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Get Off My Lawn

I've become a grumpy old man when it comes to board games. I find most new games annoy me rather than give me pleasure. <P> In this blog, I'm going to explore what annoys me about games and tell them to "Get Off My Lawn". <P> <SIZE=3>These are not intended to be reviews.</SIZE> <P> Note - the opinions in this blog are Mine. Your tastes will vary.

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At least the pig in Artus gives me something to look at.

Scott Nicholson
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Hey there, kids!

It's been a while since I've had something to grouse about. You see, I realized something important when I was doing this blog.

If I avoided playing new games and only played games that I knew that I would enjoy, then I would have a better time.

I find that fewer than one out of ten new games that I play really give me a lot of pleasure. Those are pretty low odds. Instead, I know I have shelves full of games that I chose to not sell, and the chance is much better that I'll have a good time than one out of ten.

So, I've not been playing a lot of new games. I did play one the other week that got my blood a'boiling - Artus!

I can sum up the problem with this game quickly: You can't plan your turns.

I'm not a good tactician in games. I know this, so I tend to avoid games that require significant last-minute decision-making. I get pleasure in games when I can make longer-term strategies and then work on carrying those out, with small adjustments as time goes on.

If a game is tactical, I need time to think about what I'm doing. So, a game that has a game state that changes significantly, then offers a wide space of possible choices that you can't analyze until your turn comes up really gets my goat. And I like my goat.

Now, Artus is one example of games that do this - there are many games that have the same problem. Thurn and Taxis, for example, has this problem with the "flushing" mechanism. I'd like to flush that mechanism! This is also a frustration with Through the Ages, as the track of cards disappears so quickly that I don't feel I can plan very well until my turn comes around.

But Artus really bugged me as the game went on. See, there's this wheel-of-meaningless-points that the game centers around (with a pig on it). The wheel awards different amounts of points based upon how close you are sitting to the king (and on what side).



On your turn, you play 2 out of 6 cards, which can move individual pieces, can change who is the King, or can score points for your people. The frustration comes in that when the King moves or changes, the wheel spins, which can greatly change the effects of your cards. So, in many cases, I found myself at the start of the turn trying to re-figure out what combination of 2 cards would work the best because Mr. King Switcher before me just pulled a smarty-pants trick and flushed my plans down the toilet.

So, there I am, panicking and sweating while the other players glare onward, having given up trying to plan their turns as I'll surely do something that will cause havoc. In a panic, I grab randomish cards from my hand just to keep the game moving.

This is a feature I don't like in games. If you are a game designer and are going to have the game state change dramatically, then reduce the decision space so there is less to re-analyze when the world shifts, or make it so the world doesn't shift as dramatically.

If you choose to make a game like this one where I'm bored for 75% of the time as I can't do anything but look at the pointless pig, and panicked for 25% of the time, then that's not a fun play experience for me, and I'll be telling your game to Get Off My Lawn!

Now scram, kids. You all need a shower! And next time, don't bring a game. I've got enough good ones here.
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Sat Sep 17, 2011 1:27 am
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Tikal II doesn't Tikal me!

Scott Nicholson
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Tikal II - I'm calling you out!

Now, I'll start by saying that I did not like Tikal. It wasn't so much that I didn't like it, but I didn't like playing it with other people. It presented this wide open game space to explore and allowed you too many options at once. It would be like playing Go, and you got to place 5 stones per turn - just too many options and too much change between turns.

But I'm not here to grouse about that - that's a personal preference, and a story for another day.

I had avoided playing Tikal II as I was expecting another analysissy paralaysissy stare-fest. But, I saw that Tom Vasel did a video on it, so I took a look, and it seemed like something I would enjoy more. It had more narrative and, more importantly, a narrower decision-space for your turn.

I found that I enjoyed it! So, I actually plan on purchasing a copy of the game. So, this complaint is not about the game - it's about the name.

Making this game and calling it Tikal II would be like making Halo 2 a real-time strategy game or making The Godfather 2 a romantic comedy. If you are going to use a numbered sequel, the game needs to be quite similar in feel to the original game. Here's why. Adding a number to the end of a title does a few things:

1 - It draws the interest of people who loved the first game. In this case, this has backfired against the game as people who like the depth of the first game. So, the first flood of reviews were negative from people who rushed out to try it based upon love for the first game.

2 - It pushes people away who did not like the first game. That's what happened with me - I didn't look at it, as I didn't like the first game. So, it took some time for me to even glance at what the game was about.

3 - It is an AWFUL habit to get into, and I want to do what I can do to discourage this practice. One of the comments from the digital game industry about the board game industry is that it is very healthy in that we don't have as heavy a reliance upon fewer intellectual properties. I know, there are lots of Settlers and Carcassonnes and Tulipmanias, but it's nothing like the video game space.

From Wired.com:
Top 10 Games, March 2011

1. Pokemon White Version (NDS)
2. Pokemon Black Version (NDS)
3. Homefront (360, PS3, PC)
4. Dragon Age II (360, PS3, PC)
5. Call of Duty: Black Ops (360, PS3, NDS, Wii, PC)
6. Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (Wii, 360, NDS, PS3, 3DS, PSP, PC)
7. Crysis 2 (360, PS3, PC)
8. NBA 2K11 (360, PS3, PS2, Wii, PSP, PC)
9. MLB 11: The Show (PS3, PSP, PS2)
10. Fight Night Champion (360, PS3)

How many of these are rehashes of the same properties? Please.. let's not do that. My lawn isn't big enough.


Now, there have been several designers that have taken advantage of a license to create a game in the same world that doesn't have the same feels. The Settlers card game and Power Grid: Factory Manager are two examples from the designer game space, and if you wander through a mass market game shelf, you can see many Monopolies, Clues, Scrabbles, and Sorries.

So, Tikal II could have avoided my ire by naming itself more appropriately - something like The Temple of Tikal would have been a perfect name, assuming they wanted to keep the license in play.

So, I think you get the point. Tell designers and publishers that this is a Bad Idea and that we should avoid slapping numbers at the end of games (and just for the record, the name of the game I designed was just Tulipmania - no year on the end...I didn't like that addition, but it's up to the publisher).

Now I've got to go work on Threelipmania. Get outta here, you noisy kids!
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Tue May 3, 2011 5:28 pm
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Western Link? Should be the Missing Link.

Scott Nicholson
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Sometimes, I'm going to sit in my recliner, pipe in hand, and tell you about some game in the past that got tossed off my lawn.

Today is your lucky day, sonny, as I'm going to tell you a story about Railroad Tycoon.

Railroad Tycoon came out after Age of Steam and used a lot of the same elements. While Age of Steam was a harsh game that sent weaker men crying to their mommas, Railroad Tycoon was an easier game.

I was happy for this idea - I liked Age of Steam, but wanted a good ramping up experience to take people from Candyland to Ride up to something more challenging.

There were several complaints about things in Railroad Tycoon - there was a real problem between Blue and Purple (just like Tulipmania, dammit) and many folks didn't care for the random element that the cards introduced.

But for me, there was one stickler that sent this game away - The Golden Spike that connected East and West, known in this game as the Western Link.

One of my real pet peeves in a game is when the game has a certain level of complexity and detail in the ruleset, and then there's this one rule that ends up being much more complex than it needs to be. Most Martin Wallace games get tossed off my lawn for this problem - there's this nice system, and then some exception or complication that just doesn't fit with the rest.

And why lookie here, Martin Wallace is one of the designers of this game.

Overall, the game rules are easy to teach to people new to complex games. There's not a lot of moving parts, and it's easy to remember what you can do.

Then.. there's the Build Western Link. These are a series of rules related to one space on the board, and it's a space waaaaay on the other side of the world. When you are teaching this game to a new player, this set of rules really confuses what could have been a smooth teaching experience.

"Then there's this Western Link crap. If you build to Kansas City or Des Moines, then you have the ability to take a new action, pay $30,000, and put 4 red cubes there. Then the rules of the game change, but only for this Chicago space, in that whenever you deliver a cube to Chicago from this city, 2 random cubes show up in Chicago."

What? So, we introduce a new action, a new way for cubes to get on the board which has previously been unheard of, and baffle players in this game which was designed as a nice transition from a lighter game to a more complex game.

More importantly, from a design perspective, I ask.. "Why was this needed? What does this add to the game?" In most games I see of Railroad Tycoon, either nobody bothers with the Western Link, or some experienced player tries to make it work out and ends up flailing about.

If you don't tell new players about it, someone typically gets upset because you didn't explain all the rules, and so they give you lots of whine for your cheese. (If you don't like it, then read the rules for yourself, you lazy bastard.)

This massive speed bump in the game got it tossed off my lawn in a hurry.

I have to give credit to the sequel - Rails of Europe - which does not have any of these single-space complexities, so now is a game I use frequently to introduce new players to more complex train games. So, designers can be taught!

So, if you want to stay on my lawn, make sure that your rules are consistently complex. Don't make a game targeting newer players with rules complexities that you would expect to be proceeded by a number like 3.4.234.3. (Gee, can you tell I'm still trying to work through the rules to Republic of Rome?)

Now clear off, you kids. I've got better things to do!
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Thu Mar 24, 2011 1:07 pm
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Florenza - Get me my binoculars!

Scott Nicholson
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Florenza is a new worker placement game reminiscent of Caylus. Each player builds their own workshops to produce resources and places workers on any workshop on the board to get the benefit, paying other players to use their workshop.

There's a lot of layers of chrome to the game about creating art, hiring artists, becoming the Captain of the People or the Bishop, but at the core of everything, you put workers on workshops to get resources.

Let's look at one of these workshops:



This is fairly typical for game design (and frustrating) - a big picture, while the important things about the piece are in the corners, shrunken down. I don't understand why publishers do this - the information needed to play the game is what should be prominent, not the background artwork! Many games have been tossed off my lawn for this problem.

But, now it's important to understand the scale of the piece. Here is my pinky:


The nail of my pinky is larger than the most important information on the tile - what it produces.

That would be just fine if you only had to worry about your own workshops. When you look down upon the tiles, you can see what your tiles produce:


The problem is that you can use anyone's workshop, which means you are looking across the table to see what your opponents have on the pinky-nail-sized corner of their pieces:


which means you are usually either getting up from your chair to get a better view or just asking, "Does anyone have a way to produce one brown resource?"

The additional problem is that the order in which these workshops are processed can matter, as you may need the resources from the workshop on player 3's board in slot 2 to help you turn those resources into money on
player 1's board in slot 6.



As you might guess, it can be overwhelming, and it really drags the game down, trying to track which resources are produced where, in what slot, and if someone else has already gone there. As getting resources is at the core of the game, this is a constant problem.

The way Caylus handles this is to put everyone's workshops onto a central board, so that you can all see what is produced and in what order. In this game, the order of production changes each turn, so it adds another level of complexity.

This is a case where the user interface of the design creates a barrier to playing this game.


There is another user interface issue to discuss: the reference card.


This card lists all of the workshops that players can build, and when you show it to a new player, they are overwhelmed!

The buildings are listed in alphabetical order by their Italian names. There are so many other elements that would be been more useful to order and group these buildings in - why did they choose an alphabetical order that is not useful in making decisions?

The reality is that most buildings do one of two things - produce one/two resources, or allow you to sell one/two resources for money. There are a few exceptions: three buildings give you workers and income, and two buildings allow you to get different kinds of points. That information is in the far-right column of the reference card.

My problem in this case is the same as with the tile - usability. If the buildings had been sorted by what they produce, this reference guide would have made much more immediate sense to players, and would have made it easier to make decisions as to what to build. Instead, it's a layer of frustration as players try to figure out what building they need to build to see if they can make white cubes, then cross-refernece it with the number, then check the pile of buildings to see if the building they want is still available.

As with all Get Off My Lawn articles, I'm not reviewing the whole game. Instead, I'm focusing on aspects that were frustrating to me to the point that I don't want to play the game again. Florenza's usability frustrations make it a game that I don't want to play again. There are other worker games that allow me to have similar play experiences that don't have these added levels of frustration.

Now get off my lawn, you noisy kids! I need a nap.
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Sat Mar 5, 2011 9:08 pm
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Cargo Noir - Too many players sink this ship

Scott Nicholson
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I've played Cargo Noir twice now - once with two others who weren't gamers, and once with four others who were gamers.

With a group of three non-gamers, it was a pleasant 30-minute exploration of set collection and bidding. It introduced these new players to the concepts of these mechanisms, and was a nice way to spend time together.

With a group of five, all of whom were gamers, it was a frustrating hour to take us to slightly more than the halfway point until cries of "enough" stopped the game.

I should have suspected something when the playtime on the box read 30-90 minutes. Whenever I see this, it means that there will be great variability due to some game factor, and in this case, it was the number of players.

Here is the underlying problem with the game. Rather than use our modern design methods of breaking up a turn so that everyone can be involved more frequently, this game has each player taking a series of actions before the next player does anything.

In addition, the board situation changes rapidly, so it is difficult for a player to plan out a turn. Players are collecting sets of tiles, and have to do some mathematics about different ways to combine sets of tiles, but they don't know what sets they will get until their turn begins...and then have to do the math while everyone else stares at the player.

With only three players, turns came around quickly, as you were the active player 33% of the time. As there weren't as many players involved, the world didn't change as dramatically, so players could do a little more planning between turns.

With five players, turns took much more time, and you were the active player only 20% of the time. The world changed more between turns, so turns took longer.

Now, a complicating factor was that the non-gamers tended to play more quickly without worrying about maximizing every play. More serious gamers played more slowly, which slowed the game down even more.

The game is not that deep - while the production is beautiful and detailed, the depth of the game is more of a light set collection game. That is fine for a 30-minute experience, but after that, the game overstays its welcome as it drags on toward the 90-minute mark. For Sale and High Society are great games for a 30-minute playtime, but if they ran over that, many people would get frustrated.

The problem: As with all new games, when this game comes out at game night, everyone will want to try it, so will play at the 5-player maximum, Players will quickly find themselves bored for 80% of the game as they can't really plan, and then will feel under pressure to deal with the new situation on their turn.

This points to several design problems. It should have been capped at 4 players to reduce both the percentage of time you sat out of the time and the amount that the game changes between turns. Players should have been given something to do during their turn so they didn't feel completely idle until their turn came around, or the actions in the turn could have been broken up so that players were involved more frequently. I think it's a better match for non-gamers in general; serious board gamers have already played this game in different and shorter forms.

This is a problem that many games have - just because they can handle 5 or 6 players doesn't make it an enjoyable experience. I'm looking at you, Tales of the Arabian Nights!

My Advice:
If you have 5 people that want to play Cargo Noir, play it twice in three-person groups, having one person stick around to teach it the second time. It will be a much more enjoyable experience for all.


Stay off my lawn, you noisy kids!
Grumpy Old Man Nicholson
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Fri Feb 25, 2011 4:31 pm
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Luna - Doing random things for points

Scott Nicholson
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Welcome to "Get Off My Lawn," a blog where I talk about things that bother me in modern board games. In each post, I'm going to highlight something in a board game that bothers me.

I'm not saying any of these games are bad, but there is some mechanism that I find problematic. I've become a picky old grumpy gamer, so am going to let it out here. These aren't designed as reviews, as I don't plan on presenting everything about a game. Instead, I'm just going to highlight something about a game I found bothersome.

Today, I'm going to grouse about Luna. In this game, you have a number of workers who run around doing random things each turn, and some of these random things are worth points.

Let's look at the player aid card:


The middle column and the right column are all of the things you can do during a turn. Each one is different, and most involve moving meeples around the boards in different ways.



Most of the movement is around the islands. Each island has a picture of a different resource chip, and you can throw your guys into the water to get one. These chips represent.. well, I'm not really sure. A few of them make sense - Herbs, for example, which you can then smoke to crawl back out of the water and do something else. From a game perspective, they represent different sorts of actions you can take. You can also jump in the water to have sex and made more meeples - I guess water births are pretty popular.

Then you can move guys around to get different magical chips, or you can teleport them into the temple, which for some bizarre reason requires you to stand in line behind a guard that matches the magical chip that your island produces. Maybe it's like a queue in Disney, where you have to stand on the correct colored dot based upon where you were in line.

From the queue, you can stand in a specific spot in the temple that matches your queued spot, but if someone comes along later, you are kicked out.. unless you have a book. What?

You can also give a magical building chip to a builder on the islands who will then build one of your buildings for you, or chase around a moonbabe for area control points. There's also a bad guy who will give you negative points, but if you jump in the water, you scare him away.

Anyway, you get the idea. There are a bunch of random things you do to score points in different ways. There's nothing that holds all of these things together. It just feels like we are sitting around pushing pieces at each other.

Luna represents the sort of eurogame I've grown very tired of - a lightly themed abstract where the actions players take just don't make any sense. It's not that it's unbalanced.. it's just I don't find myself being involved with what I'm doing. I just don't care, and this makes me mentally detached from the game and from the other players.

Five years ago, I would have loved this game, or at least appreciated it for its finely honed balance of interesting choices. Now, I find it boring, as I want to be able to get involved in my games. I want to be engaged with the other players through the game, and Luna doesn't do it for me. I have enough other games in my collection where you do random actions for points that I don't need to learn one more.

(note added after discussion - as you can see from the discussion, there is a backstory in the rulebook to help the players understand what is going on. I was taught the game at a convention, and no backstory was conveyed, and the story isn't conveyed through gameplay. Therefore, you might have a different game experience if you are able to learn the backstory before playing.)
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Thu Feb 24, 2011 12:51 pm
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