No two games alike: Variety in gaming

Imagine a game of chess where each player used different pieces each game. A Queen swapped out for a catapult, the Rooks replaced by Ninjas. Imagine a game of monopoly where the properties changed location each game, and the player pieces each had unique powers. The games of our youth are durable and time tested, but one thing they can often lack is variety and change from play to play. There is, of course, some variability. The dice and chance cards make each game different, and the human element at play in even a luckless game like chess means that strategies will vary. But the games themselves, for the most part, are static.

Modern game designers have worked to add variety to games. To make a game as replayable as possible, and to have players excited for it to hit the table again and again, the experience can’t becomes stale or predictable. Players ask more and more for the games they buy to provide ever more strategies for victory, different pieces from game to game, and above all, an experience that is both deep AND broad.

Each game of The Duke promises a different play experience.
Each game of The Duke promises a different play experience.

To provide such an experience, a game needs to be designed from the ground up to include this variety. That game of chess I describe at the beginning? It exists, although not as the much anticipated Chess 2.0, but as The Duke. The Duke owes its roots to Chess, in that you move units with set movement patterns around a grid like board trying to to capture your opponent’s key piece. Sound familiar? The difference is that you pull these units randomly from a bag, instead of having a set group of pieces at the beginning like in Chess. To add an additional twist, the units are two sided tiles with different movements/powers on each side. When you move a piece, you must flip it to the opposite side, which means even the pieces you have access to are constantly changing how they can best used to conquer your opponent.

pic394356_mdYou see this kind of ingenuity everywhere in the designer game market. In fact, one of my favorite designers, Donald X Vaccarino, stakes his reputation on nearly infinite variety in his games. His first design is a card game called Dominion. In Dominion, you are the lord of a kingdom with a deck containing some money cards and some land cards. (Land cards are end game points. After all if feudalism taught us anything , what is a lord without vast tracts of land?). You use this money to buy new cards representing the people and structures that might be part of a castle. A spy let’s you see other player’s cards, a woodcutter generates more resources, etc… The goal is to build a sort of card engine that helps you buy more land and ultimately win the game.

Over 200 cards, and more to come. I carry my full Dominion set in a customized artist briefcase. This is my desert island game for variety’s sake alone.

It is a fantastic game, and was one my first purchases when I wandered into a gaming store years ago, but the aspect of the game that gives it its longevity is the set up. Each game, ten kingdom cards are selected at random, making the strategies that are available for any given game different based on what cards are selected. The initial game came with 25 different cards to choose from, allowing for many different set ups with completely different cards. The game has been so successful that there are now over 200 different cards to choose from, making for 35,216,131,179,263,320 possible starting combinations. With odds like that, no two games will ever be the same, and each game requires a different tactical approach. This would all fall apart if every card was its own complicated mess of rules, but where Dominion succeeds most is in combining many different simple actions to create a depth of strategy.

pic1135191_mdAnother game by Vaccarino is Kingdom Builder. Here too, variety is king, but in different ways than Dominion. In Kingdom Builder, each player tries to place their 40 settlements out on a hexagonal grid based board to score the most points. Each turn players draw a card that indicates one of the five different terrain types on the board, and places three settlements on that type of terrain. Settlements must be adjacent to each other whenever possible, presenting the fundamental puzzle of the game in following this rule of adjacency while still placing pieces in the most advantageous position. The key lynchpin of the design is that the board, powers, and the way to score points are different from game to game.

Different goals make each game play out differently.
Different goals make each game play out differently.

Each game has players set up 4 boards as the map for that game, each with 1 to 2 different powers, and select 3 goals the define how to score points. One goal might be to have a big cluster of settlements next to each other, while another goal tasks players with creating long horizontal lines of settlements. Others challenge players to build next to mountains, or water.. Even playing on the exact same map with different goals will provide a very different strategic experience. I have played over 150 games of Kingdom Builder, and each plays feels both familiar in its basic cadence, and fresh in how I approach using the powers on the board to accomplish the goal.

Most modern designers work like Vacarrino has, to bake variety directly into the core concepts of their game design. The easiest way to accomplish this goal, as evidenced by the games I described, is to have variable set up. Unlike Monopoly or Chess, having variability in the how the game is set up before anyone makes a single move is key to having different play experiences. There is no better way to ensure that the journey of a game will be different than by having each journey begin at a different point of origin.

Board games are an investment, so it is no surprise that players want to play games that have longevity and variety. There is a lot of different options provided in the box for the Duke,Dominion, and Kingdom Builder, but what I did not touch on today is how designers continue to add life to a game through expansions. All three of these games have additional expansion titles that you can buy to add more options to the base game. The advantage in expansions is that they can add more of what players love without being a whole new game. There are often a few rule tweaks, but unlike learning a whole new game, any player that knows the original can jump right in. They can provide the best of both worlds, in being both familiar in terms of how to play, but new and exciting in how the a particular set up plays out. More expansions were just announced for both Dominion and Kingdom Builder, and I cannot wait to add the twists and turns they promise to my favorite games.

Designed in the Capital Region: Local games

With all of this talk of the great games coming from Germany, one might wonder if there are any games coming from the U.S. There are in fact, right from our own back yard. Today I want to talk about three of these games from designers here in the capital region. Each of these designers published their game in drastically different ways. I would like to briefly introduce each game and explain how the varied avenues to market impacted the final product. 

IMG_0656The first game I would like to focus on is Grave Business by Minion Games, designed by Andy Van Zandt. In another nod to just how varied modern games can be, this is an undead themed spatial auction game with light combat. It sounds like a mouthful, but it’s a ton of fun.  A grid of tiles on the main board represents items you are digging up in the graveyard, and players bid by placing their undead creatures on a given row or column. However, your creatures are fragile, freshly reanimated, and so opponents can attack your bids, literally, and return them to the graveyard they came from.IMG_0654

Representing the old guard of this small hobby market, Grave Business was published by a traditional board game publisher. The way this classically works, is designers pitch their game to publishers, both big and small, who then help with the development, art acquisition, and production of the game. Publishers sell the game to the various board game distributors, who then sell to online and local stores, who then sell the game to you. This whole process is still the most common route to get a game to market today, and many of the biggest hits are from these well established publishers. This support from a publisher shows in the quality of the art and production found throughout Grave Business, and it is certainly the best produced game of the three I will cover today.

However, just as I was getting into the hobby, a different path to market was gaining traction. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowdfunding sites have given board game designers an alternative way to get their games into the hands of players. Unlike the traditional avenue of publishers, designers can run a crowdfunding campaign where gamers pay for the game up front. These campaigns often have various incentives and bonuses for these early adopters that encourage them to spend more money to improve the final product. Designers then use the money raised through the campaign to produce the game themselves, without a traditional publisher. Many designers use this approach to take their game concepts directly to their target audience. However, without a publisher, designers must handle the development, art, and play testing of a game themselves. Designing a great game is one thing, but producing it is another story! Sometimes the game does not come together due to all this extra overhead.    Thankfully Monolith did not fall into any of these common pitfalls.

IMG_0649Monolith is a dice game by Goblin Army games designed by Matt Papa. Players use the dice they roll to select actions from rune cards that change each game, leading to a short fun game that is different each time you play it.  With the funding of just 379 fans, Matt was able to produce this game he had designed and play tested at Zombie Planet for months. While going without a publisher added greatly to the work involved, Monolith belongs entirely to its creator. The game has a clean and simple look vs Grave Business fitting both it’s theme and it’s funding model. Art is often the most expensive part of producing a game, and the production decisions for Monolith kept that cost to a minimum.

Finally I want to talk about a game that bypassed both Kickstarter and a traditional publisher and just went to a print- on- demand model. The Decket by P.D. Magnus isn’t a game but rather a system of games. It consists of a deck of cards not unlike a traditional poker deck with a few important differences. One difference is that there are six suits instead of four. The other difference is that most cards have two suits. The designer himself created many games using this system, and also works with other designers to implement their own games using the cards. The game itself is available via the Game Crafter, a site which prints games on demand. You can also buy a book collecting all of the best games designed for the unique card system. The art on all the cards was also IMG_0643designed by P.D. himself, and there is a lot more art than just the face cards in a poker deck. Here there are locations, characters and events illustrated on all of the cards, some of which are used in how a game plays.  My personal favorite Decktet game is called Magnate where players build cities with the cards as different buildings. Players must balance turning in cards for the resources to build while holding onto cards that will score them the most points. However there are also more traditional games similar to Hearts or Rummy that you can play with the Decket.

Three very different games with different paths to market. It can be very difficult to design a game, but there are more ways than ever to get your game out there. However, game design is rarely a full time job. Only the most successful designers make enough off their design work to make a living. Matt and P.D both have day jobs that they are passionate about in addition to their design work. Andy was fortunate enough to land a job at one of the major publishers Tasty Minstrel Games, and uses his talents to develop games and continue working on his own designs.

All three games prove that the hobby has more variety than ever before, both in the game play and the ways they were published. Print on demand and Crowdfunding models simply weren’t available a decade ago, but now designers can sell directly to their audience and bypass the traditional publishers completely. And with all this variety to choose from it is a great time to be playing games.


Gaming evolution: Monopoly

Monopoly Alright let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Monopoly.

It is the game that represents gaming to most people in one capacity or another. Everyone has a copy, be it an heirloom from their parents or grandparents, or one of a million new shiny branded versions from Simpsons to Star Wars. It is very much a shared piece of gaming heritage, and it is what folks assume I am playing when I mention that I play board games regularly.

I have fond memories of the game myself, mostly stemming from a computer version for the Commodore Amiga that my brothers and I played so much that we had determined personalities for each of the AI players (Betty seemed to turn down every trade, and Andy was a conniving cheater).  Because it is such a cultural touchstone, and a household name, I want to discuss it as a way of illustrating just how games have changed. You see, when I look at my game shelves and the games I play regularly, none of them really play like Monopoly. Unlike Risk, where designers have taken the core idea and iterated and changed it to be something more modern, most designer board games have tossed the gameplay of Monopoly aside.

To understand why this is the case, we’ll need to take a closer look at what makes up the gameplay of Monopoly. It is what’s called a roll and move game. Every turn players roll the dice, move to a space, and see what happens. From there, you either buy the space as property, pay the current owner of the space, or draw a card/do what the space tells you to do. Despite these simple rules, most people have been playing it wrong their whole lives.  In fact, one of the most widely skipped rules is that if you don’t buy the property you land on, it immediately goes up to auction to the group.  These auctions are the most interactive part of the game. Outside of whether to buy or auction, the decision window in the game is incredibly narrow. The dice roll tells you where to go, and the board itself dictates what happens next.

Andy was a cheater, I swear.
Andy was a cheater, I swear.

In a way, this type of game is a ride. Most folks have experienced the highs and lows of this roller coaster, from being a property lord with a murderers’ row of hotels waiting to bankrupt its next victim, to being an impoverished top hat or wheelbarrow (RIP iron), trying to hang on to pass go one more time. Countless other games rely on a similar formula, from Life, to Fireball Island, to Talisman. The dice, and the spaces on the board weave together your fate as a player.

For the longest time, this was what I thought board games were. The games from my youth were variations on the formula, and when I was asked to make a board game for a book report in school, what else did I make but a roll and move game with thematic spaces and cards based on the book.

So why did designer games move away from this kind of gameplay? Because players asked for more meaningful decisions. Instead of a dice roll and a space on the board dictating the interaction, modern games use the dice, board and cards to open up a much wider array of decisions. These decisions allow players to dictate their own path through a game, and rewards strategic planning and tactical opportunism. At the end of a game one can look back at where things went right or wrong, and approach the game differently the next time out. There is, of course, still room for chance, but players are much more the master of their own fate. For the most part designers in the industry have retired the Monopoly roll and move formula, but there are many new styles of game that carry on the theme and feel of that classic.

The monopoly money is still intact.
The monopoly money is still intact.

With that in mind I’d like to talk about three of my favorite games that have a Monopoly vibe while offering more interesting decisions. The first of these games is Lord of Vegas. This game captures the theme of casino lords during the early years of vegas building up huge casino empires. Unlike Monopoly, players are presented with a choice of what they would like to do each turn, and can take as many actions as they can afford. In this way a player crafts a turn, makes some calculated risks and just like Vegas, sometimes these risks pay off. There is still plenty of dice and plenty of luck as each casino is made up of different tiles and the highest player die determines who is the boss of that particular casino. One action players can take is to pay for a reorganization of a casino in which all player dice in the casino are rolled and control of the casino can shift based on this die roll. The game captures the feeling of slowly building up an empire, getting huge payouts when your investment pays off, and the back and forth interaction between players. Just like in Monopoly, trading is fair game in Lords of Vegas, and there’s a lot of fun in brokering a deal, sometimes in desperation, that with a little luck can bring you back into the running.

AirlinesEuropeAnother game that captures some of the feel of Monopoly with very different gameplay is Airlines Europe. Here you are investing in various airlines, and expanding their routes in the hopes of being the majority shareholder when dividends pay out. Like Monopoly, players need to invest money and build up the various airlines in order to capitalize on that growth later in the game. But the theme and feel are where the similarities end. Airlines Europe doesn’t have the roll and move mechanism, but instead gives players a choice of one of four actions each turn. Players drive the flow of the game by strategically utilizing this arsenal of actions, instead of waiting for the perfect roll.

LastWillFinally I want to touch on another game that takes the theme of Monopoly in a different direction. Last Will, in a nod to the 80’s classic Brewster’s Millions, has players trying to go broke as quickly as possible. Players use action cards to spend money in ridiculous ways, from buying real estate and selling it at its lowest possible value, to throwing extravagant balls or taking their horse out to dinner. The theme itself is half the fun as you and your friends compete to lose money, and curse when income accidentally slips into your coffers. And like many modern games the art does a wonderful job making players’ feel like bourgeois millionaires on a crazy spending spree.

Monopoly is an institution, and has certainly earned it’s place in the board game hall of fame, but I am always a bit confused when people’s interest in board games starts and stops with this perennial title.  It would be like having a film collection that only consisted of Gone with the Wind, or sticking with the first Super Mario Bros. for decades. Just as TV, movies, and video games have evolved, the board game space has evolved too. It’s fine to hold on dearly to classics, but there’s a wealth of fun and entertainment to be gained by opening up to things a little more outside of the Monopoly box.

Game nights at Barnes and Noble

So you’ve read about these exciting new board games, but don’t know where to start? Then I’ve got great news for you. Barnes and Noble is scheduling board game nights, and the first one is this Thursday at Colonie Center at 7pm. The store will feature employee guided demos for  one of the five great new family board games each week. Even better, the demoed games will be available for sale, and you can receive free promotional cards and pieces for participating in the demos.

Below is a quick rundown of the games to help you decide which nights to attend:

March 3rd  

King of Tokyo: Imagine Yahtzee, except instead of trying to roll various sets of numbers you are rolling dice to determine who is the strongest in a knock-em-out game of monster king-of-the- hill. The game features fantastic art and crazy power up cards so that no two games play alike. In a stroke of brilliance, the game has direct confrontation, but avoids the hurt feelings that can result from feeling targeted by other players.

Yahtzee with monsters!
Yahtzee with monsters!

March 10th

Sheriff of Nottingham: A recent trend in board games has been the emerging popularity of social deduction or bluffing games. In these games the actual rules of play are very simple, and most of the nuance comes from trying to lie or bluff one’s way into a more advantageous position. This is definitely a game for those who like trying to read other players and know when to call someone’s bluff. The game was also featured on the Geek and Sundry YouTube show Tabletop, a fantastic show that features celebrities playing popular board games:


March 17th

Splendor: A positively eloquent and simple gem buying game that has a lot of depth. Players use gems, represented in the game by nice chunky poker chips, to purchase location cards that provide permanent access to one of the five gems represented in the game. The goal is to build an empire of gem location cards in order to buy even more expensive locations that score points. One of my favorites that provides a satisfying feeling of building an efficient point scoring engine.

Navigating the gem buying market.
Navigating the gem buying market.

March 24th

Codenames: The party game of the year for 2015. In Codenames teams of 2-8 people work together to identify words in a 5 by 5 grid that match the team leader’s one word clue. However, they have to be careful not to choose words that belong to the other team or the dreaded “assassin” which causes your team to immediately lose the game. This game has been a hit with everyone I have shared it with, and is perfect for a party with people joining or leaving the game whenever they’d like.

Spy vs. Spy
Spy vs. Spy

March 31st

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival: Another beautiful game where players place tiles that depict colorful paper lanterns during the harvest festival in Japan. Each tile rewards all players with cards depending on which color faces them, and the strategy lies in trying to collect the right colored cards to score sets while not giving your opponents the colors that they need to complete their own scoring combination.

A beautiful tile laying game.
A beautiful tile laying game.

All of the games being demoed are fantastic for folks looking to get into the hobby or try something different than the games they’ve played before. If any of these games pique your interest, I encourage you to go check it out. The game nights will be going on all March long every Thursday at 7pm. If you can’t make it out on a particular Thursday evening, many of the local game stores also have these games on the shelf and friendly employees who would be happy to give a demo or explain the game.