The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - February, 2004

Mark Kaufmann: We play games for as many reasons as there are games to play. Most of us enjoy the camaraderie; the satisfaction of problem solving; making well-thought-out tactical and strategic decisions; that moment of elation when, simply by chance, luck falls our way.

There are some however, (and you can probably name at least 1 or 2 of these "Alpha-Gamers" in your regular group) whose foremost motivation is that they love to compete... and of course, to win. And sometimes if they can't win, they're not too happy about others winning in their place.

With that in mind, I want to introduce you to our newest little card game, Terra.

Terra is unlike anything else we've done here at Days of Wonder. The game was developed in partnership with UNESCO, the Barcelona Forum, and Holos—a non-profit organization to which we've pledged to donate 20% of our gross profit on the sales of the game).

While it has some cute little illustrations on the cards and a neat scoring track, it's not a character-based game with medieval monks or plundering pirates. Terra is a cooperative card game in which players must work together by playing "solution" cards to defeat any "crisis" cards that emerge from the deck. And while it is cloaked in a warm and fuzzy, save-the-world kind of sensitivity—the gameplay contains a subversive dark side:

If the group succeeds in defeating the crises and making it all the way through the deck, the player who earns the most points during the game is the winner. Yet the easiest way to earn points throughout the game is to selfishly hoard your highest value solution cards, keeping them away from the common good.

If you are too helpful in saving the world you will undoubtedly lose to someone else. Yet if you don't help enough, everyone will probably lose. As you've no doubt figured out by now, if you play with a win-at-any-cost, Alpha-Gamer, no one will win. Ever.

Because our games are printed in Europe and available about 4 to 5 weeks earlier than here in the States, we've already received a lot of feedback on Terra from European players. With the single exception of a group of young, fun-loving kids, no group of first time players has won the game the first time through. (We guess this says a lot about kids' playing spirit, and about world politics, a point UNESCO and the Barcelona Forum were keen to make in choosing to co-publish this game with us).

Challenged by that initial loss, most groups of players will go on to a 2nd and 3rd play, with an increasingly more cooperative stance until they successfully beat the game, usually by the 4th or 5th round (or never if you can't get rid of those Alpha types).

As a result, more than one hard-core gamer has suggested the obvious variant: namely, rank the losers, by giving negative points for each card hoarded away in the case of a collective game loss.

While this does indeed work, we'd like to suggest to those tempted to adopt this variant that it somewhat misses the point the game was developed to make: namely, to provide a social activity that jumpstarts discussions about the very nature of the world's tit-for-tat dilemmas as opposed to releasing just another typical "winner take all" type of game.

Needless to say, as a result we've also enjoyed the rather loud discourse of those who accuse us of applying a devious (some would say vicious) game mechanism to such serious issues as the ones UNESCO cares about. Ah, but this of course is the very point we wanted to make.

We can't tell whether you'll love or hate the game—whether you'll think the game is broken or devious. But I'm fairly sure it will generate some discussion about the world in general, and possibly about gaming in particular. And that is precisely what we strove to achieve with this unusual release.

GGA - (The previous was from the press release for Terra.) The whole "everyone loses" option is an interesting feature of certain games, one which reveals a lot about the character of the players. Indeed there are many players who prefer to ensure that if they can't win, then no one will and I wonder if Terra will work for such groups. I've always thought that an interesting way to address this problem is the following:

Everyone donates a few dollars at the start of the game. If anyone wins then all players take back their money. If no one wins then the money is burnt. (In the case of Terra I would suggest that donating the money to charity would be an even better alternative.)

This may give certain players enough incentive to prevent them from "destroying the world" once they believe that they can no longer win.

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