The Games We Play

The Games We Play

A repository of reports on the Wednesday night sessions of the club and anything else related to the club or boardgaming in general, which may be of interest to anyone who may be passing by.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Games Played - 6 September 2017

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While the usual four settled down to their latest session of "Risk : Legacy", the new "Terraforming Mars" board saw its first outing, and a new game "Cry Havoc" debuted at the Club, I sat down with Stan and Michael to play one of my favourites of the last few years - Wolfgang Kramer's "Coal Baron" aka "Gluck Auf".  After a rules runthrough for Michael as he'd not seen it before, Stan was start player and we started mining and shipping - Michael got the hang of the game immediately and at the end of the 1st of the 3 rounds only 3 points separated us all.  I'd been unable to prevent Stan from getting start player (a big advantage usually) for 2nd round, he looked to be doing well but at the end of the round it was still close, this time Stan was 2 pts ahead of me and I was 2 pts ahead of Michael.  Stan was shorter on money than us but as he was start player again at this point I thought he was favourite, especially as I had a serious imbalance between light and dark mine sides and Michael had no contracts.  In the end though Stan really stalled in the final turn, while Michael ran up a massive 19 pts of contracts, and as we ran through the 12 ways of scoring the lead changed hands several times, with several joint 2nd places (mostly against me) until Michael pulled ahead (137 pts), I squeaked a very grateful 2nd (130 pts) and Stan was 3rd (125 pts).  A terrfific game that had been impossible to call.

We then played "Love Letter Premium Edition", it's the standard game with lovely huge cards plus the box offers replacements for existing cards and/or entirely new cards that you can add in.  We chose just to add in the 'Jester' and the 'Assassin', and they did add some extra nuances to the game inclduing, unfortunately for me, the only time that the Assassin triggered (if a Guard targets a player with the Assassin, the Guard-user dies instead).  With the Jester (get a heart token if the player you give the Jester token to wins the hand) we managed to get a drawn game - with Michael still yet to score, Stan and I were both on 3 (playing to 4) and Stan Jestered me before I won the hand so we both got a token.

Finally "This Town Ain't Big Enough", 24 cards of murderous brain-burning where Stan and I managed to freeze Michael out of a big corral to dump him into 3rd but I couldn't stop Stan capturing the other big corral for the very steadily played win (10 to 8 to 7).

Monday, 21 August 2017

What matters in a board game - mechanics or theme?

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I’ve been having a discussion online with another board game designer about how important theme is for board games. My point was that for many lighter games the theme is largely irrelevant for the game play, and is more of a marketing issue to persuade people to buy a game. I used the examples of Carcassonne: Star Wars Edition and the various variants of Love Letter. Same game, same experience, different target markets, I wrote. He replied that “the themeing [sic] in Love Letter and Carcassonne DOES matter. Otherwise, why would you retheme them? The theme itself changes the experience of playing the game.” This got me thinking about the venerable issue of theme versus mechanics and their relative importance for different types of game and different types of gamers.

So what are mechanics and what is theme? In a nutshell, the mechanics of a boardgame are how it is played – the combination of the components and the rules. For Carcassonne the mechanics consist of various types of tiles, the meeples and how they interact through the rules – where you can place tiles and in what orientation, where and when you can place meeples, when and how you score etc. The theme is the subject of the game. In Carcassonne it is the medieval city of that name. For some games the theme is given only by the name of the game – and possibly the names of components such as cards – and the artwork. For other games the theme is also provided by the mechanics. In wargames, the mechanics are an attempt to simulate warfare. You move and fight with units, in some sort of simulacra of battles, operations or campaigns. Even a simple game such as risk does this. You move and fight with your units, but you must always leave at least one unit behind to secure your line of supply or your production base (it is not clear exactly which because the mechanics are too simple to provide anything beyond the most basic simulation).

Classic games like chess and bridge are all about the mechanics and the same goes for abstract games like Connect Four. There is often no theme at all. On the other hand, most mass market games are about the theme, with the mechanics being very primitive. Quiz games are a good example of this. The various special editions of Monopoly do have mechanics – essentially the same set of mechanics for all of them – but people buy them for the theme. In each edition, a different theme (the names of the spaces on the board and the artwork) is transposed onto the same mechanical base. Euro games, which started to become popular in the mid-1990s with the success of Settlers of Catan, are different to both abstract games and older-style mass market games. While the focus may be on the mechanics, they also have a theme. The latter may be nothing more than the name and the artwork or it may be integrated into the mechanics. In Ameritrash games, which have their origins in the late 1970s with the likes of Dune and Cosmic Encounter, the focus is on the theme but they also have highly developed mechanics.

The relative focus of hobby games – those played by enthusiasts rather than casual gamers – has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, when hobby gaming was dominated by companies such as Avalon Hill and Games Workshop, games had both strong themes and often fairly complex mechanics. Theme was conveyed both by the art and the mechanics. Overall, theme was most important – indeed, the mechanical complexity often existed in order to further the theme at the expense of game play. This is called ‘chrome’ – perhaps a reference to the flashy American cars of that era that might look fantastic but were poorly engineered. The rising popularity of euro games in the 1990s created an entirely new segment of games for the board gaming enthusiast and changed the focus of hobby games. Boardgamegeek was created in 2000 and can be used to track this transition and the changing focus ever since then. The top ranked game on bgg in the latter half of 2001 was Paths of Glory, a complex wargame with a strong thematic element. It was replaced in early 2002 by Tigris and Euprates, Reiner Knizia’s masterpiece, which is essentially an abstract game with a pasted-on theme. Then Puerto Rico was the number one game for several years. It is not an abstract, as the theme is reflected in the artwork, the names of components and also in the mechanics, not the least of which is role selection. However, I would argue that it was so highly rated more for its game play than its theme. Agricola took over the top slot for a couple of years. More strongly themed than Puerto Rico and with more integration between the theme and the mechanics, but still very much a euro game. The current decade has seen euro games gradually lose their position in the rankings and, arguably, a return to the importance of theme. Twilight Struggle, a new type of hybrid game, was rated number one for five years. It combines a very strongly developed theme with well-honed mechanics and streamlined game play. It uses mechanical elements from euro games and from newer-style wargames to bring back to life the thematic richness of games from the 1970s and 1980s.

In the past couple of years there has been a new trend – games funded through Kickstarter have begun to make waves in the hobby. These are often sold on the basis of their art (both 2D and 3D) and component quality. However, I would argue that this is often at the expense of the quality of their game play. I can only speculate on the reasons behind this. I suspect that games are not playtested thoroughly with new elements that are added during Kickstarter campaigns. Maybe games do not have proper developers as a higher proportion of the costs are absorbed by the artists. Nevertheless, games such as Gloomhaven and Scythe are now in the top 10 on bgg, together with a couple of euro games – Terra Mystica and Caverna – and new hybrids such as Pandemic Legacy. What is clear is that most of these games are thematically rich. The top-ranked example of an older-style euro game that focuses on the mechanics and game play, with theme being of less importance, is Funkenschlag (Power Grid) at number 23.

The reason I wrote this blog, as the title suggests, is to open up a discussion about theme and game mechanics. What is important to you as a designer or as a player? What is important to the board gamers you know? Can theme be conveyed only by the art or does it need to be integrated into the game play through the mechanical elements?

Blog post on Birmingham Game Designers site

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Birmingham Game Designers

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Birmingham Playtesters have now rebranded as Birmingham Game Designers. We've launched a Website and a new Facebook group. We still meet every second Thursday of the month from 19.00 at The Woodman, but at least one of us will also be at Meeple Mayhem every Saturday from 11.00 with a game to playtest.



Sunday, 19 March 2017

Games for sale

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I've put some games for sale on bgg. I'd prefer to avoid the hassle of sending them by post, so if anyone is interested in buying a game and picking it up at the club then I'll give a 10% discount.
https://boardgamegeek.com/geekmarket/user/janos_hunyadi

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Games P|ayed - 15 March 2017

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Time for another evening of genteel activities down at the Club - Plague and Pirates! While the others were busy with "Castles of Burgundy" and the Club's hottest recent game "Terraforming Mars", which Steve H confidently predicted he would come last at (hey, that's usually my line!), I tried a couple of new (to me) games with Mark W, James and Steve W, firstly "Plague, Inc.", a sort of 'anti-Pandemic' where you non-cooperatively try to spread diseases as widely as possible across the Planet.  Basically an area (country cards) control game, where after all spaces available in the country are filled, the player with the majority (or joint majority) of infection counters in there tries to kill it and thus clear space for new countries (and imoportantly get infection counters back) with a die roll.  As a disease, you start with limited transmission methods, speed and lethality but can buy better characteristics.  Soon after all the countries are on the board or dead the game ends and various ways of counting VPs decide the winner.  Our first game was a hoot, some of the card flavour text is hilarious and there's plenty of bad-taste comment opportunities, but as the humour dies off with repeated plays does it cut it for replayability?  Well, at two hours-ish it's definitely too long for the degree of engagement and luck elements, and particualrly in a four-player game on the plus side there's little AP but an awful lot of (bad) things can happen between your turns as the game progresses and diseases get more powers and use Event card they can accumulate and play all in a single turn.  Mark and I particularly fell foul of this and with the right Event combos almost any plan you have can be undone by others, but despite this I would be happy to play it again, perhaps with 3 players.  Finally a filler with a pirate theme - Loot (I'm sure I've played another game called this?) where you're all playing cards to capture merchant ships others launch or save the ones you launch, with each ship having 3-8 gold on them (most gold is the winner) and pirate cards of varying power being played against the ships to try to capture them.  There are 5 'trump' pirate cards, which are very powerful - I was the only player to draw two of them and perhaps not coincidentally won easily.  It was fun, simple, just the right length, with scope for some tactics : nothing special but I'd happily play again.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Stats Review - 2016

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This is the 2016 review of games played at the club, corresponding articles for 2008 - 2015 are linked from the "Previously" box to the left, usually under January of the following year, but sometimes under December of the year in question. As last year I include a comparison with the previous year. Full details are on the Stats Pages on the website. There is also a geeklist of all the games played here. I also tweeted the top 10 @halesowenBG.