The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - January, 2004

Brian Walker: Mike Siggins is correct in his version of events surrounding me, him and Games International. The only assertion which I would take issue with, is that as a DJ I play techno and not hip-hop. As to my fate, this remains uncertain. I'm still playing backgammon for money; I'm still writing and, more alarmingly, I've rediscovered boardgames. I'm delighted that German games have become relatively successful in non German-speaking countries, and congratulations to all who played a part in their success. Anyone wishing to get in touch with me is welcome to do so:

Richard Huzzey: I wanted to pick up on one of Dave Howell's points in his letter:

"I sincerely hope that Mr. Kurzban's dismissive comment about the 'old "roll, move, pick a Chance card" school of contemporary American game design' does not reflect a lack of awareness of the "break new ground and create radical new games" school of contemporary American game design".

I realise that this debate is a bit tangential to the discussion of budgeted action points' development, but I think it is perfectly reasonable to dismiss the mainstream Anglo-American market as "roll, move, pick a Chance card". The games made by Wizards of the Coast and Cheapass that he cites certainly are radical new games, and not of the old style. I find it hard to count either Seattle company as 'mainstream'. Their output is exceptional compared to almost all games from the giant toy suppliers, which will be "roll, move, pick a Chance card" games with the theme from some new movie or television series plastered on it. I think there can be more than one distinctly American or Anglo-American school, and that Steve was justified in citing the mindless but popular one, even if, thankfully, some intelligent and innovative ideas, largely independent from the German school. A good example, though, of how some American games can be excellent is available by comparing the British and US uses of the Buffy license. The UK edition was designed, I am guessing, by Hasbro UK, and was literally "roll, move, pick a Chance card". The American edition was a far more worthy design, despite not really emulating the German model (it was essentially an intelligent and new re-working of rolling, moving and getting cards). I agree, of course, that Garfield has produced some super games. But I'd still, sadly, class adaptations of Snakes & Ladders (even if in modern games you draw a card to see how many spaces you advance or retreat) as the dominant school.

Mark A. Biggar: I just want to mention that Mike's game is easily played using a piecepack set, which comes with 4 sets of six marked coins allowing for 4-player shootouts.

Richard Vickery: I am greatly enjoying Jonathan's articles on Game Theory, though they might be better called Game Criticism or Analysis. Jonathan's analysis of story arc (Game Theory 1.1) is very interesting and I think illuminates clearly some of the properties of the very best games. 

"What I call Story Arc in a game is the quality of having the situations and decisions metamorphose during the course of a single game so that the player has the experience of participating in a story with a wide sweep. When a game has a beginning, middle and an end, it is more than just a series of decisions." 

I emphatically agree that "story" can be told in the game language of even very abstract games like Acquire. In Salen and Zimmerman's new book Rules of Play (MIT, 2004!) they expend a lot of effort discussing emergent narrative in game play, but they fail to recognise the importance of a story arc to deliver the satisfying conclusion to a great game.

Jonathan clearly articulates the difference between story arc and narrative, escalation or end game with his examples. However, I think the definition could be fleshed out a bit more to explain that the key to story arc is the "metamorphose" part of his definition. A story arc that is satisfying and gives a feeling of scope, works because the beginning, middle and end link together to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In game terms this means that the games with great story arcs let you plan for the gear shift and perhaps manage its timing or control its direction. This links the whole game into a plan/story rather than just locally optimising each turn and suddenly offers the sweep of strategy or story arc. There is a gear shift in Union Pacific (at least in some of the rules versions) when the Union Pacific shares run out, but I am not convinced that this adds to story arc rather than reflecting some imbalance in the scoring weight of Union Pacific shares. I can imagine games where there are gear shifts that are not predictable or controllable and so don't contribute to that satisfying feeling of scope. An example might be playing Chess until 8 pieces are lost, then players switch to Checkers with a number of men related to each player's remaining value of Chess pieces. This would certainly have a tipping point and would shift gears but would not seem to have added scope. Maybe the Gipf project is similar when played with potentials—story arc would seem to exist more within the base game and would feel forced jumping over the potentials game. However I have only played the Gipf family of games without potentials so this is just speculation.

I am a bit less convinced by game Theory 1.2. I agree with Jonathan's definition:

"What defines the bomb is that a small change in player actions has a disproportionately large effect on rewards. What makes it work is that it creates strategic consequences out of tactical decisions. It turns the effect of your decisions into something greater than the sum of their parts and forces you to focus on broad goals." 

but feel it misses the key point which is conflict. The "bomb" is conflict as drama writ large, where "incrementalism" is amiable "you go your way and I'll go mine". In the early stages of Acquire, another player getting shares has no significant effect on your position, but as you come close to the "tipping point" you move into direct conflict with the other players for majority control of each company. The main direct conflict in Settlers of Catan is the competition for settlement sites and the longest road. In Puerto Rico the most brutal competition is for loading the ships, and to some extent for the trader. In Euphrat and Tigris the conflict and the drama is in the "conflicts", whereas the steady points gained by laying tiles are important but are incremental and less exciting. So it seems to me that the "bomb" is really about situations where some players get the benefit and others don't, whereas incrementalism is about everybody working steadily and all getting richer. It is definitely useful to be able analyse these crunch points in a game, but seeing them as the focal points of direct competitive interaction between players is more powerful than looking just for the magnification effect.

Anyway, it is all good thought provoking stuff and I look forward to more articles by Jonathan.

Rob Newman: I just wanted to let you know that I just stumbled across The Games Journal a few days ago. I have just gotten into games and knew nothing of German games. I was actually collecting Monopoly games off eBay. I am now going to divert my spending to some of the well know German games that are spoken of in your journal. I really appreciate the work you all have done. I am just now finishing reading through the 2001 articles. How cool. I am in my early 40's and have plenty of discretionary income to spend. I gave my wife a list of about 10 or 12 games I wish to have. I can't wait to play. Now I just need to find other players. My oldest son is 10 and he likes playing games with me. He is very bright and I think he will do well at the 12+ age games. We'll see. I really hope so. Anyway, thanks for the site and all the work you do. If the games play as well as you all say then you have a convert. I can't wait.

After a short period of waiting...

I wrote a short note a couple of days ago letting you know that I was just now learning about all of these new and exciting games. The Games Journal introduced me to these games. I mentioned that I was hoping to get a few for Christmas. Well it panned out and I thought I'd tell you about it. I thought... Hey! why just tell'em what I got when I can maybe help others along the way.

First game unwrapped Christmas morning was The Settlers of Catan. Nice attractive cover. I had read a few articles that mentioned punched pieces. Now I know what they mean. I was amazed at all of the hexagons that needed to be punched. I was a little surprised to see that the game did not have a traditional board and that these hexagons are the board. The hex sheets were somewhat warped so I was hoping that the hexes, when punched out, would lay flat when put together. I am also concerned that they will slide around the table when used. I haven't had a chance to play yet but am hoping for the best. [GGA - If this turns out to be a problem, try playing on a table cloth, it will help prevent sliding.] Anyway, I punched them out and placed them in a heavy duty zip lock bag. Next up, the cards. These seem to be good quality. Smooth and well packaged. It is great to have a small box to hold the cards. It seems that many U.S. games that have cards don't have a storage box. The images on the cards are a beauty to the eye. Both sides are well decorated. This is nice to see. No disappointments here. The wood pieces are much nicer to see and hold than plastic pieces that other U.S. high production games seem to have. Nice bright colors, smooth feel, I am impressed. I will say that one of the roads is about half size. A manufacturing error for sure since it was completely painted and did not exhibit one being broken after production. The die cut counters and Building Costs cards are also pleasing in that, they are easy to read and just look nice. The pawn and dice are also nice since they are made of wood. I can't say anything about the rules or Almanac yet because I haven't read them. I will say that the folded full color sheet showing the "Starting Setup for Beginners" on one side and the "Game Overview" on the other is nothing short of fantastic. I know very little of this game other than its popularity. This sheet is a knock-out. A great overview and wonderful illustration of a game setup and for beginners to boot. Wow, I know that a product like this will really help things along. I can't wait to start just because of this page alone. I hope other games have something like this. One other item that came in the box was an advertisement about this game and others along its line. This is a great addition. I now know that if I really like this game (I'm sure I will) that I can purchase other units to go with it for a little different play. Good job Mayfair. Anyway, I have all of the components packaged in zip locks and ready to go.

Second game unwrapped Christmas morning was Torres. Great box. Real heavy duty. I was pleased with the game board. Nice artwork and not at all flimsy. It doesn't quite lay flat when opened but I am hoping that with time it will "break-in". Nice plastic tray to hold the parts and look at all the pieces. Wow, there are a lot of castles in that box! Well I opened 'em up and bagged 'em in a zip lock. They may be plastic but I couldn't imagine getting all those castles made of wood. Nice color to the wood pawns. It would be nice if they were metal die cast knights though. But that's okay. The cards look nice but lack the storage box that was in the Settlers game. Anyway, I bagged them and the other playing pieces. The rules look pretty nice but again, I have not read them or played the game. Ravensburger also had the foresight to include an advertisement showing other games they produce.

Third game unwrapped Christmas morning was Acquire. I have never played this game but seem to remember seeing it on the shelves of some shops I've been in many moons ago. The box is big and I don't think that the cover is very attractive. The plastic playing board is nice and sturdy and very easy to read. Once again, I am amazed at all of the tiles in this game. The buildings are very brightly colored and big. In this case plastic seems okay. Maybe because of their size and the way they fit with the tiles. The information cards seem rather busy but I'm sure that the info is much needed and it won't be a concern during game play. I will say that I can read them without my glasses because they have made them big. This is a bonus for me. Stock certificates look interesting and good quality and the money is something I like in games so am pleased to see it here. The plastic tray is also a bonus. It is always nice to have a place to put the cards and money in a game while playing. The rules look short so the learning curve will hopefully be short also.

I got a few other games also but they are typical U.S. games. Monopoly and Stratego in nice wood boxes, Roller Coaster Tycoon and a small table top air hockey table. I won't go into these except to say that we all love the little air hockey table. Also, the Roller Coaster Tycoon has mass playing pieces and looks to maybe have some strategy involved. The children love the look of it.

GGA - I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying these games even if you haven't had a chance to play them yet. Hopefully you will find that they play as good (or better!) than they look.

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