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Rantings of a deranged themey-euro-strategy-game-collecting curmudgeon

I think the title pretty well covers it! Stray gamer thoughts, musings on game design principles and possible some cranky tirades about games that I'm sure will put die-hard fans up in frothing fury.

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Illusions in Gaming: "Magic" rules (this has nothing to do with casting spells)

Brian M
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We like to talk about game terms like they are objective things, that we can all discuss with the same meaning. But often, they are not. One person's perspective can be totally different from another, and unless we take the time to clarify, we can spend a lot of words without ever communicating.

Long ago in a galaxy not that far away, I decided to join in a game of Tales of the Arabian Nights. I didn't really think it would be my thing, but I was curious to give it a try. It did look like it could be pretty entertaining with the right group.



Unfortunately, the player teaching the game was not, in my opinion, part of "the right group". He wasn't very into trying to read the text with flair and emotion, and kept messing up one particular thing:

In Tales, you encounter various people and things, and then go read paragraphs of flavor text about what is happening with those things. So you might meet a seer, or a prince, or a djinn, and then somebody looks up a paragraph in a book which says something like:

The other mocks your game collection mercilessly, laughing with undisguised contempt at your dozen different Monopoly variants.

The text is not specific to who or what you met, hence the "other" in that text. You see, when you actually read this, you are supposed to substitute whatever you actually met for "other". Like a mad-libs. So you are supposed to be told:

The Prince mocks your game collection mercilessly, laughing with undisguised contempt at your dozen different Monopoly variants.

Our teacher did not do that. I don't know why not. He would just always say "the other". Pretty sure we pointed this out. I don't think he got why it should matter. But it drove me (and some other players) NUTS.

Of course, he's right. It doesn't actually matter. The game mechanics don't change whether you say "the other" or "the prince". First, I'm capable of remembering who I just met from ten seconds ago and can fill in "the other" myself. Second, it doesn't actually matter what you met; that's all just flavor.

But it made a difference in how the game felt to me, and that was enough to impact my enjoyment of the game.

What about Mag·Blast (Third Edition), where the players need to make sound effects when they play an attack card or the attack "misses"?



ZAP! KABOOM! FREEM!

Several people I tried to play this with hated this rule. I thought it was fairly entertaining. And it nicely covers up my tendency to just make sound effects all the time anyway.

But again, it doesn't actually change the game in any way. You don't use a different tactic because your opponent is going to say "Kerblooie!"

These are magic rules. They don't actually change the game play, but they make a difference to some people playing the game.

To some people, a magic rule can be very important to a game. To other people, a magic rule can be completely meaningless.

Magic rules can take many forms.

In Mansions of Madness, the rules specify that the investigators flip over a card, but then the keeper grabs it and reads it. It doesn't make any mechanical difference who reads the cards, but I far prefer having the investigator read it; it gives the investigators more to do, and feels more like actually "discovering" what is in the location.



In Myth, the rules basically call for you to just make up what monsters you meet. To some, this is a very big deal giving them a lot of freedom. To others, this is no rule at all; we can already make up what monsters we meet in any adventure game (and have been doing just that since the days of original D&D and Heroquest) - we don't need a rule to tell us we can do that to do so!

Warhammer Quest (and all GW games past the Rogue Trader age) are very insistent that you use the proper models. Some players are as well. But the game doesn't care what your models are. Ral Partha ghouls die on your adventurer's swords just as well as GW ghouls. Horror of horrors, substitute skaven models for ghouls and they still act just like ghouls!



Some people get very excited about tearing up cards in a Legacy game. To them this is terribly different from just putting the card back in the box. But for the actual game, the effect is identical - you don't use that card any more in that game.

If a magic rule makes a difference in a game to you, you may not even know its a magic rule. You think it makes a difference. However, under the hood, you are wrong. To someone else, that rule can be totally irrelevant to the game. Take it out, and to them nothing changes.

And this is something we need to watch out for. If we're talking about the underlying mechanics of the game, a magic rule doesn't matter. If we're talking about the feel and theme of the game, a magic rule can matter very much - but does not necessarily matter to every player.

There are probably magic rules that I don't realize are magic rules because they change the game for me.

But if you are arguing with someone about a rule, try to look very carefully and make sure you aren't arguing about a magic rule. Because what a magic rule means to you is not what it means to everyone else!

Images from the BGG galleries with thanks to UniversalHead, joshp, fralim, and victorywt. And holy cow victorywt is that an impressive set of minis!
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Wed Mar 9, 2016 11:09 pm
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Where did my games come from?

Brian M
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I'm pretty sure some of them must have been dropped off by gnomes in the middle of the night. Or possibly they have been breeding on the shelves.

With the sad announcement that TimeWellSpent is closing up, I'm adrift wondering where I will buy games from now, which led to wonder where exactly I've bought games from before. Since I've been tracking that info since 2004 2010, here's the summary:

EDIT: OOPS! I have acquisition dates back to 2004, but it looks like there's just a few strays prior to 2010. 2010 seems to to be the first year I recorded EVERYTHING I acquired.

= 2 games

(I only counted base games so as not to have to account for every single promo card).


Thrift
Contest
Dept Store
Reward(1)
Hobby Store(2)
Amazon
Milan Spiele
BGG.Con Booth
Essen Booth
Direct(3)
Trades
Individuals(4)
Gifts
BGG Door Prize
KS
TWS


Notes:
(1) Rewards from playtesting/demoing/translating games.
(2) 1 game each from Miniature Market, Total Escape, Mile High Comics, Attactix, Levalet.com
(3) Direct purchases from designers or publishers.
(4) Mostly the BGG Marketplace. Includes the BGG flea market.


The actual numbers, mostly for my record:
Spoiler (click to reveal)

Thrift Store (2)
Contest (3)
Department Store (3)
For playtesting/demo/etc. (5)
Other specialty store (5; 1 each from 5 places)
Amazon (7, 1 from de)
Milan Spiele (8, all one order)
BGG Con Vendor (10)
Essen Vendor (11)
Direct from Company (14)
Trades (14)
Bought from individual/BGG Market (14)
Gifts (18)
BGG Door Prize (19)
Kickstarter (26)
TimeWellSpent (164)
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Tue Jan 5, 2016 7:11 pm
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Why I find 'Gender' keywords to be a red flag that a game probably isn't very good.

Brian M
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I haven't blogged in a very long time. I've got two posts sitting around half-finished that I really need to conclude. But I recently had a discussion over with Gloom of Kilforth: A Fantasy Quest Game that I felt merited a longer and more in-depth answer than what seemed appropriate for the thread.

EDIT: To clarify, some people seem to think I'm directing this specifically at Kilforth. I'm not. That's just where the topic came up and I was asked to clarify why I dislike gender as a mechanic.

So, to the point. When I see gender as a keyword/trait on character cards in an adventure game, that's a warning sign for me that I should probably avoid this game. Its not that its automatically bad. Its more like seeing a whole bunch of exclamation points after the title, or when the back of the box talks about how this game "Will revolutionize gaming!".

There are a lot of reasons why, and I'm going to try to explain some of them.

First, let's get some things out of the way up front...

I am not speaking for everyone who dislikes gendered tags in a game.
I know that may seem obvious, but there are lots of reasons people might not want game elements, and I can only speak from my viewpoint, not anyone else's.

I'm not talking about games that use gender as a set-matching or offspring producing mechanic
Games like Alea Iacta Est, Helvetia and Hameln use gender as a set-matching mechanic or are based around producing offspring. That, to me, is a fine use for gender is a game and is not a red flag of any sort.

I'm not talking about simply ACKNOWLEDGING gender
Some people have been wanting to take "I don't like gender tags" to mean that all the art for the game should feature androgynous people or those wearing full gender-neutral armor or something like that. No, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking specifically about using gender as a game-mechanic keyword.

Though, on the topic, I think its great when a game provides double-sided sheets that have a male portrait on one side and female on the other. But that's a different story.

I want to play a game about adventure, not about gender roles!
Now let's get to what I am talking about. Let's say I get a character card. It may list stats. It may list things like "Evil" and "Wizard". And occasionally it will throw in "Male" or "Female".

Now let me be clear about something; this is NOT common in board games these days. You won't find gender keywords in Descent or the Mage Knight Board Game or Legends of Andor. Its more something you used to see in old games, first wave CCGs, and that still crops up in video games.


"Women" on this card is used a keyword in Fantasy Adventures. It adds nothing worthwhile to the game.

These are traits that are used in the game. At a glance, they tell me what sort of things are important in the game.

So when I see "Evil" and "Good" it tells me this is a game with classic good and evil. I can likely expect to see villainous necromancers and heroic knights. Evil and Good characters probably won't get along well. Probably more of a high-fantasy setting.

When I see "Wizard" and "Fighter" it tells me this is a game with defined classes. I can expect to see characters with various roles and special abilities appropriate to that role.

When I see "Dragon" and "Goblin" it tells me that this game has different kinds of creatures which have a different effect on the world. I may well be seeing mechanics that will encourage using a bunch of similar creatures together.

When I see "Female" and "Male" it tells me...umm...what? That men and women exist in this setting? OK, I kinda woulda guessed that. That this is a game about gender roles?

If I'm picking up a fantasy adventure game, I want to play a game about adventures. I want to fight monsters and explore fantastic places and muster armies. I don't want a game about gender roles.

When you, as a designer, put "Male" and "Female" as a stat you are telling me that you couldn't find anything more interesting or exciting or relevant to the game to use. This does not convey excitement or clever design to me.

Its probably going to be stereotypical and cliché.
As a new game, you don't actually get a blank slate of coming into a world that's never seen a game before with no preconceptions of what a game will be. So, when every time I've seen gender used as a mechanic in a game its used to be stereotypical or cliché, it seems likely that your new game with gender is also going to be stereotypical or cliché. Are you going to surprise me and be brilliant and different? Eh...I'm not going to hold my breath.

Should games avoid all stereotypes? No, probably not. Its ok to have stereotypical orcs and elves and wizards, especially if you are just trying to make a hack-and-slash battle and not establish a deep world. But that doesn't mean I WANT a game to scream out to me "Hey, I'm about clichés!"

Its probably going to be either irrelevant or silly.
How many items in your game really are going to have gender matter to them? If you are actually making an adventure game, probably not very many. And the past track record on what I've seen is that the ones that will be included will be silly or unreasonable.

For example, its common in many computer RPGs to have gender based items. And invariably the "male-only" items will be stuff that's perfectly sensible adventuring gear (Heavy Plate Armor - male only!) while the "female-only" items will be stuff that has nothing to do with adventuring (Sparkly Pink Dress - female only! Pin-heels of power - female only!)

Now aside from being facepalming silly, the gender restrictions aren't even reasonable. I've known guys who wore high heels to get a free drink and women who wear men's pants to get an extra pocket. If that frilly pink dress gives you super-magical powers, you'll see guys wearing a frilly pink dress.

And if its restrictions on professions? Oh c'mon. There's not a single gender-stereotyped profession in history that hasn't been done by people of both genders. And in adventure games, we are telling the tales of people who ARE unusual and exception, so expecting them to conform to rigid stereotypes is even sillier.

There's probably a more exciting and thematic alternative
So you want to split up abilities or bonuses or something in some way to ensure balance?

There are so many things that would be more interesting and more versatile than gender! And that will give you more freedom when you want to add an ability in the future that you don't want combined with things from the "male only" pile OR the "female only" pile.

Just off the top of my head...
Light/Dark
Elemental associations (Air, Fire, etc)
Alliance based (Free Nations, Imperial Guild)
Trait based (Strength, Wisdom, Cunning)
Deity based (Follower of Thor, Follower of Isis)
Totem animal based (Bear, Wolf, Rabbit)

Etc, etc.

Any of these are going to tell me more about your world, be more flexible, and be more exciting.

Its probably going to be a crutch used instead of more thematic mechanics
So, you've got your gender mechanic. So you'll put in your "seductive female monster" that gets +1 combat vs. male characters.
Whee.
Does that convey "seductive monster" to you? Its just a stray modifier. It doesn't try to get close to the party and blend in. It doesn't help to have people around who can rescue the victim. There's been no effort to create a mechanic that actually captures the theme of what's going on.

Which again, is how I've seen it used in all the games with gender keywords so far.

Its probably going to be sexist.
I saved this one for last because its by far the most controversial. I think the above reasons are quite sufficient to cover why gender isn't a good game element even before you get here.

But most likely, if you are including gender traits in the game, and especially if you are a male designer, its probably going to wind up with sexist content, most likely against women. Because like it or not, you're fighting massive cultural influence that bombards you with stereotypes and tells you that "male" is "default".

You may not realize, for example, that saying "you can't play this class because of your gender" isn't the same thing when you say it to a man and to a woman.

First off, if you are like most designers who have used gender as a mechanic so far, the "male" choice is probably something cool and a core part of fantasy, while the "female" choice is probably something very specifically "feminine". You aren't giving equal choices.

On top of that, most men have never faced serious gender discrimination in their lives. They have never been told they have to give up on the career they really want because they aren't a girl. They haven't been told they aren't allowed to take a class in school because they aren't a girl. They haven't not allowed in a game club because they are a boy.

Many women have experienced these things. "You can't be a ____" isn't some abstract fantasy restriction, that's real, painful life. That's not adventure and fantasy, that's up with there with stuff like paying taxes, having to find the money to buy a new water heater and get the damn flooded basement clean, and having to deal with an idiot customer who's pissed at you because he didn't do his shopping until Christmas Eve and now the hot game is all out of stock. Its a crappy stupid part of life that most of us play games to get away from.

Why in the world do you want to make that part of your game?
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Thu Sep 24, 2015 6:43 pm
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Which co-ops are "play-by-commitee" and which co-ops resist it.

Brian M
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Ah, the dreaded co-op claims. "It might as well be solitaire", "One player just tells everyone else what to do", "It's play-by-committee", "An alpha player (translation: a bossy jerk) tells everyone what to do".

I'm going to use PbC (play-by-committee) in this post, because it abbreviates nicely and is less judgmental than APtABJ.

There's a big push to make co-ops resistant to PbC, with varying degrees of success. The list below is an attempt to group co-ops by how much the game does to discourage PbC.

A few things to note:

* PbC is very subjective. Some groups won't have 'problems' with it in any game. Some groups will manage to make it a problem in any game.

* I'm ignoring traitor and 'one player wins' options. That's a competitive game, not a cooperative game. Incidentally, including such options don't necessarily reduce PbC; players may be even more pushier about "correct" play when "poor" play may indicate a traitor. As such, any game in the list below only considers true co-op play, even if the game includes other options.

* PbC is highly subjective. I've repeatedly observed that posters on BGG tend to PbC less when a game has more of a classic RPG look and feel to it, regardless of the actual mechanics of the game. I am only going to consider the actual mechanics of the game. You'll have to decide for yourself if you would push a new player to spend 2 blue cubes but not to spend 2 magic points.

* Finally, I feel the mantra of "no PbC" is a sad thing for co-ops. While it's so often cited as an automatic problem, I think the experience of planning closely and debating tactics with your friends can really be an awful lot of fun. True, such games work best when everyone at the table is at a similar level of experience and vocalness. But there are many, many games that work best when all of the players are at the same skill level. By continually striving to avoid PbC, I think some game designers are working too hard, and maybe making a game worse, to fix problems that aren't really problems for many players.

On to the list!

Impossible to PbC thumbsup thumbsup
These games specifically feature limited communication. Managing the communication limitations is central to the game and makes it impossible to dictate play to other players.

Cranium Hoopla
Hanabi
Onirim (assuming you use the "no-talking" rules, which I recommend)

Very hard to PbC thumbsup
These games all feature real-time elements. Because players must go very fast, it is hard to play for others. In some situations and with sufficiently experienced players, a player may be able to do so however.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple
Space Alert
Space Cadets
Wok Star

A Little PbC Resistance
These games have limited measures to reduce PbC, such as small amounts of hidden information or hands of cards that are too complex to easily PbC. A determined player may be able to PbC in these games.

Defenders of the Realm (this one was a tough choice; could easily go down 1 category)
Hooyah Navy Seals
Lord of the Rings LCG
Mage Knight
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Shadowrift
Witch of Salem

No Special Resistance thumbsdown
The games have no particular protection against PbC. They may have hands of cards, but the card info is limited enough that it can easily be communicated.

Arkham Horror
Castle Ravenloft
Flash Point: Fire Rescue
Forbidden Island
Ghost Stories
Lord of the Rings (downgraded per suggestion)
Mice & Mystics
Oh No...Invasion! Apparently this one has varying modes
Pandemic
Prophecy (co-op variant)
Red November
Schnappt Hubi
Star Trek Expeditions
Vanished Planet
Warhammer Quest (might go in the "not enough skill" category below)
Wrath of Ashardalon
Yggdrasil
Zombicide

Encourages PbC thumbsdown thumbsdown
These games outright encourage PbC. These require or strongly reward close planning that easily lends itself to one player dictating a plan for the group. Several have no definite turn structure; having all the players take their turns at the same time leads to a much more committee based atmosphere and makes it more likely that one player will simply instruct the others as to what to do.

Atlantis Rising
Feurio
Rabbit
Robinson Crusoe
Space Hulk: Death Angel
Spellbound

Not enough SKill to PbC
An odd side case. You could PbC in these games, but there's really not enough for meaningful choices that there's any point to.

A Touch of Evil
Castle Panic
Dungeon Fighter
Elder Sign
Fortune and Glory
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Thu Dec 20, 2012 3:03 pm
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About the world, and how it's not going to end: An entirely too serious aside on a really silly topic.

Brian M
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I would like to be able to write this entirely in jest, I really would. Worries about an imminent end of the world should pretty much be handled in jest.

I've noticed something at work though. When someone brings up "Hey, it's almost the end of the world" in a group of four, three people are laughing...and one person isn't.

There are some people that are genuinely scared. Apparently, there have been people out there - often kids - committing suicide or dropping into deep depression because of a fear of the end of the world. I know some otherwise fairly intelligent people that are scared, sometimes even though their brain tells them better.

I really, really hope that there are none of those people on BGG and that this blog post is a complete waste of time.

But if you are one of those people, I urge you to go do a little research.

I posted awhile ago on Facebook that "it really is the end of the world - Diablo III actually released!"

Those of you who know Diablo III and Blizzard's release schedules get this. To those who don't, no worries - it's a game that took forever to come out even by the standards of a company that usually takes forever to put games out.

Diablo III actually releasing is the most solid indication of the upcoming end of the world.

Seriously. That's how silly the end of the world predictions are. They don't hold as much weight as one long delayed video game.

I'm not even going to try to touch on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of paying attention to "ancient prophecies" or anything like that. I don't need to, because there aren't any ancient prophecies saying the world is going to end in 2012. None. Zilch. Nada.

The Mayan calendar might have an end point in December 2012 (or it might not - it may have actually had an end point 7 months ago). There's a good chance your calendar might have an end point as well.

See, go look at your wall calendar. October 2012, November 2012, December 2012 and...oh no! It ends. This does not predict the end of the world. This predicts that it's time to go buy next year's "Hunky Meeple-Pushers of the World" calendar. Or, ya know, whatever your wall calendar choice is.

Heck, most of this "Mayan calendar = end of the world" thing is mostly from publicity websites for the disaster movie 2012.

Seriously. A flippin' Hollywood movie. Hollywood is always a source of reliable science and real world info, right? (And hey, if they are, you can probably survive just by climbing into a fridge ) I haven't seen the movie personally, but from the reviews, apparently they couldn't even come up with a plausible doomsday rationale in the movie.

Then we've got a couple of nuts shuffling around predicted doomsdays. Oops, it didn't end in 2003, so we'll just reschedule for later.

If you're my age, you've already lived through at least 20 odd highly popularized doomsday predictions. As far as I can tell, the world is still here. But at least we all remember what a huge disaster Y2K was, right, with panic in the...oh, no, wait, nothing happened.

There is no unusual planetary alignment. There are no strange celestial phenomenon going on. None! Even if there were a big planetary alignment, it would do precisely...nothing. But there's no one.

BGGers are on the whole, a wonderful group, and I would hate for any of you wonderful people to be feeling any stress over a bizarre media-hype infused load of nonsense.

Don't feel bad if you have been worried about this. There's been a ton of hype on this. There's been a fair number of people devoting a lot of effort into making you think there's something to be worried about in the hopes of making money. And there's been a lot more people just getting in on it for the fun of a silly joke and to be able to post "what games should we play for the end of the world?" geeklists.

Some websites you might want to check out:

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html

http://www.2012hoax.org/

http://www.wikihow.com/Overcome-a-Fear-of-2012

Ok, you may now resume the important stuff like arguing about whether or not it's OK to rate Puerto Rico a 1.
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Mon Dec 17, 2012 3:35 pm
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Playing "Fair", playing "Wrong"

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Playing Fair

I recently hit an all time BGG bafflement level in a discussion on Descent 2nd Edition, and a potentially "broken" ability. The Elemental in this game could* use its 'Air' power to become completely immune to attacks. This could outright break (I mean really REALLY break here, as in "use this ability and automatically win the scenario") specific scenarios, and could be extremely problematic in a number of others.

I suggested house-ruling the elemental. I was called a stick-in-the-mud unfun jerk (this is not reading between the lines - those were some of the words used) for even suggesting such a thing.

So, those people thought the elemental was fine as was?

Nope!

Some of them were busy trying to construct complex rules-lawyer semantic arguments to try to work around the problems (with minimal success by the way).

Quite a few others were spouting about fair play - the ability wasn't a problem because no one would ever consider using it that way because it wasn't fair.



Now, I know I'm not the brightest bulb in the string, but it seems to me that we've got a set of rules to tell us how to play the game. We shouldn't be having to sit around going "wait, is it FAIR if I actually use this rule?" "Can I use this ability just a turn or two and still be ok? Every other turn? Is using it all wrong? What if the other side happens to have an ability that might let them circumvent the power?"

I just want to play the damn game! I don't want myself - or anyone else at the table - to be wasting brain power on what's a "fair" play.

To me, this is a simple situation. You houserule. You say "this is the precise rule we will all follow". Then everyone can keep on playing and know exactly what rules you are all following, and no one has to stress about whats "fair".

I don't believe in knocking a player for winning in a way that's not fun. If a way to win isn't fun, that's a problem the game designers should have fixed. I don't want to be trying to second guess how we are 'supposed' to play a game for it to be fun. Heck, we may not even all have the same ideas on what is "fun".

If your group likes "just play fair" as an approach, and can all agree, yay for you. Please don't begrudge those of us who would rather figure out a consistent rule we can all agree on for doing so.

* FFG has since errated this.

Playing "Wrong"

Closely related is playing 'Wrong'. Not 'wrong' as in "you messed up a rule" (that's a whole different kind of wrong). 'Wrong' as in "you're completely screwing up the strategy or missing the point of the game".

And sometimes people really do screw up the strategy. But that's...not quite what's going on here.

Let's say we've got a hypothetical game with the Greenian, Bluenosian and Redfootian factions, and I say "this game is unbalanced! When the Greenians go for economy, they are unstoppable! Bluenosians and Redfootians can't compete!"

And you in response say "You're playing wrong. If Greenians go for economy, the other players can easily counter it with tactical bombing strikes", that's good solid advice. Go you.

But what people sometimes say instead is:

"You're playing wrong. Greenians should go for tactical bombing upgrades instead of economy; you'd be stupid to boost economy".

Let me get this straight. The Greenians are playing wrong. They should use a different strategy.

But...they are WINNING with economy!

How can you tell someone they are playing 'wrong' by following a winning strategy?

Again, we have a game with rules we are all supposed to follow. We have no way of knowing what to do except for those rules. If you play a strategy and it tends to win, you ARE playing 'right'. Or your opponents are playing 'wrong'. You are NOT playing wrong!

As with playing "fair", if you aren't supposed to use those strategies, why are they included in the game?

The people losing the game should not be arguing that the winners are using the wrong strategy!
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Tue Dec 4, 2012 9:22 pm
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A Crazy Couples Co-op Compared Cooperative Rankings

Brian M
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In 2009, I made a geeklist ranking and rating all of the cooperative games that Lisa and I had played thus far. We're real nuts for co-op games, and I thought it might be helpful. In 2011, I did an updated Crazy Couples Co-op Guide. I tried to add to it, but often didn't keep it up; and old posts to new geeklists often are overlooked anyway.

So I'm redoing the list for 2012. It's going to be bigger, have a better format (I hope) and will include expansions.

That's still in the works (and I'm sort of waiting on BGG.Con to get in a few more co-ops for 2012), but in the meantime I thought I'd post our overall ratings for all the co-ops we've played up through 2012.

Some of these may be a little misleading, such as when we played a co-op a lot at first but are now tired of it (in the upcoming geeklist, I've got 'addictive' and 'long term replayability' ratings to give an indication of how those tastes have changed).

This is highly subjective and just based on my and Lisa's ratings.

Hanabi
Space Alert
Ghost Stories
Witch of Salem
Wok Star
Flash Point: Fire Rescue
Pandemic
Yggdrasil
Escape: The Curse of the Temple
D-Day Dice
Shadowrift
Forbidden Island
Fortune and Glory: The Cliffhanger Game
Feurio!
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Mage Knight Board Game
Dungeon Fighter
Space Hulk: Death Angel – The Card Game
Onirim
Vanished Planet
Atlantis Rising
Mice and Mystics
Lord of the Rings
Cranium Hoopla
Elder Sign
Defenders of the Realm
Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft Board Game
Red November
Warhammer Quest
Prophecy (with co-op in Prophecy: Dragon Realm)
A Touch of Evil: The Supernatural Game
Arkham Horror
Castle Panic
Star Trek: Expeditions
Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon Board Game
Rabbit
Cthulhu Mash


Played but unrated:
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game

Still want to play:
All Things Zombie: The Boardgame - less likely to play
Countdown: Special Ops - not scheduled until next year
The Dwarves - waiting for an English edition
Gears of War: The Board Game - less likely to play
Hooyah: Navy Seals Card Game - need to order
Legends of Andor - waiting for the FFG release
Spellbound - on pre-order
Zombicide - not sure if we'll play this or not
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Mon Nov 5, 2012 4:24 pm
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Challenge and Difficulty in co-op games, and having different preferences than everyone else

Brian M
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First off, as you probably know, I'm a complete co-op nut. I love cooperative everyone-vs-the game games, especially for playing 2 player with Lisa and I. This is a topic about co-ops that I've meant to write about for a long time, but a recent purchase kicked me into it.

I recently picked up the Sentinels of the Multiverse Expansion, Rook City as a present for Lisa, though I had some misgivings about it.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is a super-hero themed card game. You have a deck of cards for each hero, and a 'villain' deck that opposes you as you try to defeat the villain in a knock-down, drag out fight. The original had some rough spots and more design choices, but also had a lot of potential and could be pretty fun.

The expansion has been well received by fans of the game. To my mind, it amplifies all the things the original Sentinels did wrong, and does very little right.

At the core of this is that players seem to want the game to be "harder". This is a cry I've often heard in regard to co-op games. "This it too easy! Make it harder!".

I've come to realize that I almost never want a co-op to be harder. I used to think other people didn't really want that either; I'm now seeing that's not the case.

What I often have wanted is for a co-op to be more challenging.

Now, I'm not being semantically picky here; I'm instead going to use the terms hard and challenging to illustrate two different concepts.

Let's say we play a game where you need to roll a die to succeed, and need to score an 10 or more on a D20 (That's not one mechanic - that's the whole game!)

We can make the game "harder" by requiring you to roll a 20 instead. That's a much harder game.

But it's not the slightest bit more challenging. A little kid who has to be told to roll the die has the exact same chance of winning as a master probability expert and game veteran. Your skill doesn't matter, you don't have any choices.

So, what if you instead need the 10 or more, but can pick 1D20 or 2D10? A few people out there will probably (incorrectly) pick the 2D10. That's still almost negligible challenge, but there's the tiniest smidge of player skill.

Ok, so how about you need to make 3 series of rolls, each against a target value drawn from a stack of tokens numbered 4,6,8,10,12 (note that only 3 of those values will come up in a game). You have one die of each standard size (d4,d6,d8,d10,d12,d20) and can use each one once. You get points for each roll you pass, and points for unused dice at the end of the game - and the higher dice are worth more if you don't use them - and you need some total number of points to win.

Now what choice should you make? At this point we can't easily figure it out off the top of our heads. This is a more challenging game than simply rolling a d20 and hoping you get a 20, even though it's probably substantially easier!

Challenging games are games of skill. The more you play, the better you are going to do at a challenging game, as you learn the game better.

Sources of Difficulty that don't necessarily add Challenge
Randomness is usually the source of all difficulty without challenge, but it usually falls into one of two main types:

1 Random success or failure: You can plan optimal actions, but you can't necessarily succeed at those optimal actions. A typical example is attack rolls, where you make an attack and need to roll to see whether or not it hits or misses.

Castle Ravenloft has pure random attack rolls. You roll the dice, you takes your chances. No amount of skill will help you if your attacks keep coming up '1'.

Ghost Stories mitigates the randomness of "attack" rolls by enabling you to gather Tao which can boost poor rolls. You can just make an attack and hope you get lucky, but Ghost Stories veterans know it's best to not take chances. If you've got the Tao, a good roll will still help you (since you won't need to spend the Tao), but a bad roll won't leave you hosed.

2 Random Screwage: The amount which the game throws things at you that just hurt you with nothing you can do about it. Games with high random screwage are the games that simply undo what you've accomplished. They make you lose because the game decided you should lose, not because you didn't play well enough.

Now, it's a given that co-ops will throw bad stuff at you. So here's an example of the differences:

Space Alert threats appear, and you better handle them before they hurt you. They never show up and instantly blow holes in your ship. They occasionally show up and tangle up your systems for a bit. You live or die by how well you handle the threats, not by how lucky you are in drawing threats.

Ghost Stories has a few ghosts that show up and immediately make life very difficult, such as the Shapeless Evil and the Black Widows. That's random screwage, but it's used sparingly. Each of these ghosts is a big threat. They are the ghosts that really get you scared. The rest of the ghosts are still scary, but you'll have a moment to fight them before they hurt you.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: Rook City constantly tosses cards at you that pound you for massive damage before you prevent it, hurt you for doing well, bring back everything you destroyed and get rid of all the cards you played. This is complete random screwage. What you do doesn't matter compared to the order the decks are stacked in.

This leads me to consider...

Types of co-op games and what I think of them


High Challenge, Low Difficulty
A high challenge game is an intense puzzle. You can get a lot of excitement out of struggling to figure out how to beat. I'll likely especially enjoy a high challenge game if it is fast enough to play several times in a row; the "I'm going to beat this" factor makes we want to keep playing.

Space Alert is a great example of a high challenge, low difficulty game. "What?! Low difficulty?!" You exclaim; "We get blown up all the time!" Well, that's because you aren't skilled enough. Don't take it personally; I'm not either a lot of the time. If you had all the time in the world to plan in Space Alert, you'd likely never lose. There are some odd border situations that will cause you a hard time with particular threats on certain tracks and terrible hands of cards, but I think you would come back intact 95% of the time.

However, the constraints of real-time mean that you usually can't get to that optimal solution. You have to rely on your skill and fast thinking to try to get as close as you can.

After enough plays, you'll definitely start noticing the skill factor kicking in; missions and sets of enemies that used to clobber you are now a breeze. Eventually you'll want to use more advanced enemies, trickier custom tracks, or buy the expansion.

The expansion does a great job of kicking up the challenge, without increasing the difficulty all that much. A phasing fighter doesn't take more hits or do more damage than a regular fighter; it's just a lot trickier to manage to hit it, requiring more player skill.

Low Challenge, Low Difficulty
A low challenge, low difficulty game can be dull or can be a roler coaster ride.

Elder Signs falls into the first category. You pick a card (which is usually an obvious choice) and you roll dice and hope to match the symbols on the card. Almost no choice, no skill, and it's not very hard. This is dull.

This isn't automatically bad. Sometimes it's fun to just relax and roll dice, but Elder Sign overstays it's welcome at an hour or more - as a 20 minute game or so, I'd enjoy it as a filler.

However, most of the effort on Elder Sign is to increase the difficulty, rather than increasing the challenge or decreasing the length.

Fortune and Glory falls into the second category. The choices are pretty obvious, and it's mostly luck of the dice with a little push your luck. But...it's fun. It does a good job of catching you up in a feeling of whirlwind adventure and a race against evil. The evil track rises enough to let you feel some tension, even if it's not enough to make you lose.

High Challenge, High Difficulty
This would be a game in which you need to make tough decisions, but even when you make the decisions correctly you'll be blocked by random luck.

I'm not sure I've got a good example. Perhaps Space Hulk: Death Angel, but it's more Medium Challenge/Medium Difficulty. It has the high frustration factor of coming up with a clever plan and figuring out a tricky situation only to roll two zeroes in a row and blow it. Not something I'm very fond of.

However, Hanabi might also fall in this category (especially when playing for a perfect score). Sometimes the order of the cards makes life very hard, but your skill matters a lot when you do have working card combos. And it's fast, so you easily play several games in a row to try to average out your luck and get a win.

Low Challenge, High Difficulty
And here we've got Sentinels of the Multiverse: Rook City. To me, this is frustration in a box. You struggle to win, but you can't actually control whether you win or not.

And here's the funny part to me. Some, maybe a lot, of people really seem to like that. They talk about the feeling of accomplishment from beating such a game. To me, this is a completely hollow accomplishment - all we've done is gotten lucky. It wasn't our skill overcoming the odds, it was just playing losing odds enough to eventually win.

I used to think that everyone would want more of a challenge rather than a more difficult game. That they want skill to matter, and want to overcome a game by their tactics and cleverness. More and more, I see that's not the case. People want to roll the die and shout yay if they win.

Well, this gamer will keep looking for challenge and not settling for difficulty.
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Mon Jul 23, 2012 2:17 pm
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I can figure out this whole "thematic game" category, really I can.

Brian M
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I've never been very clear on this whole "thematic" game category. It still baffles me, for example, how Modern Art, a game where bidding on modern art is represented by bidding on modern art is not considered a thematic game. How can a game be closer to its theme than that?

So I decided to examine my collection on BGG and see which games I owned were actually considered "thematic".

Sorting my collection by my rating, I notice Robo Rally up near the top of the list as a thematic game. Good ol' Robo Rally.

Ok. Programmed race with a sci-fi theme = thematic. Got it. I can apply this. I can therefore conclude that Asteroyds, which is also a programmed race with a sci-fi theme must be thematic. Let's go check out Asteroyds.

Family and Strategy. Nuts. Guess I don't have this figured out yet. Robots are inherently more thematic than spaceships?

Hey, I know, I'll compare some other games that are similar to one another and see if they are in the same category.

Pandemic. Strategy game. Not thematic. Because managing limited funding and resources while trying to cure disease epidemics that appear and break out in a plausible manner on a board that looks convincingly like a planning room map is...well, actually that seems pretty thematic to me, but the votes have spoken.

Besides, one of the criteria I've often heard is that "if it can be easily rethemed, it's not a thematic game", and we know Pandemic has already been successfully rethemed to Defenders of the Realm, a thematic game. So obviously Pandemic is not thematic.

Whoa...wait. If Pandemic could be rethemed into Defenders...couldn't

(pause for dramatic effect)

Defenders be rethemed into Pandemic?!
Crud. I guess that criteria fails us here.

So maybe it's in the thematic details? In Pandemic, you get cards representing funding, resources and discoveries available in various locations. Resources that can be used in one location cannot be used in another. This is, of course, highly unthematic; in the real world, nations always willing cooperate and share resources. And spending a million dollars on a lab in no way cuts into the funds for transporting medical teams and equipment across the country, as having to discard a card after playing it does.

And in the real world it would be completely ludicrous to think that being under-budget one year might lead to budget cuts the next year (having to discard resources - cards - due to not having played enough cards). Completely ludicrous.

Meanwhile, in the much more thematic Defenders, you collect horsies and eagles and magic pillars. If you ride a horse, it promptly dies. Which can be very bad, because you need horses to fight generals. But not just any horse, no. Horses are colored! You have red horses and blue horses and green horses and black horses! And the more horses (of the correct color) you have, the better you fight! It brings to mind all those famous battle scenes where a lone hero rides into battle astride a half dozen horses, leaping from the back of one horse to the next while slashing their foe. Very thematic.

Oh, and you can never give a horse away, no matter how important it might be. Even if the horse if going to abruptly expire because you have too many magic portals. Heroes are very jealous about their horses.

And then there are the thematic rules in Defenders about how you fight even better when you are outnumbered, which...

Oh hell. I admit it. I'm trying, but I'm just not getting it here. We even use the same words when playing both games. "Black is about to explode right here, better handle it!" Can you tell which game I'm talking about?

Heck, you can even make it sound the same while talking in character. Just picture your hero saying this to the liche-lord (to be read in your best Armold-esque impersonation):
"You're a disease. I'm da cure."

So, I still am not getting anywhere. Wait. Lightbulb. Maybe I'm thinking too much about how the mechanics convey the theme, when it's really just that certain themes are inherently thematic. Fighting foes and having adventurers are a thematic theme, while curing diseases is not.

So, this is pretty accepted, right? We've got an adventure game where you travel around the board, gain equipment and experience to power up your character, fight fierce beasts, and complete varying quests with flavor text describing the quest. This has GOT to be thematic, right? I've got that much figured out?

Candamir: The First Settlers is...a strategy game.

Aaaggghhhh!

Right. It's because in Candamir you fight a bear and gain a bear hide, while in thematic adventure games you fight a bear and gain a pile of gold.

I obviously just can't understand this. Well, at least I'm pretty sure about some games that aren't thematic. I know if I see a money juggling/worker placement game that sure doesn't go in the thematic category. Like Last Will, for example. Clearly not...wait...Last Will IS in the thematic category!!!

Excuse me. A room with padded walls is calling.
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Thu May 31, 2012 3:48 pm
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What's in a name? Cooperative games.

Brian M
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This year, I'm going to try to be a bit more regular about updating this blog. We'll see if it works. Some of my bonus blog time will be riding the bus, so I'll be typing on an iPod on a bumpy bus. I shudder to think what predictive text will do if I'm not careful. (check out damnyouautocorrect.com if you don't know what I mean).

Ok, so I'm going to vent about one of my big pet peeves: the term Cooperative Games.

No, I won't even get into the whole coop/co-operative thing.

When I was in Junior High, I would occasionally hit the local arcade with a friend or two. Around 1985 a new game arrived that devoured our quarters like nothing else: Gauntlet.

If you've never played Gauntlet (which rock have you been under? I'm sure you have at least heard "elf needs food - badly!" That's Gauntlet) it's very simple; each player has a hero (barbarian, elf, Valkyrie or wizard) and you run around in a maze trying to hit the fire button fast enough to kill all the monsters.

Now, if you are one of the above mentioned rock dwellers, you might decide to go download a rom of Gauntlet and try it, or find it online, or something. And then you'll probably say "THIS ate quarters? It's lame." And you would be right; gameplay on that sort of game has improved a lot since then. But more to the point, you would be playing it alone on your computer. That is NOT how Gauntlet was ever meant to be played.

The sheer awesomeness of Gauntlet came from the teamwork. Because it was something newish at the time: a cooperative* game. Usually when I played I'd be gaming with one friend and two random strangers, and by the end of a long run we'd all be shouting plans to each other and high-fiving when we beat a level and giving each other grief about shooting the food. A great experience.

Now, fast forward a few years. I meet Lisa. We spend an awful lot of time blowing up each other's armies, racing to the crown of command, or trying to cost each other 20 life points.

This is all good, but we keep saying "Gosh golly gee willickers, wouldn't it be cool if we could occasionally play a game where we just got to team up?" We said stuff like golly-gee-willickers because that's how people talked back in ancient times, since you whippersnappers who don't recognize Gauntlet probably need that explained.

When we thought "hey, let's team up", we turned to video games. Sure, we liked table-top games better, but only video games could let us play together against an automated foe. We never found a ton of co-ops, but as the era of the N-64 and Playstation arrived, they became more common.

When we went into a game store and said we wanted two player cooperative games, there were three options:
1) The clerk knew exactly what we meant (and probably recommended games we already had).
2) The clerk didn't know of any co-ops.
3) The clerk didn't know what 'cooperative' meant and suggested Street Fighter. We pointed out that we wanted games where you work together, and the employee switched to response 2.

Never once did we have a disagreement with an employee about what co-op actually meant.

Then, in 2000. Lord of the Rings, the Knizia boardgame. A co-op board game!!!!! Awesome!**

More followed. Not a lot, but Pandemic popularized the genre a bit more and we started seeing more choices.

And then we would go into tabletop game stores and ask about co-op board games and get the same set of responses we used to about video games. Except they probably recommended Settlers of Catan instead of Street Fighter.

Then something odd happened.

"Any good new co-ops?"

"Yeah, there's this great new co-op where some of you are traitors trying to secretly thwart the other players - you manipulate and trick each other and are in constant fear and paranoia!"

"Um...ok...but we're looking for games where you all work together."

"You do!"

"But...what about the traitors?"

"Oh, yeah, well THEY don't. But aside from backstabbing and fighting against them all the time, you work together. It's a great co-op!"

Somewhere here, someone missed the point.

Now, I'm not opposed to traitor games existing, or 1 vs all (though neither are mechanics I'm fond of). I'm just opposed to calling them co-ops.

I think it's easy to see why they get called that. Co-op games are still pretty niche; it's easy to get noticed by being a co-op since there aren't many choices. And co-ops are partly niche because so many gamers prefer to compete. So what's an easy short cut to hitting the top of a bunch of 'best of' co-op lists? Make a co-op that really isn't one.

Meanwhile, some of us are still looking for games where we ALL work together. And getting ticked off whenever I go "ooooh, it's a new co-op...oh, wait, no its not".

Now we're supposed to start talking about "pure" co-ops. Well, sorry (not really), but we've been using the term "co-op" for 25*** odd years now. There is no need to change what it means now, especially when you've already got perfectly usable terms for the other games. Team games. Traitor games.

The only reason to call these non cooperative games co-ops is to deliberately make it harder for people to find the kind of games they want, and to try to get publishers to make fewer co-op games. Why bother coming up with a purely automated challenge (a tough prospect) when you can just make players compete and get lumped in the category anyway?

Co-op. Team. Get them right!


*Gauntlet wasn't the only co-op of the era, but it was the most memorable
* ps: putting in italics on the iPod is a royal pain!

** Technically, Warhammer Quest was a co-op before LotR, but we never thought of it that way; we mentally classified it as an attempt at a GMless RPG.

*** Ugh. I feel old now.
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Tue Mar 20, 2012 2:01 pm
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