Saturday, February 18, 2017

Economic Domination Games

I know I keep referencing the Six Board Games That Ruined It For Everyone article on Cracked.com, but it's such a good article. The Top 100 list on Board Game Geek is awesome, but it doesn't compare bad games to good games the way the Cracked article does.

As an interesting side note, I saw that, if you reverse the order of the Top 100 List so that it shows you the Bottom 100, five of the six games from that article are listed. The one that's not? Risk. Which is interesting, given what I'm about to say.

Anyway. Here's what the Cracked article has to say about Risk:
The worst part of Risk is victory by excruciation. A well-designed game has tactics and skill building to a climax, a thrilling race to victory, and when someone has clearly won, it's because the game is over. In Risk, someone can win hours before it ends, and they will not let you just admit it and leave. They spent hours carefully planning this victory, and by God you are going to sit there and patiently lose for just as many hours so that they can enjoy it properly. They've turned having fun into a zero-sum game.
This ties in with a recent experience I had. I was learning to play Wallenstein a couple weeks ago, and it did not go well for me. In case you don't know, Wallenstein is a game set in the Thirty Years War, which ravaged central Europe (the areas known as present-day Germany in particular). It was an absolutely brutal conflict, claiming eight million casualties by the end of the fighting. The game captures this aspect very well, as any battle devastates both sides.

At the beginning of the game, I was in a pretty good position, and by the time we reached the first of two scoring rounds, though I wasn't in first place by any means, I was still doing fairly well. Very shortly after that, however, I was attacked by several other players and lost so much territory that I was no longer able to take any effective actions. The dynamics of the game meant that if I fortified my territories to defend against my opponents, I would score no points. If I attacked other players, or neutral territories, I would leave my defenses so weak that I would almost instantly lose not only the territories I had gained, but the ones I'd had to start with as well. If I built palaces or churches to try to score more points, I would have made myself a target for the other players without the ability to defend myself.

Perhaps, had I found myself in this situation closer to the beginning of the game, I might have been able to recover. Having a few turns to build up my defenses before trying to score more points might have made the difference. But as it was, I had insufficient time to try to recover the loses I'd suffered late in the mid-game.

I'll probably give this game another try some day, after my initial anger has faded. But for right now, I can only think about the games I used to play with Stephen many years ago.

Stephen used to be my best friend, He can be described as 'incredibly intelligent, but with absolutely no common sense.' He's the one who ruined Go for me; he tried to teach me to play one day, but rather than giving me any advice on strategy or the intricacies of the game, he merely explained the rules, then proceeded to absolutely thrash me. Twice.

I will happily admit that I am no strategic genius. I seldom do well in games of pure strategy, like Chess or Blokus. I'm ok with that, as long as I feel I have a chance. If I lose because of my own actions, that's fine. It's when I feel the game is so stacked against me that I have no good options that I start getting irritated.

I know that Go was not a case of 'I have no good options available.' But because Stephen, who is a strategic genius, countered me so effectively at every turn, and never explained to me what mistakes I was making, or what a better strategy might have been, it very much felt that way to me. That feeling has persisted, decades later, and I will likely never play Go again. I know it's irrational, but that's the way it is.

Anyway. Getting back to my point. I played several games with Stephen, including Axis and Allies and similar games. Many of these are similar to Risk in that, the more territory you control, the more resources you have available. This means that, by about the halfway point of the game, one player has more economic power than the other(s). At this point, as long as that power is dedicated to garnering and maintaining more of that economic power, that player cannot lose.

Let me explain a bit more in depth. In Risk, there are 42 territories on the board. That means that, in any single round, a total of about 126 reinforcement armies are awarded (not counting the bonus armies from controlling an entire continent). If there are six players, who control 4, 6, 6, 7, 8, and 11 territories each, that means the the player with 11 countries will receive 33 armies this round. That's 9 armies more than the next player, who has 8 territories and gets 24 armies. That's quite a significant advantage.

Sure, in this setting, the other players can gang up on the 11 territory player, but if that player is able to defend his holdings, it's likely that he'll go on to win. But even more important, the player with only 4 territories is in a really bad position. He only gets 12 armies per round, and that's not enough to make any significant gains. The only way he can win at this point is if the other players screw up by letting him gain a lot of new territory whilst they're fighting each other.

That's what bugs me about some games. Eventually, you lose so much ground that you have no chance to recover. At that point, the game stops being fun and becomes a case of waiting until defeat has finally arrived.

That's one of the things that I really enjoyed about Power Grid. The way the game flows, it's entirely possible for the player in last place to surge ahead at the very end and steal victory. You're never truly out of the running; there are always options that can enable you to win if you play your cards right (so to speak).

Anyway, that's just a thing I was thinking about. I hope this post didn't end up sounding too bitter. That wasn't my intent. In a way, it's meant as a warning to game designers: don't make it so that, if the game goes poorly for a player at the beginning, he no longer has any chance at all of winning.

So that's it for this week. I'll see you here next time. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Board Game Review: Caverna: The Cave Farmers


Don't forget to check out the podcast version of this article! You can listen to it in the embeded media player above! And please let me know what you think. Is this a good idea? Or should I stick to text only?

A single player board, with various pieces arranged on it. The board has two halves: the cavern half and the forest half. Each is subdivided into twelve squares. Some of those squares have tiles representing conversion into tunnels, mines, or living areas (in the cavern half) or livestock pens and crop fields (the forest half). There are tokens of various types on these tiles.
As I progress in my quest to play 80 or more of the games on the boardgamegeek.com top 100 list, I find I'm getting to play all sorts of interesting games. This is certainly what happened last week, when I found myself playing Caverna: The Cave Farmers. I keep hearing that it's similar to Agricola, but as I haven't played Agricola yet, I can't comment on that.

But it does mean that I get to review Caverna. So let's get this started the right way: with a bunch of numbers!

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 5
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: High

Welcome to Caverna! You are a clan of dwarves living in the caverns of a mountain bordering a forest. You must dig into the stone of the mountain, and cultivate the forest into a farm to provide sustenance to the dwarves living there.

Caverna is a a worker placement game. The object is to have the most victory points at the end of the game. Victory points come in a variety of forms, from animals on your farm to rooms you've built in your cave to forest squares converted into farmland and other sources besides. You accomplish these tasks by taking actions available on an action board. This board is compartmental, so the actions available depend on the number of players. But even that is only part of the picture, because each round, you draw a new action card and place it on the action board, so that more actions become available as the game progresses.

A few of the actions available in the course of the game may include:

  • Go on an adventure. By converting ore that you've mined from your cavern into a weapon, you can send one of your dwarves on an adventure, to bring back one of a number of different rewards, depending on how high-powered that dwarf is.
  • Plant crops. You can turn one piece of grain into three, or one piece of vegetable into two, by taking this action.
  • Clear Forest Tiles. This action allows you to place a double-space crop and pasture tile over available spots in your forest. These are necessary for raising livestock and growing crops.
  • Furnish living quarters. By taking this action, you can put a living-quarter tile on a cleared space in your cavern. This grants you one of a number of benefits (there are a great number of tiles, and with the exception of a single stack of twelve 'simple dwelling' tiles, they all do something different).
  • Make babies. Eventually, you start being able to produce offspring, which gives you more dwarves, enabling you to take more actions on subsequent rounds.
This is just a small sampling of the actions available to you. Most of the actions aren't that straightforward, either. Many action cards, for example, gain an additional resource token each round, and when that action is taken by a player, he receives all the tokens currently on that card. Most of the cards tend to grant you a pair of actions that you can do, which you may do either or both. Some require you to choose only one. And so forth.

So. My final thoughts on Caverna. It's a fun game, with a lot of possible options. The number of available actions is staggering. The available rooms you can place in a cavern is also enormous. The rules themselves are actually quite easy to grasp. I read the first four pages of the rulebook, skimmed briefly over the remaining twenty or however many there are, and I was able to play the game. Not well, mind you. But most of the rulebook is specific rules for each possible action or tile, and as such, is more for rules questions than for understanding the game itself.

That said, it is a very heavy game. The number of components is astounding. The box is large, and every bit of space is used. It's certainly not a bad game. I'd be willing to play again. But for my personal tastes, I don't think I need to own a copy.

Anyway, that's my thoughts. As always, don't let me tell you how you feel. Look at my numbers, read my descriptions, and decide for yourself. Until next week,

Game on!