The Secrets of Great Games

I discuss great boardgames and what combinations of mechanics makes them so fun to play.

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My top 30 games of all time: 11-20

Anthony Faber
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Chicago
Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If you prefer to llsten to this list rather than read it, you can hear it on the latest episode of the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which also includes my co-host Pat's 11-20 games as well:

https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-81-top-30-games-of-all-time-20...

We're back with my next installment of my top 30 games of all time, in which we'll hopefully disprove the notion that I only like friendly new eurogames. There's some mean games here, some unforgiving games, a much older game, and even a thing or two outside the eurogame category. Let's get rolling.

20. Summoner Wars (second edition)

Board Game: Summoner Wars (Second Edition)
While I mostly play eurogames today, my background is in chess, wargames, and dueling games, and this classic brings out everything I love in those genres. A sort of hybrid of Magic: the Gathering with chess-like board play, this gives nice multi-use card tradeoffs (do I save this champion who will be great later, or spend it for mana which I really need now) along with cutthroat tactical combat.

I specifically mention the 2nd edition because it cleaned up a couple of the game's glaring weaknesses. Back when I played the app version of 1st edition, there was someone named Bob the Slayer, whose main strategy was to turtle in a corner and beat you on time, or on the map if you put yourself at a tactical disadvantage to smoke him out. I remember checking my phone at 4 in the morning so I could make moves fast and win on time instead. I was obsessed with not letting this guy win this way. Thankfully, there's no turtling in 2nd edition, as Summoners (your avatar) take damage if you don't attack on a turn. Also, the randomness has been lessened, unfun cards removed (I'm looking at you, Mana Drain) and cool new races added. Give it a shot if you love tactical dueling games.

19. El Grande

Board Game: El Grande
This is the game without which most modern area control games would not exist. More to the point, no one has created a better one. Usually modern designers will iterate and improve on a great new mechanism, mixing the new flavor with other proven mechanisms to create a more refined experience. Amazingly, these efforts have failed to improve upon a game released in 1995.

It begins with the once around turn order auction, where players must balance being able to pick early to get powerful special abilities, versus the opportunity to replenish one's store of troops, since a high bid in the auction puts a correspondingly low amount of these troops in your reserve. From there, it's about timing scoring opportunities and exactly when you're going to surpass players in a particular area, using special abilities and the classic Castillo, where players put troops in but secretly determine where the troops will eventually end up. The rules overhead is low, but the intrigue and teeth gnashing is high. There are expansions, but the base game works beautifully. If you like area control and you haven't played El Grande, you are missing out.

18. Heaven & Ale

Board Game: Heaven & Ale
Another tight and unforgiving game, Heaven & Ale has a great theme (monks brewing beer) which is very abstractly implemented. The game is really about racing around a time track to buy ingredient tiles you stick on your personal hex board, which eventually pay off in money and better beer. Going broke is an absolute disaster, the decisions about whether to jump ahead on the track to grab key tiles are brutal, and the unforgiving nature of the calculations regarding how good your beer will be make this a tense and very, well, German game. When you screw up your beer, worth most of your points, you can score zero points for it, which is crushing. And yet it moves along quickly, never becoming tedious. I can't think of another game where so many people are destroyed in their first play, and yet are eager to try again. Michael Kiesling's best design, in my not so humble opinion.

17. Clans of Caledonia

Board Game: Clans of Caledonia
In this game of building up the domain and the economy of your Scottish clan, the strategy is a straightforward effort to build an economic engine and turn that into points via goods conversion and contracts, the tactics keep this one a nail biter. You've got to balance expanding across the land with grabbing the best contracts, buying and selling goods at the right prices, and getting special bonuses by struggling across the land to key ports. It's the kind of game where you want to do six things and you're afraid your opponents are going to beat you to all of them. It's also the kind of game that requires precise calculations, as a $1 mistake can see a huge plan crash and burn. The engine building is always satisfying and the races always tense. It's board play and engine building are reminiscent of Terra Mystica, and in many ways it's like a slightly less complicated and deep version of that game, which is not to damn if with faint praise, but to exalt it by comparing it to another classic.

16. Islebound

Board Game: Islebound
This game more than any other on my list hasn't fully gotten the love it deserves. Perhaps it's because Ryan Laukat fans are looking for story books, and crunchy euro fans aren't overly impressed by a purveyor of stories and colorful artwork. Whatever the reason, this is perhaps the best worker movement eurogame ever made. You sail your little pirate ship around, raiding, collecting goods, hiring troops (including sea serpents), doing good deeds, recruiting new crew, recovering at port, and building up diplomatic flavor and technological knowledge. At first it feels like a sandbox but soon you realize you're in a tight efficiency euro where wasted turns are death.

What's brilliant in the game is how Laukat throws curveballs at you to get you out of just travelling in repetitive loops. These take the form of events which can pop up to offer lucrative rewards, the opportunity to brag about your accomplishments (but all the other players can too), and a wonky diplomatic resource track where favor is worth more or less depending on when you get it and which can be hoarded to prevent others from obtaining it. The tableau building is also fun and flavorful. While the game demands efficiency, it never puts you in a straightjacket. It always feels like there's a ton of things you can do. It's figuring out exactly which of those things you should be doing that's hard.

15. Just One

Board Game: Just One
We interrupt this run of tight and sometimes mean strategy games with something lighter and more easygoing than anything else on this list by a factor of a thousand. If you don't know what Just One is, it's the game you should be playing with people who you don't think enjoy games and couldn't tolerate a rules explanation of longer than a minute. Which is perfect because you can teach it in about two sentences. Each round a player is trying to guess the secret word, which other players try to indicate by giving one word clues. The catch is that if any clues duplicate, they are removed and the guesser can't see them (hence the name of the game). That's it - that's 99% of the rules.

This creates a game which is not only easy to learn, but which makes people feel clever or creates epic disasters in just a few minutes. Screaming at your friends and family for giving dumb clues has never been so fun. The truly surprising part is how much fun even experienced gamers have, since the thrill of giving a clever clue works at all levels. When someone says 'this game is for everyone', they are basically lying, since no game is for everyone. Except perhaps this one.

14. Barrage

Board Game: Barrage
Back to the full on meanness. This game is a heavy euro lover's dream, with epic worker placement (a jillion worker spots which use variable numbers of workers, like in A Feast for Odin), a cool rondel where the resources you use eventually come back to you, engine building off your player board (like Terra Mystica or Scythe), variable player powers, contracts, round bonuses, and more. But what sets it apart is the water flow mechanism, where the game's most critical resource flows down the board and the players build dams and associated infrastructure to capture the water and shunt it off to produce energy and fulfill the aforementioned contracts.

This game is mean because there is the opportunity to build dams upstream of your opponents, thereby stealing the water they are fueling their engine with before it ever gets to them. The higher upstream, the more expensive the dam, which is why you don't just build upstream in the first place. The game induces a bit of paranoia, as you look around the table wondering who's going to try to mess with you, a bit like in Food Chain Magnate. This feeling fits perfectly with the theme, which is a dystopian future where cutthroat corporate scramble for dwindling resources. This game gives you that vicious struggle and combines it with all the optimization of the chunkiest classic heavy eurogames. It's a masterpiece, though the strong negative interaction means it's a game I don't necessarily want to play all the time.

13. Rising Sun

Board Game: Rising Sun
The viciousness continues. This follows Blood Rage as the next iteration of Eric Lang's mythologically themed dudes on a map games, this one based on formalized alliances. It maintains the card based engine building and expands on the secret reveal combat of its predecssor, and adds a non-combat action selection system to acquire resources and move troops. During this part of the game, everyone gets a small benefit from an action taken, but the person who selects the action and their ally get a larger benefit.

The secret of this game, and what makes it truly evil, is that mastering it requires crapping on your supposed ally. This can take the form of outright betrayal, but more often it happens subtly, where the actions you select are just a bit better for you than they are for your them. It's easy enough to cooperate against your enemy, but you don't win and lose together as an alliance, so your ally ultimately is not really your friend. This weird balance of having to cooperate to succeed but knowing that you aren't really on your ally's side is the beating heart of the game. If you don't like uneasy, shifting alliances, this won't be the game for you. But if you do, it's near perfect. And the production is glorious.

12. A Feast for Odin

Board Game: A Feast for Odin
My favorite kind of heavy game is the huge, crunchy resource optimization euro, and my favorite kind of light game is the polyomino puzzle. It's therefore not surprising that I adore the game which perfectly combines these two things. The game starts with the 60 (or however many it is, there are too many to count) or so worker placement spaces which allow you to do fulfill any aspect of Viking life, from raiding and pillaging, to crafting to raising animals, to exploring to farming to whaling to hunting and more. There are a zillion paths and you can do parts of all of them. But what all of the paths eventually do is give you polyomino pieces for both your personal player board and any other exploration boards you acquire during the game. Placing those polyomino pieces on the boards gives you an engine of bonus resources and money, and grants you points (by way of covering up negative points).

The exploration boards give a wonderful sense of pushing your luck which is rarely present in heavy euros. If you don't explore enough, you just won't have the opportunity to score enough. But if you explore too much or too late, you won't be able to fill your boards and you'll be buried under an avalanche of negative points. Biting off more than you can chew is always tempting.

The polyomino puzzle derives much of its cleverness from rules preventing pieces which aren't fully upgraded from touching each other on your board, but the most brilliant mechanical innovation here is the simple rule which says that you don't have to place a polyomino piece you get on your turn - you can lock it in whenever you like. This makes the game go faster than you'd expect, since you can do a lot of the puzzly stuff on other peoples' turns. The game isn't perfect. Action spaces which require die rolls are interesting exercises in probability and risk mitigation, but occasionally the dice can screw a player mercilessly. And there are a couple of balance issues which are fixed in the Norwegians expansion, which is why I think the game requires it to achieve the ranking I'm giving it. Still, there's nothing else like it, and this classic heavy eurogame might be Uwe Rosenberg's best.

11. Tiny Towns

Board Game: Tiny Towns
We go from a massive sprawling, spatial puzzle to one that, to paraphrase the immortal John Candy, is smaller and tighter than Tom Thumb's ass. Here you have just a 4x4 grid to build your entire town, and that grid is not entirely under your control, as each round a new player calls out a resource which you must place in that grid. When the right type and configuration of resources has been achieved, you may spend the resources and place one of the game's many special buildings onto your board, each of which scores in a unique way.

What's tough here is that unused resources can't be removed; they prevent you from ever using that part of your town. Thus players will sometimes call out resources to flood their opponents' boards with unwanted crap as much to call out what they need. There is a multiplayer solitaire variant where random resources are called out for two rounds, and then each player gets to choose, which gives a less vicious play experience and also gives more control at higher player counts.

Whichever way you play, the puzzle is devilish, and kept fresh by a huge variety of variable setups in the form of different building availability. The game takes about half an hour at most, and packs more agonizing decisions into a small time period than any game in my collection. If you are easily frustrated by unforgiving spatial puzzles, you won't like this. But if you delight in them, you'll have a game for the ages.

Conclusion

That's it for today - I'll be back in two weeks for games 1-10. I tend to think of myself as somewhat of a multiplayer solitaire eurogamer, so this part of the list was a wake up call to the fact that I enjoy so many mean games. Also, I just realized that every single game on this list except Just One has a strong spatial element, which tells you pretty much exactly what I enjoy. Tell me what you think of these games in the comments below, and I'll catch you next time.

Podcast: https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-81-top-30-games-of-all-time-20...
Website: http://twowood4awheat.com/
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Sat Jan 22, 2022 2:26 am
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Openings

Anthony Faber
United States
Chicago
Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If a wall of text makes your eyes glaze over, you can listen to this kind of discussion on the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, where the latest episode features a review of the New Jersey themed Cape May:

https://twowood4awheat.com/b-sides-19-cape-may/

The beginning is my favorite part of any game. Even though things start small and I'm impatient to fulfill on the game's myriad opportunities, and even though doubt plagues all my early decisions as I have little but my intuition to go on, I'm also excited. Anything is possible.

Which is why I kinda hate openings. By which I don't mean the literal beginning, but when delicious uncertainty is replaced with a series of scripted moves, replacing foresight and creativity with memorized teknowledge.

Board Game: Warmachine
For background, I spent more than five years playing Warmachine (a miniatures game comparable to Warhammer), and I ultimately abandoned it not because of the cost or a fading of my interest in the game, but because of the sheer time required to memorize all of the thousands of units and warcasters (leaders) so that I'd know every trick and trap my opponents could throw at me. It's the same reason I never took study of chess past an intermediate level despite my love of the game - I found memorizing openings and endings to be tedious and joy destroying.

And yet my view on openings and the study of game strategy generally more nuanced than this. I love trying to figure out what series of opening moves is going to be the optimal sequence for the long term strategy I'm trying to achieve. And I like reading blog posts about game strategy because I like to learn; I like to see what other people think; and I like to see possibilities I haven't considered. What I'm completely uninterested in is seeking out a predetermined sequence of moves so that I can turn off my brain, apply rote moves without thought, and have a big automatic advantage on those who haven't studied as much.

This is why I talk often in this blog about the virtues of setup variability. Changes in the opening board state, player powers, available cards, and so on prevent scripted sequences, while still allowing players to apply general opening principles which they've learned in previous games, combined with creative thinking based on the new situation, to craft an effective strategy which works for that particular setup.

Board Game: A Feast for Odin
Great games find ways to create interesting beginnings instead of memorized openings, through variable setups, the sheer amount of possible first moves (such as in A Feast for Odin), or through gameplay which is flexible enough to be forgiving of a variety of beginnings. I'm currently doing a series on our podcast on our top 30 games of all time, and most (though not all) of these games were designed in the last 10 years. Why? Because recent games are better. (In case you are wondering, this is an intentional jab at the many readers of this site who think that classic low rules, high interaction euros are superior to those of today). Why are they better? One big reason is that modern games find ways to get away from scripted openings.

Even some classic games known for their scripted openings have been improved by variable setups. Most people who love Agricola say that the opening profession card draft is a must. It's not that Agricola needs card drafting per se. It's that the opening becomes too procedural if players have exactly the same goals and ultimate powers. I know there's some people who love all the memorized opening finesses to get the best combination of reed or wood or whatever. I'm not one of them.

Board Game: Food Chain Magnate
On the other hand, you have modern games like Food Chain Magnate, which leans into that older design ethos. This is fine for the whole simple rules, high interaction thing, but is problematic in its lack of variability and how that affects the game's beginning. When a game is harsh, unforgiving, and scripted (at least at the start), it means that you follow certain preset openings or lose. In fact, if you stray too far from good opening play in FCM, you will not only lose brutally and automatically, but you can be permanently locked out of selling goods, removing you from participating in the game in any meaningful way. It's like a game of Diplomacy where you are reduced to one piece and one supply center on the map, and then have to sit there and take no meaningful actions for many hours to come. This is an extreme scenario, but it's happened to quite a few people, and afficionados of FCM will readily acknowledge the game has to be taught carefully to new players so that this doesn't happen. Ultimately FCM develops a ton of variability in the midgame via strong player interaction. But it takes a while for that interaction to emerge, and in the meantime play can feel regimented.

This doesn't mean that I don't appreciate games with vicious traps in the opening, only that I don't think they should eliminate players from the game, and that they should be based on misevaluating the board state and not from failing to follow a proscribed sequence of moves in a tough to parse situation. Heaven & Ale and Terra Mystica are two games I adore with lots of traps in the opening, and both have tiers of skill levels that should approach the game differently.

Board Game: Terra Mystica
It's very hard for new players to evaluate starting strategies in Terra Mystica because the game turns much of what we're internalized about engine building games on its head. We've been conditioned to build out our engines first, and pursue points later, and this lead one to reasonably assume that increasing one's shipping or terraforming, or taking an income favor tile from building a temple is a good way to start to the game. In point of fact, those approaches are often disastrous, for different reasons. Shipping and terraforming are important but they are too expensive to pursue immediately. They improve your engine but at a cost which is too high to pay right away, meaning you actually cripple your engine in your attempt to build it. The same thing happens when players brute force terraform terrain with their starting resources in order to build up their income and board presence. The cost is almost always too high, and players see their engines suffer instead of grow.

In the case of engine building favor tiles, they are valuable in theory, but taking one usually means that more experienced players will take the favor tiles which give you points when you build things, which is a critical source of points in the game. It's great to build an engine, but when you aren't rewarded for building an engine when other players are, you're probably going to lose.

Board Game: Heaven & Ale
The main opening trap in Heaven & Ale is more straightforward; in fact it's exactly the opposite of what's going on in TM. In this case, building on the light side of your board to get points before building on the dark side of your board sufficiently to get money will lead players to bankrupt themselves quickly, and make it very difficult to restart their engine. While its intuitive to get money before points, I'm always amazed at how many new players think they can mix in a lot of light side building before building out their dark side, despite my express advice to the contrary. Such players often put themselves in such a hole that they score zero points for their beer, and beer is probably 80% of the scoring in the game.

In both games, these traps can be disarmed head on with expert play. While low level players fall into these traps while mid-level players avoid them, high level players can actually walk into the trap and come out okay, because they play so precisely. They can often get away with going for an immediate engine building favor tile instead of one to score points because they can use it to build an engine so good that they can squeeze out sufficient points elsewhere. Or in H&A, experts can mix in a little light side building early on because they will so precisely optimize their income on the dark side.

But even so, with how harsh these games can be to beginners, how is this any different than what can happen in Food Chain Magnate? These games are also unforgiving early on, albeit not as much so. Just as one would with FCM, in these games I always give new players advice to help them avoid these pitfalls - don't bruteforce terraform or increase terraforming early in TM, build exclusively on the dark side to begin in H&A, etc.

The biggest difference is not the severity of FCM, but that the traps in these games in the games I enjoy are strategic, based on a long term misapprehension of the position, whereas I don't like games where the opening traps feel tactical, like hanging one's queen in Chess.

Board Game: Russian Railroads
Said another way, I don't like openings and I don't like games in general which are almost exclusively about playing accurately. Russian Railroads is a game I thought I would enjoy, since it contains many things I usually like, primarily tight worker placement and engine building. However, I never felt like there was a ton of creativity about what path to take, merely the demand for technical precision and accurate play. Don't get me wrong - accurate, calculating play is a key part of almost every strategy game. But here the strategic paths are delineated into very distinct tracks (literally and thematically) which pay off with ever increasing point income. I tend not to like point income as a mechanism since it removes the tension of immediate resources vs. long term points, but here I like it even less, since the point income is the vast majority of the scoring, so it's really clear who's winning, and if you're losing by a lot, you are never coming back. There are no creative plays you can make to save yourself, no flexible course adjustments. You can just try to do what you're doing more accurately and desperately hope your opponent gets stupid.

Games which are too tactical can suffer from having the whole of their decision making come down to accuracy, rather than just a piece of it. I do like some heavily tactical games, Clans of Caledonia being a prime example. But there 'accurate play' feels less obvious and more creative, as you must prioritize a lot of unlike things, such as when to fight on the board, when to buy or sell goods at the right price, when to go for contracts, etc. Games which strongly hone in on a tactical puzzle about prioritizing worker placement spots for maximum efficiency, such as in RR, Agricola, Caylus, and many others leave me cold, as I feel my strategic decisions can feel overshadowed by the need for precise accuracy.

Board Game: The Voyages of Marco Polo
Instead, I like games and openings where the puzzle is about long term timing, which is another way of saying long term strategy. In The Voyages of Marco Polo, there are a few rote opening moves, such as taking as many camels you can or moving to be first to a good location, but those moves need to be part of a long term plan of travel. When you get your travel destinations, you start to sort out in your head where you need to be by the end of each of the five turns of the game before it's even ended. When to deviate for a good opportunity is the heart of the game. A starting plan might look like reaching a city which produces a camel income by the end of the first turn. Getting these incomes as fast as possible are critical, and some opening mistakes come from taking actions which are strong in a vaccum in terms of the amount of resources they generate, but weak in that they don't let you reach destinations and incomes on schedule.

Terra Mystica also has these timing decisions right from the beginning about when you are going to build your first city, when you are going to increase your shipping and jump over the river, when you are going to build your stronghold - everything is when this, and when that. You want to do everything, but you doing it too early or too late is disastrous.

The openings of these games share a kind of fluidity, where nothing feels rote, since it all depends on the particular setup and the particular plan you've developed to attack it. And you don't even have to take a precise long term strategy - you can simply flow to whatever feels strongest - but this flexibility is a type of plan itself. Either way, there feels like a lot of different ways to approach the opening of games I love. Even in a game like Blood Rage where I might have my favorite card or two to draft at the beginning of the first round, scripted play is gone after just a couple of picks, since what I've drafted so far and what others seem to be taking will immediately make that particular game unique. Are other people drafting quests early or late? Are they taking combat cards sooner or later? Do my first two cards work together towards any particular strategy? The variable setup and the play of my opponents makes the game feel malleable.

And as I hope Blood Rage makes clear, the pitfalls of scripted openings and the need for early variety and creative decision making isn't just limited to eurogames. There are reasons beyond theme and Kickstarter bloat why sprawling American style games have a million scenarios, special powers, character classes, etc. Thematic games suffer even more than mechanical ones if they feel scripted early on.

That's as much as I can write without belaboring the point. What about you? Do you like some games with scripted openings because they open up in the middle game, or do you like me want variability from the start? Let me know in the comments below, and let me know what games have your favorite beginnings. I'll be back next week with my 11-20 favorite games of all time. Until then, thanks for reading.

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Sun Jan 16, 2022 4:33 am
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My top 30 games of all time: 21-30

Anthony Faber
United States
Chicago
Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If you'd rather listen than read, you can check out this list of great games on the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which also includes the 21-30 games for my co-host Pat Flannery:

https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-81-our-top-30-games-of-all-tim...

I've long resisted doing favorite games of all time lists, even though people seem to like them, for the simple reason that I've always thought that raising interesting issues about games is more compelling than simply spewing my opinions about what I like best. Besides, I tell myself, those that read the blog or listen to my podcast for long enough pretty much know what I like already.

But it's occurred to me lately that there are compelling reasons for doing this kind of list, beyond that it draws eyeballs. For one thing, it allows me to talk about a ton of different mechanisms I love all in one place. When I write about a single mechanism, I necessarily discuss plenty of games which aren't my favorites to comprehensively cover the topic. Everything I write here will be from pure joy.

A nonobvious reason for doing this list is to reveal my biases. I'm always very suspicious of any critic who isn't transparent about their preferences and tries to pretend that their opinions are merely in service of some universal truth. To that end, this is not a balanced list. It's not here to recommend as a collection. In this 30-21 section of the list for instance, I have two extremely similar games from the same designer. Some genres and designers will be repeated over and over again on this list, while many others won't appear at all.

But again, I'm mostly doing this for the joy. Making favorite game lists is fun because you get to talk about what you love the most. And hopefully, it also encourages others to talk about what they love as well.

This is going to be long enough that I'm dividing into 3 parts - 20-11 will appear in two weeks, and 10-1 two weeks after that. Let's get on with it!

30. Signorie (2015)

Board Game: Signorie
This game has a dull theme, a soporific presentation, and a main mechanism (dice drafting) which I rarely enjoy. So how does it make this list? Its appearance here is a triumph of Board Game Arena, as this is the only place I've played this game, which isn't true of any other game in my top 30. Without BGA I never would have played it, for the reasons given above. Fortunately, during the first lockdown a friend bugged me about it so repeatedly that I eventually tried it just to get them off my back.

At first, my skepticism grew even greater. Not only was the medieval theme dull, but it was spiced with a dash of misogyny as players focus on getting the males in their family into key leadership positions and marrying off the females. The presentation was even less inspiring than it first appeared. And dice drafting was indeed the heart of the game.

And yet this game is so brilliant. Theme aside, you are essentially drafting one die of each color per round. High dice are just better, as they allow for more powerful actions, and lower dice will also have to be augmented with precious cash in order to do certain things.

However, the core tension of the game is that you get a hugely powerful bonus action if all of your dice combined which you draft in a round don't exceed a certain threshold (13 IIRC). You must decide if you are going to go high and take all the best dice, or go low and get the bonus action. You need to plan perfectly and correctly anticipate the actions of other players, as their drafting can either take the high dice you need or send you over the threshold by taking the low dice.

The actions you take can send your men and women off to their tasks which get you victory points, but you can use them instead to engine building by baking a bonus action into that action every time you take a die of that color in the future. This engine building is another thing you must do precisely, as you need it to get powerful actions later on in the game, but you can't overdo it to the point where you don't take enough turns doing the actions.

Everything hangs on a razor's edge, including how certain dice affect turn order, which is crucial. It's all abstract, but soon you lose yourself in the numbers, gnashing your teeth when a slight miscalculation ruins you. This game is a good bellwether as to if you're a eurogamer at heart. Those who live and die for optimization should seek out this game if they haven't played it.

29. Near and Far (2017)

Board Game: Near and Far
From dry optimization we go into colorful narrative adventures and Ryan Laukat's most celebrated storybook game. I needed no convincing to play this game, backing it on Kickstarter as soon as the campaign went live. In Near and Far players are exploring and taking over the world, and they do this via preparatory equipment and team gathering at worker placement spots on a town board, and then area control resource gathering on an overland map, where certain locations allow you to read charming storybook text and ultimately leave you with a choice and then a skill check (a die roll which can be modified after the fact with resources), with positive outcomes resulting from a success. Eventually you run out of resources and must return to town again to resupply.

Although the game is completely different from Signorie thematically, artistically, and in most of its mechanisms, they share a tension point in how much one engine builds. In Near and Far it shows up when you are in town. You can do cool stuff there, but you keep having this feeling you need to get back out on the road of other players will beat you to the important spots. And they will. The game has a race feel, like an auto race where your car has to spend a certain amount of time in the pit from time to time, but it better not be for too long.

While the stories are fun and whimsical and the overarching campaign entertaining, I'm a mechanisms guy, and I love putting together my team with its special abilities and equipment, and then planning my route on the map to get the most camps. This is a soulful game, but even a soulless minmaxer like myself enjoys it.

28. Newton (2018)

Board Game: Newton
Gen Con used to have a ritual which may appear gross in a Covid world: about ten thousand people pressed like sardines before the closed doors to the vendor hall each morning, and then burst forth like an undammed river when the doors finally opened. Gamers raced to booths (while being scolded to 'Walk, not run!') where limited copies of popular games were being sold.

In 2018, I ran this gauntlet three different days of the convention in order to get a copy of Newton, Simone Luciani's latest release that year, and three times the last copy of the day was sold just before I reached the front of the line (there were very few copies and CMON sold many of them to VIPs and other vendors before the doors even opened).

This disappointment was punctuated by actually playing the game in the BGG hot games room, loving it, and realizing I couldn't actually get a copy until many months later. What makes this game so good? It's not the sea of brown on the game board and components, or the barely there scientific theme. Instead I love the spatial cleverness of the various mini-games, such as route planning around Europe, filling bookcases, and moving up multi-branched tracks.

Best of all mechanically is the hand management system whereby playing cards of the same type each round increases the value of those actions, and each round you must permanently trash a card, for which you will be rewarded by increasing the strength of its action type permanently. Of course, you now have fewer cards to take actions of the given type. It all comes together in a race across multiple theatres, getting to key objectives before other players and creating a point engine which explodes into productivity before the game can end. I don't hear lots of people talking about it today, but for me it's one of Luciani's best games (FYI: his co-designer also worked on this year's Zapotec), and the one which feels least like the others, focusing on hand management and moving up tracks rather than his more frequent twists on worker placement.

27. Shakespeare (2015)

Board Game: Shakespeare
Unlike some others on this list, this eurogame has spectacular art and wonderful, original theme of racing to create the best possible play. Mechanically, it also features one of the best turn order auctions you'll ever see, via blind bid, and an utterly unique currency: the amount of actions you'll take in the upcoming round.

Why would one bid away one's precious actions just for turn order? A few reasons. First off, it really, really matters. The supply of components for precious and necessary costumes and set pieces each round is significantly exceeded by the demand - go too slow and you won't get any - and hiring the right actors each turn is equally critical. Furthermore, the winner of the auction gets a couple victory points, in a game where points are about as common as vaccine advocates at a Trump rally.

Finally, the game uses a great system of making all but one of your characters rest if they were used in the previous round (you can't have your actors rehearse or your costume makers sew all day and night), and depending on when you hired people and how you use them, you will have a variable need for actions each round. You can feel comfortable bidding fewer actions if you don't need them, or if their work can be delayed to a future round, since if you take all the actions you possibly can you won't be able to do much the next round.

There's a tense race throughout to beat other players up the tracks measuring your play's quality, grab the costume and set materials before they disappear, and get the best actors. There are some great thematic touches integrated into the game's mechanisms, including giving each player a personal avatar of a writer who takes actions throughout the game to increase the play's quality, and the ability to go beg the queen for money.

This is not a loose and expansive euro - it's tight and tense throughout, so if you want a game where you feel like you have a million options and can do anything, this ain't it. But if you enjoy restrictions and creative themes, this is heavenly.

26. It's a Wonderful World (2019)

Board Game: It's a Wonderful World
This game combines the joys of card drafting with the simple engine building of a game like Century: Spice Road to create a satisfying and escalating experience. Drafting games tend to be divided into either 7 Wonders style games, where there are specific cards for each round of increasing power, or loose and unpredictable ones like this one where all the cards could show up every round. The former style is fairer and more predictable, while the second creates interesting choices of whether to take a great endgame card and sit on it, or punt it and go for short term engine building instead. I lean towards liking the latter kind, such as this game, because it creates more varied and unexpected situations.

Here the choices multiply even when you hold that card to build later, as you can always decide to chuck it for resources. Each resource has its different characteristics and qualities regarding how good it is for engine building and how good it is for long term points, and you need to cobble together an engine plan and a point plan on the fly. The game demands planning and yet rewards switching directions on a dime when called for. I love the flexible thinking it demands, and I love the bright and cheery artwork which is unusual for a somewhat dystopian game (how ironic the game's title is can be argued).

25. Carpe Diem (2018)

Board Game: Carpe Diem
The third ugly euro of these ten games (after Signorie and Newton) is ugliest and best of all of them. When I call this game ugly, I'm understating the point. It's not just that the art seems dull, crude, and cheap, but there are serious usability issues in play. In the first edition, two different tile sets had almost but not quite the exact same color on the back, making separating the tiles excruciating and even impossible for certain people. Building tiles which must be matched with a mate of the same color come in hues like grey, brown, darker brown, yellow, and mustard. A normally mellow colorblind friend rage quit and threw the game across the room after the third time they had drafted a tile they thought matched and which actually didn't (this was entirely my fault for asking them to play a game which they were visually incapable of so doing).

But if you're not colorblind and you can get past the ugly appearance, you get to play what I believe is Stefan Feld's best game. The tile drafting for your crops and villa on your Roman estate is simple but tricky, and the spatial placement even more so. It's extremely easy to cut yourself off, and good planning is essential. And even if you draft right and place your tiles right, you still might be in trouble if you can't score properly. What is worth what amount of points is not universal to each player. Instead each person drafts two scoring conditions per round by placing a token between two of them on a scoring board. If other players beat you to the conditions you've been working on, you may not score at all.

And yet the game never feels like it's out of your control. You always have the sense if you do everything right you'll get what you need and be rewarded for it, and that if you plan properly you will have backup scoring options if your first choice is taken. And the game moves along quickly despite its meaty decisions, leaving you with one of the best ratio of meaningful decisions to minutes played in a modern eurogame. If you like Feld and you like spatial puzzles, it's impossible to dislike this game. Unless of course you're colorblind in which case you'll despise it.

24. Rococo (2013)

Board Game: Rococo
This game combines some of my favorite disparate mechanisms into one package: deck building, resource acquisition and conversion, engine building and area majorities. It creates this mix in such a way that every turn is a tense race for what you need. Turn order is crucial as you want to be the first to get a key card, the first to grab the best sewing supplies, the first to complete the best clothing contracts, the first to grab the cheapest engine building statue spots, and the first to claim the most lucrative area majority positions. You want to be first at everything but you just can't. And taking first player for next round uses a precious action that could be used for racing towards something else now.

The theme has been justifiably lauded and the artwork in both editions is splendid. Matthias Cramer would rank first if I made a list of underappreciated board game designers. Both this classic and Glen More were out of print for several years, and the similarly brilliant Lancaster seems to have been forgotten despite being one of the most interactive and original takes on worker placement I've ever seen. I've read that Capstone will be the U.S. publisher of his forthcoming epically long and complex game about the Weimar Republic - I can't wait!

23. Dogs of War (2014)

Board Game: Dogs of War
Speaking of area majority games, nothing is quite like Paolo Mori's Dogs of War. Rather than having each player compete for having the most of something, this game features shared majorities - players can contribute towards different sides winning battles via a tug of war mechanism, and those who are on the winning side are rewarded. This creates organic alliances and betrayals without any formal alliance mechanism like no other game I've seen.

It also creates uniquely interesting decision points regarding why you are taking a worker placement spot - are you placing to get the greatest rewards, or are you placing because it's where you need to be to tug a battle in your desired direction?

The game is very simple to learn, the production is stellar, and the game has more twists, turns, and general acrimony than any eurogame I've seen. Those who complain that modern eurogames are multiplayer solitaire probably haven't played this game. It's also the rare euro which shines at 5 players, which makes it great to have in your collection for when you encounter that awkward player count.

22. Bunny Kingdom (2017)

Board Game: Bunny Kingdom
Many people think that Richard Garfield's biggest contribution to gaming is launching the world of dueling collectible card games, but to me it's for essentially inventing the genre of card drafting, which grew out of his favorite way to play Magic. Garfield has created many great drafting games including the underrated Treasure Hunter and Carnival of Monsters, but this is the best of them. Like those games and like It's a Wonderful World, Bunny Kingdom opts for the chaos of having all the cards in play at all times rather than the regimented cards by age approach of 7 Wonders.

What sets Bunny Kingdom apart is the addition of a common board, which has spaces which many of the cards you draft claim. You are building up a patchwork of connected (hopefully) territories which you are improving with cities and mines and the like for scoring in each round, but you are also drafting lots of end game scoring cards which might influence you to take your kingdom in strange directions to fulfill them. There's a huge tension about beating other players to certain spots, and hate drafting is a real thing here. One great way the game allows you to reach epic accomplishments is by having two cards drafted at once each turn. You get more done while having tougher choices, in that there can be three cards you really need and one you really want to prevent an opponent from getting, and you get to choose two.

Finally, the theme and production are wonderfully colorful and ridiculous, with unsmiling rabbit heroes on cards laced with horrific puns. Yes, final scoring is slow and mathy, but everything leading up to it has you so invested in the result that to me scoring feels like a payoff rather than a chore.

21. Above and Below (2015)

Board Game: Above and Below
One might be surprised to see this ranking higher than the game which it inspired, Near and Far, and I do this in part because it's such an easy game to get people into. Simple and satisfying tableau building meshes with underground exploring in an experience like no other. I actually like the stories here better than those in Near and Far, even though each entry isn't connected to a larger plot, for the fact that they all have such a sublime, loopy lunacy. If you have a good reader willing to do silly voices, you may feel transported into an Alice in Wonderland madhouse while simultaneously playing a fun light euro.

Hidden beneath the insanity is one my favorite and most overlooked mechanisms I've ever seen in a eurogame: the decision whether to lock in a required resource onto your board in order to increase your income. On the surface it seems like a no brainer, but when you do for the first time, that resource is now worth only one point each at game's end, whereas it might be worth more if you can lock in other resources first. Therefore obtaining common resources and locking them in quickly is the best way to build a money engine, but holding onto your common resources and hoping to lock in some rare items so you can score many common ones for big points later is the best way to score yoru resources.

One or two of the special buildings are a bit broken, and I usually pull them out of the game beforehand without comment. Some may sneer at this but it works for me. Some may say that Above and Below isn't as mechanically robust or interesting as other games on this list, but if I look at the sheer fun people have had while playing, then this game might deserve to rank even higher.

Until next time

Well, that's it for now - in two weeks you'll see in the next segment if I love any games besides midweight euros! In the meantime, feel free to chime in and tell me why I'm wrong about these games or my love of area majority games or the chaotic kind of card drafting. Until then, thanks for reading.

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Sat Jan 8, 2022 5:01 pm
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Gloomhaven digital: 5 things I hate and 5 things I love

Anthony Faber
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I'm a bit drained from the holidays, so today it's going to be a quick game review instead of a broader topic. If you'd rather listen than read, you can hear this Gloomhaven digital review on the latest episode of the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast:

https://twowood4awheat.com/b-sides-18-gloomhaven-digital-edi...

Gloomhaven is probably my favorite modern board game. I know, real original choice. I played the entire campaign live with three other people, once a week for about a year, and that experience transcends almost any other board game experience I've ever had. We got to know everything about how we played games. There was Wolfram, the young genius, who always arrived late, wouldn't play a card until the rest of us had been ready for five minutes and we're screaming at him, but always made the deep and thoughtful play. There was Nathan, the sweet and friendly guy who would nonetheless be reduced to rage when the game screwed him. Louis was the one who knew the rules backwards and forward (you really need a person like this in your campaign), knew where everything was kept, and was a bit impatient with my sloppiness. I love these guys, and I'd love to spend a year playing Frosthaven with them, though I know it will never happen, if only because I no longer live in Chicago.

I loved the game so much than when Jaws of the Lion rolled out, I tore through the whole thing solo in just a few days. If you think this is impressive, I recommend watching the recent video from the Brothers Murph where they play through every single scenario in base Gloomhaven in a week. Absolutely insane.

From gallery of maxlongstreet
And yet, when I heard the digital version was releasing, I didn't rush to pick it up. I loved Jaws of the Lion too, but it wasn't quite the same without the other players, and I wasn't sure playing through all the same scenarios I'd already experienced would be that exciting. But we decided to eventually review it for our podcast, so I eventually jumped in, and played about 25 scenarios in the space of two weeks. From that experience, I have made a list of five things I loved and five things I really didn't love about this digital adaptation. I'll start with the bad stuff first.

The bad stuff

5. Slooooowwww animations

From reading online, this appears to be the biggest complaint for other people, so while I was only mildly bothered by this, for others it's been a deal breaker. When you or the monsters execute an action, the game takes a couple seconds to complete the animation. Sometimes this is a trivial issue, but sometimes it can be very annoying. When one monster takes a couple of seconds to do its thing, I don't really care. When there are 13 ooze monsters on the screen and each of them takes like 6 seconds to heal itself, it's rage-inducing. There's not much more to say about this.

4. The game ain't cheap

Look, I know that any digital implementation is a bargain compared to a board game, particularly one which sells for more than $100 like Gloomhaven. But still, you should know that for a Steam board game this is on the high end, at $35 (20% off sales seem frequent). The price doesn't seem unreasonable to me, but it's not your typical $9.99 app.

3. The pathing can get screwy

I don't mean the paths monsters take - they take reasonable routes. I mean that sometimes when you click on a space to move the path it lays out for you is weird. When you click on another space after the first one, it doesn't give you a straight path to the new place; it assumes you want to go to the first place, and then the next one. This can lead you to making some terrible moves if you aren't careful, like running through a bunch of traps and then not ending your move next to the monster you want to attack, which combined with my #1 issue (see futher below), can lose you the scenario on the spot. This might just be a 'me' problem, but to any other old farts out there, it's easy to mess up your move.

2. The map is sometimes unclear

When there's rubble on the screen, it sometimes becomes unclear as to what exactly is a space on the map. With obstacles, traps, and artistic set dressing on the map, it's also easy to miscount how far away something is, and the difference of one space is the difference between life and death in Gloomhaven. This could all be solved easily with a grid you could toggle on like most tactical turn based games have, but inexplicably, there isn't one. Maybe I'm a dummkopf and I just haven't found it, but as far as I can tell, there's no grid anywhere, and this is especially bad in light of the game's biggest flaw, which I'm now going to rant about.

1. There's no undo button

Why? WHY? WWHHYYYYYYY?????

Look, I understand that there's certain things you can't undo, such as when you open a door, discover what's in a chest or flip an attack card. But if no new information is uncovered, why on earth can't you take back a move? Gloomhaven is already an extremely unforgiving game. Making it so misclicking or miscounting risks losing a long scenario just makes it more so, and in a very bad way. If you're playing on the tabletop, none of this will ever happen. It's easier to see things in the first place, and in a cooperative game no one has a problem if you move a piece a space forward and then put it back. Gotcha moments with the interface create the wrong kind of frustration. Players should be frustrated when they lose because they made a mistake or got unlucky on card flips. They shouldn't be frustrated because they lost on a misclick. This flaw alone prevents this from being a fantastic implementation. Boooooooo!

The good stuff

5. I like the voiceovers

This is kind of a trivial point, but I like the voice and the accent for the pre and post scenario flavor text. Childress' dialogue and descriptions are hit and miss for me, but the voice acting here does them well, and it's nice to have this as part of your reward for completing a touch scenario.

4. The UI can be good too

Despite my UI complaints above, there are also parts of it which work very well. It's very easy to see the actions monsters are going to take each turn, and it's also simple to see your own cards. The overland map is extremely clear, as are your available quests. Buying gear, enhancements, and other aspects of character management are all very smooth as well.

3. I like the way the game looks

YMMV with this one. Some people think it's drab. But to me, with the exception of the unforgiveable lack of a grid mentioned above, drab usually means clear. It's not hard to find stuff, and the visuals rarely make it hard to figure out what's going on. As already mentioned, the overland map works very nicely. It looks like Gloomhaven, and that's enough for me.

2. The game is pretty much bug free

While this should be the standard for Steam games, I've played enough to know that it's not. I don't think the game has crashed for me even once (though scenario loading can take a long time).

EDIT: in the comments it was mentioned that there are bugs in online multiplayer and in some of the abilities of unlocked classes. I haven't played it online or used the class mentioned, so I can't confirm this, but buyer beware, obviously.

1. The game faithfully recreates Gloomhaven

This is the big one, and why this implementation is worth playing. Gloomhaven is a fantastic game, and this version doesn't put much in the way of that. They didn't change any of the rules as far as I can tell, and the rules aren't too hard to grasp here if you haven't played before. Everything feels just like the board game, down to your enhancements on your cards which almost feel like stickers.

Nerd rant incoming: when you have a classic, don't screw it up by thinking you're smarter than the person who created that classic and that you have cool ideas which will improve things. This may seem obvious, but it's not. The worst parts of the Game of Thrones show came when Benioff and Weiss thought they could improve on George R.R. Martin. The worst parts of the Lord of the Rings movies came when Peter Jackson deviated from Tolkien. And the worst part of this game could have been where Asmodee Digital thought they knew better than Isaac Childres.

Fortunately, the designers managed to avoid hubris. They just gave us Gloomhaven, and that's enough. In fact, it's exactly what we wanted, and it's exactly why this game is worth buying despite a few frustrating UI flaws. I may curse when I can't undo a mistake, but I'm still playing the game almost every day, and that's the ultimate compliment.

So let me know in the comments below what you loved and hated in this version of Gloomhaven, and thanks everyone for your generous comments and support throughout the year. May your 2022 be far superior to your 2021, in games and life!

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Sat Jan 1, 2022 2:37 am
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Using other people's stuff

Anthony Faber
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
Board Game: Panzer Leader: Game of Tactical Warfare on the Western Front
Merry Christmas Eve, for those who celebrate such things. My first introduction to serious board games came on Christmas Eve 45 years ago, when my godfather, fortunately for me, did not realize that Avalon Hill's Panzer Leader wasn't an appropriate Christmas present for an 8 year old.

Anyhow this isn't about Christmas or children playing wargames, but it is about using other people's things, specifically in the context of board game mechanisms. A decent number of games allow players to utilize something that an opponent has spent time and resources to construct, and these uses can be very different in the kinds of interaction they cause and the types of strategies which unfold. Some make the game feel almost cooperative to an extent, while in other cases the use can be very mean. Some make a subtle (or not so subtle) commentary on our capitalist economic system itself. Let's jump into the games.

Board Game: Caylus
Using other people's stuff takes place sometimes in worker placement games where one player buys a new worker placement spot (usually a building) and other players can use it for a fee. In fact, the very first popular worker placement game, Caylus, did this, and building purchases are integral to that game's strategy. IIRC, there are three critical buildings in particular that can be constructed, which each give a player three different resources when they go to that spot, and give the owner of the building one of those resources. In a two player gamer, there can be a struggle over who gains an advantage by owning two of these three buildings, and if one player somehow gets all three, it usually means they will win the game. In Caylus as much as any other game I discuss here, getting the stuff which can be used involves chess-like jockeying for resources and initiative.

Board Game: Lords of Waterdeep
The game most people think of when they think of this sort of worker placement game is Lords of Waterdeep, which offers up a variety of different buildings throughout the game which players can build. It can be easy to underestimate the value of these buildings, in that one could say that the extra resources offered to the visitor (since these buildings are generally stronger than standard worker placement stops) balances out the reward going to the owner. But this logic forgets the huge tempo advantage which goes to building owners. If other players have to rush to someone else's buildings to maintain resource parity, the building owner gets a free pick of the other worker placement spot on the board, getting that key quest or crucial resource without competition. And if players don't rush to those buildings, the owner can simply use them to get outsized rewards.

Board Game: Le Havre
Many of these 'use the other person's building' games can feel semi-cooperative, like the relationship between a landlord and tenant. But some can be darker. In Le Havre, a player who is a tenant can turn into a squatter when they use someone else's building and then won't leave. There are other actions you can take besides using your one worker, so it may be some time before your worker moves on, and this can be done deliberately to mess with the person who bought the building in the first place and who desperately needs to use it.
Board Game: Barrage

While Le Havre can get a bit nasty, my vote for the darkest and meanest worker placement game of this kind is Barrage. Technically water is a free resource, so when you divert water another player assumes is theirs and destroy their game, you aren't actually taking their stuff, but it sure feels that way. And it still literally qualifies as a 'use their stuff' game in that you can use another player's conduit for a small fee. There's nothing like siphoning off water an opponent believes is theirs through their own pipes. The coin you toss them feels like a cruel joke. Incidentally, this is thematically perfect, as the game is supposed to involve a desperate scramble for resources in a dystopian future.

Board Game: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road
Merv isn't really a worker placement game, but you are constantly constructing buildings for resource collection which can then be used by any player. Merv has the appearance of being very kind and cooperative for a competitive eurogame. In addition to allowing players to use other people's buildings for a fee, the game gives you rewards for building walls which protect the city's buildings, and your rewards are increased for protecting those that belong to someone else. Friendly, right? Rahdo (Richard Ham) often lauds this game for its positive player interaction. Yet the game can get extremely mean under certain circumstances. Buildings belonging to a player are activated in a row, and when you activate those belonging to someone else, you always get at least some reward, but that reward can sometimes be meager. A player may be intending to activate a whole long line of their own buildings and then someone else gets in there first, reaps all the benefits of their work, for a very small payoff, leaving the owner feeling ravaged.

Board Game: Great Western Trail
In Great Western Trail, the building owner is the mean one, as many buildings are simply tolls placed along the rondel which is the map. Players can take costly detours to avoid paying your tolls, or they can just pay you off. In this case, players aren't using buildings - the buildings are using them. The toll idea also fits the theme, as it underscores the ruthlessness of the wild west.

Board Game: Iberian Gauge
I don't play many train games, but I realize that they often contain both the light and the dark of using other player's stuff, where such use can feel very friendly or very mean depending on the circumstances. In Iberian Gauge, most of the interaction feels very amiable, as you pay money to other companies to use their track in your route building. Sometimes you are just paying yourself, but sometimes other players are essentially making a windfall from your work. The game gets dark, however, when you get a small amount of stock in a company that other players own much more of. Now you have the ability to spend that company's money, but you aren't incentivized to do good for the company. Instead, you build boondoggle train routes to nowhere in order to drive the company broke and prevent the other players from prospering by its growth. You aren't really using other players' stuff here so much as buying a bit of it and then burning it to the ground. I've heard other cube rail games and 18xx games have many other instances of incentivizing players to get into an enemy's company just enough to destroy it.

Board Game: Brass: Birmingham
Brass Birmingham isn't exactly a train game, but it contains both the cooperative and nasty elements we've been talking about. I need to use your cheap coal to expand, and in turn it grows your industry. Leveraging symbiotic relationships is absolutely essential to success in BGG's most popular economic game. But using the resources of another can also be absolutely crushing. Just ask anyone who has their beer stolen out from under them right before they were going to get a megapoint tile, and now there's no beer left anywhere on the map and they will never score it. On the other hand, relying on using other people's beer is very risky, since they can see you connecting to their lines in order to get it and can plan to use it just before you can, leaving you out in the cold.

Board Game: Anno 1800
Which brings us to Martin Wallace's most recent, and to my mind most fascinating, example of using other people's stuff: Anno 1800. Here players use workers to go to factories to build a tech tree, and eventually use the resources high on the tree to play cards which are the lion share of the game's points. But building every high level industry is almost impossible, and that's where you can capitalize on the progress of other players. You may spend trade tokens to essentially use someone else's factory to help pay the resource cost for a card or build an even higher level industry. The factory owner is compensated with a bit of gold which can be used to bring workers back, prolonging the time before they must take a dead reset turn.

When I first played the game, I thought that the gold was inefficient compensation for the factory use, and that the user of the building was always getting the best of the deal. But then I realized that it's not the gold which is the major tradeoff, it's the trade tokens, which in the late game become the major bottleneck to production. By then you have enough workers to build at your own factories indefinitely. But if you haven't built enough trade ships for tokens or you need to use other people's stuff too often, you'll be taking dead reset turns far too often to get your trade tokens back.

The necessity of trade combined with dangers of overreliance on it create all kinds of interesting strategic decisions in the game. What industries do I want to focus on, and where do I want to ride on other player's coattails? How many trade ships do I need to spend time building? Do I want to build key buildings early that I might not even need myself to induce others to trade with me, so that I can build up an early supply of gold and suck out their trade tokens? Will building a certain industry provide too many benefits to my opponents to the point where I should just ignore it? It's all in there.

While the decision points that Anno 1800's cooperation creates are deliciously ambiguous, the game's sunny outlook on capitalism seems straightforward. Competition and technological stealing/borrowing simply equals rapid progress for society. In the game we colonize the new world, but we don't need to oppress or steal from native populations, since voila, our settlements magically create resources on new player boards.

I'm not trying to dump on the game's theming, since all this trade and colonization is so abstract that it's not really whitewashing any particular historical events. But it is interesting to note that the embrace of certain game mechanisms can imply a certain political outlook. The train games are perhaps more honest about capitalism's real effects, even if they don't tell a story about workers either. Yeah, yeah, I know, these are just games. But games do reveal how we think as a society, and perhaps none as interestingly as those which allow players to use the possessions of others during the course of a game.

I've only scratched the surface of the topic - there are dozens more interesting games which use these mechanisms. Which are your favorites and why? What strategies are generated and do they create cooperation, antagonism, or both? And what do you see in those mechanisms about the way we think about the world? Let me know in the comments below.

A final note: if you're one of those folks home alone on Christmas Eve because you have Covid or are quarantining because someone you've been around has Covid, and I know some folks out there in these categories, let me wish you all the best from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for prioritizing others and get well soon!
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Fri Dec 24, 2021 9:12 pm
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Dualities in core gameplay loops = tough but accessible decisions

Anthony Faber
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you might want to listen to the latest episode of our Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which contains a review of The Crew: Mission Deep Sea, the sequel to the award winning cooperative trick taking game:

https://twowood4awheat.com/b-sides-17-the-crew-mission-deep-...

A great game's decisions should offer just the right level of difficulty - challenging, but not impossible. A game can't give a player everything. If certain options within a game fulfill all of a player's goals, there's nothing else left to think about it. At the other end of a spectrum, if a game has myriad decisions buried under layers of complexity, decision making can feel opaque and arbitrary.

One way a lot of great games have made key decisions feel tough but accessible is to create dualities in their core gameplay loops or action selection mechanisms. Dualities can take various forms, but they all end up giving you something you really want while making it hard for you to achieve something else which is equally important. In some dualities, players receive two (or more) things together, one of which might be desperately needed but the other of which might actually be a detriment. In other cases, the mechanism gives you more of one thing the less you take of another, or it makes you choose between two things that are both critically important.

Whatever form they take, I'm going to argue in this post that dualities in core gameplay create compelling and challenging decision making by rewarding the player on one hand and denying them on the other. These kinds of decisions don't feel easy, but nor do they feel beyond a player. They are exactly the sort of challenge we are looking for in games, and it's no coincidence that many of the most popular recent (and older games) use them.

Before I jump into games, a world about terms. Sometimes I'm going to use the phrase action selection mechanism, while others I'll use core action loop. These terms mean something different, but sometimes what I'm describing will be entirely baked into the base action selection mechanism while other times it involves a larger gameplay loop which still doesn't include many peripheral elements of the game. Don't worry about the terminology - the point is that the game's core mechanisms in all of my examples give delicious either/or decisions.

Board Game: Witchstone
Let's now jump right into specific examples, starting with an example from a game I just recently played - Reiner Knizia's Witchstone. I was struck by how much I enjoyed the game, even though much of the game's progress took place inside of the most pedestrian mechanisms - moving up tracks, getting cards for actions or end game scoring, build simple routes, and more. While none of these mechanisms are bad per se, I soon realized that all the joy for me occurred in the core action selection mechanism, in which one takes a domino-like tile with an action printed on either end, places it on a player board, and executes those two actions with a strength equal to how many of each action type were linked up on the player board. This not only creates a satisfying sense of progress based on one's success at the spatial puzzle of placing action tiles, but it creates tough decisions based on the execution of two actions. Often placing a certain tile would give a fantastic action with one side of the tile, but the other side would be almost worthless. How should one build up one's actions on their board to get the greatest strength long term while still beating opponent's to short term objectives?

Entwined drafting

Board Game: Calico
While games using domino tiles with different actions on each end is a rarity, as we shall see, games throwing two things of different values together in a bundle is not, even in very light games. Flatout Games has made a successful company to large degree out of leveraging these dualities in almost everything they've published, often by way of what people are calling entwined drafting. This means drafting a disparate bundle and taking both the good and bad, immediately inflicting you with tough compromises and tradeoffs. In Calico, you might really need
Board Game: Cascadia
particular pattern on the tile you take, but the color of the only tile available with that pattern will mess you up in other ways, whereas in Cascadia you get an animal and a terrain tile, and you play the former on any of the latter creating a similar dilemma.

Board Game: Point Salad
Point Salad isn't entwined drafting, but it gives you the option every turn of taking a point scoring card or vegetable resources which are what you score on those cards. Imagine the game where the point scoring cards were distributed in advance and you were just drafting vegetables. It would hardly even be a game. Instead, there is a delicate balance of scoring conditions versus scoring resources.

With entwined drafting, games are accomplishing the goal set out by I split/you choose games in creating a hodgepodge of stuff one must take as a whole. The difference here is that no splitter is required. Having a player split things into fair groups is fascinating, but can slow the game down, as well as requiring a certain level of mastery on the part of each player in order to work well. Entwined drafting creates the same kind of tough decisions without requiring a player to do the work of splitting.

Denial vs. taking what you need

Before I go on, I should mention that the additional twist in many of the examples I'm giving here is what your opponents want. Whether to take a card because your opponents need it ratchets up the difficulty of the decision, particularly at lower player counts where the game becomes more zero sum. I'm not going to talk much about it throughout this post, not because it isn't important, but because it applies pretty much universally across examples.

Board Game: Tiny Towns
In some games, what your opponent wants is literally the only other factor. In Tiny Towns, players on their turn call out a resource which all players must place on their personal player board. If each individual on their turn only called out a resource for themselves, the game would be an entirely uninteractive and thus calculable puzzle. But by having everyone get the resource, half the strategy is giving your opponents something they don't need, especially since unusable resources clog one's board and destroy one's ability to build and win.

Short vs. long term tradeoffs

The examples I've given so far are mostly tactical, and indeed these kinds of tradeoffs do lend themselves more to tactical than long term considerations. But sometimes the tradeoff itself is the tactical
Board Game: Underwater Cities
versus the strategic, as in Underwater Cities, where the action selection mechanism is standard worker placement with the addition of a card play for a bonus action. The catch is that the bonus action can only be taken if the color of the card matches the color of the worker placement location, which frequently creates situations where players must choose between getting a weak or nonexistent bonus action in order to take the main action that fulfills their plan, or taking a strong bonus action with a different main action, in effect tactically acquiring more resources, but not working on the current long term plan.

These short versus long term tradeoffs are akin to those created by multi-use cards, where in games like Race for the Galaxy or It's A Wonderful World you are often deciding between keeping a card for its long term potential or spending it as a resource now. Many Pfister games also creates tradeoffs via cards as currency).

Wheels within wheels

Board Game: El Grande
But the game which most elegantly creates these tradeoffs for me is the venerable El Grande. Most people think of it as the ancestor of modern area control games - the first popular game where you scored victory points for having the most cubes or figures in a particular area. The second thing most people remember is the Castillo. While this is the first hit area control game and the Castillo is indeed fantastic, I think many people miss the elegant genius of the core loop, which is as follows:

There is a once around auction to win turn order for the ability to choose a special power card which gives players their action for the round. The tradeoff of the auction is that bids are paired with an amount of troops which go into each player's reserve for possible play on the board, with higher bids giving fewer troops. Meanwhile, there is a similar pairing with the cards one plays to take auctions, because while each card gives a special power involving manipulating troops on the map or how they score, each card also gives a certain amount of troops which one can take from one's reserve and place them on the map.

All of this means that if you bid high and use the coolest special powers, you won't be getting a lot of troops on the map to win regions. If you bid low, you won't get cool special powers, or you might not get the opportunity to place the extra troops you get in your reserve, since players might use their high bid to actually place troops rather than take strong powers. Of course, players who bid high to place lots of troops will deplete their reserve quickly.

On top of all this, the order of the bid in the following round will begin with the lowest bidder in the previous round. This can be crucial if you are setting up to get a key scoring card in a following round - you'll bid low this round so you can bid highest in the following round to get that scoring card you really need. So you are not only bidding for turn urder, you are bidding for the right to impact the next turn's order as well! Wheels within wheels. Even if you don't like area control games, I strongliy recommend at least trying it to take a look for yourself at the double layer of dual decisions created by the core game loop. No game I've ever played so ruthlessly asks players to assess the differing value of turn order in each round.

Board Game: Dogs of War
Another area control game which creates wonderful this or that decisions is Dogs of War. The area control is completely different than El Grande - Dogs of War uses shared majorities to create an almost semi-cooperative feel to the game - but both games create twofold priorities brilliantly. This game uses garden variety worker placement as an action selection mechanism, and the various spots deliver the usual resource and point rewards, but here's the twist: each worker placement spot is located on one of two sides of three separate area majority battles. By placing a worker, you are not only getting immediate resource rewards but you are also placing a card which moves the battle you placed in tug of war style towards the side you played upon (the combination of worker placement with cardplay here recalls U.C.).

Players score points in large degree based on the collection of favor tokens of various houses which are fighting in these battles, and when a house wins an area majority fight, not only do players on the winning side get a point reward, but the value of that house's favor tokens increases. One's favor tokens are hidden from view, so players can't always be sure which side of the battle a player is going to fight on. Sometimes players collect worker placement rewards and the battle impact is actually a liability towards their goals, while other times they desperately want to win the battle and the spot they play on doesn't even give any worker placement reward at all. A big part of the game is figuring out when a player is putting out a worker just to win the placement reward or whether they are strongly committed to that side winning the area majority battle, and this part of the game flows directly from the duality of what worker placement accomplishes.

Top and bottom actions

Board Game: Scythe
One of the most popular games featuring dual decision making in its core gameplay loop is Scythe. Here when a player selects an action they are selecting a top and a bottom action on their player board. They execute the top action first, then the bottom one, if possible. Which top and which bottom actions are paired together varies depending on the player board. The top actions tend to be nuts and bolts accrual of various kinds of power and resources, as well as moving units on the board.

The bottom actions are the big payoff actions, spending resources to build mechs and buildings, upgrade the power of actions, or gain money/points when they and adjacent players take actions. However, until one has accrued resources, one can't take bottom actions at all. When you start to be able to perform them, the game gets interesting, as the tying of the different actions together creates the kind of tradeoffs we've been talking about. Sometimes a player wants that big bottom action payoff and they take a top action which is totally useless. Other times they so need to do a particular top action, often moving, that they end up not getting a bottom action at all when they could have gotten one with a different top action.

Complicating matters is a rule against taking the same action pair two turns in a row. Players seek to develop efficient action loops or sequences which get them the resources to keep coming back and getting juicy bottom actions faster and faster as their engine accelerates. The tradeoffs and payoffs of these action pairings and the loops one creates out of them are at the heart of why this game is a hit, even more than its popular artwork and theme.

Board Game: Gloomhaven
Speaking of top and bottom actions, the highest rated game on BGG uses cards with them, but instead of executing both, a player plays two cards and uses the top action on one and the bottom action on another in Gloomhaven. Using different cards avoids the dilemma of actions being tied together in Scythe and other games discussed here, but it creates a new problem. Often there are cards when one desperately wants to use the top and the bottom action, but one has to choose one or the other, and the card then can't be used again for some time.

A further twist is initiative. Each card has a speed and the player chooses the speed from one of the two chosen cards as their initiative. Often a player wants to go as fast as possible, but other times they need to wait until after another player does something or they want to go after everyone else has gone. Sometimes you have the perfect top action from one card and the perfect bottom action from another, but the initiative is all wrong. Do you choose it anyway, or do you take a throwaway action on one side of the card so that you can go at the right time?

But wait, there's more! Sometimes players choose a card combination because if things go south they can actually switch their original plan and use the opposite side of the card then they originally planned. Having this flexibility often factors into the card choice decision.

The loop trumps all

There's a lot of things one can criticize about Gloomhaven, from its overlong setup and teardown times, to its overcomplexity in some places, to the imbalances in certain cards and scenarios. But the core cardplay system and the choices which evolve out of the simple idea of taking the top action from one card and the bottom from another has captured the imagination of a lot of people, myself among them.

In this it reminds me a tiny bit of Scythe. There are some balance issues in that game, based on faction and first player advantage. But the addictive core gameplay loop has proved to be a huge hit. All this goes to show that players will forgive some things in a game which are rough around the edges, but what they won't forgive in a strategy game is if the decisions baked into the core gameplay loop aren't fun. A designer of Halo once said in an interview that designers needed to show off their core 30 seconds of fighting gameplay. With that core to be repeated thousands of times, if those base combat sequences weren't incredibly exciting and fun, then nothing else mattered. No one would care about your story or your graphics or your engine. That 30 seconds had to rock or everything had to be redesigned.

I think the same thing can be said of board games. The most important thing isn't the theme or the art or the scoring conditions or the balance or the bonus actions or the nifty special powers or anything else. The addictiveness of the core loop is ten times as important as all of that put together - it's the thing without which nothing else matters.

Great decisions without dualities

Board Game: Terra Mystica
I've tried to show here that one way that a great core loop or action selection mechanism can be created is by baking in a decision which forces players to frequently choose between two or more things that urgently need. At the same time, it's worth noting that many great strategy games have succeeded without those dualities being baked directly into the action selection. A game like Terra Mystica has simple actions where those tough decisions are scattered in different places outside the core mechanisms themselves, such as where and what to build, when to pass, which special action to take, what favor tile to take, etc.

But whereas the importance of the decisions in a game like Terra Mystica can creep up on you, there's nothing wrong with the action selection mechanism or the core loop grabbing you by the throat right from a game's outset. And I hope it hasn't gotten lost in this overlong post that all the permutations of decision making which I've described at length evolve in every example out of a simple duality in the game's core gameplay loop or action selection mechanism.

How about you? What games do you love where a game's core loop bakes in dualities which create tough tradeoff that players are grappling with from the first turn to the very end of the game? Let me know in the comments below.

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Sat Dec 18, 2021 2:34 am
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The rise and fall (and rise again) of auctions

Anthony Faber
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Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
In the beginning, Knizia created board games.

And the board games were without form, and mechanism; and darkness was upon the windows of the game store. And the spirit of Knizia moved between the cheap folding tables.

And Knizia said, Let there be auctions: and there were auctions.

And Knizia saw the auctions, that they were good: and Knizia divided the auctions from the all the other crappy mechanisms in vogue at the time.

And Knizia called the auctions Day, and all the other lameass mechanisms he called Night. And Modern Art and Medici were the first day.

I could go on like this for a while, and I would offend some and bore others who would understandably see this as a cheap bit, but I would remind you that there are many on this site for whom the above paragraphs represent a fairly accurate accounting of the early days of modern board gaming. I mean, just throw a rock on these forums and you'll hit a 50-something white guy who got into games in the late 90s and has a picture of Reiner Knizia on his wall instead of Jesus.

Board Game: Modern Art
Look, I like to needle Knizia fans, many of whom seem passionately invested in the idea that high interaction, low rules complexity old school euros are the only euros worth playing. But while I mostly don't believe in this philosophy, I do believe in demanding games of skill, and nothing demands more of you as a player than an auction. Auctions are like warfare. If you are wrong in war or an auction, the results are disastrous and obvious. There's something truly wonderful about the exacting nature of the mechanism, and all joking aside, it's undeniable that when it comes to auctions Reiner Knizia is basically the father, the son, and the holy spirit rolled into one. During the 90s, he released Modern Art, Medici, Ra, and High Society, with Amun Re coming shortly thereafter, and all of the above rank among the most popular hobby board games of their time.

I'm going to explore the kinds of places I like to see auctions in games these days, not delve further into what makes Knizia's games great, which would be its own dedicated post, but I bring them up to make a point which is obvious to anyone who has played them: in all these games, the auction is the game - it's either the games central mechanism around which the whole game is based (Amun Re) or literally the only real mechanism in the entire game (Modern Art, High Society). Knizia released hit after hit with pure auction games.

Fast forward to today, when more than ten times as many games come out each year as did in the nineties, and yet games where auctions are carrying the game are very hard to find (I'll get into a couple of recent examples later). So what happened? Why have auctions fallen out of favor?

One theory which seems a little trite to me is that people burned out on them as designers leaned on them too heavily. If a game needed a certain part to be balanced, this theory goes, designers would just throw in an auction and let the players balance it themselves.

While there may be some truth there, a more compelling answer to me is that tastes have changed, in two specific ways which are unfriendly to auctions. One way is that today's players prefer eurogames to be somewhat forgiving, something auctions are not known for. The warfare I described earlier isn't exactly consistent with the live and let live ethos of today's eurogamers.

Related to this, auctions tend to make bad first impressions. The first time you play an auction game, you don't know the inherent worth of anything, and your bids are often shots in the dark. If you overbid a lot early, you can be a broke spectator the rest of the game.

Bad first impressions are the kiss of death for a modern game. In the 1990s, perhaps, players would give a game a few tries to see if they liked it. In today's world, with our overabundance of options, it's one and done. If a game bombs, it rarely gets a second chance.

Board Game: Klondike Rush
I saw this phenomenon play out firsthand at Gen Con 2018 when I volunteered for Red Raven Games. Their new release Klondike Rush, a simple old school auction game with a bit of route building which Ryan Laukat said was a conscious homage to Knizia and his auction oevre. I helped teach the game to folks at a game night there, and many people just didn't get it. Unfortunately the modern audience bounced off the game's unforgiving and opaque nature. I saw players overspending early, putting themselves out of the game, and ending up extremely frustrated. I'm fairly positive that this is Laukat's least successful game.

Board Game: Goa
Anyhow, whatever the reason, pure auction games started to wane after Knizia's golden age, though there were a few hits in which auctions played a big role - Power Grid (2004), Goa (2004), and most recently Keyflower (2012). Since then, it's been slim pickings. The Castles of Mad King Ludwig and Isle of Skye are the closest things to auction hits since then, but both use something which isn't quite an auction - price setting rather than bidding - but this trend didn't exactly catch on despite the success of those games.

But while the pure auction game or game dominated by an auction has become rare, look a little deeper, and auctions are everywhere in one form or another. Usually it's only a specific piece of the game rather than the whole thing, but they're still there, challenging players to properly assess a game's resources. I'm going to get into my favorite kinds of auctions, categorized by the role they play in the game. I feel certain aspects of modern games aren't always well served by other mechanisms, and that auctions can play a critical and interesting role in making those parts of games compelllng and fair. Here then are my categories.

Auctions for turn order

Board Game: El Grande
Turn order can be one of the trickiest things to get right in modern board game design. Going early or late in a round can be critical to success, and it doesn't feel great when this critical advantage is handed out randomly or arbitrarily. Auctions for turn order can be a great twist in games where it really matters.

This isn't a new concept. El Grande delivered maybe the best turn order auction I've ever seen back in 1995. The brilliance of that once around auction is that while it was often crucial to get first pick of the various special actions each round, bidding low for turn order is compensated for by giving the player more troops in their reserve. If you constantly bid high for turn order, you will literally run out of troops. You need to know when to punt turn order when it isn't crucial and fight for it when it is.

Board Game: Shakespeare
My favorite modern turn order auction comes in Shakespeare, in which players blind bid the amount of actions they are allowed to take in a round in order to go first, with the lowest bid winning and each player getting as many actions as they bid. The winner also gets victory points, which are very hard to come by. This system puts players in tough spots where they really need to go easily to recruit a character they need but also really need to take a bunch of actions that round. Because all but one of one's tableau must rest every other round, shrewd analysis of an opponent's position can often give you a good idea of how many actions they are planning to take. The system is the highlight of an underrated eurogame.

A similar great system comes in Dungeon Petz, where players combine workers and gold to bid the speed of each of their actions based on how many workers and gold are in the action group. You can create few actions with high bids or lots of actions with low bids. In this system, each bid operates separately and is ranked, so you could end up going 1st, 7th, 8th, and 10th in a round, for instance.

Auctions masquerading as worker placement

Board Game: Lancaster
Lancaster uses workers of different strengths to bid for worker placement locations. When you are outbid, the worker returns to your board where you can place it somewhere else. Spicing up the mix is a resource which can be spent to temporarily bump up the strength of a worker for that round. However, if you are outbid, you get the worker back but you lose any of the resource spent.

Not all these games are a few years old. Furnace feels a bit like this sort of worker placement/auction hybrid, placing workers of different strengths to try to win card, with the twist her being that if you are outbid, you don't get your worker back but instead get a certain amount of compensation depending on the strength of the worker.

Auctioning conflict

Board Game: Rising Sun
Multiplayer conflict games have evolved towards the use of auction-like elements. Dice chucking has been replaced in many instances (Kemet, Blood Rage, Scythe, Ankh) by hidden reveal cardplay, where a card with a modifier is chosen to determine a total battle strength. These usually aren't true auctions, in that things like the strength of the troops on the board also affects the battle strength, but playing the card feels somewhat like bidding a resource to do well in battle.

In Rising Sun, there really are true auctions, as the game uses blind bid auctions for various battle goals - to capture an enemy troop, get points for losing, have the right to use mercenaries, etc. On top of this, the auctions blend in a catchup mechanism as money bid goes to the loser or losers of a battle.

Auctions as compensation for pushing your luck

The innovative new card game TEN also involves using an auction to compensate a loser. In this case, players are collecting cards, stopping to claim what they've revealed or busting if the card value goes over a certain amount. If you bust, however, you receive currency which can be used in the auction of valuable wild cards which crop up periodically. Currency can also be gained by claiming money cards instead of point cards as they are revealed.

Starting auctions for player powers

Board Game: Clans of Caledonia
I've saved the most controversial kind of auction for last. This is where in an advanced variant of games like Clans of Caledonia and Terra Mystica/Gaia Project, the game begins with an auction, using victory points to bid for a faction and its strong asymmetric player power.

I can understand why newer players don't like this - they don't know what to bid. However, I strongly disagree with the oft expressed sentiment that such auctions are having the players do the balancing work for a designer who failed to do their job. The fact is that if you are combining strongly variable player powers with a strongly variable setup, you can't balance the player powers. I'm not saying it's hard - I'm saying it's literally impossible. This is because some powers will be much better in some setups and much weaker in others. You can't make them balanced in all configurations.

There's a skill to deducing what faction is going to play well in what setup, and there's fun in the strategy and psychology of an auction as you maneuver to get what you want. Sometimes an auction induces you to play a faction you don't ordinarily draft because it's been incentivized so much. I always feel like these auctions give me a strong sense of agency. I never feel stuck with a faction. If my starting setup is bad, I caused it to happen.
Board Game: Lorenzo il Magnifico: Houses of Renaissance

For some players, it's the victory points they don't like in these auctions. They don't like the idea of starting 20 victory points in the hole. One game that uses a creative currency for this opening special powers auction is the Houses of Renaissance expansion to Lorenzo Il Magnifico. Instead of bidding points for powers, players bid their starting resources. The top bid for a power is agreeing to start with almost nothing. This is devilish, in that it's much trickier to evaluate. 10 points is 10 points. But how much is half your starting resources worth?

Pure auction games today

Board Game: Q.E.
I can't finish this post without talking about my favorite pure auction game, and one of the only popular ones from recent years, Q.E. The uses the rule from Knizia's High Society wherein you automatically lose if you spend the most money throughout the game, and couples it with the crazy rule that you can spend all the money you want. It's this clever bit of insanity which surprisingly prevents it from usually being a first game disaster, in that even if you spend a lot early, you have a recourse - keep bidding high! Other players will eventually have to outbid you if they want to win the game, which requires winning at least some auctions. Instead of feeling demoralized, first time players are astounded by the possibilities.

In conclusion

I'd love to hear what auction games other people are enjoying today. In what types of situations do you like to see auctions? Where don't you like them? Do you still play the classic auction games of the 90s? Or are there other modern pure auction games you're enjoying (Raccoon Tycoon, a game I haven't played, comes to mind). Let me know in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading.

If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you might want to listen to the latest episode of our Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which contains a review of Furnace, the most popular auction game of recent times:

https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-78-furnace-and-our-favorite-au...
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Sat Dec 11, 2021 5:53 am
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What are you looking forward to?

Anthony Faber
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Chicago
Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you might want to listen to the latest episode of the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which contains a review of Witchstone, a game I was anticipating for quite some time:

https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-b16-witchstone/

This is going to be a very short post.

It is a curious fact about human beings that we derive most of our pleasure from anticipating things rather than actually enjoying them in the moment. Board gamers are, if anything, more like this than most people. Kickstarter is a perfect expression of this phenomenon, as people on the whole get far more excited about backing a campaign and anticipating a game's arrival than they actually do playing the game when it's finally delivered.

Even those who disdain paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars years in advance for gobs of plastic and poorly developed rules still trade in anticipation. Perhaps it's looking forward to getting that old classic back to the table, or finally defeating a rival or just getting together with a group of friends you haven't seen since Covid. We all still find our joy in the future. And I'm not criticizing this or suggesting that we fight this. Instead let's embrace it.

So rather than giving my opinions about some topic or another, this week I'm just asking you, in the spirit of the season and in the world of board games, what are you looking forward to? Do you have some Kickstarter games which have braved ships and ports and trucks and which are finally about to reach your eager hands? Or maybe it's some Essen or Gen Con release which has run the supply chain gauntlet which you'll get to the table over the holidays. Or is your anticipation
Board Game: A Feast for Odin
simply about enjoying games with friends or family? Maybe you're anticipating A Feast for Odin finally getting through Alpha on BGA where you can play it whenever you want.

We sometimes (hopefully) reflect during the holiday season about what we are grateful for. Let's also ponder the joy of anticipating the next thing. Whether it's about old or new friends, old or new games, and old or new places to play them, let me know in the comments what you are looking forward to.

I'll go first: I'm looking forward to a couple old and dear friends I haven't seen in a couple of years coming over tomorrow and playing Blood Rage until our eyes bleed. What about you?

Podcast: https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-b16-witchstone/
Website: http://twowood4awheat.com/
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11 Comments
Sat Dec 4, 2021 12:39 am
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The World Series of Board Gaming - potential plus pitfalls

Anthony Faber
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Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you might want to listen to this discussion on the latest episode of the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which features special guest Jake Frydman from Decision Space, as well as a review of Eric Lang's Ankh:

https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-77-ankh-the-world-series-of-bo...

If you regularly consume any popular board game media, then chances are excellent you've heard about The World Series of Board Gaming, an event taking place next year year from 9/28-10/2 at Bally's Hotel in Las Vegas. Ostensibly modeled after The World Series of Poker, the event features single elimination tournaments in 16 different games, which result in a semi-final and final round of four players to a table, with over $100,000 in prizes given away, including $20,000 to the eventual winner. While there's been a World Board Gaming Championship gathering held for many years, these kinds of prizes appear to be entirely new.

My reaction, which hasn't changed since the moment I heard about it, contains both excitement and anxiety. Excitement, because I'd love to see board games on the same kind of stage as more generally known sports and games. Even if you have no interest in tournament gaming, how could you not smile seeing the press cover a big money game of Blood Rage or Wingspan?

The games represent an intriguing mix of old classics, the latest hotness, gateway games, chunky euros, and everything in between. While entrants can practice specific games for the individual tournaments, they need to be ready to play anything, as games at the semi-final and final tables will be chosen randomly from among the 16 games that the players at that table haven't won at. Here are the games, which aside from some possible quibbling about whether 7 Wonders is a gateway game, divide pretty clearly into three categories:
Board Game: Azul

Gateway Games

Azul
Carcassonne
Catan
Splendor
Ticket to Ride
7 Wonders (with Leaders expansion)
Board Game: Blood Rage

Midweight Games

Acquire
Blood Rage
Dune Imperium
Ra
Terraforming Mars
Wingspan
Board Game: Brass: Birmingham

Heavy Euros

Brass Birmingham
Dominant Species Marine
Gaia Project
Great Western Trail

The whole idea is so wonderful and crazy that I'm seriously considering entering the competition. I've played all but one of these games, and some of them I have strong emotional attachments to, so it would be a memorable experience to play them in this kind of event. I don't expect to win anything, but I'll have some good stories to tell.

It's not all sunshine and roses. I have some strong concerns about this event which could limit its success at best and cause a complete disaster at worst. I'll go over these concerns from least to greatest.

There's going to be a ton of luck in this

There are many factors which will make it so the eventual winner will have to be very lucky as well as good. Let's start with the choice of games. While I love many of these games and appreciate their diversity, their sheer variety will lead to some strange situations. Can you imagine winning a Brass Birmingham tournament and then playing a game of Ticket to Ride for $25,000? Better draw those east-west routes!

As a side note to the luck aspect, the wide variety of games will also make some of the preliminary events take far longer than others. After all, a four player game of Gaia Project probably takes almost ten times as long as a four player game of 7 Wonders.

Another way the game choices will increase the luck in the eventual outcomes is via what games get signed up for. Some of these games are much more popular than others. I can imagine 60 players playing in the Terraforming Mars event, while less than 10 people enter the one for Dominant Species Marine. Will you be able to see how many people have entered each one and game your entry to join the smallest group? Who knows.

This costs a crapload of money

There are four days of single elimination tournaments before the semi-finals and finals on Sunday. Because these events overlap, you can only enter one of these qualifiers per day. To stay at Bally's for the 4 nights and get to enter four qualifiers costs $900. This might not sound too crazy with hotel included, but the hotel is only half the cost. To enter four events without hotel costs $450. To play in just one qualifier costs $250.

Compared to the World Series of Poker, this might not sound exorbitant, but the WSOP has tens of millions of dollars in prizes. This sounds like it would be the most expensive board game tournament ever held. Such an event already requires hotel and airfare, but $450 really sounds steep, and could limit attendance. Going to a board game convention costs like $100 for 4 days, and offers far more events and opportunities. With limited time and money, what board gamers are going to choose this over BGG Con or Gen Con?

There are 250 spots available, and it appears after doing some back of a napkin math, they'll have to sell all of them to be able to give away all their prize support, let alone pay for the hotel and all the advanced promotion they are doing. It seems like there's at least some chance they won't get enough entrants to have the event at all, and then will everyone get their money back in a timely fashion? This dovetails into my concern about who is putting on the event further below.

Many details are still sketchy

The website promises that over $100,000 worth of cash and prizes will be given away, and yet the specific prizes for the four finalists totals $41,000. The website vaguely mentions some other "outer ring events" without mentioning their structure or which games they will involve. Are these events worth the remaining $60,000? If so, some people may bail on the main event to play in one or more of these.

Many other details are glossed over, such as how one signs up for individual events, as mentioned above, what the exact rules of the main tournament are, and who is actually running the World Series of Board Gaming - see below.

Who is holding this event?

I can't seem to figure anything out about who's putting this thing on. The only statement I can find comes from the Board Game Halv website, which quotes a PR person as saying "The team still wants to keep some anonymity" and "There are 9 owners all but one of us are board gamers at some level...some want to remain anonymous."

The organization's website and Twitter account offer no clues, other than a vague statement about accomplishing 'our goal of growing this hobby'. At first I thought that it might be sponsored by the companies whose games are among the 16, but circumstantial evidence speaks against this. The companies don't appear to be promoting their appearance, and one, Stonemaier Games, has actually spoken out against organized play for Stonemaier products in the past.

They do apparently have enough money to pay various Youtube content creators to announce and promote the event, and this has been entertaining in its own right, especially watching the Dice Tower announce many videos as being brought to you by the World Series of Board Gaming. However, I'm not sure if these content creators know any more about who's writing the checks than we do.

Given that the math of all the expenses involved doesn't seem like it's conducive to making a profit, I would suspect that the motive of promoting and growing the hobby is genuine. But who are these nine people, and do they represent any companies? Asmodee could certainly afford to create this as a loss leader, and some of the games are theirs. But then why wouldn't they tell us?

The obvious reason this all matters is that people need to know if they can trust that this all going to work, and at the very least, someone isn't going to disappear with their registration money. Even if the WSBG is completely honest, and I have no evidence that it isn't, there are a ton of challenges in doing something like this (see a huge one below). Do our mysterious nine owners have experience running big events, and just as importantly, experience running high prize money events? We have no idea.

Cheating and rules controversies are highly likely

Consider that poker is both a simple game and a clean game, by which I mean the rules are very clear and there aren't a ton of moving parts on the table. And yet despite this, and despite organizers having an enormous amount of experience running poker tournaments, it's not that uncommon to see cheating, sketchy behavior, and rules or behavior controversies at these events. Large amounts of money can bring out the worst in people.

I would argue that running tournaments in 16 different games is a far more daunting task. Unlike poker, which is one relatively simple game, this is 16 much more complicated games, most of which are not known for having competitive play scenes with clearly defined rules. How much time is going to be allotted to make one's moves, and if there are no timing devices, how will overly slow play be prevented? How many judges are on hand to adjudicate rules or state of game disputes and what kind of training will they have in 16 different games? Will there be a code of conduct? Will all the tournament rules be spelled out clearly in advance?

If you think this stuff won't be a big deal, let me throw out a few scenarios for you. Imagine during a game someone accidentally elbows someone's victory point marker off the track and players can't agree to where it was. Do you think this will get resolved smoothly with a lot of money on the line?

Or imagine a scenario where people who know each other are playing in the event and are playing at the same table. Since each game is single elimination, there will only be one winner, so the players may decide to collude and have one player help the other win. Without rules guidelines or a code of conduct, collusion would be completely allowable. Or what if a player accidentally makes an illegal move in a complicated game and it isn't discovered until much later. Is that player disqualified? Do they just play on?

Use your imagination and you can come up with a lot of really ugly scenarios. Outright cheating is only one obvious part of it. The state of the game getting accidentally muddled, as can easily happen in complicated games, will likely be more common. There had better be some clear and comprehensive rules for how to deal with these situations, enforced by very knowledgeable and well trained judges.

These challenges would be formidable if the organizers were experienced in dealing with competitive play, but since we don't really know anything about the people running the event, it's anyone's guess as to whether they can properly handle all of this.

A final note

One might think from all my concerns that I'm skeptical about this event, and in many ways I am, but I don't want to obscure the fact that I'm also excited about its potential. Probably some of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that as someone who writes a blog and records a podcast, I'll have a lot to talk about even if this is a train wreck. However, even as just a board gamer, I think this could generate exciting interest from both those inside and outside the hobby. It's no coincidence that the longest live games tend to have a thriving competitive play scene. We know all about the downsides of competitive play, and I'm hoping really hard that they are minimal at this event. But competitive play also brings more people into the hobby and gives us all something fun to talk about.

So what do you think about all of this? Are you excited, skeptical, both or neither? And do any of you know any more about the mysterious folks who are putting this whole thing on? Let me know in the comments below. And for those interested, here's the link to the website:

https://wsbgvegas.com/

Podcast: https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-77-ankh-the-world-series-of-bo...
Website: http://twowood4awheat.com/
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21 Comments
Fri Nov 26, 2021 11:02 pm
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What kind of gamer are you?

Anthony Faber
United States
Chicago
Illinois
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you might want to listen to the latest episode of the Two Wood for a Wheat podcast, which contains a review of Wild Space, a clear example of a game designed for the variable gamer:

https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-b15-wild-space/

This post is about your tastes as someone who enjoys strategy games. I've found that most people fall into one of two categories: control gamers and variable gamers.

Variable gamers want variable, different experiences each time. 'Variable' doesn't mean they like output randomness - it means they like varied ways to play the game. Variable setups, variable player powers, seeing different parts of the game in different plays - this is what variable players love.

The opposite side of the game is the control gamer, who wants the basics of the game to be the same or fairly similar each time, with player choice being the only major curveball.

This might be a bit conceptual, so I'm going to give examples based on different kinds of games. Before I dive in, I want to make one major point which is sure to be missed: the degree of comfort with randomness is only part of what separates these two gamer types. Yes, the variable player is generally more comfortable with unfair setups and draws. But it's more about the size of the play space. The control player wants a tighter, smaller, more controlled play space where they have all the information needed to make the right decision, and what decides the game are subtle nuances and calculations.

By contrast, the variable players wants a wider play space where they have to intuit how to respond to unusual circumstances. They don't like refining a system, they enjoy being thrown into the ocean and learning how to swim. Here we go.

Deckbuilding Games - do you like Dominion or Ascension?

Board Game: Dominion
In Dominion and similar style games, the card pool is exactly set at the start of the game. It has a variable setup in terms of what cards are being used, but once that choice is made, you can plan an exact strategy because you know exactly what you can get. This is perfect for the control gamer who wants to be the absolute best inside these fixed parameters.

Board Game: Ascension: Deckbuilding Game
In Ascension and similar games, you have a random card market where you buy stuff and stuff is drawn off the top of the deck. You'll likely never see the whole card pool, and you'll have no idea what order it will appear in. You might have to try a janky, weird strategy because that's what best among what happens to show up for you in a given game.

Card Drafting Games - do you like 7 Wonders or It's a Wonderful World?

Board Game: 7 Wonders
In 7 Wonders, the card pool is pretty much the same time. Cards are painstakingly removed based on player count for consistency. Cards also appear in three set ages, with more powerful cards appearing in each age. Especially in 3 or 4 player games, players feel like they have control of the possibilities in it's not as much about what cards become available as what cards you choose. You can make precise calculations about what's likely to come around to you again based on what's already been taken and what players are likely to need. It's a tight, refined game space.
Board Game: It's a Wonderful World


In a It's a Wonderful World on the other hand, it's a wild and wooly experience. There's a ton of cards in the box, only some of which will show up each game, and in random order, not by escalating power level. You've got to recognize the unusual characteristics of the cards out in a given round and adjust accordingly. You need to be able to improvise and throw out earlier plans. The game doesn't always feel fair.

Worker Placement Games - do you like Agricola or The Voyages of Marco Polo

Board Game: Agricola
As many folks know, Agricola is tight and unforgiving, where ill-chosen action or one slight miscalculation in one's food supply can completely sink you. Thematically and mechanically, each action carries a heavy weight. Both kinds of player love the draft, which adds variety to setup for the variable player and allows control players to set a path from the outset. Getting a couple less wood than expected or making a small tempo mistake can be absolutely crushing. The game rewards mastering order of operations among a relatively small pool of actions choices.

Board Game: The Voyages of Marco Polo
The Voyages of Marco Polo is a eurogame which is designed to feel very different from play to play. Each player has a massive and radically different variable player power, the action spaces and incomes on the map are set up completely differently each time, you have different end game objectives, and the contracts come out in a different order each game, and most importantly of all, the dice rolls which dictate the strength and cost of your actions are completely different from round to round and game to game. Perhaps surprisingly, the game still allows for and even demands long term planning, as much of that variability is still analyzable before the game has begun.

Strengths and weaknesses of each game type

I don't think more examples are necessary to get the point. Tight control games tend to be fairer, tighter, more unforgiving, more about playing accurately in known a system than dealing with an unexpected situation. That they reward mastery and strategic planning, and they can sometimes become scripted or require expansions to provide variety.

Games specializing in variability will throw you into surprising and even unfair situations, and require players to improvise more. Strategic planning can still be very important, but it's much broader and more based on general principles than an exact series of moves. Sometimes their randomness can open up a new layer of decision making, such as in a card drafting game without ages when you have to decide whether to take a late game card early and hold onto it until you can actually use it. At their worst they seem unfair, or end up with an uninteresting decision space as you make obvious short term tactical choices.

I wrote this piece because I've seen quite a few arguments about the quality of a game which were really about whether a person preferred variability or control. So which kind of gamer are you? Do you like it when each game throws you into a new situation, or do you like to perfect a known system? Let me know in the comments below.

Podcast: https://twowood4awheat.com/ep-b15-wild-space/
Website: http://twowood4awheat.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/twfaw_podcast
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16 Comments
Sat Nov 20, 2021 5:21 am
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