Board gaming can fill many holes in people’s lives. I’ve talked about them as entertainment, of course, but I’ve also touched on the power of them being tools for therapy. As models of intricate, delicate systems. As synecdoches of the designer’s life. And the hobby can bring people together in such powerful ways, ways other mediums could only wish to begin to achieve.
So why is it so damn hard for me to play them?
I’ve thought long and hard about this issue, and on the surface, it can be easy to dismiss. Looking over at my shelf, my eyes are immediately drawn to Dominant Species. This game is easily in my top 5 games of all-time, and yet I haven’t played it in at least two years. Sure, I could sit here and say that “well, I don’t have the player count!” or “I don’t have the right people to play it with!” And while those items hold some weight to it, sure, the bigger question comes if I presume those things are fulfilled: if I had the perfect group to play it with, would I elect to pull out Dominant Species? And if not, why?
So I wanted to take some space here to think about the less common, less articulated reasons we may not play certain games often. Examine why, even when presented with the perfect opportunities, we might be sleeping on our favorites in order to play other titles.
Crisis is a 2016 title designed by Pantelis Bouboulis and Sotirios Tsantilas. In this worker placement game, players will be acquiring and running many different types of companies to produce goods and fulfill contracts. That really is the meat of the game. The only two wrinkles to its design that make it stand out (for better and worse, depending on the play) is the semi-cooperative nature of it, as well as the randomness.
The game’s setting, the fictional Axia, is a dysfunctional metropolis on the brink of collapse. If the competing entrepreneurs don’t all make strides in their enterprises, then Axia doesn’t improve, and the booming city just… goes boom. This is the game’s semi-cooperative nature: each new game round, the victory point requirement is increased. Players must continuously score victory points, a mathematical representation of their contributions towards the rebirth of the city, or else the city will continue to degrade. If it degrades far enough, the city collapses, and the game ends in failure for all players.
This can lead to some interesting situations: If I take the singular Loan action spot away from Greg, then he will start a death spiral that will last for two rounds. But, can I afford for his death spiral to cause the city to get worse, causing other parts of my economy to degrade? Or, even worse, if I let his death spiral happen, is that the end of the game? It takes the capitalist’s utopia of complete exploitation and makes those greedy capitalists think about someone else for a change, even if that incredibly low bar is just for other capitalists.
The city degradation is also where the randomness of the game really starts to come into play. At the start of each round, an Event Card is drawn. Which deck the card is drawn from depends on the current success of the players: if they continuously miss their goals, then the city’s going to get worse, and the players have to draw from the worse events. (Well, kind of. Crisis is not a perfect game, and one of its many weak points is its abysmal events. The events that happen when the city is its healthiest are some of the most punitive, some events are recycled between severity statuses, etc.) But the game’s randomness doesn’t end there. The workers required to run your companies, the contracts that will be fulfilled by players, and the companies themselves come out in a truly- or semi-random order.
I do not hate randomness. Matter of fact, some of my favorite games have heavy amounts of randomness of all sorts. However, the randomness of this game, and the way it manifests, creates a game that doesn’t hit the way it should.
In my opinion, the designers of this game needed to focus their randomness to one particularly divisive or punitive area, rather than sprinkling it all over the place. This focused, random pain could be the focal point for player interaction. As things stand now, however, there will just be some overly punishing rounds where all those random systems will strike at once, leading to players being unable to accomplish anything no matter how nice the table is, starting a death spiral of the city that player’s cannot climb out of. On the opposite end, if the randomness is too generous, then everyone gets what they want, allowing players to not struggle, making the game far too boring.
The unevenness of this game keeps me from wanting to play it. I cannot tell what will happen in a game of Crisis. While this is easily its main selling point, sometimes the emotional burden of playing a game just to be crushed against you and the entire table’s wishes can just be too much.
Cosmic Frog is, so I’ve been told, a board game. In my mind, it is simply an experience all must behold. Giant frogs puking up land over each other in the cosmos of space is certainly a choice of a theme. Or VelociRapture, a “party game” where players pretend to be dinosaurs coping with their impending doom. A bit odd to explain to grandma.
In the theoretical I set up at the start of this article, I specifically called out that I was talking about playing games in a perfect vacuum. These games would get played with the right groups at the right time.
But some games are just so odd, so outside the normal thematic trappings and conventional mechanics that they barely fit what most people would call a “board game” anyway. And don’t get me wrong here: I love this. Genre defining works, postmodern board gaming, is a sphere I thrive in. It’s a place I love to be in!
But just not all the time.
I recently went on vacation for the first time in eons, and one of the weirdest aspects of the trip was just how honed in my literary preferences were. Instead of reaching for Murokami, I was reaching for Maas. The last thing I wanted to do on vacation was to read something challenging. I just wanted to read an inappropriate romance, kingdoms clashing over speciesism, etc.
And this holds true for board gaming. Sometimes the experience I long for is a silent, mathy Euro, and other times it IS the weird dinosaur party game about coping. I’m grateful that we have this depth of variety in the hobby. It’s why I’m still so invested in it, to be honest. But I simply am not always in the mood for the same things.
Phenomenal Games… with Phenomenal Twins
Reiner Knizia has designed a few games. They vary between one another in ways both small and large, but there’s three titles in particular I want to draw attention to today because they’re often lumped together: Medici, Modern Art, and Ra. These are three of Knizia’s most revered auction games. To lump them together feels completely arbitrary because each title feels wholly unique to one another. Arbitrary as it may be, the reality of the matter is that for variety-seeking hobbyists like myself, I do not want to play all three of them back-to-back-to-back every time I’m in the mood for a Knizia auction game, leading them to compete for my love.
Each game features a different constraint on the traditional auction mechanics that lead to them feeling fresh. Medici‘s restraint is what you can buy each round. Players are merchants buying goods and selling for a profit, but your ship is only so big. In one given round of the game, you can hold 5 goods cards. On a player’s turn, they flip up to 3 cards, one at a time, from a thick deck of cards, to create a card market to put up for auction. So, as the round goes on, it can become harder and harder to fill up your ship if others are trying to block you, since you cannot bid on or acquire lots you cannot afford. It can lead to some real glee and/or frustration as you try to determine both the financial value of the goods in the lot, and the “space” value as well.
Modern Art‘s restraint is the player’s themselves. Each player has a hand of art cards. It is these cards that players will be auctioning off to either acquire and flip for a profit, or sell to other players to line their own pockets. The value of the art cards is not known until the fifth card of one artist is played each round. When that happens, the most popular artist has their work evaluated at the highest value and players get paid by the bank. The length of a given round is determined by the players, and the artists that are played are (mostly) determined by players (the deck of cards can lead to some lopsidedness of artists being out at once, but even so, lesser delt artists can win!) This game, more so than the others, can create some fantastic temporary alliances as players team up to boost their own artist’s value, while also greasing up other players to get them to play their cards from that artist as well.
Ra‘s restraint is the money itself. Medici and Modern Art have regular old Knizia Bucks, but Ra uses Sun Tokens. These Sun Tokens range in value from 1 – 16. Depending on player count, you start with three or four of these. When you bid in an auction, you can only ever bid with the exact value of one of your Sun Tokens. And, when you win an auction, the Sun Token you spent now goes to the “auction market” and is included in the next lot for people to bid on! But don’t try to be too sly, as the Sun Tokens you win in auctions come to you face down and can only be used in the next epoch.
These are all totally fantastic games. Each time I play one, I swear they’re my new favorite. Even now, for the sake of putting in a joke about ACTUALLY having a favorite, I can’t bring myself to name one. They all are masterful designs, but they are different in enough key ways that getting them played… almost comes down to a rotation, to be honest. If Knizia hadn’t designed Ra or Medici then it’d be a very easy choice, but alas, here we are.
With all that said, what’s keeping you from your favorite titles? Why do you not play your favorite games? I’d love to hear from you. Until next time, I’ll be arguing with myself about what to play next.