Game Night Verdicts #13 – Food Chain Magnate, This War of Mine, Endeavor: Age of Sail

Imposing but ultimately fair & friendly

Food Chain Magnate – I’ve finally managed to get a three player game of it together and I think the game is growing on me. The game state becomes less stable with an extra player while only minimally extending overall game length. I am eager to play it again soon, but having just finished printing and cutting the accordeon to save table space, I fear I have doomed the box to stay on my shelf untouched for six months or so. Which allows me to air my annoyance about one thing that seems to accompany every discussion of Food Chain Magnate: it’s unforgiving or punishing. And I don’t agree. It’s true that the effects of your decisions aren’t reset at the end of a turn, or even reliably undone by other players simply playing along. Actions have consequences, which judging by the events of last week, seems a deeply frightening and even infuriating concept to some men.

But at least with our group’s current familiarity with the game (which I would put at “Woody & Buzz donated to a kindergarten”) it is still possible to come back from a mistake. At least to the extent of having a great and productive turn, before things change yet again. And really, this is the joyous heart of the game: going from no revenue to full coffers in a turn or two. That’s the success/failure state that drives player ambition and leaves you excited and enthusiastic after you’ve pulled it off. The final money count seemed of only vague interest afterwards.

I am a little worried that as we become more familiar with the game, these eureka! moments will become harder to come by. And to be honest more often than not they feel only partly down to clever play and to a large extent down to accidental support and help by others. Synergies happen not due to mistakes by others or clever foresight by me, but thanks to the virtually impenetrable interlocking of effects on the board. While immensely fun, victory does tend to feel a little unearned.

Overwhelming and a bit preachy

This War of Mine – I think I have a somewhat different reaction to this game compared to most people. I like how the game goes about doing what it does. I like the choices that went into the design to create a specific mood, atmosphere and narrative. I just don‘t like what it tries to do. A friend of mine pointed out, that This War of Mine The Board Game feels more as if it is set in a post-apocalyptic setting, as opposed to an actual war zone. And while that feeling is not entirely out of place, it also shows that the game misses its mark to some extent. Instead of exploring the same ideas and artistic goals as the computer game, it merely mirrors the game itself. It‘s a translation of the game, and not of its themes. One of the ways in which this becomes clear is the omission of backstory. In the computer game, you learn little about the causes of the war, its factions or anything like that. It‘s intentionally blank so as to be set anywhere. In the context of computer games this makes sense. War in such games is used as a pretext for action, tactics and fun. The war depicted in your average first person shooter is immaterial, as it only serves to justify and rationalize you murdering living beings by the hundreds. For fun. A computer game that seeks to explore the human cost of war, can make use of this ingrained narrative reflex in gamer‘s minds. You are unlikely to stumble over a lack of explanation over why people are killing each other. That is not quite the same with board games. Here war is usually just part of what we do in a game. It‘s a tool to use to stymie somebody‘s progress (like in Sid Meier‘s Civilization The Board Game) or to remove an obstacle on your way to an objective (like in Twilight Imperium). But more importantly there is an immediate effect when you opt for confrontation with another player. The social dynamics at the table change. Fierce competitiveness and often match-long grudges are born. You engage in open conflict because it‘s necessary. (And when people pick fights unnecessarily, things get awkward.) There is a rationality to wars in board games, that computer games do not need and real life tends to lack. So when we‘re thrown into a war in a board game a lack of rational explanation makes it virtually indistinguishable from playing any other post-apocalyptic game. This distinction isn‘t the root of where the game misses its mark, but it is indicative of where its focus lies: reproducing the computer game, not translating it.

On the other hand, the game is very skilled at creating characters that you can empathise with. That is because personal abilities are triggered by events in the game as well as your achievements every turn. Those then translate into traits which in turn influence your abilities later. In other words what you do can affect how characters feel, which changes how much they can contribute. By making the emotional state of the characters part of the game, they gain an additional dimension to us as players. The key here being that it isn’t explicitly spelled out how their emotions express themselves, only that they do. This lets players turn the narrative potential of the situation into a narrative moment in their minds. One that directly relates to the decisions they’ve made in the game. This is amazing. And it makes some of the events in the story book ring even more false, when this decision-driven change is swapped for a player choice as randomizer. In one sequence we came upon a woman watching our camp. When we chose to interrogate her, the characters injured her and then recoiled in horror at their willingness to harm people. And how war had changed them. It felt phony and artificial, because it was. Which is my biggest criticism of the game: its moral moments feel shoehorned and are entirely predictable. Ignoring actual player involvement and decisions for delivering its message. It can feel like preaching at the players, who are likely to be agreeable to begin with. (We certainly were.) But it misses an opportunity to make players actually take responsibility for their actions. Instead you choose blindly and then characters scold themselves (and by extension you) afterwards.

Tone-deaf and a little tacky

Endeavor: Age of Sail – You know, there is such a thing as too much bling. This is a fairly modest, i.e. non-sprawling and non-overwhelming, design. Maybe the way in which the various elements work together to create a functional engine could be a little clearer, relying instead on repeated plays to be understood. But for the most part you play, experiment and find new ways to optimize your engine. But the KS-fueled production values find little traction with the game’s design. The indented player boards, plastic trackers and plastic trays don‘t really enhance or support gameplay. They definitely look expensive, though. And by doing so, Endeavor manages to suggest an air of decadent opulence about what is actually a perfectly decent game. And that makes playing it feel trivial and unseemly. Like ordering a gold-plated hamburger. The further you push it toward looking extravagant and „deluxified“, the more apparent its plainness. Caring about board games can feel distinctively first world problems-y often enough, but a game like Endeavor only exacerbates the impression that this is much ado about nothing.

And if that‘s not enough, there is still the colonialist theme in general, and the slavery deck in particular. One of the things you can do to optimize your engine, is trade for slaves. Because apparently some people still think that slavery is not a big deal in a gaming context. To be honest, I do not have a visceral, gut reaction to games that touch on this topic. I‘m a white European, so I don‘t have any immediate reminders of my ancestors‘ awful ways of treating people. But I think the inclusion of slavery as a secondary rules mechanic always trivializes and downplays the real life horrors behind the word. Citing real world history as justification is pretty tone-deaf, too. It‘s not Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s yet, but honestly it‘s not too many steps away from it either. That part of the design is deeply cringe-worthy and doesn‘t do the game any favours. Calling it contraband would have easily made the whole thing easier to deal with. It’s not that the game is flawed in and of itself, but both presentation and choice of theme leave a bad taste in my mouth.

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