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…

Cry Havoc Board Game Review

There was a lot more I would have liked to address in depth, but I have been rightly accused of trying to turn every review into a survey of an entire subgenre. I did that a bit, but the general idea of what I call “openness” in conflict games is far broader.

One issue is when the fights actually take place. I have developed a strong preference for games that allow for a more flexible take on battle resolution. For example, in a game like Cry Havoc, the region is locked once a fight starts and is resolved later. A little more open is something like Eclipse, where there is some notion of pinning to limit your mobility, but you can still move into or out of the area before the battle starts. Honestly the fixed nature of combat timing and how closed the map can get are the things I dislike the most about Eclipse, despite the fact that I love the game (I always have to warn new players: don’t ally with all your neighbors, or you’ll end up entirely trapped by the game’s topography).

In a game like Chaos in the Old World, there is no pinning but the battle still happens at a fixed time. One of the ways in which I feel Cthulhu Wars improves on its obvious inspiration is that starting the fight is a player action, allowing for more freedom to nudge fights to your advantage as well as freeing up the tempo. This approach is also seen in Blood Rage; the quantity and frequency of battles is entirely up to the players, rather than fixed at a set number of rounds.

Relatedly, there’s a similar way in which I felt Eldritch Horror improved on Arkham Horror; rather than having a movement phase, you just make movement an action. This is a comparable design advance, turning what could be a fixed turn structure into a more fluid and choice-driven menu of actions.

All that said, sometimes there’s nothing wrong–or it might even be preferable–to have fights start the instant two hostile forces are in the same space. Kemet and Successors, as example, work precisely that way. There’s plenty of dynamism to be had in that model, too. It’s not always feasible, though–it depends a lot on how movement works, how control is understood, and other considerations of tempo.

And if you can’t have fights resolved the instant they start, all things being equal I’d rather the players be able to choose, rather than turn structure.

SeaFall Board Game Review (Spoiler-Free!)

I was fortunate enough to emerge from GenCon with a copy of SeaFall.

The review is free of the justifiably-loathed spoilers–I don’t think they are necessary to critique the game.

There are some issues I didn’t have time to address. Most pointedly, I think, is what I will call the “Babylon 5 Problem”–namely, how much time will you allow something to be bad before it gets good? Most everyone acknowledges the unfortunate truth that B5’s first season is very weak, but there are those–like myself–that think that subsequent seasons more than make up for it. Part of the reason why we’re willing to forgive the initial tedium of the early episodes is that some of them pay off in later (better) episodes. The other part is that, personally, 20% weak for 80% excellent is a price I’m willing to pay in television.

This isn’t a spoiler for SeaFall, but it is a spoiler for my review–SeaFall is far, far short of a reasonable ratio of weak to excellent. For one, I felt that the payoff was uninspired and far too brief when compared to the very long setup. Besides, once the good stuff gets going it’s just a drop in the now bloated bucket of tacked-on mechanisms and modifiers.

Will some people feel that their investment of time and energy was worth it? I’m certain. Putting aside their wrongess, though, even at the end I would much rather have played something else.

Star Trek: Frontiers Board Game Review

Theme is a strange thing, my friends, a fickle mistress. Sometimes all it needs to do is get out the damn way, but sometimes it can really enhance the underlying mechanisms of the game. Of course, most games in the market that “drip with theme” (much as I dislike that phrase) do so with copious flavor text that actually turn out feeling very generic–but that’s for another game.

This one actually manages to do something interesting with a retheme. Please enjoy.

[EDIT] Note that this marks my first references to both Pride & Prejudice, and the Church of Sleeves. I can assure you they won’t be the last.

Assault on Doomrock Board Game Review

It’s strange–I never would have expected the crude (often deliberately so!) adventure/dungeon crawl game to show so much evolution and interesting design decisions, but here we are. We truly have an embarrassment of riches in the past few years, and looking at what designers have decided to prune or emphasize is fascinating for me.

Secret Hitler Board Game Review

Having been given an inch and now seeking a mile, let’s see how much patience the viewing public really has for my ramblings.

I felt that the issue was sufficiently weighty so as to deserve the extra time, so this one’s rather a bit longer. That said, I did try to condense it considerably–an earlier draft was almost 40 minutes, which I knew to be unacceptable. I figure 25 is acceptable, or at least I hope it is.

Given unlimited time, I probably would have addressed The Resistance: Avalon, Coup, more time for Cards Against Humanity, etc. etc. Fodder for future reviews, I suppose.

At any rate, here is the review. As ever, feedback is most welcome, and I hope you enjoy it.

Scythe Board Game Review

The kind of reviews that I look for as a consumer often don’t exist. If you’re looking for a reviewer to go over the rules in exhaustive (but not comprehensive!) detail, and then issue a couple final words to the effect that they found the game enjoyable, the internet has got you covered by many excellent offerings. So very, very covered.

What I want is a review that is helpful to both someone who has read the rules or not. One that focuses on criticism and analysis instead of unboxing shots and descriptions of the phase structure. Most importantly, I’m looking for reviews that recognize games don’t exist in a vacuum, and will draw explicit comparisons to similar games and how a reviewed game stacks up.

I don’t know if there’s an audience for such reviews, much less if I’m at all equipped to deliver them. But I have resolved to try, and welcome your feedback.

The first review is for Jamey Stegmaier’s Scythe. I hope you enjoy!