Game Night Verdicts #45 – Coatl

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

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

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

Bright colors are closer to inviting than scary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play beyond the rules

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

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

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

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

A game that’s more than its rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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.