Game Night Verdicts #3

Not a lot of games saw play since the last batch of verdict. Luckily, each of the ones I did get to play offered a lot of interesting things to talk about. So here goes.

Euphoria – While Jamey Stegmaier has managed to build quite a reputation for himself, it’s easy to forget that he has “only” (hah!) published four of his own designs: Viticulture, Euphoria, Scythe and Charterstone. I wasn’t particularly enamored with Scythe, but I’ve heard good things about Euphoria so I was eager to try it out. The first thing I noticed was that Euphoria does not yet have the clean and intuitive visual interface of its successors. All pertinent information is available on the board and game components, but it’s not as polished as Scythe which I still consider the high-water mark when it comes to relaying complex rules interactions to players without them noticing. You have to stare intently and crane your head every once in a while, to remind yourself what your options are and what their benefit is. This isn’t really a criticism, only an observation that visual interface design is another area where board games are improving at a rapid pace.euphoria-box

So in comparison to what came after, Euphoria is clunkier and visually a little more dense. But the art style is engaging and interesting, which is the first step to making a playable game. From reading the rulebook, I was expecting this to be a functional, if somewhat boring worker placement affair. Not unlike my experience of Scythe, which was perfectly fine and well-crafted, but did nothing to make me care what would happen next. And true enough, the first few turns were uneventful, almost scripted. That is until the first market was built. Suddenly the 3rd player was slapped with a drawback he now had to work around. As he shifted gears to get rid of that drawback, the game before me began to take shape. The building sites revealed themselves to be decisive battle grounds, where players could lose valuable momentum. Resource spots turned into dynamic areas in which player commitment forced you to reconsider your strategy, or entice other players to join you elsewhere by placing your highest rated worker there. Anticipating other players’ choices became key to improving your own efficiency. And since all the information needed to make an educated guess was available to you (albeit with a little mental effort), these decisions were based on in-game factors and not player mood. Losing workers due to bad dice rolls was an unpredictable stumbling blocks that had you readjust your strategy on the fly. In short, the game turned into a fun bit of tactics and gambling, where thinking on your feet was as important as having a rock-solid strategy in place.

For all the fun it provides, the game’s design still has bits and pieces that seem like loose ends that the rest of the game doesn’t really do much with. The ethical dilemmas are mostly irrelevant. Even if you were to argue that they inject some sort of storytelling, the game does not really have a narrative as such. The gulf between what players are mentally engaged in and what kind of narrative impulse individual actions set is simply too large to create the impression of a story unfolding through play. Scythe is a little better in that regard, but still not enough to actually create a narrative. But I have to admit, if given the choice, I’d rather play a game where the basis of my choices is routinely shifting, while still giving me a chance to take the choices of others into account… than, you know, Steampunk mechs.

Betrayal at House on the Hill – A somewhat unexpected ebay-auction win led to this game ending up on my table. Even though I had played it a couple of times before, I’ve never really thought about it in depth until I owned and played my own copy. I’ve come to the conclusion that this game is highly under-rated. It is much better than people give it credit for. Whether that is due to ingenious game design craft and insight, or just a lucky fluke of game alchemy, I don’t know. But it succeeds in creating something that a great many of designs struggle with: namely a three-act-structure fused with a very robust and tense play arc.

The cover itself already tells you what you’re getting yourself into (pic by Todd Redden)

It does so by highlighting the beginning of the third act with its sudden infusion of new rules, objectives and a clear antagonist. But in a fascinatingly effective bit of setting resonance and player agency, the shift from act 1 to act 2 is a shift in player attitude. Every single game starts with the same goofy, jokey tone as your stereotypical B-movie characters explore a stereotypical B-movie haunted house. The hokeyness of the game’s setting works in tandem with the winking, knowing silliness that gaming groups tend to bring to the table. The first bit of brilliance is that every new room reveal prompts some kind of reaction from the group. The absurdity of the house’s layout (it is mostly random after all) or the juxtaposition of character and reveal echo through the rest of the game as individual moments, that we can’t help but make sense of as the game progresses. Of course, Flash stumbles from one bedroom to another… of course the priest is the one to find the pentagram… of course Madame Zostra falls down the chute into the basement… like narrative Lego bricks every evocative game component can be combined to evoke an easily grasped and understood image. And from those images our natural tendency towards pattern recognition and our desire to make sense of unconnected things creates the specter (pun intended) of a story.

Since we already know that within that “story” one of us will turn against the others, we eventually move from carefree room explorers to tactically minded, defensive-thinking survivalists. This is the second brilliant bit that triggers act 2 of the game, by letting every player make that choice for themselves. Setting yourself up so that when the haunt finally hits, you might be ready for whatever comes. The shift is entirely in player’s heads, but it affects the whole game. It changes the tone at the table and as the omen cards start adding up, everyone prepares for the the twist that will put every character in danger. Tension invariably grows as the group braces itself for the inevitable. A lot of games are centered on this shift in perspective. Dominion for example (at least in the base version) hinges on you picking the right moment to switch from deck building to VP collection. My beloved DungeonQuest has this as its only meaningful decision in the whole game: when to turn around and head for the exit? Even a game like Inis has you build up a solid power base, until you are ready to push for victory. And in Betrayal that is when the haunt happens. The shift into act 3, bringing with it new rules and objectives pitting one player against many. Now a lot can be said about the haunts themselves, lack of balance and rules ambiguities can lead to unsatisfying resolutions to the game.

But fans of the game don’t seem to care all that much, and I think a reason for that is simply that the haunts are closer in function to VP calculation in a game like Concordia, than they are to being the core experience. (A mistake that Star Trek Ascendancy seems to make, in that it replaces exploration halfway through with what is basically Risk.) In both cases play revolves around bringing it about and player behaviour is driven towards it, but nobody should mistake either VP counting or haunt as the point of the respective games. Admittedly, though, haunts are generally funnier and contain more surprises than counting cards and multiplying. I think more designs should aim at taking advantage of people’s emotional investment and how it changes through and during play. There is a lot of untapped potential for games that purposefully evoke specific emotions from players.

Though surprising, this scene is not actually the point of Star Wars (1977)

Tigris & Euphrates – It’s kind of ironic that in my geeklist of unplayed games this year, this one was the only one to get a reply encouraging me to put it at the top of my list. I honestly tried, but the opportunity never really presented itself. So it became one of the very last games from my 2017 haul I played. This is a classic Knizia design, lauded and celebrated by gamers far more erudite than myself. It’s not hard to see why. This is easily the most fun I’ve ever had playing a Knizia game. Everything is changing and shifting, whenever a player makes a choice. The board is wide enough to allow for slow advances towards another’s position, yet the temples give you enough focus to allow for meaningful decisions. Since it takes at least two turns to score anything at all – unless unwittingly aided by your opponents – you have short bursts of tension before seeing your plans to fruition. As your understanding of the game grows, so does your willingness to engage in long-term plans, anticipating moves of your opponents and setting yourself up in such a way that you can improve your score, no matter what else is placed on the board. In fact, you are in control of how short-term or long-term you’re willing to go, before getting points. In the realm of video-games companies have perfected the timing of action-expectation-payoff for maximum addictiveness, Tigris & Euphrates is a very tangible example of seeing its effectiveness in action. The game manages a near-constant endorphin rush because every tile placed opens up new opportunities. This mindset is helped tremendously by the game’s scoring rules, which force you into continuously changing focus as you try to boost your lowest score.

The game is so successful in getting its hooks in you, that this is actually the first time in a while I’ve found myself obsessively thinking about a game after I played it. This to me is proof that this game is tremendous fun. As I said before it is easily the most fun Knizia game I know. But I don’t think it’s his best design. I don’t think fun and great design are synonymous, or that one guarantees the other. Knizia, more than any other prolific designer, has always understood the need for easy to grasp and pleasant to play games. A player should always know what their options are, and be given enough knowledge to have a general understanding what the consequences will be. They should have the freedom to pick short-term objectives in pursuit of long-term ones, and the game should end before it becomes repetitive. For all the challenge, tension and excitement it evokes, Tigris & Euphrates doesn’t quite pull that off.

Did we talk about conflicts, yet? Do you even understand what’s at stake, man?!

Switching from player color to player symbol to distinguish pieces means that you do spend some time “reading” the board, as opposed to figuring out your next move. The two types of conflicts differ so subtly, that you find yourself reaffirming your familiarity with the rules quite regularly before you make a decision. These are small blemishes on an otherwise incredibly entertaining and satisfying experience. But they are blemishes that other designs by Knizia very knowingly avoid and purposefully excise before releasing the game to the public. It is the reason why Reiner Knizia is held in such high esteem by people who do pay attention to design, and not just whether they had fun playing a game.

All that said, I can’t wait to get another game of it in. If you’re reasonably well-versed in games, you owe it to yourself to play this. Once you make it past the rules and their idiosyncrasies, a gargantuan amount of tense and playful fun awaits.

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