Game Night Verdicts #49 – Undaunted Normandy

In Germany, board games tend to steer clear of any themes that are tied to World War II. This is hardly surprising. But it also means that with the exception of the wargaming scene, there’s not much of a conversation about how (or if) to deal with the topic in a game. Is it acceptable to play war in the privacy of your home? In what way is a game allowed to depict war? What can games even say about wars?

Undaunted Normandy is set in World War II. It is about individual battles in Normandy, with two players fighting each other, acting as US Army and Wehrmacht respectively. If your ears are already turning red, please refer to the second half of this review. First, though, I want to say a few words about the game design craft in this game.

No matter how close you get, you will only ever look down on them.

Right from the start you’ll note that this is a comparatively light and beginner-friendly game. You have to place („control“) certain squares of thet board with your pieces („soldiers“). In order to do this, you have to play certain cards depending on the piece you want to move. To keep the game from feeling too staid, individual cards let you choose between different actions to perform. Some add new cards to your deck. Others let you remove less useful cards, or force your opponent to discard useful ones from their hand. Sometimes you move your pieces, sometimes you prevent the other side from doing so. In sum, all your considerations revolve around playing cards from your hand tactically and strategically, and changing your deck. Those in the know refer to this as deckbuilding mechanisms.

Undaunted Normandy’s design is strong because even non-experts will quickly grasp the basics. Your goal is always apparent. Even with a very basic understanding of the rules, you quickly understand what you need to do to get to your goal. Only the somewhat fuzzy choice of terms for certain card actions require you to memorize a bit of jargon.

Once you’ve taken that hurdle, however, Undaunted Normandy plays smoothly. If you do get bogged down executing an action, it will only happen the first few times. Once you understand the game’s decision space, choosing an action is no longer an overwhelming task. Instead, you’ll carefully weigh short-term and long-term consequences. This makes for a game that is exciting and entertaining, but also rarely feels longer than 30 minutes.

The game’s depths aren’t necessarily found on the board

Now if a game were just the sum of its shapely and inviting mechanisms, Undaunted Normandy would have hit many of the best-of-the-years lists in the German board game scene. But it is also delves into historical themes and content that is usually reserved for Academy Award submissions from Germany. Mixing fun gameplay and World War II in German living rooms is only allowed, if you can make as much money with it as Activision does.

Alternatively, you may turn this topic into a game, provided you approach it with the serious demeanour and respectfulness World War II seems to demand. You might, for example, offer a paragraph about the game’s historical background that refers to the 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. You may explicitly distance yourself from the claim of simulating history. Similarly, every character in the game might be given a name to remind players that they are “leading real soldiers, not random game pieces.”

Ironically, Undaunted Normandy is at its most problematic when it attempts to presents itself as a respectful and responsible approach to its topic. The unspoken idea of representing fictional battles in a board game also brings with it an obligation to reflect, question and comment on real history. This becomes the game’s undoing.

For it is only in comparison to this high self-claim that the large gaps that the game exhibits through its chosen perspective and nature become clear. Game design’s inherent abstraction means that certain aspects will be left out. Undaunted Normandy, for example, knows of neither injury nor trauma for its soldiers. Battles leave no physical or psychological traces. No moral boundaries are crossed because they kill on command. Whatever responsibility you may have for the men in your own ranks exists at best as a vague allusion in the rulebook. The battles you play have the emotional depth and complexity of finger gun shootouts among children.

I understand the intent behind the rulebook’s explanation. It’s a preventative rebuttal of accusations of trivializing real crimes. It’s supposed to signal that the game wasn’t made from a place of ignorance or indifference.

But at the end of the day, players decide how much knowledge of real-life battles and soldiers’ fates will bleed into the feel of the game. It’s our imagination that decides whether we think of blood, pain and agony when a hit is rolled, or whether we’re annoyed that our tactical flexibility next turn has been limited.

The creators behind Undaunted Normandy understand that a game design affects what you do, think or feel while playing. However, they seem to focus solely on what players are shown, rather than what they do with game’s parts. A game’s narrative is framed by its mechanics and filled out by its setting. But it’s the players who can turn this into a story through play. It’s our imagination that reshapes the application of mechanisms into events of a story. It is the images in our mind’s eye that determine how respectfully and responsibly the game we play deals with the real past.

“You are all individuals”

The game creators’ influences ends with the non-binding suggestion of how rules and setting should be brought together. At the actual game table, it is we who decide what a game rule means to the story. We give it meaning or attribute a statement to it. We can pick up illustrations and terms from the game to do so. We are the ones who decide if a card we played is Private Jones, who has a wife and kid back home in Oklahoma, or just “the card with the 5 on it.”

That is why texts on the historical background are only a suggestion on how to understand and perceive the game. Which brings up the question why this needs explaining in the first place? Does a game become more mature by doing so? The cards show intrepid fighters with names of their own, supposedly implying that not all of them will return home when the war is over. But this sentence alone paints a more tragic picture of war as a place of misery and suffering than the game itself does.

Regardless of criticisms, there is no question that Undaunted Normandy is fun to play. Even if its treatment of World War II doesn’t approach the pathos and desperate humanism of a Saving Private Ryan. When you play, it’s more reminiscent of the fun adventure and scrappy summer camp atmosphere that made The Great Escape so memorable. But even for that comparison to hold, Undaunted Normandy would need the kind of harsh and final losses that ran through the film.

Whether Undaunted Normandy trivializes its theme depends on what we’re willing to make of it. After all, the game design delivers too much light-hearted entertainment and fun to refer to the real military conflicts of World War 2 with po-faced seriousness. It’s a fun game that doesn’t teach, explain, or provide insight into history. But perhaps games don’t always have to do that. Even if they are about wars.

Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition 2

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

Unpainted but no less wild

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

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

A true gambler will not be intimidated by probabilities

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

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

You can do it, ZOE!

Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition

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

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

Anansi’s art is both colourful and stylish

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

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

Standees have replaced headbands. Still clever, though.

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

Game Night Verdicts #47 – Coffee Roaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Night Verdicts #46 – Flick of Faith

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

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

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

Seen here: a tense fight over property rights

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

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

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

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

The Dagda (green, Irish) scores some valuable points

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

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

Game Night Verdicts #45 – Coatl

Games can be appealing, because they give players an outlet for behavior they may not have room for in their daily lives. Well-adjusted people tend to not be ruthlessly competitive towards others, but may enjoy indulging in some testy back-and-forth in a board game with friends. The same might be said for bald-faced lying or even just unchecked ambition. The latter in particular finds a (reasonably) safe outlet within boardgaming. If that is what draws you to playing games, there’s a chance you might find Coatl by Pascale Brassard and Etienne Dubois-Roy to be a little out of step with itself.

The first thing you will definitely notice is Coatl’s colorful presentation and its equally bright playing pieces with colors so intense they are just about a hair’s breadth away from being garish. But when laid out on the table Coatl is more likely to suggest playfulness than overbearing visual dissonance. Another point in its favor, is the simplicity of the rules themselves. It takes large illustrations, a lot of negative space and big font to fill up its 12-page rulebook. This does not suggest a game that is particularly taxing to play or difficult to finish successfully.

Even its turn structure is familiar and easily memorized. You collect pieces from the display, put them together to form a Coatl (a feathered serpent used in Aztec rituals) and score points based on whatever cards you’ve played on it. The first player to complete their third Coatl ends the game, placing a clear end goal in sight for everyone.

Bright colors are closer to inviting than scary

And yet, particularly when introducing the game to experienced players, Coatl soon develops the kind of forward momentum you’d associate with being stuck in quicksand. Brows are furrowed, chins are stroked and the pensive silence is only occasionally interrupted by requests for just a few more seconds to think things through. Somehow the game that’s on the table seems to follow a different rhythm than the one that is being played.

A game can be appealing or even addictive because of how player decisions and the consequences for those decisions are spread out over its running time. If the two happen almost instantaneously, decisions feel trivial and almost inconsequential. But inject some time delay into it by way of careful deliberation of all options or the game’s design keeping back the payoff for your decision for a few turns and decisions start to feel more meaningful. Getting what you want feels like an achievement.

Experienced players are likely to have internalized this. Considering all your options on your turn becomes less about avoiding frustrating mistakes that might lose you the game, and about squeezing all the enjoyment you can get from the game’s decision space. Because thinking about what to do next makes doing what you’re about to do next more fun.

That’s why a great many design decisions aim to provide players with enough variables to provoke serious consideration of the consequences, while also creating an enjoyable tension as they wait for the results of their carefully weighed options to arrive. It’s like the fleeting moments of anticipation after you’ve thrown your frisbee disc and watch to see where it lands. If you couldn’t follow its flight with your eyes, most of the fun of disc golf would disappear.

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

Coatl, despite its inviting presentation and simple overall rules design, presents players with quite a lot of things they could choose to think about in the attempt to score a winning number of victory points. Cards in your hand spell out conditions your Coatl has to meet, like a specific arrangement of particular colored pieces. Some cards allow this combination to be counted multiple times for even more VP. If you bring even a kernel of ambition to the table, you will quickly look for ways to best combine your cards and playing pieces to maximize your VP payout. This is, after all, what makes playing games like this so much fun. A great number of gamers love their heavy eurogames for exactly that reason. Complex calculations and long-term plotting of actions are an essential part of their appeal. But Coatl is not a heavy eurogame, which is why feeling the need to put this much effort into getting the most out of it feels out of step with the rest of the design.

This perceived need to think hard to make an efficient and meaningful decision is in no small part based on how it’s difficult to tell what players should be aiming for. Or to put it in simpler terms: unless you’ve played a few games of Coatl, you can’t quite tell if 12 VP is a good, average or bad score for a single Coatl. The game does provide some hints, though. There are three special action tokens with a 50 printed on the back to serve as VP reminders should you make it past the VP track’s last space (50). Once you connect the scoring range of your hand cards with the hard limit of cards that a single Coatl may fulfill, you might estimate an upper limit of around 25 VP per Coatl.

Equipped with this (incomplete) knowledge you will inevitably slow the game down to a crawl before long. Because what Coatl doesn’t tell you, is that the effort it takes to increase your score grows exponentially the higher you want it to go. So the harder you try to play the game well, to score close to a maximum of points, the more it will drag on.

All games have learning curves, during which players have to acquaint themselves with the ups and downs of the game’s particular form of unpredictability, the impact of particular rules interactions and so on. Once you’ve moved past this, these games tend to play more fluidly, more interestingly and more dynamically. Coatl, on the other hand, has you learn to moderate your ambition.

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

In order to really enjoy the game, you need to set your aims a little lower than the maximum. Which is an usual thing to ask of highly competitive players. The more ambitious your playstyle, the harder the game seems to get. In that regard it has something in common with Carrossel. Another lighter game, that also provoked highly competitive players into treating it as a much more complex and challenging game than it was arguably intended to be.

Similarly, Coatl is at its most enjoyable when played as a light to medium-heavy race to the finish line, and less like a spatial combination puzzle stretched out over dozens and dozens of turns in which seemingly not much happens until somebody’s score surges forward.

This doesn’t necessarily make Coatl a flawed design, but one that places an almost imperceptible obstacle between players and their enjoyment, which might stop them from giving the game a second chance. Once you can stop taking Coatl so seriously, it’s actually both breezy and tense to play.

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.

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.

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.