Complexity is a fairly vague term. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as "the state of having many parts and being difficult to understand or find an answer to." Yet, it's not clear when parts are considered "many" or at what point something is difficult to understand. Here are my thoughts on complexity in board games and what I think it all means.
Pretty Pretty Princess and the power of friends.
I argue that Corey Konieczka is the best designer of the last ten years. His productivity is amazing, and when one goes through and categorize his games from the last ten years it becomes hard to stack anyone against him in both creativity and craft.
When bad things happen to good games.
When game identity and topic becomes a problem, how do you deal with it?
I doubt it will have the earth shattering impact of "Top Ten Games Every Gamer Should Own", but I'm hoping that this week's Cracked LCD Countdown manages to at least take out a few major metropolitan areas.
I wanted to go through and lay out my ten biggest grievances about hobby gaming, the industry, and the community. I "bitch" a lot, but it's because I think we can do better. "We" meaning everyone involved in hobby games at every level. Sorry, I'm not just not one of these people who thinks that as long as there's a fun new game out for me to play that everything is going just fine or that gaming is doing all it can or should be. I want more.
So this is intended as constructive criticism, but undoubtedly feelings will be hurt and sensibilities upset. That would register as a "mission accomplished" on my end, because as far as I'm concerned it's that whole cracking eggs to make an omelet deal.
Is hobby gaming doomed? No. Is it a failure as a medium? No. But there are at least ten bitch-worthy things going on that by jingo I'm going to rant and rave about until something changes...or I grow a beard, and wind up with the ol' sandwich board strolling through Gen Con to proclaim the end.
Michael is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff, and a regular columnist for Gameshark.
Click here for more board game articles by Michael Barnes.
Pictured is Yanni. For no reason. You may find it hard to believe, but he looks JUST LIKE Ken B.
Presented in this week's Cracked LCD Countdown is a list of the worst games that I could think of in time for my deadline. As it stands, they represent ten of the crappiest, least fun, and most soul-crushingly awful experiences I've ever had with modern game designs. These games blow.
There were more on my shortlist and I actually had a tough time weeding it down. But I felt that POINT OF LAW was a little too obscure, RICOCHET ROBOTS was too close to one notable entry, and I had not yet played RATTUS as of its writing or it might have had a berth.
That's right, it's time once again for the monthly Cracked LCD Countdown. And this one is really going to piss off you people who are totally OK with spending $100 on a board game. Because it's about being cheap, but smartly cheap. It's about games that you can buy for under thirty dollars are that are great. Somewhere along the way, the AT idea got mixed up with this crazy notion that games have to be outrageously overproduced in order to be good. That a game has to have piles of miniatures and streams of flavor text to be thematic. That's not my AT, and it never was for many in the early years of the movement.
Small, simple games that aren't crap are just as good as big, elaborate ones. No, you're not going to get a TI3-like experience out of any of these games but that's why we have TI3 and we also have stuff like BOHNANZA. I'd still rather play a big, complex, and detailed game over a lineup of short card games or whatever, but the fact of the matter is that smaller, easier to play games likely provide more value over time- particularly when they're under $30. I've played my copy of FAMILY BUSINESS many more times than I've played my copy of WAR OF THE RING. That doesn't make it a better game, but I've entertained myself and my friends more with a stupid $8 card game than a masterful $60$80 game that stands as one of the best games of our generation.
So go on, now. And yes, RISK is on there. Unleash the hounds.
Pictured is the kind of game we will all be playing by the year 2000.
It is not, however, one of my Top Ten Most Anticipated Games. You can find those here at Gameshark.com. Certainly there will be some item there for you to take umbrage with.
I actually left out SURVIVE, because I kind of forgot about it coming out soon. With mention of that Giant Squid, I regret being so neglectful. So consider SURVIVE to be item #11.
Of course, RAVENLOFT was my first item and it's already here. Review in two or three weeks.
Alright, cut the chitchat. It's time for the Cracked LCD Game of the Year presentation at Gameshark.com.
IMPORTANT UPDATE FROM MB- Sorry to edit your post Matt...just got "official" word from FFG that they're changing the format of the MC CMG to a fixed purchase thing like AT-43 or Confrontation. Hats off to FFG for listening to early feedback and responding! I think it's a good decision that will likely make the game a lot more appealing to folks..and it'll make upgrading SotC minis a hell of a lot easier!
OK, carry on...
When I write submissions for this site, I don't generally do reviews, because I can do all the reviews I want at Drake's Flames. But I really wanted to copy this review somewhere, and this seemed like a really good place for it. Mostly because I figured the F:AT crowd could get a little more of a giggle out of a review comparing a game to a cross-dressing barfly.
I've been playing hobby games for over 30 years, the majority of that time focused on board games. Increasingly, I've been growing bored with them. Not in the sense that the games themselves are boring, but that they all look the same. Consider what lit up geeks in 2016. Terraforming Mars, which was arguably an outer space version of Agricola. Scythe, another step in the plodding evolution of the "waro", a genre that sprang up around the turn of the millennium. Even my favourite game from last year, Hands in the Sea, is a straight-up rehash of A Few Acres of Snow.
When you look at the big new concepts that have come on the scene of late, it's not so surprising. The last time the hobby got shaken up by a really groundbreaking concept was the release of Legacy games. That happened in 2011. The time before that was deckbuilders, which started with Dominion in 2008. A gap of three years between seismic releases has now become one of six years, and still counting.
Or is it?
I assumed at first that my feelings on the matter sprung from my getting older. After spending so long in games, I should perhaps expect to get bored of seeing incremental changes to the same formula. Plus aging makes one cynical: it becomes easy to dismiss hype as passing fad, nothing more. It does seem like it's been a long time since there was something fresh and thrilling to explore. But it could have always been that way: things felt fresh once upon a time because I wasn't familiar with their antecedents. Nothing new under the sun and all that.
I'm also aware I've been spending a lot of time in the past couple of years building and playing expandable games. X-Wing and Armada are the big titles here. But Imperial Assault, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter and the Commands & Colors games all share some blame for this too. Being immersed in particular systems has its own charms. At the same time, it puts you in a bubble, less aware of what else is coming and going.
So I started asking around about what I'd been missing. What clever games that had come out over the past couple of years and fallen under the hype radar, where I'd missed them. And I found that it wasn't just me. That a lot of people felt the same way, especially those with a good overview of recent releases. A lot of people who chipped in to contest my view seemed to want more to defend their own favourites and purchases than to offer sound suggestions.
Why is this? Kickstarter was a popular whipping boy. That's surprising when a key function of the platform ought to be to secure funding for niche, innovative titles. Of course the truth is quite different. For starters, it's allowed such a glut of games to come to market that it's hard to spot quality titles, let alone creative ones. And what attracts attention is pretty production values and nostalgia. Almost all the top kickstarter runs have been for big boxes full of toys that trade on re-creating the popular titles of yesteryear. Even Kingdom Death falls into this category: from certain angles it looks a lot like a porno version of HeroQuest.
Yet Kickstarter can still be a way to get dangerous, creative games to market. For me the bigger problem is the rise and rise of the games we came in on: expandable titles. It all started with such innocence. The Living Card Game model was supposed to free us from the shackles of greed that collectible games forced us to wear. And everyone was baying about the problems caused by the hype train endlessly derailing great games in favour of new great games. Expandable games promised a one-catch solution to both.
The trouble is, they were too good at doing just that. So good they became a problem in their own right. At one point in the recent past I recall reading that X-Wing was responsible for a third of FFG's revenue. With a catalogue of their size, that's nuts. It's a cash cow, a goose farting out golden eggs faster than baskets can be found to hold them. And the kicker is, they're cheap to make! One big design effort, then years and years of tweaking. If you get it wrong, fix it with the next expansion, like some DLC for a video game. No wonder every publisher wanted to follow suit.
It's a win for everyone, except innovation.
I'm not criticising these games as bad games. Far from it. Yet things don't need to be this way. One of the more popular suggestions I got for games to check out for fresh design was the Arkham Horror card game. I've not got it, or played it yet, but if accurate it's a sweet catch-22, something that's both creative and collectible. It's also an anomaly, as the impulse toward endless expansions inevitably squashes innovation.
It was far from the only suggestion I got, either. So over the next few months, my focus is going to be on reviewing the games that garnered a lot of mentions. With any luck, I might find a game that recaptures that fresh feeling for me again. Either way, I hope it'll provide some insight and entertainment for you guys.
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Early in this year I set myself a goal of playing through as many innovative games as I could. I gave a shout out for candidates, picked the most popular options and got playing. It's taken a long time but the goal was and worthy one: to try and recapture the excitement of discovery in a new game. It's something I seemed to have lost, and I wanted to find out why: was it me, or was it games? Most of all, I just wanted it back.
As the leaves turn golden and the nights draw in, whispering sweet promises of long evenings and whisky and boardgames, it seems a good time to take stock of this journey. Along with what, if anything, it might have taught me.
The bulk of the games I played were fun, but many were not innovative. At least not in the sense that I understand the word. Take Junk Art for instance. It's a brilliant game and one that I'm still enjoying with both friends and family. But its conceit is essentially that it is all the balancing games in a single box. Having a whole series of mini-games you can play with the pieces is the smart bit. Many of the actual games themselves are not so smart, however entertaining they are. Instead, the game packages up reformed, slimmed versions of ideas found by themselves in other balancing games.
A minority were the opposite: highly imaginative designs that didn't work all that well as games. The best example here is Vast: The Crystal Caverns. In all my years of gaming I've never played anything like it. Each player plays their own game by a different set of rules which somehow, magically, knit together into a coherent whole. It is quite brilliant, and fun, but it's held back by the baggage of all the players learning all the distinct rules to get a handle on how to work the strategy. All that effort for what is, in essence, a very clever bash the leader game.
One game stood out as being both and that was Millennium Blades. It was by far the most fun of the games I checked out for this project, and the only one that's kept up table time. The stress of playing it was a little like other time-tense games such as Space Alert. But its edgy competitiveness and game within game structure was such a delightful head-screw that it became both novel and exciting. But at the same time, it can be hard to muster the energy to play such a high pressure title.
Does any of this mean anything? Probably not. It's likely the meandering thoughts of an ageing blogger who's played too many games and given them too little thought. But to me, it means I was half right in thinking there was less creativity on display than there used to be in game design. When you reflect on it, this should be no great surprise. Board games are booming and more and more are coming out to crowd niches in an already busy market. Many of the good ideas have already been done: all that remains is for designers to pick them up, recombine them and make them better.
But not all of them. It's startling how designers keep managing to pluck fresh inspiration from tired old materials like card and wood and plastic. There are still some brand new games around, although it's getting harder to find them. And perhaps most sad of all, they're often not the very best games around. It may be that while there are new ideas to be had, the very best ones have gone.
So where does that leave me? Middle-aged and bereft of inspiration, mostly. I can feel myself slowing down, not getting those rushes of excitement that lead me to want to get new games and get them to the table. New rules seem more and more like a chore and make me want to go back to the hundreds of games I never gave proper time to first time round. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's poor fodder for blogging.
Just as I was about to fold on this whole project, though, I got an extraordinary surprise. A game dropped onto my doorstep that wasn't even on my radar but when I tore the shrink and red the rules, I felt a little excitement. When I played it, I felt it even more. It wasn't that old rush, that addictive desperation that creeps through your brain like heroin and leads you to demand another play, right now, even though its 2am and everyone's drunk and the guy playing green has started eating raw hamburger out of desperation. But it was a tickle of that feeling, and it felt like home.
That game was Shadespire. Mechanically, it's a bit out of whack. Design-wise it's leaning on a bunch of other tactical combat games, especially Dungeon Command. But whatever its faults, it's got claws: benign little hooks that reach out and grab hold of gamer flesh. It makes you want to play again, fiddle with your deck, start over. I know this from video games: it's called the feedback loop of self regulation and it's a key part of what makes games addictive and fun. And that's the most important thing I learned. For all that yearning over innovation, I learned that it matters a whole lot less than I thought. What matters is having a good time: and you don't need innovation for that.
The role of a critic is an interesting one and something I’ve had the pleasure of embracing in my own way over the last couple of years. From the beginning I’ve wanted to get to a place where I felt confident writing a review as I saw it: Not a fluff piece, not negativity for the sake of it but an honest take on each game that comes across my table.
You might well have seen Jesse Dean’s fantastic article on boardgame reviews and A Few Acres of Snow the other week - it deservedly generated a lot of discussion on the forums. Jesse’s work on this inspired me to have another think about reviewing generally which resulted in a piece on NoHighScores last week about the function of criticism in gaming. That was, deliberately, a generalist piece about game reviewing, its purpose and a comparison to professional criticism in other areas. But I am primarily a board gamer and not a video gamer and whilst I felt that was an important piece to write in terms of theory, I wanted to write a much more definitive one when it came to board gaming.In that previous piece I lumped board and video game reviews together for the sake of convenience and rather glossed over the differences between them, putting it down entirely to the lack of a professional press on the subject. But this is disingenuous: while video game journalism could benefit from some focus and self-examination it is on the whole in a much better state that board game journalism. I don’t want to possibly preempt Jesse in regards to what he’s going to write with his own survey results but what he told me he found was very scary. And if confirmed what I’d observed myself: that what the board game community seems to be celebrating in terms of reviews are verbatim rules re-writes with a lot of pictures and little or no opinion or analysis, at least if the thumb count on boardgamegeek.com is anything to go by. This is deeply alarming: it’s one thing to suggest that the people who write about board games aren’t stepping up to the plate in terms of quality or pushing the envelope but far more terrifying to contemplate that their audience of supposedly well educated, intelligent gamers is lapping up poor quality material and falling for the most basic traps of mistaking presentation for depth.
Ever seen The Dead Poets Society? I bet most of you have. If not you should check it out sometime - it’s quite an emotionally manipulative film but it’s that rare thing: a really rather good emotionally manipulative film. But this shouldn’t concern us. What I want to highlight is that the film begins and ends with scenes based around an essay from an English Literature textbook. The essay suggests that if one were to draw a graph and make one axis “perfection” and the other “importance”, plotting the appropriate points for a given poem would yield an overall measure of its importance. The film ridicules this notion but it’s quite clear what the essay author was driving at: he was looking for some sort of scientific, quantifiable way of measuring artistic merit.
You can draw quite a number of paralells between game publishing and music publishing. For starters, both support a number of both major-league and minor-league companies who do the publishing, and fans of the output of the major players have usually never heard of the output of the minor players whose fans, in turn, treat the produce of the major players with undisguised contempt. In both fields it is not uncommon for those at the artistic end of the industry to create their own tiny publishing companies to ensure their efforts can reach the small section of the public who are aware of them. It also not uncommon for small publishers to rely on one major signing for income - but here we see a major difference. In the music world, such labels normally use their income to keep funding new and exciting bands. Similarly in gaming some publishers with a big title on their hands use the proceeds to keep funding new and exciting games, but unlike the music industry a minority of publishers or designers just sit on their golden egg like it will keep them in business forever: their one marketable product has become a crutch game.
Further forays into the factions
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