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Monday, December 6, 2010

What's In A Game?

What makes a good game? Why are some games fun and interesting, while others are just meh? Here are some criteria, in no particular order, that I use when I try a new board game or card game:

1. Easy to Learn

The game has to wow me right off the bat. Now, some games may have a neat gimmick (like Killer Bunnies) or take place in an interesting setting (like Warhammer 40,000 or Betrayal at House on the Hill), and for such "fluffy" games, I'm willing to be patient and learn a complex rule system.

For the most part, though, I enjoy a game that I can pick up and learn easily. It has the advantage of not losing my attention, which can be a bit short, span-wise. Also, I can turn around and teach the game to others.

2. Depth of Strategy

Easy to learn, difficult to master. Those are traits I really enjoy in a game. Card games like Magic: The Gathering or Dominion, for example, have a lot of subtle interactions between the cards. Similarly, the base mechanics of Carcassonne are easy to grasp, yet the game provides many strategic options and a plethora of decisions to make.

A writer and game designer whom I admire greatly once wrote an article about the difference between choices and decisions in a game. It took him an entire article to fully explain his thesis, but the gist of it was that some games provide you with many choices, or options, and you simply have to choose the best option. Other games, however, create moments wherein your options suddenly become limited, and you must make a decision about which route to take.

I believe that a good game backs players into corners and forces them to make strategic decisions. "Do I sacrifice my bishop to put myself on offense, or do I just move my king out of immediate danger, but stay in a defensive mode?" That's a game-changing decision, and it adds tension, which I enjoy. "What do I kill with this Lightning Bolt?" on the other hand, is a choice, which may create a decision for my opponent, but is usually just simple mathematics for me.

3. Replayability

Some games have a very heavy story element to them, which is cool. It can be harmful, though. It's hard to justify spending sixty dollars on a game that's only good for a couple plays. Murder mystery games, for example, suffer from this problem. You play through them once, and from then on you know whodunnit. Even if you can get a completely fresh group to play with you, you already know the story. The Horus Heresy game, I am told, has the same problem. While it may be fun to play out the final battle to defend the Emperor of Mankind against the corrupt heretic forces, after six or seven games, it gets stale.

Single-player video games can suffer from this same problem, although in their defense, they often take a few dozen hours to finish. Fifty dollars for a game that takes twenty five hours to beat equals two dollars per hour of entertainment, which makes it four or five times better than hitting up a movie theater, as an investment. Board games that lack replayability, however, can sometimes only boast five or six hours of fun before becoming uninteresting. At that rate, you'd be better off taking your sweetheart to a water park.

4. Rewards Skillful Play

I enjoy feeling rewarded for my efforts when I'm trying hard and playing well. There are some games--Killer Bunnies comes to mind--that, when boiled down, are almost entirely random. Roulette is the same way. You're just hoping to get lucky. I don't care for that. I like feeling that my efforts are paying off.

With games like Carcassonne or Magic: The Gathering, on the other hand, you can actually watch as you gain points on the score chart or see your opponent's life total diminish. It's fabulous.

5. Randomization

As much as I like being able to play skillfully and be rewarded, I also like a bit of randomness in my games. Chess is all well and good, but the really good players know when and how it's going to end long before less-experienced players such as myself. A bit of randomization, like rolling dice or shuffling cards, helps balance the game enough that newer or less-skilled players can still have a shot at winning. It adds a bit of danger and excitement to the game.

6. Non-Aggressive Strategies

This isn't as important to me as some of the other points I've mentioned, but I am not a mean person at heart. Sometimes, I have trouble being cutthroat enough to win games. I like games like Dominion, Carcassonne, or even (if you play your cards right) Magic: The Gathering, that provide strategies wherein you don't actually have to interact with the other players. That way, I can avoid upsetting anybody. That's probably why I love combo decks in Magic: The Gathering so much. I can just do my own thing, ignore my opponent, and try to just win before my opponent can kill me. Although that can upset some opponents, too, so I guess I can't always avoid making people mad. Sigh.

7. Fun

This is hard to quantify. Different people enjoy different things.

Here's my beef with games like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, or World of Warcraft. You do the exact same thing over, and over, and over again. Now, that would be fine if what you were doing was enjoyable, but it's just... not.

I sure do loves me some Dominion, though.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Monopoly Is A Lousy Game

Let's be honest.  Monopoly is like a rite of passage for young Americans.  Our bright little eyes light up at the sight of the fake money.  We scramble to choose the best game token (the boot, obviously, and I don't care what you car-lovers say) and are eager to buy up properties and start raking in the dough.

The problem is, Monopoly is actually a truly terrible game.  While I applaud Hasbro's efforts to teach children basic math, I shudder to think what children may glean about how economics works from this game.  It's titled "Monopoly," for God's sake.  There are laws in place to prevent monopolies, and for good reason.  Yet the goal of this game is to own absolutely everything, and charge everyone an arm and a leg for the privilege of residing in your city-state.  I find that appalling.

Further, there is the concept that simply purchasing some real estate will provide you with income, which (as anyone who has rented or bought real estate knows) is simply not the case. 

On top of which, there's the whole money system that lets you buy entire hotel chains for a few thousand dollars.  Huh?  It takes thousands of dollars a day to keep a good hotel running!

Then there's the fact that everyone is apparently just roaming around Monopolyville with stacks of cash and no place to live.  They just keep crashing at people's houses or paying for a hotel.  Do they not have anything better to do with their lives than walking (or driving, if you're into the car) around, buying and selling deeds and rarely if ever staying at the properties they own?

And then there are the cheap franchise Monopoly games, like Star Wars Monopoly and The Office Monopoly.  As if giving an awful game a fresh coat of paint will fix anything.  Sure, the die-hard Simpsons or Frasier fans will impulsively pick copies of their respective franchise Monopoly games, but what do they really get out of them?  Cheap pewter figures that barely resemble their namesakes, and a game board that may be pretty, but makes even less sense than the streets of the original Monopoly game.

Kudos to whoever thought to make A Nightmare Before Christmas Monopoly, though.  I'd totally buy that.

The worst part about the game though:  It never ends!  I have met perhaps two people in my entire life that have actually played a Monopoly game all the way through to the end.  SANE people just play for an hour or two and predict who is going to win.  (Hint:  It's the one with all the money and most of the properties.)  Which is just another way of saying that normal people play until they get bored.  A good game ought to hold players' interests all the way to the end of the game.  Monopoly just doesn't do that.

If you already own a copy of Monopoly, I can't fault you for that.  It's such a prevalent game that it's hard to avoid.  It's like the Bible--people just expect you to own it.  However, if you have yet to acquire a copy of your own, I say don't bother.  Spend your money on a game worth playing.  Or on cupcakes.  Cupcakes are good, too.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why You Should Be Playing Dominion

I ran into a friend while doing some laundry this morning.  She and her husband are two people with whom my wife and I try to play games on a semi-regular basis.  She asked about a game that my wife and I happen to adore, but I wasn't able to discuss the game in as much detail as I wanted.  I wasn't able to "geek out," as they say.

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to discuss Dominion.  It is a freaking awesome game.  One of the things I love about it is it's replayability factor.  Dominion is a deck-building card game.  This means that each player begins the game with a small deck, and gradually adds to their respective decks as the game progresses.  There are numerous Action cards, Treasure cards, Victory cards, and hybrid cards available that can be purchased and added to your deck to enhance the deck's power or to gain more Victory points.  The great thing is, you can randomize which cards are available each game.  Thus, every game is different, with unique combinations of cards available and unique challenges to overcome.


Here's how the game works:  the game ends when either A) all the Province cards (worth 6 Victory points each) have been purchased, or B) any three Supply piles (piles of Action cards or Victory cards) run out.  The winner of each game is then determined by adding up the number of Victory points each player has accumulated.  Each player tries to purchase as many Victory cards as possible throughout the game.  However, Victory cards usually do nothing (the Dominion: Intrigue expansion did several things to make Victory cards relevant prior to the end of the game, but for the most part, Victory cards are just dead in your hand), so it is prudent to wait until the game is coming to a close to buy Victory cards.  Otherwise, you could find yourself stuck with a hand full of useless cards, thus wasting a turn or two looking for cards that do something.

Play proceeds clockwise, with each player taking a turn that consists of an Action phase, a Buy phase, and a Discard phase.  During the Action phase, the active player may lay down and use one Action card, which could have a wide variety of effects, including allowing the player to use even more Action cards in that turn.  Some of the more useful abilities of Action cards include drawing extra cards, acquiring new cards without needing to buy them, and adding virtual money to your money pool to spend that turn.  There are also Action cards that attack other players--for example, forcing them to discard cards from their hand--but my wife and I tend to shun such malicious strategies.

Once all the actions have resolved, the player enters the Buy phase.  You can use Treasure cards in your hand (plus any money generated by Action cards) to make a single purchase.  Some Action cards (and, with the newest expansion, some Treasure cards) allow multiple purchases in a single turn.  A typical turn, however, will consist of just one purchase, so you must select carefully which card amongst the various options to add to your deck.

During the Discard phase, all cards that were drawn or otherwise acquired are discarded into your discard pile, and a fresh hand of five cards is drawn.


The base game does a good job of introducing the various strategies of Dominion, and has given my wife and I hours of enjoyment.  The great thing about Dominion, though, is that there are (currently) four expansions, each of which adds further depth and complexity, new strategies and new ways to enjoy the game.

Like most of the games I enjoy, Dominion is easy to learn and difficult to master.  I would estimate that there are about one-hundred and thirty unique cards in Dominion, yet each game will only use between sixteen and nineteen of them.  Since the available cards can change every game, you have to adapt to different strategies each time.  Subsequently, the game has a high level of replayability.  Plus, it's a lot of fun.  Games can take as little as fifteen minutes from setup to point-tallying when played by two experts.  (The average game, though, seems to take about thirty to forty minutes.)  It is a perfectly balanced and fair game between two people, which is one of the reasons my wife and I play it so much; most of our other games need three or four people to play well.  It can be played with two to four people without trouble.

More than four people will require at least one expansion, however.  The base game does not come with enough Province cards for the game to play well with five or more people.  You need to add two or three Province cards per person beyond the fourth to balance things.  You may also need to stipulate that the second method of ending the game should be the depletion of four or even five stacks, rather than the usual three.  So, a little bit of work is required to play with more than four people, but it's totally worth it.

Dominion is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.  Both the Intrigue and Seaside expansions are enjoyable and add a lot to the game.  I haven't had enough experience with the Alchemy or Prosperity expansions to give any sort of opinion on them, but I'm sure they're good, as well.

Check it out at boardgamegeek.com!