Tag Archives: board games

Choice

Sid Meir, the guy behind Civilization, famously described a game as being “a series of interesting choices.” The idea here is that a good game has you making decisions that have some weight to them, that is, decisions that though not necessarily wrong, could have repercussions. In Civilization, it can manifest from whether you plan on pursuing diplomacy or warfare, or whether you’re playing as the Aztecs or the English. Decisions.

By this metric, Candyland is a really crappy game with no real decision making, though this is arguably excusable as it functions as a method of introducing young children to the way board games work. Monopoly doesn’t really fare much better, as it really all comes down to the roll of the dice with the illusion of more — deciding whether or not to buy a property you land isn’t much of a decision because the answer is “duh.” If you play with trades, and players who are willing to trade, the game can get much more interesting, but that’s a big old if. Of course, Monopoly was originally intended, as The Landlord’s Game, to be an indictment against rampant capitalism and its lack of choice in the matter does underscore it; though I feel like the subtext was lost when Parker Brothers ‘borrowed’ the game from Lizzie Magie.

Anyway. Interesting choices.

Sid Meir’s a video game designer, so it makes sense to turn his lens to look at video games. The Sims is a game rife with choices: What job will your Sim have? What kind of stove will they buy? Should they or should they not date Santa Claus? There are a lotta choices you can make, which, given that the game’s a life simulator, makes sense. Interestingly, there aren’t really drawbacks between choosing to be a Super Spy of Master Criminal, it’s all part of whatever sort of narrative you’re constructing for your Sims. The choices remain interesting because it’s totally up to you.

The Last of Us has one of my favorite choices. It’s a small one, built into the gameplay’s crafting system. In the post-apocalyptic world, resources are scarce and much has to be made by hand. Alcohol and Cloth can be used to make Health Kits; they can also be used to make Molotov Cocktails. One of them heals you, the other can be used to fight Hunters and Infected. You have to choose which one to craft at any given moment, and given that you can only carry so much at a time, you’ll end up having to make something not knowing when you’ll get more. It compounds the game’s question of survival, forcing you to choose between attacking and saving yourself on a small scale.

Consequences are something that can make choices interesting — otherwise, it’s not more of a deal than picking the red or blue token. XCOM 2 gives your decision making weight. Are you gonna research armor or weapons first? Are you going to collect intel or supplies? Are you going to wait before launching that attack? The constant ticking time bomb of the aliens’ progress on the Avatar Project makes the time crunch real; you can’t spend all your time shoring up your forces or you lose. Periodic battles also make it hard to just wait around, as you will have to send your soldiers out on missions, and chances are, they will get injured.

That’s all big picture. When you get down to the minutiae of actual combat, the decisions compound. One strategic mistake in the tactical game could leave you with your best soldier in the infirmary for weeks — or killed outright, forcing any plans you had for a later raid out the window. If only you’d played that mission a little more

There’s a theory that storytelling was born out of the human/tribal need to simulate experiences for people who hadn’t yet experienced them. Maybe games are in some ways an extension of that, a sort of failure space for you to make choices and let them play out without real-world ramifications. Or maybe it’s just part of what makes them fun. Either way, they’re a great way to spend quarantine.

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D&D, But Online

I’m a big fan of tabletop RPGs. Probably because it’s all the fun of storytelling coupled with the inherent zaniness of improv comedy. Imagine, you get a good group together who feed off of each other’s energy and are all too willing to “yes-and” off of whatever random plot or character development another player throws out. Stories spiral into ridiculousness, while still maintaining the cohesive shared fantasy of a mutually constructed narrative. Of course, it helps to have a Game Master who’s able to roll with the punches and keep the story going no matter the curveballs the players toss out there.

Virtual tabletop has been a thing for a long, long time, and with the pandemic preventing any sort of game sessions in meatspace, more and more people are turning to services like Discord and Roll20 for their games.

And by ‘people’ I mean me.

I’ve long been a proponent of tabletop games — RPG or board — being played in person due to the very specific sort of chemistry that emerges from people hanging out together. Yes, there’s the part of communication that’s done through hand gestures and facial expressions, but there’s also the knowledge that everyone around the table is doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same people. And side conversations too, those are fun. When playing games over Discord and only hearing someone’s voice, interactions change.

Of course, there are some parts of those interactions that change because they could only be done through computer-mediated communication. There’s the obvious stuff, like how the multiple voice channels that Discord offers provides a way for the GM to have a private conversation with a player. It’s a simulation of going off into a room for a beat in real life, and certainly does take on its own form of formality when heralded by the sound of someone leaving and reentering the voice channel.

That Discord also offers text communication allows for a second conversation to be happening alongside the game, although in my experience it’s mostly us sending funny gifs and memes around that relate to whatever’s happening in-story. This creates a bizarre record of the adventure, though one that’s done more through an association game than anything else (for example: dumplings, training montages, the Hatch from Lost, Ackbar declaring it to be a trap, and Eric Andre demanding to be let in). They may not affect the story or the gameplay that much, but they provide a bit of color commentary on the proceedings.

With actual gameplay taking place via a system like Roll20, however, the very nature of playing changes. Skill rolls are an intrinsic part of most any tabletop RPG, they’re what determines how well a character does something. Roll high on a Persuasion Check, chances are, you persuaded them. Roll low on an attack and that’s a swing and a miss. Technically, you can roll the dice on anything, so long as you can justify the skill you’re using (Animal Handling to corral a group of children, for example). Of course, in-person, you have to declare it, which can mean having to calm down a very talkative table trying to decide on the course of action.

When all your rolls can be virtual through a website and show up in the logs, though, things can work differently. After all, click the “Persuasion” button on your character sheet and the roll happens. It’s all there on the screen, the dice, the results, and the stat that was rolled. The GM can ignore it or uphold it, but, point is, it happens without the need to tell everyone “Shut up, I’m rolling to Intimidate!”

When it comes down to it, I think I’m less intrigued by the way it changes gameplay than by how it changes the interactions of players. Often we look at computer-mediated communication as a lesser shadow of in-person dialogue, but I think it really opens up a different means of getting points across. You can’t drop a gif into a conversation in real life like you do online, but that doesn’t make it a less valid form of communication, does it? Maybe after this pandemic we’ll have a better appreciation for all the ways of speaking.

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Quarantined

To stem the rising tide of a pandemic, the residents of New York are put under lockdown. Life in the city grinds to a halt; no one goes into work and restaurants and bars are limited to take-out only options. News chyrons speak of medication being shipped to cities and team games being banned.

Who would’ve seen March 2020 looking like some B-Movie from the 80s?

It’s a time that I’ve been filling with watching movies, playing video games, and playing board games with friends. And reading too, because it’s a good time to be curled up with a book and a cup of coffee (I’m reading Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, if you’re curious).

I’ve really taken a liking to Legacy-style board games. These are the ones that every game impacts the next one and rules develop as you go. You get to name characters and mechanics get added and changed. Pandemic Legacy has been a lot of fun, because Pandemic is a fun board game anyway and it’s a little topical now given the whole, y’know, worldwide pandemic. Given the opportunity to name the diseases, we naturally chose to name one Corona and, keeping with the theme, the other three Budweiser, Miller, and Guinness. Because theming.

A fun bonus of it is that it’s a cooperative board game, so rather than conspiring against each other (which believe me is one of my favorite things), you’re working together against whatever’s going wrong in the game. It makes for a fun tabletop experience because you’re united with a common goal. It also makes for a gaming experience that’s built more around puzzling and problem solving than usurpation, which is a fun part of the brain to exercise.

Tonight we’re gonna take a stab at the Legacy version of Betrayal At The House On The Hill, another game that lets you play together alongside each other until the Haunt begins at which point it becomes competitive. All the same, it makes for a fun time.

Of course, to play with people outside of my apartment is another affair, but we find a way. Like streaming Jackbox’s Quiplash through Twitch and setting up a Google Hangout for everyone to play together. Sure, the eight-or-so of us are all in different places, but there’s still that community of doing something together and laughing at the same jokes. Feels not too unlike everyone sitting on a couch together somewhere.

Another friend of mine is putting together some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns over Discord, which, again, though not the same as everyone sitting around a table with beers and chips, still makes for a cool simulacrum of the actual experience. We’re all still cracking jokes and riffing off each other, just not in person.

Community is such an odd thing; it’s something that you can’t really quantify but you know when it’s not there. I recognize its loss when I walk past shuttered stores and empty restaurants to grab pickup from a place I dearly hope is still open after all this blows over. It’s liable that things will look more than a little different when all the dust settles. Community will probably look a bit different, and I think we’ll really learn that we don’t have to actually be together to be together.

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Tasty Words

If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.

Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.

What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.

XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.

On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.

Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.

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Of Board Games

Board games are still a thing. And card games and other such games that don’t require a TV, computer, or phone. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now, I love video games. The Last of Us is a work of art and there are feel things in life that can compete with mixing alcohol and Super Smash Brothers. That’s just how things are and it’d be blind to ignore it. Video games are excellent, and are here to stay. So how long is it till digital gaming eclipses old fashioned Monopoly and Risk?

Let’s get this said first: Monopoly is a terrible game: usually. It’s almost entirely based on luck, has what’s usually an arbitrary end time, and, most frustratingly, can get boring. It’s easy for your attention to wane as the game slogs on and nothing seems to come of it. Sure, you can talk to each other, but, well, why bother? Just let the game end already so we can do something else.

But that’s Monopoly. Some games are more entertaining, like Munchkins. It’s all the fun of a tabletop rpg, only without, well, the role-playing. It’s backstabbing, looting, monster killing, and very funny cards. Unlike Monopoly, it encourages much more player interaction (much of which is conniving against each other). There’s also a measure of fudging the rules a little, something you can’t do in a digital game. Of course, sometime the pacing can go south and you tire, but it’s usually a fun game; especially if the cards are right and group’s up for it.

Which brings me to Settlers of Catan, the veritable epitome of board games. If you’ve never played it go buy a copy, make friends, and play it. It’s a game that revolves around interaction. If you’re playing and you haven’t cut alliances, ganged up on someone, or manipulated the crap out of the person next to you, you’re playing it wrong. Essentially, it’s Game of Thrones.

But it’s not just the game that facilitates it, it’s the nature of being around a table. You can watch the despair in your opponents eyes as you cut off her burgeoning road or sit helplessly as the guy next to you laughs maniacally as he and someone you thought would be your ally corner you in your section of the map. More than that, it’s the fun of trying to talk your way out of someone choosing to take one of your cards (as opposed to the other guy who’s definitely winning I mean c’mon man look at that city he just built). The fun of being around a table together is when two of you are each trying to talk a third into making a decision that will supposedly be fore his benefit but’s really for one of yours. This interaction is the soul of the game, as vital to play as rolling the dice. Board games are inherently social games, and the best ones make full use of it.

Playing a game like Settlers digitally against an AI or with opponents miles away causes it to lose much of its human aspect. Furthermore, when rules are enforced by emotionless lines of code, concessions like undoing a move, trading on the sly, or showing your buddy your hand for a laugh are no longer possible. It’s just more fun around a table.

There’s that moment in a good board game where everyone is talking over each other. Maybe two people are each trying to convince a third to enter into a deal that will definitely benefit the player (but really the two are trying to screw each other over by proxy), another player’s laughing and the other two are trying to be advisers to the player being offered the deal. All this is happening at once, of course. Board games aren’t going anywhere.

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