Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition 2

Corona restrictions have led to a significant lack of game nights recently. Several of my reviews were affected by this. While I can‘t guarantee that I won‘t change my mind about these games as I get to play them more, I want to at least write down my preliminary assessment of the games I played since October.

Unpainted but no less wild

To start off with the obvious, Unicorn Fever is a colourful game with a quirky sense of humour. Its combination of colours is just as skewed as the proportions of the unicorns, goblins and dwarves depicted on the game‘s cards. These aesthetical decisions aren‘t just there to grab your attention, but to communicate just how serious you should take the game as a whole. Within its gaudy presentation you‘ll find the kind of rock-solid and effective betting game, that leads to the occasional screams of excitement around the table.

You generally don‘t need a complex set of rules for that. Accordingly, Unicorn Fever is quickly explained. Before each race you get three actions to split into bets, gaining advantages and influencing the racers. This provides enough structure and decisions to keep your interest for more than just a single game. As with its predecessor Horse Fever the winning odds for the unicorns are adjusted after each race. If they placed better than expected, they‘re given less profitable odds and vice versa. This encourages you to bet on underdogs, and to push them past the finishing line with a little luck and a generous helping of card effects.

A true gambler will not be intimidated by probabilities

The game‘s level of excitement is in part due to how volatile the winnings are. In a single race you could win incredible sums or lose it all, depending on how much you want to risk. It‘s this instability that creates tension without feeling arbitrary. After the first race you might find yourself far behind. A hail mary bet might often be the only shot you have at staying competitive. This can be appealing, but it can also be quite demotivating. This isn‘t a game for people who can‘t handle a little frustration.

If you‘re the kind of person to play Unicorn Fever like a dry eurogame with carefully chosen strategies and well-calculated moves, the unpredictability of it all will strike you as an unforgiveable weakness of the game. But the design decisions behind it aren‘t simply justified by way of its theme. Instead the fickleness of successful strategies opens up the game for more passion and theatrics at the table, as you cheer on your favorite. This, at least, makes Unicorn Fever quite memorable.

You can do it, ZOE!

Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition

Corona restrictions have led to a significant lack of game nights recently. Several of my reviews were affected by this. While I can‘t guarantee that I won‘t change my mind about these games as I get to play them more, I want to at least write down my preliminary assessment of the games I played since October.

Let‘s start with something small. Anansi by Cyril Blondel and Jim Dratwa, illustrated by Emmanuel Mdlalose and Dayo Baiyegunhi, published by Heidelbär Games. It‘s a remake of an older trick-taking game previously published as Eternity. This edition comes in a nice shiny box, similar to the one used for Spicy. The first thing you’ll notice about Anansi is that there are only three suits. The next thing you’ll note is how they’re presented thematically. The suits are called hornet, snake and leopard. This decision is explained by way of an unusual background narrative. While it may not affect gameplay or your understanding of the rules in any meaningful way, it does give the game a unique, albeit exotic, touch.

Anansi’s art is both colourful and stylish

The real hook of Anansi isn’t its background narrative, though, but the way to score points. In each of the three rounds you play, you score points when winning as many tricks as you declare. So far, so average. The first interesting wrinkle is that you declare by discarding cards from your hand. Those very same cards also affect the winning suit in the current round. This leads to amusingly brain-pretzely turns as you try to evaluate the strength of your hand of cards. There are little to no dull rounds in Anansi. You can’t just mindlessly play down your hand, but have to constantly keep an eye on your fellow players. As is often the case with trick-taking games, they thrive on the meta they build up over time, i.e. how you learn and anticipate your group’s specific patterns and account for them in your decision-making. I’d need a few more games of Anansi to figure out how well this actually holds up over time.

Another game published by Heidelbär Games covers similar albeit distantly related ground: Coyote by Spartaco Albertarelli, illustrations by Zona Evon Shroyer. Another re-release of a previously published game. It was released as Pow-Wow in Germany in the mid-00s. In that game players stuck cards to their foreheads and, just as in Coyote, players had to estimate the combined sum of those cards. Its tone-deaf presentation wouldn’t be fit to publish today. With the exception of people who are upset that baseball fans can’t cite tradition to cling to offensive team names or co-workers who keep asking the guy with the odd name where they’re “really” from, nobody would want to publish Pow Wow now as it was back then. It’s both commendable and reasonable to hire cultural consultants for the game, who are themselves members of the Cheyenne and Apacho Tribes. That doesn’t make Coyote a deeply thematic game depicting Native American culture. It remains a light-hearted and eminently hilarious bluffing game. Players try to goad each other into overshooting a certain number, without exactly knowing that number. Bringing in cultural consultants may seem excessive, but it’s absolutely not. Especially when using the visual language and history of foreign cultures, this should be industry standard.

Standees have replaced headbands. Still clever, though.

That aside, Coyote does not fully unfold its charms until you’ve played it a few rounds. It’s precisely when our understanding of probabilities (or rather the gut feeling we use in its place) is refuted by the actual card distribution that we laugh the hardest. The more you play, the more the capriciousness of the cards gets to trick you. Those are the stories that Coyote gets remembered for. The unique player dynamics unfold when it starts to become clear who is about to be fooled into overshooting this round. Again only repeated plays will show if this mix of secret and open information, deception and mental arithmetic is really interesting or just unusual.

The Review Copy and the Critic – part one of a long and winding road

There are many traits by which you could differentiate a game critic from a typical board game enthusiast. Whether it‘s their ability to articulate how a game feels to play, or the analytical skill to name the reasons for their particular game experience. Sometimes it is just the talent to convey the emotional dimension of a game to their audience. However, the one thing that seems to be on the mind of most people is this: critics get review copies for free. A good enough reason to pay closer attention to what review copies actually mean for criticism.

I’ve heard people argue that critics become beholden to a publisher once they accept a review copy. That there would be a conflict of interest, if a positive review meant they might receive more games in the future at a significant discount or even for free. Therefore it is imperative for the critic to be transparent and unambiguously communicate if they have received a review copy for free. The audience has to be warned of a potential reviewer bias.

At first glance, this seems entirely plausible. Just like the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains; that alpha males always fight their way to the top of the wolf pack, or that there are exactly two sexes. All this seems plausible, but it is still nonsense.

The potential for a review-skewing bias shouldn’t be attributed to the reviewer’s assumed for more free games, but is far more likely to be affected by a phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. Among other things, it makes a person more likely to perceive an object they own as being more valuable and of a higher quality than one they do not. In practice, this means that if you buy a game yourself, you are more likely to overlook its flaws and emphasize its strengths.

So if you were actually invested in reviewers being more transparent about potential causes for bias, you would have to do this for games they bought themselves. The more interesting question is why transparency is so important in a critique in the first place.

The answer can be found in the relationship between the critic and the audience. Transparency is necessary when the critic wants to affect the behavior of the audience. Specifically: when they are trying to influence what their audience should or should not buy. The modern Internet age has even found a term for these types of critics: influencers. Transparency is a must the moment a critic acts as an influencer. There is nothing wrong with this. It simply describes a way in which criticism is presented.

The effectiveness of a critique depends on its credibility. It can, for example, be a result of how similar the critic’s taste is to that of their audience. I’ve heard people say they I should look for a critic who is closest to my own gaming tastes. However, a critique can also gain credibility because it offers analytical and argumentative substance. Do you feel tempted to buy a game because you relate to the critic’s gaming preferences, or do the arguments presented make you curious about the game? The dividing line between the two approaches is never quite clean, and it’s not uncommon for a reviewer to go one way or the other at times. That’s because influencers and reviewers are not opposing positions. Rather, they are two separate fields of work which can overlap, but do not have to.

However, this distinction is not a matter of quality, but of function. A review can serve as buying advice, or as a deeper, substantive examination of the game itself. An audience looking for purchasing advice in a review feels reassured by transparency and warned against possible manipulation by the reviewer. Just as we tend to have some reservations when talking to a salesperson in a game store, since they have a vested interest in selling us a game. Similarly we try to estimate whether the critic tries to sell us a game, if they have been given a review copy. The requirement to always note review copies also expresses how we understand our own relationship to the reviewer. Namely, as part of the influencer’s community whose views are respected because we relate to that person in one way or another.

So when you make review copies a topic of contention, it’s only superficially about journalistic integrity. At its core, it’s about the self-image of the reviewer, their work, and the people who consume that work.

Featured image by Tangi Bertin (https://unsplash.com/@tangib)

Game Night Verdicts #47 – Coffee Roaster

For a game to work, its design has to answer one important question first: why? Or more accurately, why should I bother to play this game? Depending on how you found your way to gaming, your answer can vary dramatically. The competitive type might rely on the wisdom of Conan: “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you…”. If you had the misfortune of being raised bougie, you might see games as a way to educate yourself and gain new skills. If you define yourself by your work, games may be a respite from the stresses of daily life. Most designs use these or comparable approaches to appeal to players. Many of them overlap when it comes to looking at the challenge a game offers, and how it tickles players’ ambition. 

Coffee Roaster by Saashi (here the localisation by dlp games) offers such a challenge. It is a game about roasting coffee beans, much as the title would suggest. Coffee beans are represented by numbered tokens. The roastery is represented by a cloth bag. Each turn a set number of tokens is drawn out of it. Each such “roasting step” leads to most of the drawn tokens being swapped for higher rated ones and returned to the roastery. Some are removed from the game altogether. In order to score well at the end of the game, you want to draw coffee beans of the right strength from the bag.

But in a surprising move we are denied the type of decisions we might have expected to make, to win the game. We can’t choose how many beans to draw per roasting step. We also don’t decide what happens to the beans we draw. The most important decision we get to make, is when to initiate the game ending scoring. It’s a decision that’s highly tense and exciting even the twentieth time you play the game.

A clean layout hides the many agonizing decisions you will make here

It would be too pat and easy to point at the familiar psychological cycle of a push your luck mechanism here. As that would ignore the subtle craftsmanship that went into making this game. Because a successful coffee roast isn’t simply thrilling question of how long to risk it. A good score feels like a hard-earned accomplishment.

Like most solo games Coffee Roaster is less playful activity than a tricky problem you are asked to solve. You don’t just have to weather the adversities of randomly drawn tokens. You also have to nudge the roasting process just right to get a good score at the end of your roast. Because while Coffee Roaster might not hand you the decisions you expect to make, it still does grant you small decision spaces. Depending on the type of coffee bean you’ve chosen a number of colored tokens are included in the bag, which allow you to trigger special actions that don’t seem all that powerful at first glance.

A typical roasting step changes six or more of your tokens, whereas the efficacy of your actions are small and subtle. They often affect one or two of your beans directly, if at all. This leads to each roasting step feeling like a landslide that you’re trying to deal with by putting up paper flags and stern words. And yet somehow, when the end rolls around, it’s enough to put victory in reach. 

Winning a game of Coffee Roaster feels so valuable and satisfying, because of the wide gap between what we want to change and what we actually can change. Something that’s subtly underlined when you compare the administrative effort it takes to complete a roasting step, compared to taking a special action. The tactility reinforces the appeal of facing the game’s challenge. Every time you decide to reach into the bag, the game threatens to spin out of control. Each special action is a deliberate risk we take, that will only pay off at the end of the game.

This cup scores high on technique and taste, but a little low on roastedness

Saashi manages the kind of balancing act that a lot of designers are envious of. A game which draws you in despite a manageable number of decisions it lets you make. It’s a design that works, because it cleverly builds up tension and lets us choose when to resolve it. In other words: Coffee Roaster is a gaming delicacy.

Game Night Verdicts #46 – Flick of Faith

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Flick of Faith is fun. It’s a flicking game in which you try to position your tokens on the board, so that they score points at the end of a round. Since it has found its way into my collection, it has hit the table almost every other day with two, three and four players.

If this is all you need from a review and consider this enough of a recommendation, you can easily skip the rest of the review and just look at the pictures.

Flick of Faith is a well produced game. Its presentation is friendly, colorful and inviting. The neoprene mat, that serves as a game board, has enough texture that the flicked wooden disks don’t fly off the table when hit. But you still need to carefully dose your finger strength, so as not to overshoot your mark. The tokens have the right size to serve as weapons against your opponents’ tokens as well as a way to defend against opposing attacks. They could have been a tiny bit heavier, to emphasise the game’s tactile quality. In a dexterity game in which you have to use your fingers as carefully and thoughtfully as you do here, just a few grams would have made a big difference.

Seen here: a tense fight over property rights

This is more than superficial nitpicking. The tactile experience plays an important role in shaping the feel of a dexterity game. It’s the quality of the pieces that turn a game of Boule from hurling cheap plastic around to a distinguished quality time with some of your favorite drinking buddies. Flick of Faith’s wooden tokens, pieces and cards are nice to look at and to hold, without coming across as gaudy or overproduced. This is a reasonable move, since it’s the game’s concept itself that delivers most of the enjoyment.

But in order for the disk flicking and point scoring to become a game, it needs some kind of a framework that gives player actions some weight. Flicking disks is an entertaining activity that requires some structure to sustain the initial enjoyment and keep it from petering out. It’s an issue that Flick of Faith chooses to avoid instead of dealing with it head-on. The game is simply over before you can get tired of playing it.

Each of the three (or four) rounds begins with a law card that introduces a simple new rule to the game. Sometimes scoring is made easier, sometimes harder. Other times flicking disks gets a little more elaborate. Some of these rules last a single turn, others until the end of the game. These cards make the game feel quite dynamic and cover up the otherwise monotonous nature of each turn. In some cases you may feel reminded of Fluxx, a card game in which players would play cards that routinely changed the rules of the game. This kept Fluxx from from ever slowing down enough to allow for strategic decision-making. Which isn’t the intention here, although it is a side-effect.

To most players getting their tokens (prophets) onto one of the map’s four islands is sufficiently demanding as is. There’s rarely an opportunity to position yourself cleverly or become a hindrance for your opponents. The rules changes feel like the rapid editing and skewed camera angles that directors employ to inject some energy into a scene for fear of losing their audience’s attention.

The Dagda (green, Irish) scores some valuable points

But to reiterate: Flick of Faith is fun. You’ll flick, you’ll laugh and before you have the chance to be bored by it all, it’s over. People who don’t really want anything more from a game will not be disappointed. You could argue that Flick of Faith doesn’t want to be anything more than that. Entertaining 2 to 4 people for about 20 minutes may be good enough.

But I’m not sure that a game should only by evaluated by the goals it (might have) set for itself. I think it’s worth looking at what it actually offers to players. Does Flick of Faith bring more to the table than half an hour of small talk with your friends? With my children the game is often the more satisfying alternative to talking about their day at school or kindergarten. If I were to bring it up with my regular gaming group, curiosity would win at first and get the game played a few times. But I’m not sure that after a while, it would feel any more satisfying than a chat about our everyday banalities. But for those few games at least, we’ll doubtlessly have fun.

May Lightning Strike You

To most of us games are escapism, entertainment and shared fun with friends. But even though we talk about disappearing into a game we really enjoy, they do not exist in a vacuum. Regardless of what we understand games to be: an artistic product, a shared experience or just fun times with friends, they are an extension and a part of the real world. As such games are subject to tangible and material limitations. One of which we all now operate under as COVID-19 keeps us from going to meet-ups or having game nights how and whenever we want. But such limitations aren’t new. At least to people who, due to identity or opportunity are only able to participate under certain conditions.

It’s no accident that topics such as representation are particularly hotly debated in those parts of the global gaming community, in which the intentional exclusion of people is a pressing, societal concern. Being able to participate in the cultural life around you, is tied to limitations that society imposes on you.

The heated political polarization we can see happening in various countries is ultimately due to certain groups attempting to radically rewrite such limitations for all aspects of society. Reactionary, right-wing and fascist forces seek to fundamentally restructure how we live together. Every group that criticizes them, defies them or simply doesn’t fit their narrow way of life is supposed to be pushed to the margins of society. They are supposed to be so heavily restricted in how they live, thrive and survive, that the idea of dissent, let alone resistance, becomes unthinkable. The goal is not political persuasion or reaching some democratic consensus, but to grind down the opposition into a state of permanent hopelessness.

It is harrowing how many examples there are of this. From blatant voter suppression in the United States of America, to the purposeful push towards financial bondage of the working class in the UK to the social, physical and mental endangerment of women in Poland due to further tightenting of its abortion ban. Poland’s constitutional court has issued a new ruling or clarification that has caused widespread protests already lasting days. A growing number of people are siding with or against the right of women to bodily autonomy, and the right to protect their physical and mental health as well as their life.

One of the people, who have declared their political position now, is Portal Games.

With a comparatively subtle, yet unambiguous change of their company’s Polish Facebook banner Portal Games sides with those who protest the court’s ruling. They do so without a call to action, or a public statement or even a reference to a charity. 

This new banner shows a young, naturally very attractive woman, casually carrying an oversized red lightning bolt on her shoulder. It is the same lightning bolt, which is part of the symbol, that graces placards and flyers of those who oppose the abortion ban.

This is worth mentioning, because the head of the company, Ignacy Trzewiczek has never been shy about running his company with a strict sense and eye for business. Even his publicity work (podcasts, videos, etc.)  has always served to position the brand Portal Games as a positive one, with close ties to the gaming community. Although the company has, somewhat quietly, been more inclusive of women in the industry both in front of and behind the scenes, explicit political statements were generally avoided. Presumably, because it may put off any potential customers. It is the old fairy tale, that business – like games – exists in some separate sphere far away from all our other social concerns. 

Naturally, this banner change has led to all kinds of interpretations. People are trying to decode the reasons behind it and assume ulterior motives that fit with their own world view. Is Portal Games trying to cozy up to socially-liberal gamers without committing to any meaningful action (like a call to action, a public statement or a reference to a charity)? Or are they, in light of strong political tensions in the country simply careful not to offer people too much room to attack, by foregoing a call to action, a public statement or a reference to a charity? Or has the blatant injustice become so unbearable that silence would seem like tacit endorsement and a betrayal of one’s values which can’t be neatly summed up in a call to action, a public statement or a reference to a charity? Because why should people stand for something or someone, unless they can profit from it?

A cynical world view is one which sees self-interest as the driving, if not only motive for human action. It is an alluringly simple explanation for any and all injustice one sees or feels. As is often the case with explanations that are as simple as they are widely applicable, they tend to lead people astray. Those who think of Portal Games as shrewdly capitalizing on a cultural moment only reveal their own hopelessness and inability to imagine human solidarity. Cynicism becomes just another way to surrender to those who seek to eschew democracy by robbing those who dissent of hope.

As a counter-example, there is Richard Shako form Histogame, whose website is both clear and explicit in its position with regards to the political tension in Belarus. He is open about his goals and intentions. His company’s going on strike is a way to overcome what powerlessness one might feel when seeing the injustices in Belarus.

Changing your facebook banner is not a political act. It is at most a symbolic one. As such it can’t by itself bring about any material change. But it is an attempt to communicate one’s beliefs and values. Portal Games’ simple action becomes more meaningful because it breaks with the past. It communicates something that has nothing to do with cuddly imperialists or a sexy post-apocalyptic fantasy.

It is a show of solidarity that is supposed to have a symbolic effect. It’s the attempt to encourage those who feel their hope dwindling. It’s a signal to the people protesting for their beliefs and values, that their actions are not met by a silent wall of indifference. Because the willingness to show solidarity with others is the basis of democracy.

To that end I want to say:

Wypierdalać!

&

Schiwje Belarus!

&

Black Lives Still Matter!

&

Trans Rights are Human Rights!

Spiel 2020 – The future is a digital past

This year the Internationale Spieletage in Essen (as Spiel is called by its full regal name) have been replaced by SPIEL.digital. Now that it‘s behind us, it‘s time to reflect on the experience. Let‘s start with the blindingly obvious: Spiel is not what it used to be.

It did not take me all that long to get there. There were no hallways packed with people. You didn‘t have to carry bulking bags full of games out of the halls. Instead there was a website that visitors had to slowly learn how to maneuver in. Naturally some reacted with the expected loud proclamations of disappointment and bitter disillusionment. If you’re familiar with the responses to the Spiel-des-Jahres nominations and winner reveals, you’ll probably recognize this song. Every decisions was wrong and misguided. Everyone can see what should have been done instead. Everyone knew all along how this was going to be a spectacular failure.

But even the response to that, follows a familiar pattern. These people are just nerds who are completely out of touch with the rest of the world, and treat their first world problems as intolerable injustices. They are neckbearded neophobes who reject anything that doesn’t fit into the old, familiar patterns they’re used to. SPIEL.digital is the inevitable march of progress and there were more successes than failures here.

It’d be rather convenient to simply say that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But I don’t think that’s the case. I’d say that both sides are right in their own way. But which argument carries more weight is ultimately down to your own expectations of what Spiel.Digital is supposed to be about.

Spiel has many facets to it, which every visitor experiences somewhat differently. For starters, it’s a novelty show. It’s a place where the passionate gaming enthusiast can find out what the next 6-8 months might bring. But it is also a giant playground, where you can try out new games and old (i.e. those that you could buy as far back as two years ago!). A playground in which the wealth of new ideas never fails to delight and entertain. But it is also a sales fair, in which traders and publishers can make great, even company-saving profits. (The recurring cases of stolen cash registers notwithstanding. Although I’d like to imagine that these skidmarks in human form responsible for those robberies are having a spectacularly bad time this year.) But Spiel is also a business event in which future collaborations are established, and friends and competitors get to meet and interact with each other. On top of all that, it’s a big communal experience that can shape a board gamer’s identity in a way that only disappearing in a huge mass of like-minded people can achieve. Being at Spiel has always felt like four days in which you were exactly where you are supposed to be.

As I said, Spiel is many different things to different people. But with Spiel.Digital it’s not how it used to be.

Plainly put, as a sales fair Spiel has regressed. One publisher or another may have ended in the black, but those who relied on international sales were most likely disappointed. This was, in part, because Spiel.Digital lacked the infrastructure that would have otherwise encouraged impulse buying, which anyone could profit from in years past. Where once a nice cover, a tempting discount or a friendly chat at the booth was enough to lead to a sale, Spiel.Digital had people jump through quite a few hoops to get there. A surprising number of games weren’t available to purchase or only up for pre-order. Some were only available as imports, and even those could rarely be bundled with other games. If you dared to order more than three games internationally, you ended up paying shipping costs that amounted to the price of a shrink-wrapped copy of Gloomhaven – Jaws of the Lion. This was often enough to quell the typical shopping spree that Spiel would often induce in its visitors.

The novelty fair side of Spiel was similarly limited, but no less interesting than in past years. Quite a number of publishers came well-prepared with rules videos, articles and digital gaming tables to somewhat try out the new releases. Which made the cases, in which enthusiastic buyers were asked to wait 3-4 months for their copy to arrive, even more agonizing. Especially publishers who reached out to content creators early on, managed to leave a highly professional and competent impression on visitors. Those who didn’t or couldn’t, need to take advantage of the fact that the website will still be operational for the rest of the year, and add new content and purchasing options to their virtual booths.

In fact, if there is one thing that’s become obvious with Spiel 2020 is that it’s been the year of board game content creators. Where in the past the wealth of purchasable games pushed gamers into spending deliriously on new releases, shaping our memories of the fair, it is now the experiences surrounding the live streams that we remember Spiel by. Instead of an endless scroll of slightly tacky “loot pics” on social media, it’s singular moments that stay with us. Were you there when “Team Knuffig” was born? Did you hear the phrases “Are we still live?” and “Do you mean I should push this bu- ?” Do you remember when Manu couldn’t for the life of him remember the name of Klemens Franz?

This year’s Spiel FOMO isn’t about games you didn’t play or buy, but about the authentic and very human moments of boardgamer silliness, you could be part of despite ample physical distance.

My Spiel.Digital experience was almost exclusively positive. There was always a sense of community after four days spent with friends at the fair, that would follow me home, and still stick with me for weeks afterwards. This year I realize that the experience of intensely engaging with games and the people who are similarly passionate about them continues to electrify me. I continue to get carried away talking about games on social media channels. I’m planning and weighing which new releases I should consider picking up post-Spiel. I’m still beaming with pride, that Beeple Radio, which I participated in, was so well received by so many people.

But I also realise that Spiel.Digital still has much to improve for next year. Especially international and internationally-minded players missed out this year. I find little use in armchair analyzing the reasons for it. Still it’s always been the international quality of Spiel that has turned it into the most important four days of the year. I hope that this aspiration towards internationality will return in full-force in 2021. In order to do that there needs to be infrastructure that brings publishers and buyers closer together. Some wrinkles of the website’s user interface need to be ironed out, too. So it won’t just be an easy time for those fluent in all manners digital, but also encourage the type of occasional gamer who would be happy walking out of the halls carrying a copy of Monopoly Essen and a copy of Menara.

For that to happen the industry needs to acknowledge that the presence at Spiel.Digital is not measured by the size of the hexagonal tile and the many places linking to in the database. It’s the skill of the livestreams (video or audio) that draws people’s attention to games that they can buy right here and right now.

It’s when Spiel.Digital coalesced to lead visitors from a fun shared experience to an easily acquired game, that it felt like Spiel the way it used to be.

Game Night Verdicts #45 – Coatl

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.

Bright colors are closer to inviting than scary

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.

This is a small sample of VP conditions you can choose from

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.

This looks far easier than it is, and just about hits 20 VP

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.

Play beyond the rules

One of the odd little quirks in board gaming is how players get into the habit of narrating their actions as they take them. Some might do it to help memorize the intricate web of rules they‘re operating in. Others might do it to some pizzazz to the otherwise quite subdued actions we take as we play. Some might even do it, so as to not sit in complete silence as everybody contemplates their next move.

Whatever the motivation, by speaking out loud players also expand the act of play beyond the purely mechanical layer of following and executing instructions laid out in the game’s rulebook. Whereas the game predominantly takes place in our minds as we analyze the board state, calculate (or vaguely guess) our odds and weigh our options, by phrasing our actions in the language of the game, we reach out to turn a solitary mental exercise into a fleetingly shared experience. The actions we thought up become reality, not only because we took them but also because we gave them a name. We fell a tree and made a noise, so that other players could hear it.

Narration is a subtle contribution to what makes games enjoyable and fulfilling. Some more so than others, of course. Explaining your actions in a game like Through the Ages adds merely a flourish to the experience. We are generally too wrapped up in wrangling our nascent civilization into some presentable, i.e. pointscoring, shape to appreciate or even care about the small steps our opponents are taking towards world domination. But a game like 7 Wonders played in complete silence feels like an eerie cult engaging in an occult ritual about bringing forth the brightly-colored spectre of primary school math homework.

The point being that in order to experience a game fully, we can’t assume it is enough to simply tackle its rules as hard and efficiently as we can and expect fun to spew out like a roll of mints dropped into a keg full of Coca-Cola. To be clear, this is not about the old canard of theme vs mechanics. This is not about “appreciating a game’s theme” by mimicking kindergarten-style storytime as you bounce your miniature across the board or put on fancy voices as you narrate some card’s flavor text. All while busily plotting out your move to maximize your chances on your next turn.

A game that’s more than its rules

It’s about pointing out that a game’s function is not limited to memorizing, combining and applying its carefully calibrated rules towards whatever goal the rulebook has set out for its players. A game’s function is just as often about the expected behavior players will engage in within the framework of the rules. It can be about what happens when you add the vibrant dynamism and chaotic energy of 3-5 distinct personalities to a purposefully constrained environment, like a board game.

Anyone who has ever played Werewolf, The Resistance or most party games should be able to recognize how the rules of these games, while still providing the essential foundation for the experience, were not the source of enjoyment or even the most arresting features of playing them. It’s the surprising twists and turns that happen as players pursue their goals, that create laughter, enjoyment and a sense of sharing play together.

But it’s a mistake to believe that this re-centering of the experience, one or two steps removed from the rules themselves, is only true for rules-light games and party activities. Games like Wiz-War, Cosmic Encounter or Twilight Imperium really only get room to breathe and live up to their potential when players see the rules not as a narrow maze to move through and find their block of cheese, but as an open platform on which we engage each other as players.

Shaped by the invisible lines that separate what’s part of the game from what isn’t, we get to explore the possibilities of how to interact with other people in a different context. We can get to know each other anew, or simply slip into different roles than we’re used to. Maybe tough-as-nail competitors instead of socially-minded friends.

A good game is more than the sum of the parts, that come in the box. A game comes alive by how we choose to play it. Recognizing what a game needs and being able to hit the right notes in play, is not a question of personal taste but simply practice and habit. It’s also a topic for another time.

Why it’s so difficult to do the right thing in a game

Most games are supposed to be fun. But not every game picks a neutral setting and aims “only” to entertain. Some games purposefully choose challenging themes and set ambitious goals for themselves in how they want to be perceived. They try to do their themes justice by putting so-called ethical decisions before players. I find this commendable in so far that serious consideration was put into how games affect players and what kind of questions they bring up. It’s the kind of self-awareness that all game development should be about.

But I’m more interested in the nature of these ethical decisions. What exactly makes them ethical? And why do they matter so much in how a game handles its theme?

Whether a decision is ethical or not depends on why we made it. For most game designs this is a big challenge to overcome. Almost all decisions we make in a game aim to help us win. We look through this lens at all the options a game offers us. Our decisions are rooted in self-interest. But in the common understanding of ethics and morality, self-interest doesn’t really top the list of ethical behaviour.

If you’ve ever wondered why “the economy” often seems to opt for the path that harms more people than it helps, you should find the reasons here. Unless the goal is explicitly keeping people from harm, decisions are simply not made with this goal in mind. This is the practical application of utilitarianism. A strand of philosophy which measures the validity and legitimacy of a decision by maximising the number of relevant people it benefits. If you are not part of the relevant group of people, you will not be a factor in the decision-making process.

A commonly used thought experiment to challenge utilitarianism (or even disprove it in the eyes of some critics) is the trolley problem. In this hypothetical situation you have to decide whether a trolley will go down one set of rails, killing a number of people or another set of rails killing only one person. At first, the answer seems simple enough: if only a single person dies, it’s better than having multiple people die. But as soon as these people stop being abstract concepts, because you know them or have some personal connection to them, the decision becomes more difficult. Utilitarianism reaches its limits, when we stop seeing statistics and start seeing people.

Playing games generally follows the principles of utilitarianism. We look at the situation from a distance, and apply the rules as efficiently and goal-oriented as we can. Moral or ethical decisions are only possible when we break with this practice. For example, by introducing human beings into the equation. It’s only by expanding our perception beyond victory points, decision spaces and control to include human beings, that we open up the game to ethical decisions. Ethical decisions are those in which human beings become relevant to us.

There are a few ways to do just that. You could remind yourself, that you’re playing with actual people at the table and not just opponents and competitors. As in the trolley problem above, the ethical dimension of a decision comes into play, when it includes actual, real (to us) people.

Simply taking a token from the board or removing it from the game, does not constitute an ethical decision. For one thing, those game elements will be reset for our next game. Our decisions have no tangible consequences. More importantly it is a decision about ideas and mental constructs. It is morally and ethically irrelevant, if a playing piece is moved from one area to another. Regardless of what label we give those playing pieces and play areas. It’s only when the actions we take in a game have a direct effect on the people at the table, that play moves beyond utilitarian self-interest.

Ethics are a loose collection of guidelines how to live with others, based on empathy. As long as we can empathise with others, we can act ethically. Which is not to say that decisions should be made out of empathy alone. Instead, our empathy must be part of how we come to a decision. In a game, a decision can be ethical if it was made in consideration of how it affects other people. Ethics in a game only enter play, when our ambition is limited by its ramifications on others. Players who respond with anger and outrage, when they’re lied to, betrayed or disproportionately attacked, often speak out because of their sense of justice, i.e. their understanding of ethics and morality. Something that they may be more acutely aware of in that situation.

In order to introduce ethical decisions in a board game, many creatives rely on carefully developing the game’s theme. As mentioned above, this is only somewhat useful, since cards and tokens do not present questions of ethics and morality, even if the game’s terms for them carry strong, emotional connotations.

The moral and ethical implications of a game’s theme is not transported by individual elements, but the experience of play as a whole. As long as it’s part of a game, using the “slavery” card or using the military action to expand my resource income, doesn’t make us ask any questions of morality. These questions are brought up after the game, when we consider to what extent the game did its theme justice. It happens when we ask ourselves just how truthful, authentic and valid the game’s theme has been represented.

An important criticism in games about colonialism, is that they support ideas and narratives about the era, that white-wash and downplay its injustices and cruelty. The untruth inherent in those games is rightfully attacked and rejected by anyone who understands these issues well enough. The morality of these games expresses itself in how it presents its theme. The ethical decision players get to make, is whether to critically examine the validity of this depiction or not.

 

And then there’s one more approach, that is vaguely reminiscent of how books and films manage to portray morally challenging situations and decisions. Simply put: characters are drawn to be human-like in order to evoke our empathy.

When we empathise with these characters these media get to unfold their full narrative impact on us. Talking animals in an animated film are the most obvious example of this. The goldfish or clown fish is given human-like qualities making it easier for us to grant it human-like status. Something similar is possible in games as well. Once we start humanizing our game pieces, our decisions also draw on our empathy. Only then do our decisions have an ethical aspect to them. Our game pieces become part of the relevant group that we base our decisions on.

In the vast majority of board games ethical decision pull players in two opposite directions. Our ambition drives us to look at the game as an abstraction so that our capable use of its rules will bring us victory. But in order to consider ethics and morality at all, or even act on them, we must allow ourselves to feel empathy. Either with the people at the table or the fictional characters of the game.

This tension isn’t easily resolved. At most, you can position yourself between the two opposite ends, and only occasionally experience the game’s ethical decisions. When it comes to doing the right thing, our ambition to win usually stands in the way.