Ludica

This is my spot for sharing tentative reflections on games, often in relation to their relationship to History and popular culture. You can find a Table of Contents here: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~prael/Ludica-ToC.htm

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WIP: Match Point, a deck-building tennis game for Traditional Deck Game Design Contest (rules available and playtest-ready)

Patrick Rael
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2 players, ages 8 and up, 15m

Ready-for-play entry into the 2022 Traditional Deck Game Design Contest.

Game Name: Match Point
Designer: Patrick Rael
Player Count: 2
Age: 8+
Game Length: 15m
Description: A deck-building tennis game using a standard deck of playing cards.

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From gallery of prael
From gallery of prael
From gallery of prael
From gallery of prael


Components
• Rulebook
• Scoreboard (useful but not required) or scorepad
• Player boards (useful but not required)
• Standard (French) card deck (jokers are not used)
• Four player scoring tokens (two in each of two different colors)

Setup

Place the scoreboard on the table (alternatively, prepare a scoring pad in its likeness). Randomly select a player marker to place on ‘Serving’; place the other marker on ‘Receiving’ (or use any other method to record serving player). Place one set of player markers to the left of ‘Games won’; these record the number of games each player has won (alternatively, record this on the scoring pad).

Randomly select a player to make the first serve of the first game. Thereafter, the player who won the last point serves. At the start of a new game, trade service by exchanging positions of the player markers.
Remove from the deck the Honour cards (consisting of 10-K each suit). Next to the board place these in four sets, one for each suit, in ascending order (for each suit, the top card will be 10; the bottom card will be K).

Shuffle the remaining cards and deal the entire deck (each player deck should have eighteen cards). Player decks go face-down to the left of the player board; discards go face-up to the right. Each player draws the top six cards of their deck to form a hand. (The player board is not necessary for play; it simply serves to organize cards and as a reminder of key rules.)

Course of play

The match is won by the first player to win three games (players may choose four or five for a longer game). Each game is played to four points.

A volley is a play of cards. The first volley of a game is a serve, which consists of a single card. A return volley may have up to one card more than the previous volley. A legal volley may consist of one card, or of multiple cards in one of three patterns (see below).

1. Unsuited run (multiple cards not all of same suit)
2. Like set (multiple cards of the same value)
3. Suited run (multiple cards all of same suit)

A return volley must meet or exceed the value of the preceding volley. Suits are not ranked.

Ranking the value of volleys
More cards always beats fewer cards
Suited run beats like set
Like set beats unsuited run
Unsuited run beats fewer cards
Higher single card beats lower single card

If the volley meets (i.e., equals) the value of the previous volley, discard all played cards (as below) and continue; the opposing player must now return. Always discard volleyed (played) cards to the other player’s discards.

Each volley is a separate play; it may not be added to or modified (as in games like gin rummy).

Continue until one player cannot, or chooses not, to return. The last player to volley wins the point.

After a point has been scored:
1. Discard volleyed cards to the opposing player’s discards.
2. Refresh hands. Draw up to four cards, until the hand has up to six cards.
(If you ended the point with no cards or one card, your refreshed hand will have fewer than six.)
3. If a game is over, exchange server/receiver positions on score board.
4. Continue play as normal, until one player wins the agreed-upon number of games (3/4/5).

Aces

An Ace occurs when the player receiving a serve (the first volley of a point) cannot, or chooses not, to return the serve. The serving player wins the point, but is not permitted to refresh their hand (it will serve next with five cards). The losing player may discard one card to their opponent; if they do, they may take into hand the top Honour card of the suit they discarded. A new point then begins as normal.

Game design: Patrick Rael
© 2022 by Patrick Rael
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Sat Sep 24, 2022 2:46 am
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Puerto Rico redux: evidence from the archive

Patrick Rael
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I wanted to add this addendum to my earlier post on Puerto Rico, because it lends evidentiary support for the conversations around the game. The central issue there is of course the game’s theme, which encompasses historical practices of slavery while simultaneously eliding that troublesome issue. Many, me included, consistently stress the ‘pasted on’ nature of PR’s theme. It seems to have been applied without a lot of forethought to what it might represent, or how it might be received.

Here's the phenomenon we're exploring: In its heydey, that did not much seem to bother PR players. Somewhere along the way, however, that changed -- to such an extent that the game earned a drastic re-theme, to excise its history of slavery and replace it with something difference.

So where did the theme come from? Why did the designer choose it? What did the designer think they were doing when they chose it?

Recent discussions around the game’s re-theming haven’t explored those questions in much detail. But clear answers to them reside right here on BGG. Let’s go back to Tom Vassal’s 2006 interview with PR designer Andreas Seyfarth:
Tom: When first designing a game, do you start with the theme or the mechanics?
Andreas: I always start with the theme.
Tom: But where do you get the ideas for your themes?
Andreas: This one is a little bit more difficult…. For Puerto Rico lots of development chains merged. One of them was the idea to do something in the new world and build up an economy. The way of dealing the phases (now: roles) came from another prototype with a setting in the prohibition time in the States (once again based on a theme)…. But where do the themes come from? All I know is: personal interest. If ever a theme grabs me, and I feel a potential for putting it into a box, I'll try my very best.


So here we have the designer’s account. Though he said he always started with theme, in the case of PR that was at least flexible, since he went through different possibilities. Seyfarth himself said that the theme came after the mechanics, so it could’ve been themed in many different ways. (A Prohibition-themed PR would be interesting indeed.) Ultimately, the colonial theme came to Seyfarth through the ether rather than through a specific chain of reasoning. This is not surprising, as themes of Europe’s growth and expansion were very much a part of Seyfarth’s creative milieu. He didn’t have to reach very far to find it, or even think too hard about how to get there.

We might evaluate this in several ways. On the one hand, does it excuse him because the process was so elusive to him? How can he be faulted for incorporating into his creation something he didn’t even think much about? It’s not like he intended to cause anyone harm with PR’s depiction of slavery, right?

On the other hand, this kind of latent process is precisely the problem when it comes to understanding how stereotypes work. When white consumers bought Uncle Ben’s Rice or Aunt Jemimah syrup, they likely didn’t think much about the images associated with them. Rather, those images operated on a subtler level, recalling without thought comforting feelings. The problem was that those feelings emerged from the historical exploitation of those being represented, a truth belied by the visages of happy servants caring for white people. In similar fashion, this argument runs, PR latently called upon a historical lie — the fiction of voluntary plantation laborers. In all these instances, the harm lies precisely in this insidious capacity to influence without self-awareness. And that is as true of creators as well as consumers — both can miss becoming entwined in this phenomenon.


Ok, then when did the concern with slavery in PR become apparent? Searching back, the earliest BGG reference I find to the slavery issue in PR is from this post in 2010. It’s a fascinating take on Train, Brenda Romero’s ludic art piece exploring the notion of complicity in the Holocaust. Supporting an argument that players need to think about the history represented in games, one BGGer asked:
Have you played Puerto Rico? Whether we admit it or not, the "colonists" do seem more like slave trade. Do people think of these tokens to represent people, or mere things to move the game along? Do you think the SS thought of what they were doing as a game?


Sound a bit familiar? It's just another version of 'WTF is up with those little brown discs?' The point is that widespread concern about the game’s theme did not appear in 2002; they emerged only over time, and particularly in the last decade.

Why was this? Why didn’t players in 2002 recognize what players twenty years later recognize – the game’s problematic representation of slavery?

I think the answer is that what happened over time was not that PR changed, but that its players changed. Gaming communities have broadened and diversified remarkably over the last twenty years, just as has the context for thinking about slavery and its representation in broader popular culture. It’s not that PR players in 2002 didn’t care about slavery, or didn't think it was bad. The change is not a change in values around slavery itself, the change is in values around how, or if, slavery should be represented in entertainment culture.

In 2002, many PR players were predisposed to not care about its quiet elision of slavery. This says more about players' relationship to the genre than about their personal attitudes toward slavery as a historical phenomenon. As I stressed in my post on PR's re-theme, euro players in 2002 largely understood themselves to be playing boxes of mechanics, with historical themes lightly pasted on. It was only after the discourse around representation changed – with new players and new public concerns about how culture can reinforce dangerous historical stereotypes – that slavery in PR became a topic of widespread concern in gaming communities. At least, this is what the 'archive' that is BGG tells us. (This is not to say there were no concerns early on; I myself recall thinking about the issue in 2006 when I first played the game. I’m speaking in generalities, with BGG as my source of evidence.)

All that might seem obvious to say, but it’s important to really get what that feels like – to see how PR has transmogrified – from a niche game among a relatively small community of gamers who prioritized play value much more highly than they prioritized cultural representation, to a legendary classic Euro that became an icon of the genre – in both good and bad ways.

Consider this comment on a 2012 post:
If enough people are going to dedicate themselves to a given game (I'm thinking of chess, bridge, and go), that game will generate some serious literature, as well it should. There are things worth saying about the game, and things worth reading. But it doesn't seem that long ago to me that Settlers was all the rage and might become the kind of game that would generate literature; and now nobody wants to read anything about it anymore. Who's to say Puerto Rico or Agricola will fare any better in the long run?


Quite well, it turns out. Here, a decade later, in 2022, with boardgames exploding as a multi-billion dollar industry, with PR being re-issued with a new theme, isn’t it interesting to see how things change. We need to keep this in mind if we’re to understand the meaning of historical representation in board games, or any other medium. The context in which we understand a creation constantly changes, even if the creation itself does not at all. Later in the 2012 post I referenced above, we read this:
But when I step back and look at the whole phenomenon, a lot of it is just fandom over passing fads. To the teenage girls crying and tearing their hair out in 1964, the Beatles meant everything. To some BGGeeks, Puerto Rico is deeply meaningful. The difference is that the Beatles won a lasting place in culture and history. It's unlikely that Puerto Rico will.


I recall seeing a documentary segment from the mid-‘60s, wherein Paul McCartney scoffed at the idea that the music they were making was art: “It’s not art,” he said, “it’s all just a laugh.” I recall seeing an episode of The Jeffersons (remember that show?) in the ‘70s, where a character drew laughs by saying that the music of Pink Floyd was high art. Oh how things change. The low becomes high; the ephemeral becomes the canonical. This is true of every major media form we can imagine, from the ‘race records’ of the early Jazz age to once-reviled ‘funny books’ (comics) that now inspire features films that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. Video games, once derided as mind-destroying addictive pastimes, are now subjects of doctoral programs. We even see this in the board game world, with excellent histories of Monopoly (Mary Pilon), and great takes on The Checkered Game of Life (Jill Lapore).

As modern board games continue to evolve as a lucrative and significant media form, Euros will likely assume a similar position. As iconic examples of the form, they become touchstones for whole genres of games built on their ideas, and as such become subjects of study. The commentor above could not have known that Catan has been referenced by scholars (such as Steven Salaita) who study settler colonialism, that PR itself has become a central figure in representation conflicts around board games, or that board games themselves have become objects of serious study by historians and new media scholars.
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Tue Aug 30, 2022 9:49 pm
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Ten questions with Mike Lambo

Patrick Rael
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For me, perhaps the most exciting recent trend in gaming has been a spate of new solitaire games designed in book format, and easily available via Amazon. Among new titles by Worthington, , and others, those by Mike Lambo stand out: his wargame books, which cover topics from medieval Britain to Vietnam, have become quite popular. They’re easily purchased, exceptionally clear, and fun to play. I thought fans of these books might like to know a little bit about their designer. So let me start by thanking Mike for taking time to answer a few questions.


1. Before I ask about your background in gaming, can you briefly share with readers your gaming ‘resume’? For those just learning about your games, what games have you published, and how successful have they been? What’s all the fuss about?

Yes of course. As at the date of this interview, I've published eight game books through Amazon's print on demand service. The first was The Fields of Normandy and they have since ranged over different periods, battles and topics. My latest book is Battles of the English Civil War, released quite recently. In terms of how successful they have been, I guess I would say that they have been more successful than I ever thought they would be!

2. What is your background in gaming? How long have you played? Do you have favorite games, topics, or approaches?

I have enjoyed board games all my life and I have been designing my own games since I was a young child. In the 1980s I wrote games for my home computer but soon reverted back to board games, as I missed the tactile aspect of physical board games. When my own children came along, I continued to design games for them. As they grew up, I looked for a way of designing games that would possibly getting them out to a wider audience, and therefore the game book idea. I have always had a preference for war games as I enjoy the tactical and strategic aspects of such games. My collection includes games that push the boundaries of the definition of war games, but they still tend to include this tactical and strategic elements found in war games. In terms of approaches to games or mechanics, I do not really have a preference. I do enjoy a bit of randomness in games, as long as this can be mitigated to some extent. Games which are hitting my table most often at the moment, as well as my own, include classics such as Fields of Fire, D-Day at Tarawa and Night of the Living Dead (Zombicide)!

3. Where did the idea for your book games come from? What led you to the general concept? Why book games?

I have been publishing books for several years using the print on demand service provided by Amazon. I had been toying with the idea of incorporating a war game into a book for some time, and then I began to notice a couple of titles appearing from various publishers including Worthington games. This focused my mind a little and made me complete and publish my first game, The Fields of Normandy. The reason why games are in book format is simply because that is a format over which I have full control from initial design, through to art style, to publication and pricing and it also makes my books easy to obtain and very portable and playable. There is little doubt that had it not been for print on demand services, my games would never have been published.

4. How did you approach designing these games? Did you have specific ideas or principles in mind when designing them?

To some degree, the games are dictated by the book format. This format restricts the size of the maps, the amount of moving parts that can realistically be included, and to some degree the complexity of the games. My intention was always to produce games which were accessible but also challenging. I also wanted them to be solitaire games for one player. Since I designed the first game, I have certainly surprised myself by how varied my games have become, and by how many different ideas come to mind as I design each game. I currently have a long list of ideas, suggestions and requests for games and what I thought was going to be a pretty restrictive format of game design has allowed much more diversity of design than I thought.

5. Were you inspired by other designs? Did you hope to do something different from other book games you’ve seen?

I think it is probably fair to say that most game designers are influenced and inspired by other designers and games that they have played. I certainly do not claim to have invented anything particularly ground breaking, but I do think I have the ability to knit ideas together to create challenging and replayable games. I do not think I ever set out to do anything particularly different to other book games, but to do what I would want to see in a book game. In particular, I wanted to do something a little more than a standard roll and write game in terms of having different missions or battles included in my books rather than repeats of the same battle over a number of pages.

6. Where do you get ideas for the mechanics that appear in your games?

I would say that I have been blessed with a fairly vivid imagination and therefore finding a mechanic to match a particular element in a game is not usually problematic for me. However, I would again reiterate that much of what I have done in my games has in some way been done before, albeit in different ways and in different styles and in different combinations. Years of experience of designing and playing a whole variety of games has given me a wealth of material to draw upon.

7. How has the feedback been? Has anything surprised you about how your game books have been received?

I have to admit by being slightly overwhelmed by the feedback. The feedback that I have received via direct contact or through online media such as Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and BoardGameGeek.com has been almost entirely positive. I hope, to a large degree, that this is because I have always made it clear what my books are trying to do, and therefore people are aware of this before they buy them. I am also perfectly aware that my games are not for everybody, and I am equally grateful to people who have tried them and maybe not enjoyed them quite so much for not giving poor feedback. I think most people can see that my games are generally of a pretty high quality in terms of clear rules, ease of play and high challenge.

8. With new Lambo games coming out every month or so (it seems), you are incredibly prolific. How do you make so many games so quickly? Will you keep up at this pace?

This is difficult question! I think it is important to appreciate that many of the ideas in my games have been knocking around for many years in terms of games I have designed for myself or my children and so they are not always entirely new ideas. However, without wishing to sound like Liam Neeson, I do have a ‘very particular set of skills’ which allows me to produce games quickly and accurately and to balance them very efficiently. I am fortunate to have the ability to be able to create games but also write very clear and structured rules and I am also improving my graphic design skills as each book is published. As to whether I can keep up this pace, the answer is probably that I shouldn't, but I find it difficult to slow down!

9. Would you say that book-format games in general are here to stay? Where do you see them going in the future?

Personally, I think games are like anything else in life in that people will buy a product if it is good quality and satisfies their needs. As long as designers keep producing games which people want to play, then I am not sure the format really matters.

10. Is there anything in the gaming world now that is particularly exciting for you? Are you waiting on specific game projects you know are out there? Are there general topics you’re interested to see in games?

I am always interested to see new games coming through. Whilst I have always had a personal interest in World War Two, I have enjoyed games, and indeed have written games, from many time periods. I am most interested in solitaire games and intrigued to see the extent to which this format can be developed in the future.

11. Have I forgotten anything? Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If I may, I would just like to say a word of thanks to everyone who has supported me in the first six months or so of my journey as an independent game designer. I just hope I can keep designing games that people enjoy.

Thanks, Mike, and best wishes for your upcoming projects!
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Tue Aug 23, 2022 2:14 pm
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Why (the theme of) Secret Hitler is Hot Garbage | CASE Files

Patrick Rael
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Third and final discussion.
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Fri Aug 19, 2022 1:54 pm
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How to Make a Great History Game (and Avoid a Bad One) | Good Trouble

Patrick Rael
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Round two of my convo w/the awesome Jason Perez. There may be yet another...

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Tue Aug 16, 2022 3:04 pm
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War Games are Better at History than Euro Games? with Dr. Patrick Rael | Good Trouble

Patrick Rael
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Thanks to Jason Perez for the opportunity to discuss this fascinating question.
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Wed Aug 10, 2022 2:57 pm
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Puerto Rico 1543 vs. Puerto Rico 1897

Patrick Rael
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One of modern boardgaming’s most classic games is being re-themed. Puerto Rico, a game released in 2002, says that it is set “50 years after” Columbus landed on the island in 1493. A new version to be released later this year is set in 1897. The differences only begin there. Here’s a representative news release explaining things:

The classic board game Puerto Rico is receiving a major update, which will push the game forward in time in an attempt to make the game more inclusive. Ravensburger announced that it would publish Puerto Rico 1897, a new version of the Euro-style board game Puerto Rico. While the original Puerto Rico was set in the 16th century and featured players as regional governors using "colonists" (a thinly veiled reference to the slave trade) to build up the island, Puerto Rico 1897 will have players act as local farmers instead a colonial governer and is set during an era after slavery was abolished. Significant other historical updates were made to Puerto Rico 1897, bringing in "culturally and historically accurate people, crops, buildings and imagery" while retaining the original gameplay. Although Puerto Rico is an award-winning game and is currently one of the highest rated board games of all time according to popular board game review aggregator BoardGameGeek.com, it also has been the focus of immense criticism due to its dismissal of slavery and its casual use of colonization as a core game mechanic. In response to this criticism, Ravensburger noted that it had brought in cultural and sensitivity consultants to help update the game.

The re-theme and the discussions around it offer an excellent opportunity to think about how games make meaning – for me, historical meaning. The creators of Puerto Rico 1897 (PR1897) proclaim that the new version is markedly different from the old (PR1543); it has to be, otherwise why re-make it? And yet in terms of mechanics – the thing that makes a game a game – the two are virtually the same. What’s going on?

I would argue that the two are indeed quite different, but perhaps in not the way we might first think. I would argue that the differences draw our attention to an under-appreciated aspect of how we understand games.

Reviewing the three rhetorics of board games

(If you’ve followed my writing here and know this spiel, you can probably skip over this section.)
My approach to thinking about tabletop history games derives from representation studies, which is all about understanding how media forms work to send messages and make meaning. I’ve detailed this approach on this blog before, particularly in a review of Amabel Holland’s This Guilty Land. There, I laid out the three ‘rhetorics’ I see operating in games: ludic rhetoric, discursive rhetoric, and aesthetic rhetoric. Let me recap them there, because these principles may give us the language we need.

‘Rhetoric’ merely refers to modes of persuasive expression. All media forms carry and impart messages, so all have and employ rhetoric. Television commercials try to sell you things, instruction manuals tell you how to operate things, self-help books want you to be better, editorials want you to think about issues in certain ways, Hallmark Greeting cards express the giver’s caring, etc. This is a big concept, so in applying it to games I divide it into three components.

1. Discursive rhetoric describes the use of words (usually in prose) that explain what the game is about and how it should be understood. Classic examples here are designer’s notes that explain the creator’s understanding of history and how the game represents it. Discursive rhetoric is prominent within games as well. Consider the New Game of Human Life (1790) which has spaces labeled things like ’The Assiduous Youth’ or the ‘Drunkard’. Discursive rhetoric explains that you are passing three cards to the left because you’re sharing secrets, or that the dice you’re rolling actually represent sections of a giant space robot. Abstract games like Go have virtually no discursive rhetoric, while RPGs generally have a ton.

2. If discursive rhetoric conveys the meaning of what you’re doing, ludic rhetoric encompasses the actual things you’re doing. This is my term for Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric, which describes the ways procedures and processes make arguments and convey messages. I understand ‘procedural’ to encompass quite a bit (everything from recipe books to soda machines to SQL code to Congressional handbooks); for me, ‘ludic’ refers more specifically to the ways game procedures convey messages. This is, after all, one of the things that define games as a distinct media form – they’re interactive. They make you do things. I understand Bogost to be saying that the procedures you undertake convey important messages about a creation’s meaning. You’ll get the idea if you think about art collecting games in which players engage in auctions, or political games where they vote. Wargames usually require pieces to be destroyed and removed, while trading games often involve the accumulation and loss of play money. Ludic rhetoric asserts that the mechanic is the message — that the procedures games ask players to undertake are central to conveying their meaning.

3. But words and procedures alone aren’t sufficient to define a game. There’s the physical thing itself, after all. Anyone watching recent discussions in the boardgaming world about the way box cover art can perpetuate stereotypes is aware of the meaning-imparting power of game art. But think also about the differences conveyed by clipped cardboard counters (wargames!) and 8mm cubes (Eurogames!). Such considerations became part of a game’s gestalt, coming together to send powerful messages about how it should be understood. Contrast a huge build with plastic minis with the modesty and respect Amabel Holland brought to the entire physical design of This Guilty Land, a game about the delicate subject of slavery. One might call all this ‘visual rhetoric’, but it goes beyond pictures, encompassing its entire mode of material presentation. This is what I call aesthetic rhetoric.

What does Puerto Rico think it’s about?

In games, ludic, discursive, and aesthetic rhetoric combine to create a game’s meaning. Is a game just a box of mechanics (ludic)? Is a game simply the text that tells us what it is (discursive)? Or is a game the actual physical thing that sites on the table (aesthetic)? Of course, a game is a balance of all.

But that does not mean that all games balance these the same way. Some games are mechanics-light precisely to let players create meaning for themselves (Dixit). Some games are heavily reliant on pure text to work (Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective). Some games focus to the extreme on the physical, moving the balance away from mechanics and words toward the materiality of games (miniatures wargaming, Abtei der wandernden Bücher). So understanding where a game fits among others is about more than simply understanding its mechanics, text, and bits – it’s about understanding how these are balanced within a game.

This is the key to understanding the significance of Puerto Rico’s re-theming. The game’s setting has raised hackles for years because of its presentation of slavery and colonization. Set in the early sixteenth century, its ‘colonists’ seem likely to have been enslaved Africans, sent to the Americas as part of European nations’ efforts to extend their empires overseas. As the gaming hobby expands and its audiences diversify, Jason Perez’s re-theming of the game – it is now set in the narrow window of the nineteenth century after Puerto Rico had abolished slavery and enjoyed political independence – seeks to minimize possible readings of the original as supporting slavery and colonization. His is an effort to redeem a classic game from an unfortunate theming decision.

Of course there is controversy about this. Is the game really ‘about’ slavery? Did it intend to ignore the evil institution at the heart of its theme? One common argument is that because the game doesn’t really care about its theme, it is not responsible for representing the horrible histories behind it. Maybe critics of the original are being overly sensitive, 'projecting' their own concerns onto a virtual blank slate of a game.

Let’s take a closer look. Does PR1543 care about its history? What, in fact, does it think it’s about? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we know what a game thinks it’s about? Without a method for evaluating these claims across many games, we seem to be doing little more than spouting opinions. Let’s see if we can’t move toward such a system by comparing PR1543 with its update, PR1897.

It does seem clear that PR1543 did not set out to be about slavery and colonization. There is an incidental quality to its setting; it seems to have been a second thought. Nothing about the game requires it to take place on Puerto Rico. The products you grow in the game bear only cursory relation to actual history. Most of all, nowhere in the original Puerto Rico box could be found any explanation from the game’s creator that helped players understand its connection to history. As Luke Winkie wrote in The Atlantic in last year, “The original instruction manual for ‘Puerto Rico’ offers no commentary on the terror of human displacement […] the game’s animating principle is that this island was empty and dormant until the West arrive, bringing with it a golden age.” This is important. PR1543 doesn’t really think it’s about the history of slavery and colonization. Whatever it gets right or wrong in the history it conveys, the game does not seem to think that representing history is its reason for being. Whether it succeeds or offends historically is not its first concern. Puerto Rico is very much about slavery; it's how it's about slavery that is relevant here, and the how is that it never speaks to it despite its presence.

Despite being largely the same game, PR1897 is entirely different. Whereas for PR1543 slavery and colonization are afterthoughts, PR1897 only exists because it cares about them. Despite that both boxes contain the same game, they engage history in radically different ways. So what kind of rhetoric is at work in that? It cannot be ludic rhetoric, because the games are virtually identical in terms of mechanics. No, the real differences in PR1897 are evident in the realms of the discursive and the aesthetic. Words on pages and bits, a transformed historical metaphor explained through text, and new imagery throughout the game are doing the work. Perhaps the biggest difference between PR1543 and PR1897 may not be the new visuals referencing a different history, but the degree to which it expresses concern for the way it is perceived. Not only will the new PR loudly proclaim its intent, all the discussion around it does that work, too. Press releases, podcasts, interviews, tweets – all serve to help potential buyers understand the game they’re buying. So we have two games with the same mechanics, separated by two decades. The first cared little for its historical context, while the second is all about it. That, perhaps even more than the re-theming itself, distinguishes PR1897 from its predecessor.

Let’s think a bit more about this question of how we know what a game thinks its about. With some games, it’s difficult to understand what the game itself thinks it’s about, while other games convey very strong messages about their meaning. This is especially apparent with history games. Because of RPGs’ heavy reliance on discursive rhetoric, Reacting to the Past players always understand the game-world meaning of their die rolls. Play one of Jim Dunnigan’s more professional wargame designs and you’ll leave with a very strong sense of the history it represents. Phil Eklund’s Pax Emancipation explains how every piece of its complicated self connects with the past it depicts. Twilight Struggle, Corrupt Bargain, the list could go on and on – all take clear steps to tell players what they are about and how they should be understood.

As one moves toward more abstraction in games, assertions of historical meaning tend to weaken. Chess, once a strongly representational game, became so abstract that it changes not at all if pieces represent Civil War opponents, Alice in Wonderland characters, or modernist sculptures. Risk is about world domination, but its system is easily transferred to different worlds. Stratego’s original set reflected Napoleonic armies, but it has been rethemed in many ways. The first Ticket to Ride was set in the nineteenth-century US, but the system has now been applied to a wide range of places and times.

Now we’re in Eurogame territory. The classic take is that these are heavy on play and light on representation. Their themes are ‘pasted’ on, so that the actual play is only loosely connected to what they say they are about. Renier Knizia’s games are classic examples of largely abstract games that can accommodate many different themes. PR1543 is close to these.

So some games take very seriously the work of explaining what they’re supposed to mean, while others are simply less concerned with representing ‘real’ things like historical events. Wargames, many would say (and I would agree) are generally more interested in connecting to specific pasts than Eurogames are. With Eurogames, the challenge of how to play the system well takes up most of the space. We might say that their ‘play-to-meaning ratio’ is high: their engagement with historical meaning is subordinate to their concern with their mechanics. Wargames care a lot about mechanics, too, but because wargames are much more concerned than Eurogames with representing the past, their ratio of play-to-meaning tends to be lower than in Eurogames. In general, wargames seem to care more about conveying messages about the actual past than Eurogames do, so conveying that message takes up more space in the game. Playing Eurogames we lean toward focusing on the mechanics for their own sake; playing wargames we lean toward focusing on the connection between mechanics and historical meaning.

PR1543 v PR1897

So why is PR1897 so concerned with explaining itself while PR1543 was not? PR1897 is so concerned with explaining itself precisely because PR1543 was so unconcerned with it. In the absence of explanations to the contrary, PR1543 is too easy to read as eliding the horrible histories behind it. This neglect reinforces historical amnesia in our culture in general, thus perpetuating dangerous historical stereotypes – such as that colonization happened without exploitation, that it was a ‘good’ thing for those it exploited, and that the marginal and oppressed were little more than agency-less objects of historical processes driven by the wealthy and powerful. The sum total of PR1543’s historical message is that we shouldn’t really worry about it, because it’s just a game. That attitude carries over to some who play it. A frequent criticism of the 1897 re-theme is, ‘you’re projecting your own stuff on to the game’. The proper response is that the game invites ‘projection’, through its vague connection between mechanics and meaning.

It may be asked, 'what's wrong with a weak theme? isn't it better that PR didn't intend to depict slavery? how can you read so much negative meaning into a game theme that designers never really thought about?'

Focusing solely on personal intentions and individual attitudes will not do in an age so rightly sensitized to the operations of racial ideology. The creators of PR1543 did not set out to promote colonialism as the game’s central historical message; that happened through the latent operations of racial ideology. This happens all the time in popular culture. Many clearly and deeply racist stereotypes (think Uncle Ben’s Rice, or Aunt Jemima Pancakes) were intended not to denigrate, but to appeal to their creators' understanding of market tastes. Those tastes change – often only with time and much hard social justice work. Want a more contemporary example? Just consider the fate of the Apu character in The Simpsons.

In other words, many ‘racist’ things promote inequality without requiring any ‘racism’ on the part of their creators or consumers. Despite the distracting hysteria, this is really all that Critical Race Theory is about. It speaks to questions like, “how can I be responsible for racism if I’m not a racist?” or “why do you keep mentioning race when I don’t want to see race”? It asserts that racism is operative even when we don’t think it is, and it asserts that this very thing – the ease with which ‘racism’ can be dismissed – is key to how it works to maintain inequality. (This is a big subject that scholars make careers out of explaining, so I can’t hope to cover this ground in a blog post. Here’s a good take on the issue: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 6th ed. [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2021]. The TL:DR is that racism is more complicated than we thought, for an awful lot of racial inequality happens to be generated by a lot of people who feel no racial animus.)

PR1543’s historical amnesia offers a good example of this process at work in our own day. The mere fact that it could be so easily read as harmful is in fact the mechanism through which much ‘racism’ actually happens. But the market for board games has diversified, altering tastes in positive ways. To clarify the game’s historical meaning then, as Jason Perez and Alea set out to do, is to push back on this mechanism, and in the process redeem an excellent box of mechanics for a much wider audience of players.

So why ‘Puerto Rico’?

Here’s the next logical question: if it doesn’t care much about its own historical setting, why is Puerto Rico about, well, Puerto Rico? I can only take a quick stab at there now, so here's a possible start.

PR1543’s problem is that it happened to settle on a pasted on theme that included horrible histories it then ignored. But that was not just bad luck. There were reasons for Seyfarth and the publishers to settle on a theme like PR1543’s. What was happening that led its creators to apply this theme to it? If PR was largely a box of mechanics seeking a theme, why was a theme chosen that had to include histories of slavery and colonization?

If there's one word that explains why Puerto Rico chose its vague theme of colonization and settlement, it may be 'nostalgia'. Think about how Eurogames sold themselves in the '90s: in a world becoming saturated with videogames directed at individuals (many of them kids), Eurogames offered pleasant, family-oriented games the evoked older days when families all played together. But along with all that nostalgia for an imagined past of family game culture came vaguely generic historical themes that seemed 'safe' -- at least as compared to the bloody temptations of GFA2, or of wargaming, which many in Europe came to question after WWII. So the idea was to theme Euros around imagined moments -- many of them in soft-focus history -- that evoked something real in the world that would feel wholesome and constructive. Thin is history-ish — history stripped of violence seemed better than fantasy world of violence.

The problem was, all those 'nostalgic' values of the past also included the values of the histories that were represented. If Euro-style family board gaming ultimately harkened back to the Victorian middle class, it unfortunately brought with it the social values of that era. To illustrate this point, I've included some images below.

Because nostalgia rather than history anchors their messages, these games aren't really reacting to a specific past -- they're reacting to an understanding of the past. PR's theme is not a reference to the actual place or history of Puerto Rico, it is a reference to a feeling about that — about all the cultural expectations evoked by the theme. The sign is the theme ‘Puerto Rico’; what it signifies is not Puerto Rico, but a loose set of associations about it.

Bruno Faidutti says something very smart about the ways these work: "When using these images, the reference is not really to the other, but to the cliché itself." In the instance of PR, the cliche -- the trope -- is not 'Puerto Rican history', it is 'how an idealized earlier generation thought about colonization'. This is true of the many Euros that evoke orientalist tropes. Some object this idea because it seems to excuse a problematic game.

But this insight is no get out of jail card. It doesn't mean they're not harmful and dangerous, it means that we must work harder to understand how they can be harmful and dangerous. 'Nostalgia' may sound like an innocuous term, but it can do lots and lots of nasty work when marshaled for political purposes. Authoritarians, for example, frequently use it to refer 'back' to an imagined past that Others are destroying; the protection of that cherished past then justifies the rule-breaking and violence alleged to be necessary to protect it. This was true of the Jim Crow South, and of fascism in Italy and Germany. It is sadly a key feature of right-wing politics in the United States today.

So that's what I want to explore in the future -- how layers of trope often intrude on our excavation of history in these games. As ever, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

1. Orientalism
From gallery of prael


2. Medievalism
From gallery of prael


3. Renaissance-ism
From gallery of prael


4. Colonizationism
From gallery of prael
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Thu Jul 21, 2022 9:41 pm
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'Wargames' v. 'eurogames'

Patrick Rael
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I’ve been thinking about the recent announcement that the classic Puerto Rico will be re-themed to minimize the representation of colonization and slavery. Jason Perez, the architect of this change, has been an exceptional ambassador for the notion that games, like other creations, can reflect important social values, and thus have a responsibility to think of the messages they send. Resisting concerns about a game’s representation of the past by saying ‘it’s just a game’ will not do. Precisely because games are often not taken seriously, they can do a lot of latent, surreptitious work to promote or undermine values around colonialism, exploitation, and marginality. (I’ve written much more about this here and here.)

Jason uses popular understandings of a divide between wargames and eurogames to make the point that eurogames tend to use history as a mere narrative backdrop rather than prioritize a serious engagement with history (this is certainly the case with Puerto Rico). This, he suggests, tends to be the domain of wargames. That is a useful distinction, because it reflects general trends in how we design and understand games. But, as Jason acknowledges, it is not a hard-and-fast distinction.

So let’s take this as a point of departure. How exactly are these two kinds of games different? What explains their different approaches to history? What is it about wargames that causes them to take history seriously, and what is it about euros that causes them to treat history as a secondary priority? What can this divide teach us about the ways genre and convention works in games? And what can it tell us about the direction both genres are moving in?

For me, the ley lesson is that the divide owes to convention rather than form. That is, wargames take history seriously not because making games about war and conflict requires this, but because the history of their development has led us to expect them to take history seriously. Likewise, eurogames tend to take history less seriously not because accessible games cannot be made that take history seriously, but because the history of their development took them down a different path.


Let’s start by thinking about representation and genre. Games (like films) are simply another medium for representing the past. But, like all media, they do not have infinite latitude in doing this, but are in fact highly constrained in how they do it, by two factors.

First, their form itself constrains how this is possible. Films are designed to be watched from start to finish. Games are designed to let players create the narrative. Within this, there are many possibilities. Films can go from highly entertaining representations of history that don’t take it very seriously, to highly serious documentaries that approach history with great professionalism. Every media form that represents history has this range. It’s just a matter of where a specific project falls on it.

Second, they are also constrained by *convention*. Conventions are not intrinsic to a media form, but are instead produced by our tastes. Conventions are standard practices of narration and representation that creators use – not because the form itself dictates it, but because people come to expect them. Superhero films do not need master villains because the form dictates it, but because audiences expect it. To take another example, romance fiction is often highly conventional. Whether it’s Harlequin Romances or Hallmark movies about Christmas that run all year ‘round, audiences familiar with the form come to expect, and rely on, standard conventions: a female protagonist with doubts about her apparently perfect relationship, an outside male love interest who is actually a better fit for her, a sassy friend (unfortunately, often typecast as a non-threatening black woman) who helps her work through the challenge, etc. Guess how these end.

Think of other genres and you’ll come up with your own: the conventions that drive popular genres like slasher flicks, war movies, westerns (classic and modern), space operas – these are discrete genres largely defined by their conventions rather than their forms. Here’s a good trick: you can instantly spot convention when it is parodied. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, all those Wayans brothers parody films are send-ups of genre conventions.

Relying on conventions can be good or bad. On the plus side, conventions offer audiences familiar motifs that help anchor them in the story; they help make a creation more ‘legible’ because they cater to expectations. On the minus side, creators can rely on conventions out of laziness, or a cynical sense that the public will keep consuming the same thing over and over. On the range of possibilities, there is no single ‘right’ way of viewing it, for audiences have different tastes at different times. Sometimes I want to watch a standard sitcom because it know what to expect; at other times, I want to be challenged and wowed by innovative new shows.

Forms develop as conventions are innovated. Alien succeeded by combining science fiction and horror movie conventions (“in space, no one can hear you scream”). Memento and Pulp Fiction succeeded by playing with expectations around narrative sequencing. Innovating successfully is hard: change too many conventions and audiences will be left confused; change too few and the creation will feel stale. And of course audiences are not all of one taste: some love exploring how creators push boundaries, while others take comfort in familiar techniques. Even an audience of one might want different things at different times.

Of course the same goes with games. Form dictates much. Player input and multiple possible outcomes are formal necessities for something to be a game. But there is much wider latitude in the realm of taste and genre convention. We come to expect different things from different games based on their genre. We do not expect much direct conflict in Wingspan, Sagrada, Patchwork, Azul. But Advanced Squad Leader is about little else. A game can suffer when expectations of genre do not match the game. Vikings is an excellent game, but when players expecting marauding warriors encountered farmers settling barren fjords, some were upset.


Let’s return to the ‘wargames v. eurogames’ divide.

Nothing requires that serious history games be about war, just as nothing requires non-wargames to slight history. Wargames ‘take history seriously’ not because they are about war, but because of the history of their development, and the conventions attendant to it. There is a human story here – about military simulations emerged in the wake of WWII, through Charles Roberts, Avalon Hill, SPI, and all that follows. This is a story of how professional wargames of the Cold War (figures like James Dunnigan) crossed over into a commercial market, bringing with them values that prioritized ‘simulation’ and historical specificity over shorter play times and accessible game play. It was a market oriented toward white males of a certain age, who tended to favor military themes. There was nothing sinister in that, but it did shape the genre and expectations around it.

As this illustrates, the story of wargames’ development does not owe to constraints imposed by the medium itself, but to human and sociological processes that inclined them that way. Nothing about histories of conflict demanded that games represent it with these priorities; that emerged from the values brought to the design process. In an alternate timeline, it could be that serious history games emerged from another set of interests and concerns – as indeed happened. Many train games (think 18xx) can be highly complicated representations of the past in which military conflict is entirely absent, but economic consideration reign supreme.

Eurogames developed with values that contrasted heavily with those of wargames. This happened despite that often audiences for both often had feet in both camps. Many gamers of my generation encountered modern games through Avalon Hill and SPI classics – hex-and-counter games that delighted in complexity and often took days to complete. Then we grew up, entered professions, and had families. When we returned to gaming, we sought family games that stressed ease of learning, eschewed direct conflict, played in an evening, and had beautiful bits.


In 2022, we can acknowledge (as Jason does) that both of these categories have hopelessly fuzzy edges. In the 1990s it may have been more possible to define genres (remember ‘eurogames’ v. ‘ameritrash’?), but after several decades of development and innovation, the lines have broken down – often in creative and constructive ways. In fact, the very fuzziness of the divide makes the point. Form constraints do not dictate that serious history games have to be about themes of military conflict – only convention does.

So what do wargames offer non-wargame designers? For me, the value of wargames lies in their mechanical complexity, which is necessary to represent the past with the detail and specificity required to say something useful about history. Few will ever view Ticket to Ride as a serious teacher of history – it is too mechanically simple, and this is what makes it excellent at what it does. But add some mechanical complexity, and train games can become Rails of New England, an economic game players can actually learn from.

Transforming the tastes of eurogamers to accept more mechanical complexity is not easy, will take time, and will never be complete. Most of all, it will require a willingness on the part of gamers to explore new styles of play that may carry higher cognitive demands. Wargamers tolerate (even enjoy) complexity, because (as Jason notes) their desire to ‘play the past’ often takes precedence over their desire to learn a game easily. They are willing to accept the cognitive load of wargames because mechanical complexity helps these games immerse players in the past – explore it, experience it, play with it.

‘Willing’ is the operative word here. Wargamers bring to the table a set of values – a ‘lusory attitude’, to use the fancy phrase – that helps them over the steeper learning curves often required of complicated wargames. They are, in the best sense of the word, ‘game’ to try a lot. This is of great value for those interested in designing richer history games. If players are willing to cope with the differences between BF109s and FW190s, they may be just as willing to cope with the differences between terrain types and player powers in Spirit Island, different kinds of slave hunters in Freedom: The Underground Railroad, or differences between the conference room and convention floor in Founding Fathers.

This is what excites me – the possibility that more ‘eurogamers’ will increase their tolerance for mechanical complexity because it helps them immerse themselves in games that take history seriously. I love watching the divide between wargames and eurogames collapse, because it promotes lusory attitudes that make players willing to submit to greater complexity for the sake of engaging the past with responsibility and integrity.

This is already happening, of course. GMT’s COIN series notably moved wargames in the direction of eurogames. They approach warfare not as a self-contained phenomenon but a social and cultural one, and they signal their move toward euros with lovely wooden bits and mechanical systems that favor elegant game play over detail and specificity.

From my perspective, the distinction between wargames and eurogames is collapsing in wonderful ways. There is nothing about themes of war that dictates this, and there is no reason the same mechanical complexity cannot be pillaged to represent non-military aspects of the past. We are living through a remarkably creative period in which the mixing of genre conventions seems poised to generate excellent new history games that can both represent the past seriously (what wargames do) while also remaining accessible and playable (what euros do).
Indeed, this is already happening. Many great history games with themes of conflict have profited by incorporating euro-style rules elegance (e.g., Twilight Struggle, Time of Crisis). Many great history games are now coming out with similar cross-over values: they take history seriously despite the absence of military conflict as a theme. You’ll have your own examples, but election games like Corrupt Bargain immediately come to mind, as do many of the designs submitted for the Zenobia award. I can’t wait for Free at Last and Cross-Bronx Expressway.

Designers of games that are not wargames can look to wargames for a rich set of mechanical inspirations (what are your favorite examples?), just as designers of wargames can accomplish much by incorporating Eurogame values (think Twilight Struggle, or Time of Crisis). The point is, nothing inherent to the form of either wargames or eurogames prevents this kind of creative cross-pollination. It is in fact exactly how genres grow and morph, creating exciting new possibilities.

With all this in mind, I cannot wait for what the next decade will bring to a new generation of history games.
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Tue Jul 19, 2022 5:56 pm
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WIP: Ironclads of the American Civil War

Patrick Rael
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Brunswick
Maine
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Ironclads of the American Civil War
This game is now available on Amazon.com and on WargameVault.

I've been working on a solitaire game in book format. There are many great examples of such games, such as Alban Viard's Tramways Engineer's Workbook; Worthington's Bismarck Solitaire, Waterloo Solitaire; and Mike Lambo's games, including several on WWII, Ghosts of the Jungle: A Solitaire Wargame, and Battles of Medieval Britain: A Solitaire Wargame. Lambo's games in particular interest me, as he uses Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to offer custom, print-on-demand books one can easily purchase online. This seems to me an excellent way for amateur designers (like myself) to offer their work quickly to a broad audience.

I also have a professional interest in this format. As an educator, I'm interested in producing games that could be assigned in college courses. Traditional board games present some challenges in this regard; they're expensive, hard to integrate into college purchasing and acquisition systems, and more challenging for students new to tabletop games.

In contrast, roll-and-write and book-format games offer accessible entrypoints for college students. I've been exploring the design of roll-and-write games with Lobster Roll, and have explored that design path with serious history games, notably Conductor: Stories from the Underground Railroad.

But as several smart and generous game critics have suggested, the challenge is to ease players into rules systems. Players are simply more likely to explore your game if they can learn it gradually rather than digest it whole before play. Of course, this is a basic principle in digital games, which often offer tutorials and staged learning systems. Just as obviously, these principles are especially important for games that could be used in courses.

So here is my effort to put together this constellation of design concerns and constraints. The goal: a game I could produce and get to market quickly, using KDP, and employing a staged learning process that introduces players to rules gradually.

I am not first a wargamer, but I chose that genre for reasons. First, the models that seemed for me most replicable were wargames. Second, wargamers are amazing and committed game players and critics. This is a general sentiment, of course, but I've found it to be true that designers can ask a little bit more from wargamers in terms of rules overhead and mechanical complexity. The wargame tradition has often prioritized complex mechanics that can simulate history over the kind of play elegance typical of abstract or 'Euro' games.

To be sure, the distinctions are collapsing. Euro designers like Vital Lacerda are offering uniquely rich and complex game systems, while traditional wargame purveyors such as GMT have been exploring the increased use of 'Euro' style mechanics and design sensibilities in history games.

My priority is history games -- finding and making games that use the ludic form to actually teach some history, or offer historical interpretations. Old-school monster wargames are too complicated for classrooms, while classic Eurogames with historical themes (think Puerto Rico) offer tempting targets for analysis, but lack the mechanics and intentions to argue historically in game form. What I'm looking for is a sweet spot in the middle -- games that have sufficient mechanical heft to be able to effectively make historical arguments, but offer the playability of Euro-ish tabletop games.

So this is my effort: a game you can play alone in about 30 minutes, with just a book, a marker, a handful of dice, and perhaps a few coins to use as tokens. It should have enough historical heft to convey something important about the past it represents, but easy enough to introduce to college-level students.

This one is about ironclads, but the topic need not be strictly military. Maybe I can use this form as I develop my underground railroad game. Or imagine a book-game like this that lets players explore historical American elections. Social movements, technological development, and even arts and culture could become the subject of such games.

So let me know what you think of this game, this kind of game system, and its potential for making interesting history games that do the past justice.

Here are a few videos I've made to describe the project. As ever, I welcome all constructive comments and questions.





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Sun May 29, 2022 7:34 pm
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Lonely Hearts ~ a solitaire version of Hearts

Patrick Rael
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Brunswick
Maine
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I've been working with a friend to learn more about trick-taking game mechanics. We love trick-takers generally, but The Crew has blown our minds. Fast cooperative hands, incremental teaching, a great learning curve -- what a brilliant design! As I thought about ways simple solo game designs may be employed to make effective historically-themed games, this design emerged -- a solo version of Hearts, with the "Black Lady" variant that is standard in the US. I hope those inclined will give it a try and share their thoughts. I'm posting the rules here. You can also find them on my Google Drive, and on the game page for Hearts.

From gallery of prael


In this solitaire version of Hearts, you will play against the game (“bot”), with the same basic objectives: win tricks, but avoid those with hearts or the queen of spades in them, which carry negative points.

Setup

Shuffle a standard deck of 52 cards.

On the table, form six rows of face-down cards. Odd rows (1, 3, 5) will have seven cards; even rows (2, 4, 6) will have six cards. When dealing cards after row 1, splay cards so they cover a portion of cards on the proceeding row, as pictured below:

From gallery of prael


Flip the six cards on the bottom row to face up.

At any given moment, the bot’s hand consists of all face-up cards in the array.

Object of the game

Each hand (game) consists of thirteen tricks. Your goal is to collect as many tricks as possible with no hearts. When the hand ends, score collected tricks as follows:
• For each trick you take with no hearts (or Q of spades), score +4 points
• For each heart you take, score -1 point
• If you take the Q of spades, score -13 points (the QS is considered a heart)

Course of play

A trick begins when you play the first card (you lead every trick).
The bot now plays three cards from its hand. Resolve each selection before completing the next.

The bot must if possible follow suit with a face-up card. If the bot can follow suit, it will try to win the hand by playing its highest card of the suit led. If it can follow suit but cannot win the trick, it plays its lowest card of the suit led.

If it cannot follow suit, it will try to slough its highest heart. If it has no hearts, it will play its lowest card. If there is a tie for lowest card, select the card of lowest rank. Suits are ranked from low to high: Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades.

From gallery of prael


If in playing a card from the bot’s hand a face-down card now touches no other card, immediately flip it (before selecting another card).

As in the standard game of Hearts, you may not lead a Heart unless you have no other cards or hearts have been broken (the Queen of Spades is considered a Heart for this purpose).

When all tricks have been taken, score the hand.


Patrick Rael
BGG: prael
March 2022
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Tue Mar 8, 2022 7:56 pm
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