The fundamental similarities and differences in amazing games
David Ebrey
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The basic idea of this list is to pair off some of my favorite games and then think about the ways they are fundamentally similar and the ways they are fundamentally different. I’m not looking for a catalogue of similarities and differences, rather, for the one or two things that affect the feel and game play most.

Feel free to add new and interesting pairs of great games. And certainly say if you see another (perhaps more fundamental) way in which the games I list are similar or different.

Having written the list, I now see how important it is to me to have very integrated tactical and strategic sides to a game, especially for more serious games. By “tactics” here I just mean relatively small decisions that one makes on a given turn and by “strategy” the larger decisions you make that influence the course of the game. I’m coming to realize how much I enjoy games where the small decisions should be used to build up large plans and the large plans should be used to guide small decisions.

I’m not ranking the games in any way. I’m basically just going from light games to heavy games.
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1. Board Game: Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation [Average Rating:7.21 Overall Rank:414]
David Ebrey
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Los Angeles
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Wings of War and LOTR: Confrontation both are short games that each capture a mood with a very small number of rules. They both take around thirty minutes to play. Fundamentally, these are both combat games where the combat is resolved very elegantly but the heart of the game is about outguessing your opponent. Both games involve not knowing your opponent’s position: in Wings of war because the opponent plays his movement card at the same time you do, in LOTR this is because of the Stratego-like pieces don’t show what unit you are up against. They both involve simultaneously playing cards (in the combat portion of LOTR:C). The games are psychologically intense and fun, requiring cleverness and insight, calculation and boldness.
 
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2. Board Game: Wings of War: Famous Aces [Average Rating:6.87 Overall Rank:787] [Average Rating:6.87 Unranked]
David Ebrey
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Yet the moods are very different. In some sense there are about as many moves open to you in LOTR:C as there are in Wings of war, because you have so many more pieces in LOTR:C. But each piece has at most two moves open to it in LOTR:C, so there is this sense of not being able to escape your opponent. Also, your fate – moving to the other side of the board – is absolutely clear. In Wings of War, on the other hand, you can move to any point on whatever playing surface you are playing on – you are literally limited only by the table you play on.

Yet, despite WoW having more possible moves on a given turn, LOTR:C is a much deeper, more strategic game. In fact, the limited movement available in LOTR:C adds to the long-term strategy: each move you make will permanently reduce the number of spaces that unit can move in the future, so you have to make every move with an eye to what your long-term plans are for the unit. You also need to start thinking, when you are setting up your units, what distractions you want to use to sneak Frodo past the enemies, or how you plan to take out Gandalf, or what you are going to try to use the Warg for. Why doesn’t Wings of War have this sort of long term strategy? Well, for one thing, the turns are pretty much all fundamentally the same: you don’t have cheap units you sacrifice early on. Damage is damage in Wings of War – getting hurt early is the same as getting hurt late. Whereas in the confrontation losing a unit is losing a unique special power you have to defeat your opponent and losing certain of them really hurts your prospects in the game. The Confrontation does a wonderful job of allowing you to form an overall plan but requiring you to constantly adapt your plan to your opponent’s moves.

Overall, both are great games, but Wings of War ends up being lighter, because of the lack of overall strategic options.
 
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3. Board Game: Ra [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:134]
David Ebrey
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Ra and Marracash are probably my two favorite bidding games. In both games you are bidding for items whose value can be very unclear: in Ra, you don’t know if you’ll end collecting all three of this type of monument, in Marracash you don’t know how many people of the right color will end up walking past your stall. Unlike a game like Modern Art, in these games all of the information is on the table: you don’t have a secret hand or any other sort of insider information (except your money supply in Marracash). This means that, of course, the different lots have to have different values for different players. So in both of these games you need to be constantly thinking about what other things are worth to your opponents. You want to make sure your opponents don’t get something very powerful on the cheap, but you also want to know how low of a bid you can get away with and when you can stick an opponent with a lot that they’ve bid up too high. Since everyone’s information is on the board, you can think about your opponent’s position as much as your own. Yet, due to the beautiful design of these games, they don’t seem like puzzles or as “solvable.” A player’s tolerance for risk and general playing style will greatly influence the way he or she plays the game.

These two games both have what I find to be an almost perfect combination forming of your own plan and reacting to your opponents done at both the tactical and strategic levels. If you lose track of the larger picture – what your goals and what your opponent’s are – you’ll do worse. You have to carefully and thoughtfully execute your plans while thinking deeply about what your opponent is up to.
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4. Board Game: MarraCash [Average Rating:6.83 Overall Rank:1716]
David Ebrey
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One obvious difference between them is that Ra is more of a pure bidding game, whereas around half of Marracash involves moving customers around the city. While these individual moves are an important part of the tactical side of this game, what’s really important are traffic patterns. In the games we’ve played, one door gets a bit more than half the use, one door gets light use and one gets hardly any at all. Positioning your stall near the door that gets heavy use is what’s really important – the details of the individual moves are just the execution of this traffic pattern, and so just work out the real value of the stalls. So really this is just a different way of making the value of the things up for bid variable, just like Ra does with the matching sets and other such things. The real difference, I think, is that in Marracash you win by figuring out what your opponent will do and then working with him so that you both make money. If you buy a stall next to your opponent, he will bring customers to you and you’ll bring customers to him. Moreover, an important secondary source of income is the money you get by bringing customers to your opponents and selling stalls to them. In Marracash, you try to form symbiotic relationships. Whereas in Ra the goal is to figure out what your opponents are trying to do so you can stop them from succeeding and so you can go for a strategy that others aren’t going for (an important skill for Aladdin’s Dragons, also). This contrast really influences the way these games are played. In Marracash, you want to put things up for auction that will help someone else and in the process help you. At the same time you want to make sure you don’t end up helping the people you are working with too much. In Ra you want to put things up for bid that will help you most and others the least.
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5. Board Game: Netrunner [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:581]
David Ebrey
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I’m an old Netrunner fan who recently got into Middle Earth: The Wizards, basically at Chris Farrell’s suggestion. Both of these games have amazing atmospheres – much better than the half dozen other CCGs I’ve played. Netrunner has a fast paced cyberpunk feel. ME:TW has the slow, deliberate pace of the books. Both games really deeply build what’s going on in their worlds into the mechanics of the game.

I think this is done best in Netrunner. The feel of playing the Runner is different from that of playing the Corp in just the right ways: the Corp slowly builds up infrastructure while the runner balances getting toys with using them to break into the Corp’s infrastructure. Since a Runner’s job is to find and steal information, the Runner is able to access the Corp’s cards, even the cards in the Corp’s deck. This is an absolutely natural and brilliant mechanic. Similarly, the Corp is trying to stop the runner, which means trying to disrupt his resources and perhaps to kill him. The Corp does this by taking cards out of the runner’s hand and discarding them. The Corp doesn’t look at cards in the Runners deck, because Corps aren’t information gathering machines. The different rules for the asymmetrical sides are built right into the structure of a card based game: what’s involved in having a hand and a deck of cards.

In ME:TW what you do in the game is a detailed simulation of traveling around Middle Earth. This isn’t done abstractly: you move to new unique sites (using a map or cards) and then do things when you get there. If this movement part of the game had been somehow abstracted out, the game would’ve lost an immense amount of atmosphere and subtle game play (I’ve found CCGs are better when they don’t work at a too abstract level). Another way the game mechanics naturally flow from the world is the corruption system. When you gain powerful items or are in some other way tempted, you gain corruption points, which increases your chances of turning to the dark side. The way that corruption is built right into the powerful (otherwise good) cards is a brilliant way to simulate corruption in Middle Earth while adding to the challenge of the game.
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6. Board Game: Middle-earth [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:914]
David Ebrey
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Los Angeles
California
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So obviously I’ve already covered a lot of the ways that Netrunner and ME:TW contrast, but really this has just been part of explaining how well their mechanics capture the atmosphere of their worlds. A number of interesting other rule differences naturally emerge from the different atmospheres they portray (for example, in the different ways cards are drawn in the two games). But the real difference between these two games is tied up in tactics, strategy, risk and direct competition.

The heart of the matter, I think, is this: in Netrunner you are directly competing with your opponent for points, since the idea of the game is that Corporations are trying to reach their agendas before runners can steal information about them. This creates a lot of pressure to act quickly and decisively, to take on risk to stop your opponent. In METW, on the other hand, you are only competing with your opponents to get more points by the end of the game. If your opponent is about to score some points halfway through the game, there is no reason for you to make a risky move, since your points are independent from his.

This ties into what might seem like an emphasis on tactics in Netrunner over Strategy in METW. There’s something to this, but I don’t think it quite gets things right. It’s true that in Netrunner there are a lot of interesting tactical choices to make each turn: you have four actions, and generally each of these are tough choices to make. These tactical decisions definitely need to be thought of in terms of longer term strategies. For example, as a Corp, you want to think about how many data forts to create, what forts to defend, whether to play an agenda, etc. But what makes things seem more short-term in Netrunner is the constant pressure involved in directly competing with your opponent. You can’t always be thinking in the long term: if you don’t act now, your opponent will score an agenda. In ME:TW, you can generally put almost all of your focus on your long term goals.
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7. Board Game: Taj Mahal [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:306]
David Ebrey
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El Grande and Taj Mahal are my two favorite heavy German games and perhaps, of the games that I love, the ones I understand least. Unlike WoW, LOTR:C, Netrunner or METW, these aren’t games that evoke a strong atmosphere. They are just raw, psychologically intense competitions against other players. The player’s personalities come through very strongly: you can fight for someone else for a resource or let them have it, sneakily try to take something or make your intentions very clear. Both games require a careful balance between focusing on too few things and focusing on too many. You need to choose a reasonable number of goals and go for them. Yet you can’t be too stubborn about your early decisions: you need to have robust strategies, that can slowly evolve or quickly metamorphosize based on the other players. Like most of my favorite games, these require you to make difficult strategic choices that are built up out of interesting tactical choices.
 
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8. Board Game: El Grande [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:54]
David Ebrey
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I’m not clear what the most fundamental difference is between El Grande and Taj Mahal. One obvious difference is the way that in Taj Mahal the number of points scored increases substantially as the game goes on. This means that at the beginning it is much more important to lay the foundation for your latter moves rather than to score points. This certainly leads to the sense I have in Taj Mahal that there is an overall arc to the game, with a climatic conclusion. Whereas, in fact, the way that infrastructure is built up in El Grande, by the end the way points will be scored is often fairly clear.

But there is also something strange about the way you try to get what you want in these games. In most ways, El Grande is the stranger of the two games. Lots of things you might expect from a game just aren’t true: the turn order changes every turn, you compete with the other players over what action you can take changes every turn, you can only place your pieces in a very restricted set of spaces (namely, near the King). I certainly find it somewhat disorienting to play. Yet the scoring is in a way quite clear: you want to maximize your points and you do this by getting the highest number or second highest number of Caballeros in a region. You have all the normal pressures to not underfocus and not overfocus your resources. In this respect, it is straightforward.

Taj Mahal, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward game in a lot of ways: turn order just proceeds clockwise, your choice of actions is always the same, it is clear from the beginning where you can play pieces until the end of the game. I normally think of Taj Mahal is more straight-laced – just a very elegant and carefully designed game. But the way that card play works really does require a special, unusual, skill. Unlike almost every other game, deploying more resources (in this case, cards), does not guarantee you a better position. A player who plays a single card on the first round of card play could withdraw and have a much better result than a player who plays down 8 cards. This means that you often aren’t thinking about how to outgun your opponent rather, how to avoid him in direct competition and play the fewest cards to get what you want. Whereas in El Grande you can have a sort of vague sense that you should spread some Caballeros around here to have some places where you place second, in Taj Mahal you want to keep firmly in mind what you want and the most effective way to get it. The card mechanism really requires this, I think.
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9. Board Game: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage [Average Rating:7.82 Overall Rank:135]
David Ebrey
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Recently I have been getting into wargames along with my gaming partner (Thi, aka, rorschah). So far the card-based wargames have been my favorites (although I’m also really enjoying Storm over Arnhem). I find the choices required in deciding how to use my card very engrossing, never leaving me with a dull moment. I have to make tough choices about how to use my resources; those tough choices, in turn, make me really focus on important goals. Really, the only two we’ve really played are Hannibal and B2B.
 
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10. Board Game: World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:1210]
David Ebrey
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I think that it’s clear that in many ways Hannibal is better game than Berlin to Barbarossa, yet there are a couple of features about B2B that I really like. Hannibal is a much, much cleaner system: there is practically no chrome, every rule has a place in strategy of the game. Yet it still captures a lot of the mood of the period and models important aspects of the period (like the relation between political control and military might) that games with more chrome might miss. I find B2B, on the other hand, has a clunky set of rules. It is not clear why some bits of chrome are part of what is fundamentally alternate history: why, even if this particular beachhead operation actually was small, should the one in the game be small? But really, the biggest problem seems to be with playing with the second edition rules (I’ve just noticed that this is the source of a lot of hard to remember rules): there are lots changes to particular cards or events that are hard to keep track and should just be printed on the cards (it could really use a second edition set of cards).

Hannibal also has an amazing sense of openness, especially for the Roman player, who should feel more open in his movements (since he controls the seas). This turn I could abort my attack on Africa and sail to Spain, or sail back to Italy, or try the attack in a different way... B2B doesn’t have as many radically different strategies open to the players.

The two things I really like about B2B are: (1) the way you really build up your attack strategy out of a number of tactical decisions and (2) the sheer difficulty of the choice of how to use your cards. In some ways, I find the moving of troops in Hannibal too abstract. There aren’t any interesting choices about how to maneuver your troops, e.g., how to bring them around the Alps, how to approach an enemy – you’ve just got a couple of choices. The card combat does allow for some interesting decisions – basically, whether to withdraw or press ahead. But with the cards you aren’t building a strategy up out of tactical decisions – you are just going through the execution of a decision you’ve already made. Whereas, in B2B, if you want to drive a strong force towards Sevastopol, you have to think about how to do that most effectively, in the most versatile and efficient manner. I find the choices here engrossing.

The other thing I really like about B2B is how tough it is to choose what you want to do with your cards. In Hannibal, around a third of the cards in your hand can only be played by your opponent, so some card automatically won’t be used as events. The choices you have to make are difficult and interesting, but don’t seem quite as pressing as in B2B, where there is a definite sense that there is way too much to do in the time that you have. You want to move your troops, but you also have a lot of interesting events to play (you can play all of the events in your hand since each player has his own deck), and it would always be a good idea to get replacement points to repair and rebuild your units. You can’t do all of these things and the choices you make help form your overall strategy and the tone for your turn: is this the turn of a major counterattack or are the Allies sowing the seeds for a strong defense next turn? Are the Germans repairing their units as they go, or are they working themselves to the bone?

I suppose, it’s really this. Hannibal is a beautiful, pure, strategic game. But B2B has an excellent integration of tactics with strategy: both in terms of moving and attacking with units and in terms of how you use your cards to execute your overall plan for the turn and for the game.
 
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11. Board Game: War of the Ring (First Edition) [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:82]
Richard Hutnik
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Albany
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This game, in my opinion shares similar pacing and objectives as Queen's Gambit. One side is trying to push to an end point, while fighting battles (and can win that way), while the other side is trying to stop them. The games do feel similar, IMHO. The games also support 2-4 players.
 
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12. Board Game: Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit [Average Rating:7.55 Overall Rank:544]
Richard Hutnik
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Think of this as War of the Ring light, VERY light. This game uses cards to govern what units move and what people do. War of the Ring uses dice. In here, you put intercept cards in boxes to stop Anakin from advancing. In War of the Ring, you put dice in a box to stop the Fellowship advancing. In both games, you roll dice to determin whether or not the timing unit advances. Of course this is MUCH lighter than War of the Ring, but I find them similar.
 
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