Category Archives: Tabletop Tuesday

Best Player Wins?

A friend recently speculated that he was having trouble getting people to play Hyperborea because the best player tends to win. Hyperborea has some variability between games but a very small amount of uncontrolled randomness. It is not as pure a strategy game as chess or go, but it is far to that side of the continuum even for a Eurogame. If someone is significantly better than you, you lose.

I can see why that would not be fun. I frequently object to games where it is unknown whether victory is even possible. This is the opposite case: victory is known to be possible just exceedingly unlikely. All your decisions are meaningful, but the outcome is still pretty certain because you do not (yet – growth mindset!) know how to make better decisions. Instead of the frustration of an unavoidable loss that is out of your control, this is an unavoidable loss that is entirely your fault. You can still have Theory of Fun fun in learning to play better, but many people are not excited about diving into a lost cause.

This is a frequent theme in skill-based PvP games. In a fair fight, half the players will be below average, and the average skill of your opponent tends to increase as s/he plays more and the worse players quit. Even if everyone is friendly, polite, and supportive of you as a learning player rather than cursing you as a newb, the average player would rather be a wolf than a sheep.

For tabletop games, this is often less a worry because you are playing with your friends, which is usually the point of playing. Rivalry is friendly, and more casual players can use how much they lost by as a measure of progress (serious but poor players are harder to satisfy there). Another player I know counts herself as “not losing” so long as she is not in last place. In friendly games, the stronger player might take a handicap or provide advice to competitors.

Players want a chance to win. If that means devolving the game to almost pure chance, so be it. I am reminded of children who like to play ridiculous variations on existing games, partly because kids will try most anything as a game but partly because it nullifies others’ experience with the standard game. A work event at a bowling alley included three “fun frames” whose main purpose was to keep the serious bowlers from getting too far ahead; if you have trouble bowling 100, bowling between your legs or with your off-hand won’t make you do much worse, but it forces the pros down to the novice level again. Randomness helps the weaker party.

Personally, I find little satisfaction in winning through no merit of my own, although it can still be nice to win. I don’t have a reference handy, but I recall that many (most?) people would happily trade getting credit for their merits so long as they did not get blame for their faults. It seems an even easier trade to say you’d rather win through no merit than lose by your own fault.

: Zubon

[TT] Tiny Epic Kingdoms

Having played only a few games, Tiny Epic Kingdoms strikes me as Hyperborea writ small: tiny box, fewer pieces, fewer mechanics, shorter playing time, but still a game of building and territorial control with a strong strategic element. I could never play Hyperborea with my non-gamer wife, but she would be happy to play TEK again, and I can happily play it with gamer friends.

In TEK, each player gets a faction (race) and a home territory card. The factions differ only in their tech tree: “magic” you unlock by spending the mana resource, so constructs are stronger in the mountains while merfolk are stronger around water. Each territory card has five territories, and you have frequent opportunities to move around your board or send meeples (pawns) to other boards. There are three resources (food, mana, ore) and four ways to score points (food -> more meeples, mana -> more magic, ore -> tower, meeples -> territorial control). Each turn you choose one of six actions from a board, everyone else either does that or collects resources (based on territorial control), and you cannot repeat actions until the action board resets (after five have been chosen). Battle is handled by sealed bids, high bid wins. There are no random elements beyond selecting territories, but there are unpredictable elements as multiple players are making choices on the same battlefield.

There is some strategic depth in this simple game. You have three methods of building, one of which helps you build faster, one of which gives you more abilities, and one that is worth more points. You are juggling development and expansion, attacking or defending against enemies, and preparing for a late game that starts early. The territories do not seem to affect strategy much (a few details around the edges), but your race does affect your strategy. Things get more complicated with more players because one strong attack or defense leaves you vulnerable to everyone else on the table.

With 16 factions, I would be shocked if the game were really balanced. Some are obviously better with more or fewer players, such as the halflings’ bonuses to alliances (no alliances in the 2-player game) or the goblins’ ability go gain food whenever anyone gets a new meeple. But with 16 factions, there is probably at least one that fits your playstyle, which is often more important than precise balance, because that mathematical advantage does not help you much if you don’t have the playstyle to use it.

Pretty easy to teach with variety and a bit of depth. It’s a nice, small package.


I was enthusiastic about Kickstarter projects a while ago, but I have recently been seeing fewer that excite me. What has been exciting recently is the arrival of things I backed a while ago. My Tinker Dice arrived last week (the d6s look especially good, but I now covet the copper ones, having seen how they came out). Tiny Epic Kingdoms arrived yesterday (quick review Tuesday; it plays like a pocket-sized Hyperborea). Kingdom Builder is shipping now. After a lengthy drought, I am being flooded with tabletop games.

I hadn’t realized how long Kickstarter has been around. It has had some great, successful releases and some games still under development “Estimated delivery: Oct 2012.” Developers may not always be the best project managers, which is I suppose why I have a job.

: Zubon

[TT] Hyperborea

At Gen Con, we learned to play Hyperborea from one of the developers, which is one of the glories of Gen Con. As I type this, it is soon to be published in the US but not quite there; it may be available by the Tuesday this appears. It is recommended but costly ($90) and very strongly a gamer game.

The game is one of territorial control and resource acquisition with a bag-building mechanic in place of the increasingly common deck-building mechanic. That is, each player has a bag of colored cubes, and you power your abilities by drawing and spending them. A large part of your strategy is what cubes you add to your bag.
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Variability and Time Investment

Love Letter is a fun game. In my first game, I was eliminated before my first turn, and in just over half the rounds I have played, I have been knocked out before my second turn. In most games, I would not tolerate that degree of lack of player control, but the game creates a low level of investment in each round of play that makes it acceptable.

Hands of Love Letter are quick. A full four-player round takes a few minutes at most. If you are knocked out, oh well, watch how this round goes and you will be back in the game shortly. Sometimes not having a fair chance is fine when you get lots of chances that come quickly; slot machines rely on that perception (although those never give you a fair chance, so the whole gameplay there is “slowly losing” with some steps backwards on the path to bankruptcy).

In Love Letter, poor luck is constrained rather than cumulative. Many games give you many chances, but if you get a bad start, you will never catch up. Lots of classic card games like Poker are very good at this: unless you are playing no-limit, your luck in one hand has almost no effect on your chances in the next hand. How many “strategy” games have you seen decided (90+% probability) in the first quarter of the game when one person has an amazing turn while another has the worst possible luck for 15 seconds?

The cumulative effect is not making you suffer through the rest of the game because of a bad bit of luck. You should never “suffer through” your entertainment. I am usually enthusiastic about Eurogames’ rarely knocking out players before the end, but if the outcome is (90+%) known and you are just going through the motions for another hour, that is a wasted hour. Finish it so we can play another game. Keeping everyone in until the end is only a virtue if they have a chance at the end; surrender in the face of certain loss is honorable, not rage quitting.

And finally, Love Letter advertises that luck and guessing are involved. It does not pretend to be a strategy game while having its outcome determined by luck of the draw. It is surprising how much players can control the outcome despite the luck of the draw.

: Zubon

[TT] Love Letter

Love letter is another simple bluffing game, with a little less to offer than Coup but with greater simplicity and a more pleasant theme.

You are trying to get your love letter to the princess. The deck of 16 cards represents 8 roles around the castle, with higher numbers being closer to the princess. You get 1 card to start. Your gameplay each round is to draw 1 card, discard 1 card, and do whatever it says on the card you discarded. Whoever has the highest value card at the end (or is the last suitor standing) wins the round.

It really does not get much simpler than “draw 1, discard 1.” Depth comes from bluffing and guessing. For example, one card is the princess; if you discard it, you are out of the hand (the princess has burned your love letter). There is no reason to discard the princess … except that someone else might guess that you have the princess and force you to. The next most valuable card is her closest friend, who you must discard if you have a card close to it in value, such as the princess (or else you lose the hand) or the king (who is #3 in value anyway) … or you might discard her and hold onto a lower-value card to potentially set up a better position for the final card.

It is a lovely little game you can learn in less than a minute. “Draw one, discard one, try to have the highest number at the end. Everything else is on the cards, and there are only 8 different cards.” And go. Elegance in design.

: Zubon

[TT] Coup

Coup is a wonderfully simple and deep bluffing game. The rules you need to explain can fit on one side of a card; a reference sheet fits neatly on the other side, and the cards themselves have all the text you need.

Everyone gets two cards. If you run out of cards, you are out of the game. There are three actions anyone can take (take $1 from the bank, take $2 from the bank, pay $7 to make someone discard). What other actions you can take depend on the cards you claim to have in your hand. For example, the Duke can take $3 from the bank and can block anyone from taking $2 from the bank. The Assassin can make anyone discard for $3, but the Contessa blocks assassination. The other cards are the Captain and the Ambassador, which deal with stealing money, blocking theft, and trading cards. The deck has a few copies of each, depending on how many players you have.

Complexity arises because it is a bluffing game. Your hand is hidden. “I am the Duke, and I am taking $3.” You can challenge that claim. If you are right, I must discard one of my cards; if you are wrong, you must discard (and I get a new card in place of the Duke).

Not a lot of rules. LOTS of depth in terms of gameplay. It’s a simple game with 5 different cards, and my friends tell stories about showdowns and the levels of reverse psychology and game theory involved.

For this year’s Gen Con, we added a new card from an expansion, which was an interesting bit of spice. There are lots of variations on the game, but you get a surprising lot out of a few copies of five cards.

: Zubon

[TT] Dumb Fun: Poop

As the evening wore on at Gen Con, friends brought out a “dumb fun” game. It was a silly superhero game with lots of spirit and a chance to play as Heavy Metal Elephant. It also took more than a half hour to set up the board and explain most of the rules. That is well past my “dumb fun” threshold, and I have begun using a rule of thumb that a game with a book of rules (instead of a page) is a gamer game.

Another evening, someone brought out Poop. Poop qualifies as “dumb fun,” a game with a silly theme and rules that fit on a card. It plays like a simplified Uno. I doubt it will ever be one of The Great Games that You Must Play, but its owner was satisfied to have paid $5 for it. He got to play with Poop a few times, and the Poop box had several rule variants to explore in the future. He went back the next day to find expansion Poop.

It was not my favorite theme for a game, but the lads got to engage in puerile sound effects and had fun. I demand less of a game that I can learn in less than a minute and play in less than five.

: Zubon

Back next week to talk about simple and deep.

[TT] Tile Placement

I saw Monster Factory at Gen Con and was immediately reminded of Starbase Jeff from Cheapass Games. Both are tile placement games with two types of “fittings” where you try to complete stations/monsters to bank points. There are some differences in the details, but the mechanics are 90% the same. Carcassonne is broadly similar.

How much of gaming is that? Same core mechanic, same basic flow of play, but we are trying to find the perfect variation on the details that makes it pop, or maybe the same game with a different theme that we favor. And, you know? Sometimes that little difference does make a big difference. I love the mechanics of LOL but will never play DOTA or Newerth because they include a creep denial mechanic, and I find it fundamentally absurd to have a game encourage you to kill your own troops so that the enemy cannot.

So maybe those little differences in how you select or score tiles means a lot. We have generated an entire genre of deck building games in the last decade, and how many of them start with something very like 7 copper and 3 VP?

: Zubon

[TT] Random But Predictable

Randomness is rarely chaos. In games, randomness is a pick from a pool with known and computable probabilities.

Roughly 1/6 of the rolls in Settlers of Catan will be 7s that activate the robber. Roughly 5/36 of the rolls will be 6s and another 5/36 will be 8s, which is why they are the most sought numbers and why there is so much groaning when there are 5 6s in a row or when there are 0 8s for 15 minutes. Some players think that still leaves too much to chance, so you can buy dice decks, giving you the exact probability distribution over 36 turns rather than knowing it works out in the long run (but maybe not over the course of this game). Strategic play in Settlers involves both getting the best numbers possible and diversifying over numbers and tile types, to survive the swings of fortune.

Deck-building games are substantially about probability manipulation. In Dominion, you start with 10 cards, so you always know exactly what your second hand will be based on your first hand, and you can predict turns three and four based on the (usually) 12 cards you own after those first two turns. From there, the deck-building mechanic is about increasing the number of good hands you have by getting more good cards, fewer bad cards, or just more cards, or perhaps by exploiting higher averages or variability. There are strategies that depend on knowing what is left in your deck based on what you have played so far.

I have been pondering Dungeon Roll. When you roll a lot of dice, the possible extreme swings in luck are large, but you are increasingly likely to be around the center of the distribution. You may have a random pick of a dozen heroes with a random roll of seven white dice against a random roll of foes on each level of the dungeon, but that averages out to reaching level 5 safely, plus or minus one, plus or minus a dragon. You probably end a turn with 4 to 6 experience points and 2 to 4 treasures.

Because you get only three turns, conservative play is encouraged, which is an odd thing for a “push your luck” game. If you go one level deeper, you get 1 or 2 more points for succeeding and lose 4 or 5 for failing. That is a big asymmetry, and you lose the game if you lose one round unless it encourages your opponents to also push their luck a little further (by why would they with a 5-point lead in a game where 30 is a high score?). I have yet to see anyone push his/her luck and fail, because you can predict your odds (two white dice left, enemy rolls six black dice) and your potential benefits (marginal).

On the other hand, there is some variation, particularly within one turn, and that can lead to unfortunate swings you cannot do anything about. “Leveling up” is worth about 1 more point in each of your latter two turns, so if a bad roll means you do not get the 5xp to level up your first turn, you are down even further against your opponents. Sometimes the dice make your special abilities useless. In my first game, I was the knight, and who turns scrolls (low value) into champions (high value); I rolled 0 scrolls on my last two turns. You can expect to roll 0 scrolls in 28% of turns, which means that 63% of games will have at least one turn where that ability does nothing, and it will not be used at all in 2% of knights’ games. In three turns, randomness can dominate long run odds.

: Zubon