Ludotheque: A

Inspired by Rick’s earlier post on the subject, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about games. I don’t just enjoy playing games, no, no—not geeky enough. I love game design. I actively enjoy analyzing, synthesizing, and comparing the mechanics of games. I like to consider what the intent of a mechanic is, and how a game expresses its theme(s) through its rules.

Rick pointed to a broad distinction that has arisen in the expanding realm of board games: eurogames versus… something else. This “everything else” category defies easy explanation, and it is pretty easy to make several distinctions within that category. I’ll draw out what I think is the major “alternative” to the eurogame in a minute. First, I want to tell you what I think eurogames are, and why they’re fun.

Eurogames—

are characterized, in my opinion, by their rules. The rules are generally of low complexity but rich in intricacy and elegance… and they take a long time to truly master. It is generally easy to pick up and play a eurogame; genuinely satisfying to grasp how to play it smoothly and well; the best are also challenging at best to master, often presenting the experienced player with multiple meaningful strategies on each playthrough.

Eurogames are often themed, and come with beautiful production values. High quality printing, durable wooden markers, and few if any errata in the textual materials. However expressive the board and the flavor text may be, the “theme” of a eurogame is always secondary to its mechanics. Many of them had their themes applied well after the rules were worked out.

Puerto Rico

A seminal game. The rules are a bit difficult to parse (especially with regards to loading cargo on boats), but very easy to understand once you start playing. They come almost intuitively: each player in turn selects a “role”, granting everyone an opportunity to act (harvest crops, build buildings, sell goods, etc.) and the role-picker a special privilege. Players are racing to acquire “victory point tokens”, and the person with the largest stack of these wins. There are multiple available strategies, each of which has numerous tactics, and you are almost always presented with interesting choices to make. Highly Recommended.

Ticket to Ride

one of a series. This is an excellent game to break out to introduce light/casual gamers to the euro-style. I’d go with this before the iconic Settlers of Catan just because this is so much less complicated. The space of available strategies is nil. You are always making tactical decisions, at the most complex. It’s easy and satisfying to play. You are basically racing to connect various cities with brightly colored train cars, for no particular reason other than that they look nice like that and you earn victory points for doing so :). The European maps (Europe, Marklin) are superior to the good ol’ USA for replay factor. My wife and I often break this one out two-player, which turns it from a moderately tense order-of-operations race to a more laid back exploratory activity. Recommended.

New Wave Adventure Games—

This is the other broad category I would draw. We’ve seen numerous big-box, expensive, high-production value games from several newcomer companies, mostly in America. Many skeptics of the quality of the games contained within these massive $50+ dollar boxes, refer to these as “ameritrash”, but I actually like many of them. These suckers are driven by their themes or storylines rather than their rules. Many of the decisions in the game were driven by their creators wanting a certain look and feel on the table rather than fluid, elegant mechanics. Their rules are generally lengthy, full of crunchy bits, special cases, and a constant need to reference the rulebooks and/or FAQs to play them “correctly”.

However, the stories and theming is often rich and compelling, providing a satisfying activity if you’re in the right mood.

Arkham Horror

if you love H.P. Lovecraft, or at least love the various derivative works based on his fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up Arkham and give it a whirl. It’s huge, it’s gorgeous, it’s got more fiddly tokens, cards, and rules gadgetry than it needs; but hell, you’re basically playing out a role-playing game on a board! I love this game’s feel so much I’ve made elaborate foamcore “fiddly bit” corrals so that we can get to playing it rather than just managing it. You play as a team of overmatched investigators desperately trying to prevent an Ancient One or Great Old One from entering our meaningless plane of existence and extinguishing life as we know it. Recommended.

Mystery of the Abbey

a clue-style whodunnit that takes place in a medieval monastery. Lovely, lovely event system; a board and deduction pads that ooze theme; not much actual gameplay here. Sure, you’re facing a puzzler, and there are some truly great mechanics for sleuthing, from the question-answer cycle to reading books in the library to hanging out in the mess overhearing gossip. There’s too little private information to get tactical and no strategic elements to worry about.

Still, if you are in the mood for a brain teaser and feeling a bit like you miss Cadfael or Name of the Rose, this can be great. Pull out the altar wine! Neutral.

For next time

That’s it for now. Next time I’ll talk a little bit about why I keep italicizing strategy, tactics, and decisions and how that plays out into the mechanics of games; I’ll also bring some more reviews of games to the table to serve as examples.

ma’as salaama, Matt

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