The Secrets of Great Games

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What Are You Looking At - 5 Great Games with Action Everywhere

Anthony Faber
United States
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Microbadge: Blood Rage fan - Raven ClanMicrobadge: Auf den Spuren von Marco Polo fanMicrobadge: Lorenzo il Magnifico fan!Microbadge: Argent: The Consortium fan
If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you can hear a version of this discussion on the Two Wood for a Wheat Podcast, which also includes our review of Beyond the Sun:

One of the best ways to break down what I like or don't like about a game is by drilling down to what I'm actually focusing on and paying attention to during that game, and whether I enjoy those things. And the best way of getting at what I'm focusing on is to ask the question: what am I actually looking at during the game? In this regard, all parts of a game aren't created equal.

The baseline for a board game might be considered to a communal board with different action spots. This has been true from Go to Chess to a modern worker placement game. The personal player board is an addition which has grown in recent years to be more than a repository for resources, but the place where a tableau or engine is built or where some other mini-game is played. But many strategy games have players looking at a lot more or a lot less.

Board Game: Dominion
On the simple side, consider the pure deckbuilder. Few would try to argue that Dominion doesn't have a good deal of strategy. But there's almost nothing to look at besides one own's current hand of cards. There are the stacks of cards that can be bought in that particular game which garner an occasional glance, but that's about it. Even one's complete deck, the focus of one's mind, can't be looked at in total - only one's current hand gains one's visual attention, and in fact a key skill of the game is to be able to grok one's full hand without ever being able to fully look at it.

For me, this is not enough. A key reason I enjoy hybrid deckbuilders but not pure ones is that the addition of a communal board gives me something else to look at. It's not just the added strategic dimension added by a board in say, Clank, that has me be more engaged, it's the additional visual focus that captures my brain. I'll play and enjoy light card games, but for a meatier experience, the visual centers of my brain crave more than a pure deckbuilder can offer.

This can also be true in games where there's a ton going on but I can only see a small part of it. Take co-op games where each player has a unique role, like Captain Sonar. There's a lot happening, but I'm spending the whole game just staring at my little mini-board, and I find that dull, even with the noisy camaraderie of my friends reminding me that I'm a part of something greater.

Board Game: Beyond the Sun
On the other hand, I can struggle a lot when my visual attention is spread too thin for my liking. In Beyond the Sun, a game I actually enjoy a lot, you must focus on a personal player board, a small board of space exploration, and, most significantly, a worker placement board that includes a wide branching technology tree (many of the worker placement spots show up on new techs).

On the one hand, worker placement spots that only become available from developing the appropriate technology is a great idea and works well in terms of giving touch decisions; on the other, it does create visual issues because the worker placement spots are mixed together in the tech tree with spots which give permanent abilities and one time bonuses, along with, in the advanced variant, a row of potential techs one could develop.

This means it's very difficult to simultaneously absorb one's potential action spots, one's special powers, and one's future technologies in one glance. While the iconography is good, all the action spots and other techs are complex enough that they have to be looked at carefully. It's almost impossible to play the game without getting up from time to time to get closer to something to read it, and it always feels like the board isn't laid out well, because someone is always too far away from something.

I don't feel like this was based on a flaw in the graphic design, more that the game's innovative system creates a visual impossibility in terms of easy comprehension. It means that as absorbing and fun as the game is, it can be challenging to quickly assess one's options.

Board Game: Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun
In Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun, the visual work required to take in all my options just isn't worth the enjoyment I derive from the game. Here, as in Feld's Trajan, there are effectively several mini-games scattered around the board which can give points, resources, and other abilities. The trouble for me comes in the central action mechanism of drafting a die from around the central obelisk.

Firstly and least significantly, the dice are sometimes on the opposite side of this obelisk, and you must crane your neck to see what's available (to be fair, this is a minor issue - it's not the tree in Everdell). More importantly, some of the dice laid out in each section are forbidden, meaning they are not able to be used until the obelisk rotates again. My brain doesn't like looking at potential actions sitting right next to others which can't actually be used. Next, one has to calculate that in x amount of turns the obelisk will rotate, and then some of what visually shows as available won't be available, and some of what isn't available will come available. And finally, depending on what section you draft your die from, it will give you points towards being pure or tainted, and if you have too much purity or corruption you can be hampered in the turn order and even lose points.

For many, the mind bending puzzle of the rotating obelisk with variably available dice and purity balance is a joy; for me, it gave me a splitting headache. The lack of obviousness regarding available action selection made it difficult for me to plan my actions in each of the mini-games also scattered around the board. I found myself having to constantly go back and forth between the dice/obelisk wheel and the mini-games to compute what a die did in each place, and then what die would be available on my next turn, and perhaps the turn after that.

It's not that I couldn't manage this - I actually did very well in the game - it's that I didn't enjoy it all. 'The game feels like work' is a game reviewing cliche I usually hate because of its lack of specificity, but it applies here due to the subtleties of that wheel. It's a strong bias of mine that I don't enjoy parsing how action selection works in a game; I'd rather have internalized action selection and be focused on what I'm trying to achieve. And for me, much of this is visual - if action selection is tricky, I have to constantly look back and forth between the action selection area and what I'm actually trying to accomplish with the action, until my forehead is throbbing.

It's for this reason, for instance, that while I admire Vital Lacerda's games at a distance, the byzantine clockwork of action selection mechanisms means I don't much enjoy playing them. I like focusing on what I want to accomplish, not so much how. I love the visual look of Lisboa, but I don't like visually trying to parse actions in the game.

Okay, enough bitching about games where what I'm looking at doesn't work for me - let's take a look at some games that have a ton going on terms of where I need to be looking, but are still a complete joy for me. I'll work my way up this list in terms of how much I enjoy what I'm actually looking at.

5. Lost Ruins of Arnak

Board Game: Lost Ruins of Arnak
I mentioned earlier in this post (and have said many times in the past) that I infinitely prefer deckbuilders with a board to pure deckbuilders without a visual component. So let's look at an example from today's hotness of a deckbuilder with a lot going on visually that's still extremely easy to visually absorb and play.

Lost Ruins of Arnak combines deckbuilding with worker placement and exploration, meaning that the board's worker placement locations are lost ruins visited by your workers, and which constantly expand as more of these are discovered. Beautiful art, super clean iconography, and a distinct play area make this section as easy to grasp at a glance as any worker placement game you've ever played.

Next, there is a research track one can move up their pawns for increasing rewards, with the cost and benefits very clearly marked. It's more interesting than many bland euro tracks, because of each spot's unique costs and rewards, the branching nature of the track, and the fact that some spots have tile rewards which go away after the first player to reach the spot takes them. Despite having a lot going on, it takes about one turn before the whole track is second nature, and it's exactly parallel to the main worker placement board, making it simple to glance back and forth. Sometimes the reward on the research track is an assistant which gives a once per round special power - the assistant market is nearly set next to the board.

Next there's a pretty simple player board which holds discovered idols, which are worth points, but which can be placed over other point rewards to get bonus resources. It's a clever and clear system which makes the costs and rewards of these bonus moves easy and intuitive.

Then there's the random card buy row, a la Ascension, with the twist that there are two different types of cards which can be bought with two different currencies, one type of which becomes more common and the other less common as the game progresses - the progress of the marker which separates the card types doubles as the round marker, with form combining with function beautifully here.

Finally there's the handful of cards one is looking at, and like everything in the game, the cards manage to be both gorgeous and completely clear.

Regardless of what one thinks of the game itself (i'm enjoying it thus far), the graphic design is undeniably masterful in how it clearly separates a surprisingly large number of visual elements (at least for a deckbuilder), making them dirt simple to comprehend. Note: I could have also mentioned Dune: Imperium as the other new deckbuilding/worker placement hybrid that also has incredibly clean visual design, but DI has less visual elements to juggle and isn't quite as pretty, so I went with Arnak.

4. Rokoko

Board Game: Rococo
Until I wrote these very words, I'd forgotten that Rokoko is also technically a deckbuilder with a board - it's easy to forget it's a deckbuilder because there's a lot of other things going on. There's the card row, one's hand, a market for resources, a huge contract row, and most dramatically, a large number of rooms which delineate the area control battles which determine much of the game's scoring.

I find this game worthy of mention in a list of games which make many different visual elements enjoyable to focus on because of how the visuals and graphic design utilize the game's theme to increase both clarity and player interest.

Specifically, the contracts are suits and dresses, and when you fulfill them you place them into one of the rooms, which now shows a person at a party wearing the outfit you made. Points are awarded for having the most people in a room wearing your stuff, or, for your best outfits, for people wearing your stuff who have gone on the roof to watch fireworks.

These wonderful thematic and visual connections, from playing an assistant card to acquire materials, to making the dresses and fulfilling the contract to a person wearing your dress at a party, make each aspect of the game flow together effortlessly. Whether you have the classic version with Michael Menzel art, or the newer deluxe version with art and graphic design by Ian O'Toole, you find yourself gazing at the area board - the rooms - to admire your handiwork in a way you just wouldn't if you just placed a cube in a province. It's not just visually lovely, but visually easy.

3. Terra Mystica/Gaia Project

Board Game: Terra Mystica
Neither implementation of this design is half as pretty as either of the games mentioned above; however, they do a fantastic job of having a wide variety of key elements you're looking at during the game without making you feel confused or overwhelmed. Terra Mystica is also worth mentioning as the game which pioneered the personal player board which displays your income you gain from building buildings by showing the reward under that building spot. There's no clumsy income track or marker; it's all elegantly displayed simply by what you can see on your board. Games like Clans of Caledonia and the next one mentioned on this list followed suit and now it's become a common kind of good graphic design.

Besides the player board, which also includes a system of power discs that refresh to allow powerful bonus actions, the next visual element of focus is the map. It's a simple, clear, hex grid which easily displays where players have put buildings, what they are, and what terrain is available to expand into. It's easy to examine where you want to go and where your opponents might cut you off.

Next are the 4 cult tracks, which are an uncomplicated fight for majorities, along with boosts to refreshing the power discs on one's player board when you pass specified spots on each track. While this is perhaps the blandest part of the board, there's nothing unclear about it.

Below the tracks are the pile of favor tiles one gets whenever one builds a temple or sanctuary, advanced buildings of each faction. The tiles give special powers and boosts along the cult tracks. It can take a while when you're new at the game to go over the tiles and figure out which one to take, but again, there's nothing about these tiles that's particularly hard to understand.

Finally, there are two sets of tiles to look at related to each round of the game. At the start of the game, there are bonus tiles listed for each of the game's six rounds, which display both bonus points you get for doing specific things in each round, and possibly bonus resource rewards you get for certain cult track advancements at the end of that round as well. Besides these preset round tiles, there are what I call pass tiles - you draft a tile when you are done all your actions for the round, and each tile gives bonus resources and/or bonus ways to score points in the following round.

The point I'm repeating here is that while it's very challenging for new players to figure out what to do in terms of any of this - whether it's what pass tile to take, what building to build or what favor tile to take - it's not hard for them to figure out the rules regarding how any of this works, either visually or conceptually. It's all there right in front of you, and while the game's hard as hell and a bit ugly, your eyes get what you're seeing. I play this where I'll eschew other heavy games because the difficulty here is the game's strategic subtleties, not in grappling with how something works.

2. Barrage

Board Game: Barrage
And now we get to a game with a TON going on, both mechanically and visually. The player boards have the Terra Mystica thing of holding your buildings and revealing income bonuses when they are placed. The player boards also hold a resource rondel, since when you build a building you don't permanently lose the resources spent to make it - instead they go disappear onto a wheel that turns when you take the appropriate action, eventually returning them to you. If that wasn't enough, the player board also holds the personal worker placement spots required to build those buildings.

For this is a worker placement game, with dozens of actions spaces, almost as many as in A Feast for Odin. There's also an area of the board which holds available contracts, a section, which tells you what you get bonuses for in that round (like in Terra Mystica), and keep track of how much energy you've produced that round, which is a multiplier for those round by round bonuses.

And finally, we come to the main game board itself, the place where you put your buildings to dam rivers and use it to produce energy, fighting with other players to control the flow of the game's water and use it for energy and contracts before they do. This board is what has this game be one of the most nasty, cutthroat euros ever made.

There's obviously a lot happening here, and the teach can be lengthy. But what one is looking at is never confusing, because the rules for each section aren't particularly hard, and the different parts of the game are so delineated visually and mechanically. Worker placement is straightforward, and the spots are divided by type - spots to run one's power plant and fulfill contracts, spots to get more contracts, spots to turn one's rondel, spots to get more money and resources, etc.

Each section of the game flows (excuse the pun) to another - placing workers spends resources which go on your rondel to place a building which goes on the main board. Placing a worker to run your power plant moves water down the board, produces energy on the energy track and possibly fulfills a contract from your personal area. Each area is distinct and connected in clearly recognizable and thematic ways.

And soon, you discover that everything you are doing everywhere really comes down to that main map. If someone places a dam upstream from your biggest dam and cuts off your water supply, you quickly realize it doesn't matter a damn what you are doing logistically anywhere else. That main interactive board is where the game is really happening and everything else is means to an end. It's huge and delicious and mean and complicated, but the game itself doesn't fight you - the other players do that!

1. A Feast for Odin

Board Game: A Feast for Odin
My top choice for a game which has a wonderfully huge amount happening in terms of what you have to keep your eyes on isn't here because of its aforementioned gigantic worker placement area. Yes, there's a lot there to be learned, but it's all basic worker placement - once you've got it, it's just a larger version of what we've seen before.

No, A Feast for Odin makes the top spots on this list because players can and do gain extra player boards to fill, and sometimes they add a ton of them. Your worker placement actions are mostly meant to acquire polyominoes which fill your player board(s) - you start with one (and a smaller area to fill with food) and you need to fill it to avoid losing a ton of points.

Later player boards, which represent discovered islands and built buildings, provide a push your luck element, in that each board gives you points, but you need to fully or mostly fill it or you'll actually lose a ton of points. How much you can bite off and chew is perhaps the central decision of the game. Sometimes the amount is massive. I've seen players with their main board, three expansion boards, and a few buildings in front of them.

This player isn't playing a giant worker placement game and a polyomino game - they are playing a giant worker placement game and eight polyomino games! That this can happen at all and have the game finish in a reasonable amount of time is due to two factors, one obvious and one not. The obvious factor is the straightforwardness of the design. You are placing workers and placing the obtained polyominoes on boards. Filling certain spots give bonus resources at the end of the round. That's really about it, and this straightforwardness means your brain is occupied with slotting in polyominoes, not thinking about the game's mechanisms or trying to find something on the board.

But even with this simplicity of purpose, filling that many places with pieces sounds ridiculous. How do turns not take hours as players figure out where and how to slot a piece on eight possible boards?

That this game is playable at 3 and 4 players is due to one of the most underrated rules in modern gaming. It is this: when you get a polyomino piece, you don't have to place it right away - it only matters when income happens at the end of the entire round what you've covered.

This means that much of your thinking in AFFO comes on other player's turns. While others are thinking and placing workers, you are rotating that big piece around and trying it facing one way or another, in this place or that, on this board or that. It's a genius system. There's still interaction on the worker placement game, but other people don't have to wait for each other to mull over the spatial puzzle. I'm not sure I can think of another polyomino game where you don't immediately place a piece and you can think about it on other people's turns.

Coming back to our visual theme, this makes a massive game almost relaxed. Your personal player area truly is a visual feast, a sprawling, satisfying domain of potential options for income bonuses and points. You can sort it out in your own time, so the visual sprawl isn't confusing or overwhelming - it's just immensely satisfying.

That's what I've got - I'm interested in what games folks love where your eyes have to cover a ton of ground, but it never feels confusing or overwhelming. Or let me know about those games where the visual sprawl (or lack thereof) ruins it for you. I'm really looking forward to the comments on this one.

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