Conventions and Non-Stop Gaming

I realized after a couple of attempts that I wasn’t much of a convention person. Part of it is gaming with randos; as all of you are randos, please be assured that I mean no offense, but my general outlook is one of humanistic misanthropy. I assume that people are fundamentally decent and deserving of respect, but that doesn’t entail I want to spend time with them. So there’s a default supposition that I don’t want to play games with strangers.

Note that I realize that this is perverse, and many of my close friends were strangers with whom I played a game or two. But it is what it is.

There’s another feature of cons that doesn’t suit me, though–and it has to do with scheduling. Generally speaking, I always want to play a game–there is long a list of games I’ll play pretty much whenever. There is an exception, though–the time when I don’t want to play a game is generally after I’ve played about 3ish hours of games. There is a cooldown period during which I’d rather just do my own thing alone, and then I’m up for games again. The strange thing is that the cooldown is very short, only about ten minutes or so. If I don’t get it, I sometimes start getting the powerful urge to leave. But then, after the ten minutes have expired, I am just as keen to play a game as I am after a week without.

Notably, I am the same way with many video games that I adore. After about 3 hours or so of a new Mass Effect (for example), I want to stop playing, but then ten minutes later I often find myself turning the TV on again.

There are exceptions, of course, and some of those baffle me. If the game is very long and I enjoy it, I can and will play it all in one sitting–10+ hours can be no problem (and yet this isn’t true of video games). Perhaps it’s the changing of gears that I find taxing, or repeated early game to endgame arcs that drain me. I don’t know. I can go much longer if all the other players are close friends, but that’s no mystery.

I am quite sure I am not alone in needing to stagger my gaming a little. The problem is the desire for solitude, which at a con is not readily available. Being alone to do your own thing is also much harder when not, say, at home. It can sometimes also be difficult to extricate yourself from the environment without seeming anti-social (which is perhaps apt, as it is arguably anti-social), and then you have to resubmit yourself to the transactional social friction of inserting yourself into a new game. It’s all so taxing.

I say all this about to disembark to a con-like experience. Wish me luck?

What No One Will Tell You about Cosmic Encounter

So most of you have heard is absolutely true. It’s a bona fide classic of designer board games; it made possible many of the design principles that we now take for granted; it inspired Magic: The Gathering. Okay, so two out of three are great.

Many critics also praise Cosmic Encounter to the skies, praise that I think is entirely well-deserved. I love the game and will play it at pretty much any opportunity. What I find strange, though, is that I’ve seen next to no discussion of Cosmic Encounter’s many shortcomings. But surely those that have played it often have seen the same things that I have. Maybe they forget out of fond feelings for the game, or maybe they decide that the warts are relatively small next to Cosmic’s manifest virtues. But the warts are still there, and I think it’s incumbent on everyone–especially those of us that love Cosmic–to discuss them.

Before I proceed any further, though, allow me to say this: whatever else I have ever or will ever say about Fantasy Flight Games, their edition of Cosmic Encounter is a masterwork. Their card design and their editorial choices have been brilliant, and even if the aliens in some expansions have been mediocre for the most part they’ve done an amazing job. Timing issues and rules ambiguities have been kept to a minimum, and while Cosmic will always be a beautiful mess FFG’s take on it is more beautiful and less messy than any previous edition by a light year. You can quibble with some of their details in Cosmic, but you can’t seriously dispute the claim that theirs is the best Cosmic.


…but Zombie still deserves compensation…

MOVING ON.

Let us be truth-tellers, even about those we love.

1. Many people hate Cosmic Encounter.
I find it staggering that no one acknowledges this when recommending Cosmic to new gamers. I mean, it’s demonstrably true–a substantial proportion of people, even when exposed to Cosmic under ideal conditions, will dislike the game. It’s a chaotic experience with lots of deal-making and rules-parsing, and that’s a pretty specific bag. It’s a testament to Cosmic’s brilliance that it isn’t more of a niche product. I’m hesitant to put numbers to it, but let me put it this way: I can’t remember a game with new players where at least one of them didn’t have serious misgivings about the game and was generally unengaged and/or annoyed. You might be inclined to think that that is just because playing with me is a lousy experience, but my generalization has held in every game I’ve seen where I wasn’t playing.

2. It has rules that are difficult to remember.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a neophyte, a hard-core consim player, a veteran of crunchy Euros, whatever–I’ve seen gamers of all kind get utterly stumped by Cosmic’s rules. I’ve also seen people of all stripes take to it like a fish to water, which makes experienced gamers’ confusion all the more interesting. The distinction between defender rewards and compensation, the timing for alliances (or indeed the timing for about anything), what allies get, when to get new cards, etc.–I’ve seen lots of confusion over lots of legitimately confusing things. I once had to explain to someone totally at ease with heavier Euros what the Regroup phase was five separate times. And this is before powers start interacting with other powers, and flares, and… Sure, the latter stuff is all interesting and part of the game, but a player can’t engage with the fun rules questions unless they first have a solid understanding of the core rules. And Cosmic is a game many people have difficulty grokking on a basic level. Some people are intrigued by these intricacies, but some aren’t, and point #2 helps to explain some of point #1.

3. Some alien combinations are not fun.
For me, a good game of Cosmic is one where everyone got to use their power interestingly at least once. That’s a pretty low bar, but sometimes it’s not met–you can counsel that new players avoid the Offense Only and Defense Only powers, and that helps, but sometimes the power mix is just unfun. For example, Healer is a classic power (heal some ships, draw a card) that becomes rather unfun when Remora (whenever someone gets good stuff, you also get a little bit of good stuff) is in the game. Every time the Healer draws a card, the Remora gets to as well–additionally, the Remora is getting all sorts of other benefits on the side and doesn’t have to heal anyone for the privilege. Sure, there are mild side benefits that the Healer can exploit that the Remora cannot, but let’s be frank here–one of the primary appeals of the Healer is the influx of cards. In my estimation, the Remora power isn’t inherently problematic (the more common design intent is that when other players are drawing, say, three cards, the Remora draws only one), but it seems to just trump the Healer in a lot of respects. It becomes a lot less fun to be the Healer. And that’s not even remotely the worst example! Some powers are pretty much directly invalidated by another merely being in the game. For example, Masochist (win when all your ships are in the warp) can’t win when Healer is in the game. Oh, sure, Masochist can sit on a Cosmic Zap, and try to time it just right, but let’s be honest. Masochist is widely regarded as a pretty bad power, sure, but the point stands. Even if you cull a lot of aliens, unproblematic aliens become very problematic in the wrong configuration. It’s an almost inevitable consequence of Cosmic having so very (very, very) many configurations.

4. Some hands are not fun.
In an average game of Cosmic (yes, I know that sounds silly), you’re only going to get a relatively small number of cards. And sometimes those draws will suck. I don’t mean weak–that’s a different problem–I mean they’ll suck. The last time I played a player drew nothing but middling attack cards. No flares, negotiates, artifacts–you know, the fun stuff. That’s bad enough, but what if that player had been the Pacifist (win when you play a negotiate against an attack)? Cosmic works as a game in no small part because of the hand management, and I wouldn’t ever want to change that. But it is unfortunate that some hands just aren’t very fun to play.

5. The Destiny deck looks stupid.
I adore the Destiny deck so much–it eliminates whining (“She’s winning! Attack her, not me! I’m not winning.”), it allows for powers that manipulate it (oh, the sweet pain of a douchey Dictator), and helps distribute aggression roughly evenly so hopefully no one gets too picked on. But it looks stupid, and I’ve seen more than one gamer write off Cosmic when they heard about the Destiny deck. Okay, maybe this isn’t a shortcoming of Cosmic Encounter after all–but I just wanted to talk about how amazing the Destiny deck is and how it’s underappreciated.

There you have it. Allow me to reiterate–I love Cosmic Encounter. You should try it if you haven’t. But even I would never tell someone they’re wrong for disliking it, and I am in the unfortunate habit of telling people they’re wrong. And if you’re going to recommend it to people, you need to issue at least some mild caveats.

Mini-Reviews: Vast, Terraforming Mars, Mare Nostrum: Empires

I apologize to you, my three readers (does my dad count?), for my protracted period of inactivity. No doubt you have been bereft without me. I did some traveling, which in my case is never a good idea, and returned home ill. Certainly not the illest of homes, but you know, sick. I will be returning to “work” soon enough.

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve played but not enough to do a full review:

-Vast: The Crystal Caverns
I only played once. In some ways, the paradigmatic Kickstarter design–though it didn’t have miles of stretch goals nor mountains of plastic, this is a game that got by on novelty, charm, and enthusiasm as opposed to solid development or design. The much-vaunted asymmetry is indeed pronounced, but it ends up feeling like a collection of several unengaging eurogames shackled together for no good design reason. A wins by killing B, who wins by killing C, who wins by… As a result, you have precious little reason to care about what most of the table is doing; at best you can engage in some clumsy kingmaking. All this brings the downtime from “bad” into “excruciating.” The rules are an utter mess (a hallmark of many Kickstarter games), and the game ends up being very shallow in actual gameplay but unreasonably complicated when all of the different mini-games are added in.

-Terraforming Mars
Also after one play. A perfectly inoffensive tableau builder. You get cards and use those cards to build yourself an engine and try to get points come out the other end. The key intial input in that chain, cards, enter the game at a fixed rate, which struck me as unsatisfying. Plus, there’s next to no meaningful interaction with other players, aside from the rare (arbitrary) resource-stealing effect or the occasional “hey, I got there first.” Drafting would seem to add little to that, as players’ tableaus get so packed that it’s difficult to quickly ascertain what they’re looking for. The design is solid, but honestly I don’t have much enthusiasm for multiplayer solitaire engines anymore, not when there are plenty of euro tableau-builders with more substantive player interaction (off the top of my head, I’d say Ginkgopolis and Ora et Labora; Race for the Galaxy has about the same level of interaction, but is just plain better and less than half the playtime). The theme, though, is really cool, and the hard-science trappings were nice for a change; it had vague Eklund overtones. I suppose I’d play again, depending on what else was on offer.

-Mare Nostrum: Empires
After a handful of plays. This is an impressive iterative improvement over the original, which almost but didn’t really work. There are a couple of lingering edge cases in the rules that can be blamed on translation issues (oh, international releases!), but overall the game is really quite simple and smooth for all it covers. I tend to appreciate such games. I’ve come to the conclusion that I personally don’t enjoy the trading system in Mare Nostrum; it seems to add considerably to the playing time completely out of proportion to the actual decision-making. The game also only really sings with experienced players–otherwise someone will probably accidentally hand the game to someone else. That isn’t really a flaw per se, but all things being equal I prefer a game that can be less ruined by (predictable) beginner misplays. It gives the game the vague feeling of being rather scripted. I would certainly suggest you give this game a try, as it’s at least interesting–but I’ll stick with Antike/Antike II for my light civ jollies. Senji also scratches much of the same itch. Do I sound like a broken record about those games yet?

Anyway, there you go. I’ve also been playing the games I’ll be doing a full review of soon.

On Attribution

As I mentioned in my review, The Dragon & Flagon is in many ways very clearly a modernization of the 1980 design Swashbuckler. The setup is nearly identical (a tavern with rugs, mugs, chairs, tables; or a pirate ship), the actions nearly identical (flip tables, swing from chandeliers, etc.), both use action programming and attempt to model time, the list goes on.

I love it when designers try to take something clunky but cool and improve on it. Martin Wallace, for example, does that with his own games all the time (I’m one of those few who prefers Age of Industry over Brass). It doesn’t always work–the new version of Merchant of Venus was a considerable step back, even in its misleadingly-named “classic” version (PSA: The Fantasy Flight “classic” version is substantially different from, and in my estimation inferior to, the Avalon Hill original). Obviously this is a huge topic.

I just want to flag one issue, and that is attribution. It is a cast-iron moral requirement that in such instances you acknowledge the work of your predecessors from whom you are cribbing. Just give them a shout-out in the credits, or mention them prominently in the designer’s notes, or whatever. I’ll leave legal discussions aside, because frankly I don’t care. But mention that you’re taking someone else’s work as a starting point somehow. Clearly there are grey areas related to both lineage and time–I don’t think every deckbuilder needs to credit Dominion, but then again it wouldn’t kill them to do so.

Full credit, then, to the Engelsteins and Stronghold Games for doing so in The Dragon & Flagon. I’ve seen instances of outright snubs, or a designer publicly insulting a design he was cribbing from (and then additionally not mentioning his inspiration in the game itself). I really appreciate it when designers offer the appropriate level of deference and appreciation, and so I applaud those here who upheld their obligation.

About the Name

I’ve heard from some helpful people on Reddit that they’re not inclined to watch my reviews because they regard my channel’s name as antagonistic and/or arrogant.

I can say that
a) my intention in naming the channel the way I did was not meant to be antagonistic; for one, I meant the “You” to be universal and thus apply to myself. Clearly that wasn’t remotely transparent to anyone, so my bad (just one more failed joke on the pyre). That said, it does fit with my generally sarcastic tone and self-deprecating humour (I love my new theme song so much). I don’t know that I could remove all that from my reviews, even if I wanted to.

b) it was by no means intended as hostility, much less hostility for hostility’s sake. In other words, the intention wasn’t clickbait. If anything, I suspect that the opposite is true, and that it’s alienated some people. While I don’t want to alienate people per se, I will confess that the self-selection of the audience is probably a feature not a bug. I was afraid I’d get more pushback along the lines of “knock off the haterade, games are fun and this one is perfect!” (well, actually, I did get a fair bit of that from my Scythe review–maybe they left and never came back?)

Mostly I just wanted to distinguish myself from others who are much better at communicating enthusiasm than I am. As it is, I am blown away by how much support I’ve gotten. I never would have imagined getting a thousand subscribers, or having people I respect reach out and express approval, or getting recognized in an airport by someone who liked my reviews.

That said, I don’t aspire to having publishers send me review copies as a matter of course (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or monetizing this endeavour (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or having a publisher prompt an audience to applaud for me when I enter the room (not that… well, I do think there’s something wrong with that). I do like how the name seems to keep some distance between me and publishers (well, that and my obscurity, of course), and how it signals at least my willingness to do negative reviews when warranted.

And I just like how it sounds. But, maybe all the titles I like are bad.

Addendum to Cry Havoc Board Game Review

A number of viewers have pointed out that in some ways, Cry Havoc’s parsimony of actions is reminiscent of Agricola. I agree, to a point.

At the beginning of Agricola, all your actions are generally very weak and incremental. Eventually, though, you’ll have improvements, occupations, more family members, and the action board will have more spaces thus ensuring that some will be neglected and have lots of resources pile up on them.

In Cry Havoc on the other hand, you might eventually have a few extra cards (in your deck, your default draw will always still be 4).

So, if in playing Agricola you find yourself thinking that the game was much more interesting in the beginning when you could barely get anything done, Cry Havoc might be the dudes on a map game for you. For my part, I don’t resent Agricola’s early game, but I’m very glad that it has a mid- and endgame. If it never developed in tempo or options, I’m pretty sure I would strongly dislike it.

On the other end of the spectrum, the reason why I prefer Agricola to Caverna is that I find the latter much too open–it’s too easy to get more or less whatever you want, so there’s not enough pressure, tension, or difficult trade-offs.

As I said, all games can essentially be defined by their restrictions–and to a large extent, that’s what I think Agricola balances so well.

Bias Isn’t a Problem–Lack of Rigour Is

A number of people on BGG and Reddit have made comments (either to me or in general) that the problem with many game reviewers is that they are biased. I’m not sure that’s true.

Bias is inevitable, and I’m always a little suspicious of people who self-proclaim that their reviews are “unbiased.” Well, then, what utility can I get from your review if it is wholly free of perspective? One of the basic tenets of my reviews are, after all, that people can damn well read the rules themselves.

No, the goal ought to be to make our biases transparent, so that people can appreciate what exactly the reviewer is saying and why. That’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time talking about other games in my reviews–in addition to the obvious fact that board game design is iterative, if all I tell you I think a game is a good worker-placement game that means next to nothing in the abstract. What do I want out of such a game? What designs do I think are successful at eliciting that? etc.

On a related note, I’m rather frustrated by many commentators who decide to address a matter without doing even cursory research on it. Don’t speculate on the n-player experience when the box itself tells you the game doesn’t support n players. Don’t assume there’s an English edition when BGG will readily tell you there isn’t one. Don’t say that game x draws its inspiration from game y when the reverse is true. Keep in mind, you don’t even have to address any of these issues! But if you do, spend the mere minutes necessary so you can speak with some clarity and authority.

So no, bias doesn’t concern me. A lack of rigour, that examines games as though each exists in a vacuum, does. I’m certainly not claiming that I succeed in any of these goals–but again, trying to articulate my priorities helps clarify my views on reviewing as much as it does on a particular game.

There are other things that can undermine rigour, and perhaps that is what people mean when they say “bias.” For example, I’ve seen a number of reviews that sound hopelessly off the mark because the reviewer was taught the game by the designer. There are any number of potential problems there, but basically I question the rigour of any review that immediately starts from the perspective of an insider rather than a consumer. You’re not getting the same product I am because your experience has been carefully managed.

I’m not suggesting any kind of collusion or ill-will here on the part of anyone; I’m just saying that some kinds of knowledge can undermine rigour just as much as ignorance can. I’ll probably say more about that particular topic in the future.

Why I (Probably) Won’t Be Reviewing Captain Sonar

My priority for these past few weeks has been to review games a) about which I felt I could say something passably interesting, and b) apt to be of interest to the gaming public–hot new releases and the like. Captain Sonar definitely is of the latter category; I have access to copies; and I’ve played it a few times and my opinion is reasonably solidified.

I’m not going to review it, though, for the simple reason that I don’t think I can say anything useful about it. You see, Captain Sonar divides players into two teams and has each of them fulfill a specific role within that team. And two of those roles–Captain and Radio Operator–are pretty much inaccessible to me as a gamer and as a critic.

Those roles have you do real-time spatial puzzles. The Radio Operator, in particular, gets this ever-expanding set of data they use to narrow down the enemy ship’s location. The data expands in real-time, so they don’t ever have the luxury of pausing the game so they can just work through possibilities in their head.

The thought of being a Radio Operator fills me with a sensation that could perhaps best be called “dread.” I can’t stand many kinds of puzzles. My friends back in Cambridge would do the MIT Mystery Hunt, and I would hear the kinds of things one does in that event, and it struck me as the least fun anyone could have this side of a Tough Mudder Electro-Race (that’s what they’re called, right?). In University, I almost failed symbolic logic because of a certain puzzle-like kind of problem called derivations. Metatheory, which stumped many of my colleagues, was no issue for me–but I could toil away at a derivation for hours and get nowhere. I speak from experience.

To a certain extent, I realize that this puts me in the minority of gamers. Puzzle hunts and related things seem popular with our set, and more power to them. But I want no part of them–I find them frustrating, inscrutable, tedious, and in a real-time team context, inordinately stressful. Quite honestly, the rare times I’ve been caught in competitive challenges of the sort I’m apt to just concede very early and move on with my life… but I wouldn’t have that luxury if a team were depending on me.

Let me say that the puzzle in Captain Sonar seems very nicely done. It certainly has an elegance to how it integrates communication, usable data, unusable noise, and nifty components. But I can’t evaluate it, because it’s categorically Not My Thing.

And I don’t want to make a review where a substantial portion of the analysis can offer no insight past “it’s Not My Thing.” I don’t think anyone with my dislikes could read the rules or consume any news of the game without knowing it’s Not Their Thing, either. So, in short, a review of the game wouldn’t allow any sort of substantive critique or analysis. I couldn’t compare it to other kinds of mechanisms in other games, because I avoid those types of mechanisms like the plague. I couldn’t give you any useful description of what it is like to play the game in those roles, because all I’d be able to offer is “dear Lord make it stop.”

I mean, I could talk about the roles I can do competently (First Mate and Engineer), but that’s just half the game. Less than that, really, since the Engineer is pretty low on agency–which, it is worth noting, is how I most enjoy Captain Sonar. And I do enjoy it in those roles, make no mistake, but really I can’t contribute anything to discourse about the game. Mostly I’d just suggest that people try Space Cadets: Dice Duels, which you really ought to–it is more flexible in player count, if nothing else.

I say all this not because there’s been a groundswell of demand for me to review Captain Sonar–the only one I’ve gotten multiple requests for is Inis, and let me tell you if I could get access to a copy I would indeed review it–but because I hope my decision not to review Captain Sonar illustrates a little of what I’m trying to do and not do in my reviews.

Grimslingers Board Game Review

I would like to elaborate on the issue of multiple gameplay modes. On the one hand, I adore it when a game can successfully parlay its engine to accommodate different genres of game–in this case, Grimslingers can be a 1-on-1 dueling game, a mulyiplayer battle game, and a narrative co-op campaign. That’s great, added value based on who happens to be sitting around your table.

When the design gets a bit unfocused in terms of sheer options, though, that be to a game’s detriment. I think Grimslingers does a reasonably good job of informing the player how to manage the chaos–it says items are a tad unbalancing but add spice, quickdraw is helpful in multiplayer, etc.–but there’s still room for more clarity. I personally would have said base duels are primarily for learning, use advanced duels with 1 spell a turn thereafter, quickdraw for multiplayer with teams preferred, etc. Perhaps someone with different tastes would say differently, but when there’s a little editorial guidance you can at least be confident that you’re more likely to avoid disappointing (and unrepresentative) first plays.

I love Level 99 Games, but they have routinely let me down in this area. The recommended “first play” setups for both Millennium Blades and Argent: The Consortium seem terribly subpar, and they serve mainly to show the games at their near-worst. Random setups have served me far better in Millennium Blades, and as for Argent there are equally (or more) accessible setups for new players that show the game’s strengths far better. I mean, how likely is it that a gamer wants a heavyish game like Argent but can’t handle a teeny bit of grit in the room setup? Or a game like Millennium Blades but is scared away by card interactions?

One of the best games ever designed, Imperial (and its sequel, Imperial 2030), shows a little of this problem as well. Whether to play with the Investor card (and, relatedly, whether and when to play with the advanced setup rules) is a matter of near-doctrinal dispute. Sometimes it seems as though people are talking about entirely different games merely because they favour different sets of options.

And that’s even before we get into the issue of house rules…