Games can be appealing, because they give players an outlet for behavior they may not have room for in their daily lives. Well-adjusted people tend to not be ruthlessly competitive towards others, but may enjoy indulging in some testy back-and-forth in a board game with friends. The same might be said for bald-faced lying or even just unchecked ambition. The latter in particular finds a (reasonably) safe outlet within boardgaming. If that is what draws you to playing games, there’s a chance you might find Coatl by Pascale Brassard and Etienne Dubois-Roy to be a little out of step with itself.
The first thing you will definitely notice is Coatl’s colorful presentation and its equally bright playing pieces with colors so intense they are just about a hair’s breadth away from being garish. But when laid out on the table Coatl is more likely to suggest playfulness than overbearing visual dissonance. Another point in its favor, is the simplicity of the rules themselves. It takes large illustrations, a lot of negative space and big font to fill up its 12-page rulebook. This does not suggest a game that is particularly taxing to play or difficult to finish successfully.
Even its turn structure is familiar and easily memorized. You collect pieces from the display, put them together to form a Coatl (a feathered serpent used in Aztec rituals) and score points based on whatever cards you’ve played on it. The first player to complete their third Coatl ends the game, placing a clear end goal in sight for everyone.
And yet, particularly when introducing the game to experienced players, Coatl soon develops the kind of forward momentum you’d associate with being stuck in quicksand. Brows are furrowed, chins are stroked and the pensive silence is only occasionally interrupted by requests for just a few more seconds to think things through. Somehow the game that’s on the table seems to follow a different rhythm than the one that is being played.
A game can be appealing or even addictive because of how player decisions and the consequences for those decisions are spread out over its running time. If the two happen almost instantaneously, decisions feel trivial and almost inconsequential. But inject some time delay into it by way of careful deliberation of all options or the game’s design keeping back the payoff for your decision for a few turns and decisions start to feel more meaningful. Getting what you want feels like an achievement.
Experienced players are likely to have internalized this. Considering all your options on your turn becomes less about avoiding frustrating mistakes that might lose you the game, and about squeezing all the enjoyment you can get from the game’s decision space. Because thinking about what to do next makes doing what you’re about to do next more fun.
That’s why a great many design decisions aim to provide players with enough variables to provoke serious consideration of the consequences, while also creating an enjoyable tension as they wait for the results of their carefully weighed options to arrive. It’s like the fleeting moments of anticipation after you’ve thrown your frisbee disc and watch to see where it lands. If you couldn’t follow its flight with your eyes, most of the fun of disc golf would disappear.
Coatl, despite its inviting presentation and simple overall rules design, presents players with quite a lot of things they could choose to think about in the attempt to score a winning number of victory points. Cards in your hand spell out conditions your Coatl has to meet, like a specific arrangement of particular colored pieces. Some cards allow this combination to be counted multiple times for even more VP. If you bring even a kernel of ambition to the table, you will quickly look for ways to best combine your cards and playing pieces to maximize your VP payout. This is, after all, what makes playing games like this so much fun. A great number of gamers love their heavy eurogames for exactly that reason. Complex calculations and long-term plotting of actions are an essential part of their appeal. But Coatl is not a heavy eurogame, which is why feeling the need to put this much effort into getting the most out of it feels out of step with the rest of the design.
This perceived need to think hard to make an efficient and meaningful decision is in no small part based on how it’s difficult to tell what players should be aiming for. Or to put it in simpler terms: unless you’ve played a few games of Coatl, you can’t quite tell if 12 VP is a good, average or bad score for a single Coatl. The game does provide some hints, though. There are three special action tokens with a 50 printed on the back to serve as VP reminders should you make it past the VP track’s last space (50). Once you connect the scoring range of your hand cards with the hard limit of cards that a single Coatl may fulfill, you might estimate an upper limit of around 25 VP per Coatl.
Equipped with this (incomplete) knowledge you will inevitably slow the game down to a crawl before long. Because what Coatl doesn’t tell you, is that the effort it takes to increase your score grows exponentially the higher you want it to go. So the harder you try to play the game well, to score close to a maximum of points, the more it will drag on.
All games have learning curves, during which players have to acquaint themselves with the ups and downs of the game’s particular form of unpredictability, the impact of particular rules interactions and so on. Once you’ve moved past this, these games tend to play more fluidly, more interestingly and more dynamically. Coatl, on the other hand, has you learn to moderate your ambition.
In order to really enjoy the game, you need to set your aims a little lower than the maximum. Which is an usual thing to ask of highly competitive players. The more ambitious your playstyle, the harder the game seems to get. In that regard it has something in common with Carrossel. Another lighter game, that also provoked highly competitive players into treating it as a much more complex and challenging game than it was arguably intended to be.
Similarly, Coatl is at its most enjoyable when played as a light to medium-heavy race to the finish line, and less like a spatial combination puzzle stretched out over dozens and dozens of turns in which seemingly not much happens until somebody’s score surges forward.
This doesn’t necessarily make Coatl a flawed design, but one that places an almost imperceptible obstacle between players and their enjoyment, which might stop them from giving the game a second chance. Once you can stop taking Coatl so seriously, it’s actually both breezy and tense to play.