A One Man Board Game Buyer’s Guide (Part II)

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)

7 Wonders
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, exceptions 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!
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 that 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)

Can’t Stop
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)

Incan Gold
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)

Battlestar Galactica
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)

Ghost Stories
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)

Scotland Yard
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)

A One Man Board Game Buyer’s Guide (Part I)

Settlers of Catan

Settlers is in an odd place nowadays. It was the game that first broke German-style gaming in America, and it has been successful enough to reach a certain level of critical mass. I have even began seeing Catan at the houses of friends who normally would only have Monopoly and Scrabble in their game closets and have certainly never heard of the term “German” gaming. Nonetheless, Settlers has a surprisingly low BGG ranking, and I have the sense that much of the hard-core crowd has moved on from Settlers to more complex games like Puerto Rico and Caylus. It may now be a victim of its own success, which is a shame because Settlers of Catan is a brilliant, brilliant game, superior to all but a handful of games on this list. Three elements of the design stick out in my mind. First, the pure simplicity of the mechanics, which almost anyone can grasp within a few minutes. No hidden modifiers exist that need to be remembered, and almost all the rules are spelled out on the board and cards in an intuitive way. Second, the embrace of randomness, both for the map layout and during the game itself. Having a random map greatly extends replayability, and random resource generation nicely avoids the “perfect information” problem from which many Germany games suffer. Finally, trading has always been a rich game mechanic, and Settlers is built for trading. Isolationists will almost never win, making Settlers one of the most socially interactive German games. No game collection should be without it.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.73)


The joy of playing Carcassonne is not altogether different from the joy of finishing a puzzle. Finding the perfect spot for your piece is a great game mechanic, not to mention an accessible one. However, Carcassonne does not have intuitive scoring rules. The danger is not the complexity – it’s that the game looks simpler than it actually is, which inevitably leads to a disappointing experience when a new player trips over the tricky farmer rules. Another game for every collection, but I wish the designers had pushed themselves harder to keep the scoring simpler.
Grade: B+ (BGG: 7.57)


The last game of Caylus I played was six hours long, which was about five too many. Caylus is the worst example of a trend in German games to minimize hidden information and random elements. These traits are valued highly among the most hard-core of board gamers – the ones who would like to win 10 games out of 10 versus newbies based on their own superior skill. Unsurprisingly, Caylus is a popular game among this crowd. To me, it feels like slow-motion arm wrestling. Between two players, that dynamic is actually not so bad. Among bigger group, it’s a pretty painful slog.
Grade: C (BGG: 8.09)


Bang! is a blast! Essentially a souped-up version of the old college dorm ice-breaker, Mafia, the game revolves around hidden identities. Play sessions tend to be lively and memorable – I’m still smarting from the game I came an inch away from winning as a Renegade by convincing the Sheriff I was the Deputy until I got killed by the Dynamite! Aaargh! As a deeply asymmetrical game, the balance is a little dubious, but Bang! certainly proves that pure fun is more important!
Grade: B+! (BGG: 6.92)


If Settlers is a trading game, then Bohnanza is a trading game on steroids. Every rule in the game exists for the sole purpose of encouraging trading, and they work perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that the rulebook has to specify that it is ok to refuse gifts! (Imagine needing a rule like this in Settlers…) The only downside to Bohnanza is that there is so much trading that there is an unfortunate potential for hurt feelings with regards to who trades the most with whom. If your game group is sensitive to these types of problems, the game may not be right for you.
Grade: B (BGG: 7.25)


Quite a few games have the mechanic of I-know-that-you-want-to-choose-X, but since you-know-that-I-know-that-you-want-to-choose-X-you-won’t-choose-X, but as you-know-that-I-know-that-you-won’t-choose-X-then-maybe-you-will-choose-X-after-all, and so on. Citadels, however, is built entirely around this tension, via the secret selection of roles at the beginning of each turn. Of course, the tortured logic train never leads to a definite answer, so the guesses have to be based on pure personality, making Citadels a great game to be played among old friends. Who is the greediest? The sneakiest? The most aggressive? The most conservative? Well, it’s a lot more fun than the Myers-Brigg.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.37)


Jonathan Blow, designer of Braid, gave an interesting talk this summer on the common disconnect between narrative and gameplay in video games. A good example is the choice made in Bioshock between harvesting and rescuing Little Sisters. The narrative tells the player that the choice matters, but gameplay tells the player it doesn’t matter. Board games also have a similar problem when the theme does not match the mechanics. Although theme can often be a secondary concern for board games – consider how similar the gameplay is between San Juan and Race for the Galaxy yet how completely different the setting is – the best games often find a way to pair the two. Pandemic is one such game. The players are disease specialists who work closely together to control outbreaks across the globe. More importantly, the players feel like they are racing to find creative, cooperative solutions to a challenge where the deck is literally stacked against them. (The innovative deck re-shuffling mechanic, in which previously drawn cards are placed on top, is especially worthy of note.) This pairing contrasts with another fun cooperative game, Shadows over Camelot, in which players are supposed to be Knights of the Round Table, but they feel more like they are playing whack-a-mole by assembling the best poker hands. The pairing of mechanics and theme is what makes Shadows just a good game and Pandemic a great one.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.92)

Ticket to Ride

I have written before on the bizarre “backstory” behind Ticket to Ride. Fortunately, the game itself is excellent. Further, Ticket to Ride is extremely easy to teach and also moves at a brisk pace, making an ideal introduction into the larger board gaming world for new players. Ticket to Ride is also at the vanguard of a trend which I believe will become increasingly dominant in the near future, what I will term “competitive solitaire”. The goal of the game is to build a network of tracks which connects a random selection of cities. Other players can occasionally affect your plans by grabbing a route you need, but overall, the feeling of the game is of trying to make as many of your own connections work as possible, not of trying to screw over your opponent. The big advantage of competitive solitaire is that when a player loses, they tend to blame their own play instead of their opponents’ decisions, which usually encourages players to try again to “get it right” the next time.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.62)

Puerto Rico

The reigning BGG champion, Puerto Rico definitely sums up what is great and not so great about German gaming. Plenty of interesting strategic decisions combined with elegant mechanics – such as simply adding a gold coin every turn to unselected roles as a reward – earn the game much respect. However, the lack of hidden information and (almost) no random elements make the game difficult to enjoy when playing with optimizers, who tend to be the ones most drawn to deep board games in the first place. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don’t want to play Puerto Rico with anyone else who wants to play Puerto Rico.
Grade: C+ (BGG: 8.38)

Race for the Galaxy

Inspired by Puerto Rico (not to mention San Juan), the card game Race for the Galaxy centers on building up a collection of planets and developments for points or for production, which can later be converted to points via trade. The big difference between Race and Puerto Rico is that the players’ build options are hidden in their hands and that the action phases are played simultaneously. These distinctions make Race significantly more accessible because player have to make intuitive guesses, instead of over-analyzing the set turn order and complete information of Puerto Rico. Games of Race can be played very quickly, probably having the most interesting decisions per minute of any game, ever. Like Ticket to Ride, Race could also be described as competitive solitaire, which makes the game – despite its complexity – relatively accessible.
Grade: A (BGG: 8.05)


Why do people walk tightropes? Why do they skydive? Why do they run marathons? For the same reason the play Set – to test their limits. More of a time-sensitive puzzle than a game, Set is not to be undertaken lightly. The challenge is to find specific three-card patterns before your opponents can, and the experience is nerve-racking. Many people will hate Set because the game can literally give you a headache, but if you want to push your brain as hard as you can, Set is the game for you.
Grade: B- (BGG: 6.53)

Lost Cities

One of the biggest advantages physical games have over digital games is that all one needs to become a game designer is a stack of cards, some stickers, a few markers, and maybe a die or two. In some cases, just a single deck will do. Lost Cities bears the obvious marks of deriving directly from a standard pack of playing cards. The game has five “suits”, with cards ranked from 2 to 10 and three face cards, er, I mean, investment cards. The gameplay itself uses a classic risk/reward mechanic that encourages multiple, early investments but penalizes players who cannot complete all their goals. The discard mechanic is interesting as well, putting game length squarely under player control. My only wish is that designer Reiner Knizia had pushed himself a little harder to simplify the scoring rules as they don’t match the simplicity of the rest of the game.
Grade: B (BGG: 7.34)

Mamma Mia!

An interesting memory game, Mamma Mia! is also nearly impossible to explain to players in words. Players submit pizza ingredients and orders into a collective stack, hoping that when the stack is replayed, the ingredients will match their orders to score points. The trick, however, is that ingredients are communal – if you remember that I submitted a bunch of mushrooms earlier, you can steal them for your own mushroom pizza order if you submit it before me. One game in, however, and most players are hooked. Most importantly, Mamma Mia! does an excellent job of keeping the amount a player needs to remember in that sweet spot between trivially easy and hopelessly difficult.
Grade: B+ (BGG: 6.62)

Age of Renaissance

Some games simply have gone a rule system too far. Ostensibly a sequel to the old classic Civilization, Age of Renaissance has an absolutely gorgeous map of Medieval Europe as well as a promising trade model which encourages monopolizing resources spread across the whole world. Nonetheless, the game is virtually unplayable because of the cumbersome technology system, encompassing 26 techs, all of which can be learned in a single game and each of which changes how the game plays for the owner. Keeping track of all those bonuses and special rules would be fairly trivial for a computer, but the experience is a slog for a human. Only cutting technologies (or, at least, taking away their unique bonuses) from Age of Renaissance could have saved this frustrating, yet enticing, game.
Grade: C (BGG: 7.17)

History of the World

As I discussed with Pandemic, theme is a tricky problem – especially as many board games can easily be converted from one theme to another without damaging the core play experience. Further, quite a few games that try to differentiate themselves on theme often do not actually deliver on that promise. How many world history games devolve into rich-get-richer scenarios which bear no resemblance to actual world events. (Indeed, I’m guilty as charged too! The Civ community calls this the Eternal China Syndrome.) History of the World is not one of these games. The designers solved this problem by building the fall of empires into the core gameplay – and not as some obscure option that players would learn to avoid. Each turn in HotW, players are forced to leave their old civilization behind and start a new one. The audacity with which the designers violated such a basic assumption – that players get to build off of their gains – is remarkable. That in doing so they built a game which looks like real world history and is also fun to play is an astonishing achievement. The scoring mechanism itself, which increases the total points available each turn to keep all players in the running, is worthy of note too. The game may certainly be a little long for some, but I can think of few other games that deliver on their theme’s promise as well.
Grade: A+ (BGG: 7.17)

Taj Mahal

I fell in love with Taj Mahal right away. The rules are so simple, yet so rich for multiplayer competition – indeed, Taj Mahal is one of the most cutthroat games I have ever played. The central strategy is knowing exactly when to push for victories and when to hold back as the rules naturally prevent rich-get-richer situations. Further, the penalty for overreaching is severe, perhaps too severe for more casual gamers. Nonetheless, Taj Mahal is a fascinating game, with some nice random elements and a scoring system (similar to History of the World) which encourages comebacks by giving out more points in the latter turns.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.67)

Risk: Black Ops

Risk is a funny game. Almost everyone who is a gamer of some sort has played it, but almost no one continues to play it. A classic “gateway” game, Risk can give players enough of a taste of real strategy to lead them to better world conquest games (Diplomacy, History of the World, Axis & Allies) and then inevitably to the wonderful world of German gaming (Settlers of Catan, Power Grid, Carcassonne). Or, Risk can leave players shell-shocked from an eight-hour, late-night, caffeine-fueled marathon won by the guy who hunkered down in Australia, and they run right back to Monopoly and Scrabble. Risk either pushes players forward or scares them off, but who actually keeps it in their active rotation?

I definitely fall into the former category, and I am sure that I have not played Risk with my board gaming friends since the late ’80s, which was before I could even drive. Nonetheless, the Risk franchise has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately, based on some spin-offs with suprisingly high BoardGameGeek ratings. Now, Hasbro is going all the way with a full update of the standard version, to be released later this year. Until that time, a “stealth” version entitled Risk: Black Ops has been floating around the gaming world – only 1000 copies were printed – and I had a chance to playtest the game last week with some gamers on the Spore team.

The most important change is that victory is no longer based on world domination. Instead, eight randomly selected Objectives are the key; the first player to achieve three wins the game. The specific goals can vary from controlling Asia (always a classic!) to capturing a Continent in one turn to conquering a certain number of Cities. (Territories with Cities – randomly assigned at game start – are worth double for recruitment.) Further, each Objective is randomly assigned a Reward for the victor, such as an extra defense die or bonus recruits.

Note how many times I used the word “randomly” in the preceding paragraph. Black Ops first clear success is that, even when using the classic, fixed Earth map, the game’s “terrain” is always different depending on how everything shakes out during the set-up phase. Players are well advised to take a moment before claiming Territories to predict where conquest will be focused, depending on the game’s unique environment. The most important change, however, is the Objectives as they fundamentally shift the Risk‘s balance from a defensive game to an offensive one. In general, offensive games tend to be more fun as players get to actually do something instead of waiting for others to make the mistake of overextending their forces.

Because claiming Objectives is so important, players will focus all their attention and troops on achieving one during their individual turns. Maybe I can actually grab Asia this turn? Should I make a push to grab my neighbor’s Capital? Can I really pick up 18 Territories? These grand risks lead to an interesting gameplay rhythm; because the player before you may have stretched themselves thin to control North and South America for the Two Continents Objective, you now have a path from North Africa to their Capital in Argentina to grab the Enemy Capital Objective. In turn, the following player can now take advantage of your weakness in Africa to grab enough cities to achieve the 11 Cities Objective.

In the old version, players would have spent their time turtling, attacking just enough to earn a card in hopes of eventually booming. Risk: Black Ops, on the other hand, is all raid, all of the time, and for a game attempting to fit neatly within two hours, this change is a welcome one. The Rewards system can even allow for some interesting reversals of fortune; in one game, I was puttering along poorly until I opportunistically grabbed an enemy Capital to take the extra attack die Reward, enabling me to make a run and wipe out a neighbor, suddenly grabbing his two Objectives for the victory. Quite a few players are going to be shocked at just how quickly this game can end.

Black Ops is not without its flaws. The City concept sounds good in print but doesn’t work so well in action. Territories with Cities are worth double when recruiting new troops, making them valuable locations. However, two Objectives are specifically tied to capturing or controlling Cities, making them something of a hot potato. In our second playthrough, we actually avoided picking Cities during the initial set-up because these locations are marked for death, so to speak. While this tension is interesting, I felt like the game would be stronger if locations of value existed without regard to the all-important Objectives. Also, perhaps out of pure nostalgia, I prefer the old build-a-set card mechanic over the newer and much simpler one based on only two types of cards. Further, the card balance feels off as the game is over so quickly that one has a hard time imagining the advantages of holding out for more cards over the long-term instead of making a short-term push for another precious Objective.

Nonetheless, Black Ops is a genuinely good game, one that I anticipate coming back to many times in the future. The best thing about the design – and this is a tricky problem for designers working within an established franchise – is that the game still feels like Risk. The new rules are all simple extensions of the old core mechanics, almost like variations on a theme. No rule will feel alien to players comfortable with the old series. Thus, Black Ops (or whatever they are eventually going to call it) will be a perfect game for introducing casual players to real strategy games; I can easily imagine convincing my non-gaming friends to give it a try. They may not be ready for Agricola yet, but Risk‘s conversion rate is about to go up considerably.

By the way, here is a link to a nice interview with Rob Daviau, designer of the new version.


I just finished Portal and got my cake (or not, depending on how you read the ending). While it is an excellent game with some unforgettable moments – such as being able to see myself through a portal while still moving – my strongest impression is that I don’t think I would ever design a game like it. If I had ever imagined a first-person puzzle game involving creating shortcuts between walls and ceilings, it would have struck me as too mind-bending, too niche, and even a bit too insider (like a video game version of The Player). I have a hard time believing that anyone could play Portal as their first FPS – it would be too much for a brain not used to moving in virtual 3d space. (I would be very interested to hear if Valve play-tested Portal with first-time gamers.) As designers, we should be wary of ideas which are most interesting to us simply because we are experienced gamers bored with concepts that are still novel to most potential players.

Nonetheless, it’s a good thing that Valve doesn’t share my attitude. Portal succeeds where I would have failed because it is so aggressively minimalist. The game gently teaches the player about 5 or 6 tricks and then only delivers puzzles which require variations on those original tricks. As the difficulty ramps up, the player simply falls back on what s/he already knows to derive a solution. I don’t usually comment on story in game – since I, of course, hate stories – but Portal was one of the first games where I actually engaged with the plot. Truthfully, the game has more of a setting than a story, but it worked for me. My in-game “character” never knew anything more that I did, and the smartly written dialogue revealed an interesting conflict which developed slowly – leading to my feeling real anger towards GLaDOS by the end of the game. Most importantly, no plot extraneous to my actual gameplay experience was forced upon me. You couldn’t make a movie about Portal‘s story, but – hey – maybe that’s why it works.

It also helps that the game does not overstay its welcome; I felt my spatial reasoning skills begin to tremor a little by the final battle. If the game had gone longer than 3-4 hours, it would have either repeated itself or gotten fiendishly difficult. The design team also went out of their way to make the game as easy as possible to digest. Leaving burn marks on the walls from the impact of the glowing projectiles (anyone know their official name?) means the player doesn’t have to guess when aiming the portal gun. Extending wall tiles out a few feet when the player needs to attempt a “flying portal jump” guides the player through seemingly impossible situations. Even putting the heart on the beloved Weighted Companion Cube helps the player remember not to leave it behind. The end result is an effortlessly fun game, but Portal is a bit like the proverbial duck, gliding smoothly over the pond but with its feed paddling desperately under the surface to keep things working.

Puzzle Quest

I’ve been playing a lot of Puzzle Quest recently, and I have been very impressed with how a fairly simple RPG layer can turn Bejeweled – which has always been, for me, a fairly forgettable casual game – into a very addictive experience. Adding a layer of level grinding… er, advancing… to the basic match-3 gameplay transforms two things which are uninspiring in isolation into a very compelling package. Further, the puzzle game itself becomes significantly more interesting when there is a level of competition – knowing that matching these reds gems prevents my opponent from matching those attack skulls transforms the gameplay from mindless pattern matching into a very interesting tactical contest. The interesting thing is that Bejeweled always had look-ahead gameplay to encourage combos and whatnot, but it always felt lifeless to me when I was only competing for some abstract concept like score.

There is one further design choice of note in Puzzle Quest which deserves mention – there is no save system. Of course, the game maintains your information over multiple sessions (this is an RPG, after all), but you never actually have to tell your DS to “Save the Game.” The whole save process occurs automatically in the background every time something important happens (like fighting a battle or discovering a spell or buying an item). I was kind of weirded out the first time I wanted to turn off my DS while playing PQ, but I didn’t see a save option, so I just hoped for the best and shut down. The reason they can get away with this is that nothing bad can ever happen to you! You can never lose an item or fail a mission or miss an opportunity. At no time would you ever wish to go back to an “old save.” Because the game gives you experience and gold even when you lose battles – and you always have a chance to try again – you will eventually get the loot or level that you want.

This is not a simple innovation as there are important trade-offs to consider – for one, player-controlled save systems encourage experimentation. Players enjoy being able to try something wacky (“What happens if I declare war on Gandhi?”) because they can simply go back to an earlier version of the game. The designers might have learned from MMOs like WoW which, of course, have no player-controlled save systems either. Being single-player, they had the freedom to remove the death penalty altogether, which puts the player experimentation back into the game. For Puzzle Quest, the designers must have made it a point at the beginning of the project to take all design options which could permanently hurt the player off the table – even extending to such RPG standards as single-use equipment!

The lack of a save system is a big win for Puzzle Quest because it increases the game’s accessibility. A large part of the game’s potential audience – the Bejeweled crowd – has never played an RPG in their lives, which means they have never saved a game either. It’s just one more hoop that new players have to learn – unless, of course, you can figure out a way to remove the hoop altogether…

God of War

Like most great games, God of War decides to be great at just one thing – namely, beating the snot out of your enemies. For variety, there’s a dash of platforming and logic puzzles, but overall it’s just one, long bloodbath from beginning to end. So, fortunately, that is the part of the game which shines. The “feel” of swinging Kratos’s blades is so good that it’s fun to do just by itself – which makes GoW one of the few games where I welcome the crates. More stuff to smash!

My interest in God of War comes from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which is my favorite game of this last console cycle. PoP:SoT had a simply incredible movement/jumping/swinging mechanic which, unfortunately, was interrupted by a clumsy combat system. The game still succeeded because they got the core feature so spot-on. When I heard that the sequel was going to focus on combat (and drop the wonderful storybook ambience), I lost all interest. Which begs the question: if Prince of Persia had God of War‘s great combat mechanics, would it be the action game to end all action games?

I’m not sure… I think we can often overestimate how much “stuff” the player can juggle (or, rather, enjoy to juggle) in his or her mind at one time. The idea of a PoP/GoW hybrid gives me a mental image of my brain exploding. And not in a good way.

God of War also has an insanely high level of polish – an intimidating level of polish, I would imagine, for its competition. Perhaps someday I’ll write an entry on whether this is a good or bad thing for the games industry in general. It’s certainly a long, long way from a game as fun and innovative and yet rough around the edges as this. Here’s hoping there’s room for both…

The other point to discuss is the game’s relation to film – God of War is certainly the most cinematic game I have ever played. It’s no surprise that the game gives you no control of the camera; I have a sense that the level designers always wanted control over where you were looking. David Jaffe, the game’s lead designer, or “Game Director” in official terms, has expressed some ambivalence over the connection with film. I have similar feelings.

The challenge for understanding games is not figuring out whether games are movies or whether they are cars. The trouble is that some games really ARE like movies and some games really ARE like cars. I have a hard time thinking of another art form where its members are so radically different. Which has more in common: Star Wars and Annie Hall; or God of War and Civ 4? I would say the former, however crazy it is to link those two films together. (well, I guess there WAS the scene in the planetarium… in reality, of course, they are similar because they are both ultimately about the characters. That’s what makes them both good movies.) So whenever people (like me!) pontificate that games are like this or game are like that – it’s important to remember that “games” are a super-category of their own. Like sound. Or matter.

Because games have so much variation, I’m not sure how universal some of the “rules” are that designers like to state. I think it would be an interesting exercise to line up designers from all the different genres and give them an identical list of general questions about game design and see what they come up with. I haven’t, for example, designed a game with a player avatar in a long time… and I bet there are a lot of designers who have never designed a tile-based game. I would love to know how the hard problems (how do you teach gameplay? how do you divy out rewards? how many difficulty levels? how do you address cheating? saving?) are solved in other genres that I have never touched.