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.

About Review Copies

So, let’s start with the obvious: that cold open for my Zimby Mojo review was a joke, both about myself and a little about some community attitudes towards review copies. Let me start, though, with some transparency.

I’ve been approached by a small number of publishers and/or designers with offers of review copies. I know, I was surprised too. When I started my channel, I had no pretensions towards review copies (that’s one of the reasons why I named it what I did), but then again I didn’t expect to get the number of subscribers I did–so clearly this has been a learning experience. Also, once again, I sincerely thank all of you for your support and your viewing time (really).

I decided to tell them the following, and it’s become my policy: I can’t guarantee I’ll review your game. I only review games when I think I can try to say something interesting. Honestly, were I to ever get a review copy of, say, a mediocre auction or worker-placement game, I don’t think I’d be able to say much of value. Other reviewers would, of course, both because they’re funnier and/or are inclined to do rules explanations; but that’s not my thing, and I’m not inclined to make it my thing. It’s not only bad or derivative games, either–people have been asking for a “Top X Games” video for some time, and I’ve been trying (really!) to find a way to do that in a way I think would be worthwhile for me–but I’m having trouble. Many games I think are best in class have proven difficult for me to present interesting, substantial analysis for (I’m also having trouble presenting analysis in a succinct enough way for such a video, but that’s a different story).

At any rate, I disclose up front that I can’t promise any airtime to a publisher when they send me a game. I assume this goes as a matter of course for when a publisher sends a game to the Big Names, but disclosure is important to me, especially when someone has taken the time to reach out to a nobody such as myself. I’ve had people then decide not to send me a game, but most have gone ahead.

As for the possibility that I’ll say bad things about the game, well, I assume they know that–if they’ve seen my stuff they know that I tend to criticize even games I love. And obviously, they’ve seen the title.

I did once try to solicit a publisher for a review copy, and that was only because the game was not yet available retail and I received quite a few requests. That game was Inis, and Asmodee sent me a very polite but very hard pass. I’m rather amazed they even bothered to respond, frankly.

That’s enough policy. Let’s talk trust.

I’ve written before that I think some concerns about reviewers are misplaced. But now let me directly address a common claim: that a positive review is quid pro quo for free stuff. I would be very surprised if that’s a common danger. First of all, as I said, there’s not a guarantee that the game will garner a review; certainly not in my case, and I imagine in the case of the Big Names (though I could be wrong). Second, once you’re at a certain point in the hobby, and definitely if you’re a collector of board games, getting random games in the mail is as much an inconvenience as it is a gift. Sometimes moreso. I don’t have room or (more importantly) time for a random game. Seriously, pick a random game in the BGG database, and odds are excellent that I don’t want to play it, much less own it. Besides which, there is no correlation between negative reviews and a cessation of review copies that I know of, either historical, threatened, or implied. As I said in my review, Jim Felli sent me Zimby Mojo even though he knew I didn’t like his previous design–being the dedicated community guy that he is, he just monitors the ratings on BGG and found out before he mailed me Zimby Mojo. Third, I try to do reviews that are the least susceptible to schilling, but that’s a separate topic.

I do promise to continue to disclose whenever I’m reviewing a review copy. That seems like a reasonable expectation from a reviewer. And there are games I wouldn’t be willing to review because of a conflict of interest–a game designed or published by a personal friend, for example, is straight out. I similarly try to minimize my contact with a publisher or designer prior to reviewing their game because I’d like to minimize personal bias an try to assure that my experience with the game is as close as possible to that of any other consumer.

I do realize that I’m not like another consumer when I review a game I got for free, though. I am sensitive to that. The best tool is thus disclosure, and that’s why I keep writing stuff like this.

Physical Design and Codex

Codex, as I said in my review, gets a lot of things very right. I briefly mention that the physical design of the binders is very well done; David Sirlin said it was a priority for him to make sure that the custom pockets made removing and inserting cards easy, and I think he succeeded admirably.

Indeed, the binders are arguably necessary to play the game at all (in its default 3 heroes mode). Without them the game would be pretty much unplayable. Not being able to glance at all your available builds would make the decision of which cards to add to your deck tedious in the extreme. I thus find it unfortunate that the expansions will not be including binders. As it stands, you either buy the Deluxe version (as of this writing still available from Sirlin Games’ online store) or you get the Core Set and its two eventual expansions (available soon). The Deluxe set is, to put it mildly, costly, but there is a significant downside to waiting and getting everything piecemeal: you won’t get more binders.

The notion of having to remove all your cards (in the standard configuration, from 45 pockets) and put in new ones from your binder every time you want to play a new color strikes me as tedious and unpleasant. One gets the impression that Mr. Sirlin prides himself on designing games that have above-average replayability, but one also gets the impression that a virtue of games with a plurality of asymmetric factions is that you can try different things. What the Core Set + expansions version offers, therefore, is a game whose virtue is being undermined by its physical limitations. And that’s unfortunate, because the joy of trying a new color shouldn’t face the obstacle of the tedium of some card wrangling. It’s doubly unfortunate since some of the game’s innovations are only possible due to its clever and thoughtful binders.

I would contrast this with Mage Wars. Mage Wars uses binders because your hand-equivalent is huge, and you can play pretty much any card in your binder. I never found a good organizational scheme that allowed me to intuit what my deck consisted of in Mage Wars, and while I enjoyed the game I felt that the physical design was always holding me back.

I always appreciate it when clever use of physical components allows a game to do neat stuff. I’m not referring here to mere usability, though that is certainly a valuable asset for a game to have. I’m referring instead to game mechanics that function only because of the physical design of a thing. Dexterity games, obviously, do this as a matter of course. Glory to Rome was probably the first game I played that leveraged card layout in a way that let cards be multi-use in a novel way, and Innovation does a similar thing with its splaying mechanic (indeed, whenever I play Innovation I ignore the actual victory conditions and instead just try to have all my stacks splayed; I have more fun, and am actually more successful, that way). I especially appreciate it when dice games do this. Many dice games have custom dice that don’t actually do anything that a d6 isn’t already doing; 6 unique possible results. The way Pandemic: The Cure uses custom dice to juke the probability of certain diseases appearing in certain regions pleases me a great deal.

I have the Deluxe edition, and while it was expensive I’m glad I have the extra binders. While Sirlin Games promised that the white, blue, purple, and black binders would be Kickstarter-exclusive, I don’t perceive any inhibition to them selling generic binders (or extra copies of the green and red ones in the Core Set). Please note that I am in no way suggesting that this was anything remotely resembling an extortionate market strategy; indeed the Deluxe Set was a limited print run, so I’m far more inclined to think that this was the result of a genuine attempt to keep the price of the expansions down.

But everyone should be able to get those binders. Binders make the game sing.

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.

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.