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.

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.

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.

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.