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.

Game Night Verdicts #44 – Rail Pass

There are many features that define board games. Some are so obvious, they are barely worth mentioning. Games, for example, have a sense of playfulness about them. That‘s pretty self-explanatory. It‘s the reason why they can feel so liberating. It‘s also the reason why people like to describe games as ‚escapism‘. When adults put serious effort into a game, this word lends their willingness to dive into them a kind of legitimacy. You distance yourself from the childlike and infantile aura that board games still sometimes carry. Since games can so effortlessly cast their spell on us and draw us in, some people find it necessary to explain themselves.

Rail Pass does not bother itself with such justifications. It is a cooperative game about something that‘s occasionally thought of as bone-dry and dull: trains. It succeeds in avoiding that criticism, by presenting its theme with a strong sense of playfulness. At its heart this is a game about dealing with a logistical challenge. You‘re asked to deliver cargo (in the shape of plastic cubes in various colours) to their destination by transporting them by train. This cargo may only be loaded off the train when it arrives at its proper destination. So there is some planning involved in how and when to load the trains and where to send them. In addition to that each train needs an engineer, who may only commute between certain train stations. So you need to keep in mind which engineer can lead a train to which train station before you have to replace them with another.

Admittedly, this does not sound particularly playful. But there are two important rules that shape the feel of the game. Your train models, loaded with colourful cargo cubes, aren‘t pushed across a board or on the table. Instead players have to hold them and hand them off to their neighbours. Trains may only ever be put down in train stations. If they are ever placed somewhere else, it is considered a train wreck and all cargo is lost. Additionally, tunnel entrances are placed between players. Loaded trains must be carefully guided through them to be received by another player. All this plays out in real time and within a time limit of 10 minutes.

We mourn the loss of 10 VP after a tragic accident

Board games that incorporate dexterity elements always have something playful about them. But that isn‘t what makes Rail Pass special. There is also another, very important rule and it is the only one to be explicitly labelled as mandatory in the rulebook. There is a reason for that. In Rail Pass you may only signal your intention to hand a train off to another player by saying „toot-toot“ (or any other noise you would associate with an old-timey steam train).

This rule is as silly to read, as it is genius to play with (and also a little bit silly). There are some games, that embed similar rules in the game. Both Mountains of Madness and Betrayal Legacy make use of such an approach, but in those games these rules are treated as an intentional break with normalcy. In Rail Pass it becomes a central element of play. It is a necessary and non-negligible part of the game, that you may only hand over a train after you‘ve announced it by saying „toot-toot“.

Two things happen as a result of this rule. First of all, the challenge of the game, i.e. delivering cargo to the associated train station is never given more importance than is necessary. Some players cherish the sense of immersion when a challenging game requires all the brain power they can muster. Even if it comes at the cost of play feeling like a shared gaming experience. These players are swiftly brought back to reality with the stead repetition of „toot-toot“. Instead of losing yourself in a flow state, the game repeatedly emphasises that you‘re playing together to have fun with other people.

What‘s far more impressive, though, is that this rules requires players to repeatedly pledge themselves to the magic circle. This esoteric-sounding term covers, among other things, the additional layer of meaning that we ascribe to the game‘s components. Within the magic circle, these aren‘t plastic cubes we move around, but cargo or containers we transport by train. These aren‘t just fully-coloured play mats in front of us, they‘re train stations for our locomotives to stop in. But more importantly, our actions also gain another meaning within the magic circle. We‘re not just handing over game components, vaguely reminiscent of a locomotive, to our neighbour, it‘s a train driving through a tunnel to arrive at a train station one town over. Depending on how our game ends, we talk about victory or defeat, because point scores have an additional meaning within the magic circle.

Fully loaded and ready to ride

The game is experienced as important and even intense, because we are repeatedly reminded of this additional layer of meaning. When we play other games and refer to yellow, brown or white wooden cubes as wheat, wood and reed, we acknowledge and validate the fictional layer of that game. When we neglect to do this, because the terminology is too cumbersome to handle or its relation to the rules too hard to follow, it weakens the significance of the game. We realise that we‘re merely handling game components by following imagined rules. The game feels dry and abstract, and the magic of play evaporates.

Rail Pass makes the simple, yet effective change to not tie the affirmation of its magic circle to game terminology. The cubes, models and play mats do not have specific names, we have to remember and employ. Instead it‘s the sound of „toot-toot“ we repeatedly use to communicate with each other, that serves as an affirmation of play. Our actions are put at the centre of the experience. We are reminded of our role as players, as well as our responsibility towards the other players and are drawn deeper into the magic circle.

Because “toot-toot” so simple and a little funny to say, we can laugh about our failures. The childlike imitation of a locomotive sets the tone for the whole experience. Even when we‘re overwhelmed by the occasionally challenging logistical puzzle before us, we get to share it with the whole group. Many cooperative games create great memories by confronting us with particularly hard challenges to overcome. Thanks to a forgiving time limit, Rail Pass offers a challenge that is entirely manageable. But when you find yourself yelling „toot-toot“ as you hand over fully loaded trains and squeeze them through a narrowly cut tunnel entrance in a touch of panic, it gets pretty memorable all the same.

Rail Pass captivates with its playfulness and gets you to deeply engage with it and your fellow players. Which means it succeeds in one of the most important tasks a game has: it brings people together. And despite its dry theme, it gets to pretty hilarious along the way.

Metagame and the limits of what can be said

In a twitter poll I recently launched, I asked people in my wider social media circles about their views on board games. Specifically, I wanted to know if it was acceptable to talk other players into working against the assumed leading player in a competitive game. The result on both my German and English twitter account was quite decisive. A great number of people sided with talking players into taking action to prevent somebody else from winning. It was even argued, that that’s what playing games is all about.

I was somewhat surprised by that result. After all the very same behavior gets heavily criticized in cooperative games. It’s even reason enough for some people to avoid cooperative games altogether.

Nobody likes to be bossed around, even with the well-meaning intention of winning the game for everybody. Your enjoyment of a coop game will invariably suffer with such a player at the table. One of the most important qualities of a board game lies in giving players agency. That’s why some games lose their appeal the moment you’ve discovered an optimal strategy to win. The same is true for any game in which averting defeat is only possible if you pick the one, correct response to any of your opponent’s moves. If one of the many options available to you after a player’s move stands out as the optimal choice, it doesn’t really feel like agency. You get played by the game, instead of the other way around. This is true, even if it’s not the game that removes your agency but another player.

Apparently, competitive gamers arent’t that fussed about this issue. A notable number of players consider it perfectly valid and even part of a game’s core appeal to talk other players into doing something, in an attempt to prevent somebody else’s victory. Some circles consider this style of arguing and haggling “political play”.

Regardless of what you want to call it, these games possess an additional layer to play and require a wider understanding of what is contained within the game. This carries some notable risks with it. When your success is undermined or even invalidated, because you couldn’t counter the skilful rhetoric and persuasion of another player, it can be irritating and annoying. Not least of all, because there might have been some disagreement as to what behavior was or wasn’t part of the game. A game may start off as being about strategic considerations of tactical decision spaces only to wrap up as dramatic argument between amateur salespeople.

When a game’s arc causes players to get angry or despondent, people tend to look at drawing up new rules to deal with the situation. An unbeatable strategy gets defused by changing certain rules or values in the name of game balance. If the game’s setting is the reason to avoid it, it is reworked to be more acceptable or appealing to people. When the way players exerting influence over each other leaves some with a bad taste in their mouth, the most common response seems to be to simply play a different game.

To many, Pandemic is the mother of all alpha gamer problems

This can’t be said for cooperative games, though. Here this artful persuasion is so strongly rejected that many reviewers seem to praise games, that introduce rules to make it (nigh) impossible for one player to play quarterback to everybody else. Which makes it even more interesting that in competitive games similar rules are rarely celebrated, if they included at all. Instead this behavior is tolerated as a natural aspect of competition and in some cases even considered the core of the game. Luckily this is the kind of viewpoint you can take disagree with. I would even go so far to say, that most gaming groups make very fine distinctions when and how you are allowed to influence the decisions of other players. But I think these distinctions aren’t inherent to the games themselves, but instead made by the groups. It’s not the rulebook but the players themselves who elect to accept certain behavior as part of a game or not.

In this game speaking up is the key to enjoyment

Regardless of whether you’re playing cooperatively or competitively, at heart this question is about balancing personal ambition with the shared experience of playing together. If claiming victory is the highest and only priority of playing with others, allowing an alpha player to roam free is a small price to play to win. In a competitive game you are more likely to make the table laugh than draw their ire, if you start to explain how to best block the leading player from winning the game.

But normal gaming groups take other facets of gaming into account. Beyond the wasteland of competition, games offer a number of reasons to get them to the table. Whether it’s exploring the tactical options of a game, experiencing the tense decision points it offers or even the shared misery of arduously scraping together small victories against a challenging system. A game isn’t memorable because of how well you scored, but because the decisions you made were responsible for the game’s outcome.

There is no magic trick to know when influencing the decisions of another player crosses a line. It only takes players who can and want to understand why they’re playing this game right now.

Game Night Verdicts #43 – Carrossel

A critical review or critique of a game can aim to do any number of things. Most of the time, it tries to be informative. It frames the game in the right context regarding other games and experiences. The audience is supposed to find out what playing the game is all about. In some cases, criticism can help correct misunderstandings or false assumptions. In rare cases a good piece of criticism opens up a new perspective on a game, which might have been overlooked otherwise. It can present a new approach, that helps to better understand and enjoy the game. Carrossel needs this kind of criticism. So this is my attempt to move past the game‘s rulebook and talk about what enjoyment the game provides.

Carrossel - Karussel 1

It only takes a few turns to fill up the carousel

First off, Carrossel has a lot in common with complex games, without being a complex game itself. This shouldn‘t be read as flaw, but as encouragement to look at the game from a certain angle.

Complex games offer a very specific form of fun. One that can‘t be simply boiled down to winning, or the specific ways you interact with other players. We enjoy complex games for the most part, because of the moments that Jane McGonigal termed „fiero“. A word that is, not without reason, borrowed from the Italien word for pride. It refers to the moments when we overcome adversity. In a complex game we experience those moments, when we‘re almost overwhelmed by the deluge of rules and their intricate interplay but thanks to our dilligent planning and careful decision-making snatch some small personal victory from the jaws of the game. In a complex game, we simply love it when a plan comes together. These games appeal to us because we have to stand our ground against the game itself (and incidentally the other players).

Carrossel - Marker

Place ticket reservations to score points later

Carrossel then is the kind of game that wants to provide similar fiero experiences to its players. But designer Antonio Sousa Lara has opted not to make use of a wealth of components, many different rules concept and numerous rules exceptions to challenge players. This widespread approach in complex game designs anchors its challenge in trying to comprehend the game‘s mechaninal system as a whole. With every game in which we learn something new about how the system works, we are promised a moment of fiero in some later game. This promise in particular encourages players to repeatedly play a game, they might not have had all that much fun with the first time around. Sometimes these games appeal specifically, because they suggest a learning curve that is so drawn-out as to be practically infinite.

Instead, Carrossel chooses a different path. It wants to be a game that feels complex and hard to master. Yet the challenge you‘re supposed to overcome is found in the hard to predict ways the board state changes over time. All of which is done without relying using dice or other randomizers. But at the same time the game is designed to be easy to learn, giving just enough orientation to keep gut-based decisionmaking competitive. Experienced strategists might scoff that the game‘s presentation merely distracts and obscures an otherwise simple concept. While this argument isn‘t entirely without merit, it misses the point. The indirect connection between player decisions and changes in the board state doesn’t hide a simple challenge, it is the focus of the game.

Carrossel - Kinder

Three friends are already waiting to board the carousel

Said board represents the carousel the game is named after. Each turn you place tokens on the area allocated to you, before the carousel moves again. Whenever a row or column of three tokens in your current area matches the cards in front of you, victory points get handed out. Some further rules nuances and options are added to push back the threat of calculability as the game progresses.

While most other complex works of indirect interaction (commonly known as multiplayer solitaire euros) require a somewhat holistic understanding of the game‘s rules to make a win feel earned, Carrossel aims to reward a keen eye for opportunities and risk-taking. The crowded board isn’t a sea of traps designed to put more and more constraints on you for making sub-optimal choices. It provides a spinning wheel of possibilities for you get it on. Carrossel’s moments of Fiero are not the result of long-term plans that amass a huge score and propel you into the lead. This game is not about Rosenberg-style master plans, that culminate in an awe-inspiring avalanche of victory points.

Carrossel is a game about noticing a promising opportunity and grabbing it. Its continually turning board doesn‘t stop, so you never get fixated on pursuing one singular strategy. It‘s a style of play you need to allow yourself to get into, so you can embrace the fun of it. If you can do that, Carrossel picks up speed quickly and regularly deals out moments of fiero.

Carrossel - Karussel 2

You spin me right round

Unfortunately the rulebook insists on laying out in detail how to operate the game, which ends up leading you down the wrong path of figuring out what Carrossel is about. Because a rulebook isn’t just a manual, it’s also an introduction to the game as a whole. It contextualizes our actions in order to give them weight and should have emphasized the playful nature of watching a carousel go round and round. Instead the rules are presented in a dry technical manner, suggesting that they provide a complex challenge you need to overcome to get to fiero. Consequently, when the actual flow of the game turns out to be much easier to grasp than the painstakingly detailed instructions implied, surprised disappointment is likely to follow.

Carrossel plays most naturally, when you refuse to take on the overwhelming effort to plot out and consider each and every eventuality and instead just cast a wide net to let the scoring happen suddenly and surprisingly. Those are the moments when Carrossel comes alive. The messier and more unweildy the board becomes, the prouder (Italian: più fiero) you are at scoring another few points out of it. Overcoming this type of adversity is both charming and entertaining.

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.