than other drafting games. Still, this frequently results in newer players creating unusable decks because they misread the signals, and creates a steep learning curve.

  1. Wheeling. This is the most optional rule of the three, but not making use of it means forgoing one of the most interesting parts of having a draft system in your game in the first place. When the starting hand size for a draft is larger than the number of players, some of the cards from the hand you started with will end up back at you eventually, having “wheeled” through the entire table.

Wheeling combines elements of both luck and strategy, rewarding people who successfully predict what’s going to be passed back of them and giving players some idea as to what to expect in the later parts of the draft. It’s certainly possible to create good drafts without wheeling, but it makes the game a lot deeper and more interesting.

My Favorite 1970s Electronic Band Is Draftwerk, Creators of the Hit Song “Pro Tour de France”

I wanted to call especial attention in this article to games that use drafting as a small-to-medium part of their total system, because part of making a good drafting game is making the draft a meaningful part of the game and creating a game solely about drafting accomplishes that by definition. Here’s some games that missed the mark on drafts and some that folded it in beautifully.

One of the biggest offenders of misusing draft systems is Council of Verona, an otherwise lovely betting game about throwing characters you don’t like from Romeo and Juliet into exile. The game starts with each player getting dealt a character card, then having the remaining 12 or so characters get drafted facedown by the players one by one. Because you don’t know what hand anyone else is assembling, your only strategy is creating weak combos between the cards you picked, which are frequently invalidated because of what your opponents play in between turns.

The game Seasons suffers from many of the same issues. At the start of the game, each player drafts magical artifacts using 9-card starting hands. The major problem is that every artifact is a) unique and b) possesses intricate powers, meaning that it’s difficult to choose what artifact you want even through which ones are synergistic together. It’s also difficult to change your artifacts once you’ve started, meaning some players can lose the game before it starts

So what games include drafting in a good way? My standout example is one of my favorite games period, Bruno Faidutti’s Citadels. At the start of each round, whoever has the start player marker gets a hand of 5-6 out of the game’s eight roles, and the players draft one role each. This sounds fairly ordinary, but what makes this special is how the game handles information. You will desperately want specific roles – perhaps the merchant to get lots of money, or the architect to build lots of buildings – but it’s very easy for other people to tell what you want, and being predictable will result in you getting punished hard.

A single round of Citadels will make you think endlessly about what to do. Is it worth getting targeted to pick a role that’s more valuable to you, or do you get smaller gains by picking something less predictable? How much do you want a specific card that you’ll pick the King and grab the first player token, at the cost of a more impactful role? And what roles did your opponents pick? Faidutti is the master of games about reading your opponents (Mascarade and Mission: Red Planet also use these in great amounts), and Citadels is his drafting masterpiece.

Also of note are the mini-drafts that Bang! and Stone Age use as a reward system. In both of them, a group of resources/cards are determined, and everyone drafts one face-up. I’m a big fan of these because they make everyone feel good (and that’s really hard in a game like Bang!) while giving a significant bonus to someone: The right to pick first. It’s helpful in mini-drafts for some of the cards/resources to be better or rarer than others, both to provide guidance to the first player and to make them feel better about starting it in the first place.

Conclusion, or, I’m Glad This Is Over Because I Had To Type “Draft” Into A Rhyming Dictionary

Drafting is one of the most volatile elements of conventional tabletop games. When used right, it can provide an incredibly interesting challenge and make everyone feel good; when misused, it leads to an uninteractive mass of guesses. Your design doesn’t necessarily have to make use of my guidelines above, but I hope this article will inspire you to take a look at your system and think about whether drafting is really the best option for what you’re creating.

The last person to finish reading this article…MAY be eliminated

I have a bit of a taste for competition-themed reality shows. Many of them are very hit-or-miss in terms of season quality (Top Chef Las Vegas compared to Top Chef D.C. for instance), but the good seasons are fun to watch, with larger-than-life personalities demonstrating skill in an entertaining way. Today, I wanted to talk about The Amazing Race, which is both one of the best reality shows and filled with a surprising amount of lessons for game designers.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, allow me to briefly summarize it: A dozen or so teams, beginning the US, race around the world. The race is divided into usually 12 legs, between which teams get a chance to rest. Teams that finish last on each leg are eliminated, though two or three are secretly “non-elimination legs” in which nobody has to leave. Each team has to complete two kinds of tasks on every leg: A “Detour,” which gives the team a choice between two different tasks, and a “Roadblock,” a task that only one member of the team can perform.

The Catchup Mechanic

When I wrote about TCG design several months ago, I mentioned that one of the benefits of learning about it is watching the designers make mistakes, learn lessons, and implement changes in public instead of having to read about the process second-hand. The same logic applies to The Amazing Race’s course and challenge design, particularly in the way it stops a team from rocketing so far ahead that nobody else could ever catch up to them.

This was a major problem in the finale of the first season, which saw the three remaining teams so far away from each other that it was a foregone conclusion as to who would win. Since then, the show has included several measures to stop this from happening.

The most obvious way The Amazing Race allows other teams to catch up is through mandatory transportation. For example, early legs frequently require the teams to travel using three specific flights, each of which depart an hour or two from each other. In this way, faster teams get a slight advantage that isn’t crushing and the weakest teams don’t immediately fall off and become completely unable to catch up.

However, putting the entire race on rails isn’t something the audience – or the producers – want to see, so a lot of ways The Amazing Race handles its catchup mechanics feel more natural. The most common way is, once again, transportation: Even without the show mandating which flights to take, there aren’t too many last-minute flights from Prague to Harare on any given day, so teams will naturally settle into two or three flights.

Making some tasks take place in museums or other locations with opening and closing hours also creates a bottleneck of leading teams that arrive there before hours. Sometimes, this completely equalizes teams; in other cases, it shortens the last team’s eight-hour gap to one hour. It also provides the fun visual of all these cutthroat teams sleeping on the street in front of the task location and getting stared at by locals.

The U-Turn

The other thing I wanted to discuss with regards to The Amazing Race’s game design is how it handled the U-Turn, a recurring feature meant to add more politics into the course of the race. From Season 5 to Season 12, the show used something called a Yield instead; in both features, one team may nominate another team to be delayed, but have to “sign” it so the other team knows who backbit them.

When a team got Yielded, they had to turn over an hourglass and wait for about half an hour to continue. When a team is U-turned, they have to go back and do the second task of a Detour. Realistically, these both take about the same amount of time and don’t change the basic strategy and composition of the race to the racers. So why was the change put in?

This is where The Amazing Race’s peculiar situation comes in. The vast majority of games are made to be fun for the people playing them, but because it’s TV, the main group the race is meant to entertain is the audience. Therefore, the Yield was changed to the U-Turn not because it was causing problems to the contestants but because it made for more compelling television. After all, watching a team struggle to complete the Detour task they didn’t want is a lot better than watching two people impatiently tap their feet in front of an hourglass.

One might expect that this has nothing to do with games, but there are several genres where attention isn’t paid to if one or more players is having fun. Most notably, role-playing games sometimes put too much of a burden on the GM, expecting them to not only entertain the other players but keep track of a huge amount of fiddly rules. Knowing who’s supposed to be having fun at all stages of your game is important, and U-Turns serve as an interesting lesson about it.

Conclusion

I heartily recommend The Amazing Race if you’re filing receipts, working out at the gym, or performing some other task where you’d like to be entertained. But if you’re a game designer, there’s a surprising amount you can learn from Phil Keoghan’s international gauntlet of pain. Don’t brush it off just because it’s a reality show – the producers have ridiculously high stakes that they have to meet, and they pay attention to the details of the race as much as any designer you could care to name cares about their game. Take what you can, and enjoy the race!

This post’s about IMPACT!!!!!!!!!

The most formative experience so far in my career as a game designer came the first time I tabled at a convention. As it happened, I was seated next to the only other tabletop game company selling there (name withheld to protect the innocent (me)). The first day, someone came up to my booth and I told her about my games. Afterwards, I observed her as she went over to the other booth. As soon as she saw it, her eyes lit up and she grinned. “You just made my day!” she said, “I’ve been having a hard day and you just made it way better.”

I immediately thought, my games need to inspire that reaction.

The experience taught me something incredibly valuable that I feel a lot of designers don’t pay attention to. Games can’t be evaluated strictly on the basis of “quality.” There’s actually two ways to measure a game’s appeal, and while quality is one, the second, the one that made that person’s day, is something I call IMPACT!!! (Pretend I punched the air while I was saying that.)

Impact is a qualitative measurement, so it’s hard for me to put it in words, but roughly speaking, it’s how much a game sticks with you. After playing an impactful game, you’ll want to rush over to your friends who haven’t played it yet and talk their ear off about this cool thing that happened or that hilarious mistake that cost you the game. You’ll be so excited about what you just experienced, you’ll think about it as you’re driving home or drifting off to sleep.

It is my responsibility as a designer, someone who makes things that he wants people to buy, to make excellent, high-quality games. However, it is my goal as a designer to make games that are also extremely impactful.

 

How To Make An Impact

So what gives a game impact in the first place? There are a number of factors at play, some of which might not be obvious.

Theme: You can usually tell whether the theme of a game has impact by giving a sales pitch to someone who hasn’t heard of it before. “You’re a farmer in 12th-century France” isn’t going to be that exciting; “It’s an eating contest set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland” is.

Art Style: Merely having quality art isn’t enough to give a game more impact if the art is similar to a lot of other games out there. For example, if you showed someone a gorgeous piece of realistic-looking fantasy art, they probably couldn’t tell you where it came from; show them one of John Kovalic’s cartoons from Ca$h n’ Gun$, on the other hand, and they’ll know the answer immediately.

Gimmicks: These are aesthetic or mechanical ways of approaching the game that don’t actually change the strategy very much, but make it more fun. The aforementioned Ca$h n’ Gun$, with its goofy foam guns, is an obvious example, but even serious strategy games use them, like Alchemists’ app and Tzolk’in’s rotating gears.

Storytelling: Games that tell some kind of coherent narrative through their play are going to stick in the players’ mind much more than ones that are essentially multiplayer puzzles. RPG-lite games like Mansions of Madness are obvious, but theme-first mechanics-second games like Camp Grizzly and Sentinels of the Multiverse use storytelling techniques for impact as well.

Lateral Thinking: The other way mechanics can make an impact is when there’s a lot of room in the rules for a player to use lateral thinking to make hilariously unexpected plays. I can still, for example, name some of the famous/infamous plays from Codenames games I played a year ago. This is also why card-matching party games like Apples to Apples are popular, as they’re essentially “Lateral Thinking: The Game.”

Humor: The funnier a game is, the more likely it’ll impact you. I’ve already written about humor in the context of board games, so go read that!

Games can be impactful by doing reasonably well in a few categories or by smashing through the ceiling on a single one. There’s also probably ways of achieving impact that I haven’t thought of.

 

The Impact Scale 

Ever since I came up with the concept, I’ve started scoring games on their impact with a scale of 1 to 10. I wanted to share some of my thoughts on it to illustrate how I think about impact.

At the very bottom of the scale sits the game I use as an example of nonimpactful games, Glass Road. I want to preface this by saying that I think Glass Road, like most of Uwe Rosenberg’s games, is an extremely good and challenging game that gives players a lot of options. In fact, this is also a good example of how “impact” and “quality” are on completely separate axes, as there are terrible games that are still quite impactful.

But returning to my main point, Glass Road is a game about glassblowing set in rural Germany, but you don’t even have to blow glass most of the time! I’ve won multiple games by ignoring glass entirely, making a lot of bricks, and using them to buy buildings. There’s a fun gimmick with some production wheels, but I just don’t remember anything about the gameplay except that it was good.

The other game that immediately springs to mind as a 1 for impact is Hansa Teutonica, which was very deep and well crafted but so dry I forgot what it was called a few days after playing it. It has cute little dinner plate tokens, though.

Games scoring 2, 3, and 4 are usually dry games that focus on mechanics. Just having a small gimmick or distinct art is enough to rescue a game from being a 1, like Splendor’s thick poker chips. (Splendor is a 2.) At the high end of this part of the scale is Castles of Mad King Ludwig, where the gameplay is pretty mathematical but at the end of the game you look down and find that, because you focused too much on getting points, the only bathroom in your castle is at the end of an elaborate system of catacombs.

To reach a 5, 6, or 7, there has to be something in the gameplay itself that’s memorable and exciting. Very exciting Euro strategy games belong here, as well as thematic games that didn’t quite hit the mark. This is the realm of games like Munchkin, Exploding Kittens, and Red Dragon Inn, which enrage some entrenched gamers with their weak gameplay but attract a lot of casual players through their impact. Libertalia, my favorite game about burly men punching each other off a boat, is a high 7.

8s, 9s, and 10s are the true champions of impact. Games at this level need to really generate great stories, whether intentionally or unintentionally. A few examples I haven’t mentioned yet: Betrayal At House On the Hill, Spyfall, Cosmic Encounter. Special mention goes to Cutthroat Kingdoms, an incredibly impactful game I’ve had the pleasure of observing at various cons over the past few years; I’ve actually discussed the topic of impact (without mentioning it by name, as this was before the concept solidified for me) with the designer a number of times.

This might be a controversial opinion, but I also think Magic: The Gathering, especially its Limited side, scores at least a 9 for impact because of how many memorable games its variance and capacity for lateral thinking generates. Almost every Magic player, including me, could tell you stories about games from a decade ago with almost play-for-play recollection.

“So if you’re so cool and good at judging other people’s games, then what about yours?” Tiny Trainwrecks is a 5, Happy Daggers is a 4, and Stand Back, Citizen! is a 7 or 8. Let me know if you think differently!

 

Conclusion

For a long time, I’ve searched for both the kind of games I want to make and the kind of games I think I’d be good at making. By thinking about games in terms of their impact, I feel like I finally have a metric to judge whether an idea is worth pursuing. Hopefully, by the time my next game comes out, it’ll score at least an 8 for me.

Have some opinions about impact? Want to ask where on the scale I think some game lies? Please let me know however you’d like!

 

The New Generation Of Introductory Games

If you’re really into board games, odds are you want to get lots of your friends into board games too. One of the main strategies towards this goal is to get them started with an “introductory game” like Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne. However, a lot of more experienced gamers tend to look down on these games. Is there a way to arrive at a compromise and suggest games that will get new players into the hobby while still allowing more entrenched people to have a blast?

What Makes A Good Introductory Game?

Let’s look at what the three games I mentioned above have in common.

The thing that immediately jumps out to me is all three games give the player a very small number of decisions. Carcassonne especially stands out in this aspect: All you get to choose from is where to place your tile and whether or not you want to jam a meeple on it. It gets more complex as the game develops, but by then you have a grasp on which plays are good and which are bad. Ticket to Ride gives you a small number of options and guidance through the Route cards. Catan is a little more complex but restricts what you can do through its resource system.

Additionally, none of the games have the complex engine building that punishes early mistakes and trip up new players. Complaints are occasionally leveled that poor settlement placement in Catan can ruin a player for the rest of the game, but it’s not hard to at least do an okay job when the best terrain hexes have bright red numbers on them. If you screw up early, it’s not going to stop you from being able to catch up through aggressive road placement or cutthroat trading.

All three games also use “roll-then-choose” luck, where players are able to make decisions after the element of random chance acts. (As opposed to “choose-then-roll” luck like in Risk.) Chance is important to make sure that more experienced players don’t always crush newbies, but allowing players to make choices afterwards makes their actions more meaningful.

In summary, good introductory games:

  • Give players a small number of decisions to make each turn.
  • Have catch-up mechanics or ways to compensate for bad starts.
  • Use a medium-heavy element of chance, preferably a “roll-then-choose” style.

What are some games that meet these criteria but have a little more excitement and fun value?

LIBERTALIA

Summary: The players are pirates raiding ships and dividing up booty. Players play pirate cards simultaneously, each of which has a different rank and special ability. Higher ranked pirates get first pick of the treasure. The catch is that each player has exactly the same hand of pirate cards, so everyone knows what everyone else could play.

Libertalia has a lot of things going for it as an introductory game. The base mechanics of the game are easy to explain, as most of the complexity is on the individual cards. This allows new players to understand the flow quickly and immediately jump into forming strategies. Additionally, because the game effectively “resets” between rounds, having a crummy round where your best pirates get killed doesn’t necessarily mean losing the entire game.

The best thing about Libertalia, however, is that it’s incredibly funny. The introductory games I mentioned above don’t stir up much emotion besides unbridled fury after some jerk ruins your perfect 25-point route in TTR. As an introduction to European-style strategy games, they’re also an introduction to the experience of quietly puzzling out your strategy. Libertalia rejects this approach, choosing instead to make players laugh uproariously as six brutes punch each other off the ship or six cabin boys swab the deck to a mirror sheen.

The downside of introducing Libertalia to new players is a substantial amount of choose-then-roll “luck”; someone can make the best play and still be ruined by what your opponents happened to pick. If your friends happen to not like this kind of thing, it may be wise to pick something else; however, I think the benefits of this game vastly outweigh the drawbacks.

HANABI

Summary: Players are fireworks manufacturers attempting to play fireworks numbered 1 through 5 in order for five different colors. Each player has a hand of firework cards, held opposite so everyone else can see what’s in their hand but the player can’t. The table as a collective gets “fuse tokens” that they can use to communicate to each other about what’s in their hands. At the end of the game, players are given a grade based on how many cards they were able to assemble on the table.

Non-gamers usually aren’t that familiar with co-op games, which are a fun and rewarding challenge that play much differently than their competitive counterparts. However, the vast majority are blisteringly hard and often lead to quarterbacking and/or hurt feelings, even including ones that are intended to be introductory like Forbidden Island.

Hanabi solves a lot of the genre’s obstacles for new players while being a great and elegant game in its own right. There’s no quarterbacking because players literally can’t talk without spending a token, and even then can only point out a few specific things. Even though getting a perfect score is really difficult, the scaled system allows players to feel good for doing just okay.

All the boxes I specified in the prologue get checked off as well. You have a fairly small amount of choices on your turn, and the ones you have are narrowed down by what cards the group needs to play next. There’s also room for you to make a couple (well, two) big mistakes without the game completely shutting down, allowing for a smoother learning curve. Finally, though the contents of each player’s hand is random, you know what everyone has before you decide what to do on your turn.

The kicker is that the card-based version of the game is about ten dollars, meaning that players who like it can pick it up for a miniscule financial investment.

TOKAIDO

Summary: Players are travellers crossing Japan, trying to have the most fulfilling vacation. The board is a straight line dotted with dozens of tourist stops; players may go as far as they like on their turn and land on whichever space they like. However, the player farthest in back always takes the next turn, meaning strategy is divided between snatching the best spaces for you and hanging behind to get more turns. There are about ten (optional) characters with their own starting money and powers.

Tokaido is a good introduction to the passive-aggressive genres of Eurogaming like worker placement. There’s no real engine-building (your only resource is money) and your choices are more short-term, both meaning that you don’t have to look multiple rounds ahead to make the best decision and that if you screw up it won’t punish you for very long. It’s a gorgeous game, too, with nice graphic design and really cute characters (and monkeys).

With new players especially, I recommend using the player powers. Many of them give you a bonus for going to one specific space or another, so it gives people more direction as to what to do at the start of the game when otherwise they might be confused. It also feels really good to be able to exploit your specific ability and get a huge bonus.

What do you think?

Though pretty much all of my articles are just a series of opinions, this one’s the seriesest of opinionsest. I’d love to hear from you about what game you think works well as an introduction to the world of strategy games. Also, if you think there are better criteria for introductory games than what I described, please elaborate! A concrete set of standards will make it easier to find more games that meet the definition.

 

 

 

 

Ghost Of A Chance

The question of whether luck is appropriate in board games is a subject of frequent debate. Those in favor say that chance adds more variability to the game, and strategy arises from being dealt a poor situation and being able to respond to it successfully. Detractors say that any game where it’s possible to lose despite being a better player is a bad one.

I mostly stand in the former camp, but for this essay, indulge me as I become that irritating person from your least favorite college class who has to be devil’s advocate for everything. In my opinion, the way designers discuss chance makes assumptions about players – about human beings – that aren’t true. Specifically, I’m talking about how “chance” is referred to as a single lump, ignoring that people treat different mechanisms for delivering chance differently.

The Medium Is The Message

A number of my college professors liked talking about Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher who raised the idea that the way in which a message is delivered is more important than the message’s actual content. My opinions aren’t as extreme as McLuhan’s, but I do agree that changing the way in which information is delivered will have significant effects on its reception. It’s why you’re not supposed to break up with someone by text.

I want to spend most of this article discussing this concept in terms of chance, but similar effects can be seen in many aspects of game design. For example, let’s say you have two choices, A and B, where A gives you more of a certain kind of resource. Now let’s say we have two situations:

Situation 1: If you pick A, you lose three victory points.

Situation 2: If you pick B, you get three victory points.

People who haven’t developed the cold, calculating logic that strategy game veterans eventually get will stay away from option A more often in the first situation, even though the net loss of points is exactly the same. Losing points signals that you’re not “supposed” to do that action.

Let’s look at three common ways games use chance and the way we percieve them as players.

DICE

Among more serious players, games with dice in them have developed a reputation of being too random to be fun. The few exceptions, including Castles of Burgundy and Roll For The Galaxy, give you a large number of ways to manipulate your rolls, meaning that there’s only a few situations where a bad roll can screw you over. Rather than argue about whether dice being “more random” is true or not, let’s look at some of the reasons this stereotype exists.

  • Existing dice games: A majority of dice games, whether standalone or adaptations of a more complex existing property, are frequently very simple and luck-based. Of note is the dozens of reheated Zombie Dice press-your-luck games in weird containers picking up dust at your local game store.
  • No card counting: Let’s say you have a deck of 30 cards, with 5 copies of the numbers 1 through 6 in it. If you draw a 4, you then have a slightly smaller chance of drawing a 4 on the next turn. However, if you roll a six-sided die instead, you have just as much chance of rolling a 4, maybe more if the die isn’t balanced well. There’s simply no way to predict how fortune will unfold.
  • Feel: Rolling dice just isn’t as classy as drawing cards. It’s loud, messy, and them bones frequently roll off the table or end up tilted on a stray coaster or piece of terrain. Don’t even get me started on electronic dice.

CARDS

Cards are cheap to produce, easy to fit in a box, and people loooooove them. That said, if we look at our 1-6 deck up above, there really isn’t a significant difference between drawing from than and rolling dice. So why do entrenched gamers tolerate luck more when it comes to drawing cards?

  • System complexity: There’s only so much information that can be fit on a die. Decks of cards can be packed with details, and can be edited more easily (deckbuilding, etc.)
  • Card counting: As mentioned under the dice section, if one card is drawn from a deck, it makes it that less likely for that card to show up again. Even though the actual difference is fairly low until you’ve gone through a lot of the deck, the way the probability changes is more in line with the “feel” of the audience.
  • Hidden information: Excluding the use of screens, if you roll some dice, everyone gets to see the result. Cards allow you the use of hidden hands, letting your bluff your way even through a run of bad luck.

SIMULTANEOUS ACTIONS (aka Rock-Paper-Scissors)

This one’s tricky because it frequently isn’t categorized as an element of luck at all. A lot of games claim that because acting simultaneously opens up the opportunity to read your opponent and pick a counter, very little chance is actually involved. This may be true in some cases, but there’s no way someone can win a six-player game of Libertalia and claim with a straight face that it was all skill, baby.

  • Doesn’t feel like luck: That said, simultaneous actions certainly don’t feel like rolling dice or drawing cards because you have 100% control over what action you pick. This applies double for when you get a good outcome because it makes you feel like a smart person who can read minds.
  • Symmetry: Simultaneous action also prevents complaints that a player dealt a bad hand has no chance of winning. When the only “random” factor is what actions players choose, it allows complete symmetry at the start of the game.

Conclusion

The way I wrote this article may make it seem like I think that, in all cases, simultaneous actions>cards>dice. What I’m trying to get through, however, is that these are the ways that entrenched gamers – and I sincerely hope that any game designer is fairly entrenched – view these mechanisms of chance. As you design your game, look at it through two different lenses: How luck actually works in the game, and how luck appears to the players. This way, you’ll be able to (depending on your goals) sneak variance into a game that doesn’t want it too obviously or make a more strategic game exciting to even casual players. It’s another tool in a toolbox that always needs to be growing.

Introducing: Tiny Trainwrecks: EVEN TINIER EDITION

Tiny Trainwrecks was a great game, but you know what the problem was? That’s right, NOT TINY ENOUGH.

Phantom Knight Games is proud to present Tiny Trainwrecks: Even Tinier Edition! The same great game but now on smaller cards!

Tiny Trainwrecks: Even Tinier Edition

New cards are on the bottom!

While the old edition of Tiny Trainwrecks was on poker-sized cards, the new one is printed on DriveThruCards’ 1.625″ by 2.5″ ‘mini’ size. Even Tinier Edition is perfect for small tables and cramped spaces!

You can buy Even Tinier Edition at GaymerX this weekend; look for us at table 1! It’ll be available online within the next few weeks. Good luck and don’t wreck the train!Tiny Trainwrecks: Even Tinier Edition

 

 

Jeremy Geist Compares Board Games To A TV Show From The 70s Because He’s Just That Cool

Columbo picked up the red pillar and placed it off to the side. “That’s my turn,” he said, “now which card are you going to take?” Smith smirked. “Sorry, Mr. Detective–“ he delicately placed one of the cards in front of him– “but this is my win. I’ll use my two copies of Helm of Invisibility to install the rest of my cards in my elysium. There’s no way you can beat it.” He got up to leave.

“Just one more thing, Mr. Smith…” said Columbo. Johnson froze. “I thought you weren’t allowed to have more than one copy of the same card…”

This above hastily written fan fiction is an example of what I call “Columboing”. It is the bane of any game designer and the second-worst thing that can happen to you during gameplay, right after “watching someone else take a fifteen-minute turn in Once Upon A Time”. Columboing is the phenomenon in which a player’s elaborate plan, or even multi-turn, game-winning strategy, is ruined because nobody at the table noticed a small, overlookable rule until it was relevant.

The example I gave above is Elysium’s rule about not being able to have more than one card with the same name in your play area, not because it’s the worst offender (players don’t get the opportunity to hoard identical cards very often), but because it’s almost the perfect encapsulation of the problem. The same-name prohibition is buried in the middle of the rulebook, can’t be logically deduced through play, and significantly affects strategy once it’s discovered.

Basically two things can be done to prevent Columboing.

  1. Remove excess rules

Often, when designing a game, uncommon or small exceptions come up that can threaten to unbalance gameplay. It’s the first instinct to simply add something in the rules that prevents these specific situations from happening, and sometimes this is the only workable way to go about it, but these rules are by far the most likely ones to be missed until it’s relevant.

The biggest culprits here are rules that can be ignored; that is, if a game makes complete sense while ignoring your small fix of a rule, people are definitely going to miss it. These most often occur in fiddlier Euro-style games that have a lot of moving parts; small rules often make the game more tense and cerebral, but it’s also possible to play an entire game without realizing you were supposed to (or not supposed to) do something and still have an enjoyable time.

Part of my game design philosophy is not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a certain style of gameplay works great if people can keep track of a lot of fiddly rules, while another style isn’t quite as good but is easier to remember, I go with the second variety every time.

  1. Point it out in the rulebook

Columboing also occurs because it’s difficult to find a place for it in the manual. Many missable rules aren’t part of the flow of gameplay (e.g. a rule about maximum hand size versus a rule about you can draw cards), making it more likely that it will be missed both by someone reading the book and people having the rules explained to them verbally.

The most effective way to fix this is to emphasize the rule, either by bolding/italicizing it or setting it off in its own box. I personally prefer the latter, as it ensures the player sees it while also “taking a breath” from the flow of gameplay so the reader isn’t thrown off. However, both of them have their merits and text emphasis is probably better in lighter games with shorter rulebooks.

If the pesky rule in question only affects a certain subset of components, printing a reminder symbol or word on the components in question can be useful. People who remember what it does will remember the rule, while people who don’t remember will be prompted to look it up.

Conclusion

The true danger of Columboing is the fact that it’s very easy to say, “this may happen part of the time but it’s not worth fixing.” It definitely is worth fixing. If someone has a bad time during their first time playing a game, 80% of the time they’ll be unwilling to play it again. And it’s hard to imagine a worse experience than the game owner pointing out that your win was invalid because they overlooked something minor.

Columboing happens a lot in a lot of otherwise extremely good games, and sometimes it’s impossible to help; however, if you have the ability to fix the problem you should make it a high priority.

If You Throw Me One More Time I’m Going Home

Most people in the fighting game community, and some in board games, are familiar with the works of David Sirlin (Yomi, Puzzle Strike, Pandante). His most famous essay is about the term “scrub”, which refers to a type of player who will, instead of improving in a competitive game, will blame the other players for employing “cheap” tactics and not competing with “honor”. Sirlin writes (in the context of Street Fighter):

If you beat a scrub by throwing projectile attacks at him, keeping your distance and preventing him from getting near you—that’s cheap. If you throw him repeatedly, that’s cheap, too. We’ve covered that one. If you block for fifty seconds doing no moves, that’s cheap. Nearly anything you do that ends up making you win is a prime candidate for being called cheap.”

That last sentence is where I disagree with Sirlin’s definition of “cheap”. While there certainly are people who will accuse anyone better than them of cheating, some strategies attract more complaints than others. And while fighting game players may want to rid themselves of the habits described in the article, a designer wants to appeal to a wide variety of people, including scrubs.

So what strategies are cheap, and does the benefit of having this kind of strategy in your game outweigh the risk of turning off players who refuse to play against them? This time, I actually have opinions.

The Definition of Cheap

My definition of “cheap” strategy is as follows:

Any strategy that goes against a player’s imagined construct of “how the game should be played”.

From this, one might say that each individual has their own idea of how a game should be played, but games will frequently hint at “proper” or “honorable” gameplay without enforcing it outright in the rules. Some examples include:

Strategies that benefit despite incurring penalties from the game’s system. Worker placement games Stone Age and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar both allow you to accrue more worker pawns over the course of the game, but you will lose VPs if you don’t feed them with resources. Players quickly discovered effective “starvation strategies” in both games, where you get as many workers as possible as fast as possible and ignore the starvation penalties you get for it.

Strategies with a comparatively low skill floor. One of the most reviled decks in the online CCG Hearthstone is “Face Hunter”, a deck that ignores the complex board state management practiced by other decks and attempts to deal lethal damage to the opponent as fast as possible. This deck is easy to pilot and, though never the optimal strategy in any metagame, is strong enough to be evergreen in most environments. Most of the complaints about this deck are that players manage to win despite not putting in enough imagined “effort”.

Strategies that ignore the way to win suggested by introductory materials. The game Android: Netrunner suggests that in order to win, the Corp player must slowly advance and defend Agenda cards. Indeed, when playing with the cards in the starter set, that is the only realistic way for the Corp to win. However, once expansions are included, more powerful strategies emerge, including ones that instant-kill the runner and ones that attempt to assemble a combo that wins the game in a single turn. This has acquired flak from some players.

So while all effective strategies might be labeled “cheap” by salty players at one point or another, certain ones that allegedly flout the “proper” way to play suggested by the designers attract the epithet a lot more often.

Is Cheap Good?

If you playtest enough, you will inevitably have some player discover a strategy that could be categorized as “cheap” by your or other players’ metrics. So do you support it, or do you stomp it into the dirt? This depends on the kind of game you’re making, specifically whether it’s a deep game or not. (For more on the subject, read my earlier post about deep games.)

Deep games need variant strategies, even ones decried as “cheap”, because a lot of the fun comes from exploring the system and finding new and interesting interactions. If someone finds a way to win that doesn’t follow the path suggested by your rules, but it’s interactive and doesn’t win 100% of the time, it’s perfectly fine to ignore playtest comments that the strategy is somehow wrong.

Non-deep games (not to say “shallow” as even complex games like Terra Mystica fall into this category) are a different story. The scope of gameplay is much tighter, as all non-deep games are essentially miniature social contracts – the designer promising a neatly packed experience in exchange for the players’ time and money. If a viable strategy in a hobby game involves playing contrary to the intended experience, it needs to be trimmed so that your audience isn’t disappointed. At the very least, these tactics should be adjusted in power level so that they are only a small part of winning.

Conclusion

Every game is created to appeal to a certain audience. If we want to become better game designers, we have to understand that audience’s wants and needs. People who adhere closely to “how a game should be played” deserve the annoyance they earn in competitive communities that explicitly preach the opposite mindset, but wanting a game to be played a certain way isn’t a sin by itself. Instead of thinking in black and white terms, saying “this strategy is cheap, take it out” or “everyone who says a strategy is cheap is a sore loser”, game designs should be evaluated individually to see if “cheap” is something it wants to tolerate.

You’ve Got The Turn, You’ve Got The Power (Yeah!)

I’m not going to do a fancy introduction for this one, I just want to get into something that I haven’t noticed much discussion of: Turn autonomy.

Turn autonomy is the number of things a player can do on their turn. Note that in some games, a player might have many options but can only pick one; my term refers to being able to pick many options in a single turn. In many games, this is effectively the statistic that measures how much a player can get away with before an opponent interferes.

Let’s look at a couple of examples and see how much turn autonomy they give the player.

High Turn Autonomy: Warmachine

Similar to many other minis games, Warmachine gives each player a ludicrous amount of autonomy on their turn. Each player gets to move and attack with everything in their army before their opponent gets a turn, and games will frequently look like one player demolishing the other, only for that player to deal even more damage in return when the turn passes to them.

Though this form of turn progression is mainly a genre holdover, it does have its benefits. A lot of Warmachine and companion game Hordes’ selling points are based on coolness: You can have an army of Imperial Russian steampunk robots get into a fistfight with a bunch of bipedal elephants led by the human version of Hedonism Bot. By allowing players plenty of time to exploit the synergies of their army, it makes them feel like they’re accomplishing something.

The downside of this increased turn autonomy is player uninvolvement. If it isn’t your turn, there isn’t much you can do to interact with the opponent besides certain tricks with upkeep spells and shuffling damage around on a few units. Depending on army size and player inexperience, you could spend as long as half an hour waiting for your opponent to beat your face in before you can do anything about it.

A large amount of turn autonomy that can’t be interrupted by opponents has its uses, but it requires a specific kind of game to be effective. These games are generally complex and for “core” tabletop gamers that are willing to accept that it won’t be their turn most of the time.

Low Turn Autonomy: Smash Up

Games with small amounts of turn autonomy frequently use it as a challenge factor to prevent players from effortlessly winning. Smash Up is a good example: The main reason you can’t immediately take over a base on your first turn is because you can only play one minion and one action at a time. This limit is easy to remember (until your time traveler wizards give you six extra actions) and creates a different gameplay feel than ones that use a resource system to dictate how many cards you can play on a turn.

Short turn autonomy games are much more common than long turn autonomy games, and range from shorter American-style games to denser Euros like Terra Mystica. However, some games make visible the mechanic’s major flaw: If an opponent develops a lead, having low turn autonomy means you won’t be able to do very much to catch up. This creates helplessness maybe a little deeper than that in high turn autonomy games, where a player might feel that they’ll never be able to put together a plan faster than their opponent can tear it apart.

Conclusion

Much like chance, politics, and hidden information, turn autonomy is an essential part of non-simultaneous games, and a dial that the designer can adjust at their will. However, I haven’t seen in brought up or discussed in my reading of several other board game design communities. Being conscious of its use is another tool to add to the designer’s toolbox, and one I hope to be able to use when I stop my endless barrage of games that everyone plays at the same time.