Barriers of entry and the Spiel des Jahres

It’s been about a week since the winner of the Spiel des Jahres 2020 award was announced. Pictures by Daniela Stöhr and Christian Stöhr, published by PD Verlag, was given the highly prestigious red award. I haven‘t played the game yet, but from what I have read about it, this decision seems entirely reasonable. But like in years past, some people took to complaining about the wrong game being chosen. These same people often can’t help themselves to mention, that games nominated for the award have become increasingly shallow. It’s also common to naggingly observe that winners of past awards would have a hard time to be nominated today; and are more likely to be sidelined as expert games instead. I’m particularly enamored with people who feel to need to publicly announce how little interest they have in the Spiel des Jahres, how removed it is from their personal gaming preferences and that they have moved on from these types of games altogether. Where would board gaming be today, if it weren’t for those valiant truth tellers to remind us how unimportant these awards and their winners actually are?

These discussions often follow a similar pattern. There are gamers, who want to explain away the award’s relevance by bringing up all the games they like to play. Just as there are gamers who defend the jury’s decision, and champion the games that are criticized. Some arguments that were brought up in this context, have given me pause, though.

It’s been argued, that board games can only find broader acceptance and visibility, if an award-winning game draws new people to the gaming table. I agree with that. If a game’s concept or presentation is aimed at experienced gamers, they are the ones most likely to find such a game appealing. It’s also been argued that inexperienced players are intimidated by complex games. With some caveats, I’m willing to go along with this argument as well. Complexity has many different ways of being presented in a game. But if a game’s designer and developer do a good job, even a multi-faceted game will still feel approachable. But then, the argument would go, that based on those two facts, it must follow that a Spiel des Jahres winner can never provide the kind of depth and challenge that experienced gamers have come to love about board games.

tommyleejonesThis is where I had to take a step back. Treating complexity in a board game as something that can only be handled with sufficient experience is not only gatekeeping, but reeks of self-satisfaction. I can understand this kind of slip-up to happen in the midst of a heated discussion. But there is quite a lot of condescension wrapped up in this argument. It is another way of saying that occasional gamers or people who have only noticed board games in the periphery of their cultural life, can’t recognize the appeal of complex or strategically deep games.

It draws a line between those who know games well and those who are just starting out. It might be done with the best intentions of meeting new gamers halfway, but it is also patronizing. It’s looking at games by what new gamers are able to deal with. As if a game that introduces people to board games, should be one with training wheels on and not a shared social experience between equals. It’s been those experiences, after all, that helped us become passionate about games.

If we want to share board games with people, who don’t have the same wealth of experience with the medium as we do, our choices should be guided by what makes each individual game appealing to begin with. Whether a game is suitable for players new to gaming, should be based on what playing it feels like. Admittedly, the effort a group has to put into a game to fully grasp its unique charms shouldn’t be ignored, either. Game length, player count and even the time it takes to explain the basics of the game can be insurmountable hurdles for some groups.

But choosing the right game for inexperienced or occasional gamers, should be about how and what it makes us feel. We should be looking for the kind of experience that is most likely to help new gamers understand why board games can be a source of passion, excitement and joy to their players. A game that succeeds in doing that, doesn’t have to be simple, but it has to be good.

Game Night Verdicts #42 – Cosmic Encounter Duel

Cosmic Encounter is arguably one of the most influential designs in modern board gaming. Its shared victories and rules-breaking species abilities were conceptually and mechanically ground-breaking. More importantly, though, was its unusual tone. You see, Cosmic Encounter is funny. Intentionally so, even. Its humor isn’t situational but hard-wired into the game’s design and follows the basic construction of a joke.

Each turn is build around a rigidly structured encounter, in which players face off against each other. This is set-up.

Then alliances are offered, made or denied which further complicate the encounter’s resolution and make its outcome uncertain. This is build-up.

During the actual encounter, players throw in special abilities, card effects and the like to deliver the punchline. This is pay-off.

Cosmic Encounter Duel - Strategies

A surprising amount of mental energy can go into a stalemate

If you happen to have a sense of humor about games, this is a frequently hilarious part of playing Cosmic Encounter. The alliances give the game a lightning bolt of unpredictability and that power is placed into the hands of each player. Yet if your group relies too heavily on those alliances, it all devolves into a relentless assault of random interruptions (cf. Munchkin). On the other hand, without the willingness to offer and enter these alliances, most encounters are resolved by a rote “high card wins”.

Enter Cosmic Encounter Duel, a two-player variant that seeks to capture as much of the quintessential Cosmic Encounter experience as is possible to do with only two players at hand. Naturally, alliances do not feature as prominently in this game as in the original. Which means the player-driven disruptions, twists and upsets are gone. Enterprising players who would wield those as bargaining chips to turn Cosmic Encounter into an emergent negotiation game have nothing to cling to here. In its place comes a design that mischievously pulls the rug from under you, like a good Cosmic Encounter player would, in order to get a laugh from the table. You see, Cosmic Encounter Duel is also funny. Intentionally so, even.

Cosmic Encounter Duel - Warp

This warp isn’t big enough for the two of us

Although, you might not be able to tell right away considering the byzantine construction of a typical turn. First you need to set your dial to send out ships to a planet. Then you need to pick an offensive or defensive strategy to score the offensive bonus this encounter carries with it. Only then do you get to reveal a card from your hand to resolve the encounter properly. That is, if either side has had any ships left on the planet. Because that encounter might actually be over before you even get to that familiar card play. It can be a funny surprise when it happens when you least expect it, but it’s rather confusing and perplexing when you are just trying to wrap your head around the whole thing. Then there are ambassadors to fight over, i.e. special abilities that can side with one player or another. There are also event cards to resolve that might manipulate your most valuable resource: the cards in your hand, between encounters. That doesn’t even take into account your own unique species ability to turn things sideways.

This game can feel overwhelming, much like earlier incarnations of Cosmic Encounter that had groups regularly devote a lot of their time arguing about timing and interpretation of phrases. Cosmic Encounter Duel has a lot of rules to take in, many to keep in mind and even more to consider on your turn. Make no mistake, this is a gamer’s version of gamer’s game.

Cosmic Encounter Duel - Silly

This is a very silly player marker

But once you dig in, you will find that Cosmic Encounter Duel creates a pachinko machine of possibilities from one turn to the next. It captures this unique feeling that anything could happen on your turn, while still giving you opportunities for clever plays. As mindlessly chaotic as the game might seem at first, there is a robust structure underneath that opens up Cosmic Encounter Duel to cheeky bluffs and mind games. Far more importantly, though, it also allows for your expectations to be subverted when you least expect it, landing its punchlines for some of the loudest guffaws I’ve had at my gaming table in a long time.

Humor is hard to explain sometimes. Not everyone understands why not getting what you want is funny. Or why trying hard and still failing lets two people bond more strongly than any tensely fought competition can. Cosmic Encounter is beloved because it is an explicitly social game. It brings people together. In its own humorous way, so does Cosmic Encounter Duel. That’s why it earns its place as Cosmic Encounter’s slightly more personal, but no less hilarious, younger sibling.

Game Night Verdicts #41 – Zoom in Barcelona

I have only been to Barcelona once. We stayed for a day before traveling further into Spain. While there we caught some glimpses of the city, had a decent Frappé at a Greek restaurant with an impressively unfriendly waiter but didn‘t really get a feel for the city itself. Paradoxically, this makes me both best and worst qualified to talk about Zoom in Barcelona by Núria Casellas, Eloi Pujadas and Joaquim Vilalta.

Zoom in - Locations

Places to see in Barcelona. At least one I’ve actually been to.

Zoom in Barcelona is essentially a card-based racing game, set in Barcelona. (I can assure you I was as surprised by this turn of events as you are.) The game’s board features 86 distinct locations of the city, four of which are randomly drawn from a deck. Once you’ve reached one of them, you take a picture, by taking that location’s card and a new one is drawn to replace it. This core mechanism leads to some fast-paced bouncing around on the board. You move by playing cards from your hand, which you only replenish by visiting any of the tourist information centres on the board. You want to plan for those obligatory stops, if only to avoid the glacial pace of moving without a card. Metro stations serve as shortcuts across the board, giving Zoom in Barcelona a strong sense of momentum. It rarely takes more than three turns before at least one player has managed to take a picture, and replace that location with a different one.

Zoom in - Movement

Note the efficacy of public transit

Change happens quickly in Zoom in Barcelona. By the time it’s your turn, your plan from your previous turn might already need adjustment to the now moved goalposts. New scoring options come into reach quickly, and your decision now matters far more than the one from two turns ago. Depending on your predisposition this will make playing the game either feel frustratingly swingy and chaotic, or appealingly swift and tactical. The “starter kit” version of the rules is aimed at inexperienced players and keeps things light and breezy. In the full game there is a staggered point scoring mechanism and the option to score a location from a distance by „zooming in“ from up to three spaces away. This doesn’t significantly change the feel of the game, but adds some minor complications to keep more experienced players engaged throughout its short playtime.

Zoom in - Sunlight

The sunlight track is used to complicate scoring in the full game

Zoom in Barcelona is, above all, a pleasant game. Its layout is colorblind-friendly. The illustrations by Sophie Wainwright and Craig Petersen mirror the real life photographs you might take if you actually were in Barcelona. The game’s art style is unique enough to give the game character, but also unobtrusive so as not to distract from just playing the game. Racing across the board generates enough tension to foster a sense of competition, without ever reaching the kind of intensity that requires serious social maneuvering to keep the evening fun and upbeat. That is a feat in itself, because making competition feel pleasant is a balancing act that not a lot of games manage to pull off. The rapid turnover rate of scoring opportunities, coupled with the high level of variance the location deck provides, results in a game that feels more like a scavenger hunt than a clash of finely detailed movement strategies. Here setbacks are temporary and blocking spaces is rare.

Zoom in - Showdown

Dragon sightings draw a crowd

I can imagine the game’s theme resonating strongly with anyone who’s spent time in Barcelona. The illustrations on the cards will likely provoke anecdotes of what people did when they were there. This is the kind of personal experience that makes the theme come alive in a way that rules can’t manage. For the rest of us Zoom in Barcelona offers an entertaining race along the facades of a modern European city.

On the meaningfulness of games

A few days ago, a friend of a friend passed away unexpectedly. I only knew him from the number of times we’d played together in the last seven or so years. Maybe longer, even. He was not a childhood schoolmate of mine, nor did we have many opportunities to spend time together outside of games, cons or the like. He was part of somebody else’s weekly game night, mostly made up of friends going back to their shared school days in the 90s. I would join their game nights on a semi-regular basis for a while. When my son was born I became a less frequent guest and when I moved to the other end of the city, I rarely had time to join them for a few games. We ran into each other at Spiel in Essen, and promised to play together again soon. And now that’s a promise we can no longer keep.

There’s this accepted truth among a great number of reviewers, designers and players that games are, when it comes down to it, trivial. That they are inessential luxury items, with which we indulge our escapist impulses. The belief persists that games are mere consumerist distractions, made to occupy our idle minds before we engage in something with actual merit. This stance never really sat well with me. But right now, I feel offended and insulted by it.

I feel a sense of loss that I won’t get to play a game with him again. That his passing has robbed me of something valuable and irreplaceable. I can barely imagine the pain his close friends and family feel. They had a much deeper connection to him after all. They grew up with him, they met regularly, had dinner and his friends lived in the same neighbourhood for a number of years.

All that really connected me to him were the games we played together. Some as competitors, some as allies. Sometimes we plotted against our host, sometimes we plotted against each other. He was a very capable player, tactically minded and strategically skilled. What made him a great player, though, was that he understood he was always playing with friends first and against competitors second. We also had a similar sense of humour, so even when things weren’t going our way in a game, we could crack jokes for each other.

I am going to miss those moments. Because they’re not trivial or meaningless. The games I had the chance to play with him, even the crowd-funded ones, were not consumerist distractions. They were a chance for us to connect and bond. They were not without merit, just because I didn’t publicize them to turn them into other people’s entertainment. The grief I feel does not even begin to compare to that of his close friends and family. I don’t need to be reminded of that. It will not take years for me to accept this event and move on. New people will eventually join my social circles, who I will share a game night with and maybe connect with as well. But I also recognize that games are the reason I can even begin to feel grief over his passing. They are the reason why he isn’t somebody else’s friend who has died, but also mine. Under the intellectual challenge, the moments of tension and the emotional ups and downs as we jockey for victory, games offer us, when it comes down to it, a chance for human connection. That is not meaningless. It is not trivial. And neither was the time I got to spend with my friend.

Goodbye Alex.

Barthes told me to do it

The other day I had the opportunity to be taught some new games. As is so often the case, the explanation began with the unassuming phrase, that nevertheless made me stop and wonder. „This game is about…“

Every rules explanation or introduction begins with a phrase like that. It’s the necessary framing so the rules can make sense. So I wondered who gets to decide the framing of a set of rules. A quick glance at the rulebook or the game‘s box generally offers its own framing. This game is about being a daring adventurer in a dangerous fantasy world. Maybe it‘s about making loads of money as an industrialist. Or maybe it‘s about leading a civilization towards world domination.

But that‘s really just the game‘s setting. It‘s a filter we use to make play more fun, but it‘s not what the game is about at its core. A game is about play, i.e. what players actually do. But if we only look at the rules, we‘ll soon notice how similar they all are. There‘s a goal you‘re supposed to reach. The rules present you with a number of things to do, in order to overcome the obstacles standing in your way.

So if the rules are the ones to tell us what a game is about, the answer is always the same: playing games is about winning. Either against other players or the game itself. But experience shows, that this answer is also incomplete. If only the game‘s goal matters, then no game can be said to have any relevance to its theme. Puerto Rico would be just as controversial as Jenga. The difference between a game like Secret Hitler and Azul would be merely mechanical. The historical background of war games and conflict simulation games would be mere coloring. There would be literally no point to them.

But games resist such a simple reductionist view. They‘re not about setting or mechanisms alone. You have to merge the two in order to truthfully answer what a game is about. This isn’t done by the people you’d necessarily expect it from. Because a designer doesn’t get to choose what their game ends up being about. Once the rules are set, their authority over the game’s meaning evaporates. Even additional clarifications in the rulebook or a blog, do not lend them power over how theme and mechanics come together to create the actual game and how it’s played.

It‘s the gaming group itself, that definitively answers the question of what a game is about. We determine it as we try to grasp the game, mentally sort through its mechanics and turn our attention towards the things we care about. The path to victory points, the feel of new mechanisms or even the exotic setting the game presents us with. Games become about the things we care about in them. Our decisions reveal our convictions about games.

In comparison, the designer’s work consists of presenting us with a range of elements to choose from. What is included in this selection, though, can be just as revealing as the things that are not. A small detail we would do well to keep in mind when we talk about the artistic merit of a game.

 

Theme non grata

In the late 90s Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker starred in an action-comedy called Rush Hour. It was the story of Detective Inspector Lee (Chan) and Detective James Carter (Tucker) having to bridge their personal, cultural and at times lingustic differences in order to solve a kidnapping case. In one scene Lee enters a bar and greets the bartender by copying the words he has seen Carter use earlier: „What‘s up my n—-a?“. Naturally a brawl ensues afterwards. It‘s a case of dramatic irony, since the audience is aware of the offensiveness of the phrase, whereas Lee is utterly oblivious to it. The scene hinges on the bartender neither realising nor accepting that Lee has no idea what he‘s saying. (There are some problematic metalayers to this scene, too, that I don‘t have the time to get into here.) Regardless of what Lee, the bartender or we may or may not know, the phrase remains offensive.

Colonialism is a theme that continues to be used in board games. To a large extent, this is because most players are utterly oblivious about it. Within the context of a game it becomes a way to play out some approximation of history in an exotic location (or time). If you have even a rudimentary understanding of colonialism, these games feel decidedly different to play. Colonialism is a violence driven by racism and greed, which exploits and destroys other cultures while reliably commiting all kinds of crimes against humanity. In a colonialism-themed board game you win, if you get the most victory points.

The punch-up that Lee is drawn into in Rush Hour after his ignorant remark is as good as can be expected from a Jackie Chan movie. It‘s a very dynamic and inventive fight sequence. It‘s well-crafted and entertaining. In other words: it‘s fun. There‘s even a gag at the end, as Lee leaves the bar and slaps a cigarette out of a bystanders hand, with the admonition that it‘s „bad“. You might say it ends with a valuable moral lesson.

Sometimes similar moral lessons are incorporated to make the use of colonialism in a board game more palatable. In Endeavor – Ages of Sail, you lose victory points, if you have engaged in slavery and slavery has been abolished by the end of the game. The game gives you reasons why slavery should be unappealing to players. The benefit of this approach is that at least it doesn‘t justify such practices as an economic necessity. On the other hand, it also repackages them into a question of cost-benefit, downplaying its awful nature. Slavery becomes a bad thing, because it costs victory points and might threaten your victory. Ultimately, any attempt to express disgust or contempt for an action by employing rules is bound to reduce it to question of simple mathematics. Doing so subjects any board game theme to banality.

Action-comedies of the 90s didn‘t hold back when it came to killing off characters. About 30 people die in Rush Hour. Other movies of the time, like The Fifth Element or True Lies, have twice the body count. Still, 20 years ago I found Rush Hour quite entertaining. But that‘s not because me or the millions of people who watched it, were deeply ignorant. It also wasn‘t because we were indifferent to other people‘s suffering, or even that social values have decayed and turned us all into brutes.

Every medium, whether it‘s film or games, is made to fulfill a function. That is how it is used and understood. With books we distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. We perceive films differently when they‘re called dramas or documentaries. The same could be said for any of the countless sub-categories and genres. We use some for our entertainment, and others to educate ourselves; to learn, understand and engage with lived experiences that is different to our own. Games don‘t quite seem to fit into this broad pattern. They seem to do a little of both. We learn and are entertained. We are amused by them as we absorb facts.

This is often the last argument that is brought up to legitimize the use of problematic themes in a game. A game isn‘t just mere entertainment, it also uses its mechanisms to explore its theme. History is supposed to be communicated. The largers forces that shape society are supposed to become tangible and visible this way.

But any game that places as into the role of virtual historiographers needs to present a picture of history that matches our thus raised expectations. It also puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of its creators to do conscientious work. More than that, the toxic beliefs that any era of history carries with it mustn‘t be blindly reproduced. Colonialism is deeply racist, but that doesn‘t mean its ideology has to be valid within the game. The competitive character of colonialist games invariably leads to a tacit justification of slavery, since its benefits might help you win the game.

History is trivialized when we only understand it as the backdrop to having fun playing a game. It becomes a danger, once we start to take this step for granted and do it uncritically. But I do believe that there are ways to oppose such a development. First we need to divest ourselves of the notion that games are an inherently trivial and superficial pastime. We have to normalize the idea that the content and the context of a game is part of our critical engagement with it. There is a wide spectrum that ranges from games that aim to educate and those that aim to amuse. It should go without saying that we have to evaluate a game like Freedom The Underground Railroad completely differently than something like Munchkin.

But it is also necessary for us as players to no longer accept certain themes, unless they are used responsibly and conscientiously. Just because a game is fun, doesn‘t mean that its chosen theme can be redrawn as an exotic, care-free backdrop for us to play around in. Games do not require us to slavishly reproduce historical events, but at the same time they mustn‘t be used to temporarily rewrite history to make it more comfortable to consume for us.

Game Night Verdicts #40 – Nova Luna

Accessibility is the mark of a good game. While it’s fun to master an intimidatingly complex design, most people are limited in how much time they can sink into such an endeavour. Not to mention the number of players they can rope into multiple plays until such a game finally clicks. It’s the job of good game design to minimize the effort it takes to get from opening the box to experiencing what the game really has to offer.

Nova-Luna-Mond

The crescent moon serves as a turn marker

In order to do just that, Nova Luna draws upon a trusted and reliable designer move. It adapts the proven design decisions of two well-regarded, published games: Habitats by Corné von Moorsel and Patchwork by Uwe Rosenberg. If you’re familiar with at least one of the two, you will be able to quickly enjoy this spiritual successor fully. But even without this prior knowledge Nova Luna does not waste time. That is due to the efficacy of the design work that build its predecessors.

Nova Luna, much like its godparents, is a tile-laying game. You pick a tile and then place it in front of you, following very simple rules. Once chosen, your tile has to be placed horizontally or vertically adjacent to at least one other tile already in front of you. The number on your tile will determine how long you will have to wait, until it’s your go again. This is easy to grasp and the nicely illustrated play aid in the shape of a moon phase calendar is easy to read and understand. Your waiting number is tracked with a wooden marker of your color, and whoever is in last place gets their turn.

Nova-Luna-Übersicht

Pleasantly colorful production

The game’s core appeal is found in the tasks that placed tiles present to you. They consist of the color and number of tiles that must be directly adjacent to it. Each tile functions as color resource for its neighbouring tiles, while also presenting new tasks to you. Once fulfilled you place a wooden marker of your colour on the task, and the game ends as soon as one player runs out of markers.

At first, this sounds disarmingly simple. Take a tile to fulfil a task, then pursue the next task in your tableau. This is easy to wrap your head around and rapidly propels you into playing the game. Although the phrasing in the rulebook makes it sound far more convoluted than it has any right to. But after a few turns, even the most inexperienced non-gamer will discover appealing new facets in this easy-going puzzler. Placing your tile, it turns out, has to be a carefully considered decision. Which task can be fulfilled with my new tile? Can I complete more than one task with this one tile? What about the tasks on the new tile itself? Before long ambition takes over, and carefully weighing all possible options becomes your main concern.

Puzzling in Nova Luna is exciting and interesting, because your tableau, solvable tasks and possible combinations continually change with each tile you place. This draws your interest towards your next turn, but also raises your expectations of how efficient a turn, you should aim for. Before long you want to pull off a turn that is more efficient, more shrewd and more successful than the last.

Nova-Luna-Reihenfolge

Easier tasks mean a longer downtime

This is where some players run into problems. The high number of possibilities that appear before you after even a few new tiles, requires a willingness to quickly make decisions. If you want to play Nova Luna on an expert level, you have to be willing to take your turn comparatively swiftly. Otherwise you run the risk of losing yourself in a seemingly endless loop of weighing your options and considering alternatives. Or you simply learn to curb your ambition, which can be unusual since games are often treated as safe spaces to let your ambition go unchecked. This, naturally, leads to problems.

If you can resist the lure of unchained ambition, Nova Luna quickly reveals its addictively joyful character. Each newly placed tile brings new tasks, that you usually complete only a few turns later. This recurring experience of overcoming the game’s challenges, keeps you motivated throughout. The most satisfying moments of playing Nova Luna aren’t found when a cleverly placed tile concludes multiple tasks at once.

The most rewarding moments of Nova Luna occur when you can confidently keep your attention on the tasks that are most beneficial to you, without getting sidetracked by the enticing tiles on the display. The easy-to-learn puzzle of Nova Luna awards planning ahead with the comforting satisfaction of a job well done. You practice being flexible, when the tile selection doesn’t offer the colors you were looking for. Nova Luna holds the most enjoyment for players who are willing to grow out of their own analysis paralysis.

Nova Luna’s biggest weakness is arguably how unassuming it seems. It’s not a game that you will remember for the flaring emotions it evokes. Nor will you discover new competitive sides to your friends and family. Instead it calmly leads you through a gaming challenge, that is a joy to tackle repeatedly. Before you know it, you’ll have discovered an aptitude for playing board games, you might not have expected in you. Because Nova Luna’s biggest strength is arguably how unassuming it seems.

Nova-Luna-Aufgaben

This tableau has more than a dozen fulfilled tasks on it

When a list is supposed to light the way

About a week ago the Spiel des Jahres jury announced the nominees for the Kennerspiel des Jahres, Kinderspiel des Jahres and of course the Spiel des Jahres itself. As expected this led to a wide range of responses online and probably in some gaming groups, too. I was quick to react as well. I announced my mix of confusion and excitement on Twitter pretty much right away. I think the list of recommended and nominated Kennerspiele games is particularly strong this year. Sure, some fan favorite may be missing, but that‘s not what the list is for. It‘s not a comprehensive mention of all games, that managed to generate excitement in the hobby. It is a list of games, that may appear unexpectedly short at times, aimed at a specific audience. Especially this year, I find the audience particularly easy to recognise based on the games chosen by the jury.

20191128_130037

Kennerspiel of the people

In 2020 the Kennerspiel assumes that players are willing to deal with new rules, ideas and concepts. Once you‘ve made it past that hurdle in games like The Crew, Cartographers or The King‘s Dilemma you‘re awarded with an experience, that has noticeably more facets than those found in the Spiel des Jahres. While it‘s easy to label this as a learning curve, I think it‘s misleading. With a Kennerspiel you have to be willing to meet the expectations the design places on you, in order to experience it fully. Kennerspiele are games that will meet you half-way, but no further. They may require you to put in a little effort mentally, emotionally or socially. The list of Kennerspiel games is a way to broaden the horizons of new gamers. This year in particular it is very successful in displaying the wide range of the modern designer board game.

If you‘re missing particularly complex or rules-heavy games on the list, you may be coming at this from the wrong angle. A game that‘s defined by those features gets to be pushed into the – cringe-inducingly named – expert level range. Or put differently, those are niche games. You may be able to show off the outer reaches of the hobby, but it will likely be so intimidating to new gamers that their recently discovered enthusiasm is going to evaporate.

But though I might consider the Kennerspiel nominees particularly well-chosen, I am confused by the games on the Spiel des Jahres list. Why are some games missing on the recommendations list? Why were others focused on by being nominated? This isn‘t a case of me rejecting these choices. I simply find myself unable to infer the context within which those decisions were made.

20200524_125358

What are the chances that this game will carry a red pawn sticker in six months’ time?

Based on the games selected, I find it very difficult to understand the criteria that were applied to the games. Sure My City, Nova Luna and Pictures are good games. After all they‘re easy to learn and play, without feeling trivial. Yes, their presentation is appealing and inviting. But by now it seems quite rare that a newly released game in Germany would fail at either. The number of accessible games with an appealing presentation seems to double each year. If this was the only set of qualities that were considered, the list of nominees would have surely been much longer.

Is it the experience, that‘s supposed to be particularly pleasant and avoid any strong feelings of frustrations? That would at least explain why a game like Push is nowhere to be seen. But then you‘d have to wonder why a game like Wavelength is also a no-show. Is it the social aspect that the game is supposed to deliver? Then you can‘t get past Team3. I have no doubt that there are good reasons, why those games weren‘t mentioned. My listing them here is not meant as criticism of the list itself, but as an illustration of my confusion.

Even after a week, I find it hard to find a throughline in the games mentioned for Spiel des Jahres. That‘s a shame. I appreciate the work of the jury, and what was once explained to me as a lighthouse in the stormy sea of new releases, is work I consider of great benefit to the industry. But I really would like to understand why their spotlight has been pointed at those games.

Every piece of criticism is easier to digest, if you can communicate the perspective from which it was made. I think the same is true for the choices of a jury made up of board game reviewers.

Game Night Verdicts #39 – My City

A good story stays with you because of its cathartic ending. Just compare the finale of Star Trek The Next Generation to the end of Game of Thrones. One of those shows still has a passionate fanbase, whereas the other is barely mentioned after a… let’s say… disappointing ending. For the longest time, games were exempt from this rule. The outcome of a game generally didn‘t define its impact on us. It‘s the journey, not the destination, that we remember. With the advent of legacy and its long-term changes to your purchased game’s gameplay and components this convenient separation between good stories and good games begins to soften. This is most evident in My City by Reiner Knizia, published by Kosmos. A good game, which due to the way it ends, sadly registers as pretty mediocre.

My City - Spielbrett

Placing a tile rarely feels this satisfying

But first, the game’s strengths. As can be expected from a design by Reiner Knizia this game has very intuitive core mechanisms. Randomly chosen tiles are placed on your board’s landscape. You want to have as much of it covered as possible at the end of the game to avoid any penalties. New tiles are placed adjacent to any previously placed tile. Certain spaces on the board may not be covered up with a tile, whereas others will score you bonus points if you can avoid placing a tile on them. Rules and visual design communicate these points clearly, so you start puzzling right away, happily covering up a bunch of penalty points with a single tile. My City plays smoothly and quickly, not unlike a lot of roll’n’write games. The only difference being that you don’t write or scribble on a sheet, you throw away afterwards.

But the game’s box doesn’t just hold player boards, numerous tiles and a deck of cards. There are also eight envelopes announcing chapters to play through. As if inside that pleasant little game there is a story that you get to unlock through play. This is the legacy idea, that the box proudly uses to attract your attention. But it’s sadly also the reason why the game ultimately leaves you underwhelmed.

Things start off very promising, the game’s design displaying the kind of care and attention to detail you can expect from a Knizia game. New rules are incrementally introduced after each game. It might be a sticker here, or a change in scoring there. Even though the volume of rules increases slightly over time, My City never seems to lose its focus. At least for the first half of the campaign. With the fifth envelope the clarity of My City’s design starts to give way to additional scoring incentives. But this doesn’t make the game more challenging, or your strategies more flexible. The addition of new goals only dilutes design’s attractive precision. In turn this makes more of your decisions feel disorientingly interchangeable. In the end My City’s legacy campaign simply runs out of steam. Even the joy of getting more and bigger stickers on your board doesn’t help. Worse still, the campaign’s ending only manages to plaster over any excitement and enjoyment earlier games evoked.

My City - Komponenten

Probably the best time to stop the campaign

Since we’ve wrapped up the campaign, the box has remained on my shelf untouched and unnoticed. Our enthusiasm for the game has dissipated. Even the pompously named “eternal game”, where you play on the back side of the board and untouched by any legacy changes, wasn’t enticing enough for us. Only a small handful of rules additions from the first half of the campaign are integrated in this variant. Tellingly, not a single rule of the campaign’s second half can be seen here.

My City is at its best, when understood at as a close cousin to the roll’n’write genre. (Or flip’n’write, or mix’n’match, or scratch’n’sniff or whatever daft label people will come up with next.) It’s an entertaining little puzzler, that is easy to get into. It plays smoothly without boring you. The small stickers you get to place in particular soon give your board its own, subtly different, character. This is My City at its most charming and appealing. But it might have been a mistake to sell these delicate adjustments as creating a unique experience. This raises expectations that the game can hardly fulfill. Maybe it was also a mistake to stretch the incremental rules changes to a whole campaign of 24 plays. That is how the delightful to play tutorial of My City’s first 12 games, grows into an inconsequential collection of interchangeable ideas.

A good game stands out because it’s the journey, not the destination, that wins us over. Sadly My City loses its way after a few plays and ends up in a place that evokes only an indifferent shrug.

Game Night Verdicts #38 – The Romans

There are certain circles in this hobby where eurogames are looked down upon. There, these games are often decried as soulless cube-pushers, convoluted systems of oh-so-clever mechanisms with the vaguest semblance of a theme draped over them. They get criticized for their lack of player interaction. Playing them rarely succeeds in letting you feel something that matches the illustration on the game’s box and so on and so forth.

The Romans Gallien

All of Gaul is occupied. Except for one small village.

As a eurogame, then, The Romans has had its work cut out. For starters, it is set in the most eurogame-y of all settings: the mediterranean during the age of antiquity. It is built around the most illustrious example of eurogame innovation: the worker placement mechanism. Worse still – despite dealing with military conquest – it keeps player interaction mostly to blocking spots on a shared (cloth) board and does not allow players to sick their armies on each other.

The Romans Ziele

You can score up to three of these triumphs per game

And yet, The Romans succeeds in overcoming those worn-out criticisms of its genre. It fulfills all relevant criteria for a eurogame, except for how it feels. This is in part due to its playful presentation that houses an intriguing challenge. It needs you to make tactical decisions, strategic considerations and take some calculated risks which is enough to keep you engaged for the entirety of its play time. Considering that the box announces The Romans’ game length at between 90-180 minutes, that is quite a feat.

The Romans works, not least of all, because of the clear objectives it presents players with throughout. Each of the game’s five eras begins with randomly determining a province for each player to conquer or alternatively build a city in, if they’ve conquered it in an earlier turn already. From turn one players know what their goal is and can plan out their steps. As the game progresses, and new action spaces are revealed, the decision tree widens. Thus creating a deeper and more engaging challenge as The Romans pushes towards its conclusion.

The Romans Spielfeld

Some spaces are available from the start, others are revealed in later eras

Instead of a linear progression, though, each era ends with uprisings that may or may not damage your position going into the next era. It’s easy to overlook just how much these dynamic changes to your empire bring the game to life. There is an ebb and flow to advances your empire manages to hold on to over the eras.

You will have to build armies and fleets before strategically conquering your designated province. But you must also collect resources to pay for the actions you want to take, or to build defenses and cities later. On top of that, you also want your military campaign to reach the edge of the known world (i.e. your board), where you can pick new objectives to score at the end of the game. All of this takes place on your personal player board, which means you never actually meet another player on the battlefield. But you do get to choose your secret VP goals from the respective regions of all players, leading to some roundabout interaction by leaving another player with a goal that scores them precious little glory.

The Romans Villa

Senators and soldiers await your instructions

The Romans retains is structure throughout, never straying from the template that is set up in the first round. Yet it never feels static or repetitive. The changes introduced by the one-die-roll combat mechanic at the end of each era acts as both a resolution to your plans, or a stress test of your achievements, as well as rearranging your starting position for the next era.

As the demands and challenges of the game suck you in, The Romans manages to evoke a sense of history marching forward. As the eras draw to a close your ability to lead the Roman empire to glory is tested. Passing that test feels appropriately glorious. Because of your plans and decisions, the empire endures. Now stronger than ever. While failing that test, just provokes your ambition to become even more powerful in the new era to come.

The Romans Götter

Fo(u)r gods and glory

In true eurogame fashion, the game has an uneasy tension between two styles of playing games. On the one hand you’re sending out your senators to garner glory, hoping to outpace the other players. On the other hand, you place those senator tactically to make other players’ plans less efficient and profitable. Many players enjoy being caught between these two different incentives.

But if, like me, you’ve never been drawn to the spectre of Schadenfreude looming over you while you play games, there is a solo mode worth paying attention to. It retains the plotting and puzzling over how to make best use of your workers, without the eyerolling frustration of getting blocked by other players. Either by accident or on purpose.

The Romans Kampf

The Gauls obviously cheated with their stupid magic potion!

But this joyful and enticing package is not without its small imperfections. The rules could have used a more modern layout to convey the game’s bigger picture. It succeeds in carefully layoung out each individual step of the game, but never quite manages to convey a bigger picture until you’re a few turns into the game. The Romans’ graphic design, although friendly and bright, can also feel a little busy at times. It may take a while to get comfortable with all the tokens, pieces and tracks on the board.

These small criticisms shouldn’t detract from what is ultimately a game that is incredibly satisfying to play and offers a challenge that is worth revisiting. Both on your own and with multiple players.