Designers & Dragons

Designers & Dragons: The '70sSadly, I missed publishing a new Mechanics & Meeples article again this last Monday, but there’s been a good reason for it. I’ve got a live Kickstarter going for Designers & Dragons, my 4-book history of the roleplaying industry, and it’s been eating up my free time like you’d expect a hungry dragon to do.

If you enjoyed the short historical tidbits I’ve written on the board game industry, I encourage you to take a look, as Designers & Dragons was a model for those articles. More generally, if you’re curious why small hobby companies rise and fall, and how roleplaying publication intertwinces with wargame publication, eurogame publication, and miniatures gaming, Designers & Dragons is a rich source.

The first book, Designers & Dragons: The ’70s is particularly good in this area. It talks about the rise of fantasy and science-fiction board games and of the minigames (with a focus on Metagaming Concepts), and it also talks about how miniatures led to roleplaying games (in the TSR article). Continue reading

Not Necessarily a Deckbuilding Design

DominionOver the last few years, I’ve written about deckbuilding games pretty extensively. However, in that time I’ve never actually stopped and defined what the term means. After all, in the genre’s earliest years, you knew a deckbuilder when you saw it. Thunderstone (2009), Ascension (2010) and (especially) Tanto Cuore (2009) were all obviously Dominion (2008), with some different rules and a different facade — so they were de facto deck builder games.

However in recent years that visceral definition has become less clear because deckbuilders have both proliferated and become more varied. It’s part of what I see as a four-step process.

  1. A game with an innovative mechanic appears and knock-offs mostly copy the game; they’re similar enough to feel unoriginal, but different enough to not seem like a total rip-off. Examples: AscensionThunderstone.
  2. Games continue to use the original, innovative mechanic, but vary more widely, and as a result a genre appears. Examples: Eminent Domain, Quarriors.
  3. The genre matures and the innovative mechanic becomes old hat. At this point this mechanic infiltrates other sorts of game as one part of a larger whole. Examples: A Few Acres of Snow, Copycat.
  4. Further variations appear that are so different that it now feels like the original mechanic was largely an inspiration. Some of them may vary enough that they actually are a brand-new mechanic, which might create knock-offs, genres, mechanics, and inspirations of its own.

And so the evolution of eurogames continues. Continue reading

New to Me: Spring 2014

It’s been a light quarter for my gaming, with me missing something like 6-9 of my regular gaming sessions. Still, I’ve got eight “new” games to talk about, running the gamut from awesome to (too much) meh.

The Great

PathfinderPathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is an astonishingly innovative deckbuilding game, primarily for the complex ecosystem of cards that it creates — one that carries on from one game to the next. The idea of a cooperative game that continues from session to session is also pretty rare, and it’s done quite well here: the whittled down deck of cards that you carry from game to game is very meaningful.

The rest of the gameplay is a bit more pedestrian, with random card draws and random dice rolls allowing you to accomplish tasks via a simple task resolution system. Still, it’s nicely put together and it’s just dripping with evocative theme. I was jazzed to continue playing it after my first adventure, primarily to see my character grow over numerous sessions of play. I racked up a total of six games over the quarter. Continue reading

The Alea Analysis, Part Five: San Juan (S#5), Fifth Avenue (#9), Louis XIV (M#1)

Over the last few years I’ve slowly been updating, expanding, and revising my series of articles on Alea games. If you’d like to catch up, you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four.

This article brings Alea into the mid ’00s with a look at the transition from their old Small Box series to their new Medium Box series. It covers San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV.

Small Box #5: San Juan (A+)

Author: Andreas Seyfarth
Publisher: Rio Grande (2004)
Alea Difficulty Scale: 3
Other Articles: Alea Treasures #1: Louis XIV & San Juan (9/10), San Juan Review (7/04)
My Plays: 37

San JuanSan Juan returned to the gameplay of Alea’s prize-winner, Puerto Rico. On your turn, you pick a role that everyone benefits from, and you try and use the benefits of that role to build production buildings and special-power buildings that will ultimately earn you the most victory points. 

Strengths: Innovative Cards

San Juan’s biggest innovation and its biggest strength lies in the the idea that cards can be used either for what’s printed on them or just as a resource. Generally, I find it an amazing idea. First, it notably decreases the effect of luck in a card game, because you only care about what’s printed on about a quarter of your cards, meaning that you have a lot more choice than you would if you used every card. Second, it introduces a lot of variety to the game, because on a given play you’ll only see a small number of the cards in actual use; it may be many, many games before you’ve played everything.

San Juan built upon this strong basis by adapting the basic roles of Puerto Rico to its new card paradigm. Now, many of the roles focus on different ways to draw cards: through selfishness (the Prospector), through overdrawing and discarding (the Councillor, who also includes another mechanism for reducing the luck of card draws), and through a more complex production-sales mechanism (the Producer and the Trader). It’s an excellent example of simultaneously innovating and holding onto classic play. Continue reading

How to Teach a Game

So you want to teach the rules of a board game? What follows is my best advice on how to do so, based on years of teaching many different games. It’s certainly not the only way to teach a game, but in my opinion, the suggestions below hit the most important points.

Getting Ready to Teach

To start with, you must learn the game. That’s the single most important requirement for teaching a game. It means reading through the rules in advance of the game and looking through the rest of the components to ensure that you know how they work together with those rules. I don’t worry about reading through every card or every space on a board, but I do think it’s important to understand the general shape of things.

If you haven’t played the game in a while, you should probably read the rules again. I have a few dozen games that I’ve played enough that I can teach them cold, but for the rest, I usually pick up the rules and at least skim them before throwing the game into my bag for game night. Continue reading

The Design of Real-Time Games

Real-time games are one of my favorite genres. Sadly, they’re pretty rare too, with a game of real note only showing up every year or two. In this article, I’m discussing several of the most interesting real-time games, to highlight what each does great (or not). Rather than trying to rank these games, I’ve listed them in order of publication … but if you want to know my favorite real-time game, it’s Galaxy Trucker (2007), hands-down.

Ubongo (2003)

UbongoUbongo isn’t exactly a real-time game by my definition. Instead it’s a game that you win by engaging in a task (the placement of puzzle pieces within a grid) faster than everyone else. However, Ubongo shows off the most important element of real-time gaming: adrenaline.

When I first played Ubongo, I was amazed by how jazzed I felt afterward and by how much I wanted to play again. That’s because it does a good job of making you want to play fast and rewarding you for doing so.

Continue reading

A Deckbuilding Look at Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

In the last year I’ve been impressed both by the number of deckbuilder games that have made it to market and by how many different niches they fill — from pure deckbuilding to an increasing number of games with hybridized deckbuilder mechanics. Mike Selinker’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is one of the most interesting because it takes deckbuilding in some extremely innovative directions.

The Game

Pathfinder Adventure Card GamePathfinder Adventure Card Game (2012), by Mike Selinker, is a card-based cooperative campaign game. Players each get decks that represent both the abilities and equipment of their character and their character’s life points — so unlike most deckbuilders players have to be careful about their card plays, lest their character die!

The actual gameplay of Pathfinder centers on players exploring locations, which are also represented by deck of cards. When they encounter cards they’ll usually have to engage in a skill challenge by rolling dice — with card play by any of the players potentially improving the odds. The ultimate object is to close down enough locations that it’s possible to kill a scenario’s villain without him escaping. These are all pretty standard elements for cooperative play, but not something seen in many prior deckbuilding games.

Continue reading