Mini-Reviews: A Feast for Odin, Manhattan Project: Energy Empire.

Ahoy. Here are some thoughts on recent workers I’ve been placing.

A Feast for Odin (played a handful of times): It’s Uwe Rosenberg’s latest medium-heavy worker-placement game. You already know if you want to try it. First of all, one can (and I will) distinguish between Rosenberg’s such games that are “loose” (lots of ways to get resources to do what you need, you never really need to scramble to feed people, you rarely feel other players or the game have a knife to your throat) and games that are “tight” (the opposite). It’s the difference between Agricola (“Crap, I’d better do this sub-optimal thing so I don’t starve!”) and Caverna (“Rubies for everyone! Wheee!”). Feast for Odin is squarely in the “loose” category. This isn’t my preference, in part because I find it enhances the sense of multiplayer solitaire. It lessens the screwage of wonky turn order issues, though, and I respect those that care about that deeply.
The board-filling of Odin is made yet more interesting by the ability to get more boards, many of which initially put you deep in the red but allow you to potentially generate more income and net a lot of points. Odin thus feels a lot like an investment game; you take out these “loans” (boards with negative points) and try to pay them off (by covering them). It’s hard to initially grok how much that income can help you, so new players are at a pretty deep disadvantage; but that’s to be expected.
I was worried that my aversion to spatial puzzles would turn me off, but my concern was ill-founded. I’ve been having a great time with the game. I still prefer Agricola (my favourite Rosenberg, and probably my second-favourite worker-placement game), but it’s close.
But as I said, it’s Rosenberg’s newest. You already know if you want to try it.

Energy Empire (played twice): I received this game as a review copy from the publisher. Taking the opposite tack from Odin, Energy Empire gives you a board giving you lots of points from the outset, and you lose them as you cover your landscape with pollution (you only score at the end, but the effect is the same). There’s a bit of player interaction here, in that to place your workers you need to pay one more than the previous occupant did–but in practice that doesn’t lead to much. The neatest thing about Energy Empire is its round structure, in that it doesn’t have one. On your turn, you either place a worker and activate buildings you’ve built; or you take all your workers back, roll some dice to generate resources, and possibly pollute. You just keep going around the table until you’re done, no end-of-round cleanup phase or anything. It makes the game fluid, which is nice. A note that some people compared this to the play of the original Manhattan Project, which I haven’t played.
I didn’t find anything special about the game, though. You’ve probably played games like it before–perfectly pleasant, functional Euro. The fact that it’s a worker-placement game adds to that sense. The theme is also a bit of a hash (some energy policy, some domestic commercial production, some geopolitics[?!]). I will say that the components are very nice, though–tokens that are far thicker than they need to be, resource pieces that are very evocative and attractive (those oil barrels are super heavy!)… It’s a nice package.

Comparing the two, it’s interesting that Rosenberg’s intuition–even in his less harsh games–is always to penalize, to put his players in a bit of a hole. Most Euros, Energy Empire included, hand out bonuses for which you might not qualify instead. These two approaches often result in the same net score, but the experience of play differs considerably. For example, in Energy Empire, you get a 3 point bonus if your last-to-be-polluted column is unpolluted at the end of the game. Rosenberg, I’m certain, would instead give you a 3 point penalty if it had been polluted. In this case, given that it’s the easiest to keep unpolluted, I’m definitely with Rosenberg on this one–but Energy Empire has taken the conscious choice, it seems to me, of being friendly, even when it results in things that come off as a bit odd. Similarly, Odin asks you to acquire things that put you considerably in the red, rather than merely lowering the possible payoff you might get later. Which approach you prefer is a matter of taste.

But in lowish interaction games, I’d rather the sense that something is in my way.

Soundtracks and Radio Plays

Some kind viewers, and one exceedingly kind member of the Riot Games staff, pointed out that I had neglected to mention the Radio Plays for Mechs vs. Minions. That is because, quite frankly, I wasn’t aware of them. You can find them here.

First of all, like everything else about the game, the plays are of extremely high quality and polish. The voice acting is professional (they didn’t corral Judy from accounting or Ted from HR), the sound design is superb, etc. etc. I mean,you’d figure I’d stop being impressed at how much value Riot is throwing in our faces, but here we are.

I won’t be using them, though. There’s something discordant, I find, about gathering your friends to play a game and then playing a recording for them. It prolongs the non-interactive parts of the game experience, and makes me feel (as the game explainer) that I’m just taking up more of their time before they actually get to play a game. Hauling out a device when one previously wasn’t needed is a further disincentive (I suppose in this I am… old-fashioned?)

Fortunately, the mission briefing booklets have some element of the (often genuinely funny) dialog in them, so it’s very easy to mention that and pass the booklet among the players so they can read the flavour or not as they wish. Sometimes a game requires a soundtrack, and while I find that an inconvenience it’s a minor one. Space Alert is a good example–the soundtrack is a necessity and the game is good enough that I’ll make do with the inconvenience.

Other games that have come with CDs are purely extraneous. Shadows of Brimstone came with a music soundtrack that, while surprisingly well-executed, didn’t add anything to the experience for me. Same goes with Fireteam Zero’s dramatic readings of the scenario book–there the soundtrack was purely redundant to the briefings in the scenarios.

Am I alone in this? Are there games where the soundtrack is optional but you have found added considerably to the experience?

The So-Called “Alpha Gamer” Problem

One thing I didn’t address in the Shadowrift review is whether, and to what extent, it addresses the Alpha Gamer problem–whereby one player starts telling everyone else what to do. To briefly address this, it takes the same approach Pandemic did, by and large–everyone has their own hand of cards, and the expectation is that that will serve as a sufficient bulwark against sock puppetry.

Many people clearly think that individual hands is insufficient. I’ve heard people condemn nearly all co-operative games need radical redress against the problem or the game is somehow automatically defective. Space Alert’s time crunch is an example of a way to address it, traitor mechanics that disincentivize complete communication are another. To those people, Shadowrift (and the other good co-op deck-builders I mention, namely XenoShyft and Shadowrun: Crossfire) will be unsatisfying.

My experience, however, has been different in two ways, and this leads me to a different conclusion.

First, my most common issue with co-ops is the reverse–people requesting too much advice on what to do. Perhaps it ought to be called the Beta Gamer problem? When playing a co-op with most people, I can pretty much expect to utter “do what you think is best” at least once. I respect the fact that people internalize pressure when playing a co-op, and I further respect that people are inclined to defer to the rules explainer (which is usually me)–but I have no inclination to micro-manage everyone else’s turns even when it’s clear that they might want that.

Second, the people that have exhibited signs of the Alpha Gamer behaviour have not limited that kind of overbearing advice-giving to co-op games. I have yet to see someone micro-manage new players in a co-op who hasn’t also seen fit to micro-manage new players in a competitive game. Indeed, the patterns are identical–typically manifesting itself in frustration and exasperation when someone isn’t playing “properly,” i.e. the exact same way the Alpha Gamer would. This phenomenon is less evident when playing a game that is multiplayer solitaire, but even those games aren’t immune from someone trying to tell everyone else how to play.

These two factors lead me to the obvious conclusion that Alpha Gaming is a problem of players, not of co-op designs. Sure, some people might be less able to engage in this unfortunate behaviour in some designs–but to me, that’s almost akin to saying the games with no hidden information are automatically preferable because it’s harder to cheat in games like that. The problem is with the cheating, not in the design. I am reminded of a great quote from Chris Rock–“There’s a reason to kick an old man down a flight of stairs. Just don’t do it.”

There are innumerable social behaviours that are regrettable that we gamers experience, and some designs might be more prone to those than others–but the responsibility lies with the gamers, regardless of the game itself. So no, some co-ops don’t stop you from being an Alpha Gamer. Just don’t do it.

Guest on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Podcast

Joe Sallen reached out to me to inquire if I’d be interested in appearing on his fine broadcast, and I accepted with gratitude. The episode has now aired, and I’m pleased to report that having heard it I believe I only come across as 93%-97% douchebag. Deception accomplished.

I’d like to thank Mr. Sallen and his partner Trent Hamm for being so gracious, especially in the face of my complete technical incompetence.

Here’s the link to the episode.

Wanting to Lose: Painful Cognitive Dissonance

Let’s start by observing that there’s an obligation, when playing most games, to try to win. Obviously this obligation doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it doesn’t trump your obligation to, for example, not cheat or not stab your fellow human in the neck–but it’s nonetheless binding all things being equal. Your average game ceases to function if the players play purely arbitrarily, or if someone is colluding to help another player win, or whatever. The other players will not be able to play the game as intended if the game state is being constantly undermined by someone who refuses to acknowledge this background consideration. I will not go into whether this is a social or moral obligation, but it’s there.

Now, most of the time, your obligation to try to win is not a motivating factor, because all things being equal people want to win. If you told me that I had an obligation to eat chocolate, that wouldn’t substantially alter my behaviour, because I already want to. My obligation to not be rude to people, on the other hand…

Sometimes, though, you want the game to end. Maybe the game is just bad, or perhaps it’s merely overstayed its welcome–even good games can do that. Then your obligation to try to win and your desire to no longer play can be very starkly at odds, especially in games where the end condition is someone winning (as opposed to a game that lasts a fixed number of rounds, or a game where the ending player isn’t necessarily the winning player). Many of the games I mentioned in my Zimby Mojo review can potentially fall victim to such circumstances–such as Cosmic Encounter or Munchkin.

Whether you like any of those games are not, when and if the game drags (and if you don’t like them they might start dragging pretty early in the game!) you’re in a very awkward position: your obligation starts to clash with your self-interest. Moral philosophers find this phenomenon interesting and illuminating (except for those misguided souls who argue that this conflict is impossible, like Aristotle), but I find this tension prevalent enough in ordinary life that I can safely say I want no part of it in my leisure activities. That’s not so say morality has no place in how to play a board game (q.v. the above examples of cheating or puncturing), but I vastly prefer my moral conflict to be minimized when I’m ostensibly doing something chiefly to enjoy myself.

That cognitive dissonance–between wanting to win because you have to, and wanting to lose because you want to move on–is such a unique sensation and one I find extremely characteristic. I don’t dislike all games that have ever featured it, but I never regard it as a good feature.