Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tales of the Arabian Nights

I've been really enjoying this new game from Z-Man. You get to wander the world of the Thousand and One Nights, encounter strange people and customs, and try to make your fortune. There is a whole genre of what I think of as "experience games", games where you play to watch the stories unfold as much as anything else. Games like Arkham Horror, American Megafauna, maybe Britannia and Republic of Rome. A surprisingly large number of wargames, like Paths of Glory or Successors, and arguably a lot of games which are too huge to realistically play to actual conclusion, like Case Blue or Guderian's Blitzkrieg. I also feel many of GMT's games where you wrestle far more with rules and processes than you do with actual decisions fall into this category; Fields of Fire certainly, and games from The Burning Blue to 1805: Sea of Glory and PQ-17 also feel to me like they get filed here.

So anyway, back to the topic. I think what appeals to me so much about Tales of the Arabian Nights, apart from the great flavor, is that it is an experience game which actually works. Yes, the stories it generates as you have your adventures are usually great fun and the real reward of playing. But you also have to actually play the game. You can't just do stuff because it sounds cool or you want to see what happens; you have to play to your character's strengths, trying to use the skills you've been given or have earned to their best advantage. Courting the Wealthy Princess may sound cool, but if you don't have the Courtly Graces or Seduction skills, it's probably not a percentages play, either from the point of view of winning or generating an interesting story. You have to play to your strengths.

With this in mind, I think a key to enjoying the game is the right attitude. You can't come at it either trying to "generate cool stories" or getting too hung up on winning. I think you have to realize that the game is pretty random, and even if you play the best game possible you may well get hosed. On the other hand, if you don't play to win, you aren't going to generate the most (or even any) interesting stories. So take Knizia's advice to heart, and realize that you do have to play the game to win, but the actual winning itself isn't the important thing.

I'll finish with a couple more concrete tips and observations.

Firstly, on the question of how to choose your victory conditions of story points vs. destiny points: This is a tough call and it's unfortunate that the rules don't give you a little guidance on this, since it's an important decision that you make up-front with little to no information. My sense has been that Story points are a little easier to come by than Destiny, so that argues for favoring Story a little bit. A possibly more important factor, though, is that there is a fairly common status, Scorned, which turns all your Destiny points into Story points. There are also a few other fairly common Statuses that allow you spend Destiny for some effect, and Crippled (which doesn't seem that common) doubles your Story points. On the flip side, Story Point losses, spends, or conversion to Destiny seem very rare (I haven't seen any, but they could be out there). It's still a bit of a shot in the dark, but I think it pays to favor Story points. Scorned seems to come up a lot, and if your objective points are split close to 50/50, it can be a real back-breaker.

Secondly, some folks I've played with have griped a little bit about the early game, a gripe with which I am not unsympathetic. The first phase of the game seems to involve wandering around a bit a trying to make something happen, looking for a break. You're comparatively unskilled at that point, so it doesn't feel like you are able to exert that much control until you've gained some experience. Thematic, but it can make the early game a little unsatisfying. We were pondering minor variants you could use to tweak things a bit, and I think we hit on a good one: just allow the players to pick 4, or even 5 skills at start instead of 3. It seems like it would do no fundamental violence to the game and it would give you a better shot at managing the encounters in the early game, and would let you fit more action in to the same game length. We had a discussion about whether you could get one starting skill at Master level for the cost of two skills, but were undecided. Master level skills are a significant advantage in terms of guiding your destiny, and it seemed like something that should have to be earned. Regardless, personally I don't mind the early game of wandering in the wilderness, but I can see that overall this might improve the game for a lot of folks.

Lastly, keep the player count on this game down. The box advertises up to 6, but that just seems nuts. I'd say you should cap it at 4, and 3 is probably preferable. While you aren't the current player or the reader, Tales of the Arabian Nights is almost pure downtime. There is only so much fun to be had listening to other players' stories. Some, certainly – enough for a 4-player game, I think – but add more players and it gets pretty attenuated.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bastogne SCS

All right, let's see if we can get some momentum going here again.

I had a chance to play MMP/The Gamers' latest Standard Combat Series game Bastogne the other day. I have sort of a love/hate (well, maybe like/dislike) relationship with this particular series. I like that it's simple and I can play almost all the game 15 minutes out of the box with little to no frustration. I like the minimalism of the design, the fact that it's sort of a throwback reductionist system, with hexes, ZOCs, CRTs, and basically all the standard components of a 70s-era wargame. The series tries to take these absolute basics and use them in interesting ways.

As I played the first 4-5 turns of the full scenario, I was really excited about Batogne and felt like it did a lot of stuff right. The early game is awesome, with a mixed bag of Germans ranging from elite armored units to low-quality infantry driving into the teeth of American paratroopers and an armored combat command. They deal with constricted terrain and US artillery and lousy roads - sort of a microcosm of the entire Battle of the Bulge. SCS games like to be small to mid-sized, I think; the good games in the series have only moderate counter density and unit counts, like Afrika and Fallshirmjaeger. Bastogne does have a fair number of units, but the low stacking limits (a feature that seems to be popular with Bulge games recently) of only a counter or two in a hex keeps things under control. It's not quite in the ideal SCS zone, but it's close enough. The rules for road marches, which allow units to rapidly move across the map if not engaged, are terrific in allowing players to rapidly redeploy troops as was historically possible, while avoiding the worst of the problems of having units with immense movement factors as was the case in Crusader. They allow for reasonably surprising attacks, as well as forcing players to maintain reasonably strong and coherent lines.

But by the end, Bastogne had let me down. After turn 5, the game collapses under its own weight, much like The Mighty Endeavor did when it turned into a tweezer-fest in the final showdown on the German border. As is unfortunately so often the case with The Gamers-branded games, Bastogne falls apart on the player objectives. The Germans have to secure the cross-board roads on the last turn, but this turns into a mess of hunting down rogue US units (there are no supply rules, so units can exist in isolation in perptuity), working out all combinations of possible road march moves, and (for the Germans) grinding out the last few battles required to win, or (for the US) keeping a handful units in range to interdict the roads. After the major clashes of the first half, the second half of irritating cat-and-mouse securing is a serious letdown and I found it extremely tedious.

I find that I mistrust how The Gamers' games tend to do victory conditions. I've heard the terms "Design for Cause" and "Design for Effect" swirl around their games, but I really think of these two terms more as "the right way" and "the wrong way". Bastogne has several "Design for Effect" rules (or, in the case of supply, non-rules) which are basically arbitrary hacks to force the players to behave historically. For example, the US player receives reinforcements from TF Abrams, the lead units of Patton's army, coming up from the south. Historically, they were apparently used to try to relieve pressure on the besieged Americans, not to block the roads. So there is a special rule which says that these units don't count when determining whether or not the Germans control the roads, which means the Germans can "win" by securing a route paste Bastogne despite the presence of a large American armored formations on said road. The game would be silly without the rule - it would be extraordinarily hard for the Germans to secure the southern route, leaving them the northern route as the only viable way to win - but I'm not sure this is much of an improvement.

Too many SCS games have hacks like this to coerce historical play rather than to actually get at the roots of what is really going on. I refer you to Bowen Simmons fascinating and brilliant piece on Quiddity in his design diary for The Guns of Gettysburg. Obviously, the devil is in the details and maybe Guns of Gettysburg won't work out. But that's how you design victory conditions, and I anxiously await the new game.

It's easy to speculate on what might have been for Bastogne, how the victory conditions might be tweaked to make the game more interesting. If the Germans could win as soon as the roads are secure (seems reasonable), that might help - the US aren't getting any stronger as the game goes on. Or something more nuanced than "take and hold one of two roads plus some spare change" might have been good. Or some supply rules ... I disagree with the designer's notes on this, I think some supply rules would have helped to deter both unsupportable German suicide runs into Bastogne for cheap points as well as lone isolated Americans hunkering down off the grid for days in order to jump on supply roads right at the end.

All this is speculation though. Unfortunately, I think the second half of Bastogne just doesn't work very well. So for me, this is yet anther SCS game with a lot of promise that can't deliver. Gamers' games often seem to have these sorts of victory condition problems, and Bastogne seems to suffer more than most.

I'd be interested if anyone can, as a thought experiment, come up with a good answer for what the Quiddity was for the siege of Bastogne. All I can come up with is the somewhat unsatisfactory "as the Germans, you're hosed". This seems like a tactical battle that was lost at the operational level because the Germans never had the forces to win, in large part because they never had the forces to undertake the whole Bulge thing in the first place.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

D&D, 4th Edition

The Fourth Edition of D&D has been out for oh, about a year now, so maybe it's about time I got around to saying a few words about it.

4E is a major overhaul of D&D 3(.5), a system that was in desperate need of something along those lines. I had gotten to the point after 5 years or so of off-again, on-again D&D 3 that I simply didn't want to play it anymore (I might make an exception for Monte Cook's Ptolus). I like several d20 systems – Arcana Evolved particularly, but also Star Wars d20, but I had come to loathe D&D: the abusive feat combos, the broken weaponry, the endless puzzling over vaguely-worded spells, the ludicrously unbalanced classes with limited development choices, the power-gaming, the endless splatbooks, the incompetent low-level characters, the classic vaguely-Tolkienesque fantasy archetypes that had all the life sucked out of them. It was an incredible mess, and a sinkhole that I honestly just didn't enjoy and didn't want to get involved with again.

So, I was relieved to see that 4E tackled head-on many of the problems I had with 3E. Character abilities have been streamlined and the system complexity greatly reduced. A wider variety of fantasy archetypes can be played in 4E, some (some) life has been breathed back into the stale races and classes, and parties have greater latitude in composition instead of being forced to have a Cleric, a Fighter, a Wizard, and whoever else wants to come along. Non-mainline character classes like Paladins, Rangers and Warlocks are much more interesting, can be developed in a range of ways, and feel like core game elements instead of the bolted-on additions they were have been in all previous editions (I was able to play a decidedly ambiguous Paladin devoted to the Raven Queen as one of my characters). 1st level characters are much more robust and competent. While the emphasis in D&D remains monster-slaying, the new system of skill points and broader skills (Spot and Listen reduced to Perception; Climb, Jump, and Swim to Athletics; a bunch of stuff to Thievery; etc.) allow characters to be good at a variety of things and widens the range of challenges the DM can throw at them. Also, because all characters abilities have now been framed in similar ways (at-will powers, daily powers, and encounter powers), all character classes have interesting choices about when to unleash their powerful strikes, instead of having Wizards pore over their spell lists every round while Fighters just try to guess how much to Power Attack for. Also, as magic users now have decent at-will powers, they no longer have to worry about being completely useless after they've exhausted their few, precious spell slots.

All in all, I've been pleased with how 4E plays. It's cleaner, quicker, and appears better-balanced. While it's clearly aimed at players more interested in the violence than the roleplaying, it's full of good tips and helpful, if basic, roleplaying cues. Monsters are now easier to run for the GM without sacrificing much in terms of tactical interest, which is a big win. I no longer feel particularly drawn to D&D as a genre; I like Arcana Evolved much better as fantasy, Star Wars Saga Edition does the whole heroic angle better, and I've been recently been drawn to the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues) for investigative-type games. But D&D is an institution, bad D&D particularly so, and 4E does a good job of trying to make it relevant again.

Which brings me to the thing I find most odd about D&D 4E. The one complaint I've heard often about 4E is that it's not D&D anymore, it's trying to morph D&D into World of Warcraft. Which is an odd argument to make, given that World of Warcraft is basically ripped off from D&D, from what I understand of it. To me, this seems beside the point. 4E is a cleaner system, which takes D&D 3.5, in which perhaps 90% of a character's abilities were devoted either to killing things or avoiding being killed by things, and brings the number down to maybe 80%. How many times have you been in a D&D game only to realize that none of your characters have any social skills because everyone has mini-maxed their Charisma down to 8 (Charisma being a generally worthless stat) and has too few skill points to focus on anything other than one or two core skills? 4E makes this scenario much less likely, and while most of your powers will involve killing things and taking their stuff, it's much less likely that your party will be powerless in the face of a slightly uncooperative NPC or a moderately steep slope.

I think the World of Warcraft complaint is based not so much on the system itself, but the fact that Wizards seems to be going with a decidedly retro angle to marketing D&D 4. Despite having developed a pretty good game system, they seem to be trying to go back to the days of AD&D in terms of game sophistication, which just happens to be about where World of Warcraft is. The off-the-shelf modules seem like absolutely classic bad D&D: dungeon hack-fests with random traps to give the Thief's life meaning and NPCs that are designed either to read exposition or to be killed. Good grief. Maybe this is what players like; but for me, not so much. I'm not into the extremes of "palace intrigue" or "cooperative storytelling" styles of roleplaying either, but I like some variety: a little humor, mystery, or intrigue between the bloodletting, some drama, some pacing. The same things I like in my boardgames. Not just clearing the room, then wondering what's going to be in the next room, and whether or not we should take a break to allow our encounter powers to reset. D&D is a much more flexible game system than this. Trail of Cthulhu has Pulp and Purist, and Paranoia has Classic, Straight, and Zap, all to help try to support different players who have different expectations. Even closer to home, the Star Wars Saga Edition has really had a quite brilliant strategy in focussing on providing sourcebooks for different periods in the Star Wars Universe (Clone Wars, Classic Trilogy, Knights of the Old Republic, Scum and Villainy) with very different flavors and styles for different players. 4E could really use something along these lines so that those who are into the whole straight dungeon-crawling experience could be happy at the same time as those of us who aren't. Maybe it's there, but if it is, Wizards' marketing isn't doing a good job of telling me about it.

Anyway, I like 4E. The core of 4E is a good game system that tries to make things much more playable, characters more competent with a wider variety of abilities and more development choices. The Players' Handbook II further develops the system with some great new classes and races that D&D desperately needs; it would be fun to play a party of characters drawn solely from the decidedly non-Tolkienesque races and classes in the PHB II, just to get some real variety. There is definitely a good game here. I'm just waiting for Wizards to support players like me before I get much farther into it.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Origins: How We Became Human

My first exposure to Sierra Madre Games was about 10 years ago, playing Lords of the Sierra Madre; as a big Republic of Rome fan, I got sucked into it as a similar narrative-heavy game. My impression of it was that it was an intriguing, unworkable mess. As a result my second exposure to Sierra Madre Games did not come until last year, when I was once again intrigued by the fascinating Origins: How We Became Human. Now, three games later – and it's not a short game – I'm still uncertain what to make of it. It is undeniably clever. It's a solid enough game design to merit 3 plays, something too many of the 30-60 minute euros I play don't make it to. It's built on top of some fascinating scientific hypotheses, primarily those of Jared Diamond and Julian Jaynes. It's also got some rather suspect elements.

A quick summary: Origins: How We Became Human covers the evolution of humans from the days when there were multiple, competing early hominids (Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, etc) through to roughly the early Roman period (you can buy an expansion pack for Age 4 and get yourself some nuclear weapons if you’d like). You manage your innovation levels (which drives card draws), population (which drives on-board tactics), and elders, which allow you to bid on major “civilization” cards like the Pyramids, Writing, and Proper Names. As in Civilization, you have only one limited set of tokens, and they can be either on the board or in these various pools, and managing them is the key to the game. For the most part, your objective is to keep these tracks clear: fewer pieces on your innovation track means drawing more cards, fewer pieces on your population track means more population actions (although a greater risk of your culture entering chaos). The action of the game, and most of the ways in which you manipulate these tracks, are driven by the deck of dual-function action. One side of the card will be typically be dedicated to improving your civilization by advancing tech, domesticating plants, animals, or natural resources, generating new elders, or other similar actions; these typically come with a prerequisite or cost. The other half will typically allow you to manage your innovation and population tracks through Fecundity Decreases, which allow you to move units from your innovation track to your population track. The game proceeds through ages of growth and chaos, as you start in the Age of Instinct and try to increase your energy production capacity by domesticating some plants and animals to get into the Bicameral Age, where you then need to increase your productivity again through a plough harness or some-such before finally making it to the Age of Faith. For more details, I refer you to the excellent writeup at Spotlight On Games.

As we will soon see, I am more than a bit conflicted on Origins. But one thing I can say for sure, good game or no, it's not a game that makes itself easy to like. Despite being fairly straightforward, no more complicated than classic Civilization, it's long (5-6 hours for the full game), it's unforgiving, and it can feel extremely random and punishing in a way that makes In the Year of the Dragon look like a funhouse. I think I've had to find an almost entirely new set of fellow-players each time I've wanted to play, a big reason my play-count hasn't yet made it to 4. The rules give you some tips to try to help you with the pitfalls the game lays out for you, but I think they don't go anywhere near far enough in helping you enjoy your first game.

Still, I have to say I liked Origins: How We Became Human. Turns are short, so it moves along at a very good clip for this sort of game, and the system is clean and playable while at the same time having good narrative and reflecting a lot of the research that has inspired the game. There are serious caveats though.

Firstly, you really have to use the optional rule for Livestock Raids. Otherwise, advancing from Age I to II becomes a huge bottleneck over making a few completely random die rolls on domestication attempts, where rolling poorly can have your people relegated to obscurity with absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Secondly, you have to live with the fact that this is a Sierra Madre game and apparently one of Phil Eklund's many talents is not designing working victory conditions. As in American Megafauna, the game-end scoring here is silly. Firstly, the game ends when the first player enters the final stage of Chaos, exiting Age III. This player has, by entering Chaos, just lost most of his victory points, so he is essentially guaranteed to lose. That’s awesome. There is an optional rule to fix that, which is obviously recommended. Secondly, the final victory score is basically random anyway. You get points for the Public Cards that you’ve acquired throughout the game, but only the ones that match the objectives on your player card. This has two problems. Firstly, all the Public cards are so strong in terms of their in-game tactical effects that you’re going to want to acquire anything you can get your hands on anyway. Secondly, only maybe half the public cards are going to come out, so if you sit around waiting for one that you can score (as I did my first game), you may never see one. Thirdly, presumably to patch all this up, there is a mechanic for having your people revolt and swap victory condition cards with another player, which makes it even more random and unsatisfying. The whole thing is a complete mess. Unlike American Megafauna, where there was an obvious and fully workable fix for that game’s arbitrary scoring (just score before each calamity), there is no obvious fix for Origins. Clearly, it seems you need to have some sort of checkpoint scoring after each Age, or other incremental scoring of some kind, but what it should be is unclear. I'm not sure what to say on this. You probably want to play Sierra Madre’s games mostly for the narrative, but on the other hand, narrative requires an end, and if the end is dumb, why were we trying to get there in the first place? I can live with the game as it is, the process of playing and trying to win works for me even if the trying isn’t really rewarded as it should be, but that doesn't mean this part of the game works; it doesn’t.

As an aside, the most common complaint I've read about online is freakish climate change results ending up hosing one or two players, but I've never seen this, it doesn't seem very likely, and climate change is one of the things that makes the game interesting. One aspect of Origins that makes it tricky is that it’s a little unintuitive. Early in the game, population growth and expansion is to some degree actually punished rather than encouraged, so until later – when technology should allow players to skirt climate-change-related geographical difficulties – your empire hardly needs or wants more than a couple cubes on the board.

At the end of the day, even with the optional rules that have been added to make it more of a game, for these reasons I honestly don't think Origins: How We Became Human works strictly as a game. That doesn't mean I wouldn't still like to play it again, or that it isn’t an interesting synthesis and presentation of recent science on human origins, or that it isn't fascinating as a philosophical exercise as to what makes a game or how to make a game out of the ungamable. But still. Interestingly, I think where Origins trips up (other than the whole victory conditions thing) is not so much where it is chaotic, but where it is scripted. The transition from Age I to Age II essentially rests on succeeding at a domestication die roll; the transition for Age II to Age III turns on finding one of only a couple key technology cards one way or another. The game recreates the rise and fall of peoples and civilizations not organically, as it should, but by strong-arming you, mandating a dark ages at various stages in development whether you need it or not. If it had been really clever it would have perhaps linked greater innovation with greater chaos, and therefore perhaps made chaos more likely to follow rapid advances, but that is not the case; chaos is just something you avoid like the plague until the game tells you, "OK, now you have to do some chaos".

You can buy an add-on pack for Age IV, the Modern Era, and while I don't have much appetite for the 8+ hour marathon that an Age I through Age IV game would entail, I am intrigued by the possibilities of the "shorter" game option which starts the players in Age III and plays through Age IV. Age I is probably the most problematic age in that it has the smallest range of player options, the fewest choices, and the largest amount of gratuitous luck. It's possible that the Age III and IV game would be more satisfying for most gamers. If I ever get to game 4, I'd really like to give this a try.

But, ultimately, I think the reason I like the game is that while it’s far from perfect, it works well enough and it's based to a large degree on two fascinating books: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Both books pivot to various degrees around the clash between Pizarro and the Incans, and try to explain in their own ways how such a yawning chasm came between the two despite their common origin. Diamond looks at physical factors, like the availability of domesticable plants and animals, climate, and immunology. Jaynes examines the evolution of consciousness and the brain's "software", as it were, including the controversial but utterly fascinating thesis that true, full human consciousness – although he defines consciousness more narrowly than I think most people would intuitively – is actually a relatively recent development, perhaps dating from 1200 BC in Europe. Although I had read Diamond before I played Origins, I had never even heard of Jaynes, and the fact that the game inspired me to read this truly intriguing book means it will always have a warm place in my heart. I don't know if Jaynes has the right of things, but his thesis is arresting and his arguments convincing.

Interestingly, though, the very conflict that informs these two books will never actually occur in the game itself. The domesticable plants and animals that Diamond argues were available primarily in Europe are more fairly distributed in the game, while geographic and climate factors critical to Diamond’s arguments have to be ignored or the game wouldn't work at all. The Bicameral period of the game (Age II), before the evolution (Jaynes argues) of modern consciousness, isn't fundamentally different in game terms from Age I or Age III. And, in any event, it's very unlikely you'll see an independent culture arise in the Americas simply because expansion penalties to innovation don't really encourage that much expansion anyway; it seems there is enough space in Europe, Asia, and Africa for five players for much of the game.

So there you go. I’ll finish by saying that regardless of its issues, Origins is definitely worth playing at least once, both because there are interesting game mechanics, but also for the exposure to the ideas on which it is based. Unfortunately, there are a few tricks to playing the game which, if not grasped, can make your life miserable as you get stuck in Age I with 1 innovation action for an extended period and have little to do. Unfortunately, there isn’t much way to intuit these techniques and the guidance in the rulebook isn’t really adequate in my opinion. So, in the hopes of helping your first game to be more fun, here are the tips I’ve picked up.

1) I’m not quite sure where the sweet spot is, player-wise, but I’m pretty sure it’s at 4, not 5. It's a game where the downtime scales linearly with the number of players, so that argues for smaller numbers. But, you want some competition as well, and the board is pretty sparse with only 2. My best experience was with 4, and 3 was pretty good too, while 5 was OK but could drag at times. Also, with more players, the competition for Public Cards gets higher-stakes and more random, which isn’t great.

2) The Innovation track is absolutely crucial, and is the most important single aspect of the game. If you allow yourself to get too far down into the '1' action range, it will take forever to recover and you will be badly constrained, possibly irretrievably hosed, and certainly bored. You must not allow this track to fall too low. Do not pass up Fecundity Decreases for marginal, or even significant, tech gains if you are at risk. There are of course exceptional cases that prove the rule – Origins is nothing if not unpredictable – but you have been warned! Striving to maintain at least two innovation actions trumps virtually everything, and you can really kill yourself here by over-extending. A classic gotcha is in Age I, where clearing brain areas, which sounds like a great idea, can clog your innovation track. Upgrade your brain slowly, in time with moving the cubes from innovation down to population (or up to elders).

3) As a corollary to the above, do not needlessly expand your population just because you have population actions and nothing else to spend them on. If you blow an Age I Chaos die roll and end up with a bunch of units clogging your innovation track, you are thoroughly hosed (see point 2). Keep your empire small until at least Age II, when you have more tools to keep the innovation track clear and can save a double-fecundity decrease for a post-chaos recovery, or otherwise manage your return to golden times. It goes without saying, you do have to manage your various mandated descents into chaos. If your innovation track is already borderline, an untimely chaos can clog the track to the point that it may be many moons until you recover. Again, there are exceptional cases, like when you have a metallurgy advantage and can pillage cards from your neighbors as a substitute for innovation, but in the 95+% case the only reason to expand your population is to get more metropolises to allow you more elders. Even calamities afflict you only in proportion to your size, so expanding doesn’t help you weather those more easily and in fact makes them much worse, again by turning lost units into innovation track cloggers. It goes without saying that actually engaging in combat without a metallurgy advantage is suicide (again, there are exceptions, but they are extremely few), not so much because you lose the guys, but because those guys clog your innovation track.

4) The rulebook warns about progressing through the eras too quickly, but it doesn't mention that it's your innovation track (not to beat a dead horse or anything) that should guide you. Don't dawdle in Age I or II. Get your energy, get an elder or two, and move on. Likewise, in Age III, get your elders, buy your cards, and move on. Moving too fast can be a problem, but the Livestock Raids optional rule, which you more or less have to play with, mitigate this risk for leaving Age I (although losing the domestication action can hurt), and Age II and III really are bound by careful management of the innovation track more than anything else. Once you're in a good spot – you've got the prerequisites, a card in hand to mitigate the chaos, and the innovation track is in good shape – do it. There is no reason to stick around in any of the ages once you are legally allowed to progress.

4) Acquire any public cards you can (at least until Age IV). Just because it doesn't count towards your victory conditions is not a good reason not to bid. All the cards provide powerful strategic advantages, so I think until the final age, game-end victory points should be a non-factor in figuring out how much to bid on a card. You don't want to give them to other players cheaply just because you're holding out for one that'll score for you. The advantages of having administration, culture, and information are all quite strong enough to get regardless.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Knizia vs. K.622

I'm not usually a fan of cross-genre comparisons. I remember a few years back there was a GeekList aiming to associate boardgame designers with their classical composer analogues. I'm willing to play the game, if somewhat half-heartedly, when we're talking Teuber or Knizia (I remember arguing without particular conviction for Knizia being kind of like Mozart), but when people start putting Martin Wallace and Franz Schubert into the same sentence, I rapidly lose interest.

Anyway, as some of you may be aware, I was at one point in my life - rather longer ago now than I like to admit - a clarinet player. In the last year or so, I've been practicing again, trying to get back in shape. I started out with the Concertino, by Carl Maria von Weber, primarily for nostalgic purposes; that was the piece with which I transitioned from being an average high school wind musician to being pretty good. Then the whole start-up thing kicked in, and I lost momentum. But I've recently been re-energized by Jasper Rees' wonderful book A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument (or "I Found my Horn: One Man's Struggle With The Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument" for our UK friends; I always find these sorts of subtle title changes between the US and UK fascinating). The book helped me realize that if you're really going to do this sort of thing when you're 40, you don't want to screw around with second-tier pieces. You want to go with the best. And for the clarinet, that would be Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, K.622 (Meyer) (Stoltzman) (Neidich) (Marcellus), one of the greatest concertos ever written, for clarinet or any other instrument for that matter. After all, unlike Rees, I was able to competently perform the Adagio of that concerto 20 years ago, so surely the whole thing would be a worthy, and doable, goal.

So I picked up a CD with an orchestral accompaniment of the piece. I was reading the included two-page notes when I ran across this passage that I could swear that if I haven't written, I should have:

"Here Mozart displays that most deceptive and difficult artistic feat, one that most lesser artists endlessly fail to achieve: that "less is more". A lasting work of art does not entail showing off one's talents, but rather capturing a subject's psychological essence - it's honesty - in as clear and simple a statement as possible. Mozart provides this again and again in so many of his compositions, and we are eternally surprised at his straightforwardness and lack of embellishment. And it is in this, his last concerto [the Clarinet Concerto, K.622], that Mozart's "art of simplicity" possibly finds its finest expression."

- Douglas Scharmann, notes on the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV622, for Music Minus One

You swap out Mozart and replace it with Knizia, and replace Clarinet Concerto with Beowulf or Modern Art or Lost Cities, and this could almost be re-used word for word. I make no claim that Knizia's genius is in the same league as Mozart's - I'd give up my entire game collection before I gave up Mozart's Clarinet Concerto alone - but still, that one could use almost identical language to describe their particular talents when compared to the artists that surround(ed) them, well, it's rather striking.

My amazement can perhaps be understood a little better with some context. Although the notes never mention anything specific, when Scharmann says the Clarinet Concerto "lack[s] embellishment" this was probably written with later pieces, perhaps von Weber's two very challenging clarinet concerti (Meyer), in mind. Later composers would latch on to the clarinet's agility as its most distinguishing feature, and write extremely technical pieces for it. Also, many concerti - including all of Mozart's magnificent clarinet and horn concerti - are written with a specific performer in mind, and performers like to show off their technique, and for the clarinet, that often seems to mean the ability to play the notes fast. Performances of even the very musical Weber Concertino evolved such that performers competed to play it faster and faster, past all reasonable bounds. Fortunately this is far less true today, but even so Charles Neidich, one of today's finest clarinet players, plays it at a tempo fast enough to needlessly cut into the pieces' musical virtue (in my opinion) in his recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Mozart, on the other hand, understands all the things that make the clarinet such a wonderful and versatile instrument: not only its agility, but its range, its purity of sound, its expressiveness, and its incredible dynamic range that allow it to play comfortably with any other instrument in the orchestra and has made it a staple soloist and member in virtually any musical group, including orchestras, symphonic winds, chamber music, band, jazz, folk, klezmer, film soundtracks, and even popular music until everything had to be amped ... once you start listening, you can start hearing the clarinet almost everywhere.

The topic of Mozart and his famous Clarinet Concerto is too vast to tackle in a blog. But for me, once considered, the parallels are so remarkable I feel little need to elaborate any further, and leave it up to you to explore.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chicago Express

When it comes to train games, it seems like there isn't a lot new under the sun. You've got the classic train games, Empire Builder, 1829, 1830, and Silverton, maybe Rail Baron. You've got the more modern (and far more abstract) Age of Steam, Ticket to Ride, and Union Pacific. Most things seem to start from one of these places.

Chicago Express borrows from both sides of the fence. You've got the realistic-ish stock certificates from 1825 merged with a variation of the abstract route management (without the silliness) from Railroad Tycoon or Age of Steam, and – in perhaps its most compelling selling point – a one-hour-ish playtime.

The core of the game is the stock evaluation (it's not really a market since stocks, once acquired, cannot be sold). Each of the 5 companies, the Pennsylvania, New York Central, B&O, C&O, and Wabash, have between 2 and 6 stock certificates available. One of the actions you can take on your turn, and the one that the game will turn on, is auctioning a share in a company (the other two involve improving the revenues of one of the companies you have stock in). The players then bid, trying to figure out what that share will be worth, with the winner taking the share and the company taking the cash, to use in future expansion.

The thing that makes Chicago Express different is that each share really is a share, and unsold shares don't exist yet. When the PRR earns $25, it is split evenly amongst the shareholders, with unsold shares simply not counting. So when you auction a share, you are not only acquiring a piece of a company, you are diluting other players' existing shares. This means that the number of shares available for a company to issue (3 for the PRR, 6 for the C&O) is a big deal. The first share of the PRR can't be diluted that much, while the first share of the C&O is a bit of a crap shoot.

Chicago Express is the sort of game I should like: fairly short, wide open, with an interesting auction, and decent theme. And I do, sort of. But I think it founders in a couple way.

Firstly, the valuations on the stock certificates are very hard to work out because everything is so wide open. It's impossible for a new player to make a reasonable guess as to what the first PRR share auctioned in the game is worth, and some of the valuation criteria are a little anti-intuitive (the weak companies with fewer shares available offer by far the best long-term per-share return on investment). At some level, I have a feeling that the difficulty of fairly valuing the shares is not supported by the entertainment value or repeat draw of the game as a whole, which means players are unlikely to play the game enough to get the experience required to do the valuations competently.

Secondly, the game has a cooperation dynamic that may trump all this anyway. If you and I split the B&O, and both work hard to develop it, and the other players lack similar coordinated action, one of us will win with the difference being decided around the edges by minority shareholdings. In a 4-player game, if 3 players have PRR and everyone spends a little time developing it, the fourth player is screwed. Furthermore, it seems like it is in the best interests of players to cooperate when the opportunity presents itself.

I dunno. When thinking about the game, I'm ultimately left wrestling with slippery inter-player dynamics more than with the theoretically much more interesting valuations in the stock auctions. I think in the end, who ends up owning what certificates ends up mattering more than what they paid for them, if opportunities for player cooperation develop – especially with the extremely valuable PRR. The C&O by contrast, with 6 available shares, is so easily diluted by friends and foes alike that it's an unattractive investment for either capital or expansion energy unless it can be had more cheaply than players seem to instinctively allow.

Which sort of brings me back to the valuations thing. Having played a couple times now, I sort of have a handle on what a PRR share is worth in the initial offering, probably north of $25. On the other hand, I still really don't have a good idea of what a C&O share is worth beyond not a lot.

I'm still not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. The first time I played the game I thought it was cool, I found the auctions and the wide-open nature of the play very appealing. The second time, with 4 players, the player who didn't get one of the three PRR shares was doomed basically from the get-go (and that was even with PRR shares being apparently fairly pricey, raising far more capital than the PRR could ever spend).

So while I do like the game, I'm skeptical as to whether the balance is really there. The opportunity cost of auctioning shares may be too high; the real value of shares may actually be significantly more than the cash available to players, making artificial cash management decisions a little too important; and some companies – notably the PRR, C&O, and Wabash – may be out of whack; and expanding cheap companies, like the C&O, may simply be much too expensive compared to the opportunity costs. But the redeeming virtue of the game is its relative brevity, at a little over 60 minutes. Any longer, and I think some of the suspect balance issues (whether real or perceived) would hit harder, as they do for me in Age of Steam. Even though the game itself actually seems like it might want to go a little longer, develop a little more, I think ending where it does allows Chicago Express to be a game of exploring the interesting decision space and game dynamics without overstaying its welcome.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Rules

I still want to do some kind of 2008 in Review article at some point, but one thing that struck me was that it was bookended by two very promising wargames with quite possibly the worst sets of rules I have ever seen - and believe me, as one who has ranted about game rules before, that's saying something. So I thought I'd take an opportunity to rant some more and maybe to offer some solutions.

The games in question are The Devil's Cauldron (MMP) and Pursuit of Glory (GMT). I had every reason to like both.

In fact, maybe I do. I almost can't tell. Because the #1 reason I threw up my hands in despair at The Devil's Cauldron was not gameplay, but utter, blinding frustration with the rule book. I could never remember the Assault Sequence, for example, and every time we needed to confirm some small detail we needed to wade through the rules' endless nattering before finding (hopefully – there is no index) what we were looking for. The insanely verbose and conversational style makes actually using it during a game to look stuff up an infuriating exercise.

Conversely, the Pursuit of Glory rules read more like a rough draft than actual rules. Spread over almost 50 sprawling pages, the rules are constantly re-stating themselves, presenting things out-of-order, clarifying the blindingly obvious, and getting bogged down in minor details. This game is almost certainly not be as complex as it looks, but with 50 pages of meandering and incomprehensible rules, I can virtually guarantee it will never be played around here. Nobody I game with regularly will look at that kind of page count and even bother to try, no matter how much one insists it's very like the modest-complexity Paths of Glory and the rules volume is due mostly to clarifications and keeping the most obtuse players on ConsimWorld happy. Page count may be a crude metric, but 50 pages = no go unless you're OCS or ASL. I take that back, even OCS has "only" 38.

Although these were by far the worst, there were plenty of bad rulebooks this year, particularly from repeat offenders GMT and Fantasy Flight. The Unhappy King Charles! rule book makes a moderately complicated game look daunting, Warriors of God uses opaque and non-standard terminology to make a simple game needlessly confusing, and Tide of Iron's rules turn a light wargame into a major undertaking, with the Desert Fox expansion rules being even worse.

Enough ranting. On this particular occasion I'm here not just to complain, but to offer some suggestions. I'll admit I've never written a rulebook. But I have spent a great deal of time explaining rules to people, and certainly have read more than my share. Some of this stuff seems very basic to me, but apparently it needs to be said.

First and foremost, I think it's important to keep in mind what we're trying to accomplish here. What we are trying to do is to build a model of the game in the player's mind. The player has to have a working model of the game in his or her head in order to weigh the options and make the decisions required to play it. So the goal is to build up these mental systems in a way not unlike you would assemble anything else.

The 100% Rule: When writing rules, one must bear in mind that there is actually a big difference between explaining rules and creating a working rule book. If I explain the game rules to you, I only need to get far enough for you to have a solid enough mental model to begin playing. Things that are initially either not relevant or negligibly relevant can be explained later. As an explainer, I can also rely on the players to ask clarifying questions when their mental models seem to have gaps. But to formally describe a game in a set of rules, 90% is not good enough, you have to have 100%. The same conversational techniques you would use to teach rules in person can fail to fully and concisely convey the complete details of a complex system when read. Sometimes catastrophically, as The Devil's Cauldron demonstrates. It has an acceptable 90% rulebook if you have access to someone who knows the game 100%. Unfortunately, such a person does not appear to be included in the box.

Short Rules Are Better: It's a fact of life that our brains' short-term storage buffers are small, and a rule has to pass through that buffer before it has a chance of being retained long term. Simple, straightforward rules can frequently be made vastly more difficult to retain through over-explanation. Rule 12.5 in Pursuit of Glory is a good example. This is a simple rule: All full strength regular units have to roll a die when activated for attack in certain situations, and if they roll >= the round number, they are reduced. But then when you spend 4 (short) paragraphs clarifying that means that reduced units don't roll, irregulars don't roll, that yes, “when activated” really is before combat, so you have to use your reduced combat strength, that rolling > 2 is more likely than rolling > 5, and that there might possibly be cards out there that alter all this, all of a sudden you've actually made the transition from page to memory far more difficult than if you had just bolded the word regular and been done with it. Plus you've completely broken the reader's rhythm. The simple version is perfectly clear and concise. If you feel you absolutely must preempt possible misunderstanding of an otherwise perfectly clear rule, put it in a footnote, side-note, or appendix. As a corollary, write your rules for the average reader, not some nut-job on ConsimWorld who is out to willfully misinterpret your rules or question your design decisions.

The Test of Context: I've talked about this a little on a recent thread about explaining Race for the Galaxy on BoardGame Geek. This gets back to the whole mental model thing. When you're trying to help someone build a mental model of the game systems, you want to build the systems in a logical order, such that a player doesn't have to do a lot of work to hook them up once the explanation is done. In many games, the sequence-of-play order is the way to go. But there are some dramatic examples where explaining things in that order actually makes it significantly more difficult, like Race for the Galaxy or Through the Ages, because understanding things that happen in the first phases requires understanding what's going on later - but the opposite may not be true.

For wargames, what this translates into is that you have to start with the victory conditions, because that is the overall context. Paths and Pursuit of Glory get this right; the victory conditions are up front. Unhappy King Charles! gets it wrong and puts the victory conditions right at the end, so you struggle through the rulebook with little understanding of what you're trying to accomplish and then have to retrofit your mental model when you find out the answer. From there, you might argue for explaining rules that are critical to victory before breaking into the sequence of play; for Unhappy King Charles! and Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, for example, one might make an argument to explain political and provincial control second rather than in sequence of play order.

The other thing this argues strongly against is up-front terminology explanations, which have become distressingly common in GMT rulebooks. Pursuit of Glory has two dense pages of terminology up front which are almost totally incomprehensible since you have no context for understanding what they're going on about. Pursuit of Glory is actually a multiple, severe offender here. We get terrain effects on combat on page 4 before we've even gotten to the sequence of play. Detailed unit descriptions are on page 6 and 7 before we have any way of understanding what these unit distinctions actually mean in game terms, so the rules of course have to repeat everything again later, which itself becomes incredibly problematic. There is absolutely no reason to introduce a rule like this before the reader can possibly understand it.

You get or lose players in the first five pages or so, and almost definitely by page 10. If players can get get a running start on what the game is all about – if you get them a solid context to work with - they'll have hope, even if your game is complicated. If they're on page 8 and still haven't got past the component overview, as is the case in Pursuit of Glory, you're screwed. Put the glossary at the end.

Tell 'em Once: There is an old rule of business presentations: "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you've told 'em". Unless you intend your rules to be read by disinterested and bored people who don't really want to be there, this is terrible advice for rules-writers. If you're repeating rules (like the Blockade rules, repeated several times in Pursuit of Glory), you're re-building a part of the mental model you've already built. Unless it's absolutely unavoidable, do it once and cross-reference.

The Once per Game Test: Rules need momentum and continuity. You need to build up an understanding of the core game systems before you deal with flavor rules. Any rules that applies only once per game should not be in the main body. Unhappy King Charles! is an offender here, with a couple pages of one-off rules right smack in the middle of the rulebook, breaking up the coherency the game system explanation. One-offs should be at the end, in their own categorized sections, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise.

In the same vein, one of the absolutely critical strengths of these card-driven wargames is that they can put a lot of these sorts of one-off rules - which are great for flavor but hugely problematic in terms of increasing real complexity - in the cards without burdening the player with learning them up front or having to remember them (in fact, for many folks not knowing exactly what is in the decks is a desirable feature of the first few games). One should leverage this. If a card explains its effect(s) perfectly clearly, it doesn't need a rule. Pursuit of Glory is again a repeat offender here, including (for example) rules 7.4.1, 7.4.2, 17.2.2 & 18.2.2 which, while admittedly short, are still unnecessary.

The Less than Once per Game Test: Any rules that take effect less than once per game (on average), whether they are rules that cover oddball situations that rarely come up or are chrome, should also be removed from the main rules. If they are patching up the rules to cover rare but awkward situations they should be in footnotes or something similar. If it's a real rule that has an application of less than once per game, you should first consider if you really need it, then put it somewhere where it isn't going to bother anyone.

Bad Game Systems Make Bad Rules: If you're having a hard time explaining something, it may be the fault of the game system, not the rules. If, as in Pursuit of Glory's section 11.2.2, you find yourself apologizing that seriously, this rule is actually really simple and just hard to explain clearly, you have officially entered the swamp. Which Turkish and Bulgarian LCUs can't do, apparently.

Designer's and Historical Notes: I love designer's and historical notes. I don't love them when they break up the flow of the rules. Too often they just serve to provide historical rationalization for bad rules, and they rarely, if ever, serve to help learn, clarify, or remember things. Put them at the end as a serious piece, like Avalon Hill used to do. Alternatively, do what Columbia does and have a three-column format, two with rules, and one with historical notes, designer's notes, optional rules, and other interesting tidbits where you can both see them (if you're interested) without having to delve into the rules, and also delve into the rules without being distracted by them.

An Index: If you have more than 12 pages of rules, have an index. Seriously. It's not that hard these days, and it has the added bonus that if your index is a mess, your rules are probably a mess too. It's insane how many complicated games don't have indices. Like Pursuit of Glory and The Devil's Cauldron.

Write Rules: While a game may have a goal - to teach some history, to espouse a theory of mobile warfare, to explain why things happened the way they did - once you cross the threshold from light to medium-weight, the game’s rules’ only goal must be to build the player’s mental model. That’s it. The rules are not the place to defend your design decisions, put across your point of view, or explain the history. The rules must be designed to cleanly and clearly explain the game system(s), nothing more. The systems themselves are, after all, supposed to be the vehicle through which you do all that other stuff and should stand on their own. Anything else belongs in footnotes, Designer’s Notes, Developer’s Notes, Historical Notes, More Notes, Appendices, Further Reading, Historical Booklet, Further Notes, or whatever.

As I finish writing this piece, I realize my goal - of setting down some hard and fast rules for writing rules to more complicated games - is obviously bigger than I could hope to tackle. So I ask you to help me out here. What are the worst mistakes you’ve seen rules-writers make, and what would you do to correct them? What are some of the best rules styles you’ve seen? For my part, I think Ted Raicer does good job - his original rules for Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin stand as good models for card-driven wargames of this sort. Even though they’ve become a bit needlessly bloated in recent updates of the living rules, they’re still pretty good. Mark Simonitch and Vance Von Borries also do a good job. While I might sometimes quibble with the follow-through, I think Richard Berg knows how to do this stuff properly. I like Columbia’s format a lot for their higher-end games like EastFront and Rommel in the Desert. On the other hand, GMT’s line of card-driven wargames has a lot of entries with painfully bad rules.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Reiner Knizia's and Valley Games' Municipium is one of my favorite releases of 2008. It's a classic recent Knizia game, reminiscent of Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Tower of Babel, and Beowulf in its ability to cram so many interesting decisions and so much flavor into such a relatively small set of rules and a relatively short but high-intensity playing time.

When I think about the overwhelming majority of games, I think about them having a couple or a few distinct game systems that interact in interesting ways. Take Agricola: you've got game systems for growing crops and maintaining herds of animals and playing occupations, but those game systems interact only lightly, in the sense that you have limited actions to spend on one or the other, but your farm and your herds are managed separately.

In Municipium, there is a lot of stuff going on – competition for citizens, the Praefect, building special powers, and turn order – but everything interacts heavily with everything else, and it's hard to pick out individual game systems. Even thought it might look like a worker placement or area control game, it's not; it seems to me really just a single large system which has some elements of both.

Which leads me to what is my biggest problem with Municipium, and that is how to pitch it when people ask you what you want to play. Games are easier to pitch when they are like something. The classic example for me is Agricola, which to some people can be sold as "a lot like Caylus, but actually fun". When a game fits into nice categories, like tile-laying or auction or negotiation or area-control, or more recently worker-placement or role-selection, it's easy to sell. You can get 80% of the way there using a few words to describe the basic idea, and then talk about what makes the game unique or unusual (like Agricola's asymmetric player positions and diversity of cards). This doesn't work here.

Interestingly, I've decided that the best way to sell recent Knizia games like Blue Moon City, Beowulf, and Municipium is to go directly to the theme and not try to pitch mechanisms at all. After all, the large majority of gamers buy and play games for their themes, however expressed, not their mechanical workings. Even though these recent Knizias are fairly simple rules-wise, the mechanisms are too involved or ambiguous to explain in a brief pitch. Trying to sell Beowulf as an auction game is not the way to go, even though the central driver sort of looks like it might be an auction, and the same goes for selling Municipium as an area-control game. But if you describe it as influence-gathering in Imperial Rome, talk about influencing the citizens or the Praefect or going to the Baths to hobnob with the rich and powerful or the Tavern to get your opponents drunk, that's something you can get traction with. And, helpfully, it's what the game basically delivers.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

I'm a little late to this particular party, but I finally had a chance to play the new Battlestar Galactica a few days ago. I was conflicted going into the game: the reviews had been good (they usually are), but Fantasy Flight Games' track record isn't always, and I love Lord of the Rings but hate Shadows over Camelot. I also wanted to like the television show, but couldn't.

So I was some combination of surprised and relieved when BSG was pretty fun.

The game actually makes a bit of a bad first impression, unfortunately. It beats you over the head with a lot of complexity, from the traditional overwrought FFG rulebook to critical references that should be in an easy-to-see place on the board but aren't (it's not like there isn't plenty of dead space) to a lot of critical rules detail that can only be found in tiny type on the board and simply cannot be seen if you lack a high-power spotlight, are viewing at a distance of greater than one foot, or are over the age of 30.

But, if you get past this, there are good ideas here. The foci of the game are the hyperjumps the Galactica has to make as they plot their course to Kobol. These are checkpoints where the board is periodically cleared of threats and the game timer resets, and it is a great way to segment the game and manage tension and ensure a semi-regular restart so the players don't get into a death spiral the way they do in Shadows over Camelot. The hidden loyalties are well-executed for the most part – dealing them out in two batches, at the beginning and mid-game, similarly ratchets up the uncertainty and tension and avoids some problems (and is true to the show).

Where BSG struggles, though, is with pacing. The game is just too long and gets too repetitive, is too much of a kitchen-sink type game and so has too many moving parts, and is too much at the mercy of the draw deck for its tension. Some stages will be terrific as Cylon raiders pile into the Galactica in waves while food shortages develop in the fleet and morale collapses. Some not so much, as you spend half an hour dealing with relatively uninteresting crises that never develop while waiting to jump. The system of crisis cards, where each turn the players draw a crisis from the show which they must resolve using skill cards, is clever but is simply not enough to reliably deliver tough and interesting decisions on its own. Things only really get fun when you have bad guys swarming and interesting crises going on at the same time, and for this to happen, you need things to come out in the right proportions, which they too often don't.

In general, there are just too many moving parts which are not tight enough. To be grossly general, to the extent that we're willing to call games art, they are the art of decisions. Music generates feelings and emotions through sound. Literature is the art of words. Painting is visual art. Games create their impressions, feelings, and emotions through the decisions they ask you to make. Every complaint people make about games ultimately boils down to a problem with the decision-making (i.e., too much luck = my decisions don't make enough of a difference; too much downtime = I make decisions too infrequently; brain-burner = the decisions are too hard; the theme is a paste-up = the decisions I make don't seem authentic; and so on).

In Battlestar Galactica, the players manage many more resources than they do in Lord of the Rings. BSG has food, people, morale, fuel, fighters, transports, dual-use skill/action cards, cylon fighters, cylon mother-ships, cylon boarding ships, cylon boarders, nuclear weapons, and political cards. Plus every player has a once-per-game special power. In Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, the players "only" have skill cards, action cards, ring tokens, life tokens, shields, and corruption. And despite the fact that BSG goes on for 3-4 times as long as Lord of the Rings, and even though it has so many more resource types, it still seems to manage to generate fewer interesting, really tough decisions than Lord of the Rings.

Now, part of this is because the players are secretly split into loyal Human players and Cylons, and much of the tension in the game is figuring out who is who. And that more or less requires a fair number of small decisions for the players to look at, so loyalties can be revealed over time. To the extent that the game succeeds - which is not insignificant - it does so in this aspect of it, as each decision is scrutinized for signs of treachery, and players banter around accusations, threats, and general paranoia. Not unlike in the show. But you simply can't create an interesting game out of a lot of uninteresting decisions, and here the decisions - whether how to resolve crises, or figuring out who the traitor is - are not reliably interesting, compelling, narrative, or evocative. At the end of the day, I can't help but think this game could be much improved if it were the euro that in its heart of hearts it really is, and wasn't trying to be the overwrought super-themey sort of thing FFG specializes in - stuff that always delivers a boatload of rules but doesn't always deliver a plausible theme or a plausible game. Usually less is more, and this applies to theme as much as anything else. Here as much as anywhere, a tighter, tenser game would be thematically far stronger than this kind of kitchen sink game.


As long as we're talking about BSG the game, I can't resist putting in my .02 on the show. One of the reasons that the new Sci-Fi Battlestar Galactica ultimately turned me off was it really only had one tone: grim. It completely lacked any emotional range. Real people are sometimes funny and crack jokes when they're under stress. BSG characters always take themselves so excruciatingly, painfully seriously. This was especially funny in context of playing the boardgame, where each character from the show is brutally, and totally effectively, boiled down to three traits, a characteristic, a special ability, and a flaw. When you put it like that, BSG the boardgame becomes a rich mine of humorous possibilities, and if only the show had been able to capture some of the humor we found in the game, maybe it wouldn't suck.