Game Night Verdicts #5

This week’s verdicts are fewer than usual, mostly because some of the games played were previously discussed with little new to add to what I’ve already posted. And some games simply didn’t really offer much to talk about here.

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The art of throwing shade

Photosynthesis – Until recently this game had a lot of online buzz, and since it‘s been readily available in local shops I‘ve heard a number of people speak quite highly of it. It‘s easy to see why. The visuals are simple, yet striking. The graded colour scheme of each player colour, the slight changes in the cardboard tokens used to represent trees all make it look like a diorama of a local forest made by somebody who is just one pill shy of tripping out. The rules set is similarly simple, yet robust. The rotating sun & shade mechanism (reminiscent of Waldschattenspiel) doles out action points to each player which they can spend to build, expand and eventually dismantle their engine, in order to score victory points. The concept is quickly understood. It takes about a full turn to fully comprehend the intricacies and then you level up to outmaneuvering your opponents. The game even manages to create a shift in momentum as the board grows densely populated with trees. It starts off reasonably loose, builds up steam in the middle and leads to sudden but big payoffs towards the end. It is in many ways an impeccable design. And yet… the tight interplay of each element, the consequences of earlier decisions inevitably paying off later – for good or ill – and the inescapable squabbling over positions result in tense action point calculations each turn. So tense, in fact, that it can feel oppressive at times. Like being squeezed into a crowded train that will close its door any moment now, and you can‘t quite get out in time. This makes Photosynthesis an odd duck of a game. On the one hand, it needs to be played competently and competitively enough to actually create interesting decisions. But on the other hand, if the group isn‘t quite on the same page, the game can drag tremendously as players plot their turns. This isn‘t a case of analysis paralysis. It‘s not agonizingly difficult to pick the best option of those available to you. It‘s just that if you know how to read the game state reasonably well, you end up with so much computable information, that you‘ll just need a few minutes to process it all. Picking the right players to play Photosynthesis is key to turning it into an enjoyable experience. If played competitively, it‘s a ponderous and almost cumbersome affair. A more casual playstyle might provide you with a pleasant and memorable experience. But also one that doesn‘t fulfill the potential buried within. So of all the possible gaming groups I could put together from my circle of friends, only a small fraction could actually make the game work. As a product designed to facilitate positive social experiences, this is a strike against Photosynthesis.

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The massacre is about to commence

Seikatsu – The board gaming portion of social media has been a great boon for me in the past. It brought games to my attention that I would have otherwise never noticed. Smaller publishers and unassuming games would have gotten lost in the overcrowded shelves of my local game stores or the impenetrable listings of online vendors. But the excitement and passion for newly released games can also lead to unfair expectations and unfounded assumptions about a game. This was sadly case for me with regards to Seikatsu. It is light tile-laying game in which you place one of two randomly drawn tiles each turn, featuring a type and a class. On placement you score points for adjacent tiles of the same type, and at the end of the game for columns of the same class. So far, so elegant. In play, though, this elegance is marred by two noticeable flaws. One seems superficial but is actually a subtle yet influential factor in how smoothly the game plays. The other is more profound, and makes me wonder if there wasn’t a meatier game there during development that was whittled down to a game just slightly past elegant minimalism into something that feels vaguely anemic. I am unsure how much of my deflated response is down to expectations after picking up people’s excitement over this  game. My criticism comes down to this: the decision space in Seikatsu is too small. I’m generally a big fan of designs that thin out options available to players on their turn. It’s an effective way to boost momentum, make the game more accessible and draw player’s attention to the decisions that actually matter. But when you narrow that decision window in a player’s hand, it needs to open up on the board or vice versa. If the beginning and end of your decision making process feels small, the game experience becomes flimsy and trivial. Play is reduced to running a script. And what’s worse, that’s what it feels like as well. As I voiced my reservations after the game, the response was that it plays quickly. That it IS supposed to be a small, breezy affair that doesn’t tax you too much after a long day at work. Which is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate response.

But then, there is the second tiny flaw. Insignificant and shallow at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised just how much better the game would have flown, if production had taken a different turn. The class and type of tiles I mentioned earlier, are birds and flowers respectively.  Now I am a city boy, I can tell the difference between at least seven different Arabic languages by sound, but place two types of birds or flowers in front of me and I’d keep a respectful distance for fear of irrevocably disrupting their natural habitat. In a game I need a clear visual distinction between all the birds and all the flora. A handful of different shades of orange, teal and lavender doesn’t do it for me. For a game that is supposed to be a light, breezy and casual affair I spent quite a bit of time squinting, holding tokens up to my eyes and leaning over the board to make out the difference between some tiles. As gamers we demand clear iconography and high contrast in our convoluted strategy games to ease playability. I have to level the same complaint here. While the birds were easy to tell apart by posture for the most part, the row of flowers around them was asked botany skills of me that I simply do not possess.

It is a very pretty game, though. Seikatsu isn’t a bad game, either. It’s not even a boring one. But the thing that you remember is the pleasant art style, and not the game, sadly.

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Close the window, there’s a draft coming

Spynet – It was pure coincidence that I ended up playing this game. I vaguely remember putting it on a watchlist or another due to the designer being Richard Garfield, and the description sounding reasonably interesting. I had completely forgotten about its existence until I spotted it on a pile of unplayed games. Apparently, the game is build around something called a Winston Draft, which is a Magic The Gathering term as I understand it, having to do with laying out piles of cards and each player looks at one after another until picking one and leaving the rest untouched. All seen, but unchosen, piles get a card added to them and so it goes until the deck is empty. It’s not a pretty-looking game, nor is it particularly involved outside of the card draft (and even that is fairly trivial after a single turn). But the so-called team play variant (with 4) in which the player opposite you adds their VP to yours at the of the game results . Each turn you either play cards in one of the suits from your hand, or score VP cards from your hand, provided the your tableau’s strength in that suit is higher than that of the other team. There are some smaller special card abilities that trigger when played, but for the most part this is a game in which careful drafting pays off in suit control and by extension VP scoring ability. Your team mate can always share a card with you on their turn, which adds a little bit of coordinated tactical play. As much as Seikatsu suffered from expectations, I am sure Spynet profited from my utter ignorance about it. I was impressed how quickly team-play dynamics emerged, despite none of us knowing the cards at all. It quickly became apparent how and when to control a suit, and when to abandon one; how to scour for VP cards and when to purposefully keep them out the opponents’ hands. There is an effortlessness in how the strategies and decisions open up in play, as the knowledge of available cards increases, thanks to the drafting method. There seems to be one glaring weakness to the game’s core mechanic, though. It is directly tied to group think, admittedly, but seems too cheap a way of deflating any attempts at strategy: if you automatically draft whichever pile first hits three cards, you seem to be setting yourself up with a very powerful, i.e. flexible, hand that can beat more precise play through simple volume. I would need a few more plays with the game to see if that bears out over time, but the price point for Spynet has kind of soured me on looking at getting a copy of my own.

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Red scored a late win by a tiny little margin

Signorie – Halfway through getting the rules of the game explained to me I started laughing. Not out of excitement, or appreciation of designcraft.. I laughed at the absurdity of what I was being presented. It was the same kind of laugh I had when I first flipped through the rulebook for Great Western Trail. Rules bloat in a quintessentially eurogame-y. (Yes, I know the label is outdated and imprecise, but I don’t see much of an alternative term for the point I’m making here). There was a conscious decision to excessively add rules details and options to increase the scope of the decision space a player has to deal with.  This undoubtedly enhances the play experience. Up to a point. Because the relation between the two isn’t linear. Eventually you hit a peak and every additional option adds less and less to the quality of play. In fact, eventually you go so far beyond that point that it becomes less about the game itself and more a question of principle and quasi-religious conviction. It actually reminds me of people who discover they like spicy food, and eventually go down the path of collecting hot sauces with ridiculously high Scoville ratings. Instead of enhancing the food you’re eating (let alone the company you are sharing it with), hotness becomes its own ritual and purpose. Finishing a plate of curry with 750.000 Scoville without throwing in the towel becomes its own reward. Nourishment, let alone an appreciation of the individual ingredients of the dish are given (burnt) lip service at best.

I feel similarly about some of the elements in Signorie. The enjoyment and reward of this game is not the act of play itself, it is the having overcome the obstacles the game puts in your way. It‘s the fact that you managed to squeeze out a competitive score despite all the hurdles you had to take to get there. And in this context, the claim that „winning doesn‘t matter“ takes on a new meaning. I never actually believed that (and I still don’t to be honest), but with games like this one winning becomes literally a secondary concern. Instead your actual objective is to play well enough to not be constantly frustrated by the limits the rules put on you. This school of game design seems to have one dominant understanding of player motivation: beat the game by getting the points you want. Which is not to say that Signorie is a bad game for it or even the worst offender in that regard. I think GWT strikes me as even more uninhibited in how it gorges itself on rules exceptions and specialties. But this niche of the hobby seems oddly satisfied with being impenetrable for many.

As for play itself, Signorie’s pomposity led to a familiar sense of camaraderie with my co-player, as we both vented our frustration at having to keep a number of individual steps, interlocking mechanisms and varying expenses in mind to plan our moves. When the game manages to keep all players down, you stumble upon this tangential source of fun. One that is unlikely to be intended by the designer (though it’s a possibility), but one that entertains and lets players connect with one another through play. It also just underlines the absurdity of the whole thing: you spent time and money so that an intricate and multi-layered set of rules can keep you from fulfilling the objective the game asks you to fulfill in the first place. When a game is so blatant about it, I just can‘t help but laugh. Sure, s game‘s design needs a certain amount of challenge to be engaging and give you a small sense of accomplishment, when you reach the end. No question about it. But the challenge should be in support of creating a specific play experience, it shouldn’t be the experience. Just as hot is not a style of cuisine, difficult is not a genre of games.

 

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A box of internationally produced gaming goodness (incl. free vicious knife fight)

Nippon – The last time I played Nippon I was a little disillusioned with its design. I felt that too many exceptions and special rules existed solely to fence off game-breaking strategies. There seemed to me too many quick fixes that should have been filed off before the game went out. I had some reservations about playing again, but in the end two players at game night had never played it before. As it turns out, I like introducing people to new games far more than I fear the risk of a sub-par experience. Luckily, this time around Nippon felt smoother overall and my earlier reservations barely registered. Nippon‘s design falls into a similar camp as Signorie‘s as far as challenge to play ratio is concerned. You are still predominantly occupied with beating the game, and only then try to beat the other players. There is a small but significant, difference, though, in that it is easier to wrap your head around the rules themselves. This is thanks to how Nippon employs what is commonly referred to as „theme“. By relating individual actions to acts that players can easily visualize within the game‘s setting, it is less exhausting to retain many of the game’s rules and their interactions. It‘s still a far cry from actually being easy to play out of the box, though.

There are a lot of moving parts you need to keep an eye on in Nippon. You need to weigh short-term costs and gains with long-term pay-offs. How many different coloured meeples do you want on your board? Since that may lower your funds for next round. Are you going to work on building up your engine this turn, to score big in the game’s last act? Or are you aiming to score lots of smaller VP rewards early on? These are the questions that keep you continuously engaged and active as the game progresses. But it is the area control part of the game that continues to feel like an unnecessary source of late-game frustration. You build up factories, increase their output and then place their influence on the map. This in itself is usually a plan that takes multiple rounds to come to fruition. And it can be stolen quickly with no way to respond. Fighting over board presence is without a doubt a core element of the game. But with so many other decisions and factors to keep an eye on, I have yet to see a game of Nippon where getting kicked off the map does not catch a player off-guard.

It‘s one thing to try to fight the rules gestalt to make a decent move, but this area control part adds direct conflict to a game that – outside of this one action – avoids the very idea of destroying something another player has build up. Signorie, by comparison, restricts the game’s challenge to beating the system. You’re just supposed to beat it a little better than the other players.

 

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