Sunday, November 20, 2011

Boardgame Night (or Afternoon, at Any Rate)

Yesterday, one of the players of the Dwimmermount campaign and I headed downtown to a room above a restaurant to meet up with people we'd never met before to play some boardgames. Before I talk more about this, I should preface my comments here with the admission that, while I enjoy boardgames a great deal, my experience with those published over the last decade or so is quite minimal. I think the most recent games I've played are variations on Risk -- I love Risk -- and Blokus, along with games geared more toward children that I've played with my kids. So, in general, when I think "boardgame," I'm thinking of stuff like Monopoly or even Axis & Allies.

The meetup was organized by people I had prior experience with but with whom my friend got to know online. In the end, there were eight of us, counting myself, and we broke up into two groups of four. My group began the afternoon by playing Summoner Wars, which I'd (of course) never played before. It's a head-to-head fantasy combat game, consisting of teams of players who move cards on a tactical map to fight each other. Since only one of us had ever played before, we decided not to play it as a 2-versus-2 game but instead and 1-versus-1, with each side consisting of two players. My friend and I were on opposite sides; he played elves and I played orcs.

Because each faction in the game -- there are four in the basic game and many more available in expansions -- has certain advantages and disadvantages, one of the keys to winning is playing according to the style that most complements your faction's advantages. My partner and I didn't realize until too late that the orcs are all about getting up close and personal and smashing faces, so we, sadly, lost to the elves, but, despite our incompetence, we still held our own long enough to have some fun. I liked Summoner Wars a lot. My only beef with it is that it seems optimized for 1-versus-1 play. The more players added to each side, the longer the game would likely drag on, especially since players on the same side can share resources and resource exhaustion is what ultimately ends the end.

After that, we played 7 Wonders, which I'd also never played before. This game is, unsurprisingly, playable with up to seven players, but we had just four. Each player is given one of the wonders of the ancient world and his goal, over the course of three rounds (called "ages") is to accumulate enough resources and structures to not only build his wonder but also to achieve other goals that accrue him victory points. 7 Wonders isn't really a boardgame at all, since it has no board, only cards. At the beginning of each age, seven cards are distributed to each player, who selects one from his hand that he thinks will most aid him and then passes the remaining cards to a player on either his left or his right, depending on what age it is. This continues until all but one card is left in each hand and then various events, such as combat between players is resolved, the outcome of which determines victory point bonuses or penalties.

Though I found 7 Wonders fascinating in a way, it was also a very bloodless game. For the most part, the players are playing in parallel to one another rather than against one another. There's minimal actual interaction between players, with the passing of cards being the main way that players have any impact on how well or poorly their fellow players do. Even the combat is resolved passively, simply by comparing combat values against players seated on either side of you. Victory is ultimately decided by how many victory points a player accumulates over the course of the three ages of play. As a new player, this made it a lot harder to get a sense of what I was supposed to be doing in the game compared to Summoner Wars. I'd probably be willing to give 7 Wonders a shot again, but, even so, I think it's fair to say its design didn't really grab me.

Next, we broke up into slightly different groups to play another game. We attempted to play Race for the Galaxy, but soon discovered that the set we had was missing some vital cards, so we attempted a different game, 51st State, instead. 51st State is post-apocalyptic in its setting, with each of the players taking control of a faction attempting to rebuild a fallen USA in its own image. Like 7 Wonders, 51st State isn't a boardgame at all, but rather a card game, with limited interactivity between the players, who spend much of their time accumulating resources, manpower, and locales to use their bid for control. Of all the games I played, this was the one that most disappointed me, in part because I sort of expect a fair bit of bloody combat between players in anything that uses a post-apocalyptic setting. Instead, the game was mostly spent playing in parallel, working toward one's own goals.

Though the game playing continued after that point, my friend and I took our leave. Being old men with wives and families to return to, we had to make our back homeward. I had a good time and would gladly do it again, though, if I were to attend again, I'd be sure to bring along a game that had an actual board and where the players interacted with one another a lot more than most of the games I played yesterday. I don't know if this low-interactivity, parallel play stuff is standard in recent "boardgames" or not, but, if it is, I can't same I'm all that keen on it. Likewise, I missed rolling dice. Only Summoner Wars used dice for its play and dice -- or some other randomizer -- are an integral part of what makes playing a game fun for me. All the games I played yesterday involved plenty of strategy, but I craved a lot more conflict and chance.

36 comments:

  1. The new "designer" board games are actually what lead me to find about the OSR and ultimately to return to RPG gaming the last few years. If you are even slightly interested in board games I highly recommend the site boardgamegeek.com. My love for D&D may have returned but board games are now a big part of my gaming experience as well.

    As for the games you listed above, as someone who owns Summoner Wars and 7 Wonders I can say that they are decent but not my favourites. If you get the chance I highly recommend the following:

    1. Battlestar Galactica - Just like the modern series, you don't know who is a cylon and who is human. The accusations, guessing games, and paranoia make this feel like an RPG but play like a board game. Seriously, try this!

    2. Dominion - It's cards but it's the best of the best in that regard. It shines with expansions but I have yet to meet someone that doesn't like it.

    3. Dungeonquest - A reprint where you roll dice and barely strategize. It's rare someone makes it out alive. The fun is laughing at your friends as they die.

    4. Cosmic Encounter - A negotiation, backstabbing, crazy game where you draw random aliens and powers and no game is the same.

    5. Chaos in the Old World - This video will explain better than I can why this is so fun http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U-avA52300&feature=related

    There are a ton of other good ones (Space Hulk and Claustrophobia are amazing for two players) but those stand out to me right now.

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  2. 2. Dominion - It's cards but it's the best of the best in that regard. It shines with expansions but I have yet to meet someone that doesn't like it.

    My friend played this game. He liked it well enough but I don't think he was super enthusiastic about it.

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  3. Neither was I at first. It was until I bought an expansion or two and was pushed to play it by my family (who loved it from the start) that I learned to love it.

    That said it is not a game my friends and I often play. We usually pull out Battlestar Galactica if there is enough of us, otherwise Cosmic Encounter, Dungeonquest or one of my other nerdier, more thematic games. Dominion is more a game I will play with family or "non-geeks".

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  4. You seem to have discovered the dichotomy between modern "Eurogames" and American board games.

    Eurogames, such as Settlers of Cataan, 7 Wonders, and a vast array of others, have (as a general rule-- there are obviously exceptions) much less luck and much less inter-player back-stabbing. They are also noted for not having player elimination; everybody plays to the end regardless of their complete inability to win at a given stage.

    American board games are perceived to be the opposite. Random chance plays a great part, in terms of dice rolls, and players can get knocked out of the game before the very end. Again, this is a broad generalization.

    I personally find Eurogames to be too abstract for my taste; the theme is generally bolted on and the core mechanics could have been used for any theme from pyramid building to Machiavellian court intrigue to 20th century power station management.

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  5. I've been to some great boardgame sessions with great people and I understand why they play - easy to get into, low time investment, and an industry constantly turning out interesting products as well as many independent producers. Still, like you I miss the funny dice, and the mental and social engagement of rpgs.

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  6. Have you ever played the Illuminati card game, either the original boxed set or the trading card version?
    It's fun but could make you question some friendships. LOL

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  7. My gaming group would take breaks from campaigns and have board game nights. Our three favorites to play were Supremacy, Talisman, and Dungeonquest. Luckily for us, the guy who hosted the gaming sessions had a really good salary and could afford all the expansions for those games.

    When the group broke up because of people moving and whatnot I found a single player a freeware version of Dungeonquest for the Mac. It was pretty darn fun to play. I haven't hadn't owned a MAC in ages so I no longer have that game but I really wish I could find it again. I loved that game.

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  8. You should be playing Arkham Horror, best board game ever. Small World is a simple yet very fun game as well. Both have actual boards.

    If you want something innovative and different, check out Fire and Axe. Great fun with a historical aspect.

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  9. Since you're a Sci-Fi fan you ought to try once an "afternoon" (at least that long) of Twilight Imperium. The whole space opera experience in a two feet by one box.
    http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=21&enmi=Twilight%20Imperium%203rd%20Edition

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  10. I personally find Eurogames to be too abstract for my taste; the theme is generally bolted on and the core mechanics could have been used for any theme from pyramid building to Machiavellian court intrigue to 20th century power station management.

    That's an interesting observation. It certainly matches my limited experience with 7 Wonders and 51st State, whose mechanics felt rather divorced from their ostensible subject matter.

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  11. Have you ever played the Illuminati card game, either the original boxed set or the trading card version?

    It's fun but could make you question some friendships. LOL


    I haven't played it in years, but I always loved it. Mind you, I love Diplomacy, too.

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  12. You should be playing Arkham Horror, best board game ever.

    It's funny you should say that, because, this very day, I told my wife I wanted a copy for Christmas.

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  13. One thing about eurogames is that they are often designed to be won. A lot of the strategy games that grew out of wargaming are designed to be played, with winning being entirely incidental. This changes the feel of a game, often making eurogames seem much more abstract. Role-playing could not have grown out of eurogaming. [I do admit to having a dislike where the game colour text is only that - a fine veil for a game system. (this also describes some of 4E now I think of it).]

    And for those of us used to the uncertainties of wargaming, where, as in life, maintaining a reserve to exploit opportunity or prevent others from doing so is important, the lack of chaos is a problem. Especially if a game is badly designed so there becomes an optimal strategy to win.

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  14. For fast entry Elder Sign is crack and hooked me so fast I bought Arkham Horror and all 8 expansions blind and I am loving every minute of it. And the fan community for it is incredible. I'm looking forward to pitting Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter, Indiana Jones and Walter Kovacs (aka Rorschach) against the Great Old Ones campaign fashion.

    Yeah, AH is pretty good :)

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  15. I must raise my hand and be numberd among those, who while giving due credit to Dominion for introducing a new core mechanic to the tabletop gaming world, find its game play lackluster and tedious.

    Two games of recent vintage I would bring to James's attention if he is seeking satisfying confrontation and chance (and a board) are Memoir '44 and Manoeuvre. M44 is a member of Command & Color series of games which has versions for different themes from various publishers. M44 is WWII themed and is in my opinion the best developed of the lot. Both are two player.

    Small World is good, and has plenty of direct interaction and an entertaining theme. I'll second that recommendation. Also seconded is Fire & Axe, which I have in its original version, Viking Fury. Load up your long ship and trade, pillage, and settle your way as far south as Constantinople, then discover the new world. Less direct competition in this one, primarily grabbing objectives before the other guy.

    The aforementioned Settlers of Catan is actually alot less dry and analytical than many current designs that are favored. It has a healthy chance component via the resource rolls, and trading provides some decent interaction. Another game that bears some resemblance to Settlers but adds a bit more wild west feel to it in theme and play is Boomtown. I recommend it.

    Another small gem is Trias, which involves keeping your herds of dinosaurs alive on drifting continents, with lots of opportunities to mess with other players plans directly. And that reminds me of another fun "stay alive on top of rapidly vanishing sets of tiles" game I was introduced to this weekend. Survive: Escape from Atlantis. It's actually a reprint of a fairly old design, and involves sheparding your people off a rapidly sinking exploding island while sicing sharks, whales and sea monsters on you opponents. And yes, a board.

    Board gaming has never been more vibrant, and there are plenty of alternatives to the dry efficiency races that often seem to dominate the top of the charts. BGG is a good resource for tabletop games of all types. Check out the various "Ameritrash" lists to find game that feature chance, PvP, and sometimes even the dreaded player elimination.

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  16. Lack of direct conflict is said to be a characteristic, and for some people a flaw, of 'eurogames' or European-style games.

    Usually, though, the theme matches the gameplay, so that a game about farming or building monuments would be likely to be a eurogame while a game about America after the apocalypse wouldn't. Although in Race for the Galaxy you can control a militaristic planet called New Sparta and yet there are no rules in the basic game for attacking other players.

    Wasn't there an old Avalon Hill game about rebuilding society after a nuclear war where if you attacked another player you'd probably exhaust your resources and both lose?

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  17. PS I go to the board game design forum on boardgamegeek a fair bit. A huge number of people who post there seem to be trying to make 'D&D but a board game' - and the mechanic ideas don't seem to have moved on much since the 80s.

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  18. @gavin:

    A list on boardgamegeek said that this was based on Dungeonquest:

    http://www.simtel.net/free/Role-Playing/Desktop-Dungeon/118299.html

    Also you might like Sorcerer's Cave, which is based on a different but similar game:

    http://skookumpete.com/

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  19. Sounds like you had fun, my commitment to keeping my D&D game running means I don't have time to go downtown for boardgaming meetups much anymore.

    The problem with most 'board and dice' games tear days is that they take too long to explain, setup, then play in the short time allotted of the meetup. So most people bring a few euro games so they can get several games in an evening.

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  20. Two of my favourite board games of late have been Mansions of Madness, which attempts to emulate Call of Cthulhu, and Small World, a fun and lightweight game of fantasy conquest. I think the latter may suit you well, James. It's quick and easy to play, and there's a fair bit of light-hearted confrontation to it.

    I'm also fond of Fire and Axe, a Viking raiding game, but I've only played it the once.

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  21. @Reverance Pavane:

    Actually, it's not "eurogames", but "German-style board games" - which is a bit funny considering how we Germans don't really differentiate betwen different styles of board games ^^ .

    Speaking of German-style board games... anyone played the "Lord of the Rings"-boardgame by Reiner Knizia? The one that came out before the movies? Not only does it have beautiful boards, but I also love the game's style: the players play neither against or parallel to each other, but TOGETHER (unless you use the Sauron expansion, were one player is Sauron). The game can is pretty much impossible if the players don't work as a group, just like in a good roleplaying-game.

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  22. The new master set from the Summoner Wars folks has six new factions and a deluxe playing board.

    You might want to check out Imperial (or Imperial 2030) for some economic Diplomacy action. Or for a fantasy twist Fantasy Flight Games is rereleasing A Game of Thrones.

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  23. You should be playing Arkham Horror, best board game ever.

    It's funny you should say that, because, this very day, I told my wife I wanted a copy for Christmas.

    Litko Aerosystems makes some add ons for the Arkham Horror board game

    http://www.litko.net/categories/Board-Gaming/Compatible-with-Arkham-Horror/

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  24. Wasn't there an old Avalon Hill game about rebuilding society after a nuclear war where if you attacked another player you'd probably exhaust your resources and both lose?

    You're thinking of SPI's "After the Holocaust", I believe. It was possible to engage in some militaristic adventures, but in general you're right-- it was usually (but not always) counter-productive in the long run.

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  25. Must put forth three entries for your consideration, James:

    1) Alien Frontiers, a competitive dice-rolling game which is connected to its theme of colonizing a planet, albeit in a strange way. Interaction with other players mainly consists of sitting on the resources they might want, but the game changes rapidly, as your options are determined by die roll. (Despite that, there's still a middling level of tactical thought that goes into it.)

    2) Pandemic. Co-operative play against diseases ravaging the world. Although much of the game play is determined by the cards you draw, this doesn't make the game as "swingy" as you might think, since you know (for instance) that all of the player action cards will eventually come into play--if you don't lose to the diseases first. I can't say enough good things about this game.

    3) Defenders of the Realm. If there's one bad thing I can say about Pandemic, it's that you don't get to roll dice. Defenders fixes that; it's essentially the same game, except that instead of diseases, you're fighting armies, and it's got a fantasy theme, illustrated by (love him or hate him) Larry Elmore. And it replaces some of the cards of Pandemic with dice-roll resolutions.

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  26. I will echo amp108, with a further recommendation for Pandemic. This game is tremendous fun, and tricky. It is my favorite game to lose, as typically losing the game often results in some crazy cascade of events.

    The game plays pretty quickly, no more than 2 hrs. It plays with 2 players, but best at 4.

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  27. I second "Arkham Horror" and it's expansions. It is arguably the best board game I've ever played.

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  28. Talisman and it's expansions are also good -
    http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=29&enmi=Talisman

    Basically, most games Fantasy Flight Games puts out have all been mostly good if not great:
    http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_colecciones.asp?eidc=1

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  29. 2) Pandemic. Co-operative play against diseases ravaging the world. Although much of the game play is determined by the cards you draw, this doesn't make the game as "swingy" as you might think, since you know (for instance) that all of the player action cards will eventually come into play--if you don't lose to the diseases first. I can't say enough good things about this game.

    A friend of my wife recommended this game to us; I shall have to check it out.

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  30. My preference for fun, social games tends towards the old-school classics I grew up with. They're probably a little crunchier than the current crop of Euro-games, but I still have fond memories of playing them back in high school with my regular group when we wanted a break from role-playing. To this day my favorites include Kingmaker, Kremlin (although the premise is a bit dated these days), Junta (one of the all time best backstabbing games - the player who invariably won was the player who could maintain the role of the trusted Lieutenant to a succession of failed presidents), Britannia (slightly more crunchy than the other titles here), and, or course, Diplomacy.

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  31. Another significant feature of German/Euro games is that they are fairly bounded in length. A typical game of Monopoly (to take the other extreme) lasts for somewhere between one and four hours, and could in principle go on forever. If you were to walk in on a game in progress, it might be hard to tell how long the game had been going or how much longer it might take to finish.

    German style games tend to progress toward a definite end. If you walk in on a game of Puerto Rico, Vikings or Power Grid, you will usually be able to determine pretty accurately what stage the game is in and how long it is likely to continue to run. This is because there is usually little or no resource destruction (players can move forward or stand still, but not usually get knocked back) and the game has one or more end conditions that are designed in such a way that there is a fairly hard limit on how long a game can progress. A big advantage of this is when you sit down for an evening of games, you can do some reasonable advance planning with respect to how many games you're going to play and how long they'll take. The estimated playing times on the box end up being pretty accurate, except for the first couple of plays while you're still learning the rules.

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  32. I'm a bit surprised that no one seems to have made retro-clones of any board games.

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  33. I am a bit of a board game fanatic. The board game industry has been vibrant for the past 10 years. While "eurogames" have been dominant, there has been a variety of games being produced.

    Among the other games already mentioned I would also recommend Cyclades. Second I would recommend Carson City and while it may be a little too euro style I would say that the theme fits nicely into the game and you can have shoot-outs using dice. Lastly, I would highly recommend Claustrophobia which was already mentioned above.

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  34. I have learned from experience it can be difficult to recommend games to people sometimes because everyones tastes are so different and the group dynamic they play in can really make a difference (same with RPGs).

    The best way to find games you like is to play with a board game group like you did to sample lots of different games. It is the most fun and inexpensive way to find games you like.

    Most board game groups will have the games mentioned so far, so ask to try those the next time. It may turn out that you like some of the lesser known games and it may be harder to try those out first before you know if you like them or not.

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  35. I wish to echo the comments earlier about Twilight Imperium Third Edition.

    The base game is beautifully produced and comes with 10 different alien races (the two expansions bring that number up to 17) each of which have a unique feel and play style.

    You get fleets of cool plastic spaceships to zoom around a board made up of - wait for it - Hexes! You can threaten, trade or be diplomatic with each of your opponents.

    The game can be long - with a 6 player game lasting 4-8 hours. but it will not feel that long while you play. And once it is done you will spend another hour talking about what you could have done differently.

    In fact I still tell stories of epic things that have happened in games that I have played years ago.

    Favourite game of all time.

    Bar none.

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  36. I've enjoyed War on Terror:

    http://www.waronterrortheboardgame.com/index_wot.php

    But I do enjoy games such as Settlers... and Carcassonne, largely for the reason described by w2 above. They have clear win conditions and last a predictable (and reasonable) amount of time. I absolutely *detest* games such a Monopoly, an endless, miserable grind around the board.

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