Big Game Theory!

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20 steps to becoming a weird game fan

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
Michigan
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Short little blog post inspired by this thread: 20 steps to becoming a GMT fan

Board Game: HeroQuest

(1) Grow up playing traditional board games (monopoly, clue, other main stream stuff)

(2) See advertisement for HeroQuest (and also New Dungeon and DarkWorld) on TV. Beg parents for it. Proceed to subject all family members and friends to these amazing games. Totally transfixed. Thinks role playing games are awesome. (circa 1989 - I am 8 years old)

(3) Buys "Space Marine" 2nd edition big box from a garage sale. Has no idea what it is but is strangely curious. It has these tiny tiny little figures. It's EPIC! (circa 1991)

(4) Uncle gives Oliver Rouge Trader book (Warhammer 40K 1st edition). Neither uncle or Oliver really knowing what this thing is. I learn about the god-emperor and grimdarkness. c. 1991

(5) I am now drawn to the local hobby shop (already familiar to my father who built gas powered remote control airplanes). Discovers an entire wall of metal figures. Mind blown. So this is Warhammer 40k. Oh - so this has something to do with Space Marines. Wait a minute. The fantasy ones look just like the chaos warriors from HeroQuest. What the heck is going on here!? Starts buying too much WH40k (second edition) stuff with parent's money. Circa 1993.

(6) I also stumble upon BattleTech technical read outs and AD&D rulebooks and other stuff. Accumulates a small pile of each, but doesn't really know what to do with them. They bide their time. For now. Start playing various PC video games in here - mostly text adventure games.

(7) Sometime in middle school. Friends start playing Magic the Gathering. Friends say I should play. I play. Oh what have I done. The Dark had just released, so this was 1994. Also start playing more FPS video games. Quake is a thing, and it was good too. 1996.

(8) Meet more friends. Have play dates (well, this was middle or high school, I guess it was called "hanging out"). Friend says: "Oliver, what is THIS?" as they gesture to warhammer stuff. "We should play this!" So after many years of collecting and buying a trove of stuff - we're finally playing. And it was glorious. Eldar and Orks, Chaos Deamons and Space Marines. We made terrain and painted miniatures. We waged battles and argued over rules. It was a fun time. 1994-1998 or so.

(9) It's 1999. Time for college! Still playing lots of video games - slowing down on Warhammer. Interest in Magic dries up. Discover beer. Discover beer and pretzels games. I buy Munchkin (circa 2001). This is amazing! I dig into the Steve Jackson back catalog and discover Illuminate (Deluxe edition, 2001 printing). Mind more blown. This is the greatest game ever, I'm pretty sure (P.S. - I still really like this game).

Board Game: Illuminati


(10) Meet my wife. She and various family friends of her's played board games. Lots of Gamewright, faimly games, a few german-style ones here and there. Somewhere around here I play Settlers of Catan. It's alright. I also play a big team game of Axis & Allies - I like that more. I buy more games, mostly ameritrashy stuff: Drakon (Second Edition), Chrononauts, Fluxx.

(11) Go back to grad school in 2005. Program is intense. No time for games. Also living in a tiny 400 SF apartment for 4 years. Barely room for my computer, and not even playing many PC games. I do start dabbling with game design. My first game which kinda sorta worked was a supped up mythological themed version of Plague & Pestilence (which I picked up somewhere along the journey). Still want to remake this design concept.

(12) Buy a house and - my gosh - I have space! (don't kid myself, it's still a small house). Somewhere around here (2009 or so?)I discover BGG (which in join in 2010). So many games! What happened! This is amazing! Decide to make some purchases to see what I've been missing. I don't recall the exact titles, but I'm pretty sure early games included: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age, Citadels, Small World, Carpe Astra

Board Game: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers


(13) Get further and further into the hobby gaming world. Have started designing Hegemonic during this early time. Start writing Big Game Theory in 2011. Start having kids (first born in 2011). Life is getting more complex, but games are a nice reprieve.

(14) From here, the collection ebs and flows. I have come to realize that I don't really enjoy typical heavy or midweight eurogames (i.e. those with heavy engine building and highly controlled environments). Those that have more intersection and/or higher levels of uncertainty can push through however (i.e. Race for the Galaxy and Tigris & Euphrates). Like dudes on a map and high conflict games (Cyclades). I don't like tableau-builders as much (not a fan of 7 Wonders for example).

(15) I started drifting more towards "weird" games over the past couple of years, mostly driven by discussions among my geekbuddies. My collection, circa 2018 or so so, was feeling fairly robust and complete (fankly a little too big) in terms of more ameritrash and german-style games. I knew I didn't like heavier Euro's, but I was still interested in finding meatier games that maintained a higher dose of interaction.

(16) One game that started me off on the weirder directions was A Study in Emerald. It's a story generator wrapped around a strategy game. It's a mess of deck-building and area control, with multiple victory triggers and hidden roles thrown in for good measure. Where can I find more of this? Root comes along and takes a hold of the family. It's asymmetric and strange, like a COIN game but less heavy.

Board Game: A Study in Emerald


(17) All this talk of Root and COIN games was pushing me to research more historical games. And I was also looking to play more 2-player games with a long-time friend (one of those warhammer buddies from back in the day!). We discussed and decided a block wargame would be fun. He said he's awesome at Stratego and I said I'm terrible at it. So we settled on Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. Mind blown. Played a bunch and it was good. So we picked up Twilight Struggle, also awesome. And then The Expanse Board Game, since it's like a multiplayer card-driven wargame too. Then I stumbled upon Pax Renaissance, and proceeded be utterly confused until after a few plays it clicked, and suddenly I was just awestruck by the design. It's like Illuminati but turned up to 11.

(18) Most recently, all this talk of geopolitical simulation games has prompted investigation into train games and economic simulation. I don't have the group (or time) to devote to the like of 18xx games right now, but what about the more streamlined shared economy / cube rail games?

(19) Oh look - the game store has the next printing of Irish Gauge in stock. Well, someone just had their 39th birthday, so I don't mind if I do. I've played it three times over the last two weeks. It's a simple game mechanically, but quite rich strategically. I'm sold.

Board Game: Irish Gauge


(20) And, where am I now? Well, I have no shame in saying that I'm almost back where I started. I just taught my oldest kid and my nephews how to play Warhammer 40k over the labor day weekend. I got out my old miniatures and books. Still have a box of terrain. Heck, some of my paints, that are over 20 years old, were perfectly good still! We did some painting, we chucked some dice, and we had a marvelous time.

30 years later, the next generation is succumbing to the games.

My work here is done.

Board Game: Warhammer 40,000 (Third Edition)
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Fri Sep 11, 2020 8:00 pm
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Classification conundrums and ruminating on the "styles" of games

Oliver Kiley
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So I started writing a reply to a geeklist the other day...

From gallery of Mezmorki

And well, the reply got so long that I figured I might as wells posts its here for your alls enjoysments. And so, pitter patter lets get at er.



On a whim I started to categorize my games in my collection (about 150 or so) by their primary genre, using the genre descriptors we were developing in the new classification taxonomy.

While many games were easy to assign, many games were really not. And while the genre field was originally structured around the notion of "how do you win" as a way of being specific about what "genre" represents, I'm not sure how useful it actually is in describing many games.

Also, I fully admit on further reflection that the genres descriptors was a bastardization of Selwyth's original approach (which was laser focused on genre being a shorthand for "how to win"). We've mingled many of his specific things with stuff like "Engine Building" or "Worker Placement" or "Deck Building." While it seems innocent, it does sort of confuse things. Is "Stone age" a worker place game or a set collection game or an engine building game? It's probably all of those. But what one is relevant if you had to talk about the kind of game experience you wanted that led you perhaps consider Stone Age?

It got me thinking that maybe genre isn't really what we were looking to define here. It also goes to the consternation we've faced in the discussions around school of design and how useful that is (or not) in practical terms for describing the overall feeling or style of a game, which are much more diverse than the half a dozen categories we've identified. I still think schools of design are interesting as a historical marker for understanding games and their design influences, but less so perhaps for classification or practical game selection.

What got me launched on this was, as I said, trying to organize my own games into some logical buckets and groups. Call them styles of games if you will. I started thinking about what's going on in my brain when I walk over the game shelf to pick something out. What am I asking myself? Typically, I'm asking about the overall feelings and mood I'm looking for. How interactive is it? How long does it take to play? How brain burning is it? Do I want to laugh and socialize while I play? Or contemplate in relative silence?

This overall sense of style or "gestalt" (i.e. an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.) feeling for a game is what I'm sifting through in my mind. Lo and behold I talked about this exact thing 8-years ago, here and here.

What does this mean for this classification thing? Honestly, I have no idea at the moment. As interesting as all of this is, and as useful as this detailed classification approach might be for design and deeper game research questions, it might not be terribly relevant or useful from a practical standpoint. Genre is too fine-grained to be useful as an overall descriptor for many games, and yet schools of design are perhaps far to broad and less useful overall.

I mean, what is the genre for A Study in Emerald? It's deck-building game, but also objectives race and engine building (via the deck), but with a huge dose of area control. But none of that captures the psychological hidden role dimension of the game, which is part of the game's "structure" (not genre) yet it takes center stage in defining the overall experience. And it still fails to capture the off-the-wall narrative aspects and negotiation play. This game, and many others, sort of defies easy classification by genre. Calling it a "hybrid" sort of skirts the issue.

Lastly, in a more recent blog post, I ended up framing my collection along the following styles (with a few edits at present):

* Asymmetric wargames / COIN-like
* Block wargames (lighter + heavier versions)
* Empire builders / dudes on a map game
* Adventure games
* Beer & Pretzels / Take That!
* Light family games (various styles)
* Mid-wight family games (e.g. role selection games, tile-laying games)
* Spatial euros (heavier/deeper)
* Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling
* Cooperative + Solo games (of various weights)
* Social deduction / bluffing
* Special power card games (complex card games)
* Engine building / tableau building / clockwork games
* Auction games
* Rank & Suit / traditional card games
* Abstract strategy games
* Narrative games
* Party games

Within any of these categories, the other defining characteristic in my mind is weight. While some styles (e.g. beer & pretzels or party games) tend to align with a certain weight most of the time (e.g. light), other styles (like engine building or dudes on a map) can have a pretty big range of weights.

I'm sure there are many more categories than what I have above (i.e. Train games / 18xx are sort of a distinct thing), but I guess I feel like there is something that doesn't have as many finely sliced things as as the genre descriptors, but that certainly has more categories than what is captured in schools of design. But more importantly, whatever emerges is a pool of descriptors that better conveys the overall experience and feeling of a particular style of game in a shorthand, albiet inevitably imperfect, way.

What do you think? When you contemplate your collection or discuss the styles and types of games that you enjoy or play the game of "what game should we play" with others, what are the terms and words that jump out to you? Phones are open, as always!
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Wed Aug 19, 2020 9:41 pm
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The Looming Disaster of Current School Re-Opening Plans and Finding Better Ways Forward

Oliver Kiley
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Michigan
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I need to get this off my chest. Last month Michigan announced it’s approach for re-opening public schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan, which I’ll get into in a moment, doesn’t even pass the sniff test as an effective approach to either instruction or safety. And it’s all going to fall apart the second an outbreak occurs anyway, putting the school building or district into a paralyzing rhythm of successive opening and closing. The plan does little to actually minimize the potential vectors and points of contact.

In short, the plan is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand and hoping the storm will blow over. My spouse is a high school teacher and I have two kids in elementary school. I’m terrified.

Moreover, the plan fails to seize the moment and opportunity to at least try something different. To at least try to build an approach that addresses equity while maximizing protections for people. To at least try alternate curriculums and different modes of instruction in concert with a different structure to schooling, when it’s apparent the old model will likely be inoperable anyway. The plan doesn’t try anything inventive.

So, this article will lay out three thing. #1 - What Michigan’s “plan” currently is. #2 - Why Michigan’s plan, and others like it being adopted across the country is horrendously flawed, and #3 - What we should do instead. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’m trying to think through this all in a practical and pragmatic way based on public knowledge of how the virus spreads and what we can do to stay safe.

#1 - Michigan’s "Plan"

Here’s an article from the Detroit Free Press that provides an overview of the school reopening plan.

Quote:
(1) Staff and teachers would have to wear face masks at all times.

(2) All students would have to wear face masks in hallways and common areas and on buses.

(3) Every student would have to use hand sanitizer before getting on the bus.

(4) Students in grade 6 through 12 would have to wear face masks at all times; younger students wouldn't have to wear face masks in classrooms.

(5) It would be recommended that desks be placed 6 feet apart and students and teachers social distance, even in the classroom.

(6) Schools would have to work with local health departments on screening protocols.

(7) No indoor assemblies with students from more than one classroom would be allowed.

(8) It would be recommended that most meals be served in the classroom or outdoors. It would be recommended that meal times would be staggered to allow social distancing in the cafeteria if it was being used.

(9) Athletics would have to follow the MHSAA guidance and rules. Spectators would be allowed if they are wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.

Pretty incredible plan really. I’m glad that it’s taken FOUR MONTHS to come with this. Sarcasm intended.

Individual school districts are tasked with developing their own specifics within the above guidelines. My school district hasn’t put forth anything to date, with school starting in less than two months its pretty worrying. How can families, let alone teachers, prepare for anything with such a void in what lies ahead? But those concerns aside, the above plan... it’s a terrible plan in my opinion.

#2 - Here is why the plan is flawed and what it fails to acknowledge

It fails to acknowledge that schools - most notably 6-12, would presumably still have conventional class schedules with hall changes and teachers instructing multiple classes per day. My wife, as most other middle or high school teachers do, sees 150+ students a day. Nothing in this plan is geared to minimize the number of contact points. It’s basically business as usual with face masks, and maybe not even that. It’s ridiculous.

It fails to acknowledge that face masks are most effective when EVERYONE is wearing one at all times indoors or in crowded public spaces. If the past months have shown anything, it’s that an awful lot of people refuse to wear masks. If only having some people wearing masks is all we get, it’s a pointless gesture as the health of teachers and students is not really protected at all.. It also fails to acknowledge that wearing masks and trying to talk to a large audience is a challenge. It also fails to acknowledge that most school buildings in this state are OLD and have terrible ventilation and HVAC systems, which diminishes the effectiveness of both masks and physical distancing while indoors anyways.

It fails to acknowledge that “large groups of students” is most routinely experienced in schools not during assemblies (which are easy to avoid) but during passing times. My old high school, which is mere blocks away from me, had 12-foot wide hallways that were a CRUSH of students squeezing through shoulder-to-shoulder each class change. It’s a nice gesture to not have assemblies or large gatherings, but it’s a moot point if your entire school population is crammed into a hallway 6-7 times a day. Circulation plans are only going to go so far. You’re still going to have hundreds of students brushing past each other, sharing different rooms, and getting exposed.

It fails to acknowledge that classrooms are routinely over capacity. My wife has 30-36 kids in her science classroom. She planned out how to accommodate 6-foot physical distancing and her room could accommodate eight kids. EIGHT! Let’s be realistic here: this plan can’t accommodate physical distancing in any way. It is in direct contrast to CDC and global guidance.

It fails to acknowledge that sports are an unnecessary luxury during a global pandemic. Yes, staying active and healthy is important for everyone. And alternative sport programs could be deployed based on personal fitness approaches that don’t bring athletes and spectators into close contact. That sports are even being entertained is laughable.

It fails to acknowledge that, given all of the above, school closings are an inevitability. And the oscillation between in-person versus on-line learning runs counter to establishing any sort of consistency in instruction method and places tremendous burden on teachers to cobble together meaningful instruction in the 11th hour. No one benefits from this. And it still doesn’t address the lingering concerns about access to necessary technology in the first place for less privileged people.

It fails to acknowledge social inequities in our society and in finding ways to be more thoughtful, nuanced, and deliberate about an approach that leverages the means of those with privilege to make space and a safer environment for those without. Particularly for the most vulnerable people or those with high-risk family members. As with so much of our policy at large, disadvantaged communities will be hit harder by this “plan” than more fortunate ones.

All of the above underscores the incredible crumbling failure of our system. Of our physical school buildings and administrative and funding systems. Of our leadership. It underscores that our education system, especially under national calls for “getting the country back to work” is viewed as a child care service for a lot of people. The approach above isn’t about effective instruction. And it isn’t even about keeping kids and teachers safe.

This plan is about pushing kids back into school buildings so people can “get back to work.” Except of course, that it doesn’t even do that well, because in all likelihood schools will be shut down periodically anyway putting everyone back to where we were in March 2020 when this all started. It’s a farce. It’s total chaos. And we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.

#3 A different way forward: A equity-based reopening strategy

I’ve done a modest amount of unqualified brainstorming about how school reopening and instruction could be addressed. A lot of it comes down to logistics. I’ll get into the specifics of my ideas in a moment, but it is first important to establish clear goals for the program:

(A) Minimize exposure and points of contact for students and teachers to keep as many people healthy and safe as possible;

(B) Be proactive about deploying curriculum and instruction that will actually be effective across a broad range of learning conditions;

(C) Integrate equity considerations head-on, recognizing that different people have different needs, means, risks, and privileges.

Let’s talk about the specific components that I envision, and which can be used in tandem to meet these goals.

COMPONENT #1: Re-Tool Instruction Methods and Pedagogy
First of all, let’s just acknowledge that the traditional delivery of instruction, especially for grades 6-12, is just not going to work in a consistent and reliable way in the face of successive closures and reopenings.

Rather than trying to do multiple half-measures, we should go all in on virtual instruction paired with more project based and/or self-directed study plans. Building instruction consistently around one set of methods will provide a backbone to delivering instruction that works regardless of whether students and teachers are meeting in person or remotely. It’s one set of instructions, it’s predictable for people, it can be relied on as circumstances change.

Along with this, there needs to be a retooling and adjustment to the curriculum itself for next year. Given that students, staff, and teachers can be knocked out of commission should they get sick with COVID-19, curriculum should be simplified and streamlined with a focus on team-teaching so that multiple teachers can pool their energies and co-teach a smaller selection of courses. This builds in redundancy among the teachers and makes the instructional delivery more resilient.

Furthermore, there is a lot of pedagogical evidence that more project-based and self-directed learning can be more effective for building good critical thinking skills anyway - so why not tap best practice at the same time? The co-teaching aspect is also important in order to free up teacher time for teachers to reach out to students individually who need more support one-on-one. Something that is also in traditional approaches.

COMPONENT #2: Enable remote learning for all students
This moment is an opportunity to address massive social inequality around access to the internet and technology. The reality is that while many people have a home computer and internet access, a large number of people do not. Federal, state, and local resources need to be directed towards equipping all students WHO NEED IT with IT technology to learn remotely.

I say “WHO NEED IT” above because the reality is that many students have access to their own computers or laptops and a good internet connection. This is time to recognize as a community and as a nation that many people are privileged to have access to such systems, but others do not have that access. Given limited public resources, these funds must be directed first towards providing capability for the least advantaged people. This strategy is really a no brainer.

COMPONENT #3: Individualized Participation Plan
There are a number of facets of this strategy, but this is the crux of my entire strategy. Basically it boils down to this: Recognize that different families have different levels of risk and concern with sending their kids back to school AND that different families have different means and capabilities for keeping their kids home versus needing to send them to school. We need to come to grips with this reality and take advantage of the flexibility it affords.

Moreover, we can’t lose sight of the fact that some students have high-risk family members that could easily die from COVID-19 if they are exposed. A good plan needs to provide flexibility for accommodating these families. Doing otherwise is grossly irresponsible at best.

The intent of this strategy is thus: to maximize the number of students who are able learn and participate remotely at all times, and thus minimize the number of students that actually need to be in a school building on a regular basis.

If the prior strategies are implemented (virtual / remote learning and internet enabling all students), then it doesn’t matter if you are learning from home or learning from the school building. Students will be attending all of their classes virtually anyway (more on that in moment) and receiving the same instruction. The difference is giving flexibility for where students are learning from to keep people safe.

How does this work in practical terms? The objective would be to get at least 50% (ideally more and as much as possible) of school students set up to learn from home full time.

Step 1. Identify all the students that can learn from home. This might be older high school students that can stay home on their own (sorry helicopter parents - but it’s time to entrust responsibility on your kids), families where another family member, parent, or guardian can stay at home or work from home in order to keep an eye on their kids, or where families can arrange for a in-home care person/sitters/au pair/grandparents, etc.. The last point can be an opportunity to hire people struggling with under- or unemployment, and would make a great federal stimulus program if paired with child care and educational-related degrees.

To maximize this, we need a national (or at least State and local) call to implore families to do what they can to keep their kids safe at home and able to learn. It will take some arm twisting on some people, but again state or federal stimulus programs can help. Free internet and a computer could be a good enticement.

Step 2. Restructure the school environment for safety for the students that must be in the building. The focus is minimizing points of exposure and contact. As such, all students attending in-person would be organized and housed within a single “home room.” More specifically, home rooms would be organized and structured not based on class or grade, but based on bussing. Kids that must attend in-person and must-ride the bus, would all be grouped into a cohort and share the same bus and room, and thus minimize exposure.

This could potentially mean that middle school and high school students are co-mingled. But you know what? There is good pedagogical evidence and benefit for mixed-age interaction as well. More best practice opportunity.

Inside the home room, students would be individually attending their classes virtually - and thus getting the same instruction as kids that are staying home. Ideally, rooms would be at less than 50% capacity. Other spaces in school buildings should be converted to “home rooms” (gyms, cafeterias, etc.) as well to diffuse the number of students per room. Some modicum of physical distancing could be achieved, which coupled with mask wearing for everyone can minimize risk.

Each home room would then be assigned a single teacher and/or home room monitor (again another employment opportunity) for the year that would monitor the room and provide some IT support for students. In-building teachers at the middle and high-school level would have the added challenge of needing to juggle their own virtual instruction during portions of the day.

For elementary schools, the situation is a bit simpler since the primary teacher would be the full-time instructor for their class, and could provide instruction simultaneously to in-school students and those "remoting" in from home. Elementary classes should again be re-structured around busing to the extent possible to minimize degrees of contact.

Potentially, home rooms could have a secondary person assigned (with a greater level of PPE) that could watch the room when the primary home room teacher has to step out or leave the room. These secondaries would ideally be pulled from teaching staff that teach non-core curriculum (art teachers, music teachers, etc.). This would maintain employment and also be an opportunity to share that “special” with the home room kids in order to break up what will be a difficult time confined to a single room.

Students that need lunches would have room delivery. There would be no passing time in the buildings since students attend all classes virtually from their home room anyway Bathrooms would require routine clearing throughout the day with strict mask wearing and sanitizing. Full-time cleaners / monitors could be another short-term employment opportunity. Kids arriving by bus would get in line with kids walking or being dropped off that they share a home room with, and would enter/exit the building in an organized manner. Everyone in the room would (all ages!) would have 1-2 recess breaks to get outside for relaxing, exercise, etc. Physical Ed could be accommodated a few times a week in this manner.

Putting it all together

The above strategies, working in tandem, make sense to me and follow the general guidance from CDC. Minimizing points of contact is the #1 thing. The above approach would mean teachers aren’t seeing 100’s of students a day, which not only puts the teacher at risk but also all of those students. Instead, they’d maybe only see 10-15 and that would be it.

If a home room gets a confirmed case of COVID-19, potentially only that one home room would shift to being at home (instead of the entire school building). But even sending just the home room back may not even be necessary if home rooms are sufficiently isolated from each other. If so, this would be a great benefit in terms of predictability and supporting people going back to work and maintaining continuity of learning at the same time.

While the above plan is onerous and challenging - it is also an opportunity to test out and experiment with different pedagogies and best practices, while keeping everyone as healthy and safe as possible.

But as with most of the grim reality we all struggle to wade through right now - the barriers to implementing a better plan are political. It’s hard to get people on board with something like I’ve proposed when large swaths of the nation refuse to wear a mask, let alone acknowledge the severity and impact of the virus. It’s hard to get people to come together and work on a common cause, and perhaps even give up a little of their privilege, when our leadership is hell bent on pitching those with more privilege against those with less.

I don’t know what’s going to ultimately happen with my local school district. But I worry about the safety of my wife and my kids. To be frank, going back to school with the current “plan” is quite literally the least safe and highest risk environment I can imagine. In what other sectors of society do you have 1000’s of people packed into crowded rooms, many of which are kids without the proper equipment or discipline to wear masks, sitting in buildings with outdated HVAC, and all talking to each other? It’s a perfect storm.

The pain and the frustration I feel is that there are clearly better ways of handling this. And I’m sure people far more informed and knowledgeable than me have even better ideas. But a better solution is going to take leadership and a willingness to pull the many strings of society together and towards a common goal. And that’s one thing that is sorely lacking right now.
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Thu Jul 9, 2020 5:53 pm
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Black Lives Matter, and they must matter to all of us

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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I don’t often write political pieces. And despite what some may think, this post is also not political. Some people reading this may insist that it is. But racism and discrimination, and the never ending quest for equal protection, equal rights, equal opportunity and equal justice for all people in this country is also not political. It is instead a fundamentally “human” issue. These pursuits are the foundation of this American society. And the pursuit of justice and equality for all people encompasses all of us, whatever your politics may be.

And so Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter because if they don’t, then none of us are fully realizing the values and the ideals that we claim to support. Black Lives Matter because our country, from its founding moments, has used systemic racism and discrimination to oppress people and communities of color, and black communities most of all. So it is to them that we must apply our efforts. Black Lives Matter because all of us have an obligation to value and support the people in our society - those that are oppressed most of all.

I work as an urban planner and have had the privilege to work with communities of color across the country. I cannot claim to know how less-privileged people feel, or how differently they must conduct themselves to stay safe in their own communities and even in their own homes. It would be rude of me to assume that I do. But I can try to understand. I can listen and be empathetic. And I can challenge myself to take action and to do more to help. And I can take action within my communities, both personal and professional, to advance this movement.

Our country has a history of racism and discrimination. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to redlining, to racial profiling, to the criminal justice system. These laws and practices are not accidents. Those with power and privilege created these laws and practices “intentionally.” And the resulting oppression is not accidental either. We must own up to this. Black communities are oppressed economically, they are oppressed through unequal access to opportunity, they are oppressed by the legal system, they are oppressed by police action, and they are oppressed by the inaction of those with privilege. We all can act. We all can, in fact, “intentionally” change the laws of this country to better realize our values and start healing the damage to those we have harmed.

Change will require sacrifice. Black communities have sacrificed much throughout history, merely to exist - with their culture, beauty, and strength under constant siege. As changes to our laws, and institutions - and the very structure of our society - are demanded, further sacrifice must be made. And this sacrifice must fall on the shoulders of those in positions of privilege - such as me typing this and most likely you reading this - to make the personal sacrifices demanding this change. We must all demand that Black Lives Matter and insist that action be taken to ensure that they do.

Like many with privilege, I struggle to know what I can do. What sacrifice can I make to help? Fortunately, the options are myriad. The hardest part is taking the first step, in deciding to take an action and go from a state of inaction, one that is tacitly supporting the status quo of a racist society, to a state of action. We all have actions we can take, however large or small, to affect those around us and the communities we inhabit.

I am taking this action, among others, of writing this blog post, with whatever size audience it may have, to assert that Black Lives Matter. To assert that I stand with you in demanding change and action to reverse the forces that have oppressed black communities. I hope to encourage and inspire others to search in their hearts for what fundamental values they hold self-evident and to take action to live up those values.

All of us can reach out to people we know who are hurting and offer our support. All of us can engage with our communities and circles to implore a commitment to action. All of us can reach out to our local leaders and elected officials, demanding that they enact laws and programs to ensure that Black Lives Matter. All of us can vote in political elections for leadership that recognizes that Black Lives Matter is a basic human rights and American values issue that must be addressed.

Obama said (and I’m paraphrasing) that his life was better knowing that someone who never had access to health care now finally did. It is the outcome of empathetic behavior. Of listening to people different from you to understand what they need to thrive. And of making sacrifices and taking actions to help. Our strength as a nation is through our unity of purpose, through our shared values and through securing liberty and justice for all people. This pursuit belongs to all of us, and we all have a responsibility for action. Black Lives Matter, and because they matter, all of us have a role to play in ensuring that they do. Find a way in your life to make it matter.
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Fri Jun 5, 2020 6:48 pm
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Warning, Chaotic Thought Storms Ahead: Wingspan, Awards, and Preference Reflections

Oliver Kiley
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From gallery of Mezmorki

This post is going to be a bit of an outpouring of thoughts, stream of consciousness style.

This fall will mark 10-years that I’ve been part of the BGG community. But of course my gaming life - both video and tabletop - has gone on much longer than that (since the mid 80’s when I was a young lad). More significantly, this fall will mark 9 years since I started this blog. It’s remarkable because this has been one of the few constants in my “hobby” life. Games come and go, gaming groups come and go, … but this blog is always here. Even if I take long lapses in posting, I know that it’s quickly available when inspiration strikes!

My time on BGG has marked an era of sorts for me and my gaming however. Both the depth of conversation here with many of you all, the collectively hemming and hawing we all do over the games and ratings … and all of it … adds a certain formality to engaging in the hobby. The conversations have helped crystalize my own thinking more, and much of the critical analysis that I’ve seen has in turn inspired my own writings, my gaming preferences, and - more tangibly - my game design work.

Golden Geeks and Wingspans

I’ve been thinking more about my gaming preferences recently - in no small part due to the golden geek winners and the fury of conversation about the award process and how the awards do (or perhaps don’t) intersect with the trove of other data and information generated by BGG each and every day. While I don’t put much personal stock in the value of the Golden Geeks (they are a popularity contest which is decidedly anti-geek, right?), they and other awards nonetheless hold a mirror up to the community and let us reflect.

So reflect I shall! First of all, let’s talk about Wingspan. Wingspan is NOT my usual style of game. It’s a tableau engine-builder, with pretty minimal and indirect interaction. I like games in shared-spaces focused on spatial intersections with a high degree of contentious interaction and table-talking. But… my wife had a chance to play Wingspan with a co-worker and was super enthused about the game. What choice did I have? With xmas around the corner it seemed to be my destiny.

I’ve played probably 200 games of Wingspan since December 2019, almost all of it 2-player with my wife. While not my type of game, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the design and gameplay. Obviously it’s wonderful from an aesthetic standpoint - and I love that the theme is about something tangible and real world related (and not related to wars or political conflicts). One could use the game as a means of building their bird knowledge based on image recognition along. It’s great in that respect.

I don’t have a chance to play many games 100+ times, let alone 200+. What’s remarkable is that with a competent opponent almost any game can display a surprising amount of depth - especially when played in 2-player, head-to-head games. Wingpan has become more interesting as time goes on and our experience.grows. And perhaps most significantly, playing it in 2-player mode means that what minimal level of interaction there is, on the surface, becomes significantly magnified when playing hard to win.

There ARE mind games to play and calculated risks to make based on reading your opponent. Seeing a valuable set of resources in the bird feeder or cards in the display, and weighing whether to take them now versus first optimizing your board actions - at the risk of your opponent taking the goods instead! - is frequently a tough call that requires reading into your opponent. Likewise, with only 2-players, the fight over the end of round bonuses can be exacting, pitting players against each other in a tense race. Weave in card powers that leech off your opponent’s actions and well...it’s not really so different from Race for the Galaxy now is it? Which is, of course, another engine and tableau building game with indirect interaction whose depth profoundly opens up the more you play.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Wingspan’s weakest link lies in playing with more than 2-players. Each additional player either multiplies the game length or erodes the value of interaction and paying attention to your opponent by a comparable amount. This is a game that shines when played in 30-40 minutes. This is easy to achieve with 2-players but nearly impossible with more.

All this is to say that it’s no surprise to me that Wingspan is as successful as it has been. It fires on a number of cylinders. It has a unique aesthetic hook, an approachable theme (especially for people tired of the usual thematic tropes), and the gameplay deepens the more you play it.

Now, when it comes to the BGG Golden Geek awards, the debacle of Wingspan winning half of the categories - even seemingly contradictory ones - highlights two things: #1: The Golden Geeks are fundamentally a popularity contents, and #2: as far as organizing a popularity contest goes BGG fairled to uphold its namesake and inject some much needed geekiness into the process. It underscores how little care and value BGG admins seem to place on the trove of data and information in their very own database and in turn their resistance to using (and over time improving) the quality of that data for the community’s benefit.

This recent post looked back at 2017 game releases and used the BGG database to automatically determine the best games across a number of categories that can easily be drilled down using the data. Good or bad, the old sub-domain categories still exist and BGG users can vote on them - and there is an objective number of votes that determine what categories a game falls in. If a game is listed for multiple domains, looking at the numbers usually shows a clear lean towards one of the categories. Combine the domains with the weight ranges and other descriptors and we could auto generate a great set of nominees to then vote on.

But like the fading effort to rework the BGG database that was generating buzz last year, BGG admin seems thoroughly disinterested in making substantive improvements to the database and/or utilizing it in more inventive ways. For us data geeks, there are so many potential ways to use the data - and why not use the data generated itself to tell the story of BGG’s rising stars over the course of the year. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t even “need” an awards process - because we’ve all been involved in the “voting process” all year long through logging plays and rating games. This would be not only a more effective approach, but also a more genuine one that respects the contributions everyone makes to this site every day.

Preferences & The Pinwheel of Joy

All this talk of gaming preferences has me returning back frequently to something I’ve grown fond of using as a lens for evaluating games, understanding my preferences, and even as a design aid. Below (and BEHOLD!) is the Pinwheel of Joy. The basic idea of this was derived from the vastly more complicated looking Genomic Framework for game analysis, which was a magnum ops of sorts in my theorizing over games. The Pinwheel of Joy is a simplification of that framework, but captures the same basic idea. Players, rules, theme, and components come together to determine narrative, challenge, simulation, and immersion - which are the cornerstones of the total experience.

From gallery of Mezmorki


When I find myself asking the most basic of gaming questions - is game X fun? - the pinwheel of joy becomes a reference point. I can zero in to try and understand whether the pleasure I’m getting (or not getting) is based on whether the game delivers a deep challenge, or a compelling narrative, or gripping immersion, or provides a coherent simulation. This approach works in both directions if you will. I can use the pinwheel to understand what I hope to feel and experience from a given game, and then use it to evaluate the game and determine whether my expectations are satisfied or not. Thus, it lets me be more honest and effective in my critique.

The topic of preferences came to light in the follow up to my article about boardgames being better strategy games. While BGG showed general agreement with the gist of the article, on the other side of the fence (i.e. from the 4X video game perspective) the reactions were more varied with many in hearty disagreement. A few particular insightful replies remarked that for most 4X game players - as is likely the case for most videogame players overall - the importance of “challenge” in my pinwheel is likely lower than it is for most boardgamers.

People play video games oftentimes to “be entertained” in a more passive sense, even when playing heavier strategy games (like 4X games). In this case, the immersion and aesthetic experience, feeling like you are part of a narrative, etc, are more important than providing a hard challenge with tough consequential choices. Some games do the latter well, but most don’t place that as the first priority. Hence, this may explain why we see lackluster AI’s despite their being the capability for much stronger ones. The added challenge stronger AI’s would add to the game isn’t really demanded - and in fact may undermine the chill, relaxing tone the game is aiming for in the first place!

All of this resulted in an interesting set of observations about the differences between boardgamer attitudes and 4X gamer attitudes - and in turn might explain why developers are designing 4X videogames they way they are. Unfortunately for me, as someone who places challenge as the number one priority in what I desire from a 4X game, my experiences with most 4X games are lackluster - they just don’t end in a satisfying way like other proper “strategy games” do. But I’ve lamented and argued about this enough before so will spare you all from another rehashing.

It's BGG "Charts" ... not a best game list

On the continued topic of preferences, I wanted to share a thought I had about the BGG ratings. I’ve found it far better to view them not as a listing of the “best” games (with respect to BGG users), but rather as a slow-moving version of music charts (e.g. billboard top 40 and others). As such, they are a reflection of what is popular, liked, and/or highly rated “right now.”

The above point is something I’ve been trying to share and push, especially when talking to new players. It’s easy, I imagine, when starting out on the hobby to look at the rankings and think “these are the best to worst games” and not stop to ask the question about what your actual preferences are. The BGG ratings trend towards heavier and/or bigger games, and BGG overall tends more towards euro-y games, which may or may not align well with the average budding gamer wandering into the BGG ecosystem.

Wrap-up

In winding down, I want to go back to where this post started. Despite my grievances about BGG (and most of these are in the form of missed opportunities rather than acute “problems”), at the end of the day this is a pretty amazing community filled with wonderful and insightful people. The relationships I’ve built here have lasted, and if there is one place on the internet that feels like “home” - it’s here. Thank you all for listening. More to come!
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Mon Jun 1, 2020 2:16 pm
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Springtime Status Report: Games, Behaviors, and Pandemics

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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From gallery of Mezmorki


First of all, if you are reading this, I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. These are crazy times for a number of reasons, and many people are struggling mightily to thrive under the current global situation. It’s hard to talk about gaming and other non-essential items during such times.

But then again, talk of gaming or pleasurable pursuits is a spark of positivity and a shared passion that many of us can connect around and find joy within. So perhaps it’s okay. For my own part, I’m fortunate that both my wife and I are able to continue our employment in relative security - staying home and staying safe. Staying sane is another matter!

Changing Normals

Nevertheless, I wanted to share that professionally I work in the design and planning field, specifically around street design, transportation infrastructure, and mobility planning. We continue to work (remotely!) with municipalities across the country, and it’s been insightful to see the range of challenges that people, communities, leaders, businesses, and others are grappling with right now, as well as the creative inventive ideas they have in mind to respond.

Regardless of your personal experience, the pandemic is a massive disruptor, and behavior patterns have already changed significantly across the country. There won’t be a “return to normal” for a very long time, and the new normal that emerges may very well look significantly different from what it looked like prior to the pandemic.

Through all of this, I try to find silver linings in these changing behaviors.

My family always embarked on evening walks through the neighborhood, and we’d at most pass one or two other people. Now, my neighborhood is abuzz with activity. There are more people walking with their kids, biking, and hanging out in front yards than I have ever seen. I went to a large nature preserve the other weekend. In prior visits we’d maybe see four or five other cars. Last weekend there were about 90 cars in the parking lot with tons of people out enjoying nature (and for the most part maintaining a respectable physical distance).

The frantic pace of life has slowed down, with the torrent of afterschool activities and obligations that once kept us busy screeching to a halt. We, like so many others I observe, are finding more time to spend outdoors and reconnecting with nature and immediate families. People are rediscovering creative pursuits in the interest of keeping themselves busy. These are silver linings and shifts in behavior that I hope becomes a part of whatever “normal” comes next.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Remote Boardgaming

Another silver lining that hits closer to this blog relates, of course, to gaming. At the heart of it is the realization that I can (and have) connected to my long-time friends (who are also my main gaming buddies) more frequently now than I have in many years. Granted, we aren’t meeting in person, but we’ve embraced technologies as a way to connect. And we’re seeing each other’s faces, even if through a screen, more frequently and casually than ever. Whether it’s having a virtual happy hour after the work day, or opening up Discord to have an open video connection to each other while playing a video game, we are, in a strange way, connecting even more.

When it comes to boardgames, the past few years have posed a challenge for my circle of friends. As more life responsibilities pile up, finding the time to meet up and play games gets harder and harder. But in seeking out the need for connection, and in using technology more nimbly, we’ve realized that we are all closer and more easily connected than we thought.

This week we all got our copies of Tabletop Simulator dusted off and tried it out for the first time, despite having it tucked away in our Steam libraries for years. Why weren’t we using this earlier?! We’ve played about 15 games of The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (which I also bought in meat-space), knocked out a game of Blue Lagoon, and dabbled around with a handful of other games we’ve been wanting to play more of: Root, The Expanse, Study in Emerald. All in just a week. Heck, we even launched the Cosmic Frog mod and marveled at that game as the evening wound down.

From gallery of Mezmorki


Granted, Tabletop Simulator (TTS) is a little clunky and rough looking (the UI is pretty ugly I have to admit), but it does work surprisingly well provided the specific virtual game mod is put together throughtfully. For those on the fence or curious, TTS is definitely worth a try as a way to get your boardgaming fix - but perhaps more importantly as a venue for connecting to other people in your life through games. You’ll want to make sure that you use Steam’s built-in voice-communication (or another platform of your choice to share voice and video) while playing. Overall, it’s been a blast and we’re looking to use TTS much more.

At home, we’ve been carving out more time for gaming as a whole family or one-on-one. I dragged HeroQuest off the shelf and started up a campaign with my two daughters (ages six and nine). They are having a good time with it. I’ve played probably 30 games of Wingspan over the last month with my wife (she’s an ornithology fan and teaches ecology and other sciences). We have quite a healthy rivalry going on. Plenty of other games have been put through the ringer as well.

PnP and Game Design

I’ve also found myself with more time to devote to game design projects once again. In a fortuitous twist, needing to work (and teach our kids) from home prompted us to finally buy a printer. Of course I found an affordable color laser printer right as the pandemic was striking. It’s been awesome for working on game prototypes and also printing out PnP materials (I mean, printing out school assignments and work reports!). I continue to work on Emissary, and now that I’m familiar with Tabletop Simulator, I plan to make an Emissary mod to facilitate more player-to-player testing with my group.

I’ve also reccussicated a number of other game design projects. I had been working on a cooperative story-telling adventure game that I’m quite excited about, but was struggling to find time to work on. I’ve made good progress over the past month and have even solicited my children’s help in idea generation and artwork! It’s quite charming. Nothing is quite playable yet but I do want to write up a post talking about it more soon. I think it’s has some legs.

I also dug out my prototype stuff for a Chronicles of Amber-themed card game I was working on, which is in a playable state. It’s a fairly simple game using an expanded deck of traditional rank and suit cards, but has some fun and clever ideas. I’m excited to try and whip that into better shape, and it’s also a candidate for a TTS mod so I can move into the testing phase more easily. Right now, the prototype is playable using the Badger Deck, which is an awesome designer resource unto itself.

From gallery of Mezmorki


On the print-and-play front, I've put the new printer through its paces and build a rather nice (if I do say so myself) prototype copy of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. I've played two games solo so far, and am also looking to dive into on TTS with my buddies. It's a rather fascinating (if still heavily evolving) design. I'll have to talk more extensively on that in the future too.

Road Ahead

That’s it for now! I have a growing pile of articles to write-up - reflections on games, recommendation lists, game designs, and more. Hopefully I can work in a schedule of more frequent posting. Writing is therapeutic for me. Hopefully reading this drivel is therapeutic for you! If nothing else, it’s way to stay connected to a community of fellow human beings.

We’re all in it together.
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Wed Apr 22, 2020 9:15 pm
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Board Games Make Better Strategy Games

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
Michigan
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From gallery of Mezmorki


The title of this essay is a declarative statement. It’s of course open to debate and I’m not suggesting this is an unequivocal rule. But at least in my experience, when I think about the “crux” moments that are the pinnacle of strategic intrigue - where the fate of everything is hanging on the line or where you wait breathlessly to see if your gambit pays off - board games provide both a greater “density” and a greater “diversity” of such moments in comparison to strategy video games.

There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this situation. There are things unique to the design needs and expectations of board games that enable “deep and interesting decisions” to come to the forefront. There are also things, on the video game side of the table, that frequently distract, diminish, or are otherwise at odds with their capacity for deep strategic gameplay. I want to explore both of these dimensions in an effort to tease out, if possible, some poignant ways that strategic video games - especially 4X games - might better capture the strategic depth they aspire to.

Before we get too deep, let’s consider for this article what I mean when I talk about deep, or interesting, or compelling strategic decision points (or the “crux” moments). Principally, I feel these moments exist when: (1) having read and understood the “game state” you are faced with having to decide between mutually exclusive courses of action; (2) these decisions are consequential and have a traceable link to your eventual victory or defeat; and (3) predicting the outcomes of your decisions are laced with enough uncertainty that player skill, experience and heuristics matter for good play (i.e. you can’t just look up an optimal build order and call it a day).

This definition is a lot to unpack. But let’s explore two facets of it.


From gallery of Mezmorki

Limiting Actions

The foundation of every board game is how you, as a player, take your turn. “What actions you can do on your turn” defines the entire structure of the game. It’s so fundamental and intrinsic to boardgames that we frequently take its importance for granted and move on to discussing the nuances of its execution (worker placement, drafting, action points, etc.). Suffice to say, most games limit how much you can do within the confines of a particular turn, and the mere presence of these limits creates a landscape of tradeoffs. Maybe you have three workers that you assign to actions each round. Maybe you have a menu of ten different actions you can do, but can only perform two of them on your turn. Perhaps you have a hand of six cards but can only play one each round. What do you do in this moment?

These kinds of intrinsic limits shape the structure of a board game. They are also, in a convoluted sort of way, a tacit acknowledgement to the fact that we can only affect so much change over a period of time. We can’t do everything at once, we have to prioritize. And at a more pragmatic level, limiting actions are a way of constraining how long an individual player’s turn might be. And so it affects the pacing and length of the game.

Strategic video games, especially 4X games, typically take the approach that you are omnisciently powerful. They assume that within the confines of a turn or paused gameplay moment, that you have infinite time and capacity to plan and execute your designs. You can queue up dozens of buildings or units in each of your cities, reengineer the design of every military force, adjust policies and politics, engage every foreign faction in diplomacy. And on and on. And you can do this EVERY turn, without limit (barring some occasional checks and balances tossed in by a developer to mitigate totally exploitive play).

This state of affairs has a number of ripple effects on a game’s potential depth. If you can freely do as much or as little “retooling” as you want each turn, your decisions are far less consequential to the outcome of the game. There is little depth in a system where you can queue up every building on every planet, and without cost reprioritize all of it a turn later when the game state changes just a little bit and something unexpected comes along. There is no requirement for “efficiency of action” in such games, no sense of momentum to your play that would be costly to redirect. A 4X game might last 100’s of turns and so playing around the margins of actions taking a few turns more or a few turns less to execute ends up being a study in routine optimization instead of long-term planning. Most it is just a wash.

Going back to boardgames, this idea of “efficiency of action” is central to how player turns are structured. Every turn, picking one course of action necessarily limits other courses of action. There are built in opportunity costs, sometimes known and sometimes uncertain, that affect your evaluation of the risks and rewards of your choices. By having limited actions, you are forced to navigate a layer of strategic prioritization, which intersects nicely with the overall structure and length of a game. If a game only lasts 10 turns then each of your decisions weighs mightily on the outcome. In a game lasting 100’s of turns with dozens of actions each round, any given action provides only an incremental effect on the outcome. Each action matters thus less, despite taking just as much time.

Nevertheless, some video games manage to tackle this. One video game that captures this notion of limited actions is King of Dragon Pass (and its successor Six Ages). In these games, each round is a season, and in each season you can only perform two actions. There is a huge menu of actions you can each turn: improving your settlement, engaging in diplomacy, organizing expeditions, performing rituals, go on a raid - and so on. This intersects with the event system, which triggers an event after each action you take - adding a layer of uncertainty to your actions and forcing you to carefully prioritize and strategize.


From gallery of Mezmorki

A Transparent Game State & Discernable Mechanics

Another major difference is that boardgames require players to manage the game state and execute changes in accordance with the rules. A consequence of this is that the rules have to be discernible by human minds. While there are certainly differences in the complexity of board games, most of them are built on rather simple procedures and basic arithmetic-level math.

Video games, on the other hand, rely on - wait for it - “the computer” to process the game state. As a result, the door is wide open to use whatever mathematical constructions and algorithms the designer can devise to process the game. This enables complex calculations where tons of variables and favors can be tossed into the design of mechanics and integrated with complex formulas and functions. While this creates an opportunity for modeling dynamic relationships or other complex phenomena, the result is that the mechanical underpinning of the game is rarely ever fully explained or known to the player. The game becomes a “black box”.

While 4X video games have made major advancements in using tooltips and in-game manuals/wikis to explain how systems work - this is usually kept at a conceptual level, as opposed to explaining each and every step in how things are calculated or resolved. In the other games, random events or outcomes might be based on hidden mechanisms whose operations are entirely unknown, intentionally, to the player. While this can play into creating emergent narratives or complex simulations - it does so at the expense of transparency.

When a game lacks transparency, I feel that results in a de facto reduction of the game’s potential depth. If you can’t tell how the game operates, and can’t discern how the current game state was arrived at, your moves - as “inputs” into the system - run the risk of being rendered arbitrary.

Of course, in practice video games work hard to provide feedback to the player so they move towards understanding the impact of their decisions. But by definition, feedback is retroactive. You’re giving the results “after” you’ve performed the action. By comparison, board games with their more discernible mechanics allow players to be more predictive and anticipatory “before” they perform an action. This in turn creates a clearer line of connection to player agency, and players are able to build better heuristics (experiential knowledge) faster, because the loop between decision factors to choices to results/impact is tighter and understandable.

At the broadest scale, that of the entire length or arc of the game transparency of mechanics and ability to read the game state has a high bearing on the strategic depth of the game. The more complex and obtuse, the harder it is to formulate a long-range plan with any reliability. The game may end up feeling like a series of isolated tactical puzzles that get solved in isolation, with no clear linkage or connection to an overall gameplay arc. This ends up with many 4X video games feeling very samey from game to game. You aren’t experiencing wildly different long-term strategies because the game just takes too long and individual choices are too disconnected from the big picture.

What to do about it?

I think 4X video game designers would benefit from going back to the genres roots, where one could easily explain and perceive how all of the mechanics work - much like one would for a board game. This may result in seemingly simpler games mechanically - but if the systems are transparent and well designed, may nevertheless result in an actually deeper game. As I’ve been tinkering around with the design for a 4X video game, one of my internal checks for a given system is always this: could I implement this system in boardgame and have it be discernible to players? If not - it needs more refinement and clarity.

On the topic of limiting actions - I think this is one area where 4X video games need to really push the design into new directions. But this will be challenge - as much of the 4X player base has grown accustomed to “being able to do anything, anywhere, at any time - with little to no consequence or tradeoff.” Despite wanting to play a seemingly heavy and challenging game - I think most 4X players don’t actually want to be challenged and forced to make tradeoffs.

My evidence for this resistance to tough tradeoffs is the frequent criticism of when a game, in part or in totality, appears too much “like a board game.” People see a thematic or practical oversimplification of a mechanic as being less valued - because in their minds they can imagine a more complex, nuanced, simulation-like way it could’ve been implemented that would make for more “realistic logic.” The irony is that going down the complexity pathway may in fact undercut the very depth and challenge one is hoping to achieve, for all the reasons outlined above.

For me, when a video game is described as “board game-like” my interest is increased. It’s a signal to me that the decisions and mechanics in the game are built around understandability and harder choices - whether it’s around limited actions or other constraints. And I am seeing, overall, a growing interest in these types of video games across a number of genres. Tactical RPGs, roguelikes, XCOM-likes, wargames, card-driven video games all seem to be embracing the “board game like” mantle as a positive. Yet such trends are lacking in the 4X video game space, and I’d love to see that changed.

As usual, let me know if you have thoughts, reactions, or experiences to share!
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Sat Apr 18, 2020 6:51 pm
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The Curious Case of 4X Games, Efficiency Engines, and Missing Strategic Gambits

Oliver Kiley
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I've long been a fan of the 4X genre, while also being frequently critical of it and its many floundering conventions. Despite the renaissance and watershed of renewed interest in the genre, there is a worrying lack of design advancement in my estimation. A recent reddit post and ensuing discussion on r/4xgaming encapsulated nearly all my frustrations with the 4X videogame genre in a single question:
Quote:
Do you know of any [4X] games that will let you fight back after being beaten down, or have the AI be able to come back after you start to gain an advantage over them?
This seems like such an obvious question to ask, and yet it’s one that apparently few, if any, 4X developers have seriously raised, let alone crafted gameplay mechanisms to answer. What’s fascinating about this question is that, while seemingly simple, it nevertheless strikes at two critical points: (#1) the core of what 4X games are; and (#2) the perennial frustrations players have with unsatisfying late game gameplay.

From gallery of Mezmorki


(#1) 4X games are efficiency engine games

What struck me in reading the comments relative to point #1 is that I think my waning interest in traditional 4X games is tied to the realization that these are largely in the same gameplay genre as efficiency engine styled euro games (of which I’m not usually a fan), despite the overt combat-heavy nature of the genre. This quote, in response to the question above, hits it perfectly:
Quote:
I don't think it is generally possible in 4X [games]. The genre is about ramping up production. Once you have a production advantage over someone, they're gonna die.
A production advantage. The early stages of 4X games are always about exploring, and that exploration is always about finding the best opportunities to grow your short and long-term production. Production itself fuels everything else in your empire: development of cities/planets, construction of military units, building research facilities. Heck, most 4X games provide tools or technologies that let you convert production directly into other outputs (research, culture, political influence, etc.). It a fairly standard feature.

Like many euro-style board games that fall into the “efficiency engine” style of game (i.e. most worker placement, resource conversion, tableau-building style games), 4X games are about building a production engine in the most efficient way possible. Once you have a stronger and more efficient engine than your competitors, it’s easy to “snowball” your way to victory. Or more aptly, to “steamroll” your way to victory, as once you conquer one enemy, with their assets under your control you are even more powerful with an even greater production advantage over the remaining players.

To compound the problem, victory conditions are almost always a function of production outputs. Whether it’s an economic victory threshold, or research target, or outright conquest, in all of these cases having more production ties directly into making more progress towards victory. 4X games handle these even worse than euro board games, the latter of which usually provides some decision inflection point where you go from building the engine to instead generating victory points. 4X games usually don’t even provide that.

(#2) The late-game problem

All of this ties into point #2, which is that by the mid-game you usually know if you have a significant production advantage over your competitors, and if so, victory is inevitable.

The reddit post’s question drew a comparison to Magic the Gathering as a brilliant counter example. In Magic the goal is to drain your opponent's life total from 20 to 0. However, being lower in life isn’t a clear indication that you are in a worse position, and players with much lower life than their opponent can routinely stitch together a combination of clever strategic or tactical plays to defeat their opponent. In fact, many decks and playstyles hinge on this exact reversal or “back and forth.”

Sadly, I’m pressed to think of any 4X games where the above “reversals” or clever strategic strategic gambits are a core and frequently experienced part of the gameplay. If it were, I think it would dramatically reshape the late game experience. No longer would having a production engine advantage mean your position was secure and victory inevitable. If you’re opponent was positioning themselves to unleash the civilization equivalent to a Drain Life spell on your empire, turning your strength to their advantage, imagine the surprise and excitement that would result? Is such a thing possible?

What's even worse, is that the one layer of interaction in 4X games, military combat, is often poorly executed with minimal depth or interest at the strategic scale. Tactical level combat, if included at all, is most often determined before the fight based on what each side brings to the table. 4X video games struggle mightily compared to many area control or dudes on a map style board games, where aspects of strategic position and maneuver frequently offer up opportunities for tactical rebounds, reversals, or other strategic gambits.

The Solution lies with a different formula

Building a 4X game that encourages such reversals and back and forth gameplay would require a totally different approach to the victory structure of 4X games (i.e. decoupling victory from the production engine mechanics). Perhaps, it requires restructuring the very nature of 4X games in their entirety. That said, a few avenues of design innovation come to mind.

First, 4X games are usually designed as if they are competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) games, with empires starting out on roughly equal footing and progressing competitively from there. Of course, in practice, most 4X games are played in a single-player manner and the AI usually just can’t keep up or provide a challenge for experienced players. Imagine designing a “competitive” first person shooter game (i.e. deathmatch or team-style game), except you could only ever play against AI Bots that played by the same rules as the human. It would be a miserable failure.

Perhaps, 4X games should try focusing instead on Player vs. Enemy/Environment (PvE) with victory conditions and goals related to overcoming PvE obstacles (like in AI War or Thea: The Awakening). You can still have other players/empires you are competing against (or cooperating with), but the pressure for having a top-notch AI that competes directly with the player is off. Instead, design energy can put into creating global hostility/opposition/enemies that function asymmetrically and can be stacked with whatever bonuses or gameplay advantages to make overcoming it an interesting challenge for players.

Second, and related to the above, is that victory conditions should be decoupled as much as possible from the production engine. The most straightforward way of doing this is by requiring production to be diverted away from things that also benefit the engine itself and instead towards victory steps/goals exclusively. Investment in the victory goals should confer no advantages back to the production engine. It should be decoupled from it. There is ample room for quests or event chains, with no reward other than progress towards victory, to provide a vehicle for this. An ancillary benefit is that such an approach would allow the game’s lore and narrative to be tied to novel victory conditions, instead of relying on the same old victory tropes.

Third, there needs to be more avenues for significant interaction in 4X games. 4X games are primarily one-dimensional games, which is the relationship between board/map position and production. Better map position confers greater production advantages, whether through controlling juicier locations or amassing a larger territory. While 4X games often have systems for foreign trade, or diplomatic exchange, or espionage - these are, almost without exception, playing around the margin of or in direct service to the production gameplay dimension.

As an example of the second and third point using an unorthodox approach, consider King of Dragon Pass, a narrative-heavy strategy game. The brilliance of this game is that there are tons of interactions with rival clans. Often these interactions aren’t about getting production related benefits, but instead learning bits of lore or gaining political support that feeds into the rituals your clan needs to perform in order to become the titular King of Dragon Pass. It’s brilliant, and unites the lore and victory conditions expertly. I’ve yet to see a proper 4X game tackle anything remotely close to this.

More broadly, I think 4X games could make non-combat related interactions far more transformative in their possible impacts and rely on different foundations than the production engine economy. For example, plenty of 4X games have espionage and/or espionage focused empires, and yet rarely is it more than an annoyance to deal with (and is often uninspiring and repetitive to utilize yourself). But what if, like in the Magic the Gathering example, while lagging in your board position (i.e. “low health”) you were secretly building up a clandestine operation that would snatch away a huge chunk of your opponent’s empire or turn their own citizens against them in a highly impactful way. There is tremendous opportunity here, but it’s rarely realized.

Conclusion

Lately, I’ve really scaled back by my interest in 4X games, to the point that any traditional 4X game is a non-starter for me right now. In the same way that I maintain a general distancing from efficiency engine euro games, I think 4X games have slid into the same category. When I try out a new game and am met with the with the same exploration imperative coupled with the same production-derived victory conditions, I’m just not particularly interested. The game might have amazing lore and visuals (ala Endless Space 2), but if it’s not connected to victory in a novel way that fundamentally changes the structure of the game, it’s still the same old snowball/steamroller experience leading to an anti-climactic ending.

I’m at a loss for why more developers aren’t challenging the 4X formula and trying to do something different. So many other genres of strategy games, whether physical board games, tactical RPGs, tactical roguelikes, wargames, and more are fertile grounds for innovation with plenty of creative and inspiring designs. Yet 4X seems stuck in the same rut it has been since the dawn of Civilization (pun fully intended). Cheers.
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Mon Jan 20, 2020 4:41 pm
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A Beautiful Mess: Frameworks, Sandboxes, and Avant-Garde Designs

Oliver Kiley
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Warning: This is going to be a meandering post on a topic I’m struggling to wrap my brain around. The intent of my fumbling is to trigger a discussion on the topic at hand, and thus better illuminate the subject and my own understanding. Let’s see if I’m successful.

Board Game: Feudum


Over the past few years I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to games that I have affectionately started to describe as “beautiful messes” to my compadres. A game that is a beautiful mess, in my mind, is one that dispenses with some portion of conventional gaming wisdom in order to do something strange, unusual, and often viewed as imperfect - and often results in a very different feeling experience.

These “beautiful messes” are often the result of unorthodox mechanics, frequently with rough edges and clunky or nuanced rules thrown in for thematic richness. More importantly, these messy rules create a “beautiful mess” out of the strategic or tactical game state as well, where they enable an often a dizzying array of emergent interactions, dynamics, and overlapping lines of play to all operate at once. These are the sorts of games where you setup it up players look at each other across the table and declare as one, “what in the heck are we supposed to do now?”

Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates


Let me pull in a few others angles on this topic. The geeklist What We Talk About When We Talk About Frameworks, way back in 2012, relates to these sorts of games. The geeklist was looking to describe and discuss Framework games, or games that had the players building a framework through play that shaped the topology (i.e. the lay of the land) of a shared strategic space. These games were generally seen as having the following characteristics:

(1) Direct player interaction (often through a primary shared space)
(2) Parasitism (i.e. ability to leech off other players’ assets or built entities)
(3) Constantly shifting incentives (i.e. the valuations of things are regularly in flux)
(4) Simple rules (but often hard to initially grok)
(5) Different ways to win but not multiple paths to victory (i.e. no pre-baked pathways)

Raveros summed it up well: Depth emerges because of creative play within the system. These framework games are perhaps oriented around the notion of emergence more so than other types of games. The designer provides this broad, flexible framework and the players are left to their own devices to build out the play space in a collective manner while nevertheless jockeying for the top position.

In no particular order, some of the Geeklist’s top candidates (one’s I’m slightly familiar with) for framework games include:

* 1830: Railways & Robber Barons (early 18xx game)
* Tigris & Euphrates (collectively building empires/networks with ownership frequently changing hands)
* Container (players building a shared economy)
* Innovation (dizzying array of cards and interactions with organic opportunities being created)
* Resistance / Avalon (creating a shared deception space?)
* Chicago Express (and other Cube Rail games)
* Indonesia (Roads & Boats might be a better splotter game example)
* Diplomacy (the geopolitical and negotiation landscape is built)
* Modern Art
* Bohnanza (questionable entry?)
* Pax Porfiriana (and other Pax-series games?)
* Acquire (I think this fits on the list too)

Board Game: Container


This is a really interesting list of games. A thread that runs through them is that players are either building a spatial arrangement of assets on a shared board, and that these assets are not completely and exclusively controlled by a single player (hence open-door for parasitism) and/or players are building a shared market (e.g. modern art or container) or other interactive space (e.g. web of alliances). In most all of these games, the decision spaces created tend to be quite large and thus give players a lot of latitude to exercise creative strategic thinking. There is little hand-holding and bad planning can lead to utter ruin. Conversely, threading the needle and executing a clever and brilliant strategy can let you steal and unexpected victory. I love this sort of thing.

Looking at the list above, I do see a slight dividing line between significantly simpler games mechanically (e.g. Modern Art or Bohnanza) versus more complex games (e.g. Pax series, Splotter Games, 18xx). The simpler games appear to fall under the older “German game” umbrella - where the thrust of the games’ conceit is around player engagement and interaction in shared spaces. When the complexity gets cranked up to higher levels, you get a sort of German game on steroids effect. These feel very different than medium or heavy weight eurogames - which aren’t built on this same framework concept at all (they are more about puzzle solving and optimization in a lower interaction environment).

Board Game: 1830: Railways & Robber Barons


In many ways, this post is also reviving a discussion I had with Nate Straight following his excellent Empire Builder and the Modern Train Game blog post (also many years ago). In discussing train games and their unique economics, our conversation swung around to many of the same games on the list above. Many of these were described as “freak” cases where it wasn’t easy to pin down exactly what the game was trying to achieve from a design standpoint. Was it an economic game or something else?

Ultimately, my impetus for writing this post was set in motion by a line of discussion in a geeklist, starting here, that was talking about how 18xx and other economic games fit into the broader School of Design idea. Such games, alongside other hard to place designs (i.e. Pax series), are frequently uttered in the same breath under the “framework” game notion. And so, as a working definition for this design school, we landed on this:

Quote:
Framework Game (Emergence Priority)
(aka sandbox games)
Games that provide players with a framework of mechanics that allow them to build shared dynamic spaces (e.g. geographies, markets, negotiations) over the course of play and which establish emergent lines of interaction (e.g. parasitism, shifting incentives). Frequently includes economic (e.g. Acquire, 18xx, Splotter games Container) and geopolitical games (e.g. Pax-series).
I’m going to shift gears again and make two other points...

The first is that I’m interested in how or if the notion of a “sandbox” game fits into the framework game idea. When I think of sandbox games, at least in the videogame space, it often relates to games that provide a huge kit of parts and the player is left to their devices to make of it what they will. In this regard, it shares the same core as framework games in that players are “building” something that everyone collectively engages with.

However, sandbox games tend to be less formally structured as competitive games (think Minecraft) in the video game space, and are often more about exploring a big open world. In board game terms, this might lead to something more cooperative and/or adventure in nature. But I don’t think it has to be that way. Is Container an economic sandbox of sorts? What about a game like Innovation that gives you scores of cards to play with? I’ve seen sandbox games described as “no single clear path to victory” and/or where “winning” isn’t the goal so much as taking actions seeing where it leads. The games are, perhaps, more about emergent narrative building than they are a competitive affair.

Board Game: Pax Pamir (Second Edition)


A few other games that come to mind along these lines includes Archipelago, Xia: Legends of a Drift System, Feudum, Mage Knight, Talisman. TedW had this set of criteria to consider, which might shed some light on this notion:

TedW wrote:
You might be a sandbox game if:

- The game is open ended
- You have an enormous number of assets (cards, technologies, attributes, etc) you can combine in a guhjillion ways
- The game is more about exploring the system than beating your opponent
- In any given came, you only use a fraction of the components.
- You have tremendous freedom in how you play the game
- It is epic in scope
- You can play the game 20 times and have 20 completely unique experiences.

Check out Sierra Madre games like: High Frontier (Third Edition), Bios: Megafauna (Second Edition), Pax Porfiriana, Origins: How We Became Human.
Some of the above overlaps extensively with how framework games operate. Pax Renaissance, for example, feels as much a framework game for building a shared board space as it does in being a sandbox per the criteria above. Many of the games discussed here, Splotter games, Sierra Madre games seem to overlap to an interesting degree. I’d also toss Study in Emerald into the mix as a sandbox, given the plethora of card options and dynamics that emerge. That said, I don’t think every framework game is a sandbox game, nor every sandbox a framework. But they seem to share much of the same DNA and both styles seem to promote this notion of emergence. And both are frequently big beautiful messes.

In some respects, I feel like the big beautiful messes discussed here, whether a framework game or a sandbox game or some hybrid of the two, are the avant-garde in game design. These are games, particularly the more complex ones, that push at the edges of typical game design norms and orthodox. They aren’t euro optimization puzzles, they aren’t wargames, they aren’t thematic straightforward dudes on a map games, they aren’t always family-friendly. They are crunchy and weird. They can be economic or geo-political in nature. But they take any of the above and twist it into something different and strange and messy.

Board Game: A Study in Emerald


I’ve played A Study in Emerald (first edition only!) a few more times recently. I LOVE that there is a pile of wooden zombie meeples in the game with about a half-page of rules describing their use and associated victory trigger, all contingent on drawing and using one single card (with only one copy of it in the game) and which may not even be included in the set of cards used in the first place! This is an extreme case of “chrome” - and yet - if zombies show up it can have a profound impact on the entire structure and flow of the game. Study in Emerald feels very sandbox-like in this regard. And while players don’t physically build a shared framework or structure in the game, the hidden roles (like Resistance) and created negotiation space (like Diplomacy) create a similar emergent framework feeling.

I played Pax Renaissance for the first time last night. What a gloriously beautiful mess. It exemplifies both this framework notion (tons of interaction over the map cards, but all via mostly shared assets) and the sandbox notion (tons of cards and inter-game variability, sudden and surprising victory, huge decision space). The game is absolutely a mess (and I should add that this brilliant reference card is a holy grail for helping ease the play). I loved my play of Pax Renaissance.

This got a bit longer than I intended, but hopefully it helps stir the pot of conversation on this topic a bit more. Please do share your thoughts on the matter and let’s see if we can find greater clarity or a common understanding of what a framework and/or sandbox game is and how they do or don't create compelling, interactive, and emergent play. Cheers!

Board Game: Pax Renaissance
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Wed Nov 6, 2019 4:40 pm
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A nearly-random perusal of Essen's "GeekBuzz" and what caught my fancy

Oliver Kiley
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So I was reading the news and stumbled upon a Geek Buzz List related to Essen (which recently ended). Wanting (of course) to stay on top of what all the cool kids are doing, I took it upon myself to breeze through the top 50 or so the most buzzy of the titles to see what stood out to me, given my proclivities.

Really, this was a thinly veiled experiment in confirmation bias.

Here's what I did. For each title, starting at the top of the list, I opened up the BGG game page and spent roughly 10-seconds skimming the summary description. From there, I took a flip through the images (another 30-45 seconds). If the game seemed remotely of interest, I then checked to see if any of my vast, well-gamed, and profoundly insightful geek buddies had anything more to say on the game in question.

To get a few of my biases out of the way, I found myself disregarding, almost immediately, games that did some or all of the following: self described as an engine builder, references resource conversion, calls itself a eurogame, has more table space devoted to personal play areas/mats than a central/shared space, uninspiring visuals. Am I biased? Yes, I am. But frankly there are so many freaking games out there already (and even more frankly I have more than enough on my shelf as it is) that it takes a lot to make a game capture my interest without a more reliable geek buddy recommendation.

So then, what stood out? I have a list of only six games out of the top 60 or so. Order based on their "buzz-level" and not my ranking.

Last Bastion (#15)

A re-implementation of Ghost Stories, which I never played and know little about other than it's cooperative. Anyway, the artwork stood out, and cooperative nature and overall complexity is something that might be fun with my kids and nephews. It's an Antoine Bauza design, for what that's worth (neutral on that). Could be a fun one to try out. (No U.S. release yet?)

Board Game: Last Bastion


Board Game: Last Bastion



Fast Sloths (#20)

Friedemann Friese is a designer I think I enjoy more in concept than in practice. I do like Friday. I tried for 3-years to foist the Fabled Fruit on my friend and family and no one wanted to take a bite, so I traded it away. That said, I enjoy racing games of this sort, and the interplay between cards and crafting and spatial movement in a shared board-space sounds pretty cool. Would totally be a game I'd want to try with the kids. Limited appeal beyond that. My kids like sloths. So there's that. (No U.S. release yet?)

Board Game: Fast Sloths


Board Game: Fast Sloths



Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon (#24)

Bruno Cathala is a reliable designer for me. Jamaica, Cyclades, Kingdomino, Mission: Red Planet, Game of Thrones: Hand of the King are all personal favorites. Ishtar looks vaguely engine-buildy but it appears to all be happening on a shared board space? The component's look awesome and I really like IELLO's production. Always seems to look great and come in at a reasonable price. (Released in U.S, ~$45)

Board Game: Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon


Board Game: Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon



MegaCity: Oceania (#35)

What is this game? Has some sort of crazy hybrid turn-based / real-time system with dexterity and area majority and tile placement? And it looks cool? Is this like the hobby gamer's version of competitive Jenga? Do I want it? (Released in U.S, ~$50)

Board Game: MegaCity: Oceania


Board Game: MegaCity: Oceania




Fuji Koro (#41)

This game feels like a total mess, but specifically the kind of weird total mess with bunch of quirks and "flaws" that I'm willing to forgive in favor of it's imperfect, beautiful charm and ambition. Of course, none of this might really be the case, but this one has the potential to the sort of beautiful mess I'm looking for. Game a competitive or cooperative adventure game of trying to explore and plunder and subsequently escape this moltan-ous cave/landscape filled with dragons and random monks. Looks cool as hell, in the way that only a big beautiful mess of a game can. (Not released in U.S.?)

Board Game: Fuji Koro


Board Game: Fuji Koro




On the Origin of Species (#43)

Last, but not least (cause these aren't in any sort of order), is this fine looking game. Dawrin is awesome. And this game looks awesome. I can't glean much from the information at hand, but it's one of those games that looks to present the player with some a binary choice on their turn, but which cascades into deep and interesting decisions. Remains to be seen how it shakes out in practice. (Released, pre-order? Expensive? ~$70)

Board Game: On the Origin of Species


Board Game: On the Origin of Species




Wrap-Up

So that's my completely incomplete and nearly-random blitz through the Essen GeekBuzz list and what managed to percolate through my highly judgmental filters. Given my interests, what did I miss? How about you? What are you most looking forward to (if anything?). The phones are open. Cheers.
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Fri Nov 1, 2019 8:49 pm
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