I have not been in this hobby for very long. I only discovered The Settlers of Catan seven years ago in college, and it was at least another three years before I started buying other "designer" games. So I'm hardly what could be called an old hand. But I feel like in that period of time, my tastes have evolved drastically. You see, what first attracted me to board gaming was the prospect of playing some fairly strategic games without having to sink an entire evening into one session. We've all been burnt by too many unfinished 5-hour Risk-a-thons, so it's understandable that we might be skittish around games that require more than two hours to play. And like some others, I was a little afraid of complexity in my games. A game that is hard to learn was not a game for me. I'd go to the game store just to ogle the shelves, and I would look at the rows of games by GMT and Fantasy Flight and think "why would anybody waste a whole evening playing one super-heavy game?"
But then a curious thing happened. I was lured into purchasing the rather long and complex (to me) Battlestar Galactica board game. Well, not lured exactly. I went there out of interest for the TV show, which was beginning to wrap up at the time. And its similarity to Shadows Over Camelot (then a favorite of mine) pushed me over the edge. I bought it against my better judgement, and I assumed I'd never get that game played because of its length and complexity. Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered that the game was easier to get to the table than I anticipated. So I went on a little bit of a binge. I tried a ton of longer titles, and many of them remain favorites to this game. But one remained outside my field of interest.
I had no interest in Arkham Horror.
Most of that was just blind prejudice. I have never had a ton of use for the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It always seemed just a little too grim and nihilistic for me, so I had no real desire to try the well-loved board game. It was only when my local game store provided an "Arkham Horror" day that I actually felt I could take a crack at the notoriously complex game. Again to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. I didn't completely understand how to play the game, or even how to win, but I had a lot of fun. The other players were good sports. I didn't really do much to actively help the game, but I had a blast going around the board and just doing crap. I remember very distinctly that I became a tour guide to a foreigner at the train station. That particular detail was delightful to me.
I did not realize it at the time, but complexity and length in a game, used well, can really up the excitement and detail of a game's narrative. Certainly Arkham Horror benefits in that very manner. The players take the role of various investigators around the city of Arkham. They will try to seal gates to other dimensions and worlds, before an enormous alien being awakens and ruins the town for everybody. Those gates barf up all manner of monsters into the streets. Players run around the city fighting monsters, gathering clues, and visiting buildings. If they get the right stuff, they can travel to another world and then hope to seal the gate when they return. If the players can seal enough gates, they win. If they don't, the Great Old One awakens, and they need to duke it out. Players win or lose as a group, making this one of the first of the modern crop of cooperative games.
As I write that right now, it sounds for all the world like the plot of Ghostbusters. And really, I think that's what I like most about the game. It's a serious game for dedicated gamers, but at its core, it's kind of goofy. It's not uncommon to have a character who is a mystery writer be armed with an axe and a tommy gun, have a flask of whiskey on hand, and become deputy of Arkham. It plays a lot less like creeping doom, and more like some silly serial. Not that I mind this. Like I said, Lovecraftian horror isn't really my bag. But this game totally is.
Because of the intricacies of the game, there are a lot of different ways things can go off the rails. If the cards don't work the right way, it can get out of hand in a hurry. That might get frustrating for some, but it's actually not as extreme as it looks. When you learn the game, it becomes perfectly beatable. In fact, I think it might actually be a little too easy to beat when you know what you're doing. There are eight expansions (!) available for the game, and I would recommend tossing the next one in whenever the game gets played out for you. My experience with them is pretty limited (I only have the base game and the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion), but I'm already ready to get another one, probably Dunwich Horror. I haven't lost in a while.
At least a couple of the mechanisms bear mentioning. First of all, I am a big fan of the skill check system. Each character has a set of six skills. A card or event will call for you to use a particular skill to resolve an action. That means you roll six-sided dice equal to the number on that skill, plus or minus any modifiers. Fives and sixes count as successes. It's a great system, because it allows you to assess risk right off the bat, and although you can load up a stat to kill a skill check, there's always the possibility that it will fail. It's a great way to inject tension into the game, and it's a very quick system.
I also really like the combat system. It utilizes the skill check system to give you some really cool options when you face a monster. Don't think you can take them? You might be able to sneak by them and avoid fighting altogether. And if you choose to fight, look out: it might be so terrifying that your mind breaks just a little. It packs the game with lots of tension and story-telling, and it goes a long way towards making the game fun, even in failure.
And I think the narrative is really what I like about the game most of all. It tells a very cohesive story. It reminds me a lot of the excellent Tales of the Arabian Nights, but with a much more fleshed-out game at its core. Still, that paragraph system is right there. It's just tied to decks of cards instead of a huge book.
Complexity works for this game, but it's also a very real hurdle to overcome. The basic structure of the game isn't too complicated, but every different outcome produces a different set of things that need to be done. The game is loaded with housekeeping. Every turn requires you to adjust this and that, and every thing that needs adjusted has its own set of rules. I've read the rules through a couple of times, and they do make sense, but it's really easy to miss something. There are a lot of player aids out there, including at least one or two flowcharts, that are pretty much necessary for the game. But the best way to learn is to have someone else who knows the game well teach you. That person can act as a de facto game-master, and simply take care of a lot of that housekeeping inherent in the design.
But if you can crack through that, it's a very rewarding game. Not rewarding in the conventional sense exactly. It's such a complex game that randomness can have a drastic effect on the outcome. There are a couple different ways to win, and a few more to lose, but you can't really gun for any of them with much certainty. The different factors ensure that your plans will sometimes go awry. But even if you lose, you'll have fun. It's hard to not like a game that allows you to travel to another world and debate with some weird creature. I've never been allowed to do that in Power Grid.
Would you like to be cool? Cool people agree that you should read my blog, The Rumpus Room. Couldn't hurt, right?
[A recent post at Flash of Steel kicked off my thinking on this topic. Click here to read that post.]
When it was still in business, the granddaddy of wargame companies, Avalon Hill, published a magazine covering its games, The General. Every issue had a standard array of content, including previews of new games, strategy articles about existing ones, and "series replays," detailed after-action reports (AARs) that might cover old or new titles. You'll sometimes hear old guard wargamers use the term "house organ" to describe The General. I cringe at that phrase, because it sounds as though The General was just a PR outlet for Avalon Hill.
In truth, The General was integral to Avalon Hill's business, not just an appendage. In the last years of Avalon Hill, the company experimented briefly with articles in The General covering games from other publishers. The reader response was mixed, with a strong tilt towards rejecting this idea. Most readers wanted to read about Avalon Hill games in The General, even if they were interested in other companies' wargames.
At the root of this rejection was the relationship between Avalon Hill and its customers. Avalon Hill had a wide portfolio of high-quality games. Even if an individual wargamer didn't want to buy everything in the Avalon Hill catalog, these choices had more to do with personal preference than game quality. Napoleonics fans might have little interest in Squad Leader. Fans of tactical wargames like Squad Leader might have zero interest in grand strategic games like Third Reich. Die-hard monster gamers might be bored with a simple game like Diplomacy, and Diplomacyfans might shudder at the idea of playing a monster like Empires In Arms.
Avalon Hill made these decisions easy for its customers, and earned their loyalty, in two ways. First, they had a reliable track record of publishing, on average, high-quality games. Sure, there were duds like Amoeba Wars, but by and large, you got your money's worth with their games.
The second benefit of being an Avalon Hill customer, transparency, returns us to The General and the series replay articles. If The Generalpublished no other types of articles than series replays, this content alone would have increased sales and customer loyalty in the following ways:
I'm not sure why game companies today have not learned this lesson. There are exceptions, such as GMT, which recently started recording demos of their games. GMT is certainly an exception, however, in a market awash with orders of magnitude more games than Avalon Hill could ever have published.
A different kind of gaming hobby, computer gaming, has learned this lesson. The most obvious example of a game with useful AARs is Starcraft 2, supported by hundreds of recorded games. A complex game, Europa Universalis III, gets a major boost from the AARs in its fan forums. One of my favorite new blog discoveries, Blunt Force Gamer, has some very interesting AARs from computer wargames. All of this content increases the odds of anyone playing Starcraft, or taking a chance on buying a little-known game like Time of Fury.
This content is way, way more valuable than the "right out of the plastic" or "played it once, now I have an opinion" reviews on Boardgame Geek. If I were a game publisher, I'd be a lot happier if someone posted a good session report than any of these kinds of momentary boosterism that spike right after a game is published, then drop off quickly. (See the latest episode of the I've Been Diced! podcast for more on this topic.) AARs build a longer-term following for games -- and, as The Generalshowed, game companies.
[Originally posted at the I've Been Diced! blog.]
Why all the hate for monopoly?
A recent article in wired magazine talks about settlers, but also ditches on monopoly.
Some people would rather play monopoly than learn a new game, even if the new game might be more enjoyable. Is that so bad? Do we really want these people in our hobby?
I enjoy microbrews, homebrews, and specialty beer. Still, bud light outsells my top 100 favorite beers put together. You will never see me suggesting that everyone stop drinking bud light and try a handful of micros. I'll occasionally suggest to a friend that I think seems inclined to like micros that he should try one, but I wouldn't wish it on the masses.
Why? Because if a bunch of people who like bland beer are suddenly drinking microbrews, what do you think gradually happens to the quality of the microbrews?
I'm happy with board games being a niche hobby, just like I'm happy that people think i'm a beer snob, or that I drink beer you need a knife and fork to eat.
I don't like monopoly but I am glad it exists for the same reason I am glad bud light exists.
Most hobbies have a pretty similar split between the hardcore and the casual. I like driving muscle cars when I get a chance (my father has a cobra, one of my friends drives a suped up mustang, my wife and I go test driving for fun once in a while) but the sports car industry does not want casual dabblers like me in their market. Why? because instead of wanting more power, acceleration, etc. , I would be asking for better gas mileage, heated seats, and a lower price. Look at what happened to Muscle cars in the 70s when they tried to make them appeal to the everyman instead of car fanatics. Environmental controls hurt too, but mostly the ghettoized mustangs from the early 70s until the early 2000s are a result of trying to increase the appeal of the brand at the expense of quality.
Just some rambling thoughts.... but you can count me as one person who is happy that there are 72 different versions of monopoly available, but also glad that you can buy heroscape and other good stuff at megamarts everywhere.
Fact: Board games are becoming popular
Fact: It is not because of Kickstarter
Fact: It is because the games both in presentation and design are more suitable for the mass audience.
At some point every gamer looks at their shelf and finds a game that makes them say, "How do I own this?" Maybe it's because there's an interesting story to how they got it, maybe it's a game they haven't played in a while (or at all), or maybe it's the leftover cruft of fads and collections long past. After several moves I wanted to take the opportunity to look at every game I own, and to really reflect on why I still own it, and whether I have much reason to.
Suspicion, art collecting, espionage, and all of civilization itself are asking the big question: Why do I own this?
The road goes ever on and on, down to the only question that matters...why do I own this?
Lace up your magical shoes, place your bets on your wooden boats, and switch cards with your neighbor. Then ask yourself: why do I own this?
Back from a long hibernation involving many games with the word "merchant" in the title, here's the lucky 13th iteration of "Why Do I Own This?"
One last visit with John Clowdus (or is it two more visits?), a game I've never been able to get rid of, and appropriately enough for my life a game about moving. There's also the best conflict game of all time, one that has never caused me to ask "Why Do I Own This?"
You walk in the room. It's where you keep odds and ends, like your seaturtle collection and your grandmother's quilt. You flip the light switch, but there seems to be no power. You quietly ask yourself, "Why do I own this?"
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.
Does Catan still hold up? Is Cockroach Poker the best game there is about lying? Is Clash of Cultures still the best civilization game there is, or was it ever? Find the answers to these questions as Nate asks himself, "Why do I own this?"
Does Codenames Pictures succeed as much as the original? What makes Cosmic Encounter the best game ever designed? Also, is Cosmic Encounter the best game ever designed? Argue about it with me this week on "Why Do I Own This?"
Can Doctor Who succeed in the Duel of Ages? Can the Lesser Houses improve an already great game? Find out this week as I ask, "Why do I own this?"
This week on Why Do I Own This?, join me as I talk about a game I actually don't remember getting, a monstrous game I'll never play enough, and two games from designer Friedemann Friese.
What makes Fury of Dracula and Dune some of the best adaptations of literary works in board game form? Is For Sale the best fifteen-minute game ever? Once more I look at a copy of a game like Gloom and think to myself, "Why do I own this?"
Hey, is that my fish? Or is it actually Haggis? It's hard to say, prompting the question, "Why do I own this?"
Whenever I see an announcement for a game based on a movie, TV show or book I love, I sit up and take notice. Most of you do too, admit it.
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