Too many games

Just a short ramble today, but something that I have been hinting at over my last few posts. As much as I love the hobby, and how much it has grown, I do worry about it reaching an over-saturation point. The number of games released each year has exploded exponentially over the last decade or so, thanks in part to Kickstarter, which makes it so companies can spring out of the woodwork and release a game, and also just from the growth of how many people game in general as the hobby becomes more mainstream. But are there enough gamers out there for all of these new releases to find an audience?

The tricky thing here is that games are pretty permanent. They are not transient, consumable entertainment, meant to be played once (except for in the case of Legacy games, which I’ve talked about before). Instead, once you have a game that you and your group loves, that is likely the only game you will want to play for a while. Anything new would have to be better than the games you already love. For my particular group, Terraforming Mars became THE game of the group. For a year or more, it was pretty much always on the table. In a way, this was a great thing. The group explored all aspects of the game, and tried many different strategies. Much like going on vacation to the same favorite destination, the game became familiar to everyone in the group.

But when you are playing one game all the time, in this case a pretty long one, averaging roughly two hours each play, how much time is there for new games? This is not to say that everyone should have a one game collection or anything. Certainly there are different games for all occasions, moods and groups of people. But at some point, most people reach a point where they have a reasonably wide array of games that they like, and something has to be pretty special to get on their shelves. This point is different for different people, and most folks will reach this point around 10-20 games. People who are a bit more crazy like me reach it somewhere around 120… and I could likely cut half of that and still be more than satisfied with my collection. I have written in the past about making room on my shelves, and this is a regular effort of mine. Combine that with the fact that there more and more long term campaign games that are a commitment as well and often become the exclusive game of a group for a while, and you can see how there’s hardly any room for newer games to take root.

The wealth of choices can be overwhelming, but is ultimately a good thing for consumers. No matter what your preference is, in terms of theme, mechanics, art, anything, there is probably a game out there for you, with hundreds releasing each year. I do wonder if the production side of the hobby is heading for a crash however, all this choice means even some great games are just not going to be successful for publishers, and one too many misses seems like it would make the business side of things precarious to say the last. However, in the meantime, my belated new year’s resolution is to play more of the games I already love, and ideally add less than five games to my collection this year. In addition, I will be making room for each new game, with a strict one in one out policy. Here’s to playing the cream of the crop, it’s a wonderful time to be a gamer!

How to mind meld with your friends

Wolfgang Warche’s The Mind seems like a game that shouldn’t work. Or perhaps, it doesn’t feel like a game at all. The concept is simple, you and your friends need to cooperatively play cards from your hand in their numerical order. The cards, numbered 1-100 are dealt out randomly. Each round players get more cards, so for the first round each person plays one, for the second two, and so on. Players try to play sequentially without playing any cards out of order, for as many rounds as they can. Sounds like a mindless activity right? What could be so hard about playing cards in order? Well there’s a twist. You are not allowed to communicate with the other players.

Suddenly, what seems like a pointless counting exercise instead seems like an impossible task. If you are not allowed to talk or sign to other players, how could you possibly play your card(s) at the right time? Well the game is not entirely unforgiving. If you play a card that is higher than one in another player’s hand, you don’t lost the game immediately, but instead you lose a life. You start the game with a certain number of lives so there is room for error, and you can earn more lives by making it to further rounds. If you run out of lives however, you collectively lose the game. The game also gives you one more tool in the form of shuriken cards. These cards allow each player to discard their lowest card without losing a life, so if players are stuck and can’t seem to mind meld, they can play one of these to get rid of a few card without penalty.

When I first went over to a friend’s place to play this game, we all kind of laughed it off. At the end of the rules explanation (all two minutes of it) we looked at each other and said “That’s it?” Even a game of Spades seems to have more going on, more thought involved. Not to mention, this sounded impossible, unless we could truly read each other’s minds I would never know that my friend had the 17 and know to hold back my 36. And what if another player had the 35? It seemed, quite simply, like a game of pure chance. But we played anyways. It had been nominated for an award, there must be something to it, something unique. We lost very quickly our first round, and we did not fare too much better in our second.

The game has an interesting rule where you are each supposed to place your hand on the table and focus before a round starts. No one can begin play until all players decide they have formed a sufficient connection, and pick up their hand. Players can re-initiate this process at any point during the game by putting their hand on the table again, inviting all players to do so until they all lift their hand and keep playing. As we first tried the game, it seemed rather silly to do this, just some flavor, part of the theme of mind reading that the game purports to be about. For our third game, our last try at this ridiculous exercise, we tried our best to take this part just a bit more seriously. Everyone took a breathe, the room became quiet, and we lifted our hands.

Number cards, life cards, levels and shurikens… That’s it?

And then something very strange happened. We made it further than we had in previous games. We bumped our way through the first round, found our footing in the second, and suddenly, almost in a surreal way we were playing cards in order, without talking. We kept succeeding when we should have failed, kept playing the right card. This was not random chance, but instead involved very concentrated stares, and a good amount of body language. It became a meditative exercise, where players would organize their cards, look at the other players and lean towards or away from the table. Players who leaned in would each stare at each other, and a certain kind of mental calculation would happen based on the confidence we each read on the other’s face. Over and over we would play sequentially when numbers were just one apart. Somehow, without words, I knew that I need to play my 35 because the person I was staring at had a 36. The effect, quite simply, was like magic. Several times as we pulled off narrow sequences of numbers, we would use that very same rule that had seemed ridiculous earlier, each place our hand on the table, recenter, and move forward once the vibe felt right.

We made it to the 9th round, each having to play 9 cards, before we finally lost. And even then, it felt like we lost because of a lapse in that silent communication more than anything else. Curious as to whether this was just a fluke, I brought the game to other groups. And each time the process of discovery and explanation is much the same. Players scoff at the idea, bump through a few rounds, and then say the same thing; “Again!” Even without a streak like that one game I described above, the puzzle and challenge of trying to read the other players is addictive. It always feels like you could have made it one more round, one more card. I adore this game. It is not one I will always bring out, but it does something utterly unique within the hobby. Who would have thought you could have such fun sitting silently, starting at your friends, and playing cards in order.

Flamme Rouge: A game about old timey bike races

“Why would you want to play a game about biking?” My friend asks. “You could go outside and bike instead.” He’s not wrong. Often times board games are about fantastical things: Exploring an ancient ruin, building a spaceship, being a swashbuckling pirate. Things we don’t do after work on Tuesday. But other times, they are just life or more mundane matters. The Office was a hit tv show for years, and plenty of people work in offices enough to know what it’s like. But in a way, that can be the brilliance of a game about the mundane. People don’t play a game about biking to feel the wind in their hair, but rather to abstract some part of the experience into a multiplayer puzzle.


There are several recent games that accomplish this conversion with aplomb. Clearly works of love for their respective subject matter, their designers took a hobby distilled it down to the essence of that activity. I would like to talk about several of these over the next few weeks to see how they boil down regular hobbies into fascinating board games.


Granted, the first game I want to talk about, Flamme Rouge, is not just about biking on the Hudson Mohawk trail. It is about the type of competitive biking seen in the Tour De France, competitive high level cycling where every second counts and the level of training is intense. But which part of the sport does the game capture? For Flamme Rouge the designer, Asger Harding Granerud, focused on what happens in a peloton, a group of cyclers and how they affect each other’s exertion. In the game each player has two cyclists which they play movement cards for to race around a player constructed track. Each turn a player draws four movement cards for one rider, chooses one, and then does the same for the other rider, with all players revealing their selected movement simultaneously and moving ahead starting with the first place rider and progressing backwards through the pack. Pretty simple right? It seems so straight forward that there would be nothing here, just a matter of playing cards and seeing who gets to the end first.


The table presence of the game is lovely with cyclist figures and beautiful art.

However, there is so much more, and with just a few wrinkles mirroring what happens in a real race, the game changes from a barebones exercise to an eloquent simulation. You see, in Flamme Rouge it doesn’t pay to be in the front of the pack. Here you are facing the most wind resistance, and to show this in the game players must take exhaustion cards whenever there is no rider on the space in front of them. Exhaustion cards are terrible. They are worth just two movement each, and if you stay at the front of the pack for long your hand could be full of them in no time. Instead it is much better to be just behind the leader of the group. In fact, if you are one space behind another ride, you get to draft forward one space for free. The whole group does this in sequence causing all riders to bunch back up together and coast on the effort of those poor souls who emerged at the front this round. And so instead of a game about playing your cards and trying to stay ahead like other racing game, instead there is a sort of battle to outsmart the other players. To stay near the lead, but to let the other players do the heavy lifting.

There are yet more simulation wrinkles here that are just the cherry on top. You see there are of course hills to contend with here. Uphill sections limit players movement and drafting, letting the others catch up to the lead, and making high movement cards useless. But after a long struggle there is over course the inevitable downhill. Downhills give players free movement, a great place to toss those crumby exhaustion cards you’ve been building up for so long. Hills create a narrative to the game as how players navigate them will have huge consequences as how players navigate them will affect the final standings. And finally to round out the lovely simulation aspects of this game there is of course the difference between rides. Each players has a Sprinter, and a roller. The Sprinter specializes in high numbered movement cards. Those few 9s in your deck may be the key to getting across the finish line first, but they are hampered by some very mediocre low cards that may come up at exactly the wrong time. The roller is much more consistent, with more middle of the road cards. While you can’t predict how the other players will race, you can use your two racers in combination so that at the very least they are not both eating the wind at the front of the pack.

And with that the simulation is complete… at least for the base game. The community and the designer are far from done. Players themselves have recreated the multi-stage journeys of the Tour De France, and the designer has introduced new track pieces and pieces for two more players in the first expansion Flamme Rouge Peloton, and is introducing weather simulation in an upcoming second expansion Flamme Rouge: Meteo. While there is clearly love in the design of this game, I would be remiss not to mention the art and components. The game goes for a historic look with yesteryear rides, and each player color features a slightly different mustachioed pair of old timers riders. In addition the game includes plenty of different track pieces to create near endless combinations and the riders themselves are adorable plastic bikers. Clearly this is a work of love translated into cardboard. So why would I want to play a game about biking when I have a lovely bike on my back porch? Well, for one thing, I am not likely to make the Tour De France any time soon, and for another, Flamme Rouge captures the aerodynamics of biking without quite the exertion. That being said, I think when the weather is nicer I may ride to my game night instead of drive. Why not have the best of both worlds?

My Most Anticipated Games of 2019

As the New Year is upon as, and I have already looked back at 2018, why not look forward, to 2019? There are so many games each year, it’s hard to keep up. In fact, while I am anticipating new games in 2019, I am mostly focusing on what I already have. This makes for a bizarre “Most Anticipated Games” list, so let me explain.

Unlike narrative things that are often the subjects of these lists, games are a bit more perennial. A great game continues to be great, and some games that I have played over a hundred times are still intriguing when they hit the table. A movie, Netflix show, book and in some cases even a  video game is more often a one and done experience. So there is more anticipation for the new. There is also the factor that other media does not have a learning curve. As I am in the hobby longer and longer, my patience for teaching and for learning becomes less. When everything was new to me, each new game might present a whole new style of play I had never seen before. But as the years and the games pass by, that aha moment is much more rare. More and more often these days games feel like remixes or new takes on something I already know. I realize that to some extent this sounds incredibly jaded, and that’s not my intent. I am still open to new games, and still find myself catching the hype wave that comes with these new releases. But as I look at my shelves, my resolution this year is simply to play more games that I already know I love.

This is evidenced by my recent purchases as well. More than half of the games I bought or backed on Kickstarter in 2018 were games my friends had that I wanted to have in my collection, or new editions of games I already know I love. While the thrill of discovering a brand new games that could be a favorite is great, playing a game you know you love is a bit less of a gamble. I am sure I will write about plenty of new games in 2019, and I want to stay on top of where the hobby is heading in general. But before I talk about what I am excited about, a toast to the games that will make up the vast majority of what I play this year, the familiar favorites.

Wingspan: Sometimes a game is just too pretty to ignore. That is definitely the case with Wingspan. From the creators of Scythe StoneMeir games, Wingspan catches the eye immediately with beautiful art and design including over 100 unique bird cards. The gameplay looks to be an interesting sort of tableau builder with cards triggering actions that get better the more focused you are in that particular action. This in addition a birdhouse dice tower is enough to gain my attention. The question is, does it do anything new? I am keeping any eye on this one, and it’s coming soon having just started pre-orders this week.




Bios Origins Second Edition: Anyone who follows the blog knows that I am a Phil Eklund fanatic. After tackling the origin of life in the primordial soup, evolution, and colonizing the solar system Eklund is revisiting an earlier game about the beginning of culture. Bios Origins is not your average civilization style game and while it goes from the beginning of human history to modern times it focuses on the development of human brain and ideas. And in a delightful twist you can play a series of three games playing Bios Genesis, Bios Megafauna and Bios Origins to track one species all the way from primordial ooze to a space-faring civilization. That sounds like one heck of a Saturday afternoon! I am sure this game will be brimming with science and can’t wait to dig in.



Crusader Kings: The more I play board games, the more I am attracted back to games with a sort of narrative to how they play. If I can’t recall much from a game other than who won or what strategy was used, that’s not necessarily a success for me, especially for any game lasting longer than an hour. There are 100s of games about Medieval Europe and the crusades, but Crusader Kings borrows from the popular PC game to make it more about the traits and personalities of the royal family than about the battles and economy that most similar games focus on. Crusader Kings is all about politics and the stories that emerge from traits and event cards, and I can’t wait to explore it later this year.


Black Angel: This one came out of nowhere for me. Science fiction space games are a dime a dozen in the hobby, but this one grabbed my attention because coming from the trio of designers who created Troyes back in 2010, and uses a similar dice selection method that made that game one of my favorites. Granted, theme wise this couldn’t be more different. While Troyes was about the politics of a medieval French city, Black Angel is about the AI on a generation ship trying to discover a new earth for humanity. This one is definitely on my watch list and it doesn’t hurt that it looks fantastic from the early renders.



Glen More II: Chronicles: Another sequel/reprint of a favorite of mine. Glen More is a delightful tile playing game that is all about whisky and turn order, two of my favorite things. Players build their own villages and have to line up the river and road tiles. Each player selects tiles from a central tile board, and can pick any tile. The furthest player back is the next to take a turn, so players can select multiple tiles in a row if they hang back behind the crowd, but jumpign ahead for a key tile is often worth it. The new version, due on kickstarter later this year adds modular expansions that can spice up the base game, and also includes a much needed bump in component quality and art. I still wish they had called the sequel Glen Most, missed opportunity for the perfect pun.

Here’s to a great year of new games as well as exploring the classics. Happy New Year!