Gaming evolution: Risk

The classic game of Risk, set up for play.

Throughout this blog I would like to focus on how gaming has evolved over the past few decades, and what makes games of today more fun and approachable than in decades past. To this end, these gaming evolution posts will talk about games you may know, and how newer games have refined these ideas.  

Risk is one such classic. A world conquest game that is a household name and has made players feel like strategic generals for nearly 60 years. As a recap, Risk has players battling each other in order to control territory, which in turn allows them to command larger armies and consequently control more territory. However, players must be careful not to spread their armies too thin as their opponents are always eager to exploit a weakness in enemy lines.  While it had some great ideas for its time, Risk fell into a trap like many other early board games of providing something that was fun at first, but that stretched on for far too long given the lack of depth or interesting decision making. I recall one game of Lord of the Rings Risk that was set up at my first job out of college, with players pledging to take turns between tasks at work. The game stood mostly as a monument, as no one actually took their turns, and some players actually left the job before the game was completed.

Game of Thrones: The Board Game has a bit more secrecy and betrayal than Risk, hence the card board screens for each player.

The good news is that several designers took the core tenants of Risk, and reduced the more negative aspects of the game. The first of these games is A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. This game captures a similar feeling to Risk, as you use naval and ground units combined with clever strategy and card play to conquer your opponents castles. However, it immediately fixes one of the problems that plagued Risk: play length. As games have evolved over the last few decades, designers are focusing more and more on making sure the game ends before the enjoyment does. So, while Risk has the ultimate goal of eliminating your opponents, Game of Thrones has a more attainable victory condition. If any player controls 7 castles at the end of the round, they win the game. If no player reaches this goal, within ten turns the game ends, and whoever controls the most castles wins. This simple change of adjusting the goal of the game results in a play experience that is both shorter and more engaging.  Of course, there is also plenty here for a fan of books and show. Each player controls a major house from the series, complemented by a unique set of cards and abilities representing the house’s most well known characters.

Small World is colorful and family friendly, but also has a lot of strategic depth.

Another game that has improved upon the Risk formula is Small World. Much like Risk, the game is about controlling territory and conquering foes with a a bit of a fantasy flair. Each player controls a rotating cast of creatures with unique special abilities that will help you wrest control of the board from your opponents. However, unlike Risk, conquering territories doesn’t require any dice.  Everyone can enjoy the roller coaster ride of dice from time to time. Whether its the thrill of a great roll, or the despair of snake eyes, dice are inherently fun. But constant dice rolls in a game increase how random it is, and can prove frustrating when a brilliant strategic move is undermined by a couple poor rolls. Small World solves this by having combat be deterministic. If you have two more units than  your target, you take over that territory. No attack rolls or defense rolls, just simple math. In this way the game becomes more about how you use your units and various special powers versus how your dice rolls went at any given key moment. 

Risk is a perennial classic that defined a genre of conquest style games. Its influence cannot be denied. But it was also introduced to a world before video games, the internet, and a bounty of movies and media were commonplace. For modern board games to bring people to the table with so many other entertainment options available they need to provide a play experience that does not outstay its welcome, or relentlessly punish an unlucky player. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game and Small World both streamline the experience Risk introduced while simultaneously adding depth and variety to the genre. However, even these examples are not standing still. The world of designer games is ever evolving. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is actually the second edition of the popular title having adjusted and improved from the original printing in 2003. Small World has expanded by adding more fantasy races to play and ways to build the map anew every game. After all, if games don’t evolve, they end up like that ill fated office game of Risk unplayed and ultimately forgotten.

Germany: The land of board games

In the fall, I had this conversation with a co-worker

Me: I am going to Germany!

Coworker: Oh cool, when are you going?

Me: The beginning of October.

Coworker: That’s awesome. Are you going for Oktoberfest?

Me: Nope, I’m going to the biggest board game convention in the world!

The Messe Essen, an enormous convention centere where the Spiele Fair is held.
The Messe Essen, an enormous convention center where the Spiele

Germany is know for many things. Amazing beer, awesome castles, delicious chocolate. However, they also have a passion for board games, and have been producing some of the best games on the market for decades. No where is this more apparent than at the Spiel Game Convention in Essen Germany. Each year hundreds of brand new games are released at the convention, and thousands of people come from all over Europe, and the world, to try the latest titles.

In a “small world” twist, I have  two German friends, Tobias and Nicole who live near this festival of awesomeness. I had met them at my local game night the very first time I had attended, and we’d gamed together for years since then. Both were originally from Germany, but were overseas for work and had come to Zombie Planet to find two familiar elements from home: Games and Gamers. When they returned to Germany there was a standing offer for a couch or bed at their place if one of the group wanted to swing out that way for the convention, and this was the year I was finally going to take them up on the offer.

So a plan was hatched, and a few months later with the help of some frequent flyer miles, and the hospitality of great friends, I was on a plane to Europe. The trip would be filled with some tourism, of course. I couldn’t go to Germany without exploring the country and sights. But it would be punctuated by three days of gaming nirvana.

Convention goers trying new games. Table space is very limited!
Convention goers trying new games. Table space is very limited!

The convention runs four days each October, Thursday through Sunday, and fills up four halls of the massive Messe Essen convention center. The halls are filled wall to wall with board game publishers pushing new games, and hoping to come away with a hit release. 2015 had 910 exhibitors from 41 different nations, and more than 400 new board games released to the public.

Unlike many similar conventions in the Unites States such as Origins or GenCon, Spiel is a trade show. There is very limited table space, all dedicated to demoing the new games on sale, and minimal events or guest panels to attend. There is certainly no space to sit down and try a game you have just bought, or even eat lunch purchased from one of the many food carts in the hallways between the showroom floor. It can feel a bit crowded like a busy store during the holidays, but everyone is incredibly polite, and play explanations are given in either German or English depending on the makeup of the group demoing the game.

The busiest day at the convention was a bit overcrowded.
The busiest day at the convention was a bit overcrowded.

The word that I think best describes my three days at the fair would be “Overwhelming.” As a huge fan of the hobby, it was a bit of sensory overload, as there were new games around every corner, and it was impossible to take it all in, even with multiple days on the show floor. There was also a bit of claustrophobia on Saturday, the busiest day of the fair,  as it was actually difficult to get around with the throngs of weekend visitors. Sometimes my cohort and I would sit down to demo a game just to take a load off our feet and unwind from navigating the crowds.

As for the games themselves, there were some amazing sights to see. One of the biggest hits of the fair was called 504. It boasts 504 different games in one box with each of them playing differently. The way it accomplishes this feat is through having nine different modules from which you picked three to play in a certain combination.

504 boasts 504 different games in a single box through a unique modular game system.
504 boasts 504 different games in a single box through a unique modular game system.

The way you combined the different modules also affected how the game played, meaning 123 was vastly different from 321, even though they contained the same basic modules. The game was being played constantly at the fair, and was definitely the buzz of the show. I could never find a seat at the table, but did manage to snap a few shots of this board game chameleon.

I was limited by both a budget and luggage space for any potential purchases at the fair, but I had done my research and had a short list to whittle down by the time the floors opened. In decades past, most of these games would never see U.S. shores much less be available in English. These days, the cream of the crop always makes it over to our domestic game market, and most game at the convention are language independent, or are available in English as well as German at release. While some folks engineer packing methods that stretch the laws of physics I was content to grab a few gems and oddities that looked like they would have staying power when I got home.

The final haul, an eclectic mix.
The final haul, an eclectic mix.

Throughout the fair you can sense the passion for this hobby. Game designers are treated like celebrities, with signing sessions for their popular games. Publishers new and old are eager to show attendees why their game is a hit. It was fascinating to just walk the show floors, and see all of the games being demoed. Everyone seemed to be just as excited about gaming as I was; even the volunteers who were teaching games till they lost their voice. But apart from the electricity of the fair, it was wonderful to visit with some old friends, and be at the gaming table with them again. I hope to go back someday, squeeze in a few more games with them, and perhaps bring and extra suitcase.

Love at first shuffle: Games for couples


Valentine’s day weekend is around the corner, and with that in mind I wanted to discuss two games that are great for couples.  The first is an experimental board game that really embodies the Valentine’s day theme, …and then we held hands. The game is played cooperatively, meaning you and the other player are working together to meet the win condition versus competing against each other. This can be a great style of play for couples who do not want to be directly competitive, since both players win or lose together. After all, nothing can kill the desire to play a game faster than an endless win streak for one player.

…and then we held hands, ready for play. Each player starts on opposite sides of the circle and attempts to meet in the center.

The theme of the game is working together in love to find balance. To do this, players use cards that depict various emotions to move to different spaces on the circular board. The spaces correspond to the colors on the cards, so playing a blue happiness card would allow you move to the adjacent blue space. The goal is to move your piece in such a way that you land on a certain set of emotions in a single turn. Doing this several times, lets you and your partner move towards the center of the circle, where when you meet, you win the game.

Cards can have different colors on each side, but you can only use the left or right side depending on where your piece is on the board.

Sounds simple, right? It might be, if there was only one color on each card. Instead, in a brilliant metaphor for the dynamics of a relationship, each card has a left side and a right side with potentially different emotions on each side. A player is only allowed to use the side of the card corresponding to which half of the circle their piece is currently on, the left or the right, emulating different perspectives on the issues and emotions that make up the lifeblood of being close to someone. Players ARE allowed to use their partner’s cards to accomplish a goal, but if any player runs out of cards, both players lose the game. In a final twist, players aren’t allowed to communicate during play, leaving them to rely on reading the other players moves and intuiting their intention and how to best share the cards that are available.

pic2606107_mdThe second game I would like to recommend is Lost Cities. This is a great two player duel of wits that is easy to learn, but has quite a bit of strategic depth. This one is a better fit for couples that like to kindle a friendly rivalry. Essentially you and the other player are organizing expeditions as turn of the century explorers. Each of the six expeditions is a certain color of cards, numbered 1-10. Your goal is to play stacks of numbered cards on your side of the central board in ascending order. At the end of each round, the expedition is worth the total value of the cards you played, minus twenty. Organizing such a grand journey is not cheap and the investors want their cut! If the your total is less than twenty you can  even score negative points.

Players play cards to their respective sides, or discard to the corresponding discard pile.
Player play cards to their respective sides, or discard to the corresponding discard pile.

The key tension to this game is that your opponent across the table is trying to do the same thing. As there is only one of each number card in each suit, half of the strategy is making sure your opponent does not have access to the cards they need to continue the sequence. To up the ante in this game of cat and mouse, each suit has it’s own discard pile on the central board. Players can either draw from the main deck of cards or take the top card in any given discard, so you have to be careful not to discard a card your opponent could use. What results is a wonderful dual between players to set up a good string of numbers while not showing their hand or committing to any one expedition too early.

There is also a delicious element of gambling involved. Mixed in with the basic six suits of one through ten are “investor” cards. These come in the same six colors, but must be played as the first card in a sequence. They double the overall value of a stack, but they will also double it if it ends up negative.

Both games are fantastic, and produce wildly different experiences with just some cards and a central board. I remember trying out …and then we held hands at a convention with a complete stranger who was also curious how the game played. Here was a person I had never met, and he and I were trying to navigate the emotional waters of a board game romance. Both of us could not stop laughing and pantomiming with exaggerate gestures just how happy or sad we were when we played each emotion card. It was made all the more comical that his girlfriend was standing next to him during these rocky waters. I also have many great memories of playing Lost Cities after a dinner date, unwinding with my girlfriend at the time, drinking some wine, and bonding over some cards and competition. Here’s hoping everyone has a wonderful Valentines day weekend, and that you all have a chance to break out some games.




Welcome to the Cardboard Empire

No image could better introduce myself for a board game blog than that of my shelves. Fresh Ikea wood, just minted this holiday season with some Christmas money. To me, this is a wall of endless entertaining possibilities as well as one of memories. The spine of any given game will remind me of the last time a group of friends and I got together to open that box, and what laughter, betrayal, or grand strategy lay within.

Behold my Empire!
Behold my Empire!

And yet, to most readers this is a wall with no familiar sights. Just a bunch of strange names you have never heard of before. After all, where is Monopoly or Clue, or even an old reliable like Uno on these shelves?

To that I say, I started there too. We all have some kind of board game heritage from our youth. Monopoly games that had to be left in a frozen state overnight, Uno games where we are on the verge of winning until an uncle  played a +4 card, or traditional card games with the parents or grandparents. Most of us moved on, with other forms of entertainment taking precedence. Why dive into a board game when Netflix is tempting you to catch up on the last season of House of Cards, or your Xbox controller is sitting forlornly on your couch, or a night on the town is in the cards?

For me it started about 5 years ago. I was bored one fateful Friday night and I wandered into Zombie Planet, a comic and game store on Central Ave. Compared to your usual board game selection at a Target or Walmart, the selection of games in the store seemed strange to me, and it was a bit overwhelming. Curious, I wandered towards the back where a group was playing a space ship building game. Everyone was laughing, clearly having an amazing time as their space ships were torn to bits by the harsh realities of space trucking. I asked them for a recommendation, walked out with a new found prize, and a few weeks later I was back to share the joy of these hobby games with some new found friends.

What I have discovered with board games, and what I want to share with you, is the evolution of those games from our youth. There is a small but growing industry of so called “designer games” where one might seek out a game by the name on the box much like you would look for the latest book by your favorite author.IMG_0182

So who am I apart from my board game shelves? I originally came to the area to go to school at University at Albany, and fell in love with it so much that I have been here ever since. When I am not at the table rolling dice I can be found curling (yes, that strange winter sport with the brooms) or out cycling on the Mohawk-Hudson trail. I work in database account management, but even during the 9 to 5 I can be found talking about last night’s gaming adventures, or trying to pull coworkers together for games at lunch.

My hope with this blog is to shed a light on this growing hobby. I will try to show what makes it tick, and why it is a fantastic decision to set aside a lunch at the office, or skip a Netflix night in in order to explore these cardboard totems, and see what it is they can offer.