It's that time of year again, kids. When the fat man rolls up in big red ride and brings joy and cheer to all the gamers of the world. Only in this case, the fat man is in a YuGiOh shirt, his vehicle is littered with mostly-empty Mountain Dew cans and discarded candy wrappers, and the joy and cheer he brings is accompanied by copious amounts of horribly offensive body odor. Also, he probably has a foam sword.
Yes, it's GenCon season, and for the first time in five years, I'm NOT there. It's hard to explain to your average nerd why I'm happy to miss the biggest show in gaming, but since I write about this catastrophe of hygiene once a year, many of you have probably heard most of this already.
It was just over nine years ago that my friend introduced me to The Settlers of Catan. As much as any game I’ve played, it was love at first sight, a revelation, an experience like nothing I had before. Strategy, interaction, and wonderful times with my friends all in a one-hour game. I bought a copy, played it to death, and got most of my friends hooked. I assumed that was the end of it, and I never bothered to look further into the hobby.
I think it's always worth reminding yourself of what you have in your life. It gives you an opportunity to appreciate the people, connections, things and everything else around you. It's so easy to go through the day and take everything for granted. So, maybe this article is a bit of a fluff piece, but I still want to share with you what it is that I appreciate in my life and maybe it reminds you of what you have in yours - and if you're happy to, please share those things in the comments below.
F:AT LOOKS BACK. This article was original published May 15, 2009 with the title Topical Trash.
Ken B.'s internet conection was blown out by the storms, so let's look back and enjoy this classic in which he coined the term DoaM
"If I could add to your excellent [analysis] of the game and why and how to win in Archipelago, I think I would add this that I was expecting for you reach at some point in your [post]...
In Archipelago you need to win discreetely and not outrageously. You need to [finely] tune your victory, not being too obvious, not smash[ing] down your opponent under your feet with a huge gap of difference, let the others think they are still well in the game. At least this is what I think and discovered after quite [a few] games."
That is a quote from Christophe Boelinger, designer of Archipelago. I've been reading a lot talk about semi-cooperative games, which seem to be the new rage. I welcome it, because I find these games endlessly fascinating. But there is a strain of analysis that makes the rounds saying that they do not work, they are broken. Essentially they posit that the rational strategy in a semi-cooperative is to threaten to tank the game to get side payments from other players in all situations, no matter the game state. In essence, this is the pure selfish strategy. While people who argue this tend to cloak their arguments in rationality, it has never sat right with me. With that in mind, I had a long conversation my wife about the incentives inherent in these semi-cooperative games. Our day jobs are as a professors in a quantitative social science field, so I deal a lot with moderate level game theory. I am not a theorist myself, but do need solid chops to read it regularly. My analysis could be wrong, but here's the calculation I see happening in a game like Archipelago:
I tend to assume everyone plays within game, pursuing Knizia's winning the game objective (if they don't, this genre seriously doesn't work). At any point in the game, you assess some probability of winning the game, with an uncertainty distribution around that assessment (e.g. 14% +/10%). That fluctuates depending on what is going on the game state, if you're getting your ass kicked, how far away you are from the end of the game, etc. In normal games, that number could go down to zero/close enough that a great deal of your uncertainty covers zero, but there's nothing you can do in these kinds of games besides rage quit, which I'm not considering as a possibility. You play to the end and try your best to win, even with a 1% +/- 5% chance to win or whatever.
In Archipelago, I've not played other semi-coops that are making the rounds like Dead of Winter or CO2, you similarly go about your turns with some subjective assessment of your chance of winning, looking into the future, when the game ends. The difference is that you can threaten other players to end the game or refuse to cooperate unless you get benefits. Unlike normal games, the chance to win the game can be removed (or strongly hurt) by other players. So players assessing themselves in a strong position (large perceived % chance to win) need to pay off players not doing well, reducing their chance to win in the process and increasing the opponent's chance.
What is stopping players from continually threatening to end the game, then, forever? Why isn't this rational like many people insist? I do not think so. It's not rational because at some point it is cheap talk, depending on game state. Remember, we assumed at the beginning of this game that players are playing with Knizia's trying to win within a single game goal. Sure, a player with a perceived 95% chance to win can threaten to tank the game unless she receives side payments, but we call that "cheap talk" in the social sciences. The threat of "I will make myself lose" is not credible with other players, who perceive that the player herself has a decent positive probability of winning, so they would call you on it. Then, as a rational player who has a chance of winning you swallow it and chip in for crises, etc, no matter what you promised. So what's driving continued play is the idea that all players losing the game is a certain 0% loss, which only desperate players who perceive they are near 0%, or near the end with little uncertainty about the result, will perform.
I haven't done math on this, but my guess is that in equilibrium all players threaten to not help with the game state till everyone perceives an indistinguishable chance of winning from one another. That's why it's important to introduce a great deal of uncertainty into a game of this nature (secret objectives, in this case). Also, this analysis is of a game where a player can literally end the game whenever they want, not just hurt game state like these semi-coops actually have. Every player knows how they are doing on secret objectives, so every player who is doing well on their secret objectives perceives themselves as in the lead or with a decent chance of winning. Which means unless someone really is sucking they will not credibly threaten the loss option---it is just cheap talk for players doing reasonably well to do so.
Also, this discussion shows why this type of game completely breaks with players who are playing irrationally (spite) or, more importantly, who perceive being forced to give benefits to losers as normatively unfair to them in boardgames. Lots of people are like this, so I could see it being a huge problem. Because no one is able to completely buy themselves into Knizia's "no metagame" ideal. And if there is a metagame over many plays, torpedoing a game can have a benefit to a rational actor to gain credibility---it's no longer cheap talk, and they can keep extracting side payments even when it would not be rational to do so within a single game.
The final twist in Archipelago that makes everyone more likely to not threaten to tank is the knowledge that any of the other players secret objective could be to lose. So if you tank, that could be playing into exactly what the other player is trying to get you to do---you will have a definite loss and that player a win. Still, this traitor mechanic is not necessary for the game to not end in a table loss every game among rational players. It is just another way to add uncertainty into the game and make players even more conservative about not coming as close to the knife edge where the game could be lost due to misperceptions.
Finally, notice that versions of the game with no real side payments and little uncertainty could make this type of game less and less fun, (I think) creating a more knife edged equilibrium toward "threaten until you are exactly equal in everything."
For what it's worth, I am not this boring to play games with, and I don't really play in this cold, rational "manipulating ambiguity" manner so characteristic of our favorite semi-mechanical game group members. But I do find these games to incorporate a much more complex and subtle understanding of how to win and interact with other players. There is, of course, a different discussion to be had as to whether this game of finely balanced side payments and tanking threats makes a fun game! If you want to read a classic game theory treatise on some of these cooperation issues, read Robert Axelrod's book, The Evolution of Cooperation.
TLDR: I'm not 100% sure about it, but my read on semi-cooperative games is that perfectly rational players in a semi-cooperative game may generate reasonably common game state losses through misperception. At equilibrium, however, my sense is that players should quickly drive the game to the brink of loss but, once there, losses shouldn't happen, given perfect information.
“It’s more of an experience game.”
Gamers have heard this phrase many times, which means it might be borderline meaningless. When I hear it, it conjures up a game where the process of playing it is inherently more important than the final result of who wins. The phrase “experience game” is sometimes used euphemistically for a game that’s a lot of fun but might not meet some nebulous mechanical standard. In that sense it functions as a little of a backhanded compliment, though not necessarily.
If you're at Gencon, an Area Control game means controlling the odors and smells in your game area.
Here's the BGG definition of Area Control / Area Influence: Area Control mechanic typically awards control of an area to the player that has the majority of units or influence in that area. As such, it can be viewed as a sub-category of Auction/Bidding in that players can up their "bids" for specific areas through the placement of units or meeples. InEl Grande, for instance, players earn their score in a region by having the most caballeros in that region.
I have failed. This week, I've failed to file some new material. Sorry about that. So instead I present to you this Arkham Horror session report from my archives. The opening line should tell you just how old it is, since I've played 20+ games of Arkham. Normal service resumed next week, I hope.
A recent news story from Rhode Island described an incident in a second grade classroom involving plastic army men. The students were making special hats to celebrate an event and one 8 year old boy created a baseball cap with a patriotic theme. The hat was decorated with an American flag and some green toy soldiers.
The child was referred for disciplinary procedures because the plastic soldiers were carrying guns. Thankfully a school administrator with some faintly pulsing thinking skills remaining in his or her cranium stepped in to defuse the situation, but only after the national media pointed out the folly of this idiotic “zero tolerance” policy.
Assault of the Giants is a solid game based on a well-known IP. Why wasn't it more popular?
I hope to have the next Terminator review up later today. Until then, enjoy an article sent to us by one of our readers, discussing the role of imagination in AT gaming.
I have been thinking a lot lately about what Ameritrash means in general in terms of boardgames. For me, the defining quality of AT is its ability to accommodate imagination of the player in a manner that integrates the qualities of the “real” world with the established rules of the “created” world – whether this be fantasy, sci-fi, old west, etc. In fact, for me, a game purchase can almost always be traced to the theme and whether it appears to be rich enough to allow the imagination to run freely. It is easy to see how the general contents and style of AT games promote the imagination aspect and help weave a story.
What, you weren't expecting a freaking EXTRAVAGANZA? Not wearing your tux, you say? That's alright, we're just sitting here in our underwear anyway watching old reruns of EIGHTEEN WHEELS OF JUSTICE.
A while back you may recall I did a piece onwhy I gave up role-playing games. As part of the discussion which that generated, people started throwing ideas at me for some more moder, streamlined, narrative-based games that I ought to check out. And I have to admit I was pretty intrigued by some of these. Not to the point where I’ve actually gone out and played one, that would be a pretty fast change of opinion, even for me. But certainly enough that I went out and bought a couple. And almost inevitably, as soon as I’d read the first one, it made me think about lessons that could be applied to board games.The role-playing game in question isDread, an independently designed and published game. It’s an open-genre horror game, as you might guess from the name, but what attracted me to it is the central, signature mechanic. At the start of the game a Jenga tower is built in the middle of the table, and every time one of the players wishes to do something challenging, the games master can ask them to pull one or more blocks from the tower. If they succeed, so does the character. If they refuse, the character fails the action. But if they try and knock the tower over then something terrible happens to the character and they’re eliminated from the game. It’s an utterly, brilliantly ingenious way to mimic the slow build-up of tension followed by a brutal denouement that’s typical of a horror tale. And as an aside it demonstrates what I’ve always maintained - that there are mechanical ways of simulating horror in a game if the designer is bold and creative enough. But that’s not what this column is about.What struck me about this particular idea is the complete disconnect between the mechanic itself and what it’s trying to simulate. In reality a stack of wooden blocks falls over. In the game your character has just become irrevocably insane after witnessing an alien horror from another dimension, or has had his face chewed off by a werewolf. There’s no linkage at all between the fact and the fiction and yet the mechanic works incredibly well. Of course this is a role-playing game so there’s going to be a huge level of narrative to try and fill in the gaps but this isn’t just a mere gap, it’s a gulf, and entire world apart. And even by the standard of role-playing games a disconnect this huge is unusual. For combat mechanics, for example, there’s usually some attempt to bring in factors like the armour a character is wearing, the weapons being used and the relative skill levels of the protagonists. But there’s nothing like that here, no linkage at all and yet it functions, and functions brilliantly. It is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of a thematic mechanic in a game.But when we, as board gamers, talk about theme (or the lack of it) what we’re almost always talking about is a simulation of the real world (or fantasy) implications of that theme. Games that get flack for being themeless tend to be ones where the mechanics don’t in any way link to the supposed theme of the game,Dominionbeing a brilliant example. How does building a deck, from which you’re initially limited to a hand of five cards, really connect mechanically to the supposed theme of gradually building up a powerful medieval kingdom and competing with your neighbours? It doesn’t, of course, and that’s partly why I grew bored with it quickly. On the other hand games that we celebrate for their comprehensive theme tend to have very strong ties between the mechanics and the theme, sayDune for example. I’ll bet my bottom pound sterling that when it’s re-designRex eventually hits the shelves it’ll either have changed mechanically in significant ways from it’s predecessor or it’ll be re-implimenting what is quite clearly a copy of theDune universe under a different name.But when you scrutinize this assumption it falls apart. The games that offer the best simulation - and under the usual terms of discussion, the best theme, are wargames and yet we don’t usually see them being held up as shining examples of thematic games. Indeed many people who like thematic games but reject wargames do so because they feel that the level of mechanical simulation required makes them overly-complex to the point of tediousness. When you consider this the contradiction becomes obvious: gamers who claim to love theme but reject the most thematic games of all because they involve too much work in implementing that theme. On the flip side you’ve got games likeTitan andArkham Horror which, mechanically, are semi-abstract but yet which get lumped together with thematic games and which, in the case ofArkham Horror at least, are frequently celebrated for the excellent narrative and sense of immersion that they create.I’ve been aware of this for a long time now, but I’ve never written about it before because I could never quite put my finger on what the problem was, how a game could feel deeply connected to its theme when its mechanics bore little relation to what it was trying to portray.Dread finally gave me the answer: there’s more than one kind of simulation. We tend to focus down on simulating the mechanical implications in the real or imaginary world in which the game is set, but what about simulating the emotional consequences within that world instead? That’s whatDread is doing. It tosses aside all the usual thematic trappings that try and make the game appear real and goes straight for the jugular and tries to make it feel real instead. Same end result, but a much, much more effective approach.And it makes sense. After all, when you really consider it all games are ultimately fairly abstract. Even something absurdly over detailed likeCampaign for North Africadoesn’t offer an experience akin to Montgomery’s or Rommel’s time commanding in desert warfare. For all the detail and decisions that it encompasses, it can’t simulate the stress of trying to make those decisions under time pressure or the emotional impact of knowing the price of failure. No mechanical simulation ever can. Instead, unless you’re particularly interested in the command and control structures of the armies that clashed over north Africa in 1941, it makes sense to bypass all that detail and try and do something else entirely that actually does induce a measure of stress and worry in its participants. You could argue thatRommel in the Desert manages this to some degree: it’s certainly a more playable game with a much higher emotional impact than most games about the war in the desert.Looked at from this angle, it seems almost incredible that designers and fans haven’t taken this approach more often before, especially when it comes to thematic games. If we’re looking for drama and narrative what do we really care about the mechanical implications of, say, slaughtering orcs or the political processes of corrupt dictatorships. I think the moment has finally arrived though when a more abstract approach to the thematic game is becoming the norm. Games likeWrath of AshardalonandJunta: Vive el Presidente have shown how themes we once assumed required immense mechanical detail to implement properly can function and be as fun as ever with the added bonus of being much easier to learn and much faster to play. Indeed if we really want drama and narrative then arguably more rules and play time can get in the way, especially in genres where an epic feel isn’t a pre-requisite. It’s taken a while to get to this point in design terms and I’m delighted with the result but there’s still more deadwood to be cut out before we approach the purity of something likeDread.
Player interaction isn't for everyone. Some enjoy the confrontation in competitive games, the moments when they move their troops into another player's territory and battle commences, the epic card combos that deplete the other player's health or similar actions that directly attack another player. Yet, there are more forms of player interaction, and in this article, I want to look at what these are and how they work.
In the late 70s and early 80s, American boardgame design was going through a bit of a renaissance. Commercial wargames -- attempts to recreate historical military operations on the tabletop -- had been in existence since the early 1950s, and in the intervening years the field attracted more and more talent, expanding the boundaries of design and content. What had started as a hobby with a very limited scope -- the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars -- began to bend and break and blossom with possibility. Simulated conflict was still the mainstay, but at the height of their productivity (circa 1980), great publishers like Avalon Hill, Simulation Publications, Inc., and Game Designers' Workshop were turning out games about aliens invading from Andromeda, giant monsters destroying cities in Michigan, pirates a-plundering in the Caribbean, and innumerable other non-traditional subjects.
My very first ever blog post was not in fact at F:AT. I was granted a guest spot at Gone Gaming which I used for a brief discussion of balance in multiplayer games. Today I wanted to revisit that argument and take it a bit further. In fact, I'm going to make a blanket statement which I'm fairly confident is 100% true.
It is impossible to design a near-perfectly balanced, non-random multiplayer game in which there is any kind of direct player interaction.
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