The Resistance Avalon – One of the quintessential social deduction games made it onto the list this time, and sadly not as a positive mention. As much as people seem to love The Resistance and its Avalon variant, it must be close to seven years since I‘ve last had a functioning game of it. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this is primarily due to how the rules fail to explain the game. In most other games that would show up on this list, laying out the game‘s objective and then the way a round or turn is handled gives you a general direction to play in. Avalon doesn‘t do that. Instead you need to spend a few games to get past the game‘s learning curve, which is pretty much where I‘ve lost half the table.
You see, lying doesn‘t come naturally to some people. Or the reasons for doing it. Or how to do it effectively. Or even the ways in which your words, deeds or actions can be lies. Avalon requires you to have a handle on all those things to actually feel like a complete game. Instead, as was the case with this session and a great many sessions before that, it plays out pretty much the same way. The majority of players are confused as to what they are supposed to do, what they should be paying attention to or what makes the difference between a good or bad play. Sometimes this is true of the spies as well. But for the most part, spies can sneak out a win by playing dumb. Which is a perfectly legitimate, and perfectly workable strategy. But it is also one that is incredibly unsatisfying to play. Losing doesn‘t enlighten you in the slightest or makes you want to play again. Winning feels either lazy or unearned, since you‘ve basically won over a group that didn‘t know what the game was to begin with. So back into the shelf Avalon goes. While it is undoubtedly a pillar of its genre, it also seems to be carried heavily by people‘s ability to extrapolate and explain all the things that the game doesn‘t. Most metas are about how to play the game, not about what the game you‘re playing actually is.
Codenames – On the other hand of the spectrum, there is Codenames. It‘s a dependable source of gameplay fun, that works irrespective of who I‘ve gathered around the table. The team-vs-team dynamic immediately translates into support from your fellow teammate(s) against your opponents. And an easy way to empathise with either your team or cluegiver as the challenge both are up against is apparent to all involved. In addition to that, since your focus is on words, meaning and their intuitively understood connections, you don‘t have to deal with a great deal of abstraction, mechanical complexity or uncertainty.
The reason why mechanically simple games are often heralded as the best of their genre has to do with how they come across to the uninitiated. The perceived barrier between what you need to understand about the game and what is enjoyable about it appears minimal. In other words, the learning curve is so small as to be nearly imperceptible. Accessibility really is the key to quality. Or at least to word-of-mouth recommendations. Even complex, hobbyist-oriented games reach a wider audience, if they manage to build on mechanics, concepts and gameplay ideas that are already intimately familiar to people in the hobby. There is a reason why games like Dominion or 7 Wonders managed to catch on with gamers, and popularize their core mechanic, by minimizing any extraneous rules components. Nowadays both card drafting and deckbuilding is used as one ingredient of many in new designs. There is an assumed familiarity that designers can rely on, allowing them to introduce more complex and involved play experiences than their minimalist predecessors.
Overseers – I am somewhat unsure what to think of Overseers. It is a very neat and tight design. Short and to the point. The overview of each turn seems daunting at first, and isn‘t helped by the many character cards that can give each player one special ability, i.e. rules exception. But once you‘ve made it past the first turn, people have usually grasped all they need to play well.
What‘s most interesting in the design is how it handles a punish-the-leader dynamic, by obscuring the game state enough to make both the vote and the reaction to it, a tense moment of risk-taking. If the table believes that my cards (3 open, 2 hidden) will score highest this turn, I can choose to voluntarily give up 2 cards of my choice. But if I deny that I have the highest score, I will either lose my two biggest point contributors (if I am wrong) or gain 1 card of my choice from the discard, possibly pushing me into top position after the fact. It‘s such a quick, elegant and easy way to both introduce stakes, motives and the ability to bluff and misdirect without requiring a lot of buildup, or rules complexity. Since the game ends after only three turns, you never run the risk of snowballing effects. The scores tend to be close enough that lucky play in the last turn can mean an upset. What I’m saying is that basically, the game’s design is solid, robust and just plain works.
But the reason I wanted to include it in these verdicts here has to do with the art style. Specifically the illustrations. You see, the character cards that get dealt out each turn all feature very beautiful art depicting very beautiful women in very formfitting, occasionally revealing clothing. Like in most cases where such illustrations show up in a game we enjoy, we don‘t pay attention to them. It simply doesn‘t register halfway through the first turn. It‘s the game effect of the cards that is relevant to us, not the pretty colours. Still, I don‘t feel comfortable recommending this game without reservations. And the reason for that is a bit more complicated. Last year at Spiel in Essen, I noticed a small booth selling a fairly simple card game in Hall 3 (the biggest hall). The thing that stood out to me, was not just the all-male cast depicted on the cards. But the very sensual, sexually charged depiction of those young men in a non-suggestive, but clearly eroticised manner. (I thought the game was called Desire, or Persuasion, or some other one-word title, but googling turns up nothing.) Apparently the game used artwork of an established artist whose main focus is (was?) the exploration of homosexual attraction. The parallel I am trying to draw here is not, that the art in Overseers is overtly sexualized; but that the question of whether it does or does not cross a line can‘t be answered by me.
Because it doesn‘t really matter if and how arousing I find these clothed women, but whether female gamers in my group would feel reminded of their sexual identity in a context, where they don‘t want to be. It‘s fine to be seen as potentially sexy, attractive and desirable in a situation where you don‘t mind coming across that way. At a party, maybe. Or a club. It becomes a bit awkward when this gets dragged into a situation where you don‘t want it to be. At work, maybe. Or at a game night. I am very careful to avoid terms like „objectification“, because they seem to suggest that the artwork is demeaning or devaluing women. I don‘t think that‘s the case. The characters are strong, independent, fierce. But my memory of looking at that card game in the tiny booth at Spiel may have been a mirror to what a female gamer might experience looking at these cards. I don‘t object to the artwork, but I do wonder if it might bring up things that some gamers are happy to leave out of game night. If that is the case, then this game might complicate matters for mixed groups.
(The Flow of History and Kimono/Colors of Kasane had to be cut for space. But will likely be added to the next Verdicts post.)