Game Night Verdicts #2

There’s nothing like evaluating a game’s quality after having played it. Get your warm and full-bodied impressions of games played by yours truly in the recent past.

Azul – Always on the cutting edge of the new and innovative, I’ve sat down to play Azul and have deemed it …fine. It’s inoffensive, bordering on bland. It’s obvious why so many are willing to put down money that this game will get a Spiel des Jahres nomination, if not the grand prize itself this year. Accessible, nice to look at and doesn’t outstay its welcome. If anything the game’s biggest flaw seems a holdover from old-school designs, when it was never questioned if and how people would compete with one another. In Azul you’re vying for first place in VP, which means you eventually make choices based on how much you can cause harm to other players. All because the rulebook declared that only the player with the most VP gets to call themselves winner. Considering just how little of the game’s challenge and play experience lies in reacting to other players’ strategies, it would have been better to just set a VP goal within a certain turn limit. Azul’s high level play is about jumping through hoops because apparently that’s what games are, as opposed to just basking in the ups and downs of opportunities and fateful choices during play.

The Terrifying Girl Disorder – Now this is a surprise. Despite being mildly annoyed with Japanime Games who sold me an incomplete game in Essen, never replied to my requests for a replacement and then unceremoniously put up a PDF to print the thing myself.. I ended up quite enamoured with this game. It’s by Kuro whose earlier efforts The Ravens of Thri Sahashri and Unicornus Knights (with Seiji Kanai) are above all marked by a stubborn refusal to simplify rules for ease of play. This game delights in taking the difficult path when it could be so much easier. Case in point, instead of simply drawing three cards at the beginning of each turn, you instead draw 3 cards per player, lay them out in a circle and then each player at the start of their turn places a “shard” on one of the cards in the circle. At the end of the turn you get to collect the card under your shard card, as well as any card leading up to another player’s shard card. But that’s not all… after placing your shard, you get to swap any two cards in the circle. Making things unpredictable and favoring the last player in the turn, who basically gets to mess up everybody’s plans or pick 2 cards they want. But that’s still not all, the starting player gets to decide if cards will be picked up clockwise or counter-clockwise. In practice this always leads to players putting their shard down on the wrong spot, because they didn’t take the change in player direction into account. Most other designers would have opted for a simple “draw 3 cards at the end of a round” decision.. but not Kuro, who turns drawing cards into half the game. But this coyness in rules design only hides something far more appealing. Namely a game that doesn’t subscribe to the expectations of European game designs. The more options a game offers, the more the assumption that your influence over the game’s outcome increases, as you learn to manipulate them well.  But the Terrifying Girl Disorder simply laughs at your meek pleas for control as every decision’s inherent risk refuses to decrease simply because you know the rules well. The game is unpredictable without being random, which is quite a feat and something I find I appreciate a lot in a game. The game thrives on chaos that can’t be controlled, but with a little guts and chutzpe, it can be used to propel you into first place.

Birdie Fight / Songbirds – Another very impressive design. It’s abstract but clean, simple and straight-forward. Very quick to wrap up, but incredibly smart in how it ratchets up tension until the final card is played. As giddy as playing Terrifying Girl Disorder made me, this game impressed me with its restraint and elegance. It’s a small delight and I’m happy to hear that a German localisation is already being planned. Picking that one up as soon as it hits the stores.

Hunt for the Ring – A game of two halves. The first a somewhat generic hidden movement game. There are a number of mechanisms increasing the flow of information and unlocking abilities, that seem to be running in the background. The core gameplay is the familiar trope of one player moving in secret towards an exit, while the other tries to find (and weaken them) on the way there. But it is the second half, where things take a sharp and exciting new turn. The power balance between the hunter (the Nazgûl) and the hunted (the Ringbearer) gets skewed. Instead of the Ringbearer driving and to a certain extent controlling the game’s flow, they are now tasked with muddying the waters and distracting the Nazgûl from their objective. Since Frodo’s journey is now preset, the Free People player (in the guise of Gandalf the Grey) has to double up on the mind games, the secret weapon of any decent hidden movement game. Sadly the rulebook occasionally provides a challenge far bigger than that of the game itself. The Nazgûl’s main actions (Hunt, Search, Perception) differ subtly but significantly, yet are thematically so close together that more time was spent reading up on rules minutiae than on the afore-mentioned mind games. Hopefully over time this hurdle will fall, and the game will reveal itself in its full glory. As of right now, I am not sure, if it will dethrone either Fury of Dracula or Letters from Whitechapel.

Penny Press – Another very solid, if not flawlessly designed game. Core gameplay is easy to grasp and execute. Every player decision has enormous impact and the threat of somebody triggering a scoring helps to maintain a subtle, but noticable sense of tension throughout. I think, if the setting had been some pre-industrial, Fresian farm, the German game market would have gone completely crazy over this game, and heaped awards on it. As it stands, early 20th century press in the USA seems to be enough of a deterrent, that the game is rarely talked about now. Which is a shame, as I find no fault with the game from a design point of view. Yet, I have to admit that the game fails to get its hooks in me. I’ll be happy to play again, but I’m not at the point where I hope to get it to the table at the next opportunity. And the reason for that may be that it is hard to lose itself in the choices before you. Not in an Analysis Paralysis sense, but the game offers little beyond the immediate tactical choices. The payoff at the end (bonus VP) seems incidental and not carefully orchestrated through clever play. It’s still a great showcase for accessible game design with a strong emphasis on interaction.

Maigo-Neko – A game I’ve had since Spiel 2017 (where I got it in a math trade) but never got around to actually playing. Now that I have, I realise it proudly placed itself in between aggressively adorable and overwhelmingly twee. Four tiny little cats need to find their way back home, but don’t remember what it looks like. So they explore a map with stops at individual houses jogging their memory. But once you strip away the cutesy idea and tokens, you’re left with a workable but unremarkable set of rules. The game’s arc and momentum basically plays itself out, with the group only subtly nudging it one way or another. Maigo-Neko is arguably a racing game but it’s remembered positively for its presentation and setting, less for its gameplay. Which is fine for everyone but us nerdy hobbyists who have this slightly obsessive need to delve in “deeper”.

Traders of Osaka – It’s not much of a secret, that I’m not a big fan of passive-aggressive tactics in board games. If the only way to succeed is by keeping others down, my estimation of a game sinks considerably. Traders of Osaka is such a game. It is a simple and elegant design, with an ebb and flow (I know, it’s an amazing joke that surely nobody has thought of before) that keeps the game moving, even as the back and forth between players stays the same. You invest into card sets as you play, and that investment can reap VP or just get discarded for nothing based on the decisions other players make. The more attention you pay to other players, and the more ambitious you are about winning the more passive-aggressive the game becomes. In its defense, though, the VP-cycles from investment to payoff is so short, and usually so small, that it rarely feels like a huge setback. While I will likely never become a cheerleader for this type of game, Traders of Osaka seems the most palatable of its kind.

Gooseberry – Sometimes a game genre can feel a little over-saturated. I remember a friend of mine a few years back telling me how he felt that cooperative games were played out. I didn’t agree with him back then, because I liked and still like cooperative games, but with Gooseberry I feel for the first time that social deduction games might have filled their niche. There might not be much room left for a game that offers only a variation on its central conceit of faking knowledge about some piece of secret information. Insider still reigns supreme in my mind when it comes to the microgame version of social deduction, with Secret Hitler being a robust advanced version of the same idea. I understand that The Chameleon reimplements this game, although I don’t know if it changes anything substantial about it. If it does not, I’ll be fine with missing out on playing the game again.

The three dimensions of board game reviews

Whenever I find myself with too much time on my hands, or my head is subconsciously working out some issue or another and keeping me up until the middle of the night… I end up thinking about board games. And when I do I inevitably end up thinking about how we talk about board games. Because how we talk about something is sometimes just as important as what we’re saying. Just ask Michel Foucault. But I’m getting sidetracked. (It’s a thing with me. Apologies in advance.)

Basically, what I ended up thinking about was how board game reviewing seems to move within three conceptual axis. That is to say, there are three directions that reviews of board games can move into. Three general ways in which we talk about board games and which inevitably shapes what our talking about board games brings to the table.

For ease of reference I tried putting names to them. As prosaic and descriptive as I could, and I would recommend ignoring any connotations those labels bring with them. The terms were not chosen based on what they imply, but merely on their simplest definitions.

I think that board game reviews move along three dimensions: the Experiential, the Analytical and the Contextual.

The most common, and fundamental of the three is the experiential. This is the kind that aims to express and relate the experience of playing to the audience. What does it feel like to play this game? This can be based on purely the reviewer’s own experience, usually over multiple plays; but it can also take into account the experience of other members of the reviewer’s gaming group. The experiential dimension is the biggest appeal of DIY criticism in board games, film or TV. The kind that was popularized with scoop sites like Aint-It-Cool-News or Dark Horizons and on amateur video platforms like YouTube. Its biggest strength lies in its accessibility. Everyday people express their emotions directly to you. The closer it gets to unfiltered and unredacted expression of emotion, the better. Reaction videos are a direct offshoot of this approach for TV series. In board games live playthroughs seem to exist in a similar way. Which is one of the reasons why I consider paid playthroughs on the same level as paid reviews. This is also why “not being afraid of disliking a game” is so often held up as a virtue for reviewers. With these reviews it’s the delivery that sells the experience of play as much as any coherent argument or explanation. And since it often lacks the sheen of a professional production, it further emphasizes the authenticity of the review, and therefore its trustworthiness. The review is raw and unpolished, therefore there can be no ulterior motive.

One of the reasons why this type of review is so appealing, is that it suggests that we need not engage critically with what we see.

We do not need to question the soundness of the reviewer’s argument. Their authenticity, likability and compatibility with our own preferences are sufficient to let us only pay attention to the review’s tone and enthusiasm. Which is tragic in a way, as I believe the vast majority of reviewers put great care and effort in producing more than just energetic and entertaining promotion material for games. But looking at the responses and discussions said reviews generate, I am not entirely convinced that their audience appreciates or engages with those reviews in that way. A cogent argument or well articulated critique is quickly disregarded in favour of simple, straight-forward emotion. It’s hardly surprising then, that established reviewers find their audience clamoring for simple Yay-or-Nay verdicts on the hottest and most talked about games on the market. A nuanced critique or hint of ambivalence does not seem to fit with the reception of predominantly experiential reviews.

The analytical dimension on the other hand is more concerned with game design, rules and presentation. It delves into the why of the gaming experience, in that it looks for the causes of it. What about the game’s design leads players to have a certain experience? What is the clever design decision that elevates this bog-standard worker placement game above the rest? What makes this particular social deduction game succeed, when so many others failed with the reviewer’s group? To some extent asking these questions is inevitable with any serious reviewer who wishes to move beyond simply reiterating their own preferences with each review. In part because of a desire to be logically consistent, they seek to differentiate between superficially identical games that still led to notably different experiences. Since it is far easier to compare two rulebooks with one another, than the social dynamics, personal history and psychological profiles of their gaming group at two separate points in time, talking about rules and design becomes the natural focal point of an experienced reviewer. It pays off in two ways. On the one hand it serves as proof to the audience that the reviewer’s criticism is based on (some) analysis and evaluation. That care and effort was put into understanding the game’s dynamics and laying it out for the audience to get a better understanding of the game, and by extension the experience that it provides. It delves deeper into the intersection of rules and people.

It’s also a fantastically gratifying puzzle to solve.

Finding the one piece or one element that differentiates this game’s experience from others of its genre, is a challenge that simply playing those games doesn’t quite deliver. It’s a little like trying to figure out how a magician pulled off a great trick. The drawback here being that it’s usually only of interest to aspiring and established game designers. (Even if getting the rules right is only one part of making a game.) But those looking to just get a purchase recommendation, may award such arguments some appreciative nods, but rarely find them much help in making a decision. Most gamers don’t pick up a game because it cleverly subverts common design tropes. For most people, it’s the experience that sells them on it.

Finally, in the third strand, I would see the contextual dimension. These are reviews that look at the design craft and gaming experience in the context of the people playing, and the hobby itself. Namely, it looks at the game and asks to what end do these elements work together? What’s the point of this? These questions show up most often when games tackle unusual ideas or settings, like Fog of Love or The Grizzled. The contextual dimension appears when a reviewer looks at the gaming activity in general and us gamers as a group in particular. This is where questions of representation are brought up, socio-economic concerns or cultural criticism. Like how board games play down the excesses of colonization, imperialism or capitalism. Topics and settings that are commonplace in board gaming, yet it seems churlish or even pretentious to openly question them. As if having pointed it out once was enough, and asking for more than non-committal shrugs would be inappropriate. But that is why reviews engaging games along those lines should be encouraged. They normalize a critical attitude towards the media we engage in. A medium that means so much to people, that they are willing to create hundreds of hours of media about it each week for free, giving the lie to the claim that it’s “just a silly game”. It shows that attempting to trivialize the hobby is nothing but unchecked anti-intellectualism.

Gaming is a form of social engagement, and thereby culture; and all culture must be critically examined by those that love it.

One such question should probably be why board games are so deeply imbued with the fetish of optimization? Why do we take it for granted that everything must be efficient and optimized? Is optimal use of resources and perfect efficiency really the only and best approach? Is that how we want the world to work, too? Should public institutions also strive for optimal efficiency? Is our society’s approach to housing, health care, education somehow failing because it runs at a loss? Should we attempt financial balance, instead? Or even profit? And haven’t the last 25 years proven beyond a doubt how utterly ridiculous and toxic such a belief is? Of course, I’m not saying that board gaming is either cause or effect here, but board games aren’t made in some sort of cognitive bubble. They do not exist in a cultural mirror universe with only accidental connections to the real world. Board games are cultural artifacts that express – intentionally or not – the biases, assumptions and beliefs of those making them. And it is those biases that people find reaffirmed when they sit down to play a game that “simply clicks” and “intuitively makes sense” to them. Starting from the game’s setting to the implicit assumptions about player behavior as expressed in the rulebook. It is these biases and assumptions that are worth pointing out in games. And sometimes they may need to be criticized openly, clearly and loudly.

Now all that is well and good, but what exactly does that mean? Are experiential reviews bad? Are analytical reviews a waste of time? Does anybody but me care about contextual reviews? I’m fairly certain the answer to all those questions is a resounding “NO!”. I think anyone who is invested in doing board game reviews needs to balance those three dimensions to the best of their ability and ambition. I think there is no way to successfully review a game without paying due diligence to the experiential dimension of it. On the other hand, I’m far more drawn to reviews (or articles) that explore games on the contextual axis. Like this one. And I can’t deny that writing an analytical review is great fun to me. I seriously doubt I could write one that doesn’t at least try to do that.

Maybe the point is this, if dimensions like these do exist in board game reviews, it’s worth thinking about where we find ourselves on them and where we want to be. Both as those making reviews and those consuming them.

Or maybe I just need a good 8 hours of sleep again.

It’s one or the other, I’m sure.

Game Night Verdicts #1

Welcome! These are the Game Night Verdicts. Impressions, impossibly self-assured judgments and esoteric musings that followed playing a game. Enjoy!

Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn – I’ve written a piece in German about my impressions of the game. I generally like it, as I think it scratches a similar itch to Scythe. But without the excessive chrome, and more importantly without the slowdown, when you make a mistake. In Scythe those feel like you’re missing a turn, in Civilization even mistakes feel like boosts to another action due to the focus row. You pick an action, put it back on the first spot and slide up the rest of the actions. Every time an actions moves forward in the row it becomes more effective, more flexible and more powerful. This makes every decision feel as if you’re propelling your civilization forward. Outside of the positive reinforcement that even seemingly pointless turns trigger, it makes the game fly by. Ultimately, the manageable game length and ease of play lead to it not really feeling like a true “Civ-Game”. Whereas wrestling control from an intimidating beast of a game seems to me the defining feature of those games, A New Dawn is just happy being a modern design with a focus on optimising your engine, and fairly damage-light interaction with other players. So far I’m happy to keep both this and FFG’s 2010 offering in my collection.

SOL: Last Days of a Star – This game is pretty abstract, and a pretty abstract, too. (Thank you. Thank you very much. I’ve hired an American sitcom writer to write this opening line for me. And he was worth every one of the $7500 I paid.) You’re building up momentum to escape a dying sun, that your ships and space constructs orbit until the timer runs out and whoever has gained the most momentum wins. I didn’t enjoy playing this game. You’re going over the same route over and over again, constructing buildings out of ships. Those buildings allow you to get closer to the centre of the board (which is beneficial, though costly), generate energy (to be used for building ships) or generate buildings that generate momentum, if you have energy to spend on them. It’s all quite interwoven. There’s a sense of the game trying to impress you with the way it folds in on itself. SOL most reminded me of Great Western Trail, just without all the dross ladled on top of it. A recurring route, expanded and changed over the course of play, with benefits for competitors if you need to use one of their constructions. But all of it is reduced to such an extent, that game flow is both precise and elegant. Sadly, even with added elegance and very clean visual design and art direction, the game ultimately feels a bit hollow.

Sweet Nose – A 2016 release that found its way into my collection by way of BGG math trades. The background is patently absurd in a way that feeds into the exoticism reputation of Asian designs, without actually being all that exotic. It’s just odd. Something about players trying to create the least sweet dish in order to avoid the wrath of the god of thunder. In play you’re setting up personal VP multipliers in secret for each of the five available ingredients. During play you swap ingredients with other players and they with you. Swapped ingredients can not be swapped again, so eventually one player runs out of ingredients to swap and the round ends. You multiply your points and that’s the round. After three of those the game ends, and lowest score wins. (No tiebreaker, thankfully.) What makes the game neatly mean and amusing, is the market which at any one time holds 3 ingredients. Those are not added to your ingredients, but instead to your multiplier. So as you are jocking to collect as many of the low multiplier ingredients as you can, somebody might sneak them into the market, driving up your low multiplier and showering you with more points than a Georges Seurat painting. The game’s shortness helps in keeping investment, and therefore frustration low. The design is neat and clean which makes playing the game a breeze to play, but there might be some too easy to reach calculability of moves waiting for experienced players, that could push this from a light and breezy amuse bouche to an obstinate struggle for OPTIMAL PLAY!!!1!

Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysium Quadrant – Like a good hype-fueled gamer, I’ve given in to online peer pressure (aka the entirely imaginary sense of disconnect from my gaming brethren) and picked up a copy of Sidereal Confluence after all. Despite originally cooling on it, when I was at Essen partly due to the price point and the player range implying a far larger target group than I can usually muster on my game nights. First impression: there must be some kind of subliminal message in the text and layout of the rulebook that makes my eyes and focus just wander off. It’s a short rulebook, but I could not for the life of me finish it in one sitting. Even an entire page took huge mental effort. (The teaching guide on BGG on the other hand was fine.) So that was odd. Which also meant our first play was plagued by something that usually doesn’t happen: I was half-prepared when introducing the rules, and had to continuously look up and correct myself after the fact, when I misremembered a rule. In fact we even played the entire game with one small, but influential rule wrong. Despite those setbacks the majority at the table seemed quite taken with the game. I was a little more hesitant, in that I was interested, even intrigued but not quite excited after one play. But what I liked, I liked a lot. Sidereal Confluence does away with some of the pettiest and most churlish part of a lot of tight euro-game designs: obscuring or outright hiding pertinent information from players’ sight. Either by keeping player reserves hidden, or by putting so many steps between your investment now and the return in VP later, that making an informed decision becomes a fool’s errand. (This also neatly ties into a particular eye-roll-inducer for me: people who claim to play by gut, because they don’t realise that their math skills are at a level that most estimates have a solid basis in reality. Competitive maths is not what I game for, or respect in players.) But that’s a tangent for another day. The game itself is interesting. It’s basically a euro-game without a board to travel or slide markers on. Or rather Cosmic Encounter retro-engineerd by a mid-level eurogamer who has overheard some fanboys vaguely gushing about that game. Negotiation? Variable player powers that change the game? Alliances and cooperation? Sounds grand! And true to eurogame doctrine, there is no actual cooperation, but there is mutually beneficial exchange. Something that I’ve always felt a lot of negotiation game fans claimed their genre has, but that I never really saw myself. Partly because of the lack of shared victories. Sidereal Confluence at least takes a first step towards reconciling those two stances, by explicitly dispensing with end-game tiebreakers. (Thank you, Tauceti Deichmann!) While the game still obscures whether a trade is mutually beneficial or not until the very end, it’s reasonably easy to tell if certain trades are rip-offs as they happen. Simply by giving every player a general baseline of what resources are worth in relation to one another. Players have a shared understanding what a roughly equal trade looks like. Coupled with the fact that everything but the accumulated VP are open information to the table, you have (in our case) 4 players trying to make their engine and special abilities work and seeing what came out the other side. As this was our very first game, we were still very much into exploring options and experimenting with combos, which was fun in and of itself. A little insight that sadly too many games seem to forget: play should be rewarding in itself, not just good play that scores points. But of course old eurogamer habits die hard. Starving other players of resources, refusing trades or hiding stock (an innocent mistake, as I had overlooked that rule in the book) happened without any immediate prompting by the game state. Which meant that that typical euro cattiness and passive-aggressiveness was always just hiding under the surface. This is ultimately what made me pull back from falling in love with this game. Despite the openness of the design, the positive reinforcement baked into the rules (at least with the four recommended starting races) and the fact that sharing is name-dropped as part of the turn structure, it’s still not quite enough to guide the group into a collaborative experience of a competitive game. It remains a thin veneer of comradeship draped over a gulf of sneering backstabbiness (with the occasional front-stabbiness to even things out). Which proves my theory that eurogames are heavily dependent on the players, whereas Ameritrash are heavily dependent on the mood of said players.

I promise to add pictures next time. 🙂

An interview with Uwe Rosenberg

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

This interview was originally recorded at Spiel 2016 and assumed lost. Luckily thanks to some ingenuity and the magic of data recovery software, the recorded audio could be salvaged and was transcribed and translated for your reading convenience.

GEORGIOS: You are at Spiel this year with A Feast for Odin. Can you tell me a little bit about how the game came about? What was the moment when you realised, this here is the core of a game that I want to work on?

Uwe Rosenberg
Uwe Rosenberg (by Henk Rolleman)

UWE: I’ve been fascinated by the Viking theme for some time, because it has so many layers. You can focus on life on the mainland or what’s happening at sea. Which makes it quite compatible with a lot of different ideas. But that’s not where I started from. The original seed was somewhat unusual, and maybe one people don’t expect. I was once again thinking about Agricola, which is how a lot of games got started. I was thinking about a small detail of it. What could be changed about it.

In Agricola you have a harvest, which is where you pay for things. But there’s no money in Agricola. Instead there’s goods that have a nutritional value. Sheep are worth two, boars are worth three. What got me thinking was how to make this more tangible. Because there it’s just a payment transaction. “Right, I have sheep. I need to reach a total of six nutrition.” But if you turn a sheep into a 1×2 tile, a boar into a 1×3 tile, you just line them up on a track that goes up to ten and you can easily read when you’ve reached what you need. You put the sheep on the track, then the boar and you can see how many you can feed. Great, I thought. Mission accomplished. It’s more tangible, more immersive. You draw a large table, and you can see how the food gets eaten. That was the original idea. But that is far from being a game. That’s not a mechanism. It’s nothing. But then I expanded that thought. If you want to use a second tile of the same type, you need to place it upright. So the second time your valuable 5×1 tile only covers 1 spot. So you really only want to use your 5×1 tile once per turn to contribute to your feast.  That’s when I realised what a 3×5 tile could be. When you grow it or breed it – whatever it ends up being – it’s really useful. That’s when I had finished the puzzle idea. I had a bunch of puzzle tiles and now it was just about filling them with content. And that’s how I came back around to the Viking theme and their different goods. That gave me a general idea what the game would look like. But that is still only about feeding. That still wasn’t a game. So what else can you do with a tile? The answer is obvious. If you have that many tiles, you put them on a grid. So it went from one dimension to two dimensions. And that’s how I ended up with a puzzle game. So Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Odin (and 2 more prototypes in my backpack) all started with that moment, when I realised I should put them on a board. That’s when it slowly became a game, because I was working on ways to make it a puzzle, to make it appealing. If I cover something up, I get something in return. I can place it this way or that to fill up the grid. There were numerous approaches. Two of which I liked. One was that the cost would be printed on the tile itself, and the other was the income diagonal that ended up in Odin. Those didn’t go together at all, so the printed cost tiles went into Patchwork. But both grew out of this idea. The income diagonal for Odin is where you start to piece together a puzzle, and that’s when I knew.. this is going to be a game.

The usual approach is a little more abstract, in that I spend more time thinking about mechanisms that encourage play. Once I have a mechanism that gets players going, I quickly start looking for a theme. So that all the complementary mechanisms, that have to do with handling, make sense in connection to the theme. So that you feel this isn’t just any old eurogame, with its theme slapped onto it. That tangible theme matters to me, which is why I look for a theme early on. I did the same with Feast for Odin, only that the mechanisms that encourage play were developed afterwards. That’s unusual for me.

GEORGIOS: You mentioned, that you returned to Agricola. Is that something that is part of your design style? You return to an older idea and play it out differently?

UWE: Ideas don’t simply fall into my lap. I’m always thinking about something, picking up some detail and try to do it differently. Change it around a little, and see what the benefit of this change might be. The other approach would be playing a new game and there’s something about it I don’t like. Something I would have done differently. So then I change it and that becomes a new game. But that approach is in the past, when I played a lot more, discovered more games. I have four children now, and hardly learn from other designers’ games. So I end up thinking more about my own games, tweak them here and there. To really explore those mechanisms, know them inside out and how every detail in them works.

GEORGIOS: I’ve found that most gamers split into two camps. I have a pretty good handle on lighter, smaller games. others are more taken with the bigger games like Arler Erde. Are those by the same Rosenberg who just happens to express himself differently or are you addressing two different approaches to gaming?

UWE: People have been saying that about Reiner Knizia’s games. That there are Knizia games and there are Reiner games. It hasn’t quite come to that with me, even though I think there’s some justification for it. I’d generally say that I am not that skilled at making smaller games. My strength lies in big box games. What it is, though, is that I work a lot on my mechanisms and know them pretty well. So when I take a variation of the mechanism, I have a pretty good handle on it; and when I add something to that I

Fest für Odin
A typical Uwe game

have a good idea of how much fun the game will be. If I were to try a family game, that wouldn’t work so well, because I don’t have that sensibility to find the fun in those. But when simpler games are build from the core mechanisms of more complex games – those have few core mechanisms anyway, few tangible core ideas – I can draw a comparison. Maybe that is the special appeal of the simpler game. I can’t really compare those smaller games to other smaller games, because I never play those. But then again, I don’t get to play any complex games now, either. That was years ago.

GEORGIOS: You spoke of mechanisms that encourage play. I’m curious what’s the moment when you see or experience: This is fun, I’m captivated and so are the other players?

UWE: I remember feeling that way the first time I played Saint Petersburg. After 10 minutes of play I thought, I’m going to buy this game. I know that “whoa” moment. But I never have that when I design. I think about mechanisms that encourage play, I stumble over that “whoa” for a fleeting moment, because there’s no game there yet. Once I add a theme, I’ve grown accustomed to those mechanisms. There’s no explosion there. No intense experience. It’s just a process. Odin might be a little different, since those mechanisms came in later. You’ve caught me off-guard, actually. I’m not entirely sure, but I might have had such an experience then.

GEORGIOS: Is game design something like alchemy, then? You’re throwing things together and hope they’ll turn into gold?

UWE: I think it’s a craft. The more experience you have, the better your instincts become. One of my strengths as a game designer is that I can quickly recognise a bad idea. I’m extraordinarily talented in coming up with bad ideas, but I can also throw them away quickly. I just power through them until I hit a good one. So I wouldn’t call myself a great idea maker. That would be weird. I don’t know how you could be one. If you can run these ideas through your head, sort them and maybe make the deciding tweak.. that’s a good combination. That’s the necessary set of skills you need.

GEORGIOS: You mentioned that you share the fate of many gamers with a family, in that your gaming time is constantly shrinking. But still you came to Spiel. Have you seen any games that have impressed or excited you?

UWE: Yes. I’ve experienced that. A game played in Essen that excited me. That was 15 years ago. Since then I haven’t played a game at a fair again. That’s all in the past. Back when I was a gamer. A lot of people in the industry at Spiel will tell you that. If you play at all, you do it at a hotel in the evening. But I need that time to recharge. In fact, I’m more likely to meet friends and spend time with them, instead of playing a game, since I’m in the area. But nowadays I am more informed about new games than I used to be. There are so many podcasts, video on youtube of people talking about their expectations of games coming out and what they know about them. Those help me figure out if I’d be interested in those game or not. I could actually give you a list of 10 games I’m interested in off the top of my head, but if they will excite me or frustrate me I will only know after the fair.

GEORGIOS: One last question. You’re here as a publisher with Feuerland. So you know the gamer side, the designer side and the publisher side. Do you think that Spiel has changed over the years? Has it become more professional or has the influx of new visitors led to an emphasis on gamers?

UWE: As a publisher I’ve noticed some changes. But those are the logical consequence of more and more designers being around for years. They learn and evolve over time, and create better games. Each slightly improved game helped somebody else make an improvement with their game. If there is any clear direction is that we as a community of game designers are making better and better games each year. I am only interested in the really great games. I don’t care about the awful or just okay games. In two years time people will lump them together anyway. It’s all about the really big games. What makes them stand out? That’s what I try to understand and how can we improve on them. I like to philosophise about game. Quite a few designers do that. I predict that we will continue to improve each year. That games will be more finely designed and constructed. That’s also due to playtestery becoming better and better. Brilliant analysts who know these types of games inside and out, so that those games are already improving during the development phase.

GEORGIOS: Would you say that the art of game design is entering a golden age? As games will continually get better?

UWE: The start of a golden age tends to be hard to recognise while you’re in it. I can’t see it, but I have a hunch. But five years from now, if it does happen, I will be first to say “I told you so”.

GEORGIOS: Thank you so much for the interview and I hope you do find some time to play a few games. I noticed earlier, some people recognised you and asked for an autograph. I think a lot of people will be happy to have you around the next few days.

UWE: To be honest. Wednesday and Thursday were the busiest days for me this year. The fair is basically over for me, and I’m just wandering around the halls now and try not to smile too broadly, so that people don’t notice how excited I am. It’s great to be recognised. To be greeted with a smile, to receive compliments. A fair like this is overwhelming. You soak up those moments. And then, when you’re home, and stuck working on a game, thinking “crap, I should throw all of this out” because something is off and you’re convinced you’ll never get it to work. When you feel stupid, because you can’t get something to work right, you can draw a lot of strength from remembering those interactions at the fair. It’s interesting how overwhelming a fair is for me. I need to ignore my feelings for a bit, because otherwise it’d be too much for me.

Shooting from the hand – A Motion Pictures review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

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Picture by Evangelos Foskolos

Motion Pictures is a deckbuilder that hides its genre, by very carefully and precisely paring down everything that’s become accepted about deckbuilders: hand size, shuffling, discards, scoring. It is in a way a haiku of deckbuilders. If it was delivered by a bored teenager only half-paying attention, because they are too busy playing with their phone. Yes, I’m talking about you, Shannon! Will it kill you to put that thing down?

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An almost finished project (photo by Alexandros Kapidakis)

The first thing to strike you about Motion Pictures is that the cards do not look great. While that kind of superficial complaint is easy to dismiss, it does manage to temper both the appeal of the game as a whole, as well as the appreciation of its design. For a game that drapes itself in the most visual of modern art forms, it’s both surprising and disappointing that the visuals might be the game’s Achilles’ heel. (Because they’re Greeks, see? The designer, the publisher, the myth… I’ll link to a youtube video later, that will explain it all.)

Picture by Evangelos Foskolos

As film producers you try to put together the right crew (i.e. play cards) to complete projects (i.e. collect other cards), that will give you victory points (i.e. VP) at the end of the game. So far, so elevator pitch. In what is an amusing, little “spot-the-reference” game, the projects you complete have illustrations that bear an eerie resemblance to posters, scenes or promotional material of well-known film and TV entries. From Doctor Who to Jurassic Park to The Godfather to Τροχονόμος Βαρβάρα* – Admittedly the references are not so much references, as casually traced artwork, but that’s beside the point.

Unfortunately, the choice in art direction does not lead to a sense of charming recognition that makes you feel like a big name in Tinseltown. Instead it makes the game look cheap and lazy. Which is a shame. Because the game’s design is solid (if flawed). Every time I sat down to play it, I was surprised at how quickly it was over. The importance of the decisions I’ve taken in the first few turns only became apparent to me in hindsight. If only I had only bought this card, it would have paid off in later turns. If I had discarded that card, my hand would have been even leaner in the end game. Since your deck rarely reaches twice your hand limit, every single card in it counts.

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This is your starting crew. (Photo by Alexandros Kapidakis)

Yet Motion Pictures can be played so casually, with long-term consequences of your actions barely noticeable, that you might come away thinking that there is no meat to this game. Its presentation adding to this impression of it being a barely average deckbuilder.

Buying new cards or pledging cards to a project are simple decisions. But they subtly change the flow of the game, its dynamic and most importantly the breadth of options available to you. Just like any good deckbuilder does. Why then is this delicate gem so overlooked? Why aren’t ther more people talking about it?

Because while the subtleties and intricacies of timing and deck composition are apparent to anyone who pays attention to the rules, they are also easily overshadowed by what I can only describe as a blatant oversight during the game’s development: the player with the laziest strategy is no worse off than the smartest play you can come up with. Sheer luck of the draw puts you on an equal footing to a player strategically putting together their deck. You can rush the game by simply completing the cheapest projects available to you, possibly even scoring additional points at the end due to having the most projects, or projects of a genre, etc.

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These destinations devalue the trip

Although you can choose to play subtly and cleverly, just going for the lowest hanging fruit each turn is just as competitive. This simple fact ultimately hollows out whatever tactical or strategic appeal the game has. It is too easy to complete projects with your starting cards, even towards the end of the game, to make deck construction all that necessary. If the right projects show up on your turn, there is little incentive to think ahead. No reason to consider cards in the market. No need to jettison dead weight cards.

To be fair, it is always possible that an unexpected strategy completely upends a game’s design. Approaching the game from an unusual angle might mean that the design’s careful arrangement of incentives and limitations simply misses its target. In Motion Pictures, though, you can do what you’re supposed to be doing in the dullest and most obvious way, and still have a shot at winning. None of the intricate decision spaces ever open up for you, and the game just patters along and then ends. Generally painless, but without much to remember it by.

-Georgios

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* – That is a lie. There is no reference to this milestone of cinema. And I am outraged by this omission. OUTRAGED!

 

Life is like a box of cookies – A review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

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Ahh, cookies. Everybody loves cookies. It’s an immutable law of physics: people love cookies. Soft or crumbly. Chocolate or nut. More or less. But have you ever really thought about the care and skill that goes into creating such a cubic delight of pastries? The artisanal craft that lays the groundwork for you to ravish that seductively arranged box of cookies. A cookie box so to speak.

What trade secrets go into its selection? What obscure recipe has brought forth the many delights that this pack of well cooked dough evokes? Who…

Ah, sod it. It’s just a game. Arrange your tokens as dictated by a card, before the other players do. Bam! You’re sorted.

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Chips aren’t weighted, but they are tasty.

It also looks cute. The tiles you arrange have icons on both sides, although the two sides never match. So finding the right “waffle”-icon hiding behind the “blueberry”-icon that you already need elsewhere, leads you down the rabbit hole of hectically flipping over tiles, arranging them, cursing, re-arranging them, cursing some more and letting some panicked expletives fly across the room as somebody else rings the bell, before you get to it. Yes, the game comes with a bell. It’s bright, and shiny. And loud.

If you are now wondering whether you and your friends might enjoy such a game… you have to ask yourself a different question first: how seriously can you take this game? How eager are you to beat your friends in a competitive tile-arranging game? Without spaceships? Without scary art of a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Without some rennaissance-type man blandly staring at you from the game’s cover?

In other words how seriously can you take a game that is bright, happy and cute? A game that drapes itself in a foppishly droll and trivial theme, and delivers a challenge that is seemingly without much bite or depth?

A lot of games try to channel the competitive energy that gamers harbour within them through take-that mechanisms, conflict rules in which player forces clash into one another with heavy losses on either side, or even through the refined passive-aggressiveness that is blocking. So much so, that occasionally I end up feeling worn out and tired of fighting against my friends over and over again, when we sit down to play. The rules take the place of stick-and-carrot, pushing us into a headspace that allows us to indulge our inner caveman. There’s nothing wrong with that. A little escapism goes a long way towards clearing your head. Still, some designs are a little more obnoxious and in-your-face about it than others. Like a hopped-up, neglected 8-year-old smashing his action figures together over and over again in the hopes of one of them breaking.

But…. cookies.

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This is what a successful day at the cookie factory looks like

Or rather, Cookie Box. There’s none of that here. No rules explicitly made to mess with your opponents. No component scarcity for the sole purpose of creating conflict. This game’s competition works the same way that multiplayer solitaire games allegedly work: by tapping your skill at completing a task before anybody else does. No interruptions. No blatant randomizers. No kingmaking. If that is what you want: Cookie Box delivers.

Admittedly, you won’t have to calculate the exchange rate of wheat to stone or plot the actions you will have to take three turns from now, or even when to place that special tile to give you extra actions. Instead you flip tokens. And move them around.

If you and your group enjoys small and silly competition for its own sake, you might get a kick out of this game. Much like how we enjoyed grown men panicking and despairing at arranging brightly coloured tokens before somebody rung the bell. Its simplicity only gives players’ room to let their gamer id run wild.

Cookie Box might conceivably claim its place on the gamer party pantheon. Among such highlights as Looping Louie or Happy Salmon: a bane to the po-faced, a talisman to the joyful!

-Georgios