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top 5 gateway games revisted

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A while back I wrote a post called Top Five Gateway Games.  In it, I argued that the top five gateway games should likely be Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and Blokus.  Turns out I was wrong.  Though I like Blokus, I no longer think it should be the fifth gateway game.

I think the answer, in retrospect, is pretty simple:  take a look at the five most popular family games on BGG, and voilà!  You have your answer.

top five

So now for the canonical list:

  1. Settlers of Catan: 3-4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10 and up, 1995, weight of 2.4.
    The importance of Settlers to the modern gaming scene cannot be overstated: it single-handedly reinvented the industry. And with good reason — it’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s paced well, too.
  2. Carcassonne: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2000, weight of 1.9.
    A personal favorite, this game is extremely creative. You build a landscape by placing tiles, then inhabit that landscape by deploying your meeples.
  3. Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2004 weight of 1.9.
    My favorite game to teach to newbies, this one is always a hit. It’s easy to teach and easy to learn, and with a playing time of under an hour, you really can’t go wrong.
  4. Pandemic: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.3.
    An excellent game where players play against the game itself to try to eradicate diseases.  It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve introduced it to, and it’s a great couples game, too.  Not an easy game to win, but very satisfying when you can pull it off.
  5. 7 Wonders: 2-7 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2010, weight of 2.3.
    A fun game that can be played with up to 7 players (always a plus), gives players multiple ways to win, and provides a nice introduction to card drafting.  As a bonus, there’s very little downtime, as all players are taking actions simultaneously. Not sure why this one didn’t make the cut the first time….

top 5 gateway games

December 5, 2011 7 comments

What is a gateway game?

A gateway game is a game that can be taught to newbies to bring them into the hobby. As such, it should be simple enough that it doesn’t scare them away, yet meaty enough to hold their interest.  It should be relatively easy to teach, yet it should offer interesting choices.  It should take long enough to warrant the effort required to learn it, but it shouldn’t outstay its welcome.

There appears to be a general consensus among the gaming community that the top 3 gateway games are Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride.  But what about the fourth and fifth?

The quest.

In The Universally Agreed Upon Top 5 Gateway Games, BGG user oeste asked the community what the fourth and fifth universally-accepted gateway games are.  Not surprisingly, there was no consensus.  I think at one point I commented something to the effect that trying to get consensus on a question like this was like attempting to herd cats, and left it at that.

But it’s an interesting question, no?

If one were to wade through the 5 pages of responses, one would see that the games that came up most often were Stone Age, Dominion, Forbidden Island, Ingenious, Pandemic, Blokus, Citadels, 7 Wonders, Small World, Bohnanza, Lost Cities, and Dixit.

One would also find a link to a geeklist entitled Which game deserves a seat as the fourth Great Gateway Game: Settlers, TTR, Carc, and ?  78 games are proposed in this list, and folks have been voting with their thumbs:  127 votes for Dominion, 99 votes for Pandemic, 95 votes for Bohnanza.  But thumbs, for a variety of reasons, aren’t necessarily the best measure of a game’s suitability as a gateway game.

The poll.

And if one were to continue with this adventure, one would eventually come across a BGG poll:  [POLLS] The Best Gateway Games – Round 1.  You can, of course, go through the various stages of the polling experience yourself, or you can cut to the chase and skip to the final results:

1 Ticket to Ride
2 Carcassonne
3 Settlers of Catan
4 Pandemic
5 Ticket to Ride: Europe
6 For Sale
7 Diamant / Incan Gold
8 Coloretto
9 No Thanks!
10 Hey, Thats My Fish!
11 Forbidden Island
12 PitchCar
13 Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries
14 Category 5 / 6 Nimmt!
15 Bohnanza
16 Lost Cities
17 TransAmerica
18 Blokus
19 Liar’s Dice
20 Can’t Stop

The Dominion Dilemma.

The first question I’m sure some of my readers will ask is “what the !@#$% happened to Dominion?”

It got booted in round four:  as Tony Ackroyd (the pollster) put it, ‘In case people are interested, Dominion suffered ejection because despite the high number of “Best” votes, it also had 8% votes for “Not a Gateway”.  Wits & Wagers suffered similarly, with 7% of its votes being “Not a Gateway”.’

It could of course be argued that 8% of respondents voting “not a gateway” shouldn’t be sufficient to knock it out of contention, but as I happen to agree with that sentiment I’ll let it stand.  As Mark Salzwedel put it, “Way too many special ability cards, tough to predict the game end until you’ve played several times, and deck building is not a newbie skill. It is short game, true, but a new player is likely to finish the game wondering what happened.”

Hey, he said it, not me.  :-)

The Fourth Gateway Game.

Based on the top twenty listed above, I’m content to add Pandemic as the Fourth Gateway Game.  It’s got a reasonable heft to it (with a weight of 2.3, it comes in just below Settlers’ 2.4), it’s got decent components, it’s challenging without being too challenging, and it gives players the opportunity to play against the game itself.

Some, I know, have argued that Forbidden Island (a lighter co-op by the same author) is a more accessible game, but I just don’t see it catching on as well with adults.  It’s a fine game, but I don’t believe it has the same kind of staying power.

So … I, for one, am ready to add Pandemic to the canonical list and rename the “Big Three” the “Big Four.”

But what about the fifth?

I have a hard time, somehow, including two TtR variants in the top five, so that lets out both TtR: Europe and TtR: Nordic Countries.

For Sale, Incan Gold, Coloretto, No Thanks, Hey Thats My Fish, Forbidden Island, Category 5, Lost Cities, TransAmerica, Liar’s Dice, and Can’t Stop are all good games, but they all seem too light.  I mean, yes, they’re a definite step up from party games, but I’m not sure they have quite enough heft to pull people into the hobby.

Pitch Car is a dexterity game.  I have nothing against dexterity games, but somehow it would seem out of place on a list like this.

I frankly don’t understand Bohnanza.  It’s one of my failings, I know, but I just can’t get my head around the game.

And Blokus is an abstract, begging the question….

Gateway to what? 

Good question — let’s step back a bit.

When introducing new players to the hobby, we are necessarily introducing them to our hobby, not the hobby as a whole.  I’m not going to teach people how to play role-playing games for the simple reason that I myself don’t play them.  I’m also not that likely to teach anyone how to play Risk, because I’m not very interested in that game at the moment.

We can’t, in other words, take ourselves and our preferences out of the equation.

Likewise, we can’t take “the newbie” and their preferences out of the equation, either.  No one is really a newbie when it comes to games — everyone has a gaming history, and it’s our job, if we’re going to teach them a new game, to find out what that history is.  Have they played Clue?  Monopoly?  Chess?  Hearts?  Pinochle?  Gin Rummy?  Scrabble?

What games have they played, and how do they feel about those games?  If they’ve played Monopoly and loved it, I might teach them Power Grid; if they’ve played Chess and hated it, I certainly wouldn’t teach them Hive.

In order for a game to be a good gateway game, in other words, it needs to be (a) a decent gateway game, (b) a game we’re interested in, and (c) a game that our friend might be interested in, too.

Choosing a game to teach someone, especially someone who’s just getting into gaming, is more an art than a science.  One size, in other words, does not fit all.

That being said, however….

I still feel that lists like these have merit.  Sure, everyone could and possibly should come up with their own “top 5 gateway games,” but a list at least gives folks a place to start.  Some games are, after all, better than others to teach to newbies, and while everyone’s situation is different, lists like these do serve a purpose.

So, what have we got so far?

  1. Settlers of Catan: 3-4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10 and up, 1995, weight of 2.4.
    The importance of Settlers to the modern gaming scene cannot be overstated: it single-handedly reinvented the industry. And with good reason — it’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s paced well, too.
  2. Carcassonne: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2000, weight of 1.9.
    A personal favorite, this game is extremely creative. You build a landscape by placing tiles, then inhabit that landscape by deploying your meeples.
  3. Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2004 weight of 1.9.
    My favorite game to teach to newbies, this one is always a hit. It’s easy to teach and easy to learn, and with a playing time of under an hour, you really can’t go wrong.
  4. Pandemic: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.3.
    An excellent game where players play against the game itself to try to eradicate diseases.  It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve introduced it to, and it’s a great couples game, too.  Not an easy game to win, but very satisfying when you can pull it off.

Do we even need a fifth?

Of course not, no. Absolutely not. (We don’t need 4, either.  Or, for that matter, 3.)  But I’d feel like a right proper git if I titled my post “top 5 gateway games” and then stopped at 4.

So what I’ll do is offer my own personal choice for the fifth game.

I doubt it’ll be a popular choice, but I’m going to go with Blokus.  Why?  It’s an abstract, and that makes it a little different from all the others.  And I like abstracts.  And I like Blokus.  And my friends like Blokus, too.

So no, it’s not as universal as the four listed above.  But it does have really cool, Tetris-shaped pieces, and it’s short, and it’s easy to explain, and it’s popular, and you can buy it at Target.

Without further ado, I therefore present:

  1. Blokus: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, 2000, weight of 1.8.
    An abstract strategy game with pieces that remind most people of Tetris. It’s a fun, lightweight introduction to abstracts, and it’s very colorful, too. Here’s a strategy tip: forget trying to block people out of your areas, and instead focus on flowing as smoothly as possible through their areas.

If Blokus ain’t your cup of tea, let me know what you’d suggest in the comments below.  :-)

gaming gift guide 2011

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

So, there’s a gamer or potential gamer you want to buy a gift for, and you have no idea what to get her? This guide will certainly help get you started.

What I’ve done, here, is taken the gift guide I did for 2010 and updated it.  Some of the games are the same, and some are new.  I’m only going to recommend games that I own or have played repeatedly, because I couldn’t in good conscience do anything else.  What that means, though, is that some very good games may not be on the list.  Feel free to suggest them in the comments — I’m always looking for new games to try.  :-)

The games below are sorted by weight.  What’s weight?  Roughly, it’s a measure of how hard the game is, how much mental effort it takes to play.  Tic-tac-toe is light, while Chess is heavy.  Lighter games are at the top of the list; heavier games are at the bottom.

The real classics are listed in bold.  These are the games that belong in every gamer’s collection.  If the person you’re buying for is a serious gamer, though, they likely already have them….

Light games

Zombie Dice: 2-8 players, 10 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2010, weight of 1.1.
A fun push-your-luck filler where you try to eat as many brains as you can before getting hit with three shotgun blasts.  Some kids don’t like the artwork, but others are fine with it.

Incan Gold: 3-8 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2006, weight of 1.1.
A push-your-luck party game with a temple-exploration theme. Players choose each turn whether they want to continue exploring (thus putting their treasures in jeopardy) or cut and run (thus keeping their treasures safe). You can also read my first impressions of the game.

Coloretto: 2-5 players, 30 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2003, weight of 1.3.
Players have a choice: either add another card to one of the available rows or claim a row and take it for themselves. Players then score points based on how many cards they have of a given color. A simple card game with lots of interesting choices, it gives you plenty to think about without hurting your brain. It’s very colorful, too.

For Sale: 3-6 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, 1997, weight of 1.3.
A game of For Sale takes place over two rounds. In the first round, players bid cash for various properties (numbered from 1 to 30); in the second round, players auction their properties for cash (valued from $0 to $15,000). An outhouse you got for free in the first round can earn you lots of money in the second round if you play your cards right. Lots of fun, and just enough to think about to keep it interesting.

Hey, That’s My Fish: 2-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2003, weight of 1.5.
Move your penguins to try to get as many fish for yourself as you can — move to hex tiles with lots of fish, and try to block other players’ access to parts of the board.  Careful, though, or someone else will sneak into an area you thought you had locked down.  Good fun, and short, too.

Bananagrams: 1-8 players, 15 minutes, ages 7 and up, 2006, weight of 1.5.
Just imagine Scrabble where everyone is playing on their own tableau as fast as they can, and you have a rough idea what this game is all about.  Every player starts with a number of tiles and tries to fit them into a valid crossword pattern — when they succeed, they yell “peel” and everyone, including themselves, has to draw another tile.  A very fast-paced word game that comes in a cute banana-shaped pouch.

Light – Medium games

Lascaux: 3-5 players, 25 minutes, ages 6 and up, 2007, weight of 1.6.
A set-collecting game where players bid for cards with animals on them.  The thing is, you’re never quite sure what cards the other players are going for, so you never quite know how much to bid.  It’s been a big hit with all our gaming groups.  You can also read my review of the game.

Jaipur: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 12 and up, 2009, weight of 1.6.
A fun trading game for two. On your turn, you can either take a good from the market, trade some goods and camels with the market, or sell goods for points.  When everything is going well, there’s a definite rhythm to the game — if you control the tempo, you’ll likely win.  You can also read my review of the game.

Blokus: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, 2000, weight of 1.8.
An abstract strategy game with pieces that remind most people of Tetris. It’s a fun, lightweight introduction to abstracts, and it’s very colorful, too. Here’s a strategy tip: forget trying to block people out of your areas, and instead focus on flowing as smoothly as possible through their areas.

Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2004 weight of 1.9.
My favorite game to teach to newbies, this one is always a hit. It’s easy to teach and easy to learn, and with a playing time of under an hour, you really can’t go wrong. You can also read my overview of the game.

Carcassonne: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2000, weight of 1.9.
A personal favorite, this game is extremely creative. You build a landscape by placing tiles, then inhabit that landscape by deploying your meeples. You can also read my overview of the game.

Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals: 2-6 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2002, weight of 1.9.
One of the best expansions for Carcassonne. It doesn’t change the game much, but it gives you more tiles and allows you to play the game with up to 6 players (the base game only goes to 5). We never play without it.

Blokus Trigon: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, 2006, weight of 2.0.
Somehow a little less intuitive than the original Blokus (in part, I suspect, because the familiar Tetris-shaped pieces are absent), it’s still a lot of fun.  Start with Blokus, then get this if you really like the original.  One benefit is that this version plays much better with 3 players.

Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries: 2-3 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2007, weight of 2.0.
A tighter and more cutthroat game than the original Ticket to Ride, TtR: Nordic is the perfect TtR for two players.  It works with three, too, but boy is that board tight.  Don’t get too ambitious when choosing which destination cards to keep, or you might just end up with a negative score!  You can also read a bit about the game and where it fits in the TtR universe.

Medium – Heavy games

Pandemic: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.3.
An excellent game where players play against the game itself to try to eradicate diseases.  It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve introduced it to, and it’s a great couples game, too.  Not an easy game to win, but very satisfying when you can pull it off.

Settlers of Catan: 3-4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10 and up, 1995, weight of 2.4.
The importance of Settlers to the modern gaming scene cannot be overstated: it single-handedly reinvented the industry. And with good reason — it’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s paced well, too.

Hive: 2 players, 20 minutes, ages 9 and up, 2001, weight of 2.4.
A very interesting abstract for just two players, themed around bugs.  It wasn’t a big hit with my wife, but I play with a friend of mine regularly.  Each player starts with 11 hexagonal insects (ants, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, and a bee), and the goal is to completely surround your opponent’s bee.  The best part?  The tiles are made of a bakelite-like substance and are absolutely clacktastic!

Santiago: 3-5 players, 75 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2003, weight of 2.5.
A fun but fairly cutthroat game where players first bid for plantation tiles and then have to bid for the water to irrigate them.  A game where it’s possible to win every battle and still lose the war, it’s also an excellent example of coopetition.  You can also read my review of the game.

Stone Age: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.6.
While it hasn’t been around as long as some of the classics, it’s the up-and-comer of the family gaming world. Currently ranked #3 on BoardGameGeek’s list of family games, it’s also a great introduction to the whole “worker-placement” genre. What I like about it is how it’s various parts work so well together.

Heavy games

Power Grid: 2-6 players, 120 minutes, ages 12 and up, 2004, weight of 3.3.
Power Grid is a brutal economic game where you buy power plants at auction, buy resources to power your plants, pay to expand your network of cities, and then get paid for supplying power to those cities. It’s the game Monopoly always wanted to be, with a twist: the player with the largest network goes last in most phases of the game, putting them at a distinct disadvantage. You can also read my review of the game.

Steam: 3-5 players, 120 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 3.5.
Players build track, connect resources to cities, and then make deliveries.  A tight and fun game, the logistics involved can be a real challenge to master.  Recommended for more serious and / or experienced gamers.


Conclusion

That’s it. Of course no game is a guaranteed hit, but each of the games above are solid and dependable, appealing to a range of ages and abilities. Most have enough luck so that you can blame your losses on fate, but enough strategy that you can take credit for your victories.

If you want to take a look at some other lists of good games, I’d recommend either BGG’s gift guide or Funagain Games’ shopper’s guide. Wikipedia also has a list of all the Spiel des Jahres winners (a German award given to the best family game of the year).

If you want to know more about these games (and hundreds of others like them), don’t hesitate to delve into the wealth of information available at BoardGameGeek. You don’t have to be a member to search the forums, read game reviews and session reports, or see a listing of the most popular or highest-ranked games. Check it out!

If you’re wondering where to buy all these wonderful games, I’d suggest heading down to your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS). There are lots of good online retailers, but I’ve had especially good luck with both Boards and Bits and CoolStuffInc. And finally, of course, there’s Amazon and Barnes and Noble, too. =^..^=

a lecture on board game design

November 7, 2011 1 comment

I recently had the opportunity to give a lecture at the university where I work about board games and board game design.  I basically just gave an overview of the modern gaming scene (with an emphasis on family strategy games) and talked for about twenty minutes about how one goes about designing a board game.  It was fairly well received, I think.  There were thirteen students in attendance.

After I introduced myself I asked how many people had played Settlers:  four.  Carcassonne:  one.  Ticket to Ride:  one.  Pandemic:  zero (though one person had heard of it).  Magic:  one.  Dungeons and Dragons:  one.  Risk:  three or four.  Monopoly:  thirteen.  Blokus:  two, followed by a discussion about the correct pronunciation of the name.  Dominion:  zero.  Puerto Rico:  zero.  Agricola:  zero.  Power Grid:  zero.

I wasn’t surprised, really — mainly I wanted to know roughly who my audience was before starting in.  One of them asked about Scrabble and Bananagrams and where those games fit in to all this, and I said Scrabble was very highly regarded but not quite the same kind of game.  Two people had played Bananagrams.

The students were very polite and fairly engaged.  They wanted to know where they could learn more about games like this, and I told them to check out BoardGameGeek.  They wanted to know where they could buy games like this, and I told them to check out Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or one of several different online vendors.

I described the top three gateway games in some depth, giving an overview of gameplay in Settlers, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride.  I had unfortunately only brought one game with me (Settlers), so the talk was definitely lacking in the visual aid department.  I should’ve brought TtR so I could show off its board.

They had quite a few questions about board game design, and they were interested to hear about some of the games I’ve come up with.

There were two neat / funny moments.  The first came at the beginning when I asked why they had chosen to theme their honors orientation class around boardgames.  Their reply?  “It was either that or duct tape.”  Fair enough.

The second came at the end when I told them I was thinking of teaching an honors seminar on board game design.  I asked if any of them might be interested in such a class, and about half of them said they thought it sounded fun.  One student appeared to wake up at that point just so he could express his enthusiasm for the idea.

He kind of reminded me of myself when I was younger — I would’ve given anything to take a class on game design when I was in college.

That, and the fact that I was always half asleep.  :-)

Santiago: a game that deserves more love

September 28, 2011 4 comments

The teaser.

Tastes differ, of course, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why Santiago isn’t a more popular game. It’s relatively quick, there are plenty of difficult decisions, and there’s a fantastic balance between cooperation and competition.

If I were to guess why it hasn’t gotten more attention, I’d say some people might not like the auction, the bribery, or the frequent opportunities for betrayal and backstabbing.

So it takes the right group to shine, but that’s true of any game.

The basics.

Santiago is a tile-laying game by Claudia Hely and Roman Pelek for 3-5 players.  It came out in 2003, was published by Amigo, and plays in about 75 minutes (it says 60 minutes on the box, but BGG says 75 and that’s closer to my experience).  AFAIK, it wasn’t even nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, and that’s a real shame.  Maybe it was considered to be a little too heavy (its weight is listed as 2.5 at BGG, compared to 2.4 for Settlers of Catan).

What’s the big idea?

Players are trying to have more points than anyone else at the end of the game.  Points are awarded both for money in hand (1 point per escudo) and for having placed workers in valuable plantations (1 point for every worker in a plantation multiplied by the number of tiles in that plantation).  Since these “plantation points” tend to dwarf the points for money in hand, players are really trying to get as many of their workers as possible into the biggest plantations. It’s easier said than done.

There are five types of plantations (five colors of tiles), and these plantations grow throughout the game as players add tiles to the board.  Workers can only be added to a tile when the tile is first played, however, and the number of workers that can be added is specified on the tile itself — some tiles allow just one worker to be placed, while others allow two.

Tiles are auctioned at the beginning of each round, thus reducing the “luck of the draw.”

Additionally, tiles and workers need water in order to survive.  If a given tile doesn’t get water one turn, then one of the workers on that tile is removed; if there are no more workers to remove, then the tile is flipped upside-down and turned to desert.  Tiles that have been flipped to desert don’t count in any plantation.

So what do you do?

In a four-player game, there are 11 rounds.  And in each round, players do 7 things:

  1. auction 4 tiles.  Each player ends up with one new tile.  The trick is that every player has to bid something different, so there’s a natural order established — highest bidder gets first choice, second highest bidder gets second choice, &c.
  2. determine who will be the canal overseer for that round (lowest bidder in the auction).  Move the figure in front of that player.
  3. place and populate the tiles that were won in the auction, trying to either add a tile to a plantation you’ve already invested in or place workers in a large plantation.  The thing is, of course, that you can only rarely help yourself without also helping other players — even when you’re just trying to horn in on their plantation, you’re also making it bigger.  If you’re not careful, you’ll end up giving more points than you get.
  4. bribe the canal overseer to make the water go in a direction that helps you.  You want all the tiles with workers of your color to have water.  The thing is, the canal overseer isn’t required to take your bribe — he can choose to send the water somewhere else, paying the bank 1 more escudo than you offered.  Bribing the canal overseer is therefore never a sure thing, though it does allow you to put a bit of pressure on.
  5. optionally supply additional water (if a tile that’s important to you would otherwise go without).  You can only do this once per game.
  6. dry out any tiles that are not next to an active canal.
  7. get 3 escudos (we just call them dollars) from the bank.

It’s a testament to the intuitiveness of the game that I was able to remember all 7 steps without having to look at the rules.  Once you get the general “flow” of the game, each step follows logically from the last and the game proceeds smoothly.

The rules are simple, but the gameplay is quite complex — my favorite kind of game.

There’s a lot to think about.

In both of the two main phases of a given turn (first (a) auctioning and placing tiles and then (b) bribing the overseer and allowing him to determine where the water will go), there are plenty of tough choices to make.  In the first phase, you want to bid appropriately to try to get the tile (or one of the tiles) you want.  Or, if none of the tiles particularly appeal to you (or if the timing isn’t right, or if you don’t have much money, &c.), you can lowball the bid and hope to become the canal overseer — a great way to make money in certain situations.

Then you need to choose a tile, and often that choice isn’t obvious — in order to choose well, you need to think not only about what you want, but also about what the other players at the table want, too.  And where they would likely want to put the tile they end up with.  And how much they might want to bribe the overseer to supply it with water.

Then players actually place the tile they’ve chosen, and again, there are difficult choices to make.  Do you play in a location that already has water, or do you count on being able to team up with another player to bribe the overseer successfully?  Misjudging what other players will likely do often proves costly.

Players can talk all they want throughout this process, making offers, counter-offers, and sometimes deals.  But the deals aren’t binding, so when it’s your turn to place your tile or offer your bribe, you can do whatever you think is in your best interest.  It can get a little nasty.

Phase two (bribing the overseer) also offers a number of interesting choices.  First, you have to decide where you might want the water to flow, and second, you have to decide how much it’s worth to you.  Or rather, how much it’s likely worth to the overseer.

You’re also trying to figure out how best to encourage other players to go in on the bribe with you.  Sure, you can go it alone, but it’s better and more powerful if you can team up with another player on a larger bribe.  This puts more pressure on the overseer to accept your deal.

It’s all well and good to talk about going in on a combined bribe, but how do you divide the bribe?  You both want the water to head in a certain direction, but how much is it really worth to you?  How much is it really worth to your “partner”?  You might agree that the combined bribe should be, say, 6 escudos, but you have to play first.  Do you offer 2 escudos, hoping she’ll pony up for the other 4, or do you split the burden 50/50?  What if she decides it’s not in her interest to contribute after all?

What I love.

This is what I love about Santiago:  you’re simultaneously competing against and cooperating with everyone at the table, both in the growth of plantations and in the offering of bribes.  You want other players to want what you want, but you want them to get just a little bit less out of the deal.  You want their best play to help you more than it helps anyone else.

Potential drawbacks.

In addition to the potential difficulties mentioned above (the auction, the bribing, the backstabbing and betraying, &c.), I suppose the game could also cause a bit of analysis paralysis in some players.  Players who typically want to explore every conceivable option and their likely consequences might find the sheer number of choices overwhelming.

You can always help them out with this problem by offering them some juicy deal, by giving them an offer that’s too good to pass up.  And then, of course, you can fail to carry through with it.

Hey, it’ll work once.  :-)

The verdict.

It’s tight, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of gameplay packed into a small ruleset.  Available for as little as $17.99 online, it’s worth every penny.

preparing for Protospiel

June 22, 2011 2 comments

I’m going to be going to Protospiel in Ann Arbor in a couple weeks, and I’ve been scrambling to get some prototypes ready for it.

The whole idea behind Protospiel is that designers get together to playtest one another’s games, provide feedback, and generally help one another with the design process. I’ll be taking three games to share.

The first is Coloronimoes, a more marketable version of Euronimoes. Much like Euronimoes, players are trying to buy 2-ended pieces that (a) fit well in their own personal tableau and (b) don’t cost too much. Unlike Euronimoes, however, there aren’t any numbers on the bones — just colors. I’ve made a very nice prototype and have had the rules printed in color, so this one is all ready to go.

a tableau with a score of 20

The second is Lemuria. Lemuria is a modular connection game where players try to connect resources to cities using trading posts. Trading posts cost money, though, so players need to complete outstanding orders if they want to continue to be able to build. The goal is to build the biggest network by game end.

this layout had quite a few holes....

Lemuria actually came about as a kind of hybrid between Empire Builder and Settlers of Catan. I had always been somewhat frustrated playing Empire Builder, as I figured it should be sufficient to just connect the resource to the city — why do I also have to deliver it? And when I first played Settlers, I was smitten by the fact that you could set the board up in so many ways. So I set myself a design challenge: make a connection game with a modular board.

It’s not as easy as it sounds — because the board can be set up in countless ways, there’s no way to know for sure what the distance between a given resource and a given city will be, so there’s no way to know what it will cost players to connect the two. And thus there’s no good way to determine what the reward should be, either.

It took me a long time to figure out how to work it, but there are 8 cities and 10 different types of resources. Some resources are more common than others, however, and therefore less valuable. A whole lot of math went into this game — I used one spreadsheet to track the modular panels and their contents, one to analyze the points awarded at the end of the game, and one (with four sheets and some very pretty colors) to look at the order card distribution.

The amazing thing is that it actually works — unless you get completely crazy when setting up the board, every game has a similar trajectory and a similar feel. It’s definitely my “biggest” game to date, though I’d say it’s roughly comparable weight-wise to Settlers. Maybe a little lighter.

And the third game I’m planning to take is RumRunners. This one’s based on an idea I had over 15 years ago — play Mancala with different-colored pieces belonging to each of the players instead of stones “belonging” to everybody. For years, I called the game “Western Mancala.”

I played it off and on for a long time, but it never really grabbed me. It seemed trivial, in a way, certainly not interesting enough to devote much time to it. But I kept adding things along the way: what about a 2-D board, instead of just a loop. That proved intriguing, but difficult — that version lent itself awfully easily to analysis paralysis.

More recently I dusted the game off and tried to breathe new life into it: how about a grid, with intersections? A couple city streets, maybe? And each of the streets is one way, but there are still a number of choices a player can make in terms of where she goes. And then a theme popped into my head: revolutionaries! An uprising! And there are policemen on the streets, trying to shut it down.

The theme has changed a bit since then, and there are one or two key things I’ve neglected to mention (something about corruption, if I recall correctly), but it’s a fun game. It’s not nearly as polished as the other two, as some of these developments have come about just recently, but I should have a working prototype done in plenty of time. It might not have the prettiest graphics, but I don’t figure that’ll be much of a problem.

So this is pretty much all I’ve been working on in my spare time the last few weeks….

fun with BGG URLs, part III (and an update on El Chupacabra)

June 5, 2011 Leave a comment

First up is a URL that takes you to a bunch of different ways to rank the games on BGG: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/topn.php3. My favorites here are sorting by number owned, by number wanted in trade, by number that users have put on their wishlist, and by the total number of pageviews. I was hoping to find a way to break down the number of views by year, to get an idea of when games were generating a lot of interest, but multiple attempts at URL hacking went exactly nowhere.

What I’d really like to do is come up with a relational analysis of all the games in, say, the top 200. Analyze the “recommends” data on each game, for example, to find links between games based on common ownership. Or find a way to do it based on “people who play / rate highly game x also play / rate highly game y.” In other words, first find out which games are “connected” to one another, then present this data graphically. If anyone has any ideas or suggestions for how to go about this (without losing what sanity I have), I’d love to hear them. I suspect that BGG’s xml api might be the way to go, but after an initial assessment of its features, I don’t quite see how. Again, though, I’d welcome any and all suggestions — enlighten me!

Since this relational analysis appears to be beyond me (for the moment), I’ll have to content myself with sharing something much more mundane: the ability to search BGG’s database for games of a particular weight, sorted in pretty much any way you want.

This, for example, looks at all the games with a weight between 1.8 and 2.0 (fairly light, includes both Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride) and sorts them by the number of people who rated the game: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/search/boardgame?sort=numvoters&advsearch=1&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmin%5d=1.8&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmax%5d=2.0&B1=Submit.  And yes, it’s ugly — but the important thing is that it works.

Now for a little URL hacking:  change the 1.8 to 2.0 and the 2.0 to 2.2:  http://www.boardgamegeek.com/search/boardgame?sort=numvoters&advsearch=1&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmin%5d=2.0&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmax%5d=2.2&B1=Submit. This does the same search, only it bumps the weight up a little bit — this list includes Citadels, Alhambra, and 7 Wonders.

If you want to look at slightly heavier games again, then change the 2.0 to 2.2 and the 2.2 to 2.4 (this’ll get you games like Dominion, Pandemic, and Settlers of Catan). While you’re at it, change the “numvoters” to “rank” to sort the resulting games by their BGG ranking: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/search/boardgame?sort=rank&advsearch=1&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmin%5d=2.2&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmax%5d=2.4&B1=Submit. Or change “rank” to “numowned” to sort by the number of BGG users who own the game: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/search/boardgame?sort=numowned&advsearch=1&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmin%5d=2.2&floatrange%5bavgweight%5d%5bmax%5d=2.4&B1=Submit. Easy, huh?

I’ve always thought it should be easier to get at some of this info, but it’s nothing a little URL hacking can’t take care of. :-)

And, as promised, an update on El Chupacabra. Those who have been following my blog know that the game didn’t work as well with 7 as I had hoped, so I went back to the drawing board to come up with something a little different. I decided that the opportunity to “shoot the moon” offered by the role of El Chupacabra just wasn’t interesting enough to justify its overhead in terms of rules complexity, and I also decided that the mechanism just didn’t fit very well with the push-your-luck gameplay. So I took it out.

I’ve been thinking for some time that it would be fun to design a game that encourages people to cheat, or at the very least encourages people to call one another cheaters. The first step, then, was to check to see if that name had been taken, and sadly, it had: Cheater. I always hate it when a poorly-rated game is taking up a perfectly good name, but what do you do? I mean, aside from turning your copy of Cheater into a perfectly serviceable version of The Bottle Imp.

Naming concerns aside (I can’t decide between Russian Rollette and Cheater’s Dice), I decided to gut the original game, take out all the fussy bits having to do with scoring, and make it a betting and bluffing game pure and simple. Think of it as a dice version of Bullshit (a.k.a. I Doubt It / Cheat) with gambling thrown in. It’ll fall most definitely into the Beer & Pretzels category of gaming….

More anon.