Game Night Verdicts #10 – Antike, High Society, Twilight Struggle

A little late and without pictures as I am posting this away from home…

Antike & Antike II – With all the pressure on games to look new, innovative and unique, it is easy to overlook those entries that don’t. Antike’s visual presentation and components harkens back to eurogame classics of the 90s like El Grande or Kahuna. But not content with leaving so much as a whiff of randomization to touch the sacred gaming table, the Antike games go 100% deterministic. The upside of this being that decisions have weight. Player choices are the engine that push the game forward and neither card draws nor dice rolls suddenly steer the game in an unexpected direction. I understand that this kind of design decision can garner a lot of praise and support among certain circles. I am somewhat indifferent about it. I don’t really consider the exclusion of randomizers particularly impressive or an indication that a game has depth. It’s just another flavour of play. Not intrinsically noteworthy or remarkable, nur its own distinct style and experience.

What randomizers do, though, is provide a pressure valve in competitive games or even just games of sufficient complexity. When the various permutations of actions and reactions become too overwhelming to calculate or consider, a randomizer allows for quick compartmentalization. It lets you break the unwieldy bulk of elements into smaller chunks, quicker to evaluate and make a decision on. To be fair, with sufficient experience or a more cavalier attitude towards risk, your reliance on these tools to smooth out the edges of play will likely decrease.

But it’s the use of randomizers as social pressure valves at the table that Antike also avoids, which is arguably to its detriment. I tend to play with a conflict-averse group of players. In the sense that given the option we gravitate towards non-confrontational means towards achieving victory. While attacks are still part of every competitive game we play, they tend to be legitimized not by the nature of the game, but by the tactical inevitability of the game’s state. In fact, it is considered something of a faux-pas to attack another player if alternatives exist. It often happens that players need to weigh the benefit of tactically sound move with the shift in tone that comes from being “the bad guy” at the table. This is not a bug, it’s a feature. It shows that whatever interaction exists within the confines of the game’s rules set is nested deeply in the social interaction of real people at the table.

The often quoted (by me at least) magic circle may be a way to demarcate the fiction of the game from the fiction of real life. But that doesn’t mean that the game exists on top of our regular interaction, or as a mirrorhouse version of it. Entering the magic circle does not mean we have replaced our relationship to one another with those of competing industrialists or in this case godlike leaders of ancient civilizations. Instead we have amended, expanded and readjusted it for the duration of the game. We are not some remote other doing things that do not reflect on who we actually are. We are ourselves playing make-believe with numbers, tracks and wooden tokens. As such the consequences of our actions are not limited to their effects on the board. They also press on our relationship to each

It seems to me that competitive games, especially those highly revered, no-randomizers kind often seem to suggest that play allows a reprieve from the messy, fuzzy and vague rules of non-verbal communication and empathy. That these games can actually be played in exclusion of the social dynamics in which they take place. That a reduction to cold logic, hard numbers and efficiency actually improves and deepens the experience.

I don’t think I agree. There is something weirdly alienating to me about games and especially gamers actively seeking this emotional and social minimalism in play. As if movies were only about their plot. Or reviews only about numbers or the hand gestures at the end.

High Society – I think I’ve stumbled onto something here. That Knizia fellow may know a thing or two about game design. High Society (and its highly attractive new edition from Osprey games) is an easy auction game that has every player start out with the same starting hand of money cards and bid on valuable objects as they are drawn from the deck. A few small tweaks turn this ho-hum genre exercise into something memorable and entertaining. First, the deck is reasonably small with only 13 or so cards in it. The value of each card in relation to everybody else’s is far easier to evaluate, if you can easily tell what is left in the deck. Second, some cards are negative and go to the first player who doesn’t raise the bid on their turn. They get to keep the money, they had bid so far, though. This adds a nice psychological twist on getting money out of other players’ hands to set you up for an easy bid later. Finally, the game ends as soon as the 4th of four specially marked cards are revealed and put up for auction. It’s a rule that works much the same way dragon cards do in Ethnos. But where Ethnos introduces pressure after you’ve put your plans into motion, the hammer can fall at any moment in High Society. (The plebs among us have been waiting for a while now.) This means not only is every bid you make carries risk with it, it also leads to some very funny moments when a quick succession of cards ends the game seemingly out of nowhere.

And then there is of course the twist that at the end of the game the player with the least amount of money in hand is disqualified. Suddenly all bids have a strategic element that pays off in the hand reveal at the end. It is a necessary hard limit to the bidding war that each item invariably triggers, and in a Knizia-typical move introduces the uncertainty of human error into the game. In theory High Society is a game of card counting and well-timed bids. But the combination of player elimination and undetermined round number, puts enough pressure on players to take risks on every bid. But more than that, to make mistakes and create openings for other players to take advantage of.

Twilight Struggle – A short time after I wrote down my impressions of my first game of Twilight Struggle, I manages to get another game in. As expected, prior experience reshapes play significantly. Early mid and late war plays out very differently because of my familiarity with it. It’s not only that I know the cards themselves but also how the VP topography changes as the game progresses. My attention shifts from one area to another as the game goes on based on where VPs can/will be scored. Knowing the distribution of scoring cards helps. In play it also helps to keep an eye on when the deck gets reshuffled as this puts scoring cards potentially back into play. These cards can be anticipated without knowing exactly when they will be played. This way the game feels dynamic without being random. It allows for players to continually refine strategies as well as discover new wrinkles or clever moves every game. It’s not surprising why TS managed to hold the top spot on BGG for so long. It gets very close to being a game that allows for players to improve and experiment in equal measure.

But seeing the difference in early war to late war in my second game also hammers home the point that the strengths of the TS experience are only available to those willing to put in the hours to learn and familiarize themselves with the game. That the game is far less accessible and easy to play than it could be and in an age where even highly dynamic competitive games only take a few turn to set you on the right track to getting the most out if it, TS is showing its age. There is a reason why people who don’t know anything about computers love their Macbooks, while Linux systems while both affordable and incredibly customizable are a hard sell.

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