[TT] Necessary Complexity?

I have an oft-stated fondness for elegant rules mechanics, which give rise to games that are easy to learn and have surprising depth. Checkers is more “simple” than elegant; chess is pretty elegant, because you know almost all the rules if you know how the pieces move. Settlers of Catan is elegant, a classic strategy game where most of the important information is contained in the little card that lists costs. Games that come with books of rules are rarely elegant.

The Awful Green Things from Outer Space is being re-released. In my youth, this seemed really awesome for its lack of elegance. Lots of little tokens! Different stats for the whole crew! Randomized weapon effects! Lines of sight and zones of control! Special rules for a dozen special circumstances! Extended rules for fighting outside the ship!

Basically, it is the sort of game that could work really well as a computer game, but for a tabletop game it is way more complicated than it is worth. As a young nerd, grasping that complexity was a game of its own, but I cannot recall ever getting anyone to play a full game with me. It just is not worth the time commitment to learn the rules to play maybe a few times and still need to check the rules every few minutes.

“More complicated than it is worth” does not mean “unnecessarily complicated.” I really do think all those details are important to the game. Not in the sense that you could not build a streamlined version, but rather that the developers made it for people like themselves, like that young nerd I was, for whom the complexity is a virtue. It is worth it for them, and I imagine they have a great time playing.

Once you have accepted that you want that much complexity, the game is surprisingly elegant in its retention and presentation of information. You can reference things like differing hit points and movement rates per unit and what each weapon does this game. And as the old joke would have it, the amazing thing is not whether the dog can do it well but that he can do it at all.

: Zubon

[TT] Smash Up

Smash Up calls itself a “shufflebuilding” game. The game consists of 20-card half-decks, each of which is a faction like aliens, pirates, tricksters, and zombies. Each player picks two, shuffles them together, then tries to capture bases and conquer the world as zombie pirates, alien tricksters, robot dinosaurs, or a similar smash up. Each faction has a mechanical theme, and the combination gives you your strategy for the game. Expansions add more factions like bear cavalry, giant ants, princesses, and time travelers.

Recommended. The game is fun on several levels.

The first is theme. The main selling point of Smash Up is that you can play as robotic werewolves, ninja plants, or steampunk cyborg apes. It is wacky, customizable fun. Small amounts of roleplaying and enthusiasm go a long way once your dinosaurs start eating leprechauns or your alien kittens start abducting ghostly wizards. There is some weakness here as imagination is required to make some things mesh. Fundamentally, they are still just two decks of cards shuffled together, so sometimes it feels more like zombies allied with princesses than like zombie princesses. Or like they’re just standing next to each other. In a perfect world, you would be playing Smash Up on a computer and the cards would really merge, with customized cards so that the minions would look different in their different combinations. That would be a lot of customized artwork, expanding geometrically with each expansion, unless there is a good way to do it procedurally.

Due to randomization, it is more of a tactical game than a strategic game, but it does that pretty well. There are always multiple factors in play, and you have several options to choose from. Decisions feel meaningful, and you get to make at least two decisions per round. The two-player game feels more strategic, the four-player game more chaotic. (You can play bigger games with expansions, but it slows down play and can drown your meaningful decisions in chaos.) The randomization is sufficiently constrained for me but high enough for casual play.

Reading balance debates online, there seems to be little consensus, which usually means “just about right.” Some factions will be better with different numbers of players; the power of dinosaurs or zombies seems stronger in the more stable two-player game, while the flexible pirates and ninjas can shine amidst four-player chaos.

There is a booklet of rules, but most of them fit on the backpage summary. That makes it a non-gamer game with enough depth for gamers. Good, that is the combination we want.

I have enjoyed playing with the base set and the Awesome Level 9000 expansion. My wife is really looking forward to when our Pretty Pretty Smash Up arrives with its expies of Disney Princesses and My Little Ponies. Princess dinosaurs, here we come!

: Zubon

[TT] Smash Up: Expansion Mechanics

Smash Up calls itself a “shufflebuilding” game. It consists of 20-card half-decks of factions like aliens, dinosaurs, pirates, and zombies; pick two, shuffle them together, and now your alien dinosaurs are squaring off against zombie pirates. It’s fun and I’ll probably review it later.

The base game comes with eight factions, and each expansion adds four. Each expansion can be played as a standalone two-player game, and any pair of them is a four-player game just like the original. Each of them is another set of options to add to any other set of options. Its modularity supports players in deciding what range of options they want to play with (and pay for).

That same modularity means there is value in duplicate sets. It does not help to have a second set of the same Dominion cards or another Settlers board unless you want to play two games at once. In Smash Up, you can combine the base set with itself or expansions with themselves so that your four corners might be alien dinosaurs, alien zombies, zombie pirates, and dinosaur pirates. Choices are exclusive only to the extent that cards are limited. Again: more potential options and, on the business side, more options players can usefully pay for.

: Zubon

[TT] Deus: Stacking

I played my first game of Deus this weekend. It has one elegant mechanic I’d like to discuss.

You have five types of buildings in Deus (plus temples, which are irrelevant for today’s topic). You build them by playing (and paying for) a card. You place your building, put the card in the appropriate column on your board, and (here is the interesting part) activate every card in that column, in order from oldest to newest. When you build your first production building, you get one production effect, and then the same effect triggers every time you build another production building.

That simple mechanic drives a lot of the action in the game. Because you can have only five buildings of the same type, that is both a snowball and catch-up mechanic. On the snowball side, someone with a good start can quickly capitalize on one good building to get several good effects. Specialization pays off. On the catch-up side, after you complete that tower of cards, it is done. You have placed your five buildings of that type, and you can no longer capitalize. Also, building temples (late game victory points) requires having cards in every column, so a certain amount of diversity is both incentivized by temples and required by the piece limit.

: Zubon

[TT] Kayak Chaos

Kayak Chaos is a card and board game about racing down a river. The river unfolds over the course of play as kayaks reach the next segment. Cards let you move down or across the river or alter its course. A mix of strategy and randomization that seemed subject to a runaway leader effect, also with risks of kingmaker scenarios and piling on early leaders.

Gameplay is simple: play 3 of your 5 cards. Cards can provide movement, alter the river, or block altering the river (rarer). Movement is obviously valuable for getting ahead. Altering the river can make your course easier or impede your rivals. For example, you could shift the river over one space, which re-positions rocks or makes someone need to swerve to avoid the river bank, or you could flip a segment of the river to turn someone around. You can even switch two segments or river, pulling back a rival, leapfrogging ahead, or both.

Each of several boards is a short stretch of the river. Boards are revealed as a player gets past the current stretch of river, with that player picking how the new stretch is placed (from four options). This is the source of the runaway leader effect: once you are in the lead, you get free chances to arrange the rest of the board to your advantage. Of course, everyone gets those cards to rearrange the board, so if someone decides to slow you down rather than advancing themselves, an early leader might be severely punished and thrown back; my first game was a three-player game, so using your scarce turns to slow an opponent means not advancing yourself, and the third player clearly comes out ahead in that scenario. Perhaps this works out better with two or four players? With two, you capture all the benefits of slowing your opponent; with four, you can spread the costs. That dynamic is also the source of the kingmaker scenario, where a player left behind with no chance of winning can focus on making life easier or harder for other players.

Playing (or discarding) 3 of 5 cards in your hand each round means that there will be some interesting decisions but that luck drives a lot of the game. It seems somewhere around the balance between my demand for strategic play and others’ love of randomization, but it is also subject to swings like when I received one forward movement card out of ten cards, while at other times I could sweep through multiple boards in a turn due to favorable randomization. It might also fall into a middle that makes no one happy; I would need more games played to tell.

Basic rules are simple, but there are some complexities and interactions so this might be at the edge of what a casual player is willing to learn for a quick kayaking game. Also not quite as quick if a lot of people spend effort slowing down the leader, but game length can be customized by playing with a shorter river. Enjoyable with surprising depth for a game that looks so simple, but not so deep that a new player is lost or even notices much depth.

: Zubon

[TT] Pack & Stack

Pack & Stack is a game of loading trucks. Every round, you get a random assortment of boxes in different sizes, pick a truck from a random set flipped over, and try to get everything on the truck with as little empty space as possible. You lose points from an initial pool for unpacked boxes and empty space; highest score when someone counts down to 0 wins. The game makes good use of components and simultaneous play, has minimal interactivity, and is strongly subject to randomization. Potentially good for younger players or people who like luck-based games.

The components are good: boxes of five different sizes of colors, dice of corresponding colors with unusual numbers of pips per side, and solid truck boards. In many games, I go with the old idea of having a set of good components to use with many games, rather than whatever cheap pawns, money, etc. come with this box to justify its cost. (I have been using these coins for Seven Wonders, although I think I will be switching all my games’ money to Tech’s new coins.) The components here are essential to the game, well conceived, and of good quality.

Pack & Stack encourages simultaneous play, and if it had more dice, everything could be done simultaneously. You each roll to get your packages one at a time, then all flip trucks simultaneously, then all pack trucks simultaneously, and you can also score losses simultaneously if you trust everyone’s math and honesty. The only interactivity is the dash for trucks, and even then nothing is contested unless two players rolled similar stacks of boxes. Contrast games with no interaction that still officially have everyone acting in play order, or Seven Wonders with simultaneous play and some interaction.

Pack & Stack is mostly a luck-based game. Assuming that you have basic spatial relations skills and can perform single-digit arithmetic, you have all the skills needed for mastery, which you will achieve within five minutes. The one meaningful decision you make each round is which truck to pick, and unless the perfect truck is randomly available, your decision is arithmetic plus least bad choice. If you are on board with my contention that interesting decisions are the fun of gaming, this is not for you. If you like slot machines, this will be an exciting step up in your gaming; you even start with a pool of points and try to be the furthest from zero at the end, so it is like sitting next to your friends at the slots, pulling the bar to see how much you lose this time, and continuing until someone runs out of money and you leave. But you get to arrange little boxes on a truck, which is somewhat more fun than watching the game play itself.

Obviously not something I’m going to play again, but it has a few good uses of rules and could be attractive to some audiences. Its rules fit on a page, not in a book, and the game is not language-dependent, hence my thinking “good for kids?” (old enough not to try to swallow Legos).

: Zubon

[TT] Talisman

I mentioned Talisman: Prologue over the weekend. So, what about Talisman itself? It’s a random number generator overlaid with a fantasy game skin.

The flavor of Talisman is right: fantasy adventure, many classes and options, slaying monsters, gaining treasure and followers. In practice, you’re getting a random walk through all of that, where the importance of any decisions you make is vastly dwarfed by the randomness of deck and dice. You might get killed by the strongest creatures in the deck in your first turns, find half the weakest monsters an hour into the game, or perfectly replicate the hero’s journey. You’re basically along for the ride, without the opportunity to play through a story like Betrayal at House on the Hill. The ride can be fun at times, but it is pretty clearly a ride; you are not driving. You roll a die, and then the most important decision you make most turns is, “Do I move right or left?”

Potentially good for younger players or people who enjoy long games but not strategy or decision-making, something you can talk around, hoot and holler when the dice go your way, and blame the dice when they don’t. I find it time-consuming and unsatisfying, something I can neither play with serious gamers (who tend to care if their decisions matter) nor casual gamers (who tend not to play multi-hour games that require dozens of pieces). Board Game Geek lists this as a 90-minute game, and maybe it is with two experienced players; I usually see it cited around 4 hours. Talisman is remarkably newbie-friendly, what with the lack of decisions to make. You can teach someone to play in less than 5 minutes, less than 30 seconds if you want to explain four stats and set them loose.

: Zubon

I really want to like Talisman, but my reaction is more, “This?! This is a foundational work of fantasy and board gaming?”

Mechanics, Flavor Text, and Warmongering

In Seven Wonders, the blue cards are civic structures like aqueducts and temples. They do nothing during the game but are worth victory points at the end, like victory point cards in Dominion. The red cards are military structures. At the end of each era, players compare how many “shields” of military power they and their neighbors have, and victory points are awarded accordingly (simulating battles). You see the same dynamic that you see in Civilization, where aggressive players go for red cards and compete, while others hoard blue and green (science) cards in self-contained path.

You can build a functionally identical system but change player behavior by changing the flavor text. Keep the mechanics the same but flip the names: that barracks is now a theater that produces “scrolls,” and at the end of each era players compare how much cultural influence they and their neighbors have, and victory points are awarded accordingly (simulating immigration). The former civic structure cards now all have military names, and military prowess does nothing during the game but is worth victory points at the end (which is just as coherent as having aqueducts and courthouses do nothing during the game while they could be given a mechanic showing that they promote health and justice). Better yet, let’s do a three-way trade: now science works like the civics cards did (points per scientific discovery at the end of the game) but the military works like science did; the symbols are now archery, infantry, and cavalry, and you get points for either or both of having one really strong or a complete set of combined forces.

In all those cases, the mechanics are identical. We are just changing names and colors on the cards. But I’m willing to bet that warmongers will still accumulate legions of infantry in that last example, while more peaceful players like me will gleefully compete with their neighbors culturally. It is what I loved about Civilization IV: using cultural imperialism to have enemy cities riot until they could join my empire. You can see the same thing in modded games: take the necromancer, have it summon unicorns and rainbow friendship friends instead of ghosts and demonic worms, and suddenly you have a whole new class that appeals to a different demographic. Tanto Cuore is Dominion re-skinned as a game about Japanese maids, which made it an instant must-buy for one of my friends but drove away other friends who are happy to play Dominion.

: Zubon

Strategy in the Smallest Things

Do you ever lose track of which units/buildings/whatever in the game are yours? Lately, I have gotten into the habit of intentionally picking the least desired color so that there is less cognitive load from trying to remember which color I have this time. My friends argue over who gets red or black this game, but no one fights me for these Cheetos-orange pieces. Bonus points if you get your own set of meeples and use those for board games so yours are always distinct.

: Zubon