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Thinking Out Loud

Thursday, December 29, 2005

He's Not Heavy, He's My Brother >> Classifying Heavy Games

Just posted my first GeekList in a while over at BGG, taking a closer look at the classifcation of some games as "heavy" or "heavier" than other games -- what's the basis for the comparison? Here's the lede-in text and the first entry. You can read the list in its entirety over at BoardGameGeek.com.

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Over the course of my gaming toward the end of 2005, I've been involved in some thought-provoking and interesting discussions with several of my GeekBuddies about "heavy" games -- an adjective that gets bandied about quite a bit for a variety of games. But what does "heavy" really mean? Perhaps we can find out together.

This GeekList attempts to define characteristics that games considered "heavy" seem to feature. Not all characteristics are shared by all games, but I think there are a few common elements that -- for most people -- help determine whether or not a game is "heavy" for them.

First and foremost, I think heaviness, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. It's a personal metric combining gameplay preferences, experience comparisons and complexity thresholds. I also add some "false positive" listings... Terms that seem to be used interchangeably with heavy, which I don't think are quite the same (again, based on my admittedly biased and personal metric).

What do you think?
Do some of these characteristics seem more applicable than others to the "heaviness" of a game?
Have I overlooked some important attributes?
Have some games shifted in your perception, from heavy to non-heavy (or back) with repeated playings?
What is the single heaviest game, in your opinion -- and why?

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Significant Impact of Decisions

I think this is one of the most important (if not *the* most important) factor in classifying a heavy game. Decisions can be important in all sorts of games -- even light filler games... But for heavy games, the impact is much more pronounced (it may be subtle, but have significant ramifications).

A game that adds significance and impact to each and every decision often has a "heavier" feel to it than a game where you may be able to recover from suboptimal or "whimsical" moves. For me, this means that you can't take a single decision lightly, or possibly that one poor decision can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Age of Steam exemplifies this with regard to issuing stocks and the tight money management necessary to keep from going bankrupt -- each move, each decision carries the risk of possibly putting yourself out of the game.

(click here to read the complete list)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Additional Holiday Swag

Aside from things brought by Santa himself (cleverly disguised as my wife) or acquired immediately before Xmas, I also scored some additional Xmas/Birthday swag (my birthday is Jan 2nd, so we usually split the difference for gift giving). Clix, a local hobby shop in St. Louis (the only one that actually stocks euro/designer games first and foremost instead of comics or CCGs) had a huge sale -- nearly everything was 25% off, with an added 10% off for my frequent buyer card.

I'm sooo glad I took the time to drive out there"just in case" (it's about a 35 minute drive). As you can see, it was WELL worth it. Today I snagged:

- San Juan
- Coloretto
- Buyword
- Pass the Pigs
- RK's Poison
- Siena

All at 35% off retail. I only stopped my shopping and cut the list short because my son (not quite 3 yet) was VERY insistent that we leave the store immediately. Otherwise, I may have snagged even more!

So far, Poison is a nice, fun card diversion, and I'm really glad to finally get a copy of Buyword and Coloretto. Siena is a beautiful looking game with some real promise, but has some of the most horribly written rules I have ever read (and I muddled through Time Control). Extremely confusing, and the board, though beautiful, is confounding, as the board is merely a large painting, with no visual boundaries for the various regions where gameplay actions take place. Hopefully the gameplay is worth the annoyance, as there's a glitter of promise underneath.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Whaddya' Get? Whaddya' Get?

So what gaming hauls did y'all rake in this holiday season?

Trish got me Red Hot Yott, a Yahtzee variant... While it's hardly a strategic or deep game, Yahtzee and Cribbage both have a special place in our relationship, as the two main games we played while dating, and subsequently in the earliest years of our marriage before being exposed (converted?) to Euro/designer games.

If you count trades and purchases monitored and approved by my wife (just as good as getting one all wrapped up, if you ask me), I also acquired Attika and Caylus. Caylus was a real find and I can't wait to get it to the table!

The belle of the ball, though, has to be the massive 500 page Game of Thrones RPG book. While it's a role playing game and not a boardgame, we're both huuuuuge fanes of the George R.R. Martin fantasy series, and the book has approved background and historical content for the GRRM novel settings -- making it a great read as well as a very interesting RPG game setting.

That's pretty much it. But my birthday is next week (Jan 2) and I've been told I have to wait "all the way 'til next year" to get more games. I'm hoping Santiago, Schotten-Totten, Tower of Babel or Traumfabrik might be in the mix...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Caylus >> First Impressions & Observations

Played my first game and a half of Caylus last night (2nd game stopped due to player illness). I deliberately kept from reading ANY of the hype -- no articles, reviews, session reports or even GeekList comments about the game. I didn't want the fervent hype to completely overwhelm me and create a situation where a game couldn't possibly live up to my expectations (such as War of the Ring, which I feel is, at best, a mediocre game, made worse by my unbridled enthusiasm to try it, only to be sorely crushed at how mundane the game itself was).

I ended up really enjoying my first game, and we talked about it quite a bit afterward, spurring us to start up a second game. But oddly enough, I failed to use any of the knowledge gained from our first game in the second, and made serious strategic blunders in each of the first four turns, firmly cementing myself a good 20 points behind the leaders once the Tower was scored. Thankfully the game was called, as it was wholly embarrassing to make such terribly (and obviously) poor moves.

One thing that came up in discussion after our game is that we felt the game may eventually start to feel like Goa... The first few games of Goa were amazing, then each one after that slightly less so, as a sort of "been there, done that" feeling emerged. Eventually, the experience began to follow roughly the same course from game to game.

Since everything is essentially available from the get-go in Caylus, I can't help but wonder (and it's purely speculation at this point) if this game will eventually have Puerto Rico/Goa-esque opening moves and strategies, to the point that a good portion of the opening sequences feel scripted, and the only reason to stray from a pre-ordained plan is the unforeseen moves by your opponents.

Certainly some actions and buildings are better than others, and the value of actions varies based on player goals and strategies, but there's something I can't quite put my finger on that makes me think Caylus may end up following suit and eventually stop feeling like I'm playing the game, but rather the game is playing itself, with me as the observer. Fortunately, I think that will be a good, long time down the road.

Oh, my biggest beef with the game is currently the length. Our first game, a three player game, took 3.5 hours, which is incredibly long given the "game experience yield" that we took away from it. It was a rewarding game the first time, but if we can't shave at least an hour off the game with familiarity, I don't know how often I'd be up for playing it... For the take away experience, it "feels" like it should wrap up in about 2 hours.

So after pondering it a bit, and finally breaking down and looking at some comments and reviews, I've formed my own rating so far... My BGG Comment:

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I can see why this game is so well received, and while I've enjoyed the games so far, I'm not completely sold on the game. I love the build-as-you-go path of actions, and there are a lot of options available to the players. The value of the actions also seems to vary quite a bit depending on how far into the game you are.

The biggest downside is that the turns get excessively long the further into the game you are -- more tiles and options open up, dragging the game to a slow grind as more and more calculations are required. The brisk pace at the beginning is soon replaced by a plodding finale.

Also, the game can get especially nasty, as players get targeted and hurt by actions meant to target the leader. The bridge/vizier/whatever-his-name-is movement (any actions after that counter are not taken) can be especially vicious... If someone wants to target the leader and the current last place person happens to be in the way, that last place person suffers even more. In fact, someone who feels "out" of the game early can heavily influence the game simply by jockeying that token around and threatening to play the kingmaker -- an element so easily abusable that it must certainly be intentional, which seems odd.

The game features many excellent strategic options and sports some very interesting and game elements. With more play, and better skills to evaluate the worth of buildings and actions, I could see this becoming an 8 or so... Still, Puerto Rico and Aladdin's Dragons provide some of the same experience, but in half the time or less.

Current Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Beowulf >> Nuts n' Bolts Review

Overview: I picked up Beowulf at GenCon 2005 based on a GeekBuddy recommendation. This Reiner Knizia offering promised a mix of familiar card play blended with some risk/reward elements, and for my gaming tastes, does not disappoint, despite a few quirks.

Components: I love the artwork on the board and box, the Howe illustrations really evoke a mood and feel. The cards are sturdy and stand up to repeated shuffling well, but are visually unremarkable. The board and cards share a strong resemblence to the components from RK's Lord of the Rings coop game. Functional, but not fancy.

My biggest problem is the layout of the gameboard. With its odd 3/4 board, the actual game track still takes up only a small percentage of the board's real estate -- the spaces and text on the board are far, far too small, making it very difficult to glance at the board from around the table and see what's coming up. It's hard to plan ahead without constantly asking someone to read off spaces on the board.

The Beowulf tracking figure (moved along the gameboard to indicate the current location) is nice, and the wooden disks are functional. Overall, the production is fair. It works, it's sturdy, but it's not going to knock your socks off.

Gameplay: Without getting into too much detail, I'll say that the gameplay is predominantly hand management by way of using your cards to bid and leverage yourself to win rewards at different stops along the game track. The game is played in a series of hands, where different rewards (or penalties) are available based on how well players use the cards in their hands. When all cardplay at one location is complete, players "draft" the rewards for the current space based on how they fared, then move on to the next space on the board.

The "episode" spaces on the board, where players compete for rewards, come in two varieties -- face down secret wagers and clockwise bidding from your hand. In both cases, players use cards from their hand (with suits based on the space you're on) as bidding power. The player with the most icons of the matching suits (face down bids), or the last player to stay "in" a hand by matching the previous bids (clockwise bids) drafts the reward for that space first.

The board is linear, and the rewards are static, but the game is not nearly as repetitive as I would have thought. Some spaces have several good rewards, or a few devastating penalties. This presents players with interesting hand management decisions -- is it really important enough to spend X number of cards to select my reward first, or can I get away with playing fewer cards, and still get a decent reward, saving my hand strength for later.

The Rub: The biggest issue for me is the Risk option. On many of the episode spaces, the player has the option to take a Risk and draw cards from the top of the deck instead of playing cards from his hand. Any cards drawn that match the required suit count toward your play. If you fail to draw a matching card, you get a scratch (which can turn into wounds, which count against your score at game end).

While this sounds harmless, it's a very luck-driven aspect to a Knizia game, and seems a bit out of place here since the penalty for failing to risk (a scratch) is not a strong enough disincentive. It's almost always worth the risk to tempt fate, since odds are you'll succeed. At any time, 3 of the 6 suits will help you in the episode -- the two main suits required by that episode, and the Beowulf wild cards. Over the course of the game someone who succeeds more often than not has a very distinct and clear card advantage that is incredibly difficult to overcome.

Given a standard probability curve, someone's going to fare well and someone will get shafted. This would really stink in a long game, but if it's played at a social pace, and wraps up in what I think should be 30-45 minutes, it's not so bad.

Impressions: I am actually quite fond of Beowulf, despite its odd risk element. The only downside in my previous playings of Beowulf was playing it with some professional poker players -- they wanted to know how many cards everyone had at all times, and tracked the discards so they could calculate perfect odds on each card draw. That took some of the suspense out of the game. Still, played briskly and with the right crowd of laid back players, I thoroughly enjoy Beowulf with 4 and 5... Though with a smaller spread of rewards and less anxiety in the bidding, Beowulf is not nearly as engaging with only 3.

Bottom Line: 7/10 Fun game with interesting, light decisions. I can see this holding fairly significant replay value for 4-5 players as it plays quickly and the decisions are important, but not taxing or paralyzing. Beowulf shines when played at a brisk pace, as friendly competition and interesting risk/reward dynamics make this a refreshing game despite many familiar mechanics.

Friday, December 02, 2005

BoardGameGeek >> Taking Stock of the Site

A recent announcement by Tom Vasel over on BoardGameGeek.com, stating that he was moving his excellent Musings On... commentary and other select content exclusively to the www.boardgamenews.com site. This has sparked quite a bit of debate at BGG, with feelings ranging from betrayal to encouragement. I've had the pleasure of participating in several of Tom's Musings On... discussions, which recently focused on BGG itself as the main topic.

Here are my thoughts on the place of BGG in the gaming community.

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It's hard for me to have anything but glowing remarks for BGG, as it has dramatically changed the way I game -- and all for the better.

First and foremost, it is the ultimate game information tool, from the database entries to reviews, user comments, session reports and user submitted player aids. I would go so far as to say that a good quarterof my 500+ game collection is directly attributable to the information and access BGG provides. In fact, I would never even have heard of, let alone gotten the opportunity to play/purchase gems like die Macher, El Grande, Um Reifenbreite, Hansa, Santiago or Wallenstein were it not for the information *and* insights available on BGG.

Secondly, the BGG community (warts and all) has become my "workplace" of sorts. As a guy who works from home, I don't have a convenient office water cooler to stand around and chit chat with co-workers. For the last three or four years, BGG has been my main social outlet during the long work days. It's great to be able to hop online and check out a review of a new game, read over a GeekList, or get involved in an interesting forum topic.

Just like a real job, sometimes you're stuck working with people you don't like. In this case, irritating, rude or inflammatory posts and users. So I do my best to ignore them and focus on those I like being around. A ridiculously small price to pay for what I get out of it.

Even more importantly, BGG has led to finding gaming friends. Over the last year alone, I've met a dozen people via BGG whom I never would have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. Some are casual gaming acquaintances, some I see regularly, others I can get some PBEM gaming in with...

* Is BGG trying to do too much? Perhaps, but if what they do garners more interest and attention for my favorite hobby, it's hard to see itas a bad thing... Even bad press, as they say, is good press. There will always be content, comments and contributors I disagree with or that come across as elitist and caustic. Thankfully that sort of content is fairly easy to avoid or bypass.

* Should BGG really come out with their own award? I don't see how it can be a bad thing. If it's embraced, great! BGG's clout is recognized and more people come to use and interact with this community. If it fails miserably, there's no tangible negative impact that I can imagine. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

* Has BGG become too commercial? Perhaps, but who am I to complain? BGG is a phenomenal free resource... Many other sites charge subscription fees yet offer only a fraction of the content available on BGG. I can't blame Derk & Aldie for trying to make money on their creation.

All that said, I do think there has been a dramatic shift in the general attitude on BGG within the last 12-18 months. There's no longer the sense of the small, diehard group of enthusiasts, glad to stumble into the site that there once was. Topics and comments are more vitriolic. There seems to be less adherence to the "unwritten rules" of online conduct as wave after wave of anonymous users surge into BGG and look to apply the same attitudes and behavior that they've used elsewhere.