This Saturday April 30th, 2016 is the 4th annual International Tabletop Day. Started in 2012 as an offshoot of the youtube series Tabletop, the event is a great way to celebrate the growing industry of board games and welcome new people to the hobby. There are several tabletop day events going on around the Capital Region:
Zombie Planet in Colonie will be hosting gaming for 24 hours starting at 10am on Saturday. There will also be a Pokemon Card Game tournament, a Warhammer 40k event, and a Magic: The Gathering event in the evening. The event page can be found here.
Foam Brain Games in Troy will also be getting in on the fun with open gaming during the day. Players will have tickets entered into a raffle for every hour they spend playing board games, and the dubious honor of having their name emblazoned on a duct tape trophy memorialize their gaming victories. The event page can be found here.
It’s Sunday night, and your favorite character was just killed off as a city fell into chaos. The outlook of the world is grim, as populations are overwhelmed with outbreaks of disease. Researchers are working in a lab across the globe to cure this plague once and for all. But a sudden plot twist shocks the room, and the shining light of a possible cure now seems impossible.
No, I am not talking about the latest episode of The Walking Dead, but a game night with Pandemic Legacy. In the new sensation to board games, Legacy games change permanently each time you play them. They also evolve as you play, and are filled with boxes, envelopes and pop-out cardboard sheets that unlock new rules and components as the game progresses and certain conditions are met. Much like a season of a tv show, once the story is told, the game is complete.
But let’s back up a step. The craziness all started back in 2011. Hasbro, looking to do something different with it’s classic Risk franchise tasked in house designer Rob Daviau with creating a new iteration of the game. The resulting creation, Risk Legacy, shocked everyone in the hobby. Here was a game that took the replayability and consistency people had come to expect from gaming, and threw it out the window. Players were asked to tear up cards permanently, add stickers to the board, and brandish a permanent marker to write on the board. To any board game collector, who sleeved their cards and made sure a single drop of soda never touched their precious game boards, this was not only sacrilege, it was madness.
However, the game gave players something that they could not find in any other traditional board game: permanence. Decisions made in a single game would last for all future games. No two games were alike, a notion the designers were keenly aware of when they numbered each game board produced. In addition to the permanence of decisions made from game to game, there was also the joy of surprise as mysterious boxes filled with new cards, stickers and components were opened as players reached certain milestones. Game five would be different not only on how the dice rolled, and where players started, but may have new rules, new goals and consequently a very different feel from game one. This was truly an evolution in board games.
A few years later Daviau brought his talents to another great design. Pandemic Legacy takes the classic cooperative gameplay of Pandemic by Matt Leacok and adds a similar layer of evolution and permanence to mix. The original Pandemic tasked players with taking on various roles (Medic, Research etc) and fighting the spread of infectious diseases around the globe. The diseases, represented by various colored cubes, would spread each turn based on a deck of infection cards that would specify the locations where cubes would be added. The game is a classic for the tension it created as players raced from continent to continent trying to keep ahead of the latest epidemic, with the threat of being overwhelmed and defeated by the game ever present.
Pandemic Legacy takes this core design and adds the concept of time. Each game represents a month of a single year. A legacy deck instructs players on which packet or box to open for each month, and just like in Risk Legacy, nothing stays the same. The legacy deck itself is an evolution of the format over the envelopes in Risk Legacy. The envelope format specified specific gameplay conditions that the players could skew towards, simply to meet the condition and open the new goodies. With the Legacy Deck, players draw cards until the hit a Stop card that specifies the next condition. Since there is only ever one condition in play at a time, and since they are revealed sequentially, the progression feel much more natural and maintains a better narrative arc. Here things are more personal than Risk Legacy, as players name characters and invest in them with player abilities and relationships. And there are conditions where a character can die, which would prove to be devastating with a character that had a lot of gameplay investment and was key to players’ strategy. Much like a TV show, the game is just Season 1 of what is sure to be many more, and over the course of the 12-24 games a story unfolds that is unique based on the decisions the players have made, and whether they’ve won or lost each month.
Another game that has capitalized on this new idea of a consumable board games is Time Stories. Unlike the legacy style games I have described so far that emphasize permanent alteration, Time Stories acts as a game system with different modules that you plug into it. The board, dice, and pieces are the same, and each module is a self contained story with its own cards to plug into the system. Unlike the Legacy games, each module is one adventure that can take 3-6 hours.
There is even a special insert to “save” the game between plays, much like one saves in a video game. The gameplay is modeled after the popular PC adventure games of years past, where a panorama of cards set up the “scene” of a location, and players interact with the scene to solve puzzles and resolve the story. The basic concept has players time traveling to solve these different cases, giving both a narrative and gameplay justification for repeating certain parts of the story, each time armed with new knowledge from the previous play.
However, there are definitely downsides to this new kind of gaming. For one thing, who plays from game to game suddenly matters in a different way than before. When I walk into the gaming store on Friday night and plop down my latest favorite, it doesn’t matter who joins other than the number of players the game allows. All are welcome, and from game to game the group sitting around the table changes. With a legacy or consumable game like this, you’ll often want to play with the same players to really get the full experience of how the game changes from one play to the next. After all, few people jump right into the middle of season 3 of a TV show. Here too, they might be a bit lost, or at the very least a bit less invested in the state of the game if they have not played before.
There is also the concern of what you get out of your investment. Both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy provide many games worth of fun, but unlike other board games, the game has a limited lifespan. And with Time Stories that lifespan is even shorter. While its model provides a fantastic story telling experience, and endless variety with its modular nature, many fans are not thrilled with the pricing of the system. The basic game is sixty dollars and comes with just one module. Additional modules cost thirty dollars each. While board games still hold up well for entertainment costs versus a night out at the movies, many in the hobby want to get the most value out of each purchase, and such a one-off consumable game
Still, even with these negatives, Legacy games are a fantastic innovation. Both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy borrow from the narrative tension of the latest TV dramas, and are all the better for it. I haven’t even finished season 1 of Pandemic Legacy, and I am already excited for season 2. And later this year Daviau’s next design Seafall launches, promising to take the Legacy design concept to another level. It is the first such design without a traditional board game predecessor. If you have not tried these games, I absolutely recommend them. Risk Legacy is perfect for a group that likes confrontation and conflict, and Pandemic is perfect for families or couples that would prefer to work together. Breaking out the permanent marker, and tearing up cards can be quite liberating, even if it still feels a bit strange.
On the table is a semi-regular gallery of board games that I have played recently. There are so many games out there, it would be impossible to cover them all in depth. But with this selection of images I hope to illustrate just how varied modern board games can be, and pique folks’ interest to explore them further.
I hope you enjoyed these pictures. Keep playing and happy gaming!
A board game is more than a collection of cards, dice and tokens. Often it is more about the interaction between the players that creates the game space than the components themselves. One genre that relies almost entirely upon interaction is the Social Deduction genre. These are games where the main gameplay is reading your opponents actions and words, while carefully monitoring your own.A card that defines your role in the game is the only required component. One might say they aren’t games at all, but more social experiments, and they would not be far from the truth of the origin of these games of deception.
Dmitry Davidof, the creator of the first social deduction game Mafia, originally created the game to combine his psychology research with his job as a high school teacher. The basic gist of the game is a group of players are assigned secret identity cards, either mafia, or innocent. The mafia know who are on their team, but the innocents only know how many mafia are in the game. The game has a night phase and a day phase. During the night phase, the mafia kills one of the innocents. During the day phase the innocents argue over who is a member of the mafia, and vote for a player to be killed (hopefully a member of the mafia, but collateral damage is inevitable). The mafia win if they outnumber the innocents, and the innocents win if they manage to kill off all of the mafia.
The fun of the game comes in the discussions during the day about what just happened. As innocents die off, the web of possible suspects narrows, but the risk of losing grows. Players must question each other, evaluate the words and body language of friends, and soon accusations are flying as the simple setup of the game creates genuine paranoia on the part of the innocents To add some additional dimension to this core conceit. The game also has several special roles that players can be assigned. These roles allow players to bend the core rules a bit, from a detective that can review one other player’s identity to a doctor who can protect a player from being killed each night. Even more confusion and paranoia emerges as players try to convince each other of their supposed actions during the night phase.
In 1997 Andrew Plotkin gave the game a Werewolf theme, which fit the normal by day evil by night nature of the game perfectly and became one of the most popular themes for the game. Both Werewolf and Mafia have countless iterations and spin offs still being played to this day. A key strength of the game is that it can be played with almost any number of people with one of the most popular versions, Ultimate Werewolf, boasting that it can be played with up to 75 players. However, with this many players, and all the secret happenings during the night phase the game require an impartial moderator to keep things running smoothly. This is one reason why it has become a popular game on web forums, with games happening over the course of hours or days, and forum moderators handling player’s secret actions.
Above all other games that I have covered so far on this blog, this genre relies on the player group to create the fun. I have played rounds of Werewolf where the telltale paranoia was absent, and the accusations half-hearted. And thus, boiled down to it’s basics, it became a random guessing game. I have also played social deduction games where round after round the claims of innocence and the despair of betrayal are as real as can be. The game is entirely improvisation outside of a few cards and rules. Another downside is the player elimination factor. If you are killed you are considered a ghost, and all there is to do is watch the game play out. While it can be interesting to watch the conspiracy and betrayal unfold, you are still out of the game, which can be frustrating, especially if it’s during an early turn.
Social deduction is one of the hottest genres in board games today, and each new game has a twist that differentiates it from its experimental ancestor. Some of my favorites are:
One Night Werewolf: Takes all of the drama and compacts it down into a single 15 minute round. It also removes the need for a moderator by providing a slick smartphone app that reads through the steps for each role.
The Resistance: Removes both the moderator and the player elimination from werewolf, ensuring that players aren’t sitting out on the sidelines, and swaps out the Day/Night phase with the concept of missions that the good guys are trying to pass, and the spies are trying to foil.
New Salem: Takes the concepts of Werewolf and combines it with a simple card drafting game where players build a village. Buildings consist of three cards and must be completed to be scored. However each building may have Good or Evil aspects, leading to a literal Witch hunt as players accuse each other of building for nefarious purposes. Adding another layer of gameplay to the core social deduction has the benefit of giving players a tangible goal to chase in addition to the classic arguments about each player’s’ loyalty.
Spyfall: Takes the one of the core concepts of Werewolf and turns it on its head. Instead of a few knowing werewolves vs a bunch of clueless villagers, in Spyfall everyone is given a location card (Cruise, Auto Shop, Airplane etc) except for one player, the spy. Players must ask each other questions, and try to suss out who among them is clueless about where they are without giving away too much. If they spy player figures out what the location is, they can claim victory for themselves.
While many of these games are light on rules and components, they can create fantastic gameplay through player interaction. They are not for everyone as their very nature inspires a lot of lying, accusations, and yelling. Some folks would, understandably ,rather puzzle out moves in a more strategic, low key game. But with the right crowd social deduction games are a blast and can create stories that live on long after game night is over.