A Semi-Pro Gamer's First List: Ten Things I Believe After 30 Years of Games
Jeff B.

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To preface this list, I want to say up front that I'm wrong.

I'm wrong because I'm not you.

You continue to like and buy Munchkin releases. You've got all ten variants, and more than a dozen expansions.

Or you like the satisfaction that comes from beating your friends before you've even opened the box. (If you've ever convinced a friend to buy a starter and two boosters of a collectible card game just to show them your awesome first-turn-kill deck, there is a special Pi-valued circle of Hell just for you. It consists entirely of Bella Sara boosters.)

Or you spend hours and hours painting small pieces of metal to earn the privilege of playing a game.

Or you hate Monopoly.

Or you hold to your self-aggrandizing assumption that Scrabble is a game about words you use in actual conversation rather than a tile placement game with a defined set of legal plays.

Or something else. Honestly, I'm not sure what to say now.

Except that I'm saying what I believe about games and game design. If you want to say something - I'm all ears. Can't say I'll agree at this stage in my gaming career - but you never can tell.
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1. Board Game: Advanced Civilization [Average Rating:8.02 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.02 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.02 Unranked]
Jeff B.

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1) Some randomness is good.

It's the really really long games that violate this rule. (If it's a really short game that has no randomness, it has a tough time avoiding guilt by association with Nim and Tic-Tac-Toe.) The classic example here is Advanced Civilization. If six people sit down to play, and one player either (a) played within the last month if the other players have not, or (b) has at least three to five more play sessions under their belt - that player WINS. The other players have signed up for a five hour march for second. I posit that a primary reason for this stasis is that combat is purely algebraic. If the combat had dice or cards in the loop, the front-runner's strategy would have to incorporate the uncertainty of a surprise military loss.
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2. Board Game: Power Grid [Average Rating:7.89 Overall Rank:35]
Jeff B.

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2) If the game has a strong need for long-range planning, it had better let players plan when it's not their turn.

The signature violator is Power Grid. Not only is it basically four to six players doing their math homework at the same table, but it doesn't let any player open their textbook until their turn. The game already smacks the analytic-paralytic right in the face, due to figuring out 10+3+5+10+2+4+5+5+5+5+6+6+6+6 as a maximized revenue stream that still covers building costs. But fuel costs changing based on how much other players buy on their turn ensures that the paralysis takes place while the paralytic is holding the talking stick.
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3. Board Game: Empire Builder [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:1068]
Jeff B.

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3) If there is a need to see which player has the best memory, just bring out Concentration.

I have an okay memory. Not great, not horrible. I've played against people with worse memory, and I've certainly played against those with better memory. And when I've won a game solely on remembering something longer than someone else, I have no sense that I've outwitted them, outplayed them, or outmanipulated them. All I've done is to better simulate a PIECE OF PAPER. Which is why I use this house rule for my house: If the information could be tracked on a piece of paper, it's public. The usual violator is the choo-choo-and-crayon class. It is important to track how much money people have, and there is no random nor secret money. Making money hidden is (in comparing the abilities of the players) similar to a rule that brunettes get double payouts. It introduces a factor about the players not germane to the strategic and tactical gameplay. And if someone thinks that raw memory is germane to gameplay - well, go play Concentration and be all shiny about it.
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4. Board Game: Munchkin [Average Rating:5.92 Overall Rank:3738] [Average Rating:5.92 Unranked]
Jeff B.

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4) If the game rewards not committing resources until everyone else is tapped out, the game will be very long and silly.

Biggest violator here is Munchkin. Anti-player cards are logically held until someone is level 7 or so. If you hold onto some pro-player combat modifiers until people run out of monster modifiers, you can generally coast to victory. But knowing this, people get tight with their card play, and suddenly the game is three-quarters over and everyone's staring at each other and not much is actually happening. I call this transition crossing the fun horizon.
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5. Board Game: Pandemic [Average Rating:7.64 Overall Rank:75] [Average Rating:7.64 Unranked]
Jeff B.

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5) Completely co-op games are nice as an occasional mixer - but played extensively, they will look a lot like (and suffer from the same sociological disorders as) business meetings.

Pandemic is fun to play, no lie. (At least once, anyway.) But the problem is that in games where there is only the team vs. board, a socially engaging or tactically brilliant player can EVEN AGAINST THEIR WILL become effectively the only actual player. I certainly confess that I tend more to fall into the first category rather than the second - but still, a four-player game where one player is basically conducting the orchestra of the other three players is a solitaire game with three people serving as cheerleaders and butlers.
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6. Board Game: Arkham Horror [Average Rating:7.29 Overall Rank:271] [Average Rating:7.29 Unranked]
Jeff B.

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6) If sales of a game are strong enough to warrant an expansion, nine times out of ten the game is good enough to not need an expansion.

Oh, where to begin. Munchkin? Battlestar Galactica? Carcassonne? Dominion? Small World? The Eon version of Cosmic Encounter? Agricola?

Nope. Arkham Horror. Marrying the Talisman style of adventure game with the Cthulhu mythos was very, very brilliant. It's a fun game that's still completely co-op, and there's so many cards in the base set and the game takes so long that it should be reasonably impossible for even a group of dedicated players to become bored with it.

But Fantasy Flight didn't feel that way. So now it costs over four hundred dollars to buy a complete set of Arkham Horror. And that complete set will take up approximately two CUBIC FEET of space. And all these expansions make the game unintelligible to anyone who hasn't been playing it each month from the 2005 release date until tomorrow night.

And even though I'm talking about expansions, I'm not even going to talk about Killer Bunnies. See how nice I am?

Anyway, game designers out there, pull up a chair for a moment. If you have an idea at the start that you think will make your game better, check the box marked Optional Rules and put it in the dang box. If you have an idea you think will make your game more complex (and we all believed Agricola NEEDED another currency), leave it in File Thirteen. If you want to make more money - make another great game. (Oddly enough, Small World both breaks and obeys this rule.)
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7. Board Game: Android [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:1133]
Jeff B.

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7) Elegance isn't just an eleven-point Scrabble word.

Android, you had such promise. You were Blade Runner in a box. You had five unique characters. You had many play scenarios, and the potential for online supplements. You dripped with mood and theme. Each of your components flowed naturally. The dark and light cards were a wonderful flow of cost from pro-player to anti-opponent. The conspiracy web was an intricate game of competing interests in mazebuilding. The movement system got rid of the dice while still making location relevant. The character story decks were a masterstroke of personal player involvement.

You looked real, and you looked spec-tac-u-lar.

But put all these in the same game, and you wind up with a game that flows like Frankenstein walks. If the player has to

- consider whether they can afford to play that dark card to stop an opponent from winning while they
- consider whether they need to cut off one arm of the conspiracy web while they
- consider where they need to be to get to the Police HQ next turn while they
- consider which suspect has amassed the most clue points while they
- consider how much baggage they need by the end of the week while they
- consider whether or not they need to position clues closer to opponent #A as opposed to opponent #B while they
- consider whether an opponent has a card that will target you if you enter a Ritzy location while they
- consider whether or not the person they need cleared of the murder charges is about to get killed by someone else while they
- cons--

STOP. RIGHT NOW. STOP. Or at least prepare for the bitterest of laughs when you announce that you're running a two-hour demo of your game. I have tried to finish Android with a full table twice. The first time, we devoted at least five hours. The second time, we passed out the rules a day early and devoted a weekend DAY to the game. I think the closest I've ever gotten to completing the two-week in-game calendar was still only into the first third of week 2. This is a masterwork of setting smothered by great mechanics plopped on top of each other in unholy abundance.
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8. Board Game: Warhammer 40,000 [Average Rating:6.47 Overall Rank:2015]
Jeff B.

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8) If your game can be cheated at by striking the table enough to move a component one-sixteenth of one inch, it's asking for too precise a world.

Hello, Warhammer 40K. (And Disk Wars, we hardly knew ye.)

Board gaming is an exercise of abstract concept management and personal magnetism. The satisfaction of winning a game is most satisfyingly derived from strategic and tactical successes and cunning manipulations. Games played without pre-set intervals of movement find themselves at the mercy of strange vulnerabilities. Bump the table? Bought yourself a millimeter. Got yourself a little tremor of nerves? Bought yourself a millimeter. Droop your cuff on the table? Bought yourself a millimeter - and now may have turned a game-ending charge against your units into a unit of orkz stopped with their skullz a hairzbreadth away from dwarven blunderbi. When a game asks each player to keep track of inches in any way, be mindful of how male a pursuit that is.

Oh, and by the way: The Living Rulebook, a sheet of RPG map paper, and a sheet of cardboard cut into tiny bits is a perfectly functional Blood Bowl set. It really is.
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9. Board Game: Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) [Average Rating:7.87 Overall Rank:56]
 
Jeff B.

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9) Speaking of typically male viewpoints - length does not translate into value.

The ideal length of a serious board game is probably two to three hours. But if you are uncertain and want to leave wiggle room in your design, err on the shorter side. Leave the players wanting more, not some form of intellectual emetic.

A passionate appeal to board gamers: If you are trying to be the sixth player in a game of Twilight Imperium, stop. Stop right there. Consider the math of wanting to play so bad that you will force-march a table on a five-hour marathon which takes that game from (at 3 hours and 5 players) a player cost of 144 minutes of useful time (180 minutes minus 36 minutes of time actively doing something) to a thief that will steal FOUR hours of time from each player (300 minutes minus 60 minutes actually doing something). This is egotistical to the point of narcissism. You are asking them to spend an extra 156 minutes staring at other players having fun. Consider how you might react if asked to watch someone's plants with intense focus for two hours and thirty-six minutes while they play Halo Reach on your XBox. (I know it's not a fair comparison, but the point of the imposition is greatly clarified.)

Oh, and Monopoly does not break this tenet. Read the rulebook. No, I mean literally READ it. And then follow it. Seriously. Consider that the last person in your family who actually read the rulebook probably distrusted Germans for reasons not directly involving the career of David Hasselhoff.
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10. Board Game: Merkator [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:907]
Jeff B.

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10) The game's theme should at least peripherally match the gameplay.

Merkator, I know you're young as games go. But here's a reality check:

Your rulebook says that money is of no value at the end of the game.
Your rulebook says that the players can engage in no trading during the game.
Your rulebook also says that the players represent MERCHANTS. You know - people who trade things with the objective of making money.

And you, Die Macher, I know you've been around as long as the moon in terms of eurogames (or designer games, or whatever term you use to describe Catan). But this just in:

Your rulebook says that the players use tiles to indicate public and easily understandable political positions.
Your rulebook says that the players represent politicians.

(I know that one's more esoteric - but in terms of real-world functioning of game-represented themes, it's really a worse violation than Merkator.)
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