Thursday, August 25, 2005

Delicious debates

I basically 'hang out' at BGG. When I am researching a new game, I download the rules (if they are available), print them off, read them through twice, and highlight sections I have questions about. Then I read through every single post in the General Comments and Rules Questions forums. In many games, there are some quite involved and passionate discussions about:
  • Is it a good game?
  • Is it broken?
  • Is it solved?
  • Does it play well with 'n' players?
I have to say, I believe that games with this kind of response are Good Games by definition. Why should someone spend their valuable time arguing that a game is broken, or trying to convince others who seem to be enjoying it that somehow they are misguided? Admittedly, geeks love to be right and convince others of this fact. But I think for the most part, everyone involved in the discussion either enjoys the game or wants to enjoy it. They see the genius of the design, even behind their perceived flaws, and they don't want to let go.

As a community, we use the Socratic method to its extreme. We poke and prod at every weakness, forcing others to defend it. In the end, we all benefit from this trial by fire. We have so many great games to argue about, and so little time...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Here I examine the various aspects of luck in board games.

No Luck

Games with absolutely no luck are almost exclusively abstracts (see my post on Themes). All players know everything. Nothing is hidden. Nothing is random. Given sufficient computing power, the game could be "solved". Chess, Go, Yinsh and Medina fall into this category.

Hidden Information

This includes games in which you do not see all of your opponent's information. Stratego, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, and block games including Wizard Kings fall into this category. You may have some information on how to proceed based on your opponent's moves, but in the end you must still guess the identity of the hidden units. Luck is part of your success. Deduction/induction games where you are trying to make successive guesses to find some answer also belong here. This includes games like Clue, Mastermind, Zendo, Sleuth, and Inkognito.

Simultaneous Play

This is similar to hidden information. All players do something at the same time in secret. The results are then based on who chose what. There is usually some strategy based on the game situation and by knowing what choices the opponents are likely to make, but there is still some luck. Fairy Tale, 6 Nimmt!, and games with hidden auctions like Modern Art fall into this category.

Random Movement

In my opinion, this is the worst kind of luck. It is typically invoked by rolling dice or drawing cards. Where you end up is not by choice, making the game feel less like a game and more like an exercise. Monopoly is the quintessential roll-and-move game. Sometimes, the luck is mitigated by giving each player multiple pieces to choose from. Among games of this type are Sorry! and Verflixxt!.

Shared Unequal Luck

In some games, there is a random element that can potentially apply to any/all players, but affects them differently based on the position or other circumstances. In Settlers of Catan, a 2d6 roll determines what resources are generated, and by position, who gets them.

Shared Equal Luck

In other games. there is a random element that all players have an equal claim to. In Puerto Rico, the plantation tiles are random, but any player can claim one. Similarly, in Power Grid, the power plants are random, but all players can bid to purchase one. In Traders of Genoa, the starting location for the tower is random (usually), but all players can bid for control of its movement. In Goa, the setup of the board for the A and B stages of the game is random, but all players bid for the purchase of those tiles. In all these games, the only unequal aspect is player turn order (ie you may not be able to get what you want because another player gets to act before you do).

Luck of the Draw

Many games have this kind of element, usually in the form of cards or tiles. This kind of luck is typically mitigated by the fact that there are many draws over the course of the game. It comes down to how you use the resources you are getting. Carcassonne, Ingenious, Attika, Euphrates & Tigris, and China all have this element to varying degrees.

Random Resolution

These games typically allow you to make any actions you want, but the results of those actions are resolved with a random element (eg dice or cards). Risk, Axis & Allies, and almost all wargames fit here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The elusive 10

Whenever I've neglected my brain for too long, it gets lonely and starts talking to me. Today, in one of my many many many visits to Board Game Geek I happened to be looking at my profile. My brain noticed something:

You have no games rated above 9.

So What?

Can't you find games you really like that much? There are thousands of them you know. Besides, it would make a much more normal looking bell curve.

I've got 7 games rated higher than 8: Carcassonne (plus expansions and The City), Carolus Magnus, Ra, and St. Petersburg. I like them all very much.

So why no 10's?

Well, I guess I don't consider them my perfect game.

What's wrong with them?

Nothing. They are all great for what they are.

Are you hoping one day to find something better than those 7?

It would be nice, but I don't think my perfect game exist...yet...or ever will.

So what's your perfect game?

Well, it's hard to describe. In every game that exists today, there are rules which define what you can do. They set the bounds for possible actions. With the exception of games that have a social element (or perhaps role playing with a DM), the bounds are finite. This means that every possible action, or combination of actions, can be known and expected by the opponents.

I dream of a game where you can enact plans that have never been conceived and could not have been predicted. I'm not just talking about complex combinations of existing elements. I'm talking about being able to introduce new elements on the fly. But how can this be done, while making the game playable? How can you make rules for a game with non-finite possibilities? I don't know.

So you are going to leave your 10 space blank for a game that will never exist?

Sigh. I don't know. Should I adjust all my ratings so I have as many 10's as 1's, and as many 9's as 2's, etc.? I don't think so. The numbers I use seem right to me. They reflect how much I look forward to playing the game, and how much enjoyment I get while playing.

Ok then. I'm going to go away again for a while. Good luck with that.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Game night

There was probably only going to be time for 1 or 2 games. With me I brought Power Grid, Modern Art, and Nobody But Us Chickens. My opponents had not played any of them before, and after a quick overview of each game, they opted for Modern Art. This was the only one of the three which I had never played myself. I knew the rules pretty well. A few minutes of instruction and we were underway...

I had read quite a few posts on Modern Art before even buying the game, but I still had no idea what to expect for Game Think(+). Once Around auctions seemed best for the auctioneer. Double Auctions were best to end the round quickly. One thing of note that occured in our game was that almost no paintings were auctioned for more than their final sale value. I believe this is simply because we were new to the game and were bidding conservatively. However, the effect of this is that players who didn't buy paintings got screwed. I imagine in a fiercely competitive game among experienced players that you could win even if you didn't buy many paintings.

I had no idea how well I was doing until it was all over. Final results:

me - 590
K - 596
C - 261

We had little time left after this, so we opted for Nobody But Us Chickens. I had good success introducing this game to others a few days before. Having played with 5 originally, I found the 3-player game to be somewhat lacking in "fun factor". There are too few cards coming down each turn, and it's over too quickly. We immediately played a second game. I think with 3 players that you should play 6 days. Final results:

me - 24
K - 15
C - 31

me - 33
K - 14
C - 18

Unfortunately Power Grid never hit the table. I was looking forward to my first face-to-face game with more than 2 players. I explained the game basics, and I think we will play it soon. I am likely to do a detailed analysis of Power Grid design at some point in the future.

(+) Game Think is what I call that place your brain falls into when playing a game. What decisions are you trying to make? How many variables do you have to juggle? Do you need to figure out what others are likely to do? Do you need to watch resources carefully? Who is in the lead? How much do you bid? Do you bluff? If you play there, will you get crushed? Arggghhh!!...You get the idea.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


The discussion of theme in boardgames is very common. Some like theme more than quality, some debate what games have strong theme, and almost everyone will use the phrase "pasted-on theme" at some point in their gaming life. Theme is placed on a fairly high pedestal. Games which lack theme or strong theme-mechanic relationships are called abstract or criticized.

What is theme? When most gamers use the word, they refer to a relationship between a game and some "real world" setting, situation, or event. Theme also extends into the speculative worlds of fantasy and science fiction. Let's examine what I feel are the three areas where theme drives a game, and why it is so important.


Regardless of the final result, a clear theme gives the designer direction. Rather than narrow the possibilities--as you might expect--it creates them. Let's start with a simple idea in a designer's mind: a river running through the desert. Now let's brainstorm on that theme:

Are there pyramids? Is there farming along the river? Does the river flood? Is there travel/trade across the desert? Does the river area create a natural struggle for control?

If instead we start with a blank slate and no thematic guidance, in what directions do we go?

I have a pyramid. I roll a die and move up the steps that many spaces. Then I draw 2 cards and follow the instructions. If I reach the top, I can put an extra blue cube on any red space.

Pretty dry? It fits together like a poorly edited movie--a collage of unrelated actions. The effects don't match the causes. The whole is much less than the sum of the parts.

So where do we end up? Well, if you're a good designer, the theme can carry you all the way to Euphates & Tigris, or Ra, or Amun-Re. The final game doesn't even have to be completely faithful to the original idea. That idea was simply the catalyst.


How many times have you seen people say things like, "I just can't resist a pirate game!" or, "I just like killin' stuff!"? Let's face it--themes sell games. World War II, Trains, American Civil War, Pirates, Exploration, Civilization, Politics, etc.

Theme can manifest itself in the name of the game, the box cover, the board, the pieces, and even the money. Games with heavily themed production, especially those with high quality parts, are much more likely to get a second look and above average impulse buys. It doesn't even matter if the game is terrible.

Is this a bad? Not really. We are suckers for brain- and eye-candy. Encouraging publishers to give us high quality, highly-themes games, is a good thing.


Theme is not black and white, nor is it objective. We each draw our own lines separating thematic from abstract. In games where theme drives our play, we often picture the events taking place and use intuition from our own experiences to help decide our course of action. Once a game is reduced to numbers, grids, shapes, and charts in our minds, then it has been rendered abstract.

In games with very high theme (most wargames, for example), you are literally forced to think in terms of theme. You have a map with terrain and various units. The effects of movement, line-of-sight, combat, morale, etc. are typically modelled as they exist in the real world. Any choices you make relate directly to "what you would do if you were really there".

For many games, there are players on both sides. In Puerto Rico, do you feel successful as you ship goods back to Spain, or are you simply filling a 2x4 grid with brown cylinders? In Carcassonne, are you building cities and roads, or are you merely connecting polygons and lines?

In games with "lots going on", theme increases the fun factor and helps us intuit our decisions. In games with very simple mechanics, abstraction is often a better choice. Even if the game is themed, it is likely to feel abstract. Either way, the varied use and presence of themes in our games provides a wonderful and personally unique richness of experience.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Chili a la ekted

2 lbs. lean hamburg
2 large green peppers, chunked
2 large yellow onions, chunked
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp. hot chili powder
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. cilantro
2 cans tomato sauce
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 tbsp. Tabasco brand habanero sauce
2 cups water
2 cans red kidney beans

Brown hamburg in large pot. Add peppers, onions, and all spices. Cook until onions are starting to get translucent. Add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, habanero sauce, and water. Stir well, cover, and cook 1-2 hours on low heat. Add kidney beans, and cook an additional 30-60 minutes.

Serve hot with shredded cheddar cheese.

I've tried this recipe with many different ingredients for heat. Tabasco brand habanero sauce is the best flavor so far.

Keep this away from the gaming table if you have messy eaters!

Why the wargame icon?

I would not call myself a wargamer by any means. I was simply trying to create something that combined the two gaming worlds, and the wargame-counter style kind of took over. Although I have played Advanced Squad Leader and Star Fleet Battles in the past, I do not have the players nor the time to get seriously into a "lifestyle" game at this point. However, I do plan to purchase Lock 'N Load: Band of Heroes when it comes out. This should satisfy the wargamer without being a burden.

Monday, August 15, 2005


The life of this gamer began in the same way as most Americans--a bland mix of strained peas, carrots, Life, Trouble, Aggravation, and Monopoly. "That's what I ate, and I turned out fine!" Playing games was just another thing I did, but it was nothing special.

By the age of 13, I discovered computers. Input one fairly normal kid. Output one geek. In today's world, a 13-year-old spending hours on a computer is normal. In the mid 70's, it was all but unheard of.

Once the geek was turned on, there was no stopping it. Much more interesting games appeared: Risk, Pathfinder, Code Name Sector, 4000 AD, Stop Thief, Manhunt, Sub Search, Dark Tower, on and on up to the top of the closet. And a little brother who was now old enough to play them with me.

At the age of 15, I purchased my own computer--a TRS-80 Model I. This was very cool for the late 70's. The game designer in me awoke when I programmed the game Pay Day as an exercise. What a disappointment. All you ever did was press ENTER when it was your turn. There were no decisions to speak of. In fact, if I removed the keystroke, the computer could basically play an entire game with no human interaction. After that day, I stopped playing Pay Day.

Then came Axis & Allies and Dungeons & Dragons. These two games took me from high school, through college, and out the other end with no signs of slowing down. 20 years later, D&D has still not lost its appeal.

My first job out of college surrounded me with like-minded geeks. Two of them were very good duplicate bridge players. That got me playing bridge, which got me a permanent bridge partner who ran a Diplomacy 'zine. A game with no dice? Hmm...

Years later at my next job, a co-worker exposed me to Magic: The Gathering, Kremlin, and Advanced Squad Leader--quite the mix. I went ballistic on Magic for a year or two, but never got into serious deck building strategies or collecting. In fact, the constant barrage of expansions is why I stopped playing. ASL hooked me on sheer page count. I bought my own ruleset just to read it in my spare time. We played over lunch for several months, one turn per day.

Then an old friend--the same one who introduced me to bridge--contacted me about playing Settlers of Catan. I had no idea what this was, so I went looking for it online. I found a site at some college that had a Java implementation. We played 10-20 games, but it never really grabbed me. In my prior searches for SoC rules, however, I had bookmarked a site that caught my eye: Board Game Geek.

Board Game Geek? Oh my. They have lots of games here... And rules! And pictures!! And ratings!!! What's this? Puerto Rico? Euphrates and Tigris? Princes of Florence? If these games are so good, why haven't I heard of them before? PR was #1 by quite a bit, so I checked it out. The pictures didn't impress me, but I read the rules regardless. Wow! I had to have this game. I called all over, not knowing that Maine is the opposite of gamers' heaven. One store an hour's drive away had a copy. An hour later I was surrounded by miniatures and Magic cards. I called about Puerto Rico? Ah, the shelf in the back. Apparently, one percent of shelf space was the allotment for board games. There it was, shrink-wrapped and dusty. Walking up to the register with my treasure, I had to run the gauntlet of 15-year-old Magic players looking at me like I was carrying a clay tablet and stylus.

Well, that was a year ago. Since then I have purchased 61 "euro games" and my want list is still growing. I enjoy looking for new games, and reading the rules to games I'll never play, as much as I enjoy playing the games I have. Now I'm a regular on BSW. I chat with gamers on IRC. On BGG I'm posting reviews and articles, and even answering questions for games I haven't played yet. What's next? Oh yeah, this blog...