2015 Year in Review Mailbag – Influencers & Collaborators

Written by Alex Harkey

fireworksWe’re wrapping up year two at Games Precipice and we’re as thankful as ever for the support, feedback and readership growth we’ve received this year. We recently launched an ambitious series of topics titled Game Structures which incorporate some of the foundational decisions we’ve observed in game design. We’re currently in the middle of our topic dedicated to the wide world of Worker Placement games.

As we look forward to 2016 I wanted to highlight some of our influences and pass along a few things I’ve learned over the last two years. Many thanks to everyone who has helped us reach this point, now we want to get to your comments and questions…

The Comments:

I’ve enjoyed reading Games Precipice almost from the very beginning. I appreciate the effort you guys put into what you do. But sometimes you couldn’t be more wrong. [Previous Mailbag – The Best Year in Game Design] This is one of those times. In what alternate timeline was 2007 better than 2012?
– Nick

Games Precipice: Almost there…

2004 had Power Grid. You love Power Grid. How did you not love 2004?
– Rob

Games Precipice: One more…

2012 wasn’t just a great year in board games. We had the entertainment surrounding the end of the Mayan calendar. The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars. A man broke the sound barrier while falling from space. We even got Gangnam Style out of it. 2007 had the writer’s strike which ruined television and Spiderman 3 which ruined my childhood. It’s okay to admit when you get it wrong.
– Aaron

fullbracketGames Precipice: In a previous mailbag I went on a tangent and did a “brief” overview of landmark years from the last ~35 years of tabletop game design. As a closing statement I picked 2007 as my personal champion over many worthy candidates for the “best year in board game design”.

…and maybe I did get it wrong, because I certainly heard about it. We didn’t receive any completed brackets, but a quick tally of responses I received indicated 2012 as a popular favorite over both 2011 and 2013 with a single ballot each for 2010, 2007, and 2004. In hindsight I should have done an actual poll but I enjoyed reading the responses and I.

[Four Great Decision Traits in Games] I thought this was very thought-provoking […] How about a contrast article: polarizing decision traits?
– Jay

Games Precipice: I’m not sure when I might get to write about the top three “new to me” games of 2015, so I took a close look at each and I think I found three interesting characteristics:

Pridefulness (& Humility): Decisions that can make us look silly.

pridefulnessI love a game that can teach me something. It shouldn’t be surprising that an educational game like Fauna can do that, but it can also teach me something about me.

The decision variable we’re looking at is confidence and it’s almost completely monopolized by trivia games. In the same way that Wits & Wagers asks for a precise guess to an often obscure numerical fact, Fauna asks for the habitat locations of the Red-Faced Spider Monkey or the weight of a Pygmy Sperm Whale. 

faunaMaking guesses about animals you’ve never heard of isn’t unusual. There are three types of people who will succeed at Fauna:

  1. Wildlife biologists
  2. People who loved creating animal kingdom tri-fold board science projects growing up.
  3. People who occasionally look absolutely ridiculous by being alone on the completely wrong continent. These are my people.

That third group of people doesn’t play it safe out of social pressure. I love that you have to take risks in Fauna – if you want to succeed you have to travel beyond your comfort zone. You can use instincts, educated guesses and observation of your opponents as tools, but at some point everyone else is clustered in South America and you’re the only one in on the other side of the world. Decisions in the game rely on confidence but the answer can be entirely humbling, and I appreciate that it can remind us exactly what we aren’t good at.

Confliction – Decisions that can make us outguess ourselves.

conflictionAgonizing choices are great. Constantly feeling like you made the wrong decision isn’t as much fun.

But in the right circumstances the decisions that generate endless doubt are the best ones we ever face.

I find internal conflict in every decision I have in Lords of Xidit. The game involves simultaneous programming of movement and actions, so everyone plans out the next six things we want to do in advance and then we execute them in turn order. This programming stage prior to every turn often takes place in silent anxiety over the importance and timing of your actions might get dismantled if your opponents can predict what you’re planning to do. Lords of Xidit isn’t a stranger to recurring dilemmas:

  • “Should I go pick up the last Cleric there or will Dave move there before me?”
  • “Can I get to that threat monster before anyone else? Should I do other things on the way or will I risk missing out completely?”

lordsofxiditOnce you manage to conquer a threat you get to choose two of three possible resources. This decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because your decisions culminate in an end game multi-stage elimination reveal which decides the winner and candidly tells everyone else exactly where they came up short.

Lords of Xidit doesn’t use a murky victory point scoring to hide the flaws in my strategy at the end of the game; if I lost, it’s almost certainly because one of the three resources was my downfall and I came up short. The whole process leads to constant internal struggles:

“Do I have enough gold? I totally don’t have enough gold. I feel like I’m playing with Smaug the Dragon, Tywin Lannister and a leprechaun.”

I love this characteristic (under the right conditions) because it puts greater emphasis on the decisions. I’m cycling and recycling thoughts through the same decisions so if it is sweeter when plans go right and by the end of the game the final reveal is like a climactic grand finale no matter the outcome.

Feldness – Interconnected decisions offer a variety of areas to explore.

feldness“Alex, that’s…that’s not even a word.”

orleansThat’s true, but bear with me. My favorite game I played in 2015 was Reiner Stockhausen’s Orléans. It manages to blend a variety of interesting choices with a surprisingly enjoyable core mechanic of bag building.

While the game is all its own, it has all the main characteristics that have made Stefan Feld popular in gaming groups for years. This is entirely a compliment in Eurogames as individually these qualities don’t amount to anything but in combination they create a very positive game environment.

Six Qualities of “Feldness”
  • Large quantity of quick turns(Orléans?) Check
  • Three to five ways to score points – (Orléans?) Check
  • Interconnected mini-game segments(Orléans?) Check
  • Interesting core action-selection mechanic – (Orléans?) Check
  • Ability to feel competitive on your first play(Orléans?) Check

I think that last one is particularly important. It is a strength that separates Stefan Feld from a game by someone like Uwe Rosenburg. Both are exceptional designers, but I anticipate getting squashed the first time I play anything by Rosenberg: the original Harvest Trilogy, Caverna, Fields of Arle, almost anything. The only exceptions where I thought I had a chance the first time around were probably Bohnanza and Patchwork.

By contrast, I’ve never played a Feld where I felt noncompetitive early on.  I feel that same way about Orléans and I can’t help but see the same collection of qualities in it. Reiner Stockhausen came up with a truly brilliant design and one that I’m anticipating playing for a long time.

The Questions:

Hey guys! Great site, I’m in the process of devouring it. Other than some of the blogs you link to, what other sites do you think are worth following?
– Derek

Games Precipice: Really tough question. I think if I started linking things I would have trouble stopping – there are so many great board game content creators right now. Instead of asking you to wade through forty links, I think it would be more valuable to emphasize one.

Mechanics & Meeples is one of my absolute favorite sites. It’s author, Shannon Appelcline, has been writing for years about all things board games, especially Euros and also has the rare talent of making almost any topic and possibly every topic interesting.

I first came across Shannon’s writing around nine or ten years ago on Gone Gaming, a long since discontinued blog that had a collection of talented writers and BGG old guard. Shannon is one of the best writers in board games and if you’re reading this and not already familiar with it, I think you’ll enjoy Mechanics & Meeples just as much as I do.

Hey there Alex and Matt! I’m actually in the process of launching a blog of my own to group my thoughts on various board games. I’m had a couple questions for you: […] Do you have any advice?
– Chris

Games Precipice:  Three lessons come to mind for me:

Create What You Enjoy: This is the easy part. I love reading a good 2000 word in-depth piece on an interesting topic. I enjoy writing about games but I’m not sure I can churn out a large number of quality reviews every week. The lengthy articles we aim for don’t appeal to everyone; we’ve certainly gotten our fair share of feedback about it. But writing what you enjoy is the easiest way to find your audience, and we’re always excited to hear the positive feedback from ours.

Don’t Dilute Your Objective: This is the tricky part. Almost every week I’m tempted to write a brief two paragraph post about a new game I played over the weekend. But it would feel out of place. I’d like to write session reports about gaming groups or conventions, musings about kickstarter projects and speculation about publishing trends. But there are plenty of sites that do that better than I can and I would lose the focus of what I enjoy doing most. We only have so much time and effort we can dedicate to passion projects and getting sidetracked is a real risk.

Recruit A More Talented Co-Author: This is the lucky part. I’m going to talk about Matt for a moment because he’s at least 50% of what we do here and Games Precipice wouldn’t exist without him. He’s also so humble he’d never acknowledge any of this if I didn’t bring it up.

We’ve been collaborating on a lot of the topics, frameworks and ideas we write about here long before we ever expand it into articles. I mention this because collaboration is so important to maintain enthusiasm.

I’m a slow blogger. This mailbag was supposed to be up a week ago. I’m still figuring it out to write with clarity and conciseness. Matt’s a fluid writer, he’s been blogging as long as I’ve known him and its one of many things he’s great at. It’d be impossible to try to do any of this site alone; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bounced an email off to him before we eventually arrived at a far better end result on a list of ideas.

It’s often said we learn more from losing than winning. It’s true, I learn a lot when I play board games with Matt. Second place really isn’t so bad. When he is in town with his fiancée, Matt and I each learn a lot in second and third place. My wife pushes me into fourth. You could just say I’m a life-long learner – that’s a nice way to put it.

So what does all this mean?

I guess when you’re surrounded by extremely smart and talented collaborators, gaming partners, supporters, readers and mailbag participants you can’t help but finish every year thankful for all the support you receive. If you’re like me, you then take 2000 words to explain it…

Yup – I’m still learning. Have a wonderful New Year and we’ll see you in 2016!

We want to include your question, comment or criticism in our next mailbag. Want to share about your new game? Vehemently disagree with something we’ve written? Have an interesting design question that might help others? We want to entertain your thoughts here. Send us a message: mailbag “at” gamesprecipice.com.

Our Favorite Articles of 2015

Satisfaction Guaranteed – Laying A Foundation for Fun in Games
Game Design Analysis – Twilight Struggle
Dual Design Analysis – Concordia and Lewis & Clark
Early Game Structures – Turn Order
Early Game Structures – Decisions

 

Top 3 “New to Us” Games of 2015

2015top3alex

Alex: 1. Orléans, 2. Lords of Xidit, 3. Fauna

2015top3matt

Matt: 1. Orléans, 2. Elysium, 3. Lost Cities

Matt: Here are my top 3 new-to-me games for 2015:
  • orleans1) In the “Gourmet Bagged Point Salad” category: Orléans. You could be forgiven for thinking you were playing Castles of Burgundy but with a bag of worker markers instead of a hex of tiles. Alex’s description of “Feldness” hits all of the points I’d want to make about Orleans and how it’s comfortably similar to–but never identical to–notably Feldian games like Castles or Burgundy or Bora Bora. Because every player sees so much of the game on any given play-through, Orléans isn’t a game you necessarily want to play many times in the same sitting. But it was a Kennerspiel des Jahres nominee for good reason and certainly plays like one, with each go at it feeling like a nuanced refinement of a strategy instead of a brand-new experience.
  • elysium2) In the “Let’s Pull Mechanics From Some Of Matt’s Favorite Games” category: Elysium. One of my favorite games from the past five years is 7 Wonders, which is mostly universally well received but has drawn the legitimate criticism that you never actually “play” the game you spend so long drafting. And one of the most underrated games over the same period is Seasons, which draws inspiration in equal measure from deck-builder and tableau-builder card games. Elysium appropriates all of these mechanics, adds a dash of a Greek mythology theme for good measure, and contains so much unique content that you could play it a thousand times and not observe all of the possible interactions.
  • Lost Cities3) In the “Seminal Games From At Least A Decade Ago That I Somehow Never Played Until Now” category: Lost Cities. It’s amazing how getting engaged increases your appetite for strictly two-player games, and while Twilight Struggle is a veritable masterpiece, my fiancée and I can’t always dedicate four hours at a time to world domination. It’s light on theme, and it’s safe to say that games have gotten much more beautiful in the last 15 years, but Lost Cities checks the “depth per complexity” and “fun per time” boxes nicely.
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7 comments on “2015 Year in Review Mailbag – Influencers & Collaborators

  1. J. Goard

    “I think that last one is particularly important. It is a strength that separates Stefan Feld from a game by someone like Uwe Rosenburg. Both are exceptional designers, but I anticipate getting squashed the first time I play anything by Rosenberg: the original Harvest Trilogy, Caverna, Fields of Arle, almost anything. The only exceptions where I thought I had a chance the first time around were probably Bohnanza and Patchwork.”

    Hohohoho. No brand new player is going to beat me at Castles of Burgundy, Bruges, sure, certain lucky combos plus a couple of key rolls can let anyone crush it. His others, I haven’t played enough to become really good, but I have a strong feeling that someone who’s played Bora Bora as much as I’ve played Burgundy would always beat me .

    On the Rosenberg side, I think I’ve seen new players win Glass Road quite a few times, and I’ve dertainly never felt like the guy who owns it and has played the most always has a commanding lead. The same-card piggybacking mechanic throws a wrench into the concept of optimal play,as it does in my favorite recent game, Broom Service. I think once you get beyond the behemoth that is Agricola/Caverna, the two designers are a whole lot closer.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Very well said J, your thoughts are a very welcome addition to the blog.

      I’m typically not concerned about winning but I continue to find myself struggling with almost any Rosenburg game in the first few attempts. I played Fields of Arle for the first time in about a year a few weeks ago and I remembered so little about it I might as well have been playing it for the first time. Oddly the only thing I do recall is that this was probably my worst outing in the game score-wise.

      I still find the divide between the designers to be as wide as I did almost a year ago. I haven’t played anything new from Feld since writing this post (besides CoB: The Card Game) but even revisiting his titles I last played years ago seems like less of a struggle in climbing some sort of “re-Learning Curve”.

      I’m quietly working away on a Game Design Analysis for A Feast for Odin right now and I think Uwe fans will be pleased with what I have to say about it.

      1. J. Goard

        Aha, I guess a key distinction is between feeling like you have command of a game and are in the running, versus actually having a real shot at winning. Lords of Waterdeep is probably on of the easiest games to feel like you grasp, and that’s why it usually gets called an “intro Euro”. Actually, its supply/demand aspect and the way quests get chained mean that better players win nearly every time., But the thing is, better play usually results in being behind in points on the board for much of the game, so the losing players get a chance to feel like they’re winning.

        Burgundy is surely one of my top five games, because it’s accessible, elegant, and still rewards expertise. Bruges, though? There are ALL of these cards, and unless you’ve played that single game exclusively, who knows what might happen? In fact, I’d tend to group Bruges with Agricola and Burgundy with Caverna for that very reason.

  2. Joe Pilkus

    Alex,

    You definitely have a devoted reader! Since my return to the board gaming arena, it has been a phenomenal education for me…from the myriad mechanics in the games, to the vast number of genres, to the wide array of top-notch-designers, to Kickstarter entries, development, play-testing, and everything in-between. Recently, however, I’m thrilled to have found your musings, as it brings together the best bits from across a spectrum of fascinating board game areas into one digestible meal. Thanks for that…I’ll pour another glass of wine now and re-read one of your missives.

    All the best to you and your colleagues in 2016!

    Cheers,
    Joe

    1. Alex Harkey

      You’re too kind, Joe. It means so much to me that I can ramble every so often and be met with the most flattering of compliments.

      Cheers and a Happy New Year to you and yours!

  3. geoffreygreer

    Thanks again for another fun read, Alex. I love the “bracket system” you used to pit one year against another. Reminds me of all sorts of nonsensical road-trip games I used to play with my dad, like “Opposites.” (What’s the opposite of car?) Anyway, equally fun are the vehement comments, but I appreciate just being exposed to titles I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. Keep up the good work. Looking forward to more content from you guys in 2016. :)

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