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


Gaming with Designers: Trust no one

In which I report on last weekend’s session, during which six game designers played games old and new, although not necessarily all at the same time.


Kill Doctor Lucky — James Ernest (Cheapass Games, 1996)

It is always a problem finding games that play up to 6, if not beyond, and first to the table was my now positively antique copy of the original Cheapass edition of this title. It’s a curious and amusing twist on the familiar Cluedo country-house murder trope: The players are all would-be killers, desperately trying to catch the eponymous Doctor Lucky alone in one of the rooms of the sprawling family manse long enough to kill him. Each attempt — for example, I actually managed to dispatch him rather quickly in the first game by the judicious use of a ‘tight hat’ — can be foiled by the other players, but the trick is try to get the other players to empty their hands of ‘failure’ cards before you do, so increasing the chance that your next murder attempt will succeed.

It’s cute, and played with the right degree of complicity, funny, but it’s not without its flaws. The turn order is annoyingly jumpy, and can mean that some players can sit for a long time waiting for a chance to do anything at all. The card draw is very choppy, so can land you with a uselessly powerful hand, and the game is, usually — unless you have a tight hat, it seems! — brought to an end through collective and lengthy attrition, and firmly outstayed it welcome second time around.

Again, it is a cute idea, and there are plenty of games out there which get by on less even than that. But perhaps it is simply showing its age. Games and gamers have moved on since 1996. I think I have.

Escape — Kristian Amundsen Østby (Queen Games, 2012)

I tried this first at Essen last year, when its name was on everyone’s lips. And this one really is a clever piece of design; the cleverest part of all being it can only ever take 10 minutes. We played with and without the curses and treasures expansion, and were not, as a group, that sure about what it added, other than complexity; possibly necessary complexity, once you’ve explored the regular game enough, but complexity nonetheless.

My question would be, as much fun as it is, is there something inherent in its form that will limit its ability to claim the holy grail of game design: replayability. I think I would tire of it quickly, and I think I know why: Games are, for me, about the journey, and my issue with Escape’s journey is not that it is merely short, but rather that it is, in a different sense, fleeting. The moments of the game come and go so quickly that they cannot be properly appreciated. It’s like skim-reading great literature or skipping to the last page of the mystery novel. It’s just the punchline, and not the joke.

Heimlich & Co. — Wolfgang Kramer (Ravensburger, 1984)

This was another game from my personal collection, this one collected for next-to-nothing from a charity shop, back in the day when you could actually find decent stuff like classic Ravensburger games in charity shops. I had always wanted to give it a try, but never got the chance; and it was useful that I brought it since the chunky wooden pieces were excellent avatars for our games of Kill Doctor Lucky!

For me, this narrowly edged out the next game as the best of the afternoon. And you really can’t knock it. I mean, it won the Spiel des Jahres! In 1986!

To be honest I sensed a certain chill amongst my gaming colleagues when I laid it out in front of them. It’s such a simple, simplistic even, proposition: secret identities and ‘roll and move’. That’s it? Yes! That’s it. And what it demonstrates is how much game there can be in such a small set of precepts (which is another thing that can definitely be said about the next game, too!). And where Kill Doctor Lucky was cute, this is actually smart.

I am — God knows! — a ‘less is more’ man, but I know that less is more difficult than it looks — and Heimlich & Co. makes it look oh so easy.

The Resistance — Don Eskridge (Indie Boards and Cards, 2009)

I was a Resistance newbie, and I am certainly a convert. It takes the well-known Werewolf setup of unknown assailants and group deception, and boils it down to the purest, strongest, but most drinkable of liquors. It provides just enough structure to make the game run, and then stands back and let’s the players get on with it. And by ‘get on with it’ I mean lie and argue and bluster and accuse and generally get in each other’s faces. Saint Francis of Assisi famously sought to bring harmony where there was discord: The Resistance does precisely the opposite. And with the absolute minimum of fuss.

So my advice is: Go play this game! But I have a proviso: Don’t play it with other game designers. As a breed, I can’t help feeling we’re all just a little too skilled in the art of bare-faced lying to ever be trusted.

Coup — Rikki Tahta (La Mame Games, 2012)

Last up was this tiny little morsel which, like Escape, won a lot of mindshare at last year’s Essen, although this one did it with appreciably fewer resources at its disposal. I very much liked the concept — after all, microgames are close to my heart — but not all microgames are born equal. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not always a guarantee. For the brand new player, parsing the actions and interactions of the money and the different cards is harder than it should be, and I have to believe there is a better way to represent them than the over-sized spreadsheet-like player aid.

The game does begin to run more smoothly once players are up to speed (which is of course an unremarkable observation about almost every game), but once they have, I sensed a sort of procedural nature to our play. To be fair, and this is true of all the games we played, the way a particular group chooses to play could definitely make all the difference, but I don’t think Coup is nearly as generous and as open as The Resistance is, in this sense: that the game feels as though it requires significantly more complicity on the part of the group to be played with the texture and interest that appear to be the designer’s intent.

Which, perhaps, is a rather too self-consciously analytical way of saying something simpler: That, all things considered, I think I’d rather play something else.

Or maybe it was just all the other game designers I had foolishly chosen to play with. Yes, that was it: They ruined it for me!

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