I once heard an aphorism that went like this: a design is well made, if a user doesn’t pick up on it. Even, or especially, in board games that challenge players, good design stands out when it goes unnoticed. Good design paves the way to the task at hand, without keeping players on a short least and letting them run into dead ends over and over again.
There are generally two ways to do this. Either you use every trick you know of to incentivize players through visuals, language or physical objects. All of which aim to be easily comprehensible without requiring long-winded explanations. Or you present players with concepts and ideas they are already familiar with.
Acropolis often leans towards the latter, but also knows how to be a bit more subtle in the right places. This is perhaps why it manages to entertain without it being immediately obvious why.
Gameplay is kept simple. You choose tiles from a display and put them together in front of you. Differences in color point to different scoring conditions, which must be met at the end of the game. If individual parts of the tiles are covered by another tile, the colors covered are ignored, but you gain other advantages.
Nobody who can name more than three game authors will discover anything breathtakingly innovative here. But the familiarity not only makes it easier to get into the game, it also means that Akropolis’ eleven rounds play out at a pleasant pace. The path to the game remains without any nasty twists or devious potholes. It is a design that is so even that you could almost play curling on it.
But then Acropolis offers subtle details that make it delightful instead of boring. For one thing, there’s the shape of the game tiles. They could have been square, whichwould have meant that the color distribution on them could be deciphered right away. It’d take only a fraction of a second to see which placement would benefit you most. In 4 Gods the tiles are square and that’s why the game is played in real time. If you were to play in turns (as you do in Acropolis), the weighing your options and making a decision would be trivial. The many corners of the tiles in Acropolis ask you to turn them over in your head as well as in your hand and to weigh up the possibilities of placing the tile this way or that.
Once pieced together the tiles fit together exactly and seamlessly, so every turn tends to end with a quick hit of dopamine. Like a long sought-after puzzle piece that has finally found its home, you close gaps in your own display. The box itself continues this subtle invitation to order and structure. Its inlay lets you arrange all the tiles in a neatly manner, even providing a recess in which to place the scoring pad, rules overview and the starting tiles that are of a slightly different shape.
Another inconspicuous detail is the thickness of the tiles themselves. Ever since Splendor, we know that weighted game material makes taking a turn feel more valuable and more substantial. If it had been thin cardboard discs or printed paper, instead of weighter chips, Splendor would have likely have sunk into obscurity. The thick tiles in Acropolis subtly add – and I apologize for the inevitable pun – weight to our decisions.
Attributing every single one of these details to some genius plan of the designer would only serve to display my vanity as a critic. But it would be similarly presumptious of me to dismiss these details as irrelevant trivialities. We experience a game as a whole: from its rules, to its illustrations, to its components. Whether there is a conscious intent behind all of them or not, is immaterial to our critique of a game. In the end, players take in all facets of the game, regardless of whose brainchild they were. Even when we try to reduce our evaluation of the game to individual moments, features or rules details, it is the overall impression that matters. And while this impression may not be spectacular and outstanding in Acropolis; it is good.
Acropolis does not reinvent the wheel. But it in this configuration and implemetation, it has an identity of its own. Acropolis is a good design, which creates familiarity through its rules and entertains through its presentation. Thus is the reverse of what many people expect from a game. Namely that the presentation ought to be familiar and inviting, but it is the rules that delight. It may very well be that Acropolis will fail in some groups, because of this. But people who enjoy the activity of playing a board game will likely feel comfortable with Acropolis. Sometimes that’s exactly what we value in a game.