Nate Owens is looking at every game on his shelves, and asking "Why do I own this?" Every week he will give his history with five more games in his collection, along with a short review of each one.
How did I get it? Since moving to the Philippines, I've made some baby steps toward playing board games on a regular basis. Part of that has involved a group of Filipino gamers whose group I attend more rarely than I would like. They've been very patient with me by speaking English and putting up with my sporadic schedule. Anyway, one of the results of those sessions was my first game of Azul, the 2018 Spiel des Jahres winner. After two very fun games, I recognized it as a game that my wife would enjoy, and tracked it down at one of the various board game stores in the greater Manila area.
Why do I still have it? My intuition was correct; my wife does enjoy this game a lot. But she's not the only one. In fact, Azul has as high a success rate as any game I have bought in a while. It is very well suited to adult life, where families with kids, after a meal, have maybe an hour to play anything at all. Azul has become something of a workhorse in my collection.
How is it? I'm not much good at reading trends in this industry, but Azul feels like the kind of game that was very popular around the mid-2000s, and then suddenly vanished as more thematic games took over, and as crowdfunding made bloated designs more common. But in recent years there has been a move back toward concise German-style designs, and I think it's a welcome trend. Many of those games, titles like Splendor and the Century games, feel a little too one-note for me. Azul, however, really has two different kinds of games going. There's the tile selection, which allows for some nice screwage, and transferring those tiles to the board, which requires some good planning. Those two processes mesh well, and it makes for a game that is both intuitive and compelling. It's a gorgeous production as well, one that doesn't cost too much. It's for people who aren't on BGG much, only buy a game every year or so, and play primarily with their families. In short, it's exactly the kind of game that should be winning the Spiel des Jahres.
Bang! The Dice Game
How did I get it? It was one of those impulse buys gamers are prone to. I had played the original Bang! card game for many years, but had basically abandoned it for a drawn-out game that never quite paid off like I hoped. Word of mouth and BGG informed me that this was the better, shorter version, so I took the plunge.
Why do I still have it? As will come up many times in this series, my son enjoys this one a lot. More surprisingly, my younger son, who is much less of a gamer, also enjoys this quite a bit. Kids GET this game, and my son has been able to teach it to some of his own friends too. It's also proven to be a good game when there are a few different cultures at the table, so it's proven its utility many times over.
How is it? There aren't many games that I've soured on quite like the original Bang! We enjoyed it for many years, but it became too protracted and cumbersome. Teaching new people also became a real chore, as they tried to decipher some of the more iffy pictogram-based card effects. Heaven help you if you played with more than five people. Bang! the Dice Game solves all of those problems, wrapping up in a tidy 15-20 minutes regularly. It lacks some of the wildness that made the original fun in the first place, but the short length makes it way more playable. The best thing is that it re-emphasizes the hidden role element, something that felt undercooked in the original design. By scaling back the rules bloat and the time spent faffing around with card effects, B:tDG emphasizes the above-the-table play. It's the superior version, and it frankly isn't close.
How did I get it? Battle Line was the result of my one and only time participating in the BGG Secret Santa. While I spent over $70 at a UK online store to buy my target Pillars of the Earth, my own guy sent me what sure seemed like the stuff he couldn't move at Goodwill, and a couple of new small games, of which Battle Line was one.
Why do I still have it? I have memories of playing Battle Line with my wife before we had kids. She was always more of a Lost Cities person, but Battle Line is a similar enough game that we could compromise with it. I actually prefer Lost Cities myself these days, as well, but Battle Line remains because of its small size and the fact that I generally really enjoy Reiner Knizia's work. I also held on to it because for a while it was quite rare. Those days are gone, but it still stays.
How is it? This is the first of several games by Reiner Knizia in my collection. He has an uncanny ability to convey themes in every way EXCEPT the look of a game. You won't play Battle Line and hope you are able to play a Hoplite. Instead you'll be thinking about what number or color card you need. This seems backward to a lot of theme-heads, but Battle Line shows why it's a good practice. By stripping away some of the setting and forcing the players to create miniature poker hands with colored, numbered cards, it sure looks like this is a highly abstract design. The upside is that by leaving the mechanics unpainted, the game can be explained and understood quickly. And if you play it a few times, you will find yourself having to make some very military-style decisions. You will think in terms of committing resources, anticipating your enemy, and positional advantage. Every single decision feels high-stakes and difficult, making this a surprisingly stressful game. It's so tense in fact, that my only complaint is how it can get a little bogged down as the players consider all of the different factors. I have still not played Schotten-Totten, the original version of Battle Line that set everything in a goofball version of Scotland and eliminated the tactics cards. I am all for goofball settings, but the ancient world feels a little more natural. I really like the tactics cards as well, since they do a great job of recreating circumstances like commanders and weather that can affect battles.
How did I get it? This is the first of several games in this collection provided by a publisher. I'm not sure if that admission qualifies as being controversial, but all of the comped copies in this series are well-loved by me, since they've remained for a while. This particular title is from Devious Weasel Games, the brainchild of designer Jim Felli.
Why do I still have it? The main reason is because Devious Weasel makes some really idiosyncratic games, and even if I don't play them as often as I'd like I like to hang on to them just so that my collection stays a little weird. The one exception to that idiosyncricy is Felli's next game, Duhr, which is a refinement of Bemused, and an improvement as well. This has rendered Bemused somewhat redundant, but trading games is a lot more complicated overseas, and it's a small box anyway. It stays.
How is it? The best thing Bemused has going for it is its setting. The players are all muses who are trying to drive mad the artists from the other muses at the table. For the most part, it lives up to the promise, though the trade-off is surprising complexity for what is basically a 30-minute game. There are lots of deals and dirty tricks to play, and the space for negotiation and interaction is considerable. Any complaints I have are mostly in comparison to Duhr. The biggest issue is that for the interaction to really work, the game requires people who are already outgoing and ready to mess with each other. The really great interactive games, like Cosmic Encounter, Catan, and I'm The Boss, put people in that role organically, no matter their personality. It is telling that Bemused has to remind the players to make deals, because the space for that interaction is not completely evident in the mechanics. As a result, this game has worked very well with some groups, and has bombed hard with others. (This is common with Devious Weasel games, and should be thought of as an observation more than a criticism.) When the group is gregarious and vindictive, the backstabbing makes for a delightfully mean-spirited game. But when people aren't really geared that way, it makes the whole thing feel surprisingly deterministic. It's still a solid game with a genuinely unique setting, but I feel like most people would do better to just seek out Duhr, which emphasizes the deal-making and has a less interesting, but more natural, setting.
Betrayal at House on the Hill
How did I get it? I bought the game around the time I was establishing a game night for a bunch of college students. It struck me as the sort of experience that would play well with that group. I also bought the Widow's Walk expansion, which at the time as still pretty new. My experience with the game before that was positive, and I had great memories of fun sessions with other game groups.
Why do I still have it? Betrayal fills a surprisingly thin niche, that of very intuitive thematic games that feel playful and loose. (There are some caveats to that loose feeling, which we'll get to.) It's the sort of game that produces an atmosphere quickly without a ton of rules, and people understand quickly what the game is going for. It would be easy to overdesign something like this, which is the tendency today with thematic games. This is a sort of design that would have been at home in the 1980s, when games like Talisman and Dungeonquest were still brand new. My intuition that college students would enjoy this proved to be correct. In my short time with that group we played this game a TON.
How is it? Betrayal at House on the Hill is a mess. All of the different guide rails that keep games from completely going into the ditch are entirely absent here. Almost all of the problems can be traced back to the idea of the haunt, a magical point in the game where the players open up a book of scenarios and see which one among them is now the traitor. The haunt can happen early, meaning the players don't have any decent items and will get mauled. It can make traitor a player who will have basically no way to win, or perhaps no way to lose. And the haunt itself might use a scenario that is janky to a fault. The scenario descriptions are often dense with text, and yet often seem unable to explain basic rules. (This is especially an issue with the Widow's Walk expansion, which has not had the benefit of a second edition of work out all the kinks.) I know that a game with this many moving parts can't cover every eventuality, but it still feels like the board game equivalent of a Bethesda game. The end result is almost always really fun for the first half, but threatens to fail spectacularly in the second half. And yet, for all that, Betrayal works. Well, it works for me anyway. The unbalanced moments still feel honest to the haunted house genre, and the house itself feels like an actual place, with several floors, traps, and terrifying surprises around the corner. The game also has some gleefully chaotic elements, like a magic elevator that might take you exactly where you need to go, or might strand you in the basement. As for the scenarios themselves, while there are some terrible ones, there are some great ones too. When it all comes together, Betrayal absolutely sings. When it doesn't, you probably still had some great laughs and you'll just have to be okay with shrugging your shoulders and trying again later. To love it, you will have to overlook some real issues, but those who are so inclined will almost always have fun. For myself, I'm comfortable with emphasizing the journey before the destination, and if you are too, you probably also love Betrayal as much as I do.
Next time: Beans, castles, and primary colors.