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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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I’m trying to understand my fascination with high-end board games, and not doing too well at the task.

Update: I re-wrote a lot of this, trying to further distill what I’m getting at. Didn’t get any closer, but who knows, maybe someday…

To be clear up front, “high-end board games” is a misnomer, but the best label I can come up with. While the majority of what I’ve been playing goes under the “eurogame” label there are also several games I enjoy that are more of the “war game” genre. That said, the idea of something as complicated (and expensive) as Case Blue or Advanced Squad Leader is beyond my current level of interest, especially when combined with the fact that I couldn’t even find anybody to play against. After all, I’m still in the wargame little leagues: I haven’t even clipped my Twilight Struggle chits yet. Further, arguing over the penetration rate of a particular variety of artillery shell in a particular tank for a particular arc, when in the presence of a slight tailwind, fog, and a flock of unladen swallows does not sound fun.

So who knows, maybe I’ll never be a real wargamer, and I should just accept myself as a eurogame player and move on.

A lot of the games I’ve enjoyed recently aren’t the sort of games one could find at a local mega store. While I can still enjoy a game of Scrabble once in a while, memorizing hooks, stems, 2, 3, 4-letter (and beyond, if one wants to be competitive) words lost its charm. Caylus is a lot more interesting, and strangely less intimidating for the illiterate. To this end, a little part of me died when I realized that Scrabble had nothing to do with vocabulary, being well read, or ability to spell.

So, it’s mostly accurate to say “most of the games I like can’t be bought at Target.” Unfortunately, this statement can’t be converted to “if I can’t find this game at Target, I like it.” It’s not so much a criteria as an observation. That said, it works well as a heuristic for exclusion. After all, one can get Settlers of Catan at Target, and I don’t like Catan (an otherwise clever game bogged down by a kludgy dice roll mechanic and too much randomness).

I don’t like chess. It’s a simple game with simple rules. Being competitive, to any degree, requires years of study and practice. Screw that. I don’t have the time. I’m not a big chess guy, and I think a lot of the discouragement comes from the “I’ll never be any good, relatively speaking, at this game.” It’s a stupid sort of mental block, as there’s no reason I can’t enjoy a casual game of chess, in theory, but it doesn’t really appeal to me.

Chess is a bit interesting to study further, though. There is no randomness in Chess. No dice rolls. No card draws. Just two players making decisions, and the game is decided only by how each person plays. Some of the games I’ve been enjoying fit pretty well with that idea: Caylus does not have any random elements, at all. In terms of mechanics, it seems more complicated than chess, since there are more moves that can be made, and because the board tends to be different each game. At the same time, much of this is just a more overt manifestation of the way that every chess board in a particular state is a new puzzle, even if most of them look similar and familiar.

So, let’s go with the theory that chess is a game lacking any randomness, and that Caylus falls into the same category. There are a lot of differences between the two games. One that stands out for me in terms of mechanics is the branching factor for decisions. It feels like (I’ve put no effort into proving this is true, this is merely a perception) the number of choices available for a given state is far greater for Caylus than for chess. Agricola and Puerto Rico both share this difference, as does Twilight Imperium, though the latter provides an example of why things get sort of silly when the branching factor is too high.

On the other hand, the branching factor of Dominion seems low compared to chess. At most we have a few decisions to pick from in terms of our current action chain, and a bit more than a dozen choices to make for buys off the table. And I like Dominion.

Further clouding things, I like the game of go, which is probably as similar to chess as these things get. It too suffers from the problem of chess that one needs a lifetime to master it, and that it is impossible for me at this stage in my life to ever become competitive at it. Still, there’s something appealing about the game. Its rules are simple, to the point of deception, yet the gameplay is very rich and complex. It does have a high branching factor.

But, perhaps all I’ve succeeded in doing is clarifying my initial criteria to read “I like games that fall outside the domestic mainstream.” That seems like a dumb and arbitrary thing.

With the exception of go and a few playing card games I enjoy, many of the games I like are young. They were developed in the last decade (many of them released in the last year or two), so there is some amount of novelty factoring into things. When nobody has played the games before, nobody is exceptionally good at them. This is nice, because it means even a novice has a chance of winning, and pretty much everybody playing the game is still learning new tactics and strategy, which is a lot of fun.

One thing I initially admired in some of the eurogames is the tremendous effort by some designers put into rebalancing mechanics. Power Grid has half a dozen of these, and it serves to keep the game close for players of varying skill level. If only they fixed the awkward money mechanic and the inherent analytical paralysis of the endgame, it would be an amazing board game. On the other hand, many of the games I enjoy do a good job of punishing the weaker player, so I think my initial admiration for this mechanic has fallen by the wayside, and it doesn’t play into whether or not I enjoy a game.

A lot of the games I’ve been playing lately change quite a bit depending on who is playing, and how they are playing. I got demolished in the first few games of Puerto Rico I played. Observing the difficulties I had, and examining the mechanics of the game, I developed a strategy that I thought would work. Against the players that demolished me before, I found myself competitive, only to be destroyed in a game against another set of players. A week later I enjoyed another crushing defeat out of nowhere. This is fun! Far from figuring out the game, as I’d originally thought, each game is different to a degree that’s hard to quantify.

Going back to the chess thing, maybe one of the things I enjoy is that becoming competitive in the games I like, generally speaking, doesn’t require a substantial investment of time. That said, for a lot of the games I don’t care if I win or lose. That’s weird, I guess. It’s not that I avoid being competitive, but I think I find it interesting to see how other people play the game, especially when it causes what I thought to be a good approach to fall apart. In some games I have more fun losing, but exploring how a particular mechanic functions. Weird, I guess.

In playing some Dominion, I was reminded that I’m not entirely new to some of this stuff. I did play Magic: The Gathering as a kid, and enjoyed the complexity of that game.

So, I’ve made a meandering little trip here, without getting at anything in particular. I’ve definitely picked up another hobby, and I’m suffering the classical signs of spending too much time thinking about it, researching too many things, and accumulating too much of the stuff that relates to it. On the upside, where all of the next steps relating to equipment in most of my other hobbies starts at several thousand dollars, the most expensive board games seldom cost more than $60-80. Since most come in boxes, they take a decent amount of space, and require some time to read the rules, but it might be one of the first truly “cheap” hobbies I have, at least in relative terms.