Game Night Verdicts – Special Spiel 2018 in Essen Edition (part 2)

Proving again, that there is such a thing as too many deadlines… here now is part 2 of the Spiel 2018 in Essen Special of these very Game Night Verdicts.

Will you only play it Just One time? Yes…. yes, we will.

Just One – Before we left the Asmodee press hall, we tried one quick game of Just One. It had caught my eye in preparation of the fair, but due to its party game roots never really made it to the top spots of my list. It shares some some similarities to Codenames with its one-word clues, but where Codenames has you play competitively.. Just One seems a strongly cooperative experience. A group of players each need to give the guesser a one word clue. You all write the clue in secret then reveal at the same time, with any duplicates immediately disqualified for the turn. Which means that this is a game that becomes more interesting the more players you get around the table. If the game has any issue, other than the steep price for what is – at best – a parlor game, it’s the lack of clear distinction from other games of similar stripe. I understand that this argument may seem pernickety, but the game itself simply isn’t elaborate enough to unpack the design in order to illustrate the experience of playing it. It is very much the kind of game you expect from the description above. Just One fits into your collection a bit like hot sauce fits into your spices rack (or wherever it is that you keep your hot sauce). People who don’t like it, have at most one at home. Either for guests, or because friends have given them one as a present. Some people love the one they have, don’t experiment much but eventually do find one that they prefer, so they swap it. Much like some groups may replace their copy of Codenames with Just One. And others still, have half a dozen and more, and know how to finely distinguish between each according to whom they have over at the moment. This is probably where Just One would fit best. It’s a slight variation on the experience of other one word clue games, but it isn’t distinct enough to warrant the attention of people who only have a passing interest and casual investment in the genre. If you’re happy with the word game you already own and play, Just One won’t rock your world.

No comment on how long it took me see the shape the flags make up

Mini WWII – One thing I like about fairs like Spiel is that I get to try out games that are outside of my comfort zone. In this case, my comfort zone tends to end when it comes to gamifying real-life wars. But after years of avoiding Memoir 44, I sat down and was quite amazed by its carefully crafted design. So a random picture on my Twitter timeline pushed this game onto my radar, and I ended up sitting down to play it first thing on Friday morning. To cut a long story short, I’ve since bought a copy of this game for myself. Despite my thematic reservations, which run quite deeply to be honest, the experience just worked for me.

Spiel is a unique place to try new games due to the likelihood of sharing a table with a diverse set of people. It’s one of the reasons why, somewhat to the dismay of my very gracious hosts, I often split and sit down to play games with complete strangers. Luckily I had the good fortune joining a table with three other players to try out Mini WWII. A mother and her teenage son from Switzerland, as well as a joyful, purple haired woman from the United Arab Emirates had already taken their seats and I managed to bump the cosplaying designer off the last empty chair and into full-on rules explainer mode.

Astute readers may have already gathered that this game is set during WWII. One team controls the UK and Russia, with the other team in control of Japan and Germany. The map is highly abstracted. Your turn consists of playing a card to spend its points on 1 of 3 possible actions, or to invest the card into researching new technologies to make the war turn in your favour. The abstract nature of the gameplay does much to alleviate my reservations about the theme, but that’s not the reason why I had to buy my own copy. As I mentioned above, the experience of playing the game was incredibly fun.

And this started me thinking about what it is we actually do when we talk about games, write about games or review them. What exactly is it we’re trying to dissect? What is it that we’re trying to convey to our respective audience?

It’s the experience of playing the game.

But how do we try to do that? What is the angle through which we express that experience? For some people it’s a numeric score, or a particularly effusive way of speaking. For writers, it’s reaching for metaphors, humourous or straight-faced, to express our state of mind or even the emotional journey we go on as we play. Yet all of those attempts eventually return to the material reality of the game: presentation, components and rules/design. So our touchstone for talking about the emotional experience of play, is the inert and reproducible part of it. Imagine trying to explain how gripping a novel is by continuously referring back to the quality of its print. Or trying to talk about the emotional journey a movie takes you on by circling the argument back to the picture’s composition and sharpness. Or try to express why you feel kinship with another person based on the way they dress or the kind of job they have. It’s patently absurd.

Cosplaying designer Wei-Cheng Cheng (right) holding his game (picture by Henk Rolleman)

So what does Mini WWII have to do with this tangent? I think the group I played this game with was to some extent a fortuitous accident. We laughed, we enjoyed ourselves, we shared this game and our time together. I’d be happy to play with any of them again at the earliest opportunity, and I do sincerely hope to run into them again next year at least. What part of this had to do with us as people? How did the heightened atmosphere of Spiel play into it? What of this experience was down to the game itself? I’m honestly not quite sure.

Mini WWII is a strange beast in that regard. I can tell that the design is delightfully and intentionally narrow. This isn’t a sprawling Ameritrash style brawl in the vein of Axis & Allies. The game meticulously and carefully includes specific elements of real world history (like allies joining later or even the nuclear bomb) and finds a way to echo them in the game by way of its mechanics. This isn’t mere simulation, it’s translation. This kind of design craft I find very impressive. (The other game, that I was really excited about at Spiel does something similar.) But I also know that said skillful design did not directly influence our experience. Our rapport wasn’t due to the card mechanics or tech tree of the game. I will go out on a limb though and say, that had the game been mediocre or outright bad, I highly doubt that we would have hit it off in quite the same way. Mini WWII did something, I’m just not yet sure what.

I will say that the game is very good, and quite clever. But I am at a loss to explain why playing this game was one of my top experiences at this year’s Spiel. But it did make me wonder if it is possible to make the unseen strings that guide our play experience visible. If the answer is yes, how can we make use of them to enhance the experience of any game we play? Maybe some people already know the answer? Maybe knowing the answer is the difference between a good and a great player?

Four Big Strata
My camera lens steamed up all on its own

Four Big Strata – Every year I’ve been to Spiel there was at least one game that I felt had slipped through my fingers. For about half of the fair I was sure it would be Mini WWII, had I not found the very last copy at the Nice Game Shop booth. But as I am thinking back on the game I’ve played, I think that Four Big Strata might be my missed opportunity of Spiel 2018. I’m not entirely sure how or why the game ended up on my watch list to be honest. I remember having a hard time finding the booth, due to a typo somewhere along the line… by the time I did make it to the right booth, the game was already sold out. But I sat down to play the demo copy anyway. The woman demoing the game was very friendly, even as we both struggled our way through English. About halfway through it turned out that she was more comfortable explaining the game in German, so we switched and did actually manage to play a short game with what I assume are about 80% of the rules. We had to interrupt the game a few times so she could consult with her colleagues over a certain rule, and at least in a couple of times a hand-wavey motion seemed to suggest we were, in fact, winging it. It’s probably best described as a civ-lite, engine building game with a bidding element thrown in. Admittedly, that doesn’t do it justice. While its design isn’t quite the revelation it seems to take in order to justify loud enthusiasm for a new release, the elements of the game were familiar without feeling stale. I especially appreciated that the continually growing demand of your people (cards) meant that your civilization would occasionally regress if you couldn’t meet demand. But this also led to additional flexibility in restructuring certain parts of your civilization. It’s a deceptively shallow game, that opens up quickly after a few turns. Decisions can have long-term consequences, especially if you run out of luck in some turns. The game seems to straddle the line between impressively elegant and effortlessly efficient and does so with what seems to be small core rules set. As I am writing this, the only English translation of the Chinese rules seems to be nigh indecipherable. So there may actually be dozens of finicky rules that make the game a pain to play. But my one virtual play of it, made me eager to try again at least. (An industrious Spanish speaking fan has translated the original into Spanish, which is probably an improvement. I couldn’t tell.)

I also found myself smirking at the fact that the four types of cards all depict men, who are probably best described as hunks. From the muscular, topless farmer to the seductively looking merchant to the muscular, topless blacksmith and the authoritative, yet enigmatic military man. It usually takes a game that so casually bucks the trend to remind you, that there are probably not enough games that feature predominantly sexy men all over its cards.

More to come, next time with Crossroads of Heroes, Arkham Horror 3rd edition, First Contact…

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