The King’s Dilemma (concluded)

Folks, I wasn‘t ready. I did not see it coming. I thought I had a pretty good handle on The King’s Dilemma as it reached its final chapters. But then the ending landed and I was left stunned and speechless. I didn‘t think any game would be this ambitious, this confident and bold in what it set out to do. Most of all I didn‘t think a game could pull off what The King‘s Dilemma did.

The ending managed to contextualize all that had come before. It sifted through the many ephemeral moments of the 16 sessions it took us to finish the campaign and created something that belies the limited nature of legacy games. To be clear, The King’s Dilemma does not have a twist ending. There are no sudden reversals or surprises meant to catch you off-guard and have you marvel at the designer’s cleverness. This isn’t a case of Marion Crane taking a fateful shower, or the identity of Keyser Soze or a question of who was or wasn’t actually dead the whole time. There is none of this here.

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Everything or nothing

Instead the ending manages to conclude its main plot and by doing so sheds light on all the elements that have come before. Like the season end montages in The Wire, it makes us appreciate where we started and where we ended up. But more importantly it draws attention to the steps that led us there. It contrasts our lively negotiation full of jokes, laughter and shrewd tactical votes to get what we want, with the fate of this imaginary kingdom, with its fictional people and made-up culture.

This article will include huge spoilers for The King’s Dilemma. Although maybe not in the way you expect. I must warn you in no uncertain terms, that if you haven’t finished your own campaign of The King’s Dilemma to stop reading now. Even if you think, you’re fine with spoilers; that it’s about the journey not the destination… this doesn’t apply here. Once you know certain things about the game, your experience will be diminished in a way that nothing else in the game can compensate for. It will still be fun, but you will regret having missed the opportunity to experience the game’s arc first-hand.

I will give you one piece of advice before you get back to playing the game:

Trust your instincts.

Whatever they may be.

With that out of the way… let’s get back to talking about the game or skip to the paragraphs under the picture to read my spoiler-free conclusion.

Continue reading “The King’s Dilemma (concluded)”

Georgios Draws First Blood – The King‘s Dilemma

The King’s Dilemma is something of an odd beast. But probably not for the reasons you might think. The rulebook itself describes it as an interactive narrative experience, which is technically accurate. In much the same way that it is technically accurate to describe a train as a horseless mechanized carriage on tracks. Whatever fancy label you want to put on it, The King’s Dilemma is first and foremost a game. A negotiation game, in fact. And as is the case with all such games negotiations come with consequences. It is exactly these consequences that allow a narrative to emerge and take hold in your game.

The King’s Dilemma is set in the low fantasy kingdom of Ankist. Players take on the roles of the many powerful and influential lords, ladies, dukes, etc. advising the king on important decisions of his reign. These pivotal decisions that you will consult on, come in form of small story cards that outline a situation and present you with a simple binary choice. Build this tower or not? Send out explorers by ship or not? Pay the religious order to keep the peace or not? None of these have been actual examples from our game, by the way. I made them up as secrecy about what is in store for you is key to the experience. But more on that later.

Obviously, these decisions are incredibly hard to take, if practically nothing depends on them. (Otherwise known as a Diventer.) That’s why, outside of occasionally advancing one of the game’s six storylines, these decisions affect up to two of the five resources that you track on the game board. Resources that can go up or down, depending on what you decide to do. If you choose to spend money on a tower, the treasury will be lowered. Exploring ships may boost Ankist’s knowledge and arts. And so on and so forth. In a design decision that is as elegant as it is effective, you have multiple interests in where those resource markers should be by the time the king’s reign comes to an end. The key word here is multiple.

The most immediate one is your secret agenda card, which doesn’t really distinguish between the markers themselves, only their position on the board. This has the neat effect that, from a purely mechanical point of view, you’re not invested in any one marker moving in a particular direction. Only that they either keep or lose their momentum, depending on where you want them to be at the end of the game. You also have house goals, that need you to see specific markers in certain places, or to have you finish the game with the most money or power. Other agendas are added later to make you want to push specific resource markers up. That’s how you find yourself at odds with some players and in league with others from one game to the next. Or even one decision to the next.

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This will be your battleground

This is where the negotiation aspect of the game shines. If you‘re mainly familiar with the concept from other board games, you are likely to know specific, gamified forms of negotiation. You might know about haggling, like you do in Chinatown, where you push for an imbalanced exchange that benefits you more than your opponent. You may treat negotiation as a form of trade, as you do in Catan, where you give away something you don’t need for something you do need. Or you might know negotiation from games like Diplomacy, where you lie about what you need to manipulate people to your benefit.

The King’s Dilemma gives mere lip service to those approaches. Sure, you can bribe players for their votes. Or you can lie about your intention to vote, so others won’t interfere. But the game is far more interested in creating actual, proper negotiation. That is to say it is about the process of players finding a compromise, pooling their resources and getting things done. This is, of course, only possible if players have something to compromise on. That is to say, prioritizing one of their goals over another depending on the situation at hand. The game manages this in two ways: it gives players a number of valid goals to go for. You are trying to move resource markers into certain parts of the board. You might be after money by letting yourself get bribed, or passing on making a decision. You might also want to focus on fulfilling your house goals to score renown or unlock abilities. So far, so mechanically solid. By allowing players to remain flexible within the many incentives of the game, you’re given room to negotiate.

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The future of Ankist lies in the balance, literally

The other neat trick that King’s Dilemma has up its sleeve, is that it dives into one of the least explored concepts in board game design: utter ignorance. One of the key aspects of playing a board game is that it gives you a sense of control. Your decisions are definitive. Your goals are spelled out for you clearly. The consequences of your actions, although occasionally complicated by randomness or other players’ decisions, are fairly easy to figure out. Knowing what you’re working towards and what’s in store for you, lets players quickly evaluate which decisions are important to their plans and which are not.

The King’s Dilemma on the other hand is hilariously coy about these things. Every game ends with players scoring victory points, that come in two currencies: renown and crave. The rulebook is quite explicit that the latter ones are not necessarily negative. But it is nowhere near explicit about how those points relate to the campaign’s resolution. You have to rely on your own assumptions and vague guesses. Which makes you – as a player – far more willing to compromise during the negotiations. Since you don’t know the exact value of those victory points you’re chasing, compromising one or two of them now, might not damage your standing in any significant way later. As the campaign progresses, the game’s storyline and card iconography gives hints and allusions to what might be waiting for you at the end, so you’re not completely blind-sided when the finale actually lands. Probably. I don’t know… I am about two or three games away from the end by now. And I’m still not entirely sure whose house is currently positioned to be victorious in the end. Or what that victory even looks like. We might know the renown and crave points of each of our houses, but we don’t know that means in game terms.

It’s this level of uncertainty that allows actual negotiation to take place at the table. Whereas a game like Sidereal Confluence tries to recreate this by making it incredibly challenging to compute the actual value of a trade as you play, The King’s Dilemma simply relies on a slow and vague drip of hints and allusions to what its numerical endgame will be like. This is a solution that is so ingeniously elegant, that it should make other game designers envious.

But this isn’t only a negotiation game with smart, effective mechanics. The King’s Dilemma calls itself a narrative experience and it’s a narrative that is both well integrated and well written. A feat, that shouldn’t be underestimated as until now only Betrayal Legacy had managed to pull it off. But whereas that game tragically failed to communicate the value of memory to its players, The King’s Dilemma has the fallout of individual decisions cling to individual houses for an indeterminate amount of (play)time. Sometimes they last for only two or three games. Sometimes they last for eight sessions or even longer. The game remembers and reminds you of the things you’ve done.

But it’s a memory that isn’t based on mechanics you’ve used, but on the actual decisions you’ve experienced. They are the consequences players were talking about, even if they were primarily interested in their mechanical application. While we may talk about wanting more food for the poor, or protecting the sanctity of the people’s faith; what we want to see is the food marker go up further, or the morale marker not to drop. Yet the game’s stickers that come as consequence of some of those decisions, will have your name on it. The people will remember that you voted against their interest, or unleashed the terrors of knowledge onto them. The game’s design cleverly makes theme and player decisions overlap to blur the line, and make it feel “thematic”.

Whether intentional or not, this merging of player action and story consequences paints the political dealings you engage in as a somewhat cynical take on real life political decision-making. You – in the role of effectively the world’s leading politicians – pay lip service to the actual issues, but are instead only interested in their consequences according to your secret, personal agenda. Sometimes this means that you gain the support of the people, sometimes you’re the bad guy. This leads to you getting public agendas, encouraging you to avoid certain developments on the resource board. But eventually another item in the news cycle will make the people forget what your house has done, and you can return to pursue your personal ambitions fully. Occasionally, you might feel like the events taking place in the kingdom should follow a certain path, i.e. push one of the six storylines you will explore in the game in one direction or another. As the game nears its end, and your personal ambitions may have been fulfilled, you find yourself suddenly invested in the fate of Ankist as a whole.

It’s a development that some more role-playing minded players find themselves in right from the first session. Grim situations that immediately evoke a response from the players, regardless of their effect on the board markers and the personal goals. This tension in what you want personally, and what you are supposed to want mechanically, can seem disorienting at first. But it is arguably part of the cynical and grim tone that personal beliefs (“slavery is an evil”) may have to be dismissed as irrelevant for winning the game (“but allowing it would let me score more points”). The familiarity of these narrative themes, tropes and stances shouldn’t take away from the fact, that it’s an immense achievement that such things manage to emerge organically from the game. And you don’t even need the designer to explain things to you in a lengthy blog post first.

One of the most noteworthy things about The King’s Dilemma is that I find myself still a little salty over decisions the group has made. It’s the ones I opposed on principle and not on mechanical advantage, that still linger in my mind. Sometimes I would ignore my agenda card, or house goals, to side with the consequence I wanted to see, not the one that would pay out. There’s something tragicomic about those moments, when fiction and reality seem to touch, that I’ve yet to experience in any other game.

While I would still argue that The King’s Dilemma is a negotiation game first, it’s the story that we create and experience through play, that makes it so memorable and remarkable. The tone of the story is, admittedly, not really to my tastes with its penchant for the grim and dark. But this is easily forgotten when faced with an experience that is so rich and engaging, and a design that is bold and striking without succumbing to rules bloat.

I could go on for another 2000 words, diving into the nitty-gritty of the carefully arranged elements of the game. But I have a kingdom to return to that needs its fate steered by the rich and powerful.

But I was just playing by the rules!

For many gaming groups, it’s a rare, although not quite impossible situation to end up in. You’re heavily invested playing a competitive game. Fighting over every little advantage you can get. You’re plotting, scheming and strategizing. Some of you might even employ table talk as a cunning ruse. And then, out of nowhere, somebody makes an unexpected, yet devastating move against another player. Tensions rise. The room explodes in a cacophony of angry voices and accusations. One player has lost their temper, and the ensuing argument will invariably hang over the rest of the evening.

Even though this is just a crude outline of that kind of situation, a lot of people might already know who is to blame here. It doesn’t really matter what game the group was playing, or who was part of it. At the very latest, the whole thing is cleared up when the offending player provides the one impeccable gaming defense: I was just playing by the rules.

I happen to think that this argument is actually quite peccable, or rather questionable. What I’m trying to say, I think it stinks and people should stop using it. Because following the rules does not in and of itself justify somebody’s actions. The question of whether an act is right or wrong isn’t about legality. In fact, the problem is of a different kind altogether. Our social experience of playing a game together has either been maliciously sabotaged, or carelessly neglected. Neither of which can be ruled out by sticking to the rulebook.

Yet this argument keeps getting brought up whenever these kinds of fights erupt at the gaming table. Arguably because there is an unspoken assumption, that a game’s rules can somehow establish the reason why people play together. But that is simply not true.

Rules define the formal structure of the game. They are the scaffolding with which we engage each other in play. They might tell us how many cards to draw, or how many spaces to move, or how to turn a mixture of resources into victory points. Rules determine when the game ends, and how then to distinguish between success and failure. At best, a ruleset will hint at what the purpose of playing together could be.

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A game can’t make you do something you don’t already want to do yourself

We don’t derive the reason we’re playing a game from the rules. Most gamers are creatures of habit. We end up playing games for the same reasons we’ve always played them. Sometimes because we crave the affirmation of having overcome whatever challenge the game throws at us. Sometimes we just want to be better at something than somebody else. In some cases, we just to share our time with friends. There are a great many reasons to play, and most people settle on one of them eventually.

As we become more knowledgeable in the hobby, we realize that some games are better suited for certain play agendas than others. Most party games don’t give you quite the same validation when winning, as some other games do. You might find games that require your strategic and analytical thinking to succeed a more rewarding experience. Similarly, a low interaction game in which you turn resources into other resources and then into victory points, will have a harder time hitting the right notes for groups who want a shared experience. A cooperative game, that emphasizes communication, may be the better choice here. A game can not force a play agenda onto a group, but it can support certain group goals better than others.

That’s why some experienced groups may value winning over working together in a cooperative game. Or how gamers looking for more social experience to bond over, may end up in a tug of war with the design of a strongly confrontational game, or find themselves underwhelmed by a eurogame in which you only care about yourself and your individual achievements.

On one side you have players looking for a specific play experience, on the other you have games set up like tool boxes to help you achieve another. Every time we sit down to play a new game, we need to fuse these opposites into one coherent whole.

Which is where the incident at the gaming table from before comes in. These arguments aren’t due to immaturity or an inability to lose. They can’t be brushed aside by insisting that no rules were broken. They are instead a clash of purpose. They erupt in loud arguments because one player believed to be playing towards the group’s shared goal in good faith and then had the rug pulled out from under them..

The group’s shared goal, its purpose, is self-chosen, even if it almost never happens openly. We start from our own gaming habits, take into account what circumstantial evidence the game provides us with and – if we’re willing or able – use our social intelligence to suss out what the rest of the group is after. Once we put all those things together, we adjust our behavior accordingly and go forward.

With board games it means we need to ask ourselves, if we’re playing to compete with each other, to take pride in our own achievements, to interact with each other in an entertaining way or for one of any number of reasons. It requires us to understand and acknowledge why we play, and if those reasons are compatible with those of our fellow players. Because if they’re not, it’s only a matter of time until it all blows up. When that happens, reminding everyone how you never once broke a rule, doesn’t really absolve you of your actions. Because you put your personal ambition above the interests of the group you’re supposed to be a part of.

That is simply not acceptable, and you shouldn’t need a rule to tell you that.

 

What was the middle part? – On rules explanations

Whether a new game gets to return to the table after its inaugural play, often comes down to how well it was taught. That‘s partly because an introduction to a game‘s rules sets the tone for what to expect. An aimless, vague explanation can turn a game like LAMA into a confusing, complex rules mess, that you can only really grasp with sufficient tenacity and experience. Whereas a clean and well-structured introduction can even dispel the intimidating aura of complexity of a game like Twilight Imperium 4.

It‘s rarely a question of player motivation or affinity. Sure, it helps if students have some prior knowledge or interest in a new topic. But in a small group of three to four people, a decent teacher should be able to communicate ideas without being given a leg-up like this.

Preparation (or what am I talking about?)

This is the part that I often mess up myself. If you skimp on your rules prep, you will invariably end up with a slow, oft interrupted and aimless rules explanation. I often find myself paging through the rulebook, looking up the exact phrasing of a rule, because I foolishly thought I could wing it. You need to pay quite a bit of attention to learn the rules of a new board game. If you keep getting interrupted, because the person explaining the game quickly needs to look something up, it doesn‘t just affect your understanding of the game but also your first experience playing it. Especially during the first rounds, play will feel bumpy, halting repeatedly to ask questions that have already been answered. The first, and often only, impression of the game will end up being that it has a steep learning curve but ends up playing smoothly after a while.

If I can manage it, I make sure to read through the rules beforehand multiple times. I also try to come up with a plan how to sum up and explain the core ideas of the game. That requires a firm grasp on which rules are important for the game‘s flow. By which I mean the rules that, if misapplied or accidentally omitted, would fundamentally alter the experience of playing the game. The point of a good rules prep isn‘t to have all the details and edge cases of the rulebook memorized, but to have an iron-clad grasp on the game‘s core. At any given point I must be able to explain the rules that set up objectives and incentives for the players.

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What a rules aid looks like to the uninitiated

Objectives and Incentives (or why are we doing this?)

People act in pursuit of actual objectives and for specific reasons. Whether their actions will actually lead them to their chosen objective, is usually answered through play. Regardless, we evaluate our options based on how well they help us reach our objectives. If we can‘t get a good handle on what those objectives are, we lack the solid footing to act sensibly. If I don‘t know where I want to go, I will have a hard time choosing between a bike, a train or simply walking. But these objectives shouldn‘t be confused with victory conditions. Any game that actually needs a rules explanation offers interim objectives, you need to fulfill to qualify for a victory condition. Part of understanding a game requires the ability to recognise what those objectives are. Knowing that I need 10 points to win in Catan, doesn‘t really help me understand the game any better. It won‘t help me understand the point of trading resources or why it might be more beneficial to expand a road than to upgrade a settlement. But once the game‘s interim objectives, that help me gain VP, are laid out, I have a way to measure the usefulness of individual actions.

In order to figure out how to play a game, I have to understand how and why certain rules relate to each other. Once I understand their purpose, the game makes sense. A good rules explanation lays out these things, so that players can make reasoned decisions. Understanding a game is more than simply knowing how a round or turn is structured. It means you‘re able to make purposeful and intentional decisions.

Context (or how does this make sense?)

In most cases a game‘s objectives are an abstract thing. It might be points on a tracker. It might be the ratio of blue to red cubes behind your screen. With enough practice and experience, this level of abstraction isn‘t a hurdle to understanding a game. Eventually all you see on the table is abstractions. I imagine this being like the climactic scene in The Matrix, when Neo sees only code around him as opposed to the photorealistic reality he moves in. This perspective on a game does bring a lot of its own problems with it. Like turning the act of play into an elaborate form of competitive arithmetic.

Some games are designed to explicitly counteract this kind of shift in experience. It‘s with those games in particular, that I‘ve had some success in using the game‘s setting to illustrate many of its rules. Although it‘s rarely enough to just use the thematic terminology of the rulebook to refer to the game‘s components. I try to stay away from explaining rules as simple causal connections, but embed them into the game‘s background. This has two benefits. First, it puts an emphasis on theme being an essential part of the experience. But what‘s more important, is that the compact way of feeding new players dense layers of information is opened up a little. Combined with the occasional repetition of previously mentioned rules, your head gets to breathe for a moment. Two yellow cubes turn into one brown cube. Out of two wheat, you create a batch of bread. Your field worker‘s bring home the day‘s crop and after a quick chat they head to the mill, where the miller and the baker make bread for your village. A short narrative detour can help players who need a moment to digest a new rule. But it can also annoy players who are already eager for more input. It‘s usually a good time to lean heavily into all the emotional intelligence you can muster here.

Games with abstract rules and a tenuous connection to their setting are easier to grasp, by explaining how an action affects other players. What do you reveal indirectly, if you only identify one card in a player‘s hand as being green? What does it say about a player‘s hand of cards in The Crew, if they can‘t follow suit but instead discard a high-numbered card? By illustrating a rule through the game‘s theme or its effect on player interaction, these things are grounded in something tangible. They give the rules substance and open up the experience.

I‘d love to say, that I follow those three concepts consistently and without fail, which is why every one of my rules explanation goes down perfectly. I‘d be quite impressed with myself, if that were the case. But I often find myself not having spent enough time prepping the rules, keeping some game objectives too vague or rattling off a rule without proper context. Yet I can trace back my successful and failed rules explanations to how closely I stuck to the principles above.

Maybe they‘ll be of help to you, too.

Tinderblox – Kickstarter Preview

NB: This is an unpaid Kickstarter preview. Photography by Ross Connell, courtesy of Alley Cat Games.

It is a truism in board games that size does, in fact, matter. Once you drop a massive square crate of a game on the table, you‘ve announced to everyone that they‘re in for a time of furiously furrowed brows and intense plotting of long-term plans. It is only fitting, then, that Tinderblox comes in a small tin box, big enough to fit into your pocket.

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Not pictured: beads of sweat dripping down the next player’s forehead

Designer Rob Sparks, working with Alley Cat Games, has managed to create an accessible dexterity game, that you can easily carry anywhere. It is small enough to be played on any pub table, a reasonably even bar or even a stable barstool (if you’re desperate). More importantly, it can be set up, explained and played to completion in the span of about 10 minutes. Again, a perfect fit for a quick hit of board gaming as you’re waiting for the next round of shots.

Tinderblox’ core conceit is a simple one. You stack small wooden cubes onto small wooden logs onto a pile, vaguely resembling what could best be described as a Minecraft rendition of a campfire. This patently simple task is purposefully made complicated through two additions. First, you are using tweezers to gingerly place the components onto your campfire construction. You pick pieces from the supply to move them onto the campfire’s starting card, without touching any pieces directly. It’s a small change, that turns a distant variant of Jenga into something of sufficient challenge to the modern board gamer. And an amusing challenge at that, as you will eventually find your hand trembling oh so slightly, which is enough to make it all collapse and eliminate you from the game.

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This is quite a bit harder than it looks.

The second addition comes in form of cards, that tell you what exactly to place onto the campfire. Sometimes it will be a simple red/yellow cube. It may be a single wooden log. Some cards will have you use your off-hand, disadvantaging those who are not trained in ambidexterity. There are even cards that include multiple pieces stacked on each other, that you need to move and place in once go. It’s another way to increase the game’s difficulty a bit. But its randomness also adds one hilariously swingy and ridiculously unfair element to this small portable game.

Since Tinderblox is a light competitive game, it’s obvious that your best bet is to lay traps for the player following you. Leave logs skewed and cubes slightly unbalanced to all but make sure that the next player will be eliminated for messing it all up. But the capriciousness of the cards can lead to turns in which players can get away with an easy, single cube task, while you somehow have to build the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower on the world’s least stable foundation. It’s a reliable source of laughter, as the hubris of having set a devious trap for somebody else backfires in spectacular fashion.

Tinderblox’ greatest asset is its size and simplicity. It can be played practically anywhere, and explained with ease. Tension builds quickly and snaps in a big round of sympathetic laughter. It’s over quick enough to make you ask for a rematch or ten.

The campaign to back Tinderblox will launch on February 4, 2020.

 

Game Night Verdicts #36 – Mooncake Master

A technocratic understanding of games understands play as the attempt to determine the most efficient solution to a given problem. We play in order to solve a problem we‘ve been presented with. We compete in order to find out whose approach is the most profitable, i.e. which one generates the most victory points. If said problem is particularly complex, or there are a wide number of possible approaches to solve it, the more sophisticated a game‘s design. To a technocrat this sophistication is the mark of a high quality game. After all, quality is first and foremost, a matter of quantity.

In Mooncake Master your task is to bake three cakes. You do so by playing tiles next to each other. Some of them you draw from the pile yourself. Most of them are given to you by the players seated next to you. The completed cakes are then rated based on a set number of criteria. This will result in 2, 1 or 0 victory points. After three full rounds, the game is over.

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Three completed cakes

It‘s hard to argue that this cake problem is complex. Even the number of different approaches to put them together is rather limited. Since you draw and hand over cards to your neighbours, the game is vaguely comparable to drafting games like 7 Wonders. Although handing over cards has been reduced to pure hate-drafting, i.e. trying to give the other players the worst possible card you can.

With its three tiles, you try to put into cakes each turn, Mooncake Master is oddly reminiscent of early roll‘n‘write games. Before those, too, had become increasingly technocratic. A time before expansive symbology, combos and special abilities. When those games still created an easy thrill that wasn‘t too far off from gambling. Things would become more and more tense as scoring a lot of points became less and less likely. You would be leaning forward in anticipation, hoping that the right numbers would come up to let you rake in a huge chunk of victory points in one go. Mooncake Master recaptures this experience and mixes it with a pinch of take-that. Usually personified by the player sitting next to you slipping you just the right tile to mess up your carefully laid plans.

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Fulfilling a customer’s order would have scored one VP directly

To a technocrat, there isn‘t much to Mooncake Master. There are too few opportunities to exert control of the outcome. Winning seems arbitrary instead of the result of somebody‘s refined strategy paying off. But that‘s also what makes this game worth talking about. Instead of relying on superior skill to best your opponents, your decisions are revealed as correct or false after the fact. There is little difference between a newbie and a veteran when they‘re both hoping to draw the right tile next turn.

What you have is a game that runs on its easy thrills, instead of complex challenges. It‘s a game where messing with other players tends to result in exasperated laughter as opposed to frustrations. That‘s because things can turn on a dime, and the points you were hoping for could vanish from one turn to the next. It‘s this sense of the unpredictable and the uncontrollable, that shapes the experience of playing Mooncake Master. This will annoy the technocrat, but it will also delight the gambler.

 

Game Night Verdicts #35 – Dim Sum Jam

Some things simply go together. Like honey on your cream cheese bagel. Or espresso powder in your chocolate cake. Or Annie Lennox & Al Green.

Even board gaming has some crossover, that may seem random at first but delivers surprisingly solid results: cooperative games and real-time mechanisms. You‘re working together to reach some kind of goal, with the added pressure provided by an app or a sandtimer. It‘s a combination you can find in escape room style puzzle games, in convoluted communication challenges like Space Alert or even brightly colored card smashers like 5-Minute Dungeon.

Dim Sum Jam, then, is a new entry into this genre of real-time cooperative games. In it you will be in charge of an Asian restaurant that has to serve seven packed tables. To do so, each player places one of their token on tables until they‘re fully served and can be replaced by new ones. This is how you work your way through a small stack of 16 cards. In the second half of the deck, you will find a VIP guest, that you have to serve successfully before either time or the deck of cards run out. If you‘ve managed to do that, you‘ve won the game.

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An arrangement of the seven available dishes

The monkey wrench that the game throws your way is that every token you place tells the following player in turn order which table they have to serve next. This creates an inadvertent action chain that you have to keep going without interruption. If a player doesn‘t have the dish their table is asking for, they can discard any number of tokens and draw new ones from the bag. But doing so also angers one of your customers. If you end up with three angry customers, you can kiss your restaurant goodbye.

In play Dim Sum Jam feels reminiscent of the mine car chase from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It‘s fast and chaotic. When you do get a chance to choose which of your tokens to play, you get to pause for a moment to give you a quick overview of your fellow players‘ options. But most of the time, you‘ll be playing by the seat of your pants. It‘s difficult to plan more than one step ahead.

While most cooperative games are about puzzling out your optimal move or judging probabilities, this is all about quick decision-making. If you hesitate for too long, you waste precious seconds. This often feels much worse than placing the token that will throw your gourmet mine cart off the rails. This whiff of hysteria tends to provide enough of a thrill to keep you entertained. Will the rollercoaster ride last long enough before your VIP guest storms out of your restaurant in a fit of anger?

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The tea is wild.

All of which makes Dim Sum Jam a great entree for your game night. It forces players to come out of their shell, since defeat might be waiting behind the next corner. It‘s a game that can be over in a flash. Every table you manage to clear is a small win, that seemed unimaginable only a few turns ago. It results in an emotional up and down, that is occasionally interrupted by a despairing wail as a player discovers that they lack the plate of shumai that table 4 is waiting on.

But after a few games, you might also discover that Dim Sum Jam is the kind of game that can be mastered. Bad luck can still stop you in your tracks, but an experienced group is likely to win this game far more often than not. That‘s what pits Dim Sum Jam against the received wisdom of veteran gamers, who will only deign a cooperative game with a second glance, if its difficulty is punishing enough to bring other people to tears.

Dim Sum Jam presents you with some optional rules or achievements to increase the difficulty. You may have to play the game using only one hand, with multiple VIP guests in the deck or even determine a player who has to play with their eyes closed. As a reward for successfully completing the game, you get to put stickers included in the game, on your game box. With this, designer Liu Xiao empties another bucket full of charme and playfulness over the whole thing. It might not be everyone‘s cup of tea. But then again, there are also people who don‘t care for chocolate, ice cream or puppies.

The thing about gateway games

Gateway games mustn‘t be too complex. They should be low on conflict. Gateway games ought to have an appealing theme. There‘s a kernel of truth to all those statements, but they can easily lead you down the wrong path, too. Today I‘d like to look at the ideas expressed there and figure out what they‘re actually about.

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That seems reasonably straight-forward

1. Complexity of rules. It‘s not exactly news that complex games tend to come across as quite intimidating to inexperienced players. You might remember your own first tentative steps into the hobby, when the bulk of material and thick rulebooks you‘d see on other people‘s tables made it hard to imagine wanting to spend excessive amounts of free time on them. But as any veteran player knows, sometimes it‘s exactly that kind of complexity that draws you to a game. It‘s the challenge of clawing your way through a layered game and work out its nuances and really grasp it, that keeps you going. But that‘s not a trait that‘s unique to veteran players. No player type has a monopoly on ambition. Any challenge can hook a new player, as long as its goal is tangible and comprehensible. Something as vague as the promise of fun isn‘t enough to make a complex game more approachable. It‘s only when you can successfully communicate the kind of reward waiting for you at the end of it, will you be able to attract new players to the table.

Sure, complex rules require more of an effort to tackle. Not everyone has the time or inclination to deal with a complicated body of rules, full of unfamiliar concepts and mechanisms. Not to mention the number of games that, even after concluding the rules lecture, still require an undefined number of training games before you can even get close to the kind of experience, the game is supposed to deliver. Any game that only promises frustration and lack of progress – commonly euphemised as „not for everyone“ – only confirms people‘s reasons for staying away from this hobby. The most promising entry into the world of board games still relies on being successful.

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Pax is Latin for peace, don’t you know?

2. Conflict in games. Let‘s not kid ourselves. A noticable number of people still cling to the belief that men seek and enjoy conflict, whereas everybody else prefers play to be less confrontational, more calm and generally of a care bear variety. If you‘re not playing with „one of the guys“, your gateway game should prioritize careful and at most indirect interaction. The idea that such preferences run along the lines of gender identity is patently absurd. Somewhat less absurd is the reason why many new gamers are wary of conflict-heavy games. Many invitations to a game night come across as a competition of intelligence, in which victory will determine the smartest player at the table. It‘s the kind of competition that few people would be eager to join, if they had to go up against experienced gamers. A good gateway game takes place in an environment, in which defeat does not reflect badly on the player. Games with a strong random element or luck tend to be work well. You get to focus on playing the game, as opposed to worrying about your rank at the end of the game.

But if you want to enjoy some competitive play even when joined by inexperienced players, you have to show them that it is a game you will be playing on equal footing. Too often it seems that prior experience gives players an edge that you don‘t stand a chance against. It shouldn‘t come as a surprise that a challenge feels far less entertaining, when you know, that you‘re fighting a losing battle.

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A calm and uneventful time is sure to follow

3. The game‘s theme. Opinions differ on the matter of theme. Some believe that a good gateway game should come with a neutral or effectively non-descript theme. Others argue that a gateway game should be about the things that a potential new player is already familiar with or invested in. Nowadays I consider the advantage of a theme in all the things, it doesn‘t touch upon. Whether it‘s stereotypical nerd themes, juvenile power fantasies or a shallow handling of a historical past, none of those are attractive to people. That‘s not because such themes are in poor taste, but because they tend to suggest a very superficial and trivial experience. It‘s not that you‘re too mature or educated for these games, but at first glance the effort to get them played doesn‘t seem worth your while.

But theme is also about giving a vague impression of both the game‘s rules and core concept. A large number of symbols, numbers and colored-coded markings suggests a dense game with a steep learning curve. White sand beaches and and inviting ocean blues can seem less friendly, if they‘re covered in small arrows, squares or randomly placed icons. Even the box art can suggest a kind of experience that awaits you within. A cover depicting a bloodthirsty battle is a bad fit for a card-based majority game. Just as a box with cuddly woodland creatures does a bad job of preparing you for an opportunistic wargame.

Finding the right gateway game is no easy feat. You have to pay attention to its look to even get in on the table. The rules need to be challenging enough to promise an appealing experience. But they can‘t be so intimidating that you have to worry about being the butt of the joke for the rest of the evening. It also has to clearly communicate what to expect, if you‘re willing to put in the time to actually play it. Just like the genre of a film gives you a general direction of the kind of emotional experience that awaits, a well-chosen gateway game needs to make a similar promise.

The arguably most important quality of a well-chosen gateway game is group-dependent. Regardless of experience or strategic acumen, every player at the table needs to be sure of being able to play on the same level as the rest. That takes some social skills and empathy, which you are unlikely to find in a box. You have to learn it as you go.

Game Night Verdicts #34 – Porto

It‘s been one of the longer running quirks of eurogames that they tend to often be named after towns, cities or regions. The usefulness of this naming scheme should be obvious. Naming a collection of disparate game mechanics after a place is as evocative as it is non-descript. It‘s not just a tile-laying game with an area scoring mechanism, it‘s Carcassonne! It‘s not just set-collection game with goofy art, it‘s St. Petersburg!

Porto is not the game to break with this habit. While the art on the board is practically bursting with drawings of Porto‘s landmarks and references to its culture and history, the card game that takes place on top of it, doesn‘t really evoke the city. To be fair, there are very few games that are actually about what it says on the box.

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Public contracts award you bonus points

Porto is a card-driven game about constructing buildings at the promenade in, well, Porto. The game‘s pitch is as straight-forward as it is punchy. On your turn you either take up to three cards into your hand, or you construct buildings by playing two cards from your hand and score points. The game enters its final round when a certain number of buildings has been fully constructed. It‘s quick, easy and you kind of know what you‘re getting yourself into.

The game‘s pacing is connected to player decisions, which benefits tremendously from having a narrow set of options. You either move the game forward slowly or rapidly. Because Porto is a delightfully interactive game. Not in the old school kind of way where dice, event cards and take-that mechanisms let you tear down the carefully laid plans of your opponents. It is interactive in a way that only few eurogames still manage to pull off these days. Every player decision opens up new opportunities to score, keeping the game state in a suspenseful state of flux.

And there are many ways to score in Porto. From buildings, to personal objectives, to public contracts to scoring tokens spread out on the board. It may seem like point-salad overkill at first, but instead of smothering any nuance and turning the game into an open buffet of VP, it creates an inviting web of incentives for you to go after.

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Porto’s conclusion is a colorful sight to behold

Designer Orlando Sá has created a neat system of interlocking goals, which give the game a steady pace towards its conclusion and keep your attention throughout. This is not an easy needle to thread. While a lot of gamers like having too many appealing options and not enough actions to do all of them, it’s not the most pleasant experience as such. For one thing this scarceness opens up the game to mental back and forths as you try to settle on an action, or as it’s more commonly known: analysis paralysis. At best you end up with indecision fatigue, when you tire of having to choose between mutually exclusive incentives and just “play it by ear”. Unfortunately this often means you disengage from the enjoyable puzzle of playing a eurogame. It‘s a trap that a great many high interaction games fall into. Once player decisions become too dependent on one another, and the network of interactions too dense to quickly figure out during your turn, the core of the game shifts. What promises to be an intricate puzzle becomes white noise. Instead you‘re looking at an open-ended series of experiments that you run through, trying to figure out a workable play script to execute in future games. The more opaque the connection between action and reaction, the longer you will have to experiment.

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Detailed art by Luis Levy Lima adds a light touch

Luckily, Porto wants you to have fun in this game, not the next. To that end it presents you with merely two options to choose from, which neatly connect to one another. You can build to score points, but doing so will increase the amount of potential VP for players following you this round. On the other hand, to capitalize on every opportunity that presents itself to you, you first need to have the cards for it. Playing Porto is fundamentally about timing. When do you switch from filling your hand to raking in victory points? Should you go for the long build-up before repeatedly scoring points during the last phases of the game? Or maybe go for short, quick bursts and hope the sheer number of them will bring you victory? Before long you find yourself playing a strange game of chicken with the other players. Who will break first and grab the victory points on the table, but inadvertently give their opponent a leg up?

This in itself is not an unusual group dynamic to evolve in a eurogame. What‘s impressive is how few rules it takes to make it happen. Porto’s simplicity and ease of play mask an impressively robust design. Your attention will soon be drawn to other players, as opposed to reading the board and calculating the next action. Every decision any of you make will matter and enrich the puzzle of figuring out when to pull the trigger and score points.

That said the art, while charming and often humorous, is a little busy. The board while perfectly functional may be a little too big, unfairly raising expectations as to how involved play will actually be. Porto not only plays quickly, but is usually understood within the first game. But don‘t let that lead you to overlook the smoothly purring maths running underneath. The rules don’t hit you like a brick to the face, because Porto is a clean design. It will not revolutionize the hobby, but it is a very good example of what modern board games can do, when they don’t rely on gimmicks.

Game Night Verdicts #33 – Feelinks Revelations

Feelinks Revelations is a party game. It’s a genre of games that is sometimes looked down upon as being gimmicky or silly. But if done right it can do things that other board games only rarely pull off: it makes people feel more comfortable with each other.

The core conceit of the game is fairly simple. You are given a hypothetical situation and have to pick an emotion as a response to it. To that end three positive and three negative emotions are laid out on the table, that you must choose from. The round ends with a guessing phase, points are scored for correct guesses and none are deducted, if you’re wrong.

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Bold and expressive illustrations by Hollie Mengert and Mike McCain

Like most party games, the mechanics are supposed to fade into the background quickly, which is why they are comparatively simple. Party games care more about how play affects the social interaction between players, than providing a well-articulated rules structure for player engagement. This is arguably a subtle but fundamental difference to other board game genres. The average eurogame, for example, tends to be only indirectly concerned with how its rules and incentives shape the social dynamics at the table. In fact, some people seem to believe that gameplay shouldn’t influence our social interaction at all, because the magic circle is about separating the game from the people playing it. It is an argument which is almost as cogent as saying that games should be a politics-free zone.

The point of a party game is to soften the social space between players, to be an ice-breaker so to speak. That’s why ignoring the final scoring doesn’t necessarily mean a failure in game design. It may just as well be a case of said party game fulfilling its purpose particularly well. That’s why the most interesting part of Feelinks Revelations isn’t its rules framework. After all that isn’t what gets players hooked.

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Highly sophisticated technology is used during the guessing phase

That said, the point scoring mechanism does create an interesting, albeit unintentional decision point for the active player. In the game, two of the six emotions are randomly selected after every one has picked their response in secret. Then people have to guess how many players have chosen one of the two emotions as their response. With an additional bonus being awarded if a player can correctly predict somebody else’s response. Experienced players are trained to look for ways to maximise their score. In this case, picking a situation that has an easy or predictable answer is the most profitable move. But it’s not what makes the game interesting or even enjoyable. Which gives the active player the choice to either do what’s fun or do what scores the most points?

In a competitive game, this would be considered a design weakness. Our pursuit of victory should drive a lot of the enjoyment we get from play. Trying to win is supposed to require jumping through all kinds of hoops in a way that entertains us. In a cooperative game, facing the game’s challenge should be thing that makes us work together. If it doesn’t, something has gone wrong along the way.

Now Feelinks Revelations isn’t a competitive game, but it’s not really a cooperative game either. The game’s core task consists of accurately predicting the group’s overall tendency to respond in a certain way. It doesn’t really have much to do with cooperation. Instead our guesses are a formalized way to feel out to what extent we share certain values and beliefs. By proving that we do or at least understand who does, we develop a sense of group identity and belonging.

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Superb art sets the tone for the game

Feelinks Revelations is most of all a social game. Guessing the answers of other players correctly serves an important function for the social dynamics of the group, but it’s not the part that players emotionally engage with. It’s when somebody reveals an unexpected response or one that they feel compelled to explain, that we get sucked in. This is what fascinates us and is cause for loud laughter at the table.

It will come as no surprise that a game about reacting to imaginary situations by choosing an emotion will feature a lot of provocative situations. Many deal with sexuality in some way. Some have you react to problematic views as if espoused by a partner, family member or authority figure. But where other “adult” card games aim for overstepping boundaries of good taste, Feelinks Revelations is more interested in letting your group explore and possibly establish those lines. All of which serves to recognize them and build trust this way.

When played well, it helps to make your friends feel a little safer about expressing themselves. Designer Vincent Bidault’s decision to use unusual situation is a smart move for a game designed to bring people closer together.

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Some of the situations pack something of a punch

But it also places a lot of responsibility on the player choosing the situation to present to the group. This is arguably the most tense and pivotal part of playing and enjoying Feelinks Revelations. Your choice as active player will determine what kind of social pressure you will put on the members of the group. Many of the situations on the force players to reveal something about themselves in their responses. Picking the right one might have little to do with how you want to score points, or even what you would be most interested in knowing the answer to. Sometimes it can be about whether individuals at the table will be able to handle the topic you’ve chosen to bring up.

This experience can be exciting, because it can really let you get to know people. But it can also be tense, because you might really spoil the mood, if you mess it up. A topic like infidelity could conceivably lead to vitriolic debates or inspired discussions.

Feelinks Revelations is aimed at adults, not because its content is crass or cruel, but because it asks you to acknowledge your emotions and express them to other people. That it often manages to create much laughter in the process is remarkable. If nothing else, Feelinks Revelations is quite special in how a big part of the game consists of your decisions affecting other people’s emotions. It’s a core feature of playing games that is worth keeping in mind as it allows you to turn your magic circle into a safe space to play together.