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Peer Sylvester's Polynesia - thoughts after one (make that two!) plays

Martin G
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Polynesia has been on my radar since Peer Sylvester’s excellent design diary. Sadly the middle of a pandemic wasn’t a great time to release a game that probably needs more than two players to shine, and my copy sat forlornly on the shelf for 9 months until I finally got to take it to games night last week. While I wouldn’t say I was immediately head-over-heels in love with it like I was with, say, Babylonia, I did find myself thinking about it a lot afterwards and wanted to draw out some of the more interesting features. Since I wrote this I’ve played a second time too, which helped answer some of my questions at the end of the article.

Old-school Euro DNA

The reason I first took an interest in the game was its clear ‘old-school Euro’ lineage. Open the box and there’s a great big fold-out map depicting a series of islands and potential routes between them. Yes, there are individual player boards too, but they literally just store your meeples and ships - everything happens on the map.

Board Game: Polynesia


The very first sentence of the rulebook states “from a mechanical standpoint Polynesia is a pretty abstract game” and it’s certainly of the type where the setting just gives us a language to talk about the game pieces; there’s no pretense of simulating the real world. Here we have tribe members (I’ll refer to them as meeples) venturing out on ships to explore a series of islands and get far enough away from the volcano when it erupts at the end of the game.

Excluding setup, the rules fit on three pages, and everything you need to remember once you’re playing is contained on a small player reference card. There’s no convoluted action selection mechanic; just a menu of four simple actions. When it’s your turn, just take one of them; you won’t find yourself struggling with how to do something, just what to do and why.

From gallery of qwertymartin


It’s not quite as simple as repeatedly circling round the table taking an action at a time though. The game is broken into rounds, each made up of three rotations round the table taking an action each, followed by a maintenance phase. One clever feature of the design that I don’t think I’ve seen before is that the three phases of actions in a round differ slightly. The first is valued 3, the second 2 and the third 1, and these values affect the different actions in different ways.

From gallery of qwertymartin


The Travel action gives you movement points for your meeples equal to the value of the current action phase, so it’s more powerful the earlier in a round you take it. By contrast, the Explore action, which lets you place the ships that allow your meeples to travel over a route, has its cost set by the phase value so it gets progressively cheaper. The other two actions play more of a facilitating role. Fish lets you gather currency equal to the current phase while Populate lets you move meeples from your personal board onto the map.

This gives you some guidance as to when it’s best to take certain actions but sometimes you really need to Explore and then Travel and it might be worth shelling out to do so. After the three action phases and maintenance (which plays a few important roles I’ll come on to), the first-player marker moves to the left, which has interesting consequences for turn order that reminded me of Puerto Rico.

Symbiosis and defection

I’ve said that the meaty actions are Explore and Travel which let you place ships on routes and move meeples over those routes respectively. The aim is to get your meeples off your player board, onto the map and from there to explore the islands, claiming tokens and points.

Board Game: Polynesia


But this is no solo efficiency exercise! As well as using your own ships for free, one of your meeples can traverse a route using a different player’s ship. Probably the most interesting mechanism in the game is that as well as paying the player whose route you are using, you also have to bring one of their meeples with you as a guide.

One consequence of this is that you can drag another player’s meeple somewhere they don’t want it to be. But even more interesting is the potential for symbiotic movement. Consider a situation (pictured below) where one of my meeples and one of yours sit on island A and both want to get to island C via island B. To get there on our own we’d each have to Explore both routes and then use two points of Travel. But if we work together, we can Explore one route each and then take turns ferrying both meeples over at the same time for a total of just one Explore action and one Travel point each.

From gallery of qwertymartin


Symbiosis only goes so far though. Several of the islands are seeded with juicy reward tokens at the start of the game to be claimed by the first meeple arriving there (and by the active player if two meeples arrive at once). So once I’ve Explored route B to C, there’s a strong incentive for me to ‘defect’ and strike out on my own rather than wait for you to ferry me. A good opportunity to attempt this can be when the start player token moves, as described above. That’s because the turn order goes ABC ABC ABC / BCA BCA BCA / CAB CAB CAB giving, for example, player B the chance to take two actions before player A gets another one.

Having this happen to you sucks not just because you got beaten to the token, but also because your meeple is now ‘stranded’ on island B with no guide to help it onwards to C. To add insult to injury, if you still want to get to C by placing your own ship alongside the other player’s, you have to pay them for the privilege!

From gallery of qwertymartin


With this talk of symbiosis and parasitism, you might think the game wouldn’t work with 2 players at all. I can’t comment from experience, but the one rule that changes is that each route can only be Explored by a single player in the 2p game. That seems likely to shift the focus away from shared incentives and on to potentially vicious blocking.

Dual currencies

I’ve alluded to earning and spending resources but another potentially interesting feature is that there’s not just one but two, almost symmetrical, currencies: fish and shells. These are earned in the same way: either by occupying islands with the relevant symbol or by claiming tokens that provide permanent income.

From gallery of qwertymartin


When you pay to Explore a new route, you get to choose which currency you pay with, but this choice must then be followed by anyone subsequently Exploring the same route or travelling over it using a guide. So for example, you can Explore using shells, knowing that another player who wants to use the route only has fish right now.

Fish/shell income is earned during the maintenance phase, but just before that comes Decline, when the current start player gets to choose whether all players lose all their fish or all their shells! So you only want to stockpile resources from round to round if you’re confident the start player is stockpiling the same thing and won’t screw you over.

In our first play, I felt we didn’t fully exploit this mechanism and consequently the resources didn’t feel as tight as I’d expected, but I suspect this will come into focus more with further play.

Game-end clock

One main scoring objective for the game is to get your meeples off your player board and then away from the large volcano in the corner of the board. Any meeples that don’t escape far enough will be returned to your board when the game ends, costing you points. Meeples who travel particularly far gain you points for occupying islands with the ‘turtle’ VP symbol. There’s a maximum of 7VP available for each of these two objectives, but it’s unlikely you’ll have time to do both. It’s a question of which to focus on more, made harder by the fact that you don’t know exactly how much time you will have!

The seeding of the game end clock is the other big thing that happens in the maintenance phase each round. Ten ‘lava stones’, 6 red, 3 grey and 1 black are placed in a bag at the start of the game and one is drawn out each round. The game ends immediately when the sixth red is drawn, but to increase the uncertainty, when the black is drawn you immediately draw two more cubes. The net effect is that the game will last between 5 and 9 rounds, but calculating the probabilities shows that about 60% of games will be exactly 8 rounds and 95% will be between 7 and 9.

From gallery of qwertymartin


You could achieve a similar probability distribution with a simpler mechanism (e.g. end after round 7 on a roll of 6, continue to round 9 on a roll of 6). But the lava bag gives the players more information about the changing probabilities of the game length along the way. Unfortunately in our game all uncertainty was removed when the black and grey cubes had already gone by round 4, confirming that we had exactly 4 more rounds to play. I hope the volcano draw leads to a bit more drama in future, befitting its central role in the game’s setting.

The bag draw is the only random element in the game post-setup. But there is a lot of setup variability, both random seeding of the reward tokens onto islands and also the last interesting feature I want to talk about.

'Modern' variable setup

This is no point salad game and the points available are scarce. You can get a maximum of 7VP for getting all your meeples off your board and away from the volcano and a maximum of 7VP for occupying all the turtle islands. There are also a handful of turtle tokens that score a VP for the first person to reach them.

In a 90s Euro, that might be it, or perhaps there would be one more fixed scoring route. But here Polynesia adopts a more modern approach, with a rule-modifying ‘tide card’ drawn from each of three stacks at the start of the game.

From gallery of qwertymartin


One set of cards provide an additional rule relating to ‘archipelagos’: four specific pairs of relatively distant islands. One gives an additional rule to the ‘mask’ tokens that are available to be collected from certain islands. And the third card usually adds another way of scoring points. In fact it’s possible that all three cards drawn might offer additional scoring opportunities, though in our game only one did.

Some questions asked and (partly) answered

So, lots of interesting things to think about after one session, and a few questions I’m interested in answering through further play (with some notes added on my thoughts after the second play):

How important is symbiotic movement? Can you go alone and win?

In the second game, which was 3p with two players who hadn’t played before, I was able to get a lucrative chunk of the board mostly to myself, which gave me an easy win without making much use of other player’s ships. However I don’t expect this will be allowed at a table where everyone has played before.

How much can the dual currencies be manipulated? Are the resources tight enough?

I managed to exploit this a bit in the second play, using shells for my route into the area I was controlling, which the other players were poor in. I still never really felt like I was struggling for the resources I needed though and I never took the Fish action. Again, I’m hoping it will feel tighter with an experienced table.

How much does the turn order/start player matter for both the above?

I was the start player in the first round, built my first route with shells, and then caused shells to decline at the end of the round stopping the other players from following me. I also think turn order could matter a lot at the end of the game if you had a meeple pulled away from a scoring location without an opportunity to respond!

Does the random end game clock lead to more interesting decisions than a fixed one?

Unfortunately the same thing happened as in the first game and we knew it was an 8-round game after turn 4. Despite appearances, that’s quite unlikely though so we should definitely see some more interesting situations soon.

How different are games with different scoring conditions? Do they enhance the dynamics of the basic rules or overwhelm them?

This was a clear positive from the second session. Half my score came from a scoring route that was introduced by a card, and the mask effect was really interesting too. But I was pleased that it still felt like the same game, just with an interesting tweak.

After the second play, I'm no less enthusiastic to play more soon and I'm really looking forward to that being with a table full of people who already know the rules.
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Mon Aug 16, 2021 11:28 am
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Knizia article (by some guy)

Martin G
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In case you haven't had enough of me wittering on about Knizia, you can find my article in the latest edition of Tabletop Spirit magazine:

Tabletop SPIRIT Magazine Issue 13

Direct link to PDF
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Mon Jun 14, 2021 4:27 pm
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A question of style: picking from the board-game chalkboard

Martin G
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Over at his sporadically-updated (like I can talk) but eminently thought-provoking Big Game Theory, Oliver is ruminating on what we mean by ‘styles’ of game.

Mezmorki wrote:
What got me launched on this was, as I said, trying to organize my own games into some logical buckets and groups. Call them styles of games if you will. I started thinking about what's going on in my brain when I walk over the game shelf to pick something out. What am I asking myself? Typically, I'm asking about the overall feelings and mood I'm looking for. How interactive is it? How long does it take to play? How brain burning is it? Do I want to laugh and socialize while I play? Or contemplate in relative silence?
I contributed a bit to the discussion but then serendipitously came across an article in the magazine that comes with my monthly craft-beer box: “Hung up on Style: Style has always been a useful roadmap, but are today’s craft brewers taking us on unwanted diversions?” which prompted some further thoughts.

Lily Waite wrote:
There’s no doubt that the beer world is more vibrant and creative than ever before. Brewers, faced with increasing competition and fewer ways to impress an ever-more crowded marketplace and stand out from the pack, are becoming more inventive and pushing more boundaries.

While drinkers are spoilt for choice with this glut of creativity, there is a risk that intrepid exploration beyond stylistic boundaries simply merges into homogeneity; what were separate and distinct styles are at risk of mushing into similarity. It begs the question: do styles even matter anymore? How important are they to brewers, and do drinkers pay heed?
Substitute beer for board games and brewers for publishers and this sounds a little familiar, right?

The article goes on to explain that the modern concept of beer styles dates back to 1977 in Michael Jackson’s “The World Guide to Beer” and that these styles went on to be precisely codified, primarily for the purpose of separating beers into different competition judging categories. Might have saved us some trouble in the Golden Geeks over the years eh…

Quote:
The idea of a framework of categorisations for the vast spectrum of variation within beer is a hugely useful one. The frame of reference that a codified language gives is so ingrained through decades of use that we’d fail to cope without it. For example, just try ordering a session IPA at the bar without using the words ‘session’ or ‘IPA’.

Within this web of meaning styles afford us, styles offer other benefits than the ability to name beer. “They are a great teaching tool for consumers. I remember when I had my first witbier in 2006 and I instantly fell in love with wheat beers. I did research to find out what other beers were like that which had me jumping into hefeweizens and other Belgian styles. Beer styles are excellent guides to discovering beer.”
This is key for me as a beer consumer but not obsessive. When I’m choosing a beer to try from a menu of 20+, I look to something like this:

From gallery of qwertymartin

The Hoppy Poppy sounds delightful

There are a couple of quantitative measures; perhaps Alcohol by Volume and International Bittering Units are the equivalents of player count and length as criteria for a first whittling-down (I’ll not bring up the ever-contentious ‘weight’ here!) but what I really want is some idea of what the whole thing is going to taste like. Sadly we can’t take a sip from a board-game taster glass or order a flight.

The style and description columns on the chalkboard provide that information in a concise way and importantly they’re experiential, not mechanical. Home-brewers might want to know the details of which hop, malt and yeast were used, the temperature it was mashed at and more but most of us just care whether we’re going to like the taste.

Similarly, I rarely find that knowing a game features delayed-action-worker-placement-with-two-half-hitches tells me much about how it’s going to feel. That’s why BGG’s new(ish) game mechanic classification seems more relevant to scholars and budding designers than players.

From gallery of qwertymartin

I mean seriously, that's like a third of it

So what are the ‘elements of style’ in board games? What would be put on our board-game chalkboard? Like Oliver, I think the big ‘schools of design’/subdomains (Euro, Ameritrash, wargame, abstract etc.) are too broad for this purpose. Loving Tigris & Euphrates (it is a Euro damnit!) doesn’t mean I’m also going to enjoy Castles of Burgundy.

Here are a few I think about, alongside the aforementioned player count and length, when picking out a game:

1 Type of interaction: how much do the other players factor into your plans? Cut-throat blocking and destruction, or gentle co-existence as we tend our parallel gardens?

2 Complexity vs elegance: simple to learn or lots of phases and exceptions to run through before we get started?

3 Player investment: does the enjoyment of the game come mostly from competition and strategizing to win? Or does it offer different pleasures like co-creating a narrative or making each other laugh?

4 Randomness: are the players constantly forced to adjust their plans in response to unpredictable events? Or is it more about who can look the furthest ahead and optimise their long-term strategy?

In another stroke of serendipity, just after reading Oliver’s post I came across this designer diary from Peer Sylvester, on his new game Polynesia.

He concludes:

Quote:
I'm quite happy with the result of the Polynesia design, which reminds me of King of Siam in the sense that it's a very deep game with a small rule set and a sixty-minute playing time with a lot of interaction and nearly no random factors. They play completely different, mind you, but I daresay that if you like one, then you probably like the other as well.
I think we could just about squeeze the bolded portion on a chalkboard and it covers most of my above points too. I share Peer's confidence that I would enjoy the game based on what I know about my taste.

Let’s throw the discussion open! What does ‘style’ in board games mean to you and what do you want to read on your chalkboard? Mine’s a hazy IPA, cheers!
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Mon Aug 24, 2020 2:50 pm
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Categories of short games

Martin G
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I recently got into a conversation which started with a geekbuddy referring to Ra as "Knizia's party-style-tile-auction affair". I questioned 'party-style' and the subsequent conversation went:

John Rogers wrote:
My reference for party games is, kinda weird. I play them rarely if at all and I tend to combine party, filler, and light games together as a block. Players are typically laughing, joking, not thinking too hard, they are easy entry points for non-gamers, and typically less than 60min sessions.
qwertymartin wrote:
Hmm yeah, different points of reference for sure. You just described 90% of what I play and I'd divide it into at least three different categories
John said he'd be interested in a breakdown of my major categories with examples. In the end I came up with seven and even that only covered games up to 30 minutes which support more than 2 players!

Here's what I came up with:

Party games
Focus on an activity that promotes conversation/socialisation, winning is rarely important, support large groups and teams. e.g. Cards Against Humanity, Say Anything, Time's Up.

Social deduction games
Focus on deception and logic, involve a lot of talking (about the game), hidden roles. e.g. The Resistance, Werewolf, Spyfall.

Super-light/pub games
Very lightweight (1 minute explanation) card/dice games, usually support large groups, push-your-luck and bluffing common. e.g. Perudo, Pairs, Skull & Roses.

Standard fillers
Feature mechanics seen in bigger games (auctions, drafting, set collection) but lighter/shorter, usually support smaller groups than party/pub games, e.g. For Sale, Coloretto, No Thanks.

Super-fillers
Short medium-weight Euros which have much of the decision space/arc of a longer game. e.g. Dominion, 7 Wonders, RFTG.

Traditional-inspired games
Suits and numbers card games including tricktakers, usually played in multiple hands. e.g. Sticheln, Diamonds, Wizard.

Light AT/'beer & pretzel'
Emphasis on theme and take-that interaction. e.g. King of Tokyo, Cash & Guns, Munchkin.

I noted that there's lots of crossover between these categories, but do they seem similar or different to the way any of you think of this class of games? Anything obvious I've missed?
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Wed May 10, 2017 11:40 am
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Playing to win or playing to play?

Martin G
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There's an attitude I come across a lot on BGG that the only right way to play a game is for every player to be doing their utmost to win, which I take to mean always making moves that maximise their probability of winning (or at least their estimate of it). The high priest of this school is David Sirlin, whose 'playing to win' manifesto denounces those who don't exploit every opportunity the game gives them to win as 'scrubs'.

But while all games give their players a goal, I've never seen one that makes 'playing to win' a rule. And when I started brainstorming things we do in games that can actually reduce our chances of winning, I came up with a bunch.

- levelling the playing field. Handicaps are commonly adopted by players with mismatched skill levels, whether parent against child or Go master against novice.

- giving hints. For example, I often point out to a new player at the start of a game of Kingdom Builder that it's not a great idea to touch several different terrains with your first move.

- 'playing nice'. When I play Ticket to Ride with my wife, we have an informal agreement that we don't block for the sake of blocking, only if it's a route you need yourself. Carcassonne is another game that allows 'nice' and 'nasty' modes of play. I don't see nasty play as inherently superior.

- humour. Playing Love Letter, I'll often do something because it's funny, even if it isn't strictly my 'best' move.

- exploration. It can be fun to try out new strategies in a game, even if you think they might not work. I got bored of always doing the same thing in Puerto Rico and forbade myself from buying the Factory, even though I knew I was more likely to win with it.

- to keep playing. I've had games of Pax Porfiriana that ended disappointingly suddenly on the first topple. Sometimes we'll agree a 'rewind' so that we can keep playing without having to set the whole thing up again.

- to avoid 'brokenness'. Plenty of people are still having enjoyable games of A Few Acres of Snow by not learning or not implementing the 'unbeatable' British strategy.

I'm sure you can think of many more examples.

So if winning is not the only motivation, what's going on here? My thinking about this has been heavily influenced by a wonderful book I read recently: The Well-played Game: a Player's Philosophy by Bernard de Koven.

For de Koven, the real goal of playing together is finding the 'well-played game' which he describes as "a game that becomes excellent because of the way it's being played". He goes on "No matter who wins the game, if we have played well together, we have accomplished what we set out to do. That victory is not determined by who wins, nor by what game we play, but rather by the quality of playing we have been able to create together." Many of the examples above are cases of the players collectively deciding to play a certain way to increase their enjoyment, rather than anyone's individual chance to win.

Here's another quote from the book:

Quote:
What occurs to me now is that this search for a well-played game is already a radical departure from what we do, as adults, when we play games together.

Normally, the only common intention that we have been able to establish with each other is that we have each wanted to win. Though we have been playing games together, the only effort in which we are usually united, the only accomplishment that we have all been able to validate, is winning.

It is clear to me, now, that the result of such a union is separation, always separation.
The word 'only' is important here. What de Koven believes is that each player playing to win is not enough by itself to create a well-played game.

As for 'separation', it puts me in mind of an attitude that sometimes seems to accompany 'play to win'. What I'm talking about is a desire for the other players to 'play right' so that they can be reduced to just another factor in my win-maximising algorithm. I've seen a player get angry at another in a game of Puerto Rico for making 'suboptimal' moves that interfered with his strategy. And related to this are the interminable debates over what a player 'should' do if they no longer have any chance of winning. If we're only playing to win, we feel like this behaviour needs to be codified to avoid unfairness.

So does all this mean that I'm a tree-hugging hippie who hates competition? Absolutely not! I enjoy nothing more than four experienced players going at it tooth and nail over a game of Tigris & Euphrates. But that's because for that group that is the well-played game they're looking for right then. De Koven's notion is inclusive of, not in opposition to, playing to win.

Do I play to win? Sometimes. Do I play to play? Always.
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Mon Jun 9, 2014 2:22 pm
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Divided by a common language

Martin G
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This isn't going to be a fully thought-through post; more of a discussion starter. Here are three quotes (from different users) I've happened upon during my last week of browsing on BGG:

Quote:
I love multiplayer solitaire because those type of games usually have a lot of room for creativity.
Quote:
Worker placement games, almost by definition, usually have a lot of player interaction.
Quote:
The tension is from the race itself, which always seems to be close no matter what you do.
I'm not posting this to disparage any of these statements. They all seem to be the honest opinions of people who spend just as much time playing and thinking about games as I do.

But what was striking to me was that in all three cases, they link a quality I profess to desire in games (creativity, interaction and tension) to one that I generally despise (multiplayer solitaire, worker placement and 'close no matter what you do').

So what does that mean? Well for one thing, it makes it hard to have productive conversations about games with people if I don't have some idea of the way they use words. I'm a big fan of Innovation because I find it interactive, creative and tense. But if I asked for games that share those qualities, someone who held the three beliefs above might suggest a 'well-balanced', multi-player solitaire WP game, which would be pretty much the exact opposite of what I was looking for.

And of course there are host of other words that we frequently use to describe games that are similarly nebulous. Elegant, deep, emergent, thematic... the list goes on.

This could lead to a few different possible conclusions:

- there's no point trying to discuss games in more than the most mechanical terms, because we simply don't have the vocabulary to describe higher-level properties. I don't want to believe this!

- it's possible to discuss games in these terms but only amongst a group that have established some form of common language. Many of my geekbuddies were chosen not because they like exactly the same games I do, but because they seem to talk about them in the same way.

- we need to first establish universal definitions for the words we use if we want to talk about games in a more critical way. Is this really possible/desirable?

Anyway, like I said at the beginning, no answers here, just some food for thought.
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Thu Apr 3, 2014 4:04 pm
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Posted for posterity: Barnes' article on 'the game that ruined Eurogames'

Martin G
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Over the years I've gone back and read this Michael Barnes piece several times. I don't agree with everything, but I find a lot of it to be good and true and brilliantly expressed. It was a crying shame that his entire archive of Cracked LCD pieces disappeared from the interweb with GameShark's demise, there's a lot of great stuff in there. I just went to the trouble of dredging this particular piece up from the Web Archive, and I want to post it somewhere so that it's easily available.

Intro from Fortress:Ameritrash

Michael Barnes wrote:
It strikes me that this game, released in 2000, was kind of the turning point where the "German game" era sort of ended and the "Eurogame" era began...and all of the really great stuff that the European designers had been doing for like, 20 years prior was suddenly undone and Eurogames began their descent into a brown morass of over-designed, linear, and anti-interactive designs.

If you go back and play some of those pre-PRINCES Eurogames, it's kind of suprising how awesome a lot of European designs were...and it's no wonder that the games attracted a new international audience because they were damn good. And original too- there was much less artistic cannibalization than there is now.

But after PRINCES OF FLORENCE, it all turned into games that look and play like something designed exclusively for grumpy, boring old men. The aesthetics, format, and gameplay styles that PRINCES mainstreamed in the hobby wound up driving Eurogames to ruination.
Main article from GameShark

Michael Barnes wrote:
Throughout the 1990s, one of the single most significant events in hobby gaming was the emergence of a type of game originating chiefly from Germany that sort of challenged the concept of what a “hobby game” was or should be. These so-called “German games” from designers like Klaus Teuber, Wolfgang Kramer, and Reiner Knizia were notably simpler than the American examples of hobby games and were often characterized by streamlined gameplay, accessibility, and a more pronounced focus on simple mechanics over simulation or detail, although some had significant levels of theme and interactive elements were not yet shunned in favor of predictability and determinism. Of course, German designers and their European peers had been turning out such games for a more family-oriented market for decades and the German game invasion had more to do with international hobbyists’ increased awareness of these games- thanks largely to the internet- than with anything necessarily “new”.

But looking back to the pre-2000 era of the European board game it strikes me as something very significant that the kinds of games that those early “German games” represent is something dramatically different than the typical modern Eurogame. In fact, I would almost go far as to say that those games- even commonly recognized and widely played titles such as SETTLERS OF CATAN, TIGRIS & EUPHRATES, RA, BOHNANZA, and EL GRANDE- are a practically separate genre than what the modern Eurogame represents in games such as CAYLUS and AGRICOLA. The aesthetics, mechanics, and conceptual paradigms were so different just ten or fifteen years ago that it’s almost impossible to class some of these games alongside their modern antecedents. It’s particularly interesting to go back and play the older “German games” and see how those games had so much more flexibility, interaction, and variety than the rigid structures and processional gameplay of the modern Euro would ever allow. And they were a hell of a lot more fun, too.

So where then is the dividing line between the “German game” and the Eurogame? Is there a point at which the genre effectively split into two separate sets of identifiers? I believe there is, and I think that there is one game that is almost single-handedly responsible for ruining everything great and truly exciting that the “German game” brought to the hobby. There is one game that is a manifestation of almost every single thing that went wrong with the idea of European board game design and lead future designers and publishers away from the fun, exciting, and accessible and toward the insular, esoteric, and rigid. That game is the 2000 Alea/Rio Grande Games release PRINCES OF FLORENCE, designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich.

The irony here is that Wolfgang Kramer had a varied and interesting career in the pre-Eurogame era, designing a lot of extremely good games like BIG BOSS, WILDLIFE ADVENTURE, MAGALON, and TOP SECRET SPIES. Even what is perhaps his most significant pre-2000 title, EL GRANDE, had more in common with RISK than PRINCES OF FLORENCE had with his earlier designs. But with PRINCES OF FLORENCE, Kramer and practically every party involved in the creation and publication of this game set certain precedents that in a very apparent way changed the aesthetic, conceptual, and mechanical direction of European game design, setting precedents that are still being influencing Eurogame designers today, and I think the game is responsible for the epidemic proliferation of the worst qualities of the genre.

Even looking at PRINCES OF FLORENCE I see how it set a certain standard for how the Eurogame should present itself visually. Games are a visual medium and our first impressions of them are inevitably based around aesthetics. Many modern Eurogames are dramatically, pathetically ugly and seem to be designed specifically to advertise the game’s most boring qualities in an attempt to appeal to boring old men. I can’t imagine anyone under the age of 40 looking at the box cover to most Eurogames today and being attracted to or interested in playing the game, regardless of how good it’s supposed to be.

Many Eurogame boxes feature a dour-looking old man scowling amid some dour-looking Renaissance or Medieval background, probably surveying the outcome of the player’s actions to determine who has impressed them the most or simply just scowling because they’re on such an ugly box. It’s almost a laughable cliché at this point, the “brown and darker brown” color palette of the Eurogame and the oh-so-important “olde worlde” fonts. Even in terms of game contents and components, the aesthetic approach of the Eurogame has become closer to a spreadsheet and sometimes it’s tough to determine if what you’re playing is a game or a flowchart. And lo and behold, the ancestry of this aesthetic approach is rooted squarely in the villa-grids of PRINCES OF FLORENCE. When I heckle Eurogames in a broad way, making fun of how they look so damn boring and brown, PRINCES OF FLORENCE is my reference point.

The format of the game, which is common among all of Alea’s “big box” games is similar to the Avalon Hill bookshelf games and there is a similar appeal to sophistication and a sense that the game is not one to be shelved along with your other board games, but rather to be put on a bookshelf alongside the works of Shakespeare, Plato, and Dante. And I think that really speaks to the overall tone of the game, which is one of dreadful seriousness (despite the presence of jesters) and an attitude that what you are doing by playing the game is not fun but very sophisticated as it is the pursuit of learned men.
It’s a long way from the look and feel of games where the back of the box shows kids throwing dice and cheering, which is likely anathema to most Eurogamers anyway. PRINCES OF FLORENCE seems to be one of the first Eurogames where this aura of self-important, faux-historical gameplay was really foregrounded, and in a way that seemed to put fun second to seriousness.

As far as gameplay goes, there’s practically nothing to cheer about at any point in the game as PRINCES OF FLORENCE really kind of set the stage for the cold, heartless, drama-less, and passionless gameplay that many Eurogames that followed have emulated to some degree or another. Players represent masters of Renaissance-era villas that are attempting to attract artists, scholars, and poets to their towns with various things that they demand and inspire them to produce great works. “Great works”, as you might have already guessed, are victory points. There is practically zero conflict in the game aside from an auction for finite resources and the game boils down to a very tightly controlled system with very limited but distinct decision points where the idea is to maximize each turn to produce one or more works every time and to increase the number of “wants” that you can fulfill for these abstracted artisans. It’s really an efficiency engine game in disguise like many Eurogames that have followed its example; don’t let all of that left-brain art talk fool you.

“Multiplayer solitaire” games had existed before PRINCES OF FLORENCE, but I think this was the game that kind of mainstreamed the idea and more significantly cemented the concept of a game where players have virtually no affect or influence on the holdings of other players in the minds of hobby gamers. This was the first game I can think of where all player interaction was reduced to a simple auction every turn.

After all, the game comes down to pure skill, which is all the better to prove your intellectual superiority, right?
The isolationism of developing an individual player board with no spatial or geographic relation or consequence with those of other players ensures that nasty things like actual conflict or competition won’t interfere with the best laid plans, so to speak. And that’s something that a lot of modern Eurogamers see today as a positive quality. It makes me wonder if something fairly aggressive like Kramer’s earlier EL GRANDE came out in today’s Eurogames market if it would be as popular as it was in the late 1990s.

Playing a game like EL GRANDE is a vastly different experience than PRINCES OF FLORENCE. EL GRANDE had process, yet it also allowed for a lot of flexibility and player engagement with mechanics to produce a volatile and fluid game structure. With PRINCES OF FLORENCE, the freedom of decisions is greatly reduced and the game practically becomes a challenge to see which players can best or most efficiently follow the rules with the occasional setback represented by a lost auction or the unavailability of an artist card. This concept is another that many Eurogamer designers really ran with, and I can’t help but think that if they had been more influenced by Mr. Kramer’s WILDLIFE ADVENTURE or DAYTONA 500 the Eurogame genre would be in much better shape today. At least those games- both simpler family games- had blocking and some sense that you have a variety of approaches and strategies to pursue instead of rigid paths and decision patterns.

The effect of all of these things that PRINCES OF FLORENCE sort of laid out as the Eurogamer Design Bible, I think, is that not only were the earlier qualities of German games suddenly forgotten, but also that all of the promises of the Euro as a simpler, more accessible, and more fun style of game were abandoned in favor of a hobbyist focus that was every bit as esoteric and inaccessible as American hobby games had been. PRINCES OF FLORENCE is not a complex game by hobby standards, but its concept is very different than what most people consider to be a “game” to the point where it is almost unrecognizable as a game by all but the enlightened and well-informed.

There is none of the usual movement, placement, or removal mechanics that most people associate with games. Even the card play element isn’t “normal” at all. It is vague, relatively theme-less, and the only traditional game element that would be recognized by most non-hobbyists is the simple TETRIS-like placement of varying shapes of buildings and landscape features into the villa grids. And strangely enough, that is one of the few concepts that weren’t brought forward by designers emulating the more discrete elements of the game.

The thing is, PRINCES OF FLORENCE as a design is pretty interesting overall, despite its accountability for the ruination of the Eurogame genre. For its time, it was innovative and it did change the way that games are played and offered new combinations of mechanical concepts that were unique. The problem is, the changes that PRINCES OF FLORENCE precipitated in terms of design approach, aesthetics, and format didn’t turn out to be for the better and I think that the great momentum that the German games had built up heading into the new millennium was completely waylaid, particularly as a rising internet community began adopting games like PRINCES OF FLORENCE as the flagship examples of the Eurogames genre. I think it was specifically the influence of this game that drove the Eurogame idea away from what it was and laid the groundwork for the success of grossly abstracted and processional games like PUERTO RICO and CAYLUS while steering the hobby toward a more “boutique game” focus.

So then, I’ve come to realize that the old German games like PRIMORDIAL SOUP, with its colorful, poo-eating amoebas or BARBAROSSA, a game where you stick plastic arrows into your friends’ awful clay sculptures, are really a different kind of game than PRINCES OF FLORENCE and its descendants. Reflecting on the past nine years of Eurogames, I’ve realized that I very much miss the idea of German games as it existed in the 1990s, before “Eurogame” meant 3-5 players silently contemplating player boards, occasionally raising a bid, and smugly grinning as they squeeze out an extra point or two from a particular play.

I miss those days when European games were a lot less brown — and when they were actually fun and exciting.
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Wed Apr 24, 2013 12:12 pm
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Worker placement and Wittgenstein (pretentious, moi?)

Martin G
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I just posted this in a comment on the huge geeklist Worker-Placement -- are you sure?, and thought I would drop a slightly expanded version here for further discussion.

-----------------

There seem to be two schools of thought about how worker placement should be defined.

One relates to the physical implementation of the mechanic ("I have workers, and I place them") which taken to an extreme leads to Carcassonne being claimed as a WP game.

The other relates to the underlying logical structure of the game, which leads to things like "Village is a WP game where the removal of cubes is logically equivalent to the placement of workers".

In Salen and Zimmerman's book Rules of Play they refer to these two types of rules as operational and constituative respectively. One problem with the term 'worker placement' is that it makes direct reference to the operational rules (unlike say 'action drafting') which causes confusion when it is applied to the constituative rules.

Personally I think that it's impossible to define WP in a way that will be satisfactory for all future games. Designers are constantly coming up with new 'twists' on WP which are twists precisely because they break one of the rules previously held to be defining ("It's WP, but simultaneous", "It's WP but you have personal action spaces as well as common ones", "It's WP, but more than one person can use an action" etc.).

I suspect WP should be best thought of more as a 'family resemblance' than a strict definition (hat tip to my geekbuddy Seth Brown for being the first person I saw to link Wittgenstein to this debate!).

"Wittgenstein's point was that things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature may in fact be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to all. Games, which Wittgenstein used as an example in order to explain the notion, have become the paradigmatic example of a group that is related by family resemblances."

This would make worker placement a polythetic, rather than monothetic, class.

"A polythetic class is defined in terms of a broad set of criteria that are neither necessary nor sufficient. Each member of the category must possess a certain minimal number of defining characteristics, but none of the features has to be found in each member of the category."

And that's quite pretentious enough for now!
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Tue Mar 26, 2013 5:31 pm
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Archipelago and game theory

Martin G
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I've been following an interesting review thread in the Archipelago forum which prompted some thinking about game theory. I should point out that I have not played Archipelago, so I'm not trying to make any points about that game specifically.

The discussion revolves around the way the win conditions in Archipelago work. Basically, if the players collectively do not do enough to prevent a certain condition occurring, then everyone loses. If they do, then everyone wins, and the player with most victory points is declared the 'grand winner'. There's also a traitor mechanic, but that is not important to this discussion.

The problem this is causing people is that if a player knows he can no longer be the 'grand winner' then he may decide to tank the game and make sure everyone loses.

As far as I see it (and as David des Jardins has been arguing in the thread), this situation only arises because players are carrying over their ingrained notions of relative ordering from most other games, and refusing to accept the ordering presented in the rules.

In most games, only relative final placement is important. In such a game, it is natural that if you can't finish first, it is better to place jointly with everyone than behind anyone. But those are not the rules of Archipelago. The designer ranks the placements players are trying to achieve:

1. Grand winner in a winning game
2. Other positions in a winning game
3. Loser in a losing game

If you are not prepared to accept that losing with everyone else is a worse personal outcome than last in a winning game, then you are not playing the game as designed. It's just as though you were playing Power Grid with the objective of having most money at the end of the game instead of the objective of powering most cities.

To make this clearer, it's possible to design equivalent games where the relative ordering is more obvious.

Jim Cote offers the following:

Quote:
I have $2 and you have $3. If someone doesn't pay $2, we both lose. Otherwise, the most money wins. If I pay, you win. If you pay, I win. This example isn't even a game by my definition.
On the contrary, I think it is a fascinating game, of the sort that is studied in game theory.

I'll reframe it slightly to the following:

Quote:
It is the last round of a game. I have 300 points and you have 200. The rules of the game state that we must now make a contribution. If together we contribute at least 200 points, the person with most remaining points receives a prize of $100 and the other player receives a prize of $50. However, if we collectively contribute less than 200 points, neither of us gets any prize at all.
It seems pretty clear to me that the rational ordering of desired final placements is:

1. Receive $100
2. Receive $50
3. Receive $0

Let's add another rule: the player with most points has to announce how much they are contributing first. He announces that he is contributing 100 points, exactly half of what is needed. The second player now has a simple choice. Contribute 100 points and receive $50 or contribute less and receive $0. The 'game tankers' in Archipelago are effectively saying they would choose $0, because then at least the other player wouldn't have more than them.

If you're not happy with real money being used to determine the ordering, an alternative is:

1. 'Grand winner' in a winning game
2. Any other placement in a winning game
3. All players are executed

Would you tank the game now?

I then got thinking about an extension this simple game. What if not just the relative positions in a 'winning game' were important, but also the absolute point values?

The game now becomes:

Quote:
It is the last round of a game. I have $300 and you have $200. The rules of the game state that we must now make a contribution. If together we contribute at least $200, both players keep their remaining money. However, if we collectively contribute less than $200, both players lose all their money.
This opens up a continuum of possibilities, and psychology starts to come in too.

If the first player maintains that they are contributing nothing, the second player gets nothing whatever he does. He can either contribute the full $200 and be left with nothing, or contribute less and have both players left with nothing.

So it seems the first player has to offer something. But how much is enough? If he contributes a penny, the second player has to decide between these splits: $299.99/$0.01 and $0/$0. He might decide that it's worth a penny to teach the first player a lesson for being greedy.

What then is a 'fair' way to decide the contributions? I can think of several possibilities.

1. The 'poll tax'. Each player contributes the same fixed amount, i.e. $100. Final split $200/$100.

2. The 'flat tax'. Each player contributes a fixed percentage of their money, in this case 40%. Final split $180/$120.

3. The 'progressive tax'. Each player contributes 20% of their first $100, 40% of their next $100, and 80% of anything above that. Final split $160/$140.

4. 'Communism'. The players pool their money, pay the contribution, and then redivide the remainder equally. Final split $150/$150.

I seem to have digressed quite far now, so I should probably stop

To round off, I'm not sure I would enjoy playing Archipelago - it sounds like it is probably too complex for my tastes. But I am impressed that the designer is playing around with injecting more complex game theoretic situations into 'our games' and fascinated by the fuss it has caused!
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Sun Jan 6, 2013 8:01 pm
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Barnes and the red herring of "fun"

Martin G
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First off, I think Michael Barnes is one of the most interesting writers on board games we have, and I always find his opinion pieces thought-provoking. But his latest: “Fun-First Design”, contains several things I disagree with and I wanted to talk about why.

Up front, Barnes acknowledges the problem with using the word “fun” when we talk about games -- it is subjective and overloaded, thus becoming almost meaningless as a descriptor. But he then goes on to stake out ownership of “fun” for a particular type of games that happen to be those he enjoys, in the process dismissing other people’s idea of “fun”.

Barnes describes a dichotomy between “casual” games which “have a single mechanic and the intent is to entertain and engage the audience without demanding commitment or that drilling-down action through layers of systemic rules” and “hardcore” games, which “insist that the player work for the fun, and in fact that process of working for the fun often is the fun”. But then he begs his own question of “which of these kinds of games is fun to you at the time you’re playing them” by naming the first type “fun-first games”.

Barnes elaborates further on how to identify such games, but in the process almost acknowledges the circularity of his definition: “Fun-first designs also seem to favor heavy interaction, metagaming, and socialization, which is what I’m looking for when I get together with my friends for a game night.” So “fun-first designs”, for Barnes, are designs that engender the experiences that he finds fun.

While I certainly recognise (and often enjoy) the type of game Barnes is talking about, I don’t think “fun” is the right way to distinguish them, nor that these games somehow get “closer to a state of pure intent and the essential purpose of the games medium”.

Barnes also harks back to the dismissive caricature of fans of heavy Euros as ‘fun-murderers’ who aren’t looking for enjoyment in games. “Games are- well, they should be- fun. We play them with friends and family to have a good time, to enjoy ourselves, to laugh, and to interact using the game as a social centerpiece. If you’re playing games for any other reason, as I’ve always said, then you’re doing it wrong.”

But he rather undermines his own argument by describing the different type of fun he has had himself “from the sense of discovery of strategic routes through the mechanics, how the mechanics describe setting and concept, and in the hobbyist notion of drilling down through layers of depth to get at those nuggets of entertainment”.

There’s also a weirdly contradictory aside in which Barnes describes the “elaboration of detail and coordination of mechanics” found in “mechanics-first” games as “in some ways the true technical artistry of game creation”. Here he almost sounds like he’s siding with the Eurosnoots -- surely the artistry of game creation involves more than just clever mechanics.

I have a deeper problem with the idea of “fun-first design” though, in that I don’t think fun is an intrinsic property of a game design at all. Fun is something experienced by an individual, influenced not only by the game they are playing, but also their personal preferences and the social context created by the other players.

Barnes cites Cosmic Encounter as an example of a fun-first design in which “the fun rises to the top almost immediately and there’s no buy-in or lead-in to get to it. I’ve come to treasure game designs that respect my time and practically guarantee that my table is going to have a good time”.

Much as I love Cosmic myself, this is not how I would describe it at all. Several of my best gaming friends would rather gouge their eyes out with a spoon than sit through Cosmic again, and it’s not because they hate fun or because they’re “doing it wrong”. And what’s more, if I was playing with people who disliked it, I’d have no fun either; Cosmic is one of the most group-dependent games I know. As for no lead-in, try playing with a table full of newbies who are still trying to get the eight-phase turn structure and elaborate timing conventions straight.

Another thread running through Barnes article concerns criticism of games. He sets up the article with the idea that his recent review of Abbadon “very nearly undermined years of trying to write “serious” board games criticism” because he “attacked certain aspects of it before giving in to its “fun-first” design”.

This claim seems to rely on the straw man that “serious” board game criticism means talking solely about the features of the game itself -- mechanics, artwork, theme -- and not about the type of experience it creates. I absolutely disagree! Barnes’ Abbadon review seems to be a good piece of serious criticism because it talks about the designer’s intent and the way in which the design choices he made shape a particular type of experience for the players.

Barnes then merges this idea of mechanical vs experiential criticism with his dichotomy of fun-first vs mechanics-first games, saying “It’s hard to apply the same critical rigor and valuation that can be used to quantify what makes a game like Magic Realm or Up Front great to simpler, fun-first fare like Bohnanza or Heroscape.”

Why? For me, good criticism can and should talk about any game in terms of the choices it presents to players, the atmosphere it creates and the type of interaction it fosters. This allows readers to decide for themselves if it sounds like the game will make for the type of “fun” they are seeking, without being told that it’s the wrong kind.
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Fri Jun 22, 2012 12:38 pm
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