Knizia. Spiel des Jahres. Some other thoughts, but only rarely. I'm not that much of a big thinker, you know - but I love games.
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What makes an Eurogame ’fun’? Exploring fun in Lancaster and Strasbourg (now that I have played the Kennerspiel des Jahres nominees)

Laszlo Molnar
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No, it’s not another ’why I think the SdJ jury is right’ entry (although I do think they are mostly right). I was sure 7 Wonders was winning the Kennerspiel without knowing the other nominees and it did, rightfully so. I just wanted to learn the other two games as well. I do know and see that one of the most important factors for nominating games is how „fun” these games are. And the jury knows „fun” doesn’t mean simple „optimization”, „combination” and „calculation” for the majority of people, not even to those who have some experience (but still aren’t optimization-crazy geeks).

So what makes Lancaster and Strasbourg fun?

These are both Euros of medium complexity, providing more or less fresh combinations of known mechanisms – actually both have a mechanism at their core that is „like” other games but still is new and something unseen before. I can’t say I’m unhappy to see both of these core mechanisms resemble something Knizian – in case of Lancaster it’s like a mechanism halfway between the bidding for plots in Amun-Re and a worker placement mechanism; in Strasbourg it’s a Ra-ish (but still different) auction mechanism combined with some push your luck(ish) element.

Both games have the fun mechanism of kicking others (others’ knights or others’ guild leaders) out of their space. Doing this is fun while it’s still not the only way to winning; also it’s not the main aim of the game. So it does not make the games cutthroat but stays fun. In Lancaster it’s the Amun Re-ish mechanism: you get kicked out from the action space you took – but you get your knight back so you can place it somewhere else.

Lancaster also has a voting mechanism. Of course it adds some hidden planning and luck to the game – both of them are fun elements but not totally uncontrollable.

Strasbourg has this fun element of drawing cards from your own deck, just to create your bidding piles for the given round. It’s a push your luck element: you can say ’stop’ any time but when you hope you’ll draw a ’1’ or ’2’ you might draw a ’6’ which is good for the current round but not for the next rounds (as you won’t have this ’6’ in your deck for the later rounds). (Still the game offers some wise ways to counter your bad luck; if played wisely, you can put a card like this back in the bottom of the drawing deck.)

Strasbourg also has the fun of hidden aims, missions undertaken in the beginning of the game. Yes, it’s also a luck element but you can decide how much to undertake.

Each of these mechanisms share something in common: they bring some (not uncontrollable) luck to the game which might be too much for some Euro geeks, but actually they add tension and fun to the game.

So both of the games have more than one mechanism that can make games fun. And of course both of them has lot of interaction. Add that both of these have maps – not a really functional map in Lancaster but it’s still better to look at than looking at an Excel sheet; a not really map-like “rectangle” map in Strasbourg. The presence of maps is almost always fun in games but here both of these maps provide interaction which is even more fun.

And while both of these games have a manageable but still present amount of luck involved, these are also rather short – 60 minutes is really not a length where it would be a big problem. What’s more, you can replay the game instantly if you like, or you can choose to play something different for variety.

So why are these mechanisms (and by the result of these mechanisms, the games theirselves) fun? I have no idea, but hidden motivations, kicking each other’s butt in an amusing way, taking risk and keeping a good interaction level seem to be qualities that can make games more fun than constant cube-pushing in games of this (or higher) complexity. Srasbourg and Lancaster prove that even medium-complexity Euros can become fun in the right hands.
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