An Open and Closed Case

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It often seems to me that when it comes time to write my column, the stars align and I suddenly see that several of the game-related thoughts that have occured to me during the week actually have a connecting thread running through them that I can weave into a coherent argument. So it is again this week. My sources of inspiration start with a previous Gameshark column about buying too many games, continue with the resurrection of an old idea of mine about open and closed strategy in games, and closed with my recent shameful admission on the forums that, increasingly, the games I find myself enjoying the most are actually high-interaction Euros.

The thing I found most interesting about the recent Great Gaming Depression article was the concept of redundancy - the idea that for every particular theme or mechanic or play style you'll have a favourite game, and that keeping more than just that one favourite for play is a waste of time, space and money. The basic comment seems sound enough, and the example given - why keep Tide of Iron if you think Conflict of Heroes is a better game - passes muster. But on closer scrutiny there's a big problem with this idea which is, simply, how do you go about deciding which particular game in your collection is your favourite game for which particular niche?

To carry on with the World War 2 example, take Memoir '44. What is it? I could say it was a representative of the Command & Colours system, in which case it's definately my favourite in that category. Equally I could classify it as a lightweight combat game in which case it would be in a close struggle with Nexus Ops, and would probably win by vitue of its expansions. Some people think it's a card-driven wargame in which case it'd come very low in my rankings of that category behind several other titles. If we think of it as a World War 2 tactical game then it's going to loose out to Conflict of Heroes. So if I'm going to try and justify my ownership of various titles, what slot am I going to put Memoir into? It gets further confusing becasue these games can be broken down in different ways - if I were a particular afficionado of World War 2 tactical games then I might like to have a whole bunch of them that fit into different time and complexity categories so that I could play them at a variety of different occasions - in which case Memoir and ASL could sit comfortably on my shelves cheek by jowl.

The point is that if you try and thin your game collection using the logic of redundancy it becomes either incredibly easy to justify owning pretty much anything, or virtually impossible to decide what game fulfills what function in your gaming life. Wandering the latter road leads into an anally-retentive nightmare as I can attest because I've tried - and failed - to do it in the past. Personally I find a much more effective approach is simply to pick games on the basis of how often you get to play them and how fun they are when you do. But even then you can delude yourself into thinking that it's worth keeping Obscure Game No. 469 on the basis that someday you're bound to find time to play it lots, and when you do, it'll be brilliant. What you really need, more than a system, is a dose of common sense, a pinch of self-discipline and a smidgin of personal understanding. But I digress.

See this discussion came up with my long-suffering PBEM partner Sam Marsh (who posts here as Jazzbeaux) and he made the keen observation that it's actually harder to pigeonhole Ameritrash games and Wargames than it is Eurogames. A moments' thought demonstrated that he was correct: we've all spent time slinging mud around at any number of sub-par Euro titles for being "derivative" or "unoriginal" or basically looking, feeling and playing like any number of other sub-par Euro titles. The question is: why. Is this simply a side-effect of the fact that we like conflict-orientated games, or is there something else at work?

Which is where we bring in the fact that I've been playing and enjoying a lot of Euros recently. Because, frankly, there's a lot of them that I enjoy. Other F:AT columnists and contributers have said the same - on the whole there seems to be a bunch of Euros that we enjoy and, importantly, that we can all mostly agree on what those Euros are. That fact alone makes me think that this isn't just an arefact of our taste in games being skewed away from Euros. There is something that makes Euros easier to categorise than the sorts of games we usually enjoy. But what?

It was back to Sam to supply a satisfting and interesting answer - he said that Wargames and Amertrash titles offered more diversity and again, my initial reaction was that this seemed like the right answer. But diversity can take many forms. One aspect of this is, undoubtedly, that the stripped down nature of many Eurogames means they have less mechanical elements to them, and therefore are capable of occupying less niches in whatever mental categorisation of games you use. But I think there's a deeper and more important element at work here which is that some games offer a much greater diversity of play experience and challenge than others and that it's this which is mainly responsible for why it's hard to pigeonhole AT games, and indeed why it is that we manage to maintain such a unified sense of what is a "good" Euro as opposed to a "bad" one.

I've always had a terminology that I've applied to games, marking them either as "open" or "closed" games. It's not an exact science but I can usually determine which category a game falls into pretty rapidly, on gut instinct alone. The words themselves are pretty descriptive of what the terms mean: an "open" game is one in which you can't easily put a fixed numerical value on the choices on offer to determine which is best, and a "closed" game is one in which there are values, however difficult they may be to determine. It's nothing to do with the amount of choice on offer at any decision point: Power Grid is a "closed" game that offers a lot of choices, while Ra is an "open" game that offers limited choice. Nor has it anything to do with depth of strategy: Puerto Rico is a classic example of a "closed" game which has lots of depth, whereas Nexus Ops is an "open" game which is pretty shallow. After I started writing these columns I developed a more precise working definition - a "closed" game is one for which it would be relatively (and I emphasise the word "relatively") easy to write an effective AI routine. You can see the effects of this in computer game adaptations of popular boardgames - amateurs can and have come up with dazzilingly good AI systems for a number of closed games, such as the infamous Puerto Rico evolver, whereas even professional software companies struggle to make worthwhile AI opponents for open games, as my endless thrashings of the maximum difficulty AI on the official adaptation of Axis & Allies will demonstrate.

The more I've played games - especially Euros - the more I've come to realise that this is a near-perfect first point decider as to whether I think a game is any good. Most open games are worth a second look. Most closed games aren't. The reason is simple - I want my games to be about more than just number crunching. I want the imponderable to be in there: it adds excitement, it adds tension, it means I can fool myself into thinking I'm doing pretty well at a game, even when I'm not. Now there are lots of ways in which a game can try and obscure its mathematical roots, but there are three sure fire ways to ensure that a game ends up as one with open strategy. First, add a significant amount of random factors to it. Second, add some spatial play. Third, add some direct player interaction. It doesn't take a genius to spot that all three have become no-no's in certain circles of modern game design. It's not the be-all and end-all of what I like in a game, becasue heaven knows I've played enough completely shit open strategy games in my life, but it's a pretty good guide.

But hang on, if I only need one of those three things in a game to make it worthwhile (and as a general rule, the more of those three things a game has the better it is), and there are plenty of old-school (and increasingly new-school) Eurogames which offer me those things, why would I choose an Ameritrash game with the attendent extra chrome, complexity and play time over a highly interactive Euro? That's the question I've been asking myself recently. And increasingly I found the answer was ... "nothing". Most of the games that have impressed me over the last year or so have been high-interaction Euros: Mare Nostrum, Imperial, Through the Ages and Traders of Genoa have been particular hits. The Ameritrash game I've most enjoyed of late has been Cosmic Encounter, which is notoriously short and simple for a game of its ilk. But it succeeds in distilling much of what's enjoyable in asymmetrical, negotiation heavy games into handily bite-sized chunk. Whatever's wrong with that?

So was that it? Was that the end of my ongoing love-affair with trashy games old and new? No, it isn't. After my most recent session of ToG just last week I realised that there was an answer after all, and it is of course, narrative. I wouldn't call ToG a lightly-themed game. It does give you a feeling of wheeling and dealing after all. But for all that you can't construct any sort of meaningful story out of it. That's what all the extra chrome and complexity and play time in an Ameritrash title buys you. But I'm not so sure anymore that it's always worth it. Anyone who's played Arkham Horror can attest to what it can do, but for every AH there are ten overburdened, overlong games that fall by the wayside. I classed Mare Nostrum as a Euro but beyond a fairly simple set of rules and a vaguely sensible play time I actually find there's very little else about it that feels like a Euro to me. It is, perhaps, a testament to just how much narrative and open strategy you can pack into a game for relatively little overhead. It is, perhaps, an excellent model that more game designers should be looking to instead of discarding.

There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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