BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.


New Games with an Old Friend

In which I take a speedy look at the four new games I played over the weekend with Martin, who has the dubious honour of being my oldest friend, since we have nearly 30 years of friendship under our belts! Fortunately, our gaming tastes are similar, or at least similar enough to avoid too much gnashing of teeth. Just don’t get the man started on The Settlers of Catan.

Board game boxes: Genesis, Arena, Power & Weakness, Black Friday

Arena: Roma II — Stefan Feld (Queen Games, 2009)

This is the revised version of Feld’s Roma, which aimed to both fixed and expand on the original game, the core of which is a card-based face-off between the two players. The Roman theme is nicely done, if difficult to directly link to any specific game mechanics, while the production values, as typical for Queen Games, are suitably and reassuringly high.

The principle is simple, and the player choices in each turn easy to see. There is very little hidden information in the game, not least because it’s hard work building a hand of cards, and in our game we were playing out most of our cards all the time (the pressure to do this is constant: every unfilled card slot on your side loses you a victory point at the start of each turn). This made it an easy game to play openly, since we could explore the game together without feeling we were ruining our own chances in pointing out the opponent’s choices.

The randomness of the dice, which determine which cards a player can activate on each turn, keeps things lively, creating new possibilities and foiling the best-laid plans. So this is mostly about tactics not strategy, and the game generates its tension by inviting the players to spend time looking for and then trying to activate powerful (if temporary) combinations of cards while struggling all the while not to lose through poor tactical choices or, worse, inaction.

However, we were both rather uninspired by the experience which, while relatively short, was also rather thin. Martin, though victorious, wasn’t certain he’d done very much to deserve it; and I was left wondering whether I had been genuinely outwitted or simply capriciously outgunned.

Power & Weakness — Andreas Steding (MoD Games, 2007)

Next to the table was something quite different, which we began optimistically, not least because the box quoted a 45-minute playing time. Of course, it took us a while to assimilate the rules, and to play through enough rounds for the flow of the game to reveal itself, but the notion that a full game could be played in under an hour, let alone under two, seems absurd.

However, somewhat against our collective better judgement, we persevered, and I am glad we did because the experience was eventually engaging, if ultimately not something that either of us want to repeat.

A notably neat aspect of the small board is the dual geography that the game relies on. The map’s 15 regions allow for the usual cross-border skirmishes when the players’ knights are in play, but each region also has a secondary attribute. One of four ‘magical’ categories is randomly assigned to each region at the start of the game, and when the magicians go to war, regions with matching categories are considered neighbours (however distant) and the traditional borders are ignored. The game turns always alternate between the sword-play of the knights and the sorcery of the magicians, so you can be up one moment and down the next.

And this is the other thing to say for the game: that the title ‘Power & Weakness’ — which in the German ‘Macht & Ohnmacht’ sounds rather more poetic — is spot on. While the game’s notional theme of a mythically war-torn 5th-Century Britain was annoyingly meaningless, the narrative that the game’s title suggests was very much present in the experience it delivered. Our armies of wooden cubes and discs (sorry, knights and magicians) did indeed ebb and flow over the board with alarming speed, and when the end came it was indeed a function of how power built up in one domain could be brought low by weakness in another.

But, although the end did eventually come, it most certainly did not do so in 45 minutes. Not even close.

Genesis, by Reiner Knizia (Face2Face Games, 2006)

You might say that this game was the light relief. It has a refreshingly short ruleset and is obviously and pleasingly finite. There is nothing here to get in the way. Just roll the dice and play a tile. No hidden information, no opaque consequences, no confusion about what the game is really about.

There is also, of course, nothing terribly new here either, but the game does offer a twist on many apparently similar area-control games, and the scoring regime creates a nice development of tactics over the course of the game.

In short, then, we liked this one, but certainly not just because it was short or relatively simple, although we definitely considered those qualities as contributing factors. It was fun and taut and engaging, and in the end a much closer result than I had predicted. For 2-players the scoring maths is simple, but needlessly inflated: every possible individual score is a multiple of 2. However, with 3 or 4 players some scores might need to be split to accommodate ties, so the numbers begin to make more sense.

Black Friday, by Friedemann Friese (Kosmos, 2010)

Last up was the sophisticated stock market game from the green-haired auteur. I had been intrigued by the game since I first saw it, so it was nice to find it on Martin’s games shelf. Part of what interested me was the impression that the designer had deliberately set out to unpick the puzzle of creating a meaningful model of a stock market, and had by common consent largely succeeded. The famously bad ruleset, with its seemingly wilfully obstructionist agenda, was almost part of the game’s apparent charm. Yes, you will enjoy this game (I imagined the designer murmuring), but it’s going to put up a bit of a fight!

Fortunately Martin had downloaded the fan-made flowcharts, which offer a much better translation of the game’s many processes than the official rules do. But even with this degree of hand-holding, the balance between the player’s choices and the need to service the game to support them feels off-kilter and plain unfriendly. Most of the actions we took during the game were merely responses to our relatively limited set of choices in each turn; the game felt like it was mostly bookwork.

In spite of this, though, I quite enjoyed it(!), but this is a game that screams out for a digital implementation that can take care of all of the necessary manipulation of the components, and that would remove the ever-present possibility of human error. The players would then be free to concentrate on their choices and not the constant maintenance of the game’s engine.

Designers all talk about games in terms of mechanics, but let’s not require players to become mechanics just to keep a game running.

Just FYI, Black Friday is online at look me up and beat me at it some time!

But where's the review of the Flowerpot game? Surely the chance to teach strategy to a 3-year old deserves a mention :-)

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