After a mere four-year wait, here is Part II of my Board Game Buyer’s Guide. Look for Part III around 2021! (Link to Part I)
One can debate whether or not Dominion is a great game, but there can be no doubt that it is an important game as it casts a long shadow over a growing list of imitators. Designer Donald Vaccarino’s great insight was that the deck-building meta-game of Magic: The Gathering could become an actual game. Put another way, Dominion is “Magic for the rest of us” – which is partially false as the actual mechanics are nothing like Magic but still mostly true as CCG’s are still a no-fly zone for many gamers. Before Dominion, many (including myself) had never experienced the challenges and rewards of deck-building. My only criticism is that, because the selection of cards available is fixed from the beginning, a game can feel like its being played underwater, with little need to deviate or adapt from an initial strategy.
Grade: B+ (BGG: 7.97)
Ascension, on the other hand, is Dominion with randomness, which is why it deserves its own place at the table. The selection of cards available each turn changes as they are bought and then replaced, meaning the game is as much about adapting to a changing “terrain” of cards as it is about building on your deck’s current strengths. This randomness can send early strategies sideways, meaning novices can beat veterans with the right amount of luck; in contrast, Dominion is often over before it even begins as experienced players immediately see the best combination of cards to buy. Ascension also fills a hole in Dominion by giving effects to all scoring cards, a simple way to pack in some extra gameplay without bloating the whole. Ascension was clearly built on the shoulders of a giant, and that’s how game design works.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.20)
Just as Dominion builds an entire game around one single element from Magic’s meta-game, 7 Wonders builds a game around a different element from the meta-game – card drafting. However, this game is also an example of how baggage from the past blinds designers to new possibilities. While Dominion’s insight (that a game could be about deck-building) burst forth with little precedent, many other designers have tried to build games about drafting, but they all inherited one deadly concept from Magic – that the drafting and the playing of cards should be in two separate phases. 7 Wonders jettisoned that baggage by combining the two – the act of drafting a card is the same as playing it. This change makes the game infinitely more accessible as new players can learn the game as they draft – and learn from what others are drafting/playing. Moreover, players can actually adapt to their opponents – both by changing which cards they want to play and which cards they want to keep away from their neighbors. (In a traditional draft, of course, your opponent’s strategy is mostly a mystery until card play begins.) 7 Wonders also deserves credit for being one of the deepest simultaneous-play games, putting it in a category with Race for the Galaxy as one of the fastest strategic games that can be played in groups; in fact, 7 Wonders goes up to seven players with little slowdown. Finally, the game’s military system is also worth praise as it enables conflict without a typical zero-sum mechanic; players compete with neighbors for military victory point but do not actually harm each other’s assets, a nice idea as most games with a military component have a hard time not becoming simply bloody wargames.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.95)
7 Wonders: Leaders
I don’t like expansions. I don’t like to play them. I don’t like to buy them. I don’t like to design them. They are counter to what I believe is most important in game design – that a game should contain all the elements necessary to work and then go no further. Every new rule has a cost, in accessibility, in complexity, in meaning, and this cost goes up as the game grows larger and larger. Expansions force designers to ruin this balance by adding features by the pound, usually to justify the product in a downward design spiral (consider the Race for the Galaxy expansions). Of course, exception do exist. The Dominion expansions, for example, are not really expansions but whole new games that co-exist with the original ruleset. 7 Wonders: Leaders, on the other hand, is the rare expansion that actually makes the base game better by targeting a flaw in the original design and touching nothing else. The one flaw in 7 Wonders is that the games can become a little monotonous after awhile. The card variety is not great enough to allow wildly variant strategies; thus, many players find themselves in a rut after awhile. Leaders solves this problem by letting players draft four game-changing powers at the start, encouraging players to pursue an unique strategy and almost certainly a different one from the previous game.
Grade: A+ (BGG: 7.99)
How much information should a player use to make their decisions? In Innovation, players build up a tableau of technologies, with up to five separate powers available at any time. These powers are often confrontational; thus, understanding the powers of one’s opponents is a key part of the game. These powers, however, can be quite complicated, many requiring multiple lines of text. Thus, playing Innovation presents me with a dilemma; in order to play a competitive game, I feel the need to read the text on each of my opponent’s cards every turn. Doing so, however, would slow the game down to a crawl, not to mention be socially awkward. Instead, I content myself with bumbling along until I memorize all the cards, accepting that I am making sub-optimal decision considering the wealth of public information available to me. A comparison with 7 Wonders and Race for the Galaxy is apt as those games adopt iconographic languages to describe all powers, which means that cards can be understood easily from across the table but also, and more importantly, that the designer is limited to designing powers that can be understood in the grammar of the icons. In other words, the icons discourage the designer from turning each card into a special case, which would require a new, strange icon. Therefore, the powers tend to have a consistency that makes digesting a number of card across the table much easier. Innovation has no natural limit to card complexity, meaning that a new player must either accept playing poorly or force the other players to slow down.
Grade: C+ (BGG: 7.33)
No Thanks! feels like Reiner Knizia’s punk rock game, absurdly simple, brash, confrontational, and yet joyous. The game may have a rule set as short as those of Go, but No Thanks! has the advantage that people who do not design games for a living will actually want to play it. The game also serves as an interesting personality test for new players – watch for who is the first person to realize the advantage of “being a jerk” (or insert more colorful term) by placing a chip on a card that would be good for that player to take (by extending a consecutive set) but bad for everyone else. Some people are just too inherently nice to ever discover this tactic on their own; I’m apparently not one of them.
Grade: A- (BGG: 6.98)
Sid Sackson’s Can’t Stop is a bit punk rock too. The game has every element necessary for a push-your-luck game and yet no more. The constant dice-rolling, the need to extend a streak, and the ever-present danger of losing it all give the feel of gambling without actually risking any money, which is quite a feat. Can’t Stop is also notable for being one of the oldest games that is still worth playing. It’s somewhat surprising that designer board games (as opposed to older folk games like chess or pinochle or crokinole) seem to age just as fast as video games. Can’t Stop came out in 1980 (the year of Pac-Man), and only three games on BoardGameGeek’s Top 100 predate it – 1979’s Dune, 1977’s Cosmic Encounter, and 1962’s Acquire (also by Sackson). One assumes that great board game design is timeless – which is true – but the other truth is that board game design has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two decades, in ways which are not as easy to measure as the progress of video games.
Grade: B+ (BGG: 6.85)
Another tantilizing push-your-luck game – a friend quipped that it should be renamed “Coulda Woulda Shoulda” - Incan Gold distinguishes itself from Can’t Stop by adopting simultaneous action. Instead of taking separate turns, with separate random rolls, players experience the game’s luck during shared turns. The choice is simply in deciding whether to “leave the temple” to bank this turn’s loot or to stay for more but risk losing it all to a disaster. Fiendishly, as more and more players leave the temple, the potential rewards go up as the loot is split between fewer and fewer players, thus encouraging players to stay even as the risks grow larger. Incan Gold gets an extra point for being the rare game that plays up to eight (I’ve even gone to nine) with little to no slowdown.
Grade: A (BGG: 6.81)
Some great games are marred with a single, terrible mechanic. Battlestar Galactica, however, has a single, great mechanic which is marred by a terrible game. Cooperative games, like Battlestar, have a common problem – a single, veteran player can play as a mastermind, giving the other players orders and turning the experience into live-action solitaire. The common solution, popularized by Shadows over Camelot, is to make one player secretly a traitor, so that an overly bossy player might be right but might also not be trustworthy. The problem is that the traitor has few opportunities to betray his teammates – usually, he will play a card “good enough” to hide his identity as playing a terrible card will make things too obvious. The great innovation of Battlestar Galactica is that the game’s core loop should give the cylon players (traitors in the game’s fiction) ample opportunity to actually do something to hurt the humans. Typically each turn, players attempt to pass a skill check by submitting cards secretly into a stack – certain colors help and certain colors hurt – with random cards added to further mask who played which color. Thus, cylons have a chance to hurt the humans in a way that becomes visible but is not obvious, leading to many accusations (and subsequent denials) of who is the real cylon. The problem is that the game is full of so much other stuff that this awesome mechanic gets buried under a lot of fluff and busywork. In fact, one common skill card (Investigative Committee) actually negates this entire system by forcing all players to submit cards face up! I would love to play the punk-rock version of Battlestar that focuses solely on this one beautiful mechanic and takes much less than four or five hours to complete.
Grade: C- (BGG: 7.85)
Instead of adopting a traitor, other cooperative games try to solve the mastermind issue by forcing players to withhold information from each other. For example, the rules of Pandemic officially state that cards should be held secretly in one’s hand. Of course, everyone ignores this rule as it is absurd to work together without explaining one’s reasoning, which must be based on one’s cards. Ghost Stories ignores this niggle altogether by putting all of the players’ items directly on the table. Indeed, by exposing everything, new players acclimate to the game faster because they can see why the veterans are suggesting certain moves. Instead, the game solves the mastermind problem by simply being incredibly hard. Defeat is always one or two bad moves away, so there is plenty of room for debate. Further, each player has a very unique state, with a special ability, a number of hit points, and a set of colored attack tokens, making it quite hard to manage more than one character. The mastermind danger still exists, but for a pure cooperative game, Ghost Stories is the best available.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.39)
Did you know that Scotland Yard won the Spiel des Jahres in 1983? Did you know the award even existed in 1983? Most of the other winners from that era are forgotten (Enchanted Forest? Hare & Tortoise? Dampfross?), but Scotland Yard has endured. The game is asymmetrical, with one player (Mister X) trying to avoid the other players (the detectives), who work as a team. Scotland Yard was one of the first games – or was it the first? – to incorporate cooperative elements, and it definitely suffers from the mastermind problem. While Ghost Stories solves this issue by being complex, Scotland Yard tries to solve it by being quite simple. Thus, new players can get up to speed quickly and be ready to contribute. The game makes a fantastic first impression, especially if a veteran plays Mister X and novices play all the detectives. Nonetheless, a bossy player can ruin the fun, which is why many people turn this into a two-player game, with one player simply controlling all the detectives. The game’s deductive mechanics are quite strong, which also makes Scotland Yard worth playing for anyone interested in that style of play.
Grade: B (BGG: 6.53)
Tigris & Euphrates
The first in Reiner Knizia’s late-90’s tile-laying trilogy, Tigris & Euphrates is also the highest-rated, usually floating within spitting distance of BGG’s top ten. However, it is also – by far – the least intuitive of the three, with a confusing “least worst” scoring system, huge swings in fortune from bad moves, and two entirely different types of conflict (internal and external) that often push players in opposite directions. The result is a game of great strategic depth but one which also runs against the grain of our own minds. Perhaps with a theme that made the unusual mechanics easier to understand, Knizia could have saved this game, but – as it stand – Tigris & Euphrates is a game that is easier to admire than to play.
Grade: B- (BGG: 7.89)
In contrast, Knizia’s second tile-laying game, Samurai, is an absolute masterpiece, one of the greatest games ever designed. The rules are so much simpler than its predecessor’s – simply add up one of three statue types in the hexes surrounding a single city to determine who wins the city’s statue(s) – and yet they sacrifice no strategic depth. Furthermore, in Tigris & Euphrates, a single bad move could wipe out half of one’s tiles; in Samurai, losses rarely snowball past a single conflict, which both encourages offensive play (which tends to be more fun) and makes the game less likely to scare away new players. The game does suffer from Knizia’s Achilles’ heel – an obtuse scoring system, one so complex that the iOS app had to patch in a mini-game to test players’ understanding of it! That he didn’t just determine the winner by adding up who had the most statues – or, if he wanted to maintain his “best two” concept, the most statues of any two types – is baffling.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.50)
Through the Desert
For his final tile-laying game, Knizia finally adopted a normal scoring system – players acquire coins from certain actions, and the winner is the player with the most coins. (Craziness, I know!) The core game rules are also quite elegant, almost as simple, hot, and deep as those of Samurai. However, the game suffers from one big usability issue. The players control one of four different colors (red, green, blue, and yellow), and they each deploy camels of five different colors (red, green, blue, yellow, and purple). Thus, all four players place camels of all five colors on the board. While the blue players has blue camels on the board belonging to him, the green player also has blue camels on the board belonging to her. The shades of blue representing the player color and the camel color are slightly different, but not so different that the player does not need to keep reminding himself that the blue camels do not belong to the blue player. (The reason for the multi-color camels is that a player cannot place a camel of one color adjacent to another player’s camel of the same color – a minor but sometimes important rule.) A dedicated gamer can overcome this issue easily enough, but a simple change to the theme could have solved this problem. Perhaps Knizia could have used five different types of animals which differentiated themselves by shape instead of color?
Grade: B+ (BGG: 7.17)
Do players prefer certain games because of their innate quality or because they are good at them? I have never lost a game of Samurai, and it is also, perhaps not coincidentally, one of my favorite games. On the other hand, I have never won a game of Ra, and yet I love the game too. Another Knizia game, Ra is a classic auction games, with the good sense to take away the player’s bidding flexibility by using units of currency which cannot be combined or divided. (Imagine bidding with a set of $1, $5, $10, and $20 bills, but only one bill can be submitted.) Thus, players cannot keep bumping the bid by one until someone chickens out. This limitation, coupled with the soft turn timer from drawing Ra tiles, prevents the game from being just another lesson in the winner’s curse, a problem for many auction games.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.61)