Game Night Verdicts #11 – Unicornus Knights, Mini Rails, Concordia

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In case you’re wondering, you’re the stern-looking bloke standing in the background

Unicornus Knights – This game just barely made it out of my trade list. To be fair it was only on that list because I so rarely had opportunity to play it, and didn‘t expect to play it again in the forseeable future. This time the stars were right, and we got it to the table again. It is still fun. There are still issues. The biggest of which might just be it’s often impossible to easily parse all the information you need when making a decision. A lot of  time will be spend calculating AI movements in your head, trying to chart the best possible course for the Princess (and by extension your characters) to take. While the challenge is great and engaging, it also feels like it relies too heavily on just being oblique as opposed to the puzzle itself being challenging. It is a game of logistics and occasionally pivotal battles, the outcome of which changes the rest of the game significantly.

One thing that I really love about this game, is that it dredges up these weird moments that you would recognise from other war-themed films or books. Based on the games I‘ve played so far, it seems quite obvious that player characters will have to sacrifice themselves sooner or later as the game progresses. That you are far more likely to lose a character or two trying to get the Princess to liberate the country, than you are successfully defending the realm with the same characters you started with. That in itself isn‘t particularly new or unusual for cooperative games with character identities. The same thing can happen with games like Knizia‘s Lord of the Rings or even Pandemic Legacy. And much like in Pandemic Legacy (or certain Final Fantasy games) you grow „fond“ of characters because you levelled them up, or given them crucial upgrades that greatly benefited your strategy. Unicornus Knights takes that one step further through the introduction of the Fate Deck, which triggers a card draw whenever you first encounter a named enemy character. This deck determines if the opponent has anything special about them. Some may randomly be given the attribute of becoming allies if defeated. Or if the Princess engages them, etc. What makes this so brilliant is that the „reason“ given for this change of heart is usually, that they fall in love. Or that they turn out to be related to the character meeting them. Or that they are just looking for a way out, etc. Suddenly you have this amazing character who‘s fallen in love, met his long-lost sibling and appealed to the enemy‘s better nature to enlist them to the cause of freedom, but then they are the only ones who can fight that important battle to allow the princess to move forward. That there is only one way to save the kingdom, and it means sacrificing this group.

Now I‘ve very definite and strong stances on warfare. But while there are games that made me recoil in disgust for the way they trivialize the unfathomable loss of lives in war like D-Day Dice (YMMV). I‘ve learned to compartmentalize this reaction somewhat in order to enjoy a game like Memoir 44.

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The playfulness of war

Which is indeed great fun, in all other aspects. No game has managed to remind me of the tragic and ultimately senseless loss of people that war brings. Even the much lauded The Grizzled only served to reference my memories of reading and learning about the insanity of World War I in school. It was my prior understanding of WWI that made The Grizzled resonate. Without it, I‘m not sure it would have been much more than a card-based cooperative game like most others. Which is not meant to diminish its artistry, but to point out the difference to my experience of Unicornus Knights.

This game managed to create characters, by having them gain experience and change during play, only to put me as a player in the uncomfortable position of having to sacrifice them for the greater good. All these stories and images I had in my mind of characters living through these arch dramatic events and all the possibilities that lay before them after the war has ended, were snuffed out by the grim inevitability of our strategy.

As is the case with all story telling, half of it is based on my willingness to engage the fiction. To allow myself any emotional connection to what unfolds in the game. Intentionally or not, Senji Kanai and Kuro managed to tap into the typical gamer instincts of ownership and identification with their character, and the story they live through, while still letting the wheel of fate fall on them without recourse. There is no way to save that one character, or to bring them back or to otherwise deny what the game deems the outcome of a lost battle to be. Your character is dead. And in the context of the ongoing fight against the Emperor, this loss resonates.

It‘s a conversation that occasionally arises in cooperative games, where certain characters may be asked to sacrifice themselves. But no other game has managed to make this feel as personal as Unicornus Knights. Not Ghost Stories, not Shadows over Camelot, not even Pandemic Legacy.

Mini Rails – Another game that may or may not end up on my trade list soon. Although in this case it‘s more of a mixture of lack of plays and not feeling enthusiastic enough to keep it. That said, for now it remains in my collection. This is only my second play of it. The first one, while pleasant, was ultimately undercut by the tight and constrained maths running underneath it. As the game progressed it became apparent that things were calculable to an extent that lessened the experience for me. So now I finally got around to giving this game another go. And ended up making a fairly fundamental mistake during set-up. Namely, instead of adjusting the number of wooden tokens to player count, I just threw them all in. Which meant, that as the game entered the final round, there was no guarantee which tokens would end up in play, and which companies would remain under-represented. The good news is, that the game is still delightfully sleek and elegantly designed. It plays briskly, which I think is a plus in more abstract games. Not because they‘re over faster, but because there‘s a more tangible sense of progress and achievement as you go through the game‘s phases. A more ‚thematic‘ game gives you room to meander a little, as the changes in texture are enough to keep you invested.

minirails
Minimalism in style

But what I really like about Mini Rails is the brilliant mechanism that determines whether your accumulated VP are valid or invalid at the end of the game. One token is left over at the end of each turn and all shares of that colour will score at the end. Any colour that wasn‘t left over at the end of the game, will be discounted. Worse yet, if its shares have slipped into the negative, they will still be considered for scoring. It adds a nice bit of tension to the game, since group think may accidentally lead players towards making their big VP scorer worthless. If everyone grabs that blue token when they can, there will be no blue tokens left over to make them worth anything at all. Although what I really love is the thematic explanation for this rule: companies that score VP are assumed to have paid their taxes.

But this is also where my rules goof ended up changing my experience quite significantly. If you can not rely on all the tokens of a company to make it to the table, the game moves from one of precise odds and tactical actions into one of risks. While it did dilute the divine purity of deterministic play, it made the game‘s strategies more accessible and overall play more exciting. While I can see the appeal of plotting out all possible outcomes for a company and basing your decisions on that, I‘m not sure it‘s the kind of game we would come back to all that often. I‘m not prone to house-rules, but I may use one for this game.

Concordia – What a strange ride my plays of this game have been. I fell head over heels for it after my first time. It completely blew my mind and rejuvenated my excitement for eurogames, especially the kind of fun experience they can generate. The balance of tactical expedience and strategic planning leading to decisions that change the game state in interesting and exciting ways. With only a few rules Concordia managed to create a complex underbelly of interactions which made each and every decision interesting and engaging. Every decision led to changes in the game state that were significant enough to change the puzzle before you. Like pebbles dropping into a pond, decisions cause ripples that open up new opportunities, bring about new costs and make your next action all the more interesting to ponder. At least, that was the experience of my first game.

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I can see my house from here!

Every subsequent game of Concordia was a pale, moribund imitation of this. At most a faint echo of what the game had been, and more often an awkward attempt to squeeze your way through its constraints. The openness of the game‘s options had been transformed into something sluggish and wearisome. I couldn‘t figure out why? Now that I‘ve played Concordia about half a dozen times, I‘m slowly starting to see the outlines of an explanation for my reaction. In fact, I think there are two explanations. The one that will seem more persuasive to you will come down to answering a simple question: do you think I‘m a windbag with delusions of grandeur when I talk about games? If the answer is yes, then the explanation for my increasing unhappiness with Concordia is delightfully simple: I lost.

If you think I may actually have something worthwhile to say in my ramblings, then I will try to explain what I perceived as a change between the first and subsequent games. In short: I think we outsmarted ourselves, and moved out of the joy of playing Concordia and straight into the challenge of playing Concordia.

There is a quote that is often attributed to Reiner Knizia about the relation between winning and playing: „When playing the game, the goal is to win. But it is the goal that is important, not the winning.“ This is generally assumed to mean that pursuing victory is necessary for the game to function. But achieving victory is not the point, so much as the direction we play in. It is the thing that propels us into the game and pushes us towards making use of the game‘s purposefully designed layers. It is, simply put, an excuse to care about what we do, so we can enjoy play as it emerges from our interactions. I am reminded of this, because I feel that a game like Concordia can easily seduce you into mistaking the excuse to play for the reason for play, and adjusting your game accordingly. Or put in a less roundabout way: if you care about winning more than you care about playing, your objective from „get the most points“ will switch to „get more points than other players“, which will then move to „hinder your rivals“.

Now to be sure, this progression is far from unusual, and I‘m reasonably certain that a lot of eurogames have been explicitly designed with such an approach in mind. The often referenced passive-aggressiveness of this genre of games is all about how players need to balance what is best for themselves with what is worst for their opponents. It is undoubtedly a tension that has its fans, even if I am not one of them. What I find noteworthy, though, is that this shift in attitude not only slightly adjusts our strategic objectives, it also significantly changes how the game, for lack of a better word, plays.

A few days ago I sat down with my son to play one of the games in my collection. He is far too young to play any of them, but he wanted to try out Lost Cities. Since he‘s quite comfortable counting numbers from 1 to 20, I simply got rid of the multiplier cards and played with him. After a few turns he got into it, building up his expedition tracks, getting rid of cards he didn‘t need and picking up the ones he wanted. It was a breezy and charming little game, with an enjoyable amount of back and forth. It also reminded me of the reason it ended up collecting dust on my shelf. The last time I had played it with my girlfriend, we both were put off by the apparent necessity of holding on to cards that the other player needed. This slowed down the game immensely, made our decisions less engaging and our card play far less dynamic. Every card your opponent picked up was a source of frustration, as it felt as if you had just presented them with free victory points. So you stopped discarding them. In the end, by trying to play Lost Cities as a game of obstructing your opponent and keeping them down wherever you could, we missed out on something fun.

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Of course it’s a trick, but HOW does he do it?

I am reminded of people that sit down at a magic show and try to figure out what the trick is. Or of people watching a mystery movie and trying to guess the next plot twist. None of them are „doing it wrong“. None of their fun is „bad“ or even „missing the point“. But it is a type of enjoyment that comes at the expense of another kind of fun. You can‘t both try to figure out the trick, and still be feel a sense of wonder. It‘s either one or the other. You can‘t be deep into the atmosphere of a film, and run through the most common plot variations in your head to predict what will happen next. One pulls you in, the other pulls you out. With films I think it takes quite a bit of conscious effort and training to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry of the movie you‘re watching, while still feeling a sense of wonder and magic as the story unfolds before you. Games might be similar in that regard.

With Concordia, though, I feel that this smarter style of play has me give up more than I gain from it. That while there is undoubtedly a game of complex interactions, far-sighted plays and ingenious moves to be made, the rush of being carried along by the ups and downs of players‘ interactions seems incompatible with that. Or at the very least, very difficult to get to unless everyone at the table works hard on it. I have this growing sense of regret, that I may never get back to play Concordia the way that I fell in love with it.

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