On Gamer's Games

Wherein I Discuss Those Games Described As Gamer's Games

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The Long View Podcast

Jesse Dean
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has intiated a new podcast entitled the Long View. He has written a nice summary of the goal, which I will reproduce here:

Quote:

The Long View is a podcast that is designed to provide a critical and in depth look at a specific game each episode. The games we feature in our discussions will be more than just a few months old! Many will have been released in the past one to three years. New enough to not be old, but not old enough to have already been designated as classic or clunker.

There are a myriad of fine podcasts and reviewers that do an admirable job of giving a first look at new games that arrive on the scene. It is the hope of the host and guests that this podcast will answer the call for more critical and long term analysis of the games we all love to play. Therefore, the contributors to the podcast will be people who have a considerable amount of time and experience with the game being discussed in each episode. Through a question and answer format, and an open, unscripted dialogue, it is our hope that this podcast will offer something new and unique for listeners.


Our plan is to release one to two episodes per month. We hope you enjoy the podcast! Please post your questions, comments or feedback here on 2d6.org, our generous hosts, or join our guild on BoardGameGeek.com. Thanks for listening to The Long View!


I was not involved in the first episode, which is on Thunderstone, but Geoff has kindly asked me to co-host future episodes, and I have every intention of being actively involved in the podcast. The current plan is to have the next episode be on Mage Knight the Board Game, which I have played an obscene number of times, but future episodes are currently being discussed.

I am pretty excited about this project and I think it has a lot of potential. Hopefully some of you will tune in!
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Thu May 24, 2012 8:23 pm
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Kickstarter Considerations and Gamer's Games of Essen 2012

Jesse Dean
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Ground Floor
While I greatly enjoyed Homesteaders until I realized I was no longer interested in economic snowball games, and played it to the limits of my interest regardless of my overall appreciation for that style of game, most of the other games Tasty Minstrel have produced since then have either been completely outside of my area of interest or mild disappointments. Thus my interest in Ground Floor was initially pretty low. However, despite my poor brand association with Tasty Minstrel, there was enough factors indicated that this game might be one that I would potentially like that I finally say down and read the rules today. While I am still not completely certain that Ground Floor will work for me in the long run it was sufficient to cause me to back it with its Kickstarter campaign.

Ground Floor is thematically about the building of a business up from the implied ground floor up, with actual success being represented by expanding, and upgrading floor space. The mechanics seem to follow this theme pretty effectively, and I felt myself appreciating some of the cleverness involved in this thematic binding while reading through the rules. I also appreciated the cleverness of the mechanics themselves, there are quite a few clever little ways that the game forces the players to make trade-offs, and its methods of competition and ways you are incentivized to help your competitors. Beyond that the game is largely about managing the game’s five main currencies (time, money, information, popularity, and materials) in order to generate victory points. I do not consider this a bad thing per se, as some of my favorite games are about currency management, but there is not particular distinct about this aspect of the game beyond some interesting ways the currencies interact.

This lack of distinction in the currency interaction is perhaps my biggest long-term concern about the game. I tend to prefer my currency conversion games to be extremely expansive and the slightly smaller scale of Ground Floor compared to something like Ora et Labora or Agricola is something that might hurt its long term potential for me. Of course I am not hugely concerned with it, otherwise I would not be backing it, but that is probably going to be the main thing I keep an eye out for when I eventually play it in preparation for my inevitable review.

If you like medium to heavy euros that are focused largely on currency conversions, this game is worth checking out. If not, then stay far, far away. There is nothing for you here.

Road to Enlightenment
The other Kickstarter game I am considering, though I think I have talked myself out of supporting, is Road to Enlightenment. Road to Enlightenment despite its large expansive map of Europe appears to be well within the Special Power Card Game (SPCG) genre as the board merely provides a context for the card play that drives the game. Each card provides bonuses in a number of different categories, each of which is used to either resolve a particular type of contest or as an action resolution system. I do enjoy multi-function card games and the tension between deciding whether to use a card as part of an invasion, to generate income, or for its special power looks like it will be rather enjoyable.

In a given round, players are typically only able to choose between three actions: war, diplomacy, and deck management. The rules state that some cards provide additional action options but, the samples of these sorts of actions are unfortunately a bit thin right now, so it is difficult to accurately analyze how the deck composition will affect how the game plays. Battles are resolved by comparing the values of players combined war card values, applied money, and “enhancements” with the attacker using the difference between their value and the defenders to determine the number of dice rolled to allow for capture of a location. Diplomacy requires the use of political points and allows you to spend your cards in order to support other players in resolving battles. Deck management allows you to trim cards out of your deck permanently and added new cards to your deck. This is vaguely reminiscent of the sort of deck management seen in deck building games, but the only resource you spend is an action, and you do not know the specific cards that you will be adding to your deck, only the type.

There are two main reasons I am currently hesitant about kickstarting the game, and may wait until I get an opportunity to try the game out (probably at the WBC) before I make a purchase decision. The first is a vague level of unease about the two levels of randomness involved in the conquest of locations. First you have this costly contest to determine how many dice you will have an opportunity to roll, and then you have to make a successful and seemingly low odds, unless you bring overwhelming force, check in order to see if you actually take over the location. This does not seem wrong per se, I am sure there are very good balance reasons, but it seems to take away from the overall cleanness of the design to have to make a successful challenge in order to have a chance to make a check.

The second reason is the lack of an apparent arc. Based on the mechanical structure it appears that the sort of decisions you will be making will stay a bit constant over the course of the game, and while this may not be a problem for me in a SPCG that takes an hour, it is more problematic in a game that looks like it will take 3 hours. Now it is likely that this will be neatly resolved by the sort of politicking and direct interaction supported by the game, but my group has shown a disinclination to be involved in the heavy politicking that would be required to make this sort of thing work. Either the game fails spectacularly for us it just ends up being fairly mediocre as it just lacks the sort of spark that would be required for the game to be successful.

Neither of these items is enough for me to completely reject Road to Enlightenment. I am still quite curious about it, but it is sufficient that I think I am going to hold off from backing off the project. If your group is prone to games that encourage heavy negotiation, and particularly if you are interested in SPCGs, then this one is probably worth investigating.

Gamer’s Games of Essen 2012
Some of the first Essen 2012 lists are starting to appear, and with them are a number of games that are suitable for my Gamer’s Games of Essen 2012 list. I am tightening up my requirements for the list this year; if the last year has taught me anything it is that there are very few games in the under 90 minute mark that I have the patience for, so I am pushing it up from >60 minutes to >=90 minutes. I will probably also do some coverage of SPCGs and tactical miniature games, but will probably examine those primarily through my blog rather than from that Geeklist. I will continue to ignore team and cooperative games, but will attempt to play, if not, buy every single game on this list. I will be providing my thoughts on them as I read their rulebooks and play them, with blog entries and, if I play them enough, reviews.

These are my current thoughts, on these games, though most of them are pretty vague at this point, due to the lack of available rule books. Are there any Essen 2012 releases that fit the above criterion that I am missing from this list?

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
Interest Level: High
Play Time: Unknown (Predict it will be at least 90 minutes based on previous games)
Categorization: Worker Placement; Resource Conversion
Uwe Rosenberg has proven himself to be excellent at implementing older ideas in new and interesting ways, and I have high hopes that Agricola: The Cave Farmers will be another example of this skill. At the very least I am interested in seeing how he implements questing, but I expect there will be a lot here to like.
5/22/12: This one will not be making Essen 2012.


Archipelago
Interest Level: High
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Negotiation, Secret Objectives, Exploration
The designer has earned a bit of goodwill from me after the excellent job he did on Earth Reborn, but I admit I am uncertain how well the heavy negotiation element will work for my group. Hopefully the designer’s tendency to provide highly innovative games will make up for that.

Belgium 1831
Interest Level: Medium
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Area Control
The description implies that it might end up being another “Generic engine building game #1231234123” but once again there is enough possibility for them to do something interesting, depending on how much they use the foundation of a country to create a distinct mechanics and dynamics. The fact that I am travelling to Belgium in 2013 is also sharpening my interest to, and hopefully this will prove an effective means to create a richly thematic look at an interesting point in history.

Clash of Cultures
Interest Level: Low
Play Time: 180 minutes
Categorization: Civilization
I am not sure this is going to be sufficiently different from other civilization games I have played to actually overcome my general disappointment with the genre. That being said, it is in my primary area of interest, and I think I have played enough civilization games at this point that I should be able to talk about it intelligently, so I will try it out for sure even if my expectations are low.

CO₂
Interest Level: High
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Area Control
My appreciation for Vinhos has only grown as I have played an increasingly large number of “Let’s Put On A Show!” games, and what I have heard, and seen, of the rules of this game has left me very intrigued. My only real question is whether I will pay to get an early copy imported from Europe or if I will wait for the inevitable US release.

Dominare
Interest Level: Medium
Play Time: 120 Minutes
Categorization: Hand Management
I do not have a great deal of faith in AEG, though I have enjoyed Thunderstone Advance, and I do not understand the need to create a fantasy setting to make games that could easily have been sent in Renaissance Europe. However, the idea of being a puppet master in a conspiracy is appealing, and based on the general description there is some potential for this to be very interesting. Hopefully this shows the same level of polish seen in Thunderstone Advance, and this ends up be a brutal and effective game. It seems likely that the rules for this one will be up soon, and I expect to be diving into them pretty soon afterwards.

The Great Zimbabwe
Interest Level: Very High
Play Time: 150 minutes
Categorization: Economic
The description alone would almost certainly catch my attention, but the fact that it is a Splotter game, its theme, and the rather striking pictures of the prototype are all enough that this is my most anticipated game of 2012. As soon as it becomes available for order, I will be doing so.

Keyflower
Interest Level: High
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Worker Placement
After both my enjoyment of Key Market, and how much money I made when I sold it, there was little chance I was going to skip Keyflower. Early reports from gamers who are familiar with my tastes have indicated that this is a game that I would likely enjoy quite a bit. The combination of these things is enough to seal the deal, and I have pre-ordered this game.

Madeira
Interest Level: Medium
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Dice Rolling
While the fundamental concept looks pretty basic, there appears to be enough moving parts that I am intrigued by its potential. The game appears to be pretty expansive, and I suspect that my final impression of it will be based on a combination of how much this suggestion of expansiveness proves to be correct and the effectiveness of its mechanisms. I am concerned that the 90 minute play time will result in something that is excessively abstracted, but that will remain uncertain until we get the rulebook.

Massilia
Interest Level: Medium
Play Time: 90 Minutes
Categorization: Dice Rolling
Alain Epron’s Vanuatu was one of the best traditional “euros” released in 2011 which is enough for me to be interested in trying out Massilia. The actual description of the game looks pretty unexceptional, but I am hoping that there is something that distinguishes it.

The New Science
Interest Level: Medium
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Worker Placement
While the setting is not unique the theme is, and the designer’s other upcoming game, Road to Enlightenment, is interesting enough that this one definitely has my attention.


Sky Traders
Interest Level: Low
Play Time: 180 minutes
Categorization: Pick-up and deliver
I do not have any strong impressions of this one and have not really examined it extensively. It might be released prior to Essen 2012 (it may even be a Gen Con release), so it may be a game I examine in the time leading up to Essen 2012.

Suburbia
Interest Level: Low
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Tile Laying
Very little is known about this one, but I can see some potential for the tile laying aspect to be interesting. It could just as easily prove to be as uninteresting as I have found most other Bezier Games releases, but the involvement of Lookout is promising. Hopefully it is a sign that there is something special about the design.

Western Town
Interest Level: Medium
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization:
I am a backer of this one, mostly because it is in my area of interest and a local gentleman wanted a partner to reduce shipping costs. I have not looked at it much beyond that though, mostly because there is no need for me to make a decision about it. I am getting a copy, so further research is not currently necessary. This will change as Essen gets closer, and I add it to the games that I am providing covering.

Yedo
Interest Level: Low
Play Time: 120 minutes
Categorization: Unknown
The description of this one makes it sound like it is pretty firmly in the indirect interaction optimization game box, but I am an optimist and I hope that either I am wrong or that there is enough interesting things going on with the indirect interaction optimization to make it worth exploring.

Added on 5/22/12
Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant
Interest Level: Low
Play Time: 120 minutes
Categorization: Economic
Wallace has not produced a game that I was truly impressed by since 2007 (A Few Acres of Snow impressed me briefly before it crashed and burned), and Aeroplane has not given me any indication that it will be different. That being said, it does look like he is breaking into new territory with this one and the cool ideas in AFAOS may be an indication that this one might be interesting. So I will check it out.

Added on 5/25/12
Terra Mystica
Interest Level: High
Play Time: 100 minutes
Categorization: Area Control
The designers have an interesting pedigree, and the concept sounds really cool. I really like the idea of a constantly changing board structure, and how it seems that these changes are going to have a big impact on player capabilities and how they win. It sounds pretty ambitious and I am looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

Titans of Industry
Interest Level: None
Play Time: 90 minutes
Categorization: Worker Placement
I was completely unimpressed with my rules read of this one. While I do not demand extreme innovation in every game I play, I do insist on at least some incrimentalism or an interesting reimplementation. Unfortunately, Titans of Industry has none of that, and is essentially a bare bones resource conversion euro of the sort that are frequently decried by critics of the eurogame genre. I like resource conversion euros and I can not see very many situations where I would see this as worth purchasing an owning over the large number of other interesting resource conversion euros out there. It is overwhelming in its apparent blandness.
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Sat May 19, 2012 9:29 am
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Initial (and Final) Impressions of Abaddon

Jesse Dean
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I knew it was probably not going to work for me as I first read the rulebook. If I had been performing my due diligence I probably would have read the rulebook before I acquired the game, but since I do not have the driving force of Essen excitement to keep me focused on reading the rules, I admit I have been a bit lax about it lately, which probably explains my indifferent reaction to many of the games I have played recently. If it is a special powers card game, tactical miniatures game, or bigger, meatier game there is already a good chance that I am going to acquire it, and since Abaddon is a tactical miniatures game and has an at least moderately interesting theme I figured it would be worth checking out.

Of course I did feel some measure of uncertainty as the release date got closer. Tom Vasel on the Dice Tower stated that is was mostly a good game for playing pre-teens and I heard some rumblings that it was definitely one of the more simple games that Mr. Borg has produced. I almost pulled the trigger and cancelled the pre-order, but the enthusiasm of one gentleman in my group, he is a big fan of mechs, was enough to get me to reconsider. So I picked up my pre-order and we ended up playing the game on Sunday.

Abaddon is a game about battles between giant robots that uses a fight for resources on a distant planet as the pretext for having said battles. Now this is a reasonably cool concept, but it is used largely as window dressing as most scenarios end up being things like, “You have been ambushed! Escape!” This last of flavor is rather disappointing particularly compared to the historical context for Borg’s other games or even some of the completely ridiculous, though fun, fiction for games like Earth Reborn. The game play is most important, of course, but having context for the game play is something I typically look for in my tactical miniatures games, and its lack was slightly off-putting.



The game play was similarly disappointing. There are four different units, each of which is differentiated in their movement rate, combat die rolled, and hit points. Each turn a player rolls a scenario defined number of dice which have symbols corresponding to each of the types of units as well as a “command” face that works similar to a wild and a “weapon systems” face that lets you draw more cards. When activating a unit, you are able to move it based on its movement rate before choosing a target. At this point a targeting card is played by each player and a comparative die roll is made, with the winner doing a point of damage to the loser.

There is a little bit more to it than that, in the form of undifferentiated terrain, critical hits, and direct vs. indirect fire but on a whole it is rather bland and kind of boring. There is very little decision making too involved in using your units, and no ability to conduct forward planning of any kind. You are at the mercy of the dice, and while the same can be argued for games like Command & Colors: Ancients, at least those games involve a level of look ahead as to what you potentially could use in the future, even if what you can use is not what you want to use. The game is quick, with little downtime, but that is more due to the lack of real decisions to be made than anything else. Even when situations where the move to be made is not obvious, the decision is trivial enough to not be time consuming.

It is not often that I flat our regret purchasing a game, as usually there is something that is at least something that I find interesting about them or makes me wonder how I would jury rig things to make it more to my tastes, but Abaddon failed to provide me with even that level of enjoyment, as most of the things it does well I have seen before, mostly in the Command & Colors titles, and the things it does well are mostly in the implementation of the physical design. The way it tracks status conditions from critical hits and the transition from hit points to victory points is clever, but that alone is not enough to save the game.

I do think this game has a place for those who are completely new to tactical battle games or whom are likely to be playing this game with a pre-teen, but even for them I would recommend something like Summoner Wars over this. If you have any sort of familiarity with these sorts of games, or just prefer meatier games in general you can pretty safely skip it.
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Tue May 15, 2012 9:34 pm
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Special Power Card Games of 2011

Jesse Dean
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Introduction
2011 is widely considered to have been a great year for games. It has been particularly lauded, by fans of ameritrash (AT)*, for which it is arguably the best year since 2005, but what I found to be particularly exceptional about the year is how it is perhaps the best year yet for special power card games (SPCG) which, after years of releasing a relatively sparse selection of titles since they first began to regularly appear on to the board game scene in 2004, finally have about as many titles in the Top 20 ranked games of 2011** as there are Ameritrash titles and Eurogame titles.

This is the culmination of a gradual trend in the increase of the number of well received SPCG. While the historic roots of these games extend back to Magic the Gathering and earlier, the first modern game to begin to establish current trends was San Juan in 2004. 2005, with Glory to Rome, and 2006, with Through the Ages, also featured well-received games, but it was not until 2007, with Race For The Galaxy, and 2008, with Dominion, where SPCG really achieved some level of momentum and prominence.

In fact, it could be argued that much of the current momentum for SPCG can be attributed to Dominion, and while this is almost certainly true, with 5 of the 13 most well-received SPCG since 2008 being deck-building games, what we are seeing is a much broader push, with a large number of rather distinct designs. From my perspective, it seems that some of the most interesting, and perhaps innovative, games of the last two years have been SPCG, where eurogames and AT have not seen quite as much.

My investigation of the SPCG released in the last ten years has happened concurrently with my exploration of my dissatisfaction with most sub-90 minute games, and I suspect that a large part of my dissatisfaction stems from my enjoyment of these SPCG. These games typically provide a level of interplay variability and opportunity for creative play that many games in this time frame lack, and it has difficult to convince myself to play other games in this category unless, like Hansa Teutonica, they also feature some of these strengths.

I have played six of the top eight SPCG of 2011 enough that I feel that I can effectively present why I like them. The seventh, A Few Acres of Snow, I have only played once but I have studied enough that I think I can discuss what is particularly interesting about the design. The last one, The Lords of the Rings: Card Game I have also played only once, but I think what makes it particularly special is obvious, even to someone who has not played it extensively. If I am wrong about it, I am sure someone will let me know.

Mage Knight the Board Game

My selection of Mage Knight the Board Game as a SPCG might end up being mildly controversial, but its biggest emphasis is on deck and hand management, with the board being merely an expression of how the player uses their cards. I have played it 34 times to date, and if I have my way I will push that number up to 50 by the end of the year. It is perhaps the best game in a year of very good games, and is in the running for my favorite game of all time.

In most deck building games, players use their cards to generate one of several currencies and use those currencies in order to move towards achieving the victory conditions. Dominion has money for victory points; Thunderstone has money which buys cards and then attack power which is used to get victory points; Ascension has money for cards, which are worth victory points, and power to defeat monsters for victory points. Mage Knight also uses cards to generate one of four different currencies, but rather than these currencies being direct avenues to victory points, they are instead used to translate into action on the board which can then be used to generate victory points. This additional level of separation between the player’s actions and victory points, and the shift in focus that it results in, is probably Mage Knight’s most important innovation and is one that I personally find to be very satisfying.

The other major shift between Mage Knight and other deck building games is its slightly decreased focus on deck building itself. Generally, the cards you have at the beginning of the game will still be important parts of your strategy at the end of the game, where in many other deck building games, getting rid of your initial cards is extremely important. Additionally, you will typically only reshuffle your deck anywhere between two and five times over the course of a game of Mage Knight, meaning that any individual card you acquire, which is always put on the top of your draw deck, will only be used between one and six times over the course of the game. These combined factors put a strong focus on hand management over deck building, which is a nice shift considering how many deck-buildings leave their most important decisions in the deck building phase rather than in the card play phase.

A Few Acres of Snow

Though slightly controversial due to the broken Halifax Hammer strategy, A Few Acres of Snow has introduced some interesting innovations, which I expect will be utilized in future designs, including Martin Wallace’s own. I have only played A Few Acres of Snow once, but I am familiar enough with the game that I can discuss its particular characteristics.

A Few Acres of Snow is closer to a traditional deck builder than Mage Knight the Board Game. Both cycling your deck and deck thinning are helpful, and ideally you will go through your deck a plethora of times before the game ends. It provides a typical two currency model, but also introduces a level of permanence by having it so both currencies continue to persist beyond the individual rounds in which they are introduced. This is interesting, but is not what I consider to be the most interesting thing that A Few Acres of Snow does. Instead it is how different board locations work in relation to each other.



A Few Acres of Snow’s board features a series of networked points, with adjacency not so much determined by where they are in relation to each other on the board, though this is an important factor, but where individual location cards say these adjacencies exist. So in order for you to accomplish most actions related to board play, you need to not only be in a position on the map where you have an adjacency to the appropriate location, but also have the card that serves as the bridge to get there. This serves as a way to tie a feeling of “place” directly into the deck building and hand management aspects of the game. The deck represents not only resources you have access to but also where you are, which is something I find to be both effective and intriguing.




The Lords of the Rings: Card Game


I am less familiar with The Lords of the Rings: Card Game, and really most of FFG’s Living Card Game catalog, than any other item on this list. I played it once, probably incorrectly, a year ago and what I saw was not interesting enough for me to come back. However, despite this inexperience I can still appreciate how it was able to effectively combine cooperative games with SPCG, and I think that alone is probably worthy of note.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager


Blood Bowl: Team Manager’s greatest achievements are in the realm of simulation. Intended to serve to simulate a series of games of Blood Bowl, it effectively provides the feeling of managing a team on the rise, as it gets additional staffing and star players while accumulating fans throughout the season.

Each turn features a set of “highlights” which represent the key moments during matches throughout the season. Each highlight can have up to two players assign their team members to it, and each one provides special benefits both to the players who assign their team members to it as well as whomever wins the match. In many ways, the game feels almost like a trick taking game, with each of your players having a numeric value that determines how effective they are at winning the particular trick/highlight, but the layers of special abilities events that are added to the cards safely prevent the game from being anywhere close to a typical trick taking game’s level of abstraction. The game is actually quite effective at getting across the feel of managing a team across a season, and while I am not that familiar with Blood Bowl, I am fairly familiar with various team sports, and the game effectively gets across the feel of a bloody and more vicious form of head to head sport with some parallels to American football.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager does feature some amount of deck building, in that up to five star players may be added to each players deck over the course of a game, but this deck building is relatively insignificant in the games overall mechanical whole and I would be skeptical of anyone categorizing it as a deck building game. Blood Bowl: Team Manager feels fairly innovative as a whole, but that may simply be because there aren’t any other card games out there quite like it. I have quite enjoyed it so far, and have played it 7 times in the past two weeks, and with six different teams and a plethora of acquirable special powers, I see the replay value as being pretty high. The game appears to have both variability and depth and I can see playing it a lot more even if it never gets an expansion.

Yomi


Yomi was released at the very beginning of 2011, and dominated my plays during that period. I have played it 87 times since my acquisition, and I still remain rather fascinated it, despite the kerfuffles regarding Dave Sirlin. At its basic level it is simply a variation of paper-rock-scissors, but the game adds so much more on top of that basic level that deeply engaging game play emerges.

Each card features an attack, a block, a dodge, or a throw, and each combination of these modes has different interactions with the others. In the case where identical offensive modes are used, then whoever is successful is determined by speed. The end result of most of these modes is damage to the opponent, though blocks serve as a way to avoid damage while replenishing your hand size, and in the case of a successful attack you can potentially set yourself up for a combo attack, which allows you to unleash a large amount of damage at the cost of depleting your hand. Each decision rewards an understanding of the capabilities of your own and your opponent’s deck and an ability to read patterns in your opponent’s behavior.

Each Yomi character features cards that match the numbering system and suits of a traditional deck of cards. While this is in no way required for the design, it is a helpful tool for both learning and structuring the game; low numbered cards end up being faster but weaker, while higher value ones end up being slower but stronger, and face cards feature special attacks or defenses that are unique to the character. The exact combination of modes featured on the cards varies based on the character used, and this differentiation creates an enticing variety of possible experiences across the available characters.

Eminent Domain


Eminent Domain is the third of the four big deck builders in 2011, but it is just as mechanically distinct from previous titles as the other deck builders on the list. Where many deck builders prior to 2011 built upon the basic structural model established by Dominion, Eminent Domain diverges significantly, combining features of Glory to Rome with some its own ideas in order to create its own, unique, experience.

Unlike most deck builders, which feature turns where a number of currencies in a range of quantities are generated by various cards in order to purchase further cards or victory points, Eminent Domain’s currencies are the cards themselves. There are six available roles, with each role’s strength is determined by the number of cards of that type that are in a player’s hand. As a player selects a role, then a card associated with that role is added to the player’s deck, meaning that a player’s deck is altered directly by their role selection choices rather than card purchases. The technology role breaks this rule slightly by allowing players to acquire distinct special power cards, but on the whole, how the deck building occurs is enough to separate Eminent Domain from the rest of the pack.

If I have one big complaint about Eminent Domain at this point it is that the lack of distinction between the majority of the cards, leaves the game a bit samey with slightly less room for creative play. At 15 plays I am largely done with the game, but I enjoyed those 15 plays, and I do greatly respect the design’s particularly unique takes on deck building.

Core Worlds


Core Worlds is the last of the big deck builders of 2011, and is just as unique feeling as the others. I only recently tried Core Worlds, with 5 plays over the course of 2 days, but I came away from the game with a grudging respect.

Core Worlds, like many deck building games, is focused on building an economic snowball. This snowball has three parts: energy, ground forces, and space forces. Each of these are acquired throughout the game, with ground forces and space forces used to conquer planets, which produce energy, which are used to purchase more ground forces and space forces. What allows Core Worlds to distinguish itself are the sorts of breaks that are placed on to the snowball. A limited, non-expandable pool of actions are used to limit what a player can do in a turn, and actions are required to purchase cards, add them to your tableau, or conquer a planet. Whenever you spend an action to acquire a planet, you are forced to discard cards that have strength, forcing you to both consider the cost for bringing them into play again as well as the negative impact on efficiency of reintroducing these cards into your deck. You are forced to make a lot of tough decisions regarding whether it is worth it to conquer a planet and thus deal with a non-streamlined deck that increases the risk you will not be able to deal with the hard to conquer worlds in the later or stages or risk not conquering it and thus get behind both in energy income and in victory points.

This tension is what really drives the game and what has kept me interested so far. Rather than having a pure economic snowball game, or having to deal with slight but required bouts of inefficiency, the games is filled with these decisions which can have a fairly dramatic effect on whether you do well or poorly. That being said, I have no idea if the decisions based around these tradeoffs will remain interesting to me in the long term, as historically pure snowball games have lost my interest once I figured them out. However, even if it does not work for me in the long term, it does have my attention for the time being.

Sentinels of the Multiverse


While The Lords of the Rings Card Game has been smashingly successful both critically and commercially, in the small realm of cooperative SPCG I have found the smaller and pluckier Sentinels of the Multiverse more effective at catching my attention.

Part of this is simply my greater interest in a game based on super heroes than one based on The Lords of the Rings, as super heroes are much less thoroughly explored theme. Another thing that I also greatly appreciate is the sheer modularity of the design. By having a large selection of heroes, villains, and environments, all of which are available to be used interchangeably, the game creates both interesting variation in how the component parts interact with each other and allows players to establish new challenges for themselves by specifically establishing situations that are suboptimal for the particular skill sets of the utilized heroes.

Sentinels is also structured very efficiently, with a fairly simple structure providing with a vast amount of different decisions based on the combination of various exceptions introduced by individual cards. This allows play to move along fairly swiftly even when dealing with fairly complex game state situations. However, the number of different modifiers, and situational effects can be overwhelming for those who are used to more constrained games. I find the nuance provided by this complexity to be thrilling whoever, and greatly appreciate how the game simulates various narrative states through information.

My enjoyment of Sentinels, which flies in the face of my normal disregard for cooperative games, actually has increased my curiosity about The Lords of the Rings Card Game. Perhaps my usual aversion to cooperative games blinded me to The Lords of the Rings Card Game’s strengths. Of course, I am not sure I really want more than a single short cooperative game, but I am much more willing to try it again than I was even a few months ago.

Conclusion
2011 was impressive not only in the number of different quality SPCG released but also in the sheer variety of their implementations. I do wonder if perhaps this year will represent the peak of these sorts of games. There do not seem to be that many coming out this year, and it may be that we will soon go back to the trickle of one or two good ones per year. I think I would largely be okay with that, despite my appreciation for this type of game, simply because of how much more there is to explore in each and every one of them. These card games are what really make 2011 a standout year for me, and I expect to be exploring many of them for years to come.


*I am not particularly fond of the terms AT and Euro because of their imprecision, but they are commonly accepted enough that I will continue to use them for the time being.
**The Top 20 Games of 2011 (excluding games that are effectively expansions or reimplementations and probably should not even be in the rankings):
Spoiler (click to reveal)
1) Eclipse (AT)
2) Ora et Labora (E)
3) Mage Knight (SPCG)
4) The Castles of Burgundy (E)
5) A Few Acres of Snow (SPCG)
6) The Lords of the Rings Card Game (SPCG)
7) Mansions of Madness (AT)
8) Trajan (E)
9) Blood Bowl – Team Manager (SPCG)
10) Dungeon Petz (E)
11) Risk Legacy (AT)
12) Letters to Whitechapel (E)
13) Yomi (SPCG)
14) Gears of War: The Board Game (AT)
15) Star Trek: Fleet Captains (AT)
16) Lancaster (E)
17) King of Tokyo (AT)
18) Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon (AT)
19) Flash Point: Fire Rescue (E)
20) Eminent Domain (SPCG)

Looking at the list, and the lists I compiled for previous years, the big loser appears to be wargames, for which there are no examples in the Top 20. This compares to at least 1 title from every other year since 2002. I suspect this may simply be due to the slow rising nature of wargames, however, and it would not surprise me if Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan and Space Empires 4X end up in the Top 20 of 2011 after some time spent building ratings.
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Fri May 11, 2012 5:13 pm
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BGG.Con 2012, Dice Tower Con 2012, and Essen 2013

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It is way, way too early to start planning for it, but are any readers of the blog planning on attending BGG.Con 2012? If it is anything like the last two years, I will spend most of my time gaming with
Burster of Bubbles, Destroyer of Dreams.
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, but that does not mean that I will not have room to game with other people.

It is not way too early to start planning for the Dice Tower Convention 2012, which will be happening here in sunny Orlando. Anyone attending (beyond locals I already know about)?

Also, I am happy to announce that I finally have official plans to attend Essen (2013). As it stands now I will be visiting London, Essen, and Amsterdam in that order and have every intention of visiting London on Board while I am in town. I am very, very excited and Minerva and I have already started to identify things we want to do in London.

I wrote a review of Merchant of Venus. I think it is one of my better reviews, and according to the esteemed Nate Straight it is a good example of the sort of depth and analysis we are looking for in the Voice of Experience contest. Check it out!
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Sun Apr 29, 2012 3:24 am
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Dipping My Toes Into the Thematic and Other News

Jesse Dean
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American Style Games
As part of my continued exploration into all things board game, I have been pushing into what is probably the last great frontier for me: the great, modern, and not so modern, American-style games. Of course, the fact that I am only just now getting to them, leads to the question of why I ignored them up to this point in favor of war games, card games, and the great undefined mass that is described as eurogames. The biggest reason is probably fatigue. After years of playing RPGs and CMGs, the last thing I wanted to do was dip my toes into what I saw as being the same old tired fantasy themes. Similarly I was not that interested in adventure games after years of playing D&D as they seemed to be a pale shadow of a real RPG and was disinterested in tactical miniatures games for the same reason. The few Ameritrash games that I did end up getting dragged into ended up being both light and dreary or so laden with chrome that they seemed to collapse under their own weight. I did like Arkham Horror, but that seemed to be an exception to my general preferences, based on my love of the Lovecraftian theme, rather than a true indication of my tastes.

This changed in 2010, as my general love for 4X games, drew me back in the direction of Ameritrash. I tried out both Sid Meier’s Civilization the Board Game and Runewars and found them both to be lacking for various reasons. That was almost enough to put me off of them again, and I went through a brief phase where I played almost nothing but 18XX, but the seed was planted and I have been looking at AT games with a renewed interest. The sheer quality of AT games released in 2011 only cemented that interested, resulting in my current inclination to explore some of the great AT titles of the past and in the last week I have ordered a copy of Magic Realm, played Twilight Imperium 3 (TI3), and bought and played Earth Reborn.

Magic Realm
My interest in Magic Realm probably sprung from my love for Mage Knight, and the comparisons between them were enough to spark my interest and track down a copy. Whether it remains in my collection will be determined by if it is interesting and offers a unique enough experience, which is what everything else I have read about the game indicates, than it will probably be worth keeping. Of course, soon after my purchase I learned that Stronghold Games was probably going to be reprinting the game, but that does not bother me much, as it will allow me to provide more context for any review I do of the new edition. Of course there is always the possibility that I will end up hating it, but that is a risk I am willing to take, particularly considering the amount of context that playing this will provide me for adventure games that have been published since its release.

Twilight Imperium 3
TI3 is a hulking brute of a 4X game, with such a reputation that most released 4X board games are directly compared to it. This influence alone would be enough to make me want to try it out, but bits and pieces that I have read about it over the years were entertaining enough to make me want to play it on top of that, but were not enough to push me over the edge into purchasing it. Luckily, a local owns the game and its expansions and we were able to play it on Sunday. Playing a game once is typically not effective in identifying the total worth of a game, but what I saw impressed me in a way that I was beginning to think was no longer possible for a 4X board game. Despite this curiosity, I was slightly concerned that based on TI3’s length and my experience with previous big Fantasy Flight games, that it would be some awkward ungainly monstrosity. Happily I was wrong. Instead of the additional game length being due to rules bulk, instead it appears to largely be based on additional texture and nuance that really bring the game’s flavor to the forefront. Granted, we were all experienced board gamers, but after the first hour it felt like the game’s mechanics quickly receded from view, and we became wholly absorbed in the game.

From my perspective, TI3’s primary competition as preeminent 4X board game is Eclipse, Runewars, and Space Empires 4X. Since its strengths are different in comparison to each of these games, I am going to focus on talking about it in relation to these games, in order to provide greater context to why I think it is a superior 4X experience. These comparisons might not be completely fair, as I was able to play TI3 with the benefit of some enjoyable expansion material, while I have only played the base game for each of the others, and from all accounts the base game for each of the alternatives is much more balanced than the base game of TI3, however, I consider the possibilities present in the TI3 expansion as part of its strengths.

Twilight Imperium and Eclipse
Eclipse has been one of the hottest games on BGG over the last few months and has been touted as a TI3 killer in part due to providing a similar experience in a much shorter time frame. While I do not have much to say about their relative time frames, as I have only played TI3 once and that play only took a little bit longer than our plays of Eclipse, I found that the experience offered by Eclipse to be both different and ultimately inferior to the experience offered by TI3. Both games present the players as one of several galactic civilizations, humans or alien, whom are trying to take over planets in the galaxy, with a particular bonus available from acquiring the core system in the galaxy and its available resources, and an exception-based technology tree. However, from there they largely diverge in ways that for me make Eclipse an inferior experience.

There is an area where Eclipse offers additional level of depth over TI3: ship customization. Where TI3 has a slightly larger variety of differentiated ships, Eclipse offers a smaller set of ships, each of which can be interchangeably customized based on researched technologies. This does add a nice level of additional strategic breadth, but I found that a lot of the initial intrigue that this customization offers fades as players become more familiar with particularly optimal configurations. It also prevents any extensive distinctiveness to come to the fore, like is possible with Twilight Imperium.

Eclipse and TI3 are roughly equivalent in the complexity of their economic systems. Eclipse features three different styles of resources, for which specialization is its own reward. However, the system supports a style of economic snowball that, when combined with the random draws of sector tiles through exploration can result in someone being forced out of the game through the quality of tile draws. TI3’s economic system is more interactive. Planets produce a combination of two different resources, three if you count technology discounts, but also adds a trade system that allows for the production of a general-purpose expendable resource based on establishing trade relationships with other players. .

Eclipse’s political system is pretty basic, with politics essentially being limited to either player’s exhortations to attack each other or limited agreements that serve both as non-aggression pacts, and the games limited execution of trade. TI3’s diplomatic systems offers the potential to establish laws that can actually be used as weapons against the other players, but frequently these will only occur if you can convince other involved players to vote on them, forcing players into a position where they can attempt to evaluate and manipulate the overall balance of power.

I could continue, but essentially it seems that what Eclipse has done has provided a streamlined 4X experience that, while interesting in its own right, fails to live up to the fullness and richness provided by TI3. This is probably an acceptable trade off for many people, who are unable to get TI3 to the table due to its sheer scope or because of a simple preference for more streamlined games, but it is not acceptable for me. I would rather play a game that gives me a complete and rich experience, no matter what the time frame, rather than one that leaves me wishing I could have something more.

Twilight Imperium 3 and Runewars
I got Runewars for Christmas with 2010 and it lasted six plays before I lost interest in it. I thought a great deal about whether I wanted Runewars or Twilight Imperium 3 more before I eventually settled on Runewars. Its game length seemed slightly more manageable, I had a slight preference for the fantasy setting, and it seemed that the integration of an adventurer system into a larger 4X game might be interesting and could potentially be amazing. Unfortunately, over time it seemed to largely be an over-chromed mess, with a large number of the subsystems and rules details that had minimal impact on the game as it was played. The adventuring system was kind of neat, and did provide an additional avenue of conflict, but their essential invisibility to your available forces was somewhat unfortunate, and lead to a level of disconnect that I found to be unpleasant. Conflicts between armies were infrequent and frequently seemed irrelevant. It was very difficult to be able to push and grab the victory point tokens from a canny player, and in many instances the game was essentially won during map set-up. TI3 seems like it might also share some of the weaknesses in how military forces are used or not used, but even if that ends up being the case, and I suspect it is not, there are enough other weapons that can be effectively used against other players to make up for this.

Twilight Imperium 3 and Space Empires 4X
Space Empires 4X suffers in comparison to TI3 for much the same reason that Eclipse does: the streamlining of the system leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, it makes up for this by its extensive and extreme focus on the combat system, such that it works more effectively as a war game with an economic undercurrent than as a more expansive 4X game. The surprises of fleet composition and technology configurations, plus the kill or be killed victory condition, allows Space Empires 4X to carve a particular niche such that I still think it is worth owning, if only as a two player game. Space Empires 4x’s extremely immature diplomatic system unfortunately leads to awkward “Lets have you and him fight” situations and makes me disinterested in trying it again with more players.

Conclusion
I am interested in playing TI3 again in the near future. It is possible that some of the supposed ponderousness of TI3 will push me back away from it again, but as it currently stands it is perhaps tied with Space Empires 4X as my favorite board game of the genre, and I can see a lot of potential in getting more extensive play out of it. I am not quite ready to purchase it, and thanks to the fact that one of my regular board game opponents owns it I will not need to do so, but I could see it being a purchase at some point, if that particular situation changes.

Earth Reborn
As discussed previously, I was formerly a tactical miniatures gamer. D&D Miniatures, then Dreamblade, were essentially my lifestyle games, and I played them exhaustively racking up thousands of total plays. I did not explore the board game side of tactical miniatures games, and my investment into DDM and Dreamblade was such that I did not have a high degree of interest in branching out. In my earlier exploration of board games, I found C&C: Ancients to be an interesting replacement for DDM in a way that was a bit more approachable to a wider range of people. This proved to be effective and I ended up playing a rather large number of games of it against my girlfriend. (She was quite good). Playing Summoner Wars is what really reinvigorated my interested in the genre, and playing Cave Evil, which has some strong similarities to the genre, reminded me of my love for these sorts of games while also reinvigorating my general interest in Ameritrash.

Earth Reborn came to my attention for three primary reasons. The first was the simple fact that Coolstuff Games (the store front for Coolstuff, Inc.) has a ding and dent section where they sell games with damage boxes at an additional discount. My lack of familiarity, its rank, and the $40 price tag were all very alluring to me. What pushed me over the edge was the great esteem that my friend Kurt has in the [blog=1431]game[/blogpost] and the fact that I was able to convince a local to go through the scenarios with me, with the overall goal being that this would end up being a two player game we could play that I would not have a strong play experience advantage in.

I had Wednesday off, so Will and I had some lunch, went to Coolstuff cracked open the box and ended up playing the first four scenarios until everyone else started showing up for board game night. I was impressed enough that I ended up arranging for us to get together to play the next scenario last night and am looking forward to my future plays. I also found that another local is also interested in Earth Reborn (and tactical miniature games in general) so there is a good chance that Will and I can start working through some of the scenarios with him in the near future too.

So what do I like about Earth Reborn? For one the action point system is effective and fun. Each turn a player draws five action tiles, each of which has four symbols on it, each of which can represent one of five different actions. This provides a limitation on how you can spend your available action points, and with the ability to draw further tiles by spending action points it leads to interesting decisions about whether to draw more tiles or to spend more points on the tiles you already have. The fact that the action points can also be used for blind bidding to control initiative or to interrupt actions simply adds to the tough decisions that need to be made.

Secondly, I appreciate how well the games thematic underpinnings intertwine with the action point system. Actions as different as activating a missile silo, to shooting a gun, to rifling through an officer’s stash for secret files, to convincing an enemy to switch sides, to fleeing from rabid zombie with a saw arm are all neatly contained in the system while still leaving loads of room for additional expandability. Because of this intertwining, it is fairly easy to create rather in-depth, cinematic scenarios that match something you would see in an RPG or an action movie.

It is this potential for expansiveness that really excites me, and I have really only gotten about half way through the game’s scenarios and have yet to encounter character abilities, radio jamming, torture, or the much-vaunted Scenario Auto-Generation System. That being said, I already feel a bit hungry for an expansion. I have no doubt that the base set will keep my occupied for a while, but I cannot help but imagine how awesome the game would be with a few more characters (or another faction) and a scenario book with a few more pre-constructed scenarios.

So if you are interested in a deep, thematic tactical miniatures game, and do not mind putting some effort into learning it, then Earth Reborn seems to be an excellent choice. I am definitely looking forward to playing it a great deal more in the near future.

Other News

Review Contest
I am the judge for a review contest, entitled the Voices of Experience and have donated my copies of Hawaii, Rex: Final Days of the Empire, and Sekigahara for prizes. In the words of the contest organizer,
qwertymartin wrote:
The Voice of Experience Review Contest is open for submissions until May 28th 2012. It aims to encourage critical analysis of board games that goes beyond a summary of the rules, and in-depth exploration in a community that tends to be dominated by first impressions.

The contest is open to all and is for reviews of a game the writer has played at least ten times. Games and GG are on offer as prizes.


Cult of the Critical
There is a new guild, Cult of the Critical, with the goal to,

”mezmorki” wrote:
The purpose of the Cult of the Critical “guild” is to: (1) provide a place for members to discuss and plan their activities; (2) provide a venue for peer-review of ideas or articles prior to broader distribution on BGG or elsewhere on the web; and (3) provide a place to centralize resources and information pertaining to critical analysis of games and gaming hobbies.


If this interests you please check it out.

Game Sale
In my constant quest to keep my collection at a reasonable size, I have decided to sell some of the games that I like but I do not foresee getting much play in the next year. I have already sold Ascending Empires, German Railways, Key Market, Princes of Machu Picchu, and Summoner Wars to locals, but I still have the following games left for sale:
Puerto Rico
Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
Bios Megafauna
Dungeon Petz
Neue Heimat
Puzzle Strike
Upon A Salty Ocean
If you are interested in any of these games and want to make an offer let me know. Otherwise I will be putting them up for auction tomorrow morning!

Castles of Burgundy
I played it. It was adequate. I could see plenty of potential replay value in the game, and could even see playing it a couple of more times. I just do not see very much in the game to continue to keep me interested. If I am going to be playing a dice management euro I would rather play Macao or Troyes.

Brink of War Review
Alex Brown has written a quite extensive and very interesting review of Race For the Galaxy: The Brink of War. Even if you are not a fan of The Brink of War it’s worth reading, simply because it is a good, entertaining review of a game that he has played extensively.
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Fri Apr 20, 2012 8:57 pm
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My Game Weight Preferences

Jesse Dean
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While game weight is perhaps not the most effective metric, its use on BoardGameGeek has caused it to effectively enter the board game lexicon. While I do wish we had more precise tools to analyze game complexity, depth, and difficulty, it can still be a useful tool for dialog as long as you are willing to accept this imprecision.

While thinking about Hawaii and Pantheon for the purpose of writing a review, I became more acutely aware of my general dissatisfaction with middle weight eurogames. This prompted me to take a look at the games I have played and owned and how my perspective of middle weight eurogames compares to my overall preferences for heavy (weight 3+) or light (weight <2) games.

It turns out that of the 84 games that I rate 7 or higher, which is the general threshold for which I consider myself to like a game, only 20 are what I consider to be middle weight. Of those 20 (listed below), only 8 of them are what I consider eurogames: Chicago Express, Clippers, German Railways, Neue Hemat, and Ra, Texas & Pacific, The Manhattan Project, and Vikings. This is not a particularly diverse list of eurogames. Chicago Express, Clippers, German Railways, Neue Heimat, and Texas & Pacific are all opaque Winsome-style games that are notoriously outside of the general trends in eurogames design and development, and I know people who argue that they are in an entirely different category, train games, rather than being eurogames. Ra, The Manhattan Project, and Vikings are all traditional eurogames. The rest of my middle weight favorites are a mixture of war games (Command & Colors: Ancients, Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War, and Sekigahara: Unification of Japan), complex card games (Glory to Rome, Innovation, Puzzle Strike, Race For the Galaxy, and Sentinels of the Multiverse), and old-school American-style games (Merchants of Venus).


As my ratings decrease, so does the average weight of my rated games. The first light games do not appear until I hit rating 7 (Crokinole and Zing!) and heavy games completely disappear by the time I hit my lowest ratings. I have played more heavy games than mediums or light. Fully 45% of all games I have played are heavy, with 39% being medium, and a mere 16% being light games. I suspect both the average ratings and relative quantities are based on the fact that over the last two years I have become much more aware of my general preference for heavier games and have largely self-selected away from games that are lighter. Based on this data, I think that maybe I should start self-selecting away even more aggressively, outside of the three primary categories I listed above (train games, war games, and complex card games).

So what are your general game weight preferences? Do you find that you tend to only enjoy certain types of game in a particular weight class? Is my recent purchase of Magic Realm going to push my average weight of my favorite games up?

Medium Games I Like
Chicago Express
Clippers
Command & Colors: Ancients
German Railways
Glory to Rome
Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War
Innovation
Merchants of Venus
Neue Heimat
Puzzle Strike
Ra
Race For the Galaxy
Sekigahara: Unification of Japan
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Summoner Wars: Master Set
Texas & Pacific
The Manhattan Project
Vikings
Yomi
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Sat Apr 14, 2012 11:16 pm
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Reactions to My Board Game Criticism Articles and A New Arrival

Jesse Dean
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Discussion About Board Game Criticism
The amount of discussion on the state of board game criticism has exploded a bit in the last couple of weeks, so for those who have might of missed individual parts of it, I am going to highlight individual articles and post my responses, if any, to each of them.

First off, Tamburlain questioned,
Tamburlain wrote:
That game design is a form of art is a given. But from a culturally normative perspective, not all art, including popular art, is considered worthy of the same kind of attention. There are reasons why there aren't journals devoted to the appreciation of butter sculpture, and even better reasons why there aren't salons for the appreciation of those who appreciate it.

Before I read a 3,000 word essay on The Transformative Hermaneutics of Auction Mechanisms: A Critical Comparison of 'Zombie Zits!' and 'The Merchants of Nostalgia III', I want to know what kind of insight I can expect in return for my time and attention that I couldn't get from a less formal enquiry.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm writing this as a person who has enjoyed your game reviews but is puzzled by your latest blog posts calling for a more academic approach to criticism. Without knowing more about the specific subjects you feel are worth exploring that presumably aren't being explored (here on BGG, in gaming podcasts like Ludology, etc.) and without knowing the methods you propose for exploring them, then it's difficult to tell if what you are calling for is greater depth or just greater bathos.


Sure, there are not journals devoted to those topics you have noted, but I think that there is a basis for intellectual and cultural analysis of board games then there are for butter sculpture or things along those lines.

What I am generally pushing for is simply for those people who are interested in discussing board games topics in greater depth to do so, and for those whom want to see this sort of discussion to occur to support those who are writing about those topics through attention of the style I described in my article. I do not really even care that much what the particular subjects are about, though broader topics are of course more useful than the more specialized ones that you particular example provides. I am honestly not even sure that an academic approach is quite what I want. I think academic support would be a helpful intellectual tool to have in the goal of producing effective board game content, but ultimately what I would like is something a bit more in-between. Matt Thrower stated in the comment section of his wonderful article over at Fortress Ameritrash that,

MattDP wrote:
...I think there’s a third way in between consumer reviews and academia. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s the sort of writing you see in book and film reviews in quality newspapers. It informs the consumer, but also gives them a great deal to chew over. However it’s possible that this styles relies on a basic knowledge of academic criticism amongst the target audience, and those fundamentals have yet to be established when it comes to gaming.


This is essentially what I want to but extended not only to reviews but also articles in general. Luckily, I think there is more room for this sort of discussion and these sorts of articles in general both on and off BGG, and I think some recent articles by Nate Straight and Martin G., not to mention a large number of articles by Matt Thrower, have been excellent examples of this. If we had more authors writing to this level of quality and approachability I would be a pretty happy man.

Speaking of Matt Thrower, he has written a second excellent article on board game criticism and journalism. I agree largely with what he has to say, and want to encourage everyone to go read it, but I did find one point to quibble with and that is his statement that,
MattDP wrote:
The final barrier is the extraordinarily wide polarisation of taste in the board game community. In other areas of criticism there is a general agreement over what is genuinely great, and what is not. If you picked a critic’s list of top ten video games for your platform of choice, for example, the chances are you’d enjoy the majority of them whatever your particular tastes in games. Likewise if you sat through some recommendations of a film or literary critic. But in board gaming, one man’s meat is genuinely another’s poison. The standard geek lack of empathy exacerbates this problem, a seeming inability to see what constitutes “fun” in a board game varies very widely depending on the player and the resultant preaching that playing one type of game or another is somehow wrong, and that this point can somehow be proved beyond doubt with a scientific analysis of the mechanics.


I think Matt is overstating the amount of agreement that is found in other areas of criticism. While I can’t speak too heavily about video game or literary criticism, both film and music criticism seem to have some pretty sharp divides in what the is particularly “best” the best music or movies of a particular year, and individual critics lists reflect this. Sometimes there is general agreement about a particular piece, but just as often there are some pretty sharp divisions about whether something like the “Tree of Life” is a great work of art or merely pretentious crap, not to mention the divides between “rockists” and “popists”, not to mention fans of the gigantic number of musical genres, among those who critically examine music.

I do not want to overstate my case here, and I suspect that there probably is a bit more of an agreement about what makes a great piece of art in film and musical criticism then there is in board game criticism, but the divisions are real in film and music criticism. I also think that the polarization goes back in part to the relative maturity of the different fields of criticism and the greater access to intellectual tools that film and musical critics have. As the field of board game criticism matures, I suspect that even with the divisions we will see some works applauded as being great even among those who sharply disagree on games otherwise, as we saw this last year with Mage Knight Board Game.

Mark Taylor wrote a pair of articles on his blog Painted Wooden Cubes.

The first article discusses the importance in not focusing too much on the number of plays as a barometer of the quality of review, a point which I think is a good one, though I do think he exaggerates a little bit in his discussion of what the potential impact of this would be. We are not going to see a halt in first impression or shallow reviews, simply because they are valued. Even if we end up persuading some people that more in-depth or nuanced reviews are more effective and better, the vast majority of people will still appreciate these sorts of responses. In fact I still value these sorts of reviews simply because even if I prefer content that is produced from someone whom has a more experienced view of the game, an effective early review can still serve as a great conversation starter. Of course many early reviews are not effective, but that as much a problem with the reviewers than the reviews themselves, as Mark ably points out.

His overall points seems to be that rather than criticizing speedier reviews, those who are interested in it should focus on supporting and celebrating those that are producing deeper works. He says,
Quote:
Building on, referencing and commending one another’s work would be a start – it would let credit for insight find the correct recipient, while allowing commentators to push one another further, rather than continually restarting from first principles. Of course, this depends on those commentators knowing one another in the first place: a problem I am working on means to address.


I think this is absolutely correct, and is something I hope to do with my future work. I also look forward to whatever tool it is he is working towards creating that will help address the problem he sees.

His second article follows along with the first and focuses on how it is important for commentators who want better discussion to work on raising the level of their work rather than chastising those who do not follow. He also brings up the idea of producing something along the lines of the Cahiers du Cinema for board games and suggests that he wants to establish something along those lines for board games and asks for help establishing something along those lines. So if this is something that interests you, please contact him!


Nate Straight, whom I consider perhaps the best blogger on BGG right now, wrote a rather long article on the subject of criticism and board games and how criticism has changed with the advent of the internet and where he would like to see criticism go from here. I do not have any particular comment on the content of his article, as he posted it this morning and I am still digesting it, but I found this quote to be particularly good,
NateStraight wrote:
... in order to improve the state of board game criticism, we need critics who are willingly to look beyond a game's rules and mechanisms, into the styles and dynamics at play in the game. How does it feel to play the game? What other games [not what other mechanisms] is it like? How does the game present historical, sociological, political, or economic truths or theories? What species or types of decisions do you make in the game? How does the game make expected value ambiguous enough so as to present real choice? What is the relationship of the game to the state of the hobby and to the designer's other output? How does the game seek to interact with and improve the player? These are really interesting questions that would provide true substance to a review.


Martin G and Oliver Kiley have both made posts that have focused on a number of excellent topics, but also focus a bit on trying to slow down and more deeply explore particular board games, focusing on a “Cult of the Slow” rather than a “Cult of the New”

”Mezmorki” wrote:
There are a number of people who are making a visible and concentrated effort to play fewer games more times. The whole idea aligns well with the "Slow Movement" (emerging from the Slow Foods Movement), in that it would encourage everyone to slow down on their consumption of new games in favor of deeper exploration and more plays of already known games. This is a little different from the this slow games concept of being more deliberate and less hurried when playing big strategic games. Others, such as Qwertymartin have taken it upon themselves to only play old games in as part of the NaNoNeGaMo event in June, or to play a few games 100 times or more. Ultimately, the "slow games" movement is about cherishing and getting the most of what we have, rather than adding more fuel to the hotness.

I do not see anything wrong with both consuming both new games and exploring existing games in more detail at the same time. In fact for those of us who find that the last few years have been particularly favorable to their game tastes, I think it is very worthwhile to explore these new works coming out in great detail. While you could perhaps wait until enough detail comes out to identify if a particular board game is going to fit your tastes that does not quite work for me. I guess I am part of the Cult of the New since I greatly enjoy diving into and being part of the conversation about these new releases, but that does not stop me from exploring games in great detail. It just happens that most of my in-depth exploration is of games that were released fairly recently. Four of my five most played games in the last six months are all 2011 releases (Mage Knight – 34 plays; Ora et Labora – 26 plays; Kingdom Builder – 24 plays; Sentinels of the Multiverse – 20 plays; and Race for the Galaxy – 16 plays) and if you look back at my Essen to Essen plays in 2010/2011 you will probably find that I played games released in that time period a lot. I absolutely think it is good to explore games in great detail, but I do not think there is any particular reason you have to only explore older games in great detail. There are perfectly good games being released today that are worth exploring.

A Slight Slow Down In Writing
I will probably be writing a little bit less in the next couple of weeks because we have a new arrival at my house. This weekend my partner decided to adopt a stray 1 year old kitten. He has been a delight so far, but in order to keep him a delight we need to spend a bit of time playing with him to keep him active, and making sure he is both comfortable with the apartment and realizes the sort of behavior we expect of him.

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Fri Apr 13, 2012 5:37 pm
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The Current Limitations of Critical Infrastructure in the Board Game Community

Jesse Dean
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In most mediums when an interesting new work is released, it generates a wave of discussion as its effects ripple through the critical world. The work is dissected for its relative value, and, if it is particularly noteworthy, what it meaningfully says about the current state of that medium. Newspapers, journals, blogs, and academic papers are all fundamental parts of this discourse, whether the work is a book, movie, or video game. However, board games do not have this same sort of critical infrastructure and this absence, and particularly the features of the board game hobby that have contributed to this absence, have helped shape the current state of board game critical discussion. While I do not have a definitive answer to this question, I believe that it can be narrowed down to three primary factors: the relative youth of modern board gaming, the size of the board game market, and the dominance of BoardGameGeek (BGG) in board game discussion.

The first factor is the relative newness of modern board game culture. The historical lines that have resulted in our three primary styles of games are well-documented elsewhere but their effects on game criticism has not been. The most important thing to note is that in the 60s and 70s a divergence occurred in board game styles resulted in very different sorts of games being developed in America, where the focus was largely on big games with science fiction and fantasy theme featuring asymmetric starting positions or conflict simulation, where in Germany the focus was on shorter games with symmetric starting positions and small, efficient rules. These lines converged with the release of Settlers of Catan, a game that proved to be a big hit first in Germany then in the United States. While the mechanical impacts of Settlers of Catan on other games were minimal, its presence increased awareness in the US of an entirely different hobby board game paradigm than the one that had dominated the market. At first this resulted in an increased presence of German board games in the American market, but as time went on cross-pollination began to occur and the different styles of games began to influence each other and merge in interesting ways creating an explosion of available games that both made high level critical analysis more viable as well as more necessary.

Holding this back has been, as Matt Thrower explained in his excellent article on the function of criticism in games, “...criticism of all sorts of games is a relatively new phenomenon. In the video game sector, progress has been held back by a pathetically patronising long-time perception that games were for kids, and kids didn’t need proper reviews, although it’s finally starting to come of age. For tabletop games, a stubborn celebration of amateurism seems to have become entrenched, no doubt partially due to virtually zero professional coverage of the genre. And without a professional attitude, you can’t have the self-examination necessary to ask what the purpose of a review is, and thus how you might go about improving it.” There has been some increase in the amount of high level critical analysis applied to board games, but the development of infrastructure necessary to facilitate this higher level of critical analysis has been slow. It is easy to assign blame for this to the relative youth of modern board gaming as a subject worthy of critical study compared to other mediums, but video games, which have had an even shorter period of existence and have suffered from the perception noted by Matt, currently have a more effective critical infrastructure then board games do. So the youth of modern board gaming is only a partial contributing factor to board gaming’s current lack of critical infrastructure. So what does video game culture have that board game culture has lacked? Sufficient demand for critical analysis.

Video games are a massive industry, in a way that board game publishers can only imagine and envy. While hobby board games have been making headway into more mainstream sellers, such as Barnes & Noble and Target, these are tentative steps towards cultural expansion, as opposed to the cultural domination video games have achieved. Of course, market size does not in itself ensure any sort of critical infrastructure, but video games’ profitability and cultural saturation do enable people to make money spending their time thinking (and writing) about video games. Some universities have PhD and Masters degree candidates performing research work related to video games; major media web sites and magazines run articles that discuss video games; and video game culture comes with a large enough audience to financially support individuals who build dedicated websites or blogs based around the critical discussion of video games. However, while there are individuals who make money on the academic or critical study of board games, the number of people who are able to do so is extremely small, and as far as I know, there is no one who makes enough money to do it full time.

While you do not need to make money in order to produce effective criticism, board games have a unique feature that makes it so being able to devote your attention to them full time is much more valuable than it is for books, movies, or video games: the need for other people to be involved in the experience. Exploring a board game generally requires you to have one or more other people to participate in the game experience with you, while other mediums can generally be explored as a solitary experience. While this need for other people to experience a board game does not reduce the quality of board game criticism, it does reduce the rate at which it can be produced. It is not simply a matter of finding a suitable amount of time to yourself, but also to coordinate your schedule with others so that you can spend time with them playing the game a sufficient number of times to truly understand it. For amateur board game critics this can be difficult, and requires a particularly understanding group, and creates a difficulty that critics in other fields do not have to worry about. Of course this means, that a professional board game critic would either need to be one in a larger group, or be in a gaming environment where they could guarantee that they could quickly and effectively play and critique newer games. The cost of paying for a full group of full-time games critics and the unreliability of needing to rely on people who are not paid to focus just on playing and analyzing games is such that the emergence of a true class of professional board games, like you see for other fields, is unlikely even if the board game market increases in size such that it even warrants them.

Books, film, and video games benefit from a rather wide variety of source of critical information, in which there are numerous bigger players and a thriving ecosystem of smaller ones that create a relatively healthy marketplace of ideas. In contrast, board games have a single hulking titan that dominates board game discussion. This web site, BoardGameGeek (BGG), distorts how hobby board game analysis develops, not out of any malice, but simply because of how it organizes the communication tools it provides. BGG combines elements of a social media site with a database, and its particular combination results in a great deal of focus being applied to areas that I feel discourage real critical discourse until recently. This would not matter much if BGG was simply one site among many equals, but its great scope and popularity give it a level of influence that is unparalleled in the hobby board game world, and thus drives the structure of most board-game-related discussion on the web.

BGG was started in January 2000 by Scott Alden and Derk Solko, just as eurogames were beginning to pick up momentum in the United States, in an attempt to create the definitive site on board games. They largely succeeded, in a way that has had both positive and negative effects on the development of critical discussion of board games. BGG’s initial influence was entirely positive; before it came into existence; most board game discussion took place on virtual bulletin boards, private mailing lists, or on other small web sites. BGG provided a consolidated web location that first served as a database for board game information, particularly for the German-style board games that were still fairly new to the United States, and then slowly added functionality such as forums that enhanced the means that individuals had to communicate their opinions on board games to each other. The site’s structure, which created discussion communities focused on individual games, was extremely helpful in the early days of critical discourse on board games. However, as time went on, this structure limited the attention given to content that discussed multiple games, or content with a scope broader than discussion of specific games, simply because of the sort of discussion BGG was designed to encourage.

If BGG was not the centerpiece of so much of the hobby’s board game discussion, its structure would have less impact on the critical community, as secondary web sites would provide alternative means of communicating critical content that was not game-specific. However, because of BGG’s dominance, it is difficult for these sorts of sites to get entirely outside of BGG’s orbit, and much of the content that ends up on other sites ends up on BGG as well, reducing game enthusiasts’ need to explore any site other than BGG. Only the Opinionated Gamers, Fortress Ameritrash, and a few scattered blogs have been able to avoid this particular fate; in each of those cases, there are specific reasons why the creators choose not to share their content on BGG, much of it related to a particular dissatisfaction towards BGG culture or its particularly central place in the world of board games.

The youth of the board game hobby, the size of the board game market, and the limited number of channels for effectively bringing attention to content are all major contributing factors to why critical analysis is in such a poor state in the board game hobby today. If the limiting factor in the production of effective critical analysis proves to be the size of the audience for hobby board games, and the accompanying financial resources that can be expanded to develop critical infrastructure, then efforts towards a professional critical community may end up being ultimately irrelevant. We are unlikely to see the cultural infusion of hobby board games required to see regular articles appear in academic journals or magazines in the near future and it is equally unlikely that BGG will lose its hegemonic influence over board game discussion. This does not mean that those who wish to see a greater level of analysis and discussion in the board game community our powerless. There are ways that individuals who are interested in a greater depth of critical discussion can work to help facilitate its expansion and on the whole I think there is a great deal of potential for positive movement in that direction both by producing new technical and intellectual tools, as well as by taking greater advantage of existing ones.

One of these existing tools is the BGG blog feature. BGG’s central position means that feature upgrades can have a positive impact on critical discussion, and two related changes since the beginning of 2011 have improved the quality of discussion in the larger board gaming community. In late 2010, BoardGameNews (BGN), one of the major secondary sites outside BGG, was partially folded into BGG. The majority of the news content, as well as pieces of journalism by W. Eric Martin, were included in BGG, while much of the editorial content and reviews were spun off to form the Opinionated Gamers. This was a positive development, both because BGN’s prominence on BGG drew more attention to journalistic and general-purpose articles, and because BGG implemented new blogging tools for the BGN feed which were later extended to the rest of the BGG users. The blogs, which allow authors to attract the attention of those who are subscribed to games in BGG’s database, have served to effectively introduce new voices to BGG and also to provide older voices with a new method to effectively convey their ideas.

The key to ensure that effective amateur critics continue to produce content is to ensure that they are aware that their content is valuable. For amateur content producers, one of the most valuable commodities is attention, and by making sure that people who produce content you value have your attention you ensure that that they will be motivated to continue to produce it. How you do this will, of course, depend on the particular medium that they are using to produce their content, but providing feedback, more abstract indications of appreciation such “thumbs up” on BGG, and using social media tools to bring the article to the attention of others who might enjoy it.

Despite our current lack of critical infrastructure, I think there is a strong potential for the development of effective critical analysis of board games. I believe that there is enough latent desire for effective board game critical analysis that now it is simply a matter of ensuring that those who wish to consume the content are able to find those that are producing it and that there continue to be new, effective intellectual and technical tools that help to enable the success of this content. I plan to do what I can to ensure that this happens, as I want to see quality board game criticism succeed. Do you?
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Fri Apr 6, 2012 3:45 am
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Blog Roll and Monday Quick Hits

Jesse Dean
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Lords of Waterdeep
My Lords of Waterdeep review is up. Summary: I played Lords of Waterdeep so you do not have to. Essentially it serves as a fairly effective distillation of previous, more complex worker placement games, with just enough there to give a hint of these other games while failing to capture what makes them special. It feels fairly hollow as a result, but for those whose preferences run towards the lighter end of the spectrum it should be fast and entertaining enough that that might not matter.

Critical Infrastructure Series
My next article in the “Critical Infrastructure” series should be up later this week. I expect it to have three parts in total. As with A Few Acres of Snow and the Critical Silence On The Biggest Flawed Game of 2011 this one will be posted on www.2d6.org 24 hours before I post it to “On Gamer’s Games.” I expect that it is less likely to break the blog feature then the last one was.

Microbadge?
Is there any interest in an “On Gamer’s Game” microbadge? If so is anyone interested in making one? Unfortunately my skill set does not include making effective, yet tiny graphics, so if there is some interest I will have to find someone who has both the capability and willingness to construct one.

Blog Roll
A lot of blogs in the broader wilds of the internet allow people to link to various websites, mostly blogs. Since that is not a real capability here, I will instead provide a list of spots I generally go to when I conduct my daily board game reading:

QWERTYUIOP
While I am quite jealous of his relatively low blog number (46!) I am able to overcome that in order to read Martin’s generally very good content. Lately he has been talking a lot about pushing for a more effective focus by playing previously experienced games and is going to be leading a book discussion group on “Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals.” I plan on participating and if this topic interests you, I encourage you to do so as well!

Quote:

One way to describe the project of this book is to say that we are working to establish a critical discourse for game design. We agree with veteran game designer Warren Spector that "It is absolutely vital that we start to build a vocabulary that allows us to examine, with some degree of precision, how games evoke emotional-intellectual responses in players." As a nascent field of inquiry, there are not yet well-developed ways of talking about games and how they function. What is the point of establishing a critical discourse? Simply put, a critical vocabulary lets us talk to each other. It lets us share ideas and knowledge, and in doing so, expands the borders of our emerging field.


Straight Talk on Strategy Gaming
Nate does not post frequently, but when he does it is always worth reading. His posts tend to be large, well-thought out and extremely comprehensive covering both modern and classic games. He occasionally posts reviews, to but most of his articles are on general topics. My favorite of his articles, and the one that originally brought his blog to my attention is Agriconomics where he examines whether or not Agricola is really an economic game. It is really exceptional, and I highly encourage that anyone who is even remotely interested in the topic.

Over on Fortress Ameritrash (www.fortressat.com) are three columnists who I try to read whenever they post. They do not have links that specifically connect to a collection of their articles, but they if you poke around on the site you should be able to find their articles. They are:

Matt Thrower with “Bolt Thrower”,
Ken B. with “Next of Ken”, and
Michael Barnes with “Barnestorming”

There are some differences about their columns. Matt tends to write a lot more general article beyond his column, where Mike and Ken mostly seem to write articles directly related to the column itself. Matt and and Mike both write a bit about media in addition to their discussion on games, where Ken seems to be laser-focused on games, but in general I find them all to be worth reading, both for the reviews themselves as well as for the frequently insightful discussion that occurs in the comments section. I know that Fortress AT has a bit of a bad reputation on BGG, but for those who are looking for intelligent criticism of games, then it is probably a good idea to keep up with their articles. I tend to read them regularly, it was Barnes’ column that brought Cave Evil to my attention, even though the games they cover are outside of my area of interest.

The Opinionated Gamers (www.opinionatedgamers.com) is also worth reading mostly because they have a large stable of reviewers who all contribute to what is ultimately a group review of the game they are discussing, and frequently have other articles that are worth reading including, arguments about the merit of particular designers, interviews with particular designers, convention reports, and more. They tend to prefer euros that sit outside my general area of interest, but the articles are typically worth reading, if only to provide some enjoyable annoyance. I do not even bother reading the comics any more though.

What’s Next?
My current plan is to write a comparative review of Hawaii and Pantheon. Both are middle to light weight Hans im Gluck eurogames which typically means I am going to be predisposed to disliking them. Surprisingly enough one of them worked for me, and I am going to write a comparative review of the two games, exploring why exactly one of them worked for me while the other, sadly, did not.

Since it looks like we are hitting a bit of a dead zone in interesting new games after that I am thinking of writing a comprehensive review on a lightly reviewed classic. Five geek gold to whoever is able to guess which one it is. No more than one guess per person!
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Mon Apr 2, 2012 8:12 pm
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