Friday, June 27, 2008

A tough dice-ision

I've discovered a duality in myself. I like dice, and I don't like dice.

I'm a board gamer who is hesitant to play games where randomness or luck play a large part in determining the winner of the game. Why is this? Because most games take about an hour to play. If I'm going to sit at a table, believing that I'm contributing to my position by my own decisions, I don't want to find out after an hour that I was deluded, that in fact my position was only as good as my luck. This contributes in large part to my diminishing desire to play Ticket to Ride. There is nothing in that game to keep first-timers from winning. That can be good sometimes, but not all the time.

The reason I mention randomness is that it is the primary purpose of dice. Dice are there to throw in an element of chance. With chance comes the potential for favorable and unfavorable outcomes - good and bad rolls, we call them. The benefit of this is that it adds tension to a game. We know that there is potential for a good roll, and so we shake the dice up and throw them across the table hoping to see the most favorable outcome appear when the dice come to rest. This tension and release stirs something in us that is emotionally pleasing. The same is true in music. The composer builds the music to a point of tension or dissonance, and then resolves it to something more consonant. This process has great power over human emotion. So, this is the strength of chance. This is one reason we enjoy the use of dice as humans. This is what I like about dice personally. I like the unpredictability of them.

And yet, I don't like the unpredictability of them. I think what I like is when dice add an element of neutral randomness as opposed to graded randomness. A good example of what I'm calling "neutral randomness" is the game Masons. In this game, you roll a set of three dice on your turn. While you may have favorable outcomes in mind based on your cards, there are no objectively better rolls. The dice just tell you what colors of houses and towers to build. Then, you need to decide how to best place those items. This is a neutral randomness at its best. No matter what I roll, the other players can't look and say, "Oh, nice roll!" or "Bummer. That roll was terrible."

I think graded randomness is easier to implement, which is why it is more common. Additionally, graded randomness adds the tension of hopefulness, as I mentioned earlier. The problem with graded randomness is that there are objectively better rolls. Anytime this kind of randomness enters a game, there enters the ugly beast called Bad Luck. This beast can gobble a player up at any time if graded randomness is on the table. This fact is what, I think, keeps many gamers from enjoying a host of dice-based games. If the Bad Luck beast can override your planning, then your effort at good play feels like a wasted effort. In many game, high rolls are best. If you roll low all game, which is possible, you simply can't compete. Few things can suck the fun out of a gaming experience like that.

So why am I going on about dice? Because I have been considering the purchase of a few dice games. Specifically,
I have played the computer versions of Kingsburg and To Court the King many times. I have yet to play Airships, but I've read about it and find that it has the same attraction as the others. What I'm attracted to in these games is how they require the players to strategize using dice rolls. These games have mechanics that put a clever spin on using dice. They all use a graded randomness, but offer a way to mitigate the extremes.

My goal is to discover whether or not I should purchase or trade for one of these games. I'll look at each game and explain my hesitance to get myself a copy.

Image by BGG user MonkeyMagic
I'll start with To Court the King because it was the first of the three that I learned to play. I discovered this game on BSW. I was immediately drawn in by the great art, and the seemingly masterful design. "This game uses dice, but you can mod them with abilities!" I thought. I am a big fan of unique abilities in games. But there is one important factor for me: all abilities should be equally valuable when used in the right context. A great example is Citadels. This was the euro game that pushed me even more into the hobby than Settlers had. I have played it many, many times. At various points, every character has seemed very useful to me. Whether it be the Architect or the Bishop - they both have their place in the right context. That is masterful design. Thank you, Mr. Faidutti.

After playing game after game of To Court the King, and reading about strategies on BGG, I discovered that I was winning almost every game by using the same characters every time. Half of the characters had no place in a winning strategy! Had the designer worked it so that every character was equally valuable in a winning strategy, I would have picked up the game right away. But I don't like winning by a formula. (This formula is attested to by others, by the way.)

But there are still things I like about To Court the King. I like that there are so many dice. What starts out as 3 dice becomes 5, 8, 10 dice by the end of the game. You're rolling a big handful of dice and then modding them with your abilities. These two aspects are what give the game its strength. I only wish the designer had doubled the playtesting and ironed out the "winning formula" wrinkle. I really wanted to buy this game, but I just can't get myself to do it. I wrote an entire post about my To Court the King struggle, if you want to check that out.

Now onto Kingsburg. I began researching Kingsburg a couple months ago. At that time, I discovered an excellently implemented computer version with solid AI (which is actually so good that I have won maybe 1 out of every 5 games). I quickly discovered that I liked this game. First, there is great artwork. I love all the unique characters sitting in their chairs, ready to help you for the right dice fee. Then, add in a tech tree. This took me back to the days Warcraft III, upgrading buildings to gain added bonuses. I love the idea of upgrades. I also think that the element of keeping your military strength up is a good way to add in an extra layer of strategy. The fun decisions in this game relate to the fact that you only have so many seasons to work and build new buildings. This forces you to choose between any number of good options. Similarly, you are forced from round to round to decide how to allocate your dice. Do you spend them all on one powerful ability? Or do you split them up to maximize your yield?

Image by BGG user garyjames

And yet despite all of these strengths, I can't bring myself to buy or trade for the game. Why? Game length. Over time, this has proven to be the biggest factor in limiting what games I buy and play. My wife and I just don't have time to play through a game that goes longer than an hour. Any of you with a number of small children will know what I mean. The other place I play is at work, but we only have an hour during lunch. The listed time for Kingsburg is 90 minutes. When I play on the computer, games are much shorter. Perhaps 20-30 minutes. This is perfect for this game. The computer takes care of all the logistics, computing, rules policing, and movement of game pieces. The AI takes lightning fast turns, so there is no AP. It's my turn, then....hey, it's my turn again! And again! And again! This is the way to play Kingsburg. I can't imagine sitting at a table for 90 minutes with this game, especially with players APing. The game doesn't have enough going for it to make it worth 90 minutes. If the real life game played in 30 minutes, I'd grab it right away.

Image by BGG user cleonhard
And finally, we come to Airships. I only discovered this game last week. This game is a game that you probably wouldn't discover unless you stumbled over it. There was just no marketing for this game. I was immediately intrigued when I read about this game. I watched a great video review of the game. Here was another game where strategic use of dice was the central mechanic. Many player comments stated that they liked it more than To Court the King. The game reportedly plays in a short time, and it fairly light. This is exactly the kind of game my wife and I have been needing more of. As our kids require more attention and time, we have less and less time to sit down and play Pillars of the Earth or Lost Valley. We need more fillers. So, Airships seems to fit the bill in that respect.

But then I looked at the rating and some of the comments. The average BGG rating is 6.5/10. I have made a pact with myself not to buy games that have an average BGG rating less than 7.0. I've always paid for it in the past when I've broken this pact, unless the game is a filler or a kids' game. Then, when perusing user comments, I see some people explaining that the game is lack's enough challenge, lacks replay value, and lasts too long, especially if someone has AP. So now I'm sitting right on the top of the fence, as I have been with To Court the King for so long. The game sounds fun, but is it? Will it provide repeated enjoyment for my wife and me? I'd probably be willing to trade for it, but not buy. The problem is, hardly anyone owns this game, let alone having it for trade.

I decided to run a poll and see what players thought - people who had played all three. I asked which game was their favorite out of these three. Here are the results as of this writing:

GameVote PercentVote Count
To Court the King23.7%22
All three are equally good.1.1%1

It is clear that the majority of players prefer the heavier Kingsburg. I agree that this is a good game. But I don't have 90 minutes to play it. This forces me to choose a shorter game. To Court the King and Airships are much closer in votes. I've read a whole slew of comments and there are those that prefer Airships, and there are those that prefer To Court the King. My feeling is that I would like them equally. I'm guessing I would lean toward Airships because it doesn't have the problem I found in To Court the King where half of the cards are useful, and half aren't. And, since my wife and I are looking for lighter, shorter games, Airships seems to fit the need best.

I'd love comments. If you have thoughts or opinions on this topic, please post. I'd love to hear what you have to share from your experience with these games.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I ordered these?

In the past, I have made it clear that I prefer buying board games online. There are very few FLGS's where I live - they've all pretty much shut down. Although I would still probably never walk into a FLGS and lay down the cash for a board game, I have recently been required to confront the downside of ordering online.

I was organizing a game order for my group, as I tend to do every couple of months. Over a period of several weeks, people slowly decided what they wanted and sent me their requests. Once we qualified for Boards & Bits' half-price shipping, I placed the order. (Yes, I am still willing to buy at Boards & Bits, even though they scrapped their free shipping policy. Their prices are that good. Although I do suspect that going through Fair Play Games and using their price matching policy might be even cheaper.)

This time around, I ordered the expansion for Treasures & Traps - a game that has seen a reasonable amount of play in my group. But I also ordered two other games and one more expansion. Perhaps you've heard of them. One of the games is called Race for the Galaxy. And since the expansion is soon to be released, I ordered that too. The other game is called Pandemic.

If you've been interacting and perusing on BGG like I think you have, you've heard of these games - a lot. After plenty of research, I finally decided to grab these two games. Race for the Galaxy holds high interest for me because it is like San Juan, but with a space theme and some additional features. San Juan is one my favorite games, so Race for the Galaxy is sure to please. Many gamers have debated the multiplayer solitaire aspect of this game. My wife and I both like these types of games, so that's another reason Race for the Galaxy should prove to be a good purchase.

I have been looking for a cooperative game for a long time. There are very few co-op games out there, and those few are too long or have too limited a player range. Suddenly, this year, Pandemic came crashing onto the scene, proving itself to be well-liked, while solving the issues I had with other co-op games. Co-op games sound very fun to me, so I'm eager to try Pandemic.

But, if you have been following the news regarding these two games, you will know that, due to great popularity, they are both currently out of stock at every common online game store. During the weeks that I was building up the shopping cart for our group game order, I watched and watched. The games I wanted were in a constant state of "Pre-Order". I finally decided to go ahead and pre-order the games because I wanted to make sure to get a copy from the next batch. At the time, the games were estimated to arrive at the end of May or in June. "Sure, I can wait that long," I thought.

Unless you're a dedicated fan of FLGS's, you probably know what it's like for a gamer who is waiting with eager anticipation for his new treasures to show up at his doorstep. It's like the kid who can't sleep on Christmas eve. (I actually knew a kid who once barfed on Christmas eve because he was so excited.) It's like the day of your wedding - those hours leading up to your bride walking in the door and down the aisle. It's like waiting for that child to be born during the final hours of a long labor. You know the impending good will inevitably arrive, but the wait feels like an eternity.

Well, May flew by like an empty UPS truck. Pretty soon, "the Checkups" kick in. You know how it goes - my expectations weren't met, so now I'm online every day, checking up, scouring relevant gaming sites for updates, any information that might explain how much longer this wait will be. I visit Boards & Bits - Status: (3 on order). So I go to to see if they've received any new special information from Jay at Rio Grande Games. No news.

BGG, as usual, had the best information I could find. Crazed and rabid Pandemic buyers are posting every few days, wondering when the game will hit stores again. Zev himself posted (for which all were grateful), explaining that the new printing of Pandemic was stuck at customs. Whew - at least we knew where the game boxes were. At least we could sit and imagine the games sitting there, ready for examination. The games were physically existent - it was only a matter of time. But, Zev also informed us that the current run of Pandemic was already spoken for and pre-orders were eating up the supply. He had already ordered a third printing of the game. Boards & Bits reported that there would not be enough copies of Pandemic to fill all pre-orders. I cringed.

Then one day, I checked Boards & Bits again, as was my habit, and to my astonishment, my (3 on order) had been changed to (2 on order). I had made the cut. A copy of Pandemic was officially mine, stashed safely in my box of goodies at the Boards & Bits warehouse. I reported this pleasant news to my wife, then went back to wondering when the Race for the Galaxy games would show up.

As of now I'm still waiting. There is no hint of news anywhere. The estimated date of arrival moved from May to June, and now to July. What is going to keep it from moving back to August and beyond?

Here's how I picture the scene at Rio Grande Games headquarters. It's April 2008 and Jay is meeting in his office with his team. "Okay team," he says, "as you all know, Race for the Galaxy has pretty much sold out everywhere. I have another printing planned for October."

One bright team member says, "People on boardgamegeek are rabid, Jay. They want updates. They want to know when Race for the Galaxy will be back in stock at retailers."

"Log on under my account and tell them we're aiming for May," Jay replies.

"Um.........May? But you just said--"

"I know what I said, Gary. But we need to keep these people on the edge of their seat. Tell them the expansion is planned for June. Each month will go by, and we'll just keep quiet. Then they'll celebrate when October comes and the game is back on the shelf."

"How are we going to explain this? Those geeks are pretty bright, Jay. They might lose confidence in our predictions."

"Just tell them that we had to stall for the sake of 'perfecting the product'. Make up some junk about our attentiveness to high quality artwork and top-notch components. Maybe throw in something about polishing up the rules."

"Hmm. Okay," says the assistant. "I guess that might work."

Do I believe any of that? Nah. I think Jay Tummelson is great. The reality is, he does make the best games out there, and I trust him. He's responsive to inquiries and he participates in the gaming community. But imagining scenes like this are just one way to pass the time while I wait for my games to ship.

To look at the bright side, I might just find myself pleasantly surprised come October, when the doorbell rings and I discover a big box of games on my doorstep.

My wife: "This box is full of games."

Me: "Games? Did I order these?"