Game Length

Knowing how long a game lasts dramatically affects your strategy and investment. I was thinking about this in the context of the first time you play a board game with win conditions rather than a fixed number of turns, but it applies broadly across games, and now that I think of it even more broadly across how much of yourself you are willing to invest in anything based on how much future you think it has. But back to the game context.

Some games have a fixed duration, in terms of time or turns. You can watch the clock count down in a football game. In many Eurogames, the winner is whoever has the top score after X rounds; you will have exactly X rounds every game.

Some games have win conditions. Reaching those sooner can be a powerful strategy. Your first time(s) playing, you do not know how long a game typically lasts, so you play at a non-apparent disadvantage because you do not know when to pivot from building up to cashing in.

My example of the weekend was my first game of Dinosaur Island, which is fun. One player at our table had played before, and he had a runaway victory, cashing in on objectives while the rest of us were building up for the endgame. We played the “medium” length game, and it lasted four rounds. Even the winner was surprised about that. It seems safe to say we would have played differently had we realized that investments had so little time to pay off.

I have generally favored games with win conditions over fixed numbers of turns, because the number always seemed too arbitrarily game-like. The game lasts three seasons because the game lasts three seasons. But it does have the advantage of putting everyone on even footing and letting you know in advance when the endgame is coming.

: Zubon

[TT] The 7th Continent First Impressions

The 7th Continent is “a solo or cooperative ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ exploration board game,” in which you play a cursed explorer returning to the eponymous continent. It is a game of exploration and survival. It is expensive and comes in a big box with 1000 cards. If you want to know more, you could look at the original Kickstarter campaign. I backed the expansion Kickstarter campaign after hearing good reviews of the original.

This is the first time I have ever sleeved a game. That seemed like a good idea for a game that is expensive and not found in stores. In retrospect, that was probably overkill; sleeving the commonly used cards (a few hundred) makes more sense, although this provides protection against beverages and casual damage. As I mentioned, this is not as easy to replace as a set of Dominion cards. Even more than just seeing the stacks of cards, you get a sense of how many cards 962 really is when you sleeve every one of them.

My first impression while playing was “why is this not a computer game?” The mechanics are something that computers do well. The “choose your own adventure” approach is something known well in computer games, a solved problem. Making it a game rather than a “choose your own adventure” book adds gameplay mechanics, but replicating that with cards is unnecessarily complicated. It is really neat, but it seems like an expensive luxury. It is an $80 board game that could be a $20 computer game. The way that the cards work is neat, but doing this with cards seems like a lot of effort just to do it with cards. And I love me some cards, but I also like offloading mechanics on computers.

The mechanics really are not that complicated. But your first playthrough has that effect where you check the rules more or less every turn, which slows things to a crawl. Every terrain card has multiple things going on, and some of those “things” also have several things going on, so it takes an hour for a new player to explore the first island even though it is very small. You feel like you have gone through a lot, and you also feel like you have played through four cards in an hour.

My other big impression is that the game has limited replayability because of the exploration factor. Like going through a deterministic computer game or a real “choose your own adventure” book, once you have gone through it, you have gone through it. Card 10 will still be card 10 if you play again. There will be differences based on other cards that randomize and which skills and items you have available, so your path will differ, but once you have seen something you have seen it. If you have a good memory, you are following the path from before, using physical cards for the equivalent of “click everything once to see what happens,” minus skipping purely negative things from your previous run(s). Most things I have encountered so far could be variably good, but a few are just unambiguously bad, and the only variation is how badly you are hurt for checking all the options on a card. Something feels wrong about going through a game and just knowing “that’s a trap, avoid it entirely,” although the game is almost certainly balanced around a bit of that expectation.

That presents a different question of longevity and replayability. When it takes multiple hours to play the game (5-12 for a first playthrough? I haven’t logged that many hours yet), and there is a permadeath mechanic, some of the longevity comes from failing and starting those hours over. I am not saying that the game should be a cakewalk with a guaranteed victory your first time through, but there may be grumbling about “thanks for playing for six hours, everyone dies, want to play again?” And if that is how you get 20 hours of play from the first curse, because it took you a few tries, that’s … suboptimal, especially if the early game is known and the first hour is just going through the motions and seeing what items you have this time. Plus spoilers you have in your head or on the team.

So far, not a great return on investment in terms of gameplay. It has been okay but clunky doing all of this with cards, combined with an aura of doom because you don’t expect to win your first time out. The journey had better be worth it considering the time and cost involved. The game and word of mouth suggest that I should keep going, see how the first playthrough goes as I get closer to the end and get quicker with the rules, and write up some second impressions. Not yet impressed.

The game has a save state “just like in a video game” that lets you pause between play sessions, because few people play for 5-12 hours at a time. I paused at a point where that looks exploitable, so I can keep refreshing a fishing card to refill my action deck. The game mechanics seem to encourage this, while the spirit of the game seems to push against it. I perhaps should not be happy that I was attacked by a bear while fishing, but it was really helpful because bears have a lot of meat.

: Zubon

Correcting Errors

I have previously mentioned tabletop games’ publishers and their eagerness to help their customers and fellow gamers, even at cost to themselves. Today’s example comes from Serious Poulp, publishers of Kickstarter smash The 7th Continent. Production inconsistencies led to some cards having a different shade on their back (effectively marking the curse cards in the deck) and some being cut up to 1mm differently in size. Neither is a huge difference, but gamers notice these things, as you might if you spent more than $200 on a card game. Their response:

After a lot of consideration and discussion we have taken the decision, in coordination with Panda, to reprint ALL the cards for the “second edition” core box as well as for the upgrade packs provided to Veteran backers.

So yeah, here’s another copy of that $80 game you bought, because the first one had some cosmetic flaws.

: Zubon

538 on BGG

I had somehow not noticed that fivethirtyeight.com (the site founded on political poll analysis, now expanded into sports, general news, and lots of politics) does occasional articles on board games. Being a data-driven site, they of course love boardgamegeek.com, which provides lots of data in terms of player ratings and logged play. I love data and board games.

The article of the day is about Gloomhaven, which has been atop the BGG rankings for a while as a very dense, rich game with heavy RPG elements. I have been tempted to play but would need a more dedicated, consistent group. Also, it’s $200, which is not a dealbreaker for me, but I want to get some play from that.

You can see past articles from when Twilight Struggle was #1 or on the worst board games.

As we have said elsewhere, ratings are not so much important as finding a rater whose ratings usually line up with yours. I don’t now if Kurt Loder is the best movie reviewer out there, but his ratings seem closest to mine since Roger Ebert died. BGG is full of people who have ratings globally similar to mine: serious gamers who do not like games determined primarily by chance. I am sure that I could argue with ratings all over the place, but it would be plus or minus two points. No one worth taking seriously is going to argue that Monopoly is a good game. (Monopoly was literally designed to be a horrible experience.)

: Zubon

Opinions Sought: Current Kickstarter Projects

[Update: after consideration and discussion with folks who responded outside comments, I am not backing any of these. This falls under the same rubric as not pre-ordering games without great confidence in them, along with the tabletop equivalent of “wait for a Steam sale.” The attractions of the deluxe game at full price are not great, and there is nothing exclusive to be lost by waiting. Still, please do back anything you’re really excited about, although don’t kid yourself that any of these would not have been printed without that support.]

I am interested in hearing from folks who have looked at/into the following projects, because I am considering backing but indecisive about getting yet another tabletop game without having played first. I have a mixed record of that on Kickstarter, with some gems acquired early and cheap, others that I have had trouble giving away.

Dice Settlers looks like an interesting mashup of mechanics with custom dice, empire building, and technology unlocks. The basic mechanic of the game is a bag of dice that you acquire over the game (deckbuilding), which you roll to determine your options for the round. You build the map as you “explore.” Lots of variation, several interesting mechanics, but expensive due to the fancy custom components and potentially just a mess of “throw in everything” design. Or maybe it works perfectly. [RULES LINK]

Edge of Darkness looks like a hella gamer game, although probably smaller than it looks when the components are in perspective. Still, just that box looks threateningly huge. There is a lot going on there with card-building (insert sleeves to change cards over time), group deckbuilding, variable locations, and worker placement. I like most of those, but it seems like there is a lot going on here and I have not digested it all. I haven’t even read all of this one, I am just taken by the apparent scope of it. [RULES LINK]

Sorcerer City is the other game I had looked at recently, but if I never played Carcassone that much, I cannot see me playing Carcassone plus Dominion plus whatever.

My recurring theme here seems to be that these games are tossing together a lot of mechanics, and I am not sure if that is exciting or a mess. Your thoughts?

: Zubon

“Language Independent”

I frequently see games try to minimize the use of text. This expands their market, internationally as well as across ages. I frequently see games do this badly.

You can see the reasons to do this. If your game is really intuitive (and of course it seems intuitive to you, you made it!), it should need minimal explanation. How often do you really check the manual (ha!) or help files, or go back to a tutorial? Some people are more visual than verbal, or they prefer what they can see at a glance to what they can read in detail. For an international market, localization is easier if there is little to nothing to translate. You see this outside games too; witness the action blockbusters targeting the overlap of the American and Chinese markets. Transformers translates better than Little Miss Sunshine.

Kingdom is an example of not explaining what is going on, then pretending that is intended difficulty or discovery rather than weak design. You can triple the playtime of your game by making players learn through trail and error, then make them lose for errors. Kingdom Builder and Hyperborea are games that try to replace all in-game text with icons. Some of those are clear, some of them are too similar to be clear, and some are completely incomprehensible unless you already know exactly what they are supposed to mean.

Language independence is good. Elegant designs frequently need little text to support them, and it is unfortunate if your board game needs a companion book of rules clarifications and explanations of edge cases. But you cannot just take the explanations out of your game and pretend it still works as intended.

I must also see this done well, but the better this is done, the more invisible it is. You notice more when the lack of text is incomprehensible, rather than transparent.

: Zubon

[TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

I was not enthusiastic about Ascension after a little while with it, but I have been exploring the expansions to the game, and it has grown on me. It is not exactly deep strategy, but it is a fun little game that does some interesting things.

The best suggestion I saw was to try most sets in pairs. Where most Dominion sets do pretty well all thrown together, Ascension favors having one or two sets of cards. The link there has a good guide to which mechanics pair well together. I tried throwing a bunch in at once, and the game just stops working. All of the interesting interactions and synergies stop working, because each set explores a different design space without much overlap. The unique mechanic in each set is not shared between sets, so mixing 4 or 5 just dilutes everything interesting. Continue reading [TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

[TT] Hardback

Hardback is a deckbuilding word game. Every card is a letter; to get their benefits, you must use them in a word. Earn cash to buy more letters, use ink to press your luck, and become the most prestigious author of your era.

The deckbuilding aspect is key to winning but feels minor in play. The “press your luck” and word game aspects take on greater prominence. Continue reading [TT] Hardback

[TT] Ascension

I have been trying the deckbuilding game Ascension on Steam. Good sale, and it includes a bunch of expansions, so it seemed like a very inexpensive way to try the game. I have not tried all the expansions to see what design space the game has explored, but the first couple sets seem pretty shallow.

The natural comparison is between Ascension and Dominion. Ascension is a much more tactical game, based on its use of an offer row of cards rather than a fixed set of kingdom cards. In Dominion, 10 stacks of kingdom cards are available for purchase each game, in addition to six stacks of standard cards. In Ascension, 6 cards from the the entire deck are available for purchase each turn, in addition to three stacks of standard cards. In Ascension, potentially any card in the game could appear any turn, but you never know in advance which cards will be available to purchase on your turn.

This makes Ascension more tactical, Dominion more strategic. in Dominion, you should sketch a plan for the game before the first turn. In Ascension, you have no idea what options will exist three turns from now. In a four-player game, your options each round are effectively random; BoardGameGeek recommends it is a two-player game.

Ascension has fewer attacks than Dominion. The game has less interaction between players. Defeating some monsters affects opponents, but most interaction is indirect, through buying or banishing cards from the center row when you expect other players to want them.

Ascension’s dual currencies are a great response to Dominion’s victory points. In Dominion, victory point cards do nothing in the early game and are the only things that matter in the endgame. During the game, they are completely uninteresting, just dead cards. That is a catchup mechanic, as a player with lots of victory points has a deck clogged with dead cards, but that is not exactly exciting. Dominion more or less immediately set out to alleviate that with new cards: victory point cards that do other things or interact with other cards, ways to earn points without cards, and ways to remove cards from your deck but keep their points. Ascension addresses that problem from the beginning because the main use of its second currency is to buy honor points by defeating monsters. Honor points are tracked by tokens, not cards. This gives you the same need to balance cash- and point-generating cards across the game, but you are not penalized for early honor nor is the late game slowed under the weight of dead cards.

Ascension is much easier in terms of setup. Dominion starts with picking, laying out, and learning a set of cards. Lots of reading, lots of time. Ascension flips over six cards and goes. In the physical game, shuffling the single huge stack of cards must be troublesome, more so if you want to mix expansions. That is a huge stack of cards, and you are going to get unmixed lumps.

The computer version is nice in that it alleviates that problem and takes care of the bookkeeping. The Steam version is an unambitious port from mobile, not even bothering to eliminate “swipe” from text. Use of activated construct abilities is clunky, because those cards are held mostly off-screen. It takes four clicks to view, activate, and dismiss the construct. In person, you just say you are drawing a card, maybe tap the construct to show that it is used. But the computer always remembers passive abilities like construct income. Similarly, the game will give you a warning if you try to finish a turn without taking all possible options, which keeps you from forgetting to kill cultists. It also keeps giving you that warning every time you decide not to buy a low-value card or use an ability that would require banishing one of your cards.

It is not a bad game. It is quicker and easier than Dominion, and it works better with two players whereas Dominion works better with four. Maybe the later expansions shore up its weak points without taking away the simplicitly that makes it attractive to players who do not want to strategize the whole game before it starts.

: Zubon

[TT] 10×10 Challenge 2018

New thing this year: more boardgames, particularly with my wife. After accumulating many games that I rarely get on the table because they require more people than I regularly have for local gaming, I have been paying attention to what I can play with two players.

This must be measured, because we must have metrics! And achievements! The 10×10 challenge is a straightforward idea: play 10 games 10 times each. We are going to do that together over the course of the year, so 2x10x10.

So far, we are at 2×10 (Lords of Waterdeep, Voyages of Marco Polo) + 1×5 (Hardback). That’s not bad for late February. Committing to spend time together is good.

: Zubon