Why is every board game designed to be the last you’ll ever need?

Four games and eleven expansions worth of Railroad Ink dice.

It seems like every modern game is designed to be the last game you will ever need. A desert island game, an endless buffet, a bottomless ocean of content. Each game is sold to buyers with this promise that if you buy it you and your friends will never be bored and never really have to move on to another game. This occurred to me as the big box of Railroad Ink Challenge I had backed on Kickstarter at the beginning of lockdown arrived in the mail this week. This is a giant box designed to hold four individual games, each of which includes its own thematic expansions, plus a box of 7 more expansions and 2 larger maps to play on. Suddenly I am drowning in dice and have more ways to play Railroad Ink than I’d ever imagined. And if I am being honest, I am not sure I will even play every aspect in this box one time. Of course, I am hopeful. I have grand visions of me and my friends laughing around a table and playing game after game of it, discovering each expansion like a box of chocolates. But here’s the catch. Everyone else has an endless buffet of their own to get to the table. It is very rare, and certainly unpredictable to guess what game will get ten or even five plays in a year. Will Railroad Ink be the one that my group keeps turning back to week in and week out? I kind of doubt it.

It’s possible that this is all exacerbated by COVID. There is a long queue of new games, acquired when there weren’t any game nights to play them, waiting to get their chance in the sun. Shiny things from Kickstarter campaigns keep showing up in the mail, new games keep hitting the shelves, there is an onslaught of great games as I wrote about before. What is the point of an endless buffet if the furthest most people get is the appetizers, and then they ask for the check? I wrote early on that my shelves were full of memories, each game reminding me of a time it was played and the fun I’d had with friends. But now the shelf is mostly a wall of potential experiences versus real ones. As a result, the urge is to skip along the surface of each game like a stone on a lake, touch each game, maybe getting a learning game or two in, but never actually dive in with any depth. It seems counter to what the games were designed for, and I pine for the classics that I wrote about last week. Games that show the entire realm of possibilities on the first play, but which hold up to countless plays.

I admit, it’s a weird rainy day and I might be getting overly philosophical about the whole thing. There are more games than ever, and they are designed to be more replayble than ever, so what is the problem? A shelf full of potential should be exciting, especially as game nights become a thing again and all those games start hitting the table. Isn’t it strange to ask a game to be less? Well, yes and no. I think it’s best to illustrate what I’m grumping about with a bit of an example. A game that I have managed to get to the table, and finish is My City which I wrote about recently. This is a legacy style game where you play through 8 chapters, 24 games in total and you are done with the experience. The game is thirty five dollars, but can often be found cheaper and adds one or two new things a chapter over time. By the time I was done, I had had enough My City for a lifetime and I don’t really need to play it again. 

Modern games are full of bling and have become luxury items

By comparison a game recently went up on Kickstarter called My Father’s Work. For ninety nine dollars this game offers three scenarios, an app driven story with each scenario having a small novel’s worth of writing, a  spiralbound village board that changes based on your decisions, and bespoke components, right down to little glass bottles with real removable corks. The Kickstarter page writes about how you can play through the same scenario multiple times and still not see all that’s in the box. On the one hand, that sounds amazing. On the other, will I even get this to the table 24 times? It’s not exactly a fair comparison, and I know that. The games are completely different in terms of play style and length. But the price is getting steeper. Ninety nine dollars is more than a lot of people would spend on a board game and keeps this particular game out of reach for some. And honestly this price is not a lot compared to other bottomless games where you can spend 150, 200 or even 300 dollars to get all of the content, like the recent Monster Hunter Kickstarter that tops out at $295 before shipping. That includes two base games and four expansions, which you can buy without having even played the game one time

I am not naïve, and I understand the sales pitch. Kickstarter campaigns are all about wish fulfillment. To keep up with the joneses a board game campaign has to convince you that it will wax your car and toast your bread, or at the very least it needs to promise that it will have enough game to last you forever. I have watched the model evolve from its infancy in 2012 to the slick marketing blitz that it is today and I see how the gears turn. My question is why does a game need to be bottomless versus just being good and affordable? If My Father’s Work came out with one scenario, some good old fashioned wooden cubes and meeples and still had the cool spiral bound map, would it be an inferior experience? That sounds like a wonderful 60 dollar game and maybe if I did feel it was played out I would buy an expansion in a few years to mix things up. But this is the old model. The new board game market is made of ruthless and weaponized desire. Renegade will sell you the game and two expansions up front, but only if you catch the hype now. For those of us who are on the hype train, and have the disposable income to spare, maybe this is all gravy. But I do feel like we are rapidly becoming a luxury hobby for the rich, and we are leaving a whole audience behind with this format.

On a different note it is a telling twist that the number one requested feature for My Father’s Work is a solo mode; a way to play it alone. These games are so big and so bottomless that its audience is demanding a way to play it without having to worry about getting a group of friends together. This trend was accelerated by COVID of course, as recent conditions have made it literally impossible to get a group together. But it started before then and puts a ceiling on any game that doesn’t have it as there is a whole audience who will not buy a game unless they know they can play it solo. I am not personally into solo gaming, but I also don’t mean to shame it. If that is how you prefer to play games, more power to you. But if there is an audience who is craving solo modes just to remove another barrier to getting the game played, perhaps there is a different underlying problem altogether. 

Who knows, perhaps I will someday be stuck on a desert island with one of these games and I will be thankful that they are endless. Railroad Ink Challenge does have a solo mode and it might be a nice thing to play over a cup of coffee in the morning. Maybe I’ll explore the depths of all those dice yet.

The board game classics are dying

In the news this week Grail Games, a company started with the mission to bring back old games of renown and give new players a chance to play them, announced a pivot away from doing pure reprints. Earlier this month ZMan games announced a similar move away from reprinting their Euro Classics line. Two companies in short order admitted that while reprinting old classics is very popular from a hearts and minds perspective, it doesn’t make a whole lot of good business sense. The news had me feeling melancholy, while simultaneously trying to track down some of these games now that they wouldn’t be reprinted, and coming up empty.

I’ve been in the hobby long enough to see that in general, if a game is good enough and popular enough, and there aren’t any strange IP rights issues, it will generally come back in print eventually. I have watched the dry spells where a game is very rare and selling for double its market value, to the inevitable announcement of the reprint or new edition several times over now. This makes a lot of sense in some ways, as reprinting a classic can be a more surefire bet for a small publisher. The name recognition and reputation part of marketing is already done for you. Even some supposedly impossible games that are tied up with intellectual properties have made their way back into print, like Dune, a long lost classic that the Herbert estate was fighting a decade ago, but all too eager to make happen with the upcoming movie. But something about the market seems to be changing, and some very solid games that have sterling reputations may linger out of print for a quite a while longer, unable to keep up with the new hotness and Kickstarter bling.

Tigris and Euphrates is mostly an abstract game. The components don’t inspire a lot of excitement.
Who doesn’t want to hang out with this guy?

First a little background on the games that got the axe. A lot of them were classics by Reiner Knizia from the late 90s and early 2000s. Tigris and Euphrates used to be a top ten game… 20 years ago. Samurai, Through the Desert, Ra. All of them were games with one mechanism and very few rules but extremely deep gameplay. None of them were ever lookers, even with the reprint treatment. A tile laying game about conquest in Mesopotamia, an Egyptian auction game, even the candy colored camels of Through the desert. These all looked nice and more modern than their 90s counterparts, but nothing that would turn heads. Ironically Grail Games was also deep in the old Knizia back catalog with games like Medici a Mediterranean auction game from 1995 and Stephenson’s Rocket an early train and stocks game. These were even more lavish productions but still were some pretty old and unexciting themes. Every one of these won great renown back in its day but those that were in the hobby back then likely already have them or have played them a lot, and it’s just hard to convince someone lured into the hobby by beautifully produced games to try out something that looks… old.

How can older games compete with the new hotness? Pictured here is Brew which as of this writing is number 1 on BGG’s hotness list.

I have always defended these more dry themes, like I did in my diatribe about every game needing a bored looking dude on the cover, but for my part I didn’t track down any of the games I’ve listed above. They certainly flowed into my circle of friends, so they’re around and I am relieved that they’re in the collective library. But they didn’t set the world on fire. The gaming market is increasingly crowded, and reprints of older games just don’t seem to make a splash anymore. People look at me like I’m crazy when I describe the theme of some of the games that are in my library. They would rather play the beautiful game about birds, or the adorable wargame about woodland animals. The hobby has grown tremendously since the mid to late 90s and sometimes these classic themes just don’t cut it anymore.

Through the Desert is a more colorful older game, but still not terribly exciting.

But this makes me sad. Even though I am part of the problem. Even though I didn’t spend a cent on these games. I held that copy of Samurai at least ten times at Zombie Planet, but something kept me from making the purchase. I still mourn the simplicity to depth ratio of these old games. As I mentioned above, all of these games did one thing, and did it well. They were not circuses of different mechanisms like so many modern games. They had more in common with a classic game like chess. Easy to learn the basics, and hard to master. Hopefully other companies will pick up the publishing rights to these games, or at least push forward new simple games, maybe with newer themes and more appealing art.

Reiner Knizia for his part is doing as well as ever. He is still publishing new games that get nominated for awards each year, and some of his more recent designs sit on my shelves like The Quest for El Dorado or My City which I wrote about the other month. And he is still designing games like it’s the 90s to a large degree. The recent title Babylonia seems to have some similarities to the now out of print Tigris and Euphrates. Maybe I am the crazy old man shouting at the clouds at this point, insisting that the kids play the boring looking tile games. But mostly I am just hopeful that the legacy of these games lives on. If any of these games do peak your interest I encourage you to seek them out before they become even harder to find. That or we can all wait till the cycle begins anew and maybe a reprint happens after all. With good games, life finds a way.

Winter Kingdom first impressions

To say I am a fan of Kingdom Builder is an understatement. It is one of two games in my library that I have over 100 plays in, the other being another Donald X. Vaccarino design, Dominion. In my game group we used to joke about having “league night” like a bowling league because of how often on a game night we would play two or three games of Kingdom Builder. It is in essence my favorite game, because of the variety it offers, (I am not sick of it at all even after 100+ games) and the simplicity of play. So it is with some trepidation that I approached its sequel, Winter Kingdom. A sequel to a favorite of any kind of media faces very tough odds and huge shoes to fill. Not only due to the strengths of the original but a build up of insurmountable nostalgia. Due to covid I haven’t gotten as many plays of this in as I’d like, despite receiving it in October. I remember foolishly thinking things might be back to normal by then and I’d have plenty of chances to play it that Fall. Hopefully the hope is more justified now, but I have gotten enough plays for an initial impression.

First however, an overview of the game is in order, with some inline comparisons with its predecessor. Winter Kingdom at its core uses the same engine of Kingdom Builder. You draw a terrain card each turn and place three houses on that terrain, attempting to match one or more of the three varying scoring goals for that game. Winter Kingdom has slightly upped the complexity at a base level here by having six terrain types instead of the original’s five, and by including four immovable fort pieces that players can play instead of a house, which count for all purposes as two houses. Additionally while the original game had a lot of natural boundaries created by water terrain which could not be bypassed in movement or played on without special powers, in Winter Kingdom there is ice, which, while not represented in the terrain deck, acts like any other terrain instead of being a barrier. In summary, which will become a repeating theme, Winter Kingdom is much more open than Kingdom Builder. This openness is only then increased by tunnels on each board that allow players to move a piece from one board to another once a turn. A main criticism of Kingdom Builder was that if you had some particularly bad luck with the card draw you could end up stuck in one area of the board and have your whole game sabotaged. There were ways to mitigate this, but Winter Kingdom eliminates this complaint. If you get stuck in this game it is because you played poorly, not because of luck.

Winter Kingdom in play
six terrains instead of the original five

The other drastic changes are the boards, which are seven hexes now, double sided and always in play vs the square single sided boards of the original. This provides tons of variability. Each board might be in a different position, orientation or flipped to a different side each game. But most importantly the variable powers of the original are no longer tied to which board is in play. Instead players each have a hand of five powers that they can pay to put in play. More on that economy aspect in a moment, but this is probably the biggest change compared to the original. For one thing it makes the players asymmetrical as each will have five entirely different powers. But it also removes another luck driven aspect as a good card draw in the original might put you next to one of the more useful powers printed on the board. Here you have a sort of puzzle with your five powers, but no player can deny you access or beat you to the punch like in the original game. Additionally these powers can be upgraded. Here again the game is much more open.

Economy cards drive different ways to earn money each game

In addition to these tweaks on the original formula the game includes an economy system and twist cards that are entirely new. The economy system has one of eight cards that dictates how money is made in a given game. This money is critical for playing the aforementioned powers, and gives players another thing to think about when placing pieces vs just how to score the most points. Two games with the same set-up but different economy cards would play out very differently. There is a powerful super move that players can do with five gold that allows them to use any ability 3 times in a row, which means that money is always useful, even if you have the powers and upgrades that you would like for a particular game. The twist cards are varying conditions that tweak how a given game will play. They are essentially the cherry on top of a variability sundae.

Kingdom Card dictate the scoring goals for the game. Winter Kingdom has many more than its predecessor right out of the box.

Finally it’s worth noting a few numbers vs Kingdom Builder. The base game contains 18 scoring conditions vs the original 10, and 25 upgradeable abilities vs the original board-printed 14. There is a LOT of game in this box, and even if it never gets any expansions, it contains the variability of Kingdom Builder plus two expansions right on day one. But what the heck do I actually think of the game itself? Even if there is mathematically “more” game than Kingdom Builder, is that better? Well, yes and no. For someone who has played Kingdom Builder over 100 times, this is like candy. It is an evolved and more in depth game with more moving parts to keep track of.  In the few plays of it I have had, I have often been stuck in a sort of first gear, still thinking strategically like it is another game of Kingdom Builder and being out-maneuvered by friends who are taking advantage of the whole system. I am excited to explore it more and try to hit top gear in this new and broader system.

Twists multiply the variability of the game to eleven.

With all that said, I do still believe there is a place in the collection for its predecessor. For one thing, it is a simpler and more family friendly game. The original won a Spiel des Jahres and had a lot of hidden depth despite reviewers deriding it as “too simple” at the time. I will still happily play it any time, and it still holds up even through 100 plays. It is certainly the better introductory game. There is also a different feeling to the game by comparison. It is more narrow and possibly a tighter experience. Players are fighting over the powers, there is less flexibility in terms of terrains and with a lack of the caves I mentioned above. There is also inherently less space and more boundaries with the water vs the ice, in addition to there being nearly 100 more spaces to play on. Don’t get me wrong, Winter Kingdom still seems to have some of the confrontation of the original, but it has a different feeling.

It is too early to tell which will ultimately be my favorite, but I am very happy to have a favorite classic of mine iterated upon with Winter Kingdom. It feels different, but I have barely scratched the surface. I am very wary of more complex versions of games I already love, because they often lose the immediacy and simplicity that made the original great. Thankfully I can report that that is not the case here. I look forward to really kicking the tires when there are more frequent game nights, but for now it really does seem like a different evolution with tremendous variability and depth.

John Company 2nd Edition: The human factor behind empire and colonialism

Designer Cole Wehrle lives a dual life. By day he designs and develops games for Leder Games with candy sweet fantasy themes that have serious depth and teeth hiding just below the surface. Root for example is an adorable woodland war game that has cats that represent the German war machine, birds that capture old monarchies and the Woodland Alliance that captures  revolt and guerilla warfare. But sure enough most people see the adorable wooden cats and are eager to sign up for a complex war game with considerable rules overhead.

By night however Wehrle runs Wherlegig Games with his brother Drew. In these games the themes are deeply rooted in real world events in history. In particular Wehrle’s historical focus is the various messes created by colonialism, and more importantly the “why” behind how those historical situations evolved. There are no cute meeples here, and none of the peanuts-esque art of Kyle Ferrin to lure folks in. I can tell you that it is much harder to sell someone on playing Pax Pamir 2nd edition about The Great Game in Afghanistan than pulling them into Root. My partner keeps asking to learn the latter and has expressed negative interest in ever trying the former.

Root is much more approachable for the casual observer, but hides a rather complex game beneath the cute exterior

But these games are worth playing, even if the theme sounds like a college history class you didn’t sign up for. For one thing, they expose parts of world history that are barely a footnote in most folks’ education. The most exposure I ever had to The Great Game, where Great Britain and Russia used Afghanistan as a site for a proxy war between enormous imperial powers, was in reading the novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. You might know him as the guy who wrote The Jungle Book. But here in Pax Pamir 2nd edition is a literal simulation of what happened, and more importantly, why. Unlike reading a dry textbook in that aforementioned college class, you play a game and see the strategic reasons why historical events occurred.

While the theme is not exciting the production of these games is no slouch. For what it lacks in enticing woodland meeples Pax Pamir makes up in spades with a cloth map and beautiful resin coalition markers. Wherlegig has found an audience for these niche games on kickstarter that has enabled them to produce top of the line games for a relatively small market.

While it doesn’t have cute animals, Pax Pamir is still a beautiful table presence.

The next on the docket for Wehrle’s night operation is John Company 2nd Edition which is on Kickstarter now. It is a game about collectively running the British East India Company together with up to 6 players. Here again is a dive into a topic I know almost nothing about. I mostly remember the British East India company as a footnote to the Boston Tea Party  that everyone in the U.S. learns about during class on The Revolutionary War. But it was a major force and is responsible for a lot of the terrible toll of colonialism in India in the service of prestige in London and turning a profit. It’s an uncomfortable role ultimately to put players into. In Pax Pamir you were somewhat empowered as tribes who are manipulating the imperial powers, but here, while you do have power, you are definitely not the good guy. However, in order to win the game you have to wheel and deal and exploit the various nations in India. In order to win you will need to understand the actual why of what happened during history.

Families with individual portraits give John Company 2nd Edition a more personal feel

John Company is first and foremost a negotiation game. Players are working together to run one company, but only one player wins. In this way it is a sort of semi-cooperative game. The lens that the game sees this through is family. Each player takes on the role of a prominent family and your individual playing pieces are little unique wooden portrait tokens. The game plays with all the other suspects of empire and trade games: power, money, stocks, ships and armies. But it’s approach to focus on the families that drove all of those other aspects is fascinating. And in fact, you use those family members as the main way to win the game. Each turn a family has children which are then invested into various aspects of the company. Yes it’s weird to talk about investing children, but as a game built around family, your children are literally a resource to use to gain the upper hand in the company. You may have them become investors holding shares in the company or send them of to India as trade clerks hoping for a promotion, or have them join the military as an officer hoping to become a general. Everything is about using your family members effectively to make sure you run certain aspects of the company or are at least in a position to benefit the most from its success. And everything on the table is up for negotiation, including your family’s children who you can trade as wards to other players.

In recent history there have been some monumental blunders by publishers in the board game industry that have kind of swept away the negative impacts of colonialism. GMT’s debacle with The Scramble for Africa highlighted the focus on power fantasy first without consideration of the consequences of those actions. Shifting the focus from empire to the human element that drove the East India Company gives the game a more insightful view of the machinations of colonialism. This human element also gives the game an almost satirical slant as well, if not a cynical view of the affair. All of the hell caused in India boils down to prestige and retiring well in London, true to the actual historical actors. You may give your son Nathaniel as a ward to another family for a vote that will keep you in control of the prime minister in order to set your other family member up to retire to a castle from his director of trade position. There is no purity at winning this game as it invites you to roleplay the corruption in its very mechanics. All of Cole’s historical moonlighting shares this commonality of placing the player in the morass of very messy history. And I personally cannot wait to sink in and learn more about the East India Company than I ever knew before. The game is pricey at $80 on the Kickstarter campaign, but it costs less than a college course or text book on the same subject and could possibly teach you more if you  are someone who learns by doing. If such a dry theme is not for you, then Wehrle’s day fair may be much more up your alley, although each game hides depth for days; cute woodland animal or not.

How to manufacture FOMO: Robinson Crusoe Collector’s Edition

What could be better than detailed miniatures?

This week I bring you a rant, courtesy of a recent crowdfunding campaign for a co-op favorite of mine: Robinson Crusoe Adventures on the Cursed Island. Portal Games is crowdfunding a collector’s edition of the title promising to make it better than ever before, and initially I fell for this hook line and sinker. And then I dug into the campaign a bit, and the more I thought about it the more ticked off I got. I have gone from being all in to questioning whether I would spend a dime on the campaign and wanted to share a bit about why that is.

But first, a little bit of background on the game. Robinson Crusoe is a brutally hard co-operative game where players try to survive on a desert island. The game has overarching scenarios that can tweak this goal, from the basic goal to signal a ship to be rescued all the way to fending off cannibals or dealing with King Kong. But the story of the game plays out differently each game thanks in part to decks of cards that contain events and adventures that happen on that particular play. It produces a ton of great gameplay variety and really captures the theme. I have enjoyed it since when I picked up the original back in 2012, but that version suffered from some rules clarity issues that could make the game very frustrating and unintentionally more difficult than it should have been. More on the rules piece later, as it’s another reason why this campaign ticks me off.

The game in play, beautiful even without all the bling.

However, the first issue I want to discuss is a general gripe I have with crowdfunding these days. This campaign is literally designed to make you feel like you are missing out if you don’t back it. This is a sort of perverse art form that has developed more each year since the earliest days of Kickstarter. Every day of the campaign promises a new stretch goal reveal that will be EXCLUSIVE to this edition of the game. These range from more miniatures, a volcano shaped dice tower, or even mini expansions like the cave module. The idea is to give you little endorphin rushes to either keep your funds if you have already pledged, or lure you in with the worry that one of these bonuses you’ve simply got to have, and you’ll miss out if you don’t back now. Quite literally a more polished and pernicious evolution of the late night “act now and we’ll throw in more!” infomercial. To me this feels kind of sinister and predatory. It reminds me of an experiment I heard about once where a grocery store sold more of an item simply by putting “limit 10” signs on it. Human psychology can be easily manipulated and these sorts of exclusives can encourage some pretty reckless purchases. 

Don’t miss out on the exclusive volcano!

I understand why companies do it, they want you money and they want it directly, not watered down through distribution and retail channels. The economics of it also allow you to simply offer more for the same dollar amount without these additional cuts being involved. But personally I much prefer a campaign where there are purchasable add-ons or just the core game itself improves for all buyers if the campaign is super successful. These have less of a frenzy about them but it is also less manipulative. The recent campaign for the second edition of John Company which I’ll talk about more next week is an example of a straight-forward but successful campaign.

The second issue is what is contained in the collector’s edition. Namely, 18 or more finely detailed miniatures. Minis are the hottest item in crowdfunding. Since games that include them often cost more, these games often raise eye watering sums of money. I must admit, I don’t like miniatures in general. So I am definitely a bit biased against them here. I think my main issue is that they require MORE work from the player to really take advantage of them. You need to pick up a whole other hobby of miniatures painting to properly finish the board game you just shelled out a lot of money for. Frankly I’d rather spend that painting time actually playing the game. But besides this inherent bias of mine there’s also the fact that the game before now has never suffered from a lack of miniatures. It was never designed with them in mind, and so in essence you are paying for very expensive pieces that worked fine as wooden pawns. Honestly, the pawns might even work better, since the game has you stacking them at times, something that is not possible with miniatures without some circus balancing. Yet here they are, driving the cost of the collector’s edition through the roof, and taking up a whole lot of space in the box besides. You might say, well then the collector’s edition is not for you. Which I would agree with except for that brings me to my third issue.

Teaching tools should not be crowdfunding exclusives

Which is that they are solving the rules once and for all with an open and play kit. This spiral bound book is designed to teach the game to new players with playable scenarios and examples walking through each step. It brilliantly solves the rules headache of the first edition and makes it easier than ever to get into the game. Great! Except… it only comes with the collector’s edition. If you want this open and play option, you have to buy the whole pie, minis and all. There is an upgrade kit for people like me which contains just the collectors edition add-ons without the game, so they are trying to do right by their old customers… except not. The most important part of this package and the one that should be universal is tethered to 18+ minis and all the other random stuff they throw in the box. The minimum to get in on that collector’s edition is $100.00, a pretty steep price if you are not excited to pain the miniatures.

And so I backed away from the collector’s edition… slowly and with some grumbling, but I will not fall for the FOMO(fear of missing out), and I will not pay for plastic when I really just want to improve what I already have. There is a silver lining however. The campaign is for two different items, and while the collector’s edition  is dead in the water for me the Book of Adventures might be a winner. This is a collection of over 50 scenarios, giving players new ways to play with the game they already have. It is similarly over-produced and full of FOMO with exclusive paper and limited edition hardcover shenanigans. But it does feel like it adds a lot of longevity to the game as now players can further vary set-up and the goals in addition to finding a unique play with the cards that come up. I stand by the game as an excellent title and they did address a lot of the rules issues I had with some of the more recent editions if you want to check it out. But honestly, unless you love painting miniatures just get the original game at half the price and you’ll have a blast.