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The Gaming Year 2011

Transcript of the podcast published January 2nd, 2012.

Thoughts on the year as a whole
I think this was a solid year for games – there was lots of meaty stuff for gamers to enjoy and there were surprisingly few duds and annoying games. The quality publishers kept their quality and didn’t disappoint, and the publishers of Munchkin or Fluxx?, well, they published Munchkin and Fluxx!…. My feeling is that the scene is in waiting mode regarding the development and increasing success of iOS and android board games, hybrids and conversions. I suspect that the most innovative things will happen there the next year.

Best game
That would be a very close race between three different games in three different genres: “Strasbourg” would win in the Euro category, “Mansions of Madness” in the Ameritrash category, and “Olympos” in the civilization building category.

Best reprint
Of course one should mention the new version of “Puerto Rico”, but as a fan of the game I also would especially recommend the “Game of Thrones” board game, which still ranks among the best franchise themed board games ever made. We shouldn’t also forget “Airlines Europe”, a loving reprint of a gaming classic.

Biggest disappointment
The biggest disappointment as a game this year was “Sid Meier’s Civilization” by Fantasy Flight Games. It didn’t work at all for me – a dull civ building game with all the known problems of the genre amplified by take that cards and imbalanced player powers.

Biggest surprise
My biggest good surprise this year was the sudden emergence of Pegasus games as a serious Euro game publishing contender, and of excellent Euro games to boot. This is as surprising as if Fantasy Flight Games would suddenly publish “Agricola”.

Biggest news
Rich Sommer from my most beloved show “Mad Men” on the Dice Tower? That’s frakkin’ unbelievable! Next thing you probably want to tell me that internationally known games expert Tom Vasel and famous voice actor Eric Summerer are on the show as well. They are? Aaaaahhhh!!!!!!

Best card game
Apart of “Game of Thrones CCG” I also like “Lord of The Rings The Card Game” for its bold innovative idea of making solitaire or group play the basic mechanic of the game, something that had not been done that well yet in the expandable card game genre. Perhaps anybody remembers “Ruins World”, which went into that direction? It was an excellent idea, but awfully handled, FFG did it right.

Best expansion
I have only played it on the iPad yet, but “Ascension: Return of the Fallen” is a good expansion to an already great game.

Best children’s game
It’s a strange choice as it isn’t marketed as a kid’s game, but Polish game “Drako” is simple enough to be played with kids and actually teaches them concepts like hand management very well. It also plays very quick, in 10-20 minutes, so it is really an excellent introduction to meatier games, like their game K2 a year back was as well.

Strangest game
I haven’t played it yet, but “011” looks extremely strange and interesting, a little like my beloved “City of Chaos”. But is it a good game? I haven’t tried it yet, but some say it’s like a bad “Cluedo” variant, we will see.

Worst game
I don’t know if you heard about the three Nazi terrorists in Germany who were recently discovered by the police. In their backyard they produced a game with which they hoped to finance their terrorist activities – it was called “Progomly”, a miserable monopoly variant that actually sold a handful of copies in terrorist circles. I don’t know what’s worse – the idea of such a game or the notion to be able to make money of it.

Biggest brainburner
Ok, at some point in ambitious online Carcassonne play the realization sets in, that from a certain level of play on luck will play a huge role in determining the winner. But how on earth can people get to an ELO of nearly 2000 then, whereas I seem to get stuck between 1700 and 1800? Why????????

Most innovative game
It was a late discovery for me, but “Olympos”, the new game by the designer of “Small World”, has many extremely interesting concepts, like the handling of resources possession and the way civilization advance is handled. It also plays really quick, for me it was the surprise hit of 2011.

Favorite gaming event of 2011
My favorite gaming event continues to be our summer visit at Alea gaming apartments on Paros, Greece, and the time spent there with Dimitris Varrias and his family.

Wish I had played
“Warriors and Traders” is a game that created quite a buzz in Essen and which I have sitting on my shelf. I love the idea of an empire building and conquest game that gives you the option to win peacefully and solves the typical problem of whoever battles or is battled first loses.

Best components
Ok, I just live “Mansions of Madness” and its many bits, a lot of attention to detail has gone into the creation of this monster haunted house game, and it shows.

Best art
I have to say that Fantasy Flight Games “Game of Thrones” card game holds a continuous standard of excellent illustrations, even though recently a slight resemblance to the TV version actors shows through in recent illustrations. But that is not the worst thing, as the TV series is excellent too!

Special Award
The best inside joke award in game design goes to Geoff Engelstein and his son for their inclusion of the Eggert reactor in their excellent game “Ares Project”. Actually I wish I own that reactor and have endless power!

All the best for our friends in 2012, the year of the where the creepy Mayo prophecy will finally come through. Yes: French fries actually DO taste better with Mayo, I don’t care what Quentin Tarantino says.

Electronic Boardgaming: A closer look at “Shadow Era”

Transcript of the podcast published December 6th, 2011.

Let’s take a more detailed look at an Android and iOS game that is in many ways representative of current trends. A friend of mine – my regular “Game of Thrones Card Game” gaming partner Ulrich Hergl, who recently made 2nd place at GenCon’s “Call of Cthulhu Card Game” tourney, has made me aware of the game “Shadow Era” with the remark “I wish there was an electronic version of the Fantasy Flight LCG’s that works like this”.
Having extensively played the game in the last months I can’t help but fully agree.

“Shadow Era” is an electronic collectible card game with many similarities to Magic the Gathering that works on all platforms – be it android, iPhone, PC or laptop. Once you have created a free account, you can always access your current game data, regardless of what platform you use. I have to say though that the visuals of the game work better on a larger platform, the screen on your android or iPhone is not really big enough to read the card text, which is all important.

Once you have logged in you get a free starter pack of one of the many possible characters you can play. These come in several classes and either belong to the Shadow (evil) faction, or the humans. Each of these characters has a special ability that usually uses up his “shadow points”, which work a little like Mana and are raised every turn.

Basically the players get a starting card hand and then proceed to bring monsters and allies into the fray. At the beginning of each round you can sacrifice one card for resources which you then can use to pay for your cards, which consist of items, events, allies and spells. This short description will sound very familiar to any collectible card player, and actually the game rules are extremely simple and straightforward. It is easy to get into the game and start playing in a matter of minutes. It is the gameplay and of course the deck building where the fun begins.

The graphic presentation is absolutely breathtaking and very professionally done. Each spell has unique animations – I especially like the card “rain delay”, even though it sucks – but none of them are annoying or too long. This has obviously been done by programmers who really thought long and hard what a game of this type should look like. The drawings for the various cards are not exactly up to Fantasy Flight quality, but are in the top heap of apps regarding quality. The only interface critique I have is the chat screen, which is a bit perfunctory and uninviting, and therefore rarely used.

Once you have logged into the server, you can manage your various decks and buy additional cards. Each deck is connected to one single character – every time you change it, it is saved and used when this character is used. It is therefore not possible to have different decks for one character, but I found that the fun is to build the perfect deck for each character, and there are so many to choose from that you won’t get bored.

The card buy model is fairer than you might think. The base game costs nothing, and additional cards can be bought either in cheap packs or basic decks, using crystals as a currency which can be earned by playing games or paying real money (not a lot of it).  You won’t need the crystals exclusively to get cards – one can also buy single cards from a merchant using gold currency which can only be collected through actual gameplay. If you are very dedicated you can actually earn all your cards by only playing the game against the provided ok computer or real opponents, the crystal option mostly saves time for you. I am playing this game for 5 months now and have only paid 8 dollars so far, so that is really ok – it won’t turn you into a crack addict.

Even though the deck building is important in the game, it is not as overpowering as in other games, and so far deadly combos or game breaking combinations are not evident. This has mostly to do with the fact that the basic rules are so simple and the cards so well thought out that this has not arisen yet as a problem. I find that deck building in the game is not super difficult –most choices are pretty obvious. But the game play itself is full of so many meaningful decisions that this is where winners are made. Even the best deck can easily be played badly and to win you have to anticipate the abilities of your opponent. As a game only lasts 10 minutes or so the game becomes quite addictive, especially because there is an incentive in form of a rating which works similar to Xbox-online games. Luck doesn’t play a huge role, as there are no dice rolls and the decks usually very small (around 30 cards), so very often all cards in a deck come into action.

The server of this game works extremely well – just press “Quick Game” and you will have an opponent in seconds. It is also possible to challenge friends if you have their online name.

As you can tell I really like this game – it is a very clever creation using popular concepts presented in an exceptionally slick way. If you like collectible card games you will love this game, guaranteed.

iPad Games

Transcript of the podcast published November 8th, 2011.

After talking last time about the surge of electronic board gaming through devices like android, iphone and ipod let’s now look a bit closer at the device that in my opinion has accelerated the development, and that is the ipad.

Mobile phone games (or “Handyspiele” as they are inexplicably called in German) have been with us a long time already. The first of these games were little better than the first Ataris or Nintendos that graced our childhood, with choppy graphics reminiscent of the 8bit games of ye olden times. But even when the processors and the mobile devices became more and more like mobile computers the biggest hindrance to the playing of board games on them was simply the small and tiny screen.

Things improved somewhat with the introduction of the iphone – not because its screen was that much bigger, but because it was now possible to enlarge sections of the screen with an easy movement of your fingers. Map scrolling was never easy on a mobile phone – anyone remember playing scrolling games on Nokia phones? That was a fiddly nightmare! – but suddenly it was possible to simulate a board. The first game that really did it for me was the now already famous “Carcassonne”-App – a faithful conversion of the classic boardgame that works really well on the iphone and all related devices. But still, once you tried to do more complicated games like “Settlers” the screen tended to become crowded and you needed magnifying glasses to tell what was going on.

Along came Steve Jobs’ last great invention – the Ipad. First this device was ridiculed because of its inability to act like a normal computer and its limited freedom for the user. But quickly game developers understood that having a device that basically is a  Star Trek – Next Generation computer interface come true created new possibilities for the avid gamer. Has anybody ever analyzed how much the set design of this series has influenced actual developments in  the computer world? I bet many people working at Apple are former Star Trek fans who tried to make parts of the series come true in reality…But I digress.

I first was not at all interested in the ipad – it seemed like a useless rip off to me, a toy for rich people who have nothing else to spend money on. But then a friend introduced me to “Small World” on the ipad, and I was instantly converted into believing in the endless possibilities this device had. Suddenly it was possible to play a real board game with real board game rules and the feel of pieces to be moved around. The ipad is large enough for both players to act like a little game board, and “Small World” actually is a good choice for a conversion as it is a relatively easy but also challenging game with many subtleties. The designers of the “Small World” app also took great care to make the App feel and play like the original board game, using the original design and animating it to some effect.

Today the “Small World” app has aged a little and some things will now be considered lacking in it, for example the impossibility of having more than 2 players, lack of online play and the relatively weak AI. But it was a pioneering app that showed the way to go for other developers. And it made me buy an ipad, a decision that I have never rued, because of its potential for gamers.

In the times of PC games only good board game conversions were a rarity. It seemed like there were only two kinds of boardgaming conversions – either overproduced ones, where each little element of a game turn featured endless and silly animations that got on your nerves quickly, or underproduced ones, with graphics so ugly and amateurish that one always preferred to play the original boxed game.

But the haptic interface of the ipad changes everything – now programmers don’t have to constantly dazzle us with quirky visuals because the main focus of the players is the direct interaction with cards, pieces or gameboards, an interaction that wasn’t possible and not as much fun as with a mouse. Also programming has developed in such a way that even small and independent companies can manage to make very decent and good looking apps.

Let’s look at a new game that has just come out: “Elder Sign: Omens”, the app conversion of Fantasy Flight’s new Lovecraft game. This is a really slick production that manages to bring the visual quality of Fantasy Flight’s games to the electronic format. As the game it is based on is cooperative there was no need to program an AI, and the game works perfectly as a single or multiplayer game. It is clear that a professional company like Fantasy Flight is at the front of such a development qualitywise, but if one looks at the sheer number of really interesting projects of board games for mobile devices it seems like a revolution has started. Even specialty games are in the works – GMT games has developers working on apps of games like Twilight Struggle and Dominant Species, which I find really exciting. Even a small but highly praised developer like Victory Point Games has several of their titles in the works.

As electronic board games – which now for the first time really feel more and more like board games instead of electronic distractions – don’t have to be stored or shipped production costs are actually lower than for a normal game. And it is only a matter of time until we see the first hybrid games with both physical and electronic elements that integrate second generation mobile devices. And one should also mention that the Android market is developing as well, which I think is actually very good, as one company should not dominate everything. Interesting times for the gamer indeed! Let’s look at some games in detail next time!

Electronic Gaming

Transcript of the podcast published October 26th, 2011.

Since I own an iPhone and recently an iPad I find that I look more and more at news on iOS- and Android games on Boardgamegeek, which are thankfully and regularly provided by Brad Cummings. Thinking about it I find that we are finally on a threshold which was long foreseen: the merging of board gaming and electronic gaming into something new. Finally we have devices which can recreate the social experience of board gaming – and that is playing with other players – increasingly well through electronic media. Somehow the computer or TV screen doesn’t seem like a barrier anymore – players are directly involved with the game via touchscreen, live voice messaging, movements and even objects that are manipulated to induce electronic game effects.

One of the main criticisms of pure electronic gaming – that it is mainly a visual and abstract affair for couch potatoes – is increasingly becoming untrue, which is shown by the immense success of the Wii or similar movement-translating gaming devices. Suddenly the players’ physical presence is really important, dexterity, stamina and fitness as well as cleverness directly translate into the gaming experience. The idea was there since the invention of the first paddle connected to the early Ataris and Nintendos, but only now has the technology reached a stability and ease of use that it is fast becoming widespread. I own a Wii myself, and I cannot say how much the clever little games of the Wii fit program have helped me to lose weight in a fun and engaging manner. In short: the haptic experience of gaming is increasingly present where it was absent before.

I am not a blind believer in electronic development and like you I enjoy most the direct company of friends while gaming. There is nothing that beats the mutual laughter and table talk. But the detractors of electronic gaming find that their arguments are losing ground.

Let’s look at the main criticisms of electronic gaming:

1)  Electronic games are too solitary

This used to be the case, but it is not anymore. One can probably say that most of today’s computer gaming is not –as it used to be – against AI’s but against live opponents, be it in a Massive Online Role Playing Game or a social game via Facebook or a mobile phone game via Bluetooth or internet. Granted – very often the experience is still abstract and limited to little chat windows, and some people use the anonymity apparent in these games to continue with their sad and mostly lonely life, but the technology to make the other player’s present also as people, be it via Skype or video conferencing, is basically there and is increasingly used. I don’t think it will be far away until we play online games where we see the other players as if they are sitting at our table, and in 3D.

2)  Board Games are haptic and Computer Games are not

This is increasingly untrue as well. Of course – right now nothing can beat a wargame or a roleplaying game with miniatures. But there are many physical aspects of games that are actually more annoying than a true joy. Keeping track of countless markers on tracks, shuffling hundreds of cards in a game of Arkham Horror, setting up hundreds of counters for a complicated wargame. Gamers become increasingly lazy with this kind of stuff and are actually happy if there are programs that take care of it. 18XX pro’s started already decades ago to use computer programs to keep track of the immense amounts of money changing hands in a typical game, I know players who refuse to play without these helper programs. Most players I know hate game upkeeping. And if you like miniatures, why not have miniatures AND electronic gaming? Many of you have seen the demo video which shows how real miniatures can be used on a tablet like-table where the computer keeps track of their stats. It will be increasingly easy to combine the aspects of gaming which are fun to handle while having the computer do the annoying stuff, like shuffling cards or keeping track. We all know that the future of gaming will lie in electronic gaming tables which can save thousands of games and set them up instantly.

3)  Computer games are different from board games

I think the lines increasingly blur. The first computer games were basically dexterity and reaction games but quickly tabletop gaming ideas were transported to the electronic world. In fact the most successful computer games like “Civilization” or “Star Craft” would be impossible without their boardgaming roots. Many modern computer games actually take their cues from board games, and the elegance of Euro design has had a huge influence on many types of games. I firmly believe that the attraction of board games lies in the fact that calculations aren’t hidden but that all elements of the game are clear to everybody.

Whatever may be your stance to electronic board gaming – and the fact you are listening to a podcast already shows that you are on the positive side – we live in interesting times that will see huge changes to the hobby and the delivery of games to a larger public. More about that next time!

Gaming Holiday in Greece

Transcript of the podcast published on September 26th, 2011.

A few months ago I came across a blog entry on the geek describing the founding of a “boardgamer’s hotel” on Paros, one of the Cyclades Greek islands in the Aegean sea. I was very curious, as I usually like to combine holidays with gaming. I became determined to not only visit this place but to also report about it for the Dice Tower.

Apart of the natural beauty the Cyclades islands also have an amazing history, from Ancient Greece to the Byzantines up to modern times. All the islands are very different and each has its own distinct charm.

My wife is a gamer, and my son (4) is enjoying games as well. We were frankly sick of expensive hotels, room service and fixed meals, so we thought that booking an apartment would be a nice change. Also we were looking forward to a place where playing games was not only possible but also especially welcomed (which is not the case in every hotel – very often finding a table is the biggest problem!). Dimitris Varrias, a Greek boardgamegeeker (or is it a geek boardgamegreeker?) who runs the apartments together with his family, was very happy when we contacted him – he definitely wants the place to attract gamers, and he took great care in helping us with our travel arrangements.

We had chosen early September as our holiday season. This is a very recommended season for Paros, as the weather is still very good but the biggest tourist rush is over. We took a plane to Athens and then a ferry to Paros (ca. 5 hours from Piraeus). In peak times there is also a direct plane from Athens to Paros, which makes things easier, but riding the ferry was exciting for our son as there is lots to see on the way. Dimitris greeted us with self-made cookies by his mother at the port (Pariki) and drove us to the apartment in Naoussa, which is 10 minutes away by car from Paros.

Paros is not a huge island, but also not small. Pariki is its capital, but most tourists are drawn to Naoussa, which has absolutely retained its charm as a fishing village and boasts good beaches in direct vicinity. The Alea Apartments – nomen est omen – are located at the entry to the village of Naoussa and roughly 5 minutes walk from its center (and lively harbour). Supermarket and amenities are close by.

The apartments are centered around a good-sized open court which Dimitris and his family have made especially appealing for gamers, with 3 large tables that are well-lighted. There is also enough protection to be able to play when it rains (not that this happens very often in summer).

Dimitris has made his personal collection permanently available for the guests. This is a really solid collection of roughly 150 games (but growing very quickly) that cover any realm of gaming that one might imagine, easy family games, party games, Euro games, Themed games, even wargames. Just take a look at Dimitris’ collection on the geek and you will see that it is really attractive.

The Greeks have a very good reputation as hosts anyway, but I like especially that the Parikians have decided to keep the original look of the island intact. This means there are no ugly hotel complexes anywhere to be seen – instead one sees quaint guest-houses and small hotels built in the traditional style that has become rightly famous in the Greek Mediterranean: white and blue. Naoussa itself strikes just the right balance: it is neither too small nor too big or overrun. The beaches in Paros are varied – We nearly spent every day at a different beach and were never disappointed – the water was always clean, and there was lots of room for everybody. With a small kid we especially appreciated the children-friendly beaches with long gentle surfs into the ocean with absolutely no danger for the kids.

We have recently discovered the hobby of geocaching, and for this there are many opportunities on Paros (and also on Antiparos). There are some amazing caches on little islands that can only be reached by boat, but we didn’t try them. As many boardgamers are also geocachers I thought this was good to mention – we tried our best to lure Dimitris into the hobby as well!

One thing really has to be underlined: The Varrias family (Dimitris and his brother, as well as his mother Maria and his father Aristides) belong to the most wonderful and friendly people we have ever met. Dimitris took great care to show us the island and its sights, and of course he also spent every free minute gaming with us and other residents of the apartments, which turned out to be a lot of fun (one memorable game of Bausack as well as “Cockroach Salad” – in Greek! – comes to mind). Dimitris had to leave after a few days (he is studying medicine on the Greek mainland) but even then his family continued to care for us. We really felt very welcomed!

As one can tell I am pretty much raving about this holiday, but this exactly how we felt about it. It was one of the most wonderful holidays we ever had, made especially nice because of the easy opportunity to play games with friendly gamers living at the same apartments in combination with quality holiday opportunities.

I had booked the apartments on a hunch, because I have always made it my policy to trust fellow gamers. But even with an already positive approach to this endeavor we were surprised that it was even better than we ever could have expected it. I think Dimitris has an idea that has a lot of future, and the reactions to my geeklist describing this holiday have been immense, so there seems to be a lot of interest for something like this out there. I would not be surprised if more boardgaming resorts like this crop up in the future. Look for Alea Apartments Paros on the web to find more about the holiday I just described.

New Names for Games – 3: “Paranoia Games”

Transcript of the podcast published on August 28th, 2011.

This time I am going to talk about another new game genre that I will tentatively call “Paranoia” games. Again this subgenre can hold many games that can be quite different from each other, but that all have the common element of a creating a feeling of fear that something bad/ominous/dangerous etc. is happening.

Let’s take “Battlestar Galactica” for example – of course it is a cooperative game, but the element of the Cylon traitor creates a tension that can only be described as paranoia. Who can you trust? Can you trust anybody? You can’t even trust yourself, as you might turn out to be the traitor in round 2!

I remember a memorable game of “Battlestar Galactica” at Boardgamegeek where one player built up the trust of all players including me. Because of this he was entrusted with a nuke in a crucial situation, a decision that was also supported by me (I was playing the president). I suddenly had this feeling of something not quite right about his eagerness, but it was too late – he nuked us all into oblivion which came as a total shock to everybody. The player actually felt embarrassed about his successful deceit, but I think it was excellent and in the spirit of the game. This is what I call paranoia, and I love it!

There are other examples of new games using this mechanic. “Werewolf” is of course very popular, but also its related game “The Resistance” manages to create the same feeling of mistrust.

But what was the first game ever that brought paranoia to the game table? The answer is perhaps surprising – very probably it was poker, or any luck game involving three crucial elements:

1)      other players that you are competing against instead of competing with luck itself

2)      bluffing, i.e. lying about one’s hidden assets

3)      something at stake, i.e. lots of money that you are risking.

Actually it is very insightful to compare the two unlikely games Battlestar Galactica and Poker. In Poker you are competing with other players for a pot of money, in Battlestar Galactica you are battling for the survival of the human race. The latter is of course only a fantasy for the sake of creating tension, but one can compare the dread of losing real money to the dread of risking the whole human race in your imagination.

In Battlestar Galactica the players you compete with are the Cylon traitors, it is not only an anonymous game system. Once you enter the bidding in Poker a situation is created that is actually very similar to a round of playing cards to resolve an event in Battlestar Galactica. Some players will be honest – their cards are really valuable or they do their best to save the day in BGG. But there will also be players who only pretend to go with the flow, who have the hidden agenda to cheat you. Of course this is where the similarity between these two games ends big time, but the feeling while playing the game is not entirely dissimilar. And there is also the meta-element: once you mistrust a player you will tend to mistrust him again and again – a trap that many poker players will fall in again and again.

Not surprisingly the rise of advanced paranoia games comes roughly at the same time as the height of paranoia in recent history – the Cold War. Diplomacy – perhaps the grandfather of all paranoia games – was created 1954, which I think is very telling. But it was the 70s which really brought the concept to the fore. I would immediately think of 2 highly influential games that involve paranoia: in 1978, Junta players are at the whim of a merciless and often crazy dictator who might murder them at a whim. Hey, they might even be that dictator. The game is mostly meant in fun, but some players actually get very upset about it!

In Dune from 1979 players always have to fear that Baron Harkonnen has bribed their leaders. One also can think of the role playing game “Paranoia” which was the first role playing game to give players hidden agendas and which encouraged the game master to make the players mistrust or kill each other constantly. Later “Republic of Rome” came along; a game so full of paranoia and machiavellism that the rules say that it makes “Diplomacy” (already a vicious game) like “Snakes and Ladders” compared to it. And the list goes on.

Let’s try a definition: “Paranoia games are games that involve hidden agendas and which make mistrust, secret dealing or bluffing so much a part of the game that they are integral to the game experience”.

Moritz over and out.

New Names for Games – 2: “Loud Games”

Transcript of the podcast published on August 2nd, 2011.

Continuing my talk about new names for game genres I will now introduce a second genre, the “loud” game (as opposed to the “Schweigespiel” or “silent” game from the last segment).

Let’s immediately try a definition:

Loud games are games that not only encourage verbal communication between players but also make it a central part of the game, either because it increases the enjoyment of the game or because a specific verbal communication has to be heard and understood by a greater number of players.

There are several subdivisions of loud games in my opinion. One is obvious: party games. Party games very often involve quiz or guessing elements, very often the player to most quickly give a certain piece of information is rewarded, so they tend to be loud as players make themselves heard over others. In addition party games often involve humor or hilariousness, and they encourage the socializing aspect of mutual laughter, for example by using jokes. Examples of this would be “Wits & Wagers”, “Apples to Apples” or even the rather grim “The Resistance”. An interesting variation is “Werewolf” which has alternating silent and loud phases. The werewolves usually kill in silence, but then the accusations start and the game suddenly becomes very loud.

The second subdivision is trading phase games. Here very often the goal is to make oneself heard with a very good offer or to demand a certain combination of goods from another player. For this one has to be loud. A prime example for this is “Settlers of Catan”, in which the trading phase is usually very loud, so shy or meek players don’t stand a chance. The first game in which a non-organized, non-sequential trading phase became the central part of a strategy board game is probably “Civilization” by Francis Tresham, a game which can be considered the godfather of Settlers in many ways. Trading is actually the vital part of “Civilization”, as it not only enables players to buy advances but it also introduces the mechanic of deftly trading catastrophes as well. As long as the trading phase goes its course a catastrophe received by another player can still be traded to someone else, so the trading phases of “Civilization” tend to get louder towards the end, when players realize it’s their last chance to get rid of the epidemic card.

Auction games can be loud, but only if they have a free-for-all auction phase in which bids can be made non-sequentially. Sequential bids, like in “Modern Art” or “Princes of Florence” don’t get loud usually.

The third subdivision is chatty games, games in which the description of things plays an important part. “Such A Thing” is a case in point, or also last Spiel des Jahres winner “Dixit”. Very often the chatty game involves comments of other players, like in “Anno Domini”, when everybody tries to use their limited historical knowledge to influence others. “What? Beer is around for millennia, not only since the Middle Ages!” would be a typical “Anno Domini” comment.

An interesting case are games that are not chatty by nature, but which become chatty because a great number of players has nothing to do from a certain point on and the game doesn’t hinder them talking with each other. Take “Citadels” – once you have selected your role you can do absolutely nothing until all players have selected their role. One player after the other will join the growing group of players who have already selected their role, and selecting can sometimes be beset by analysis paralysis in this game, so all these players usually begin to chat with each other out of boredom. I found that most games of “Citadels” are spent talking about something not even game related, like also in “Liar’s Dice”, where the players who have been kicked out of the game because they lost their last die begin to chat with each other.

Bluffing games are another subdivision – the bluffing itself is usually silent, but once the bluff is out the players usually react with a verbal burst of “I told you!”, “You liar!”, “I can’t believe it!”, etc.. These shouts can even be heard in pro poker games on TV.

Another subcategory is what I would call “anger games”, games like “Risk” for example in which trashing one player often results in whining, complaining and the inevitable table flip

Finally we have a very special subcategory, one which I would call the “cheering game”. Here players become loud because they either have to cheer on somebody or simply because there is nothing else to do really. The best example is “Battling Tops” – once the tops are spinning wildly you can do nothing but watch what will happen, so people usually begin to cheer their top, which of course doesn’t make any sense at all. Strangely enough “Battling Tops” is the loudest game of them all, something that any visitor to Boardgamegeek Con can attest to.

All in all the effective loudness level of a game is very dependent on the group of players – if they are very social or more introvert, if they know each other well or not. For most gamers though the so called “trash talk” or cheering and screaming are an important element of their enjoyment of games, so it should play a role when describing a game.

Next show I will talk about “Greedy Games”.

New Names for Games – 1: “Silent Games”

Transcript of the podcast published on July 5th, 2011.

I think that newcomers to Boardgamegeek probably find it increasingly difficult to understand what the heck we are talking about. The forums are proof to this, with newbies asking eternally the same questions: what is a “Euro”? What is “Ameritrash”, and why do so many people love them? What is AP (Analysis Paralysis), is it some kind of gamer sickness? What is a grognard, what is a meeple, what is a Kramertrack?

In addition there are a huge number of genres – anyone who ever tried the advanced search engine of the geek can attest to this. There are roll-and-move games, war games, empire building games, tile laying-games, crayon games and so on. There is a problem with all these terms, though. Although they describe exactly what a game uses as a mechanic they say very little about how it feels to actually play the game.

To give you an example: In a way “Groo the card Game” is an empire building game, like San Juan or Puerto Rico, as one tries to lay out cards to form a village with different buildings. But in contrast to these games Groo is a chaotic affair in which you randomly attack your neighbours and in which there is no perceivable strategy to how you build your village, because Groo will come and destroy it anyway. The most useful term for these kind of games is of course the good old “Beer & Pretzel”, a term which simply says: “relax, venturing gamer, this is not a serious or brainy affair, it is just a free for all entertainment in which the main goal is to annoy your fellow players and have fun”.

For some gamers this exact description is a caveat, for others – especially for lovers of the game “Munchkin” – it is a badge of excellence. Whatever the case, the limits of the term can quickly be demonstrated by mentioning a very different game, ”Junta!. “Junta” is – at its heart – a chaotic Beer & Pretzel game, as there is no dedicated strategy to win, there are lots of random events and decisions, and very often you will be at the whim of other players’ decisions. But at the same time “Junta” involves real diplomacy, backdoor dealing, and in parts it is also a real war game with meaningful tactical decisions. So what is it?

I find we are missing terms for what games really are, so I would like to start a little series where I will try to invent some new terms for the BGG database.

My first term is simple, “Schweigespiel”, which means “silent game” in German.

What, you may ask, is a “Schweigespiel”? I try to give a definition: silent games are games that tend to inhibit verbal communication between players because of their sometimes secretive and brainy nature and also because of the moves of the players themselves ARE the communication. Silent games will very often be played with little to no talk during the game.

I don’t know if you ever had this experience: you play a game and suddenly you notice that you are so much in your own little world of thought that there is this all-pervading silence all-around. Every time we notice this in our gaming group we call out – “Schweigespiel!” and everybody knows immediately what is meant.

To give you some examples of a silent game, let’s begin with the most obvious prime candidate, and that is Chess. Chess has never been known to be a particularly chatty game, but this is because communication between players is abstracted and only takes place through the movements of pieces on the board. Also a lot of the strategy of chess comes through the fact that one doesn’t want to have the opponent know your secret plan. Chess is such a silent game, that there are actually rules which force you to talk and announce certain threats, lest you forget.

But there are also examples of games that are more our fare. Let’s take “Agricola” – a good example because it is also somewhat of a multiplayer solitaire game as well. Or “Euphrates and Tigris” – a game which gives you so many possibilities where to place your tiles and what to do with them that actually the Analysis Paralysis alone will keep you pretty silent most of the time. Or “Carcassonne, at least in its basic version. The excellent Carcassonne iPhone app has a chat feature, but most of the time one doesn’t know what to say except perhaps “wow”, when a huge city has been finished. Most of the time the communication is through the game, in a complex sign language of tile-laying. Most players hesitate to state the obvious, like saying “Ha, look, I just placed a meeple that will threaten your meadow domination in a very surprising way”. This is why iPhone Carcassonne players mostly use the chat for insults or complaints about lag (the many Dice Tower listeners I met through this app are absolutely not fitting in this category but have been friendly and ready to chat).

You may ask yourself: Are there any “loud” games? You bet there are, and I will talk about them next show…

Mansions of Madness and Lord of the Rings Card Game

Transcript of the podcast published on June 3rd, 2011.

With the theme of the current show it seems appropriate to interrupt my musings on game design and talk about two new games from Fantasy Flight that have something in common but that also have many differences: Mansions of Madness and Lord of the Rings Card Game. Both games have deep roots in established works of literature: Mansions of Madness is inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic Cthulhu Mythos and even more by the many games that developed this world, like Call of Cthulhu the roleplaying game or Arkham Horror, both originally published by Chaosium Games. The new Lord of the Rings LCG is of course based on the great stories of J.R.R. Tolkien, truly the founding father of contemporary fantasy.

Fantasy Flight has made its name as a publisher mostly of epic fantastic games in which the experience – meaning the immersion of the players in an imaginary world, often helped by elaborate graphic design and high quality game material – is more important than the Euro-pondering of action optimization and victory point collection. I don’t know about you, but I know many players who will never be satisfied with storytelling experience and who will never get into games like Talisman or even Twilight Imperium because there are moments when players relinquish control of the game to dice rolls or event cards. Even fantasy aficionado Tom Vasel has problems with the mostly freefall and luck-driven Talisman because he feels that the players choices are too limited. Other players can enjoy Talisman as a modern variant of the roll and move journey games that were so common in the 19th century, just with added fantasy, more choices and more excitement.

Mansions of Madness has its detractors and critics, but for fans of storytelling games it is a great experience. Anyone who has ever played the great role playing game Call of Cthulhu in its original non D-20, non-munchkinized version, will immediately see the design success in bringing the feeling of exploring a house occupied by evil beings to the boardgame table. The game really feels like a horrific and sanity-threatening adventure without outstaying its welcome. The rules go so far as telling the Keeper – who plays the house against the investigators – to play so that the investigators have a good time, instead of only playing for winning the game.

It has been said that the game gives the investigators too little, the Keeper too much to do, but I personally find Mansions of Madness great fun, even though it is quite a chore to keep track of all the little cards and counters. Most of us don’t have time to play long role-playing campaigns anymore as adults, but games like Descent and Mansions of Madness give us the fix that our role playing heart yearns for. If you loved Call of Cthulhu, you will love Mansions of Madness, otherwise you should stick with Puerto Rico or Caylus.

The Lord of the Rings Card Game is the newcomer to Fantasy Flight Games new series of expandable but not collectable card games, of which the “Game of Thrones” LCG is so good, that I am actually still playing it regularly. The Lord of the Rings Card Game is different though in that it tries something new, being designed specifically for solitaire or cooperative play, which has rarely been tried extensively in the CCG world, except for the failed game “Ruinsworld” and some scenarios for the old Middle Earth CCG.

I have played the new Lord of the Rings card game quite extensively in the last days and can already say that I like it even though I am yet unsure of its durability as a deck-building game. Deck building is most fun against an unexpected opponent, if one would know the opponent’s cards exactly it could be less fun. Fantasy Flight has tried to make the game interesting by making it quite hard to win – I have yet to win even a medium difficulty scenario with Gimli and Legolas in my group alone, because they are so weak in adventuring potential and usually are beaten by the deck if one draws too many locations, overcome by the shadow treat even though they can kill opponents left and right – people who know the game will know what I mean!

Basically the Lord of the Rings card game feels like a puzzle that has to be solved- each advanced scenario can only be beaten if the players learn the cards well and optimize their strategy, so in a way it is like a learning process against a programmed opponent. In that respect the game actually is similar to the Lord of the Rings board game by Knizia, which also felt more like a puzzle than a genuine story experience, with the card game having the advantage of being infinitely variable and quicker to play and setup then Knizia’s game.

Every player has to decide for him- or herself. If he is more of the adventuring or analytical type – I can say that I personally enjoy both styles of playing very much and could not really live without one of them.

By the way – Mansions of Madness has a great fan made solitaire conversion where the keeper is replaced by an ingenious paragraph system – I can very much recommend it!

Gaining Speed – Part 2

Transcript of the podcast published on May 7th, 2011.

Last show I was talking about the necessity to get the right speed rating for your game when designing it. This time I want to give you some examples.

Take ”7 Ages” for example, a great if still unwieldy game of empires and conquest – when reading the designer’s diary one will find a statement by Harry Rowland, that in its original form the game had each empire go through all possible phases in its turn – production, movement, combat, fate, progress, etc.. This of course meant that the other players would idly watch while one player spent a lot of time doing fiddly things with often no consequence to the other players. At one point Rowland decided that he would limit each empire action to only one of these – this already was a great idea, if not a radical design decision. But this was still not good enough. So Rowland decided to make the selection of actions simultaneous and secret for all players involved. Simultaneous selection of something is always a good idea, as it means that all players can mutually do something that is of relevance, even if it is not in direct communication with another player. It adds two interesting aspects: speed, of course, and also mystery, as in a good game design one should always be guessing about the other player’s motives.

This worked great for “7 Ages”. While I select my empire’s actions I ask myself: will my neighbor be peaceful this turn? Or will he attack me? Should I attack first? So even though I don’t necessarily talk with another player during this selection it is an indirect form of competitive communication, and this is an important element in any game.

I had a similar problem with my game “XX”, formerly known as the “20th Century” until some evil usurping Eastern-European-game designers stole my title. In its original form the game was just mega-long, and each player had a lot of actions to ponder while the others were waiting and doing nothing. Some BGG con visitors of four years back might remember this version painfully.

One of the main design goals is of course elegance and speed – in reworking the game concepts I tried to think about what elements I deemed important and what not. Many ideas were neat, like the effects of population or catastrophes in my game about the history of the 20th century. But I could go two ways – either keep them and develop them, which meant the game would become longer and more complicated, or leave them away and concentrate on the things I really liked. In a painful process I whittled down the possible player actions to only three different ones: getting involved in wars, using diplomacy to place influence in countries and playing a card as an event.

Now I still had the problem that this would mean that each player would have to ponder this decision when it came to his or her turn. The game state might have changed in a way that would make a new pondering period necessary – and again non-involved players would have to wait. I decided to create action cards that had all three actions on them, and how you placed them in front of you (meaning how you would orientate the card) would show to other players what action you would play. With these cards I could now introduce a simultaneous selection phase, like in “7 Ages”. Each player would secretly select his card action for the turn at the same time as the other players and then turn the card over to show his decision when it was his or her go. This introduced second-guessing and mystery and an immense speed gain to the design. You still had the freedom about how exactly you would play your action – this is important as nobody wants to be on autopilot when it comes to an individual action – but you had already made some of your choices. It is a simple insight for game designers that choices are good, but too many choices bog down a game and might make it too brainy or ultra-competitive, like chess or go, games which are sciences in itself and in which sometimes you can wait for a long time until your opponent has done a move. If ever. Finding the sweet spot between too limited decision trees and too many options is the biggest challenge of a game designer.

It is interesting that simple house rules can have a great effect on speed. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t play Carcassonne without one simple house rule that is not stated in the original rules: don’t turn over a new tile when it’s your turn but draw it secretly at the end of your turn instead and place it at the beginning of your next turn. This makes a huge difference, as it gives you the complete turn to think about your placement. Even though last-minute plays by your opponents can ruin your plans you still will have a much better grasp of the situation than if you simply reacted to a completely new tile on the spot. It’s a house rule that I strongly recommend!