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My Top 5 Counterintuitive Games

Anthony Faber
United States
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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 my co-host Pat Flannery's favorite counterintuitive games, as well as our review of Gods Love Dinosaurs:

If you've played enough modern board games, strategy can become straightforward, if not always easy to apply. In an engine building game, players try to build the most efficient engine, and then pivot at just the right time to cash out the engine for points. Party games tend to be simple matters of intelligence and empathy: come up with the clue your teammate is most likely to guess. Theme also provides strategic guidance - those set in 19th century industrial Europe will require standard resource conversion tactics, while those about dancing bears and candy canes will be light and random, not requiring much thought.

This is not to say that every game has straightforward and obvious strategies. Many games hide their math behind layers of complexity or player interaction where the best strategy is opaque or player dependent. When I write about counterintuitive games, I am not talking about opaque games.

Rather, I'm talking about games where the strategy one might adopt based on common modern board game tropes are exactly wrong. Sometimes it's clear that straightforward strategies don't work, but more often these counterintuitive games are traps - playing the way you expect to work best can get you in deep trouble.

Counterintuitive games confound expectations, and as such can lead to polarized opinions. It can be a revelation when a game does the opposite of what you're expecting, or it can be frustrating if you love a game of a particular type, and the game ends up punishing you for doing what you love to do.

This list was inspired by recently playing and reviewing Gods Love Dinosaurs, a little circle of life game which can punish you for being too efficient - if you breed too many predators, they can eat you right out of the game, for instance.

What follows below are five counterintuitive games I love (plus a few extras), titled by how they break the usual formulae.

5. Penalizing Best Strategy - Just One

Board Game: Just One
In Just One, the game's counterintuitive nature is not hidden, but rather communicated directly in the rules. It's a party game, where each player gives a one word clue to help the guesser discover the one word answer, with the twist being that any duplicated clues are not given to the guesser. This rule means that players can't just give the best, most obvious clue, but must come up with clues which are objectively worse, or at least objectively more original, which often amounts to the same thing.

This twist raises the game above other clue giving party games in which players aren't necessarily rewarded for being creative and unique, just for being the most dead on with their clues. By rewarding originality, the game makes players feel clever, and leads to unexpected triumphs and disasters, which is exactly what a party game should provide.

4. Scoring Which Punishes Immediate Greed - Mandala

Board Game: Mandala
Mandala is my counterintuitive game of choice in the two player card game design space. A big piece of what bends the brain here is the scoring. The first time a player gains a card of a particular color, it goes below your board to indicate that all future cards you collect of that color are worth 1 point. When you obtain a card of a different color, it goes beneath your board to indicate future cards of that color are worth 2 points, and so on until when you collect the sixth and last color, all cards of that color are worth 6 points (and collecting all the colors triggers the endgame).

What all this means is that it can be a mistake to get multiple cards of the same color early in the game, since they won't be worth many points - your efforts are better spent getting a variety of colors and then focusing on getting a lot of a particular color later in the game. After your first game, you will ask to play again, because even though the rules are simple, you will have invariably messed up on what to collect and when. And while you get better, set collection never feels intuitive or easy here. It's simple, but hard, and with lots of late surprises.

Glen More and Glen More II are games which also punish the most direct strategy in how they score, although in this case it's very obvious what's happening. Both are time track games where you can collect extra tiles and actions by staying back on the time/tile track, since if you're further back you can roll slowly along, taking turn after turn, until you're in front of someone else. However, the game penalizes every player who ends the game with more tiles than the person with the fewest, a certain amount of points per tile. It makes you question the slow roll strategy and makes jumping ahead just as viable.

3. Build Slowly - Tiny Towns

Board Game: Tiny Towns
In most eurogames where players are constructing buildings, whoever has the most buildings in front of them at any given time is probably winning. We're conditioned to build as much as we can as fast as as we can to win the race for goods and points, perhaps capping it off with a huge building or two at the end.

Tiny Towns inverts this race by optimizing building slow, or said another way, incentivizing you to build your biggest, slowest buildings first. In this spatial puzzle, a player on their turn calls out a resource which each player must put somewhere on their 4x4 player board. When the right spatial pattern of resources is created, players remove all the resources and put the appropriate building on one of the spaces the resources occupied.

As time goes on, your board becomes more and more filled with buildings, making it more and more difficult to build new ones. Because of this, it's best to build the biggest buildings which require the most resources first, when your board is less cluttered.

Furthermore, whenever a player's board is full, they are done with their game, leaving the remaining players to finish up. If you're the last player left, you can call out the remaining resources without interference. Therefore, it's great to build your buildings big and slow so you can be the last player going and thus perfectly optimize the last part of your town.

Despite these obvious incentives for slow play, I'm amazed at how many people are conditioned to build quick and plop out as many buildings as fast as they can.

2. Flipping the Engine Building Script - Terra Mystica

Board Game: Terra Mystica
I have a friend, who I will simply call JG, who LOVES engine building games and the whole build it up and cash it out arc which this usually entails. He's quite good at this kind of thing - he's certainly better at building an optimal engine than I am. And he absolutely hates Terra Mystica. Why? There's certainly quite a bit of engine building in the game, so why doesn't it work for him?

He hates it because while you do build an engine in TM, too much of it can be a trap, and playing the game well requires you to make painful decisions which often go against building this optimal engine.

For instance, in most games, players often build a temple early on, which rewards you with the choice of a favor tile. These tiles can give you resources each turn, or move you up tracks, or give you points when you build certain buildings. JG invariably takes the favor tile which gives the most resources for building things in the future.

The problem is, unlike most engine builders where this is perfectly logical, in TM you usually want to take the scoring tile for buildings. You build so many of these buildings over the course of the game that taking this tile can be a necessary way to score points, as compared to most engine builders where the engine building tile would be optimal early on. In TM there just aren't big enough 'cash out' opportunities late in the game - you need to be scoring points all along, as you're building your engine. And to be clear, you do need some engine building - if you neglect it too much, you won't win either. But you need to walk a fine line between engine building and scoring the whole way through.

JG hates this. He can never bring himself to sacrifice his engine early in the game. I've tried to get him to play more, because I know he's smart enough to start playing this balance better, but I've stopped asking because I realize that the act of sacrificing his engine just isn't fun for him. The joys of engine building are one of the biggest reasons he loves modern board games. Asking him to fight his own joy is just sadistic.

On the other hand, I've grown to love the game. Since build the engine, cash out the engine play doesn't work, the game requires you to assess every position uniquely. There are times early on when building your engine is absolutely right and there are times when it's absolutely wrong. It depends on the board state, the other players, the race you are playing, what bonus tiles are in the game, and many other things. It's these kinds of complex assessments that make me still feel like a newb after about 70+ plays. And I'm okay with that. There are games where I can go on autopilot and do well and enjoy myself. This isn't one of them.
Board Game: Steam Time

There are other games I enjoy that pervert the engine building formula in interesting ways (though perhaps none do it as counterintuitively as TM). Rudiger Dorn's underrated Steam Time is a worker placement game that requires you to cash out your engine for points, but requires that you do it several times during the game. After a couple rounds your engine will start to peak and you'll spend pieces of your engine to score, but there's still a long way to go in the game so you need to rebuild your engine quickly. Tear down too much of it to score and it will take too long to rebuild. Tear down too little of it and you'll fall hopelessly behind on the scoreboard. That rhythm of building up and breaking it down a few times is a thing some players never get into because no other game required them to do it.

1. Playing Against the Theme - Blood Bowl

Board Game: Blood Bowl (Third Edition)
There are times when what seems that a game will play a certain way based on its theme, and it just doesn't. Sometimes those dancing bears and candy canes mask a mental gymnasium.

I'm not talking about games where this thematic contradiction is clear from the outset, or when it's even used as a selling point, such as how Root is a deep wargame based on cute woodland animals, and people get it and love it.

No, I'm talking about games where the thematic disconnect isn't all that apparent until you are deep into the game, and you either love or hate the ensuing revelation. My favorite game of this type is Blood Bowl.

If you're unfamiliar with it, Blood Bowl is the original dice chucking football style game (it actually feels a bit like rugby), based on asymmetric teams of fantasy races (orcs, dwarves, elves, etc.) who are all trying to kill and maim each other as well as score points and win the game. This description makes it sound like the game is random and wacky, where you make bold, mean plays, have fun, and sort of turn your brain off. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Blood Bowl is a chesslike, intensely cerebral game of risk mitigation. Yes, tons of dice are rolled. But so many are rolled the dice often (though not always) even out, and the player who planned better and took fewer risks wins.

The game has a devilish rule that your turn ends as soon as any of your players fails an action. You get to move all your players until that point, but as soon as a player falls down from a bad block or a missed dodge, or when a player drops a handoff, it's over. The game requires you to take as many risk free or low risk actions as you can before doing anything that could possibly fail, and to save precious rerolls for key actions you must succeed at. Play this game impulsively and you'll get destroyed, and have a bad time to boot, since your turns will be so much shorter than your opponent's.

I adore all of this. Probabilities are my bag. The theme of the game doesn't matter much to me - it's the wonderful mechanisms which I love - but I've met plenty of people who loved the theme and found the game itself supremely frustrating. In Blood Bowl, fortune usually favors the timid. You want some light dice chucking, go play 40k - you know, the one that you thought was actually going to be the strategy game.

Counterintuitive Games I Don't Enjoy

I want to be clear - I don't think counterintuitive games are necessarily better than more straightforward games, and liking them doesn't make you one of the cool kids. They are just games which tend to generate surprising and polarizing reactions based on upending your expectations.

Personally, there are quite a few counterintuitive games I don't enjoy, because like JG, I have my sacred cows which I don't enjoy killing. Often these take the form of conflict games which require you to play less than optimally so that other players don't gang up on you and take you down a peg. Said another way, games which entail bashing the leader just ain't my thing, even if they do reward counterintuitive play. Disguising how well you're doing is a real skill; it's just not one I enjoy employing.
Board Game: The Estates

Note that this kind of thing isn't limited to dudes on a map games and such. The Estates is an economic game I've avoided because it appears to be so much about avoiding getting a target on your back and then getting nuked into the stone age. I'm sure I'll try it some time, but I won't apologize if it's not my thing.

How about the rest of you? What are the games you love and hate because they require you to play in a different way than you first expect? Let me know in the comments below.

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