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What's interesting to me is new board games aren't just variants on existing games; there's noticable innovation in board game "technology". If you ever play board games from the 80s and 90s, they often feel dated and clunky, even more so than video games from the same era.

I recently went back and played some classic Avalon Hill games that were popular when I was a kid. I can't believe me and my friends spent so much time playing them when we were younger. Depending on the game, a full game might take 5 or 10 hours. For many games, the majority of the time is spent rolling dice, looking things up in tables, and moving stacks of counters around. And that's when you're lucky enough to have a chance to do anything -- there's often half an hour or more of dead time when you're waiting for other players to make their moves. By contrast, if you play a game of Dominion, it's possible to finish a game in 15 minutes. You'll have to make a larger number of important tactical and strategic decisions than you would in most six hour long games from the 80s and there's zero idle time [1].

Even with games that use modern game technology, you can see a noticeable improvement over time. Puerto Rico introduced a move selection system that allowed for serious tactical planning (10+ moves ahead) in a lightweight [2] game that could be finished in half an hour (with experienced players). But, the game wasn't perfect. One weakness was that the player turn order was fixed and very important. If you play a game with one weak player and three strong players, whoever goes after the weak player is almost guaranteed to win. Conversely, if you have one strong player, whoever sits down to the left of that player is going to get crushed.

Caylus fixed that by building a mechanism to change turn order into the game itself. Caylus was wildly popular for a year or two, but it's rare to see people play it now. Ironically, the game designer was too good at removing the element of luck for the game to be popular. If you ever played on BSW (an online board game service), you probably ran into 'Alexfrog', who had a record of something like 431 wins and 2 losses. You can predict, with very high probability, the outcome of the game based solely on who's playing, and most people don't like being crushed by the same players over and over again. Another issue the game had was that the gameplay was almost purely tactical. There were only a few viable strategies, so games all had a similar feel to them.

Agricola and Dominion fixed the problems Caylus had by adding significant randomization. Not only does that add strategic variety to the games [2], it also means that anyone can win any given game.

It would be fun to sit down and draw out a board game tech tree. It might hard to make a decent visualization, though, because of the huge span, plus a high degree of multiple inheritance.

[1] There may be some idle time with certain strategies on some of the newer expansions, due to the incredible amount of shuffling required. You can avoid this by playing here: http://dominion.isotropic.org/. I tend to play on isotropic even when playing face-to-face games because it's 2x faster normally, and there are some pathological cases where it's over an order of magnitude faster.

[2] I'm using 'light' to refer to how cumbersome and complex the game mechanics are. Examples of 'heavy' games are Enemy at the Gates (which has over 1000 counters) and ASL (which has something like 500 pages of rules).

[3] Both games do this by strongly randomizing the initial state of the game, and adding a small degree of randomization throughout the game. Technically, Caylus also randomized the initial state, but the initial random state in Caylus was minor; it was just barely enough keep you from pre-computing an opening book, the way you can in chess. Even in Dominion tournament games, where most players have played thousands of games, it's common to see wildly divergent strategies, because neither player has played on a board with a similar starting state, so they both have to figure out the best strategy in real time. I always cringe when that happens, and I realize I'm playing an inferior strategy. It doesn't really help that you can see what they other player is doing, because if you realize that her strategy is superior and try to switch, you'll be doing the same thing, but N turns behind, which is pretty much a guaranteed loss [4]. Your only hope, at that point, is some combination of superior tactical play and luck.

[4] Well, not always. A hybrid strategy can work in some cases. It depends on the strategies and the stage of the game. It depends is a safe answer to pretty much any strategy question, which is what makes it interesting.

Hardcore boardgamer checking in. Some random thoughts...

Our gaming group tends to binge on a given game; if we like it, we'll play it dozens of times and then burnout and never play it again. One game that's stood the test of time is PowerGrid. It's rarely anyone's first choice, but it's the second choice for a lot of us, so it comes out often.

Often, at the end of the evening when we're pretty tired, we'll play cards, usually Mu. Mu is an amazingly deep trick taking game that has the advantage of working really well for 5 or 6 players. Also, it's a partnered game, but your partner is not fixed throughout the course of the game, which gives it an advantage over spades/bridge (which can be a drag if you have a weak partner.) It also has some delicious elements of backstabbing and subterfuge. I highly recommend it if you like games like spades/hearts/bridge.

If you have a regular gaming group, interesting meta-gaming manifests itself. For example, we have one person who's known as the "crazy guy", who'll do something random and destructive just for fun. Or certain vendettas will arise, and someone will sacrifice themselves in order to sabotage someone else. You have accept that sometimes folks will be irrational and be aware of meta-game in order to do well in the long run...

+1 for Power Grid. Like most of the best games, it actually gets more fun once you've figured out optimal play. Weak games just get boring.

How many Power Grid maps do you own? I've found Power Grid gets boring after playing the same map more than a few times.

We actually have all of the expansions. They add a small but non-trivial element to the game. The additional powerplant deck also helps; otherwise, you begin to memorize the plants and know to wait until 25/26 hit the board and whatnot.

If I have a complaint with Powergrid, it's that our group has collectively opted into a strategy of delaying the start of phase 2. Sometimes this grinds on interminably such that we skip it entirely, and then enter phase 3 with giant cash hordes and bizarrely high priced powerplant auctions. It's still pretty fun, but sometimes feels a bit broken.

I've seen that a lot. Part of the reason can be plant starvation -- I'm not going to do a big build if I can't power them, so Benelux helps. Also, it helps to select regions with high connectivity (low diameter). If the one player who wants step 2 can't reach the only open space, there's a stall.

I do wonder if the rules could be tweaked to give some reasonable reward to a step 2 starter.

Dominion lets you spend all the time making decisions rather than waiting for other people by having hardly any interaction between players; at times it can feel like a time trial race. I tend to prefer Tanto Cuore; while it's largely a direct rip-off (and the art puts some people off) it gives you more attack options, and the balance shifts to allow a wider variety of strategies (Dominion I find duchies are almost entirely irrelevant, and anything other than going for the high end rarely works). So it's an improvement, but it's so similar I suspect we're converging on the ultimate form of that kind of game.

I still need to try Agricola.

The "flavor" of Dominion play is hugely dependent on the cards you're playing with. If you feel like there isn't enough interaction between players, I'd recommend giving Intrigue a try. Alchemy generally is a weak set, except for Posession, which is just a completely miserable damn card to have in game for the amount that players can use it to mess with eachother.

Prosperity also brings an entirely new way to win to the game: through tokens, which you can accumulate quickly by buying things like Duchies for cheap and then trashing them as quickly as possible.

We have a few house rules that allow us to "tune" each game before it starts, and we've had a huge variety of games as a result: everything from 15-minute time trials like you describe, to Dominion "golf" (most negative points wins!), to hour-long slug fests that leave me wanting to flip the table in aggravation.

(edit: I've done my fair share of aggravating others though too -- ended up abusing a village-king's court-torturer combo badly enough at one game night that torturer was pretty much forever after banned; the same night a different table got me back with a consistent militia-masquerade 1-2 punch that left me flopping around in the game like a fish out of water. Anyway, there are all kinds of ways to play this game, so if you're finding it repetitive, you're probably missing something!)

We've been using the Prosperity, Alchemy, and Dark Ages expansions, and they really add a lot of depth and enjoyment to the game. We use the Platinum treasure cards and Colony victory cards from Prosperity in each game, which can speed up the game and change how it plays. Maybe the game was designed to prevent players from "topping out" by limiting how much treasure or victory they can buy in a turn, but we don't like feeling limited.

Our house rule is we can't play with more than 1 stack of "+2 action" cards, because most of us will just buy those and combo them with "+ draw" cards, which give us "+ action" cards, eventually allowing the entire deck to be drawn, and ~30 victory points gained each turn.

For an interesting variation on this idea, try Quarriors -- it's like Dominion but with dice, with some faces being treasure/currency, and other faces being the creature/attack spell.

I concur about Intrigue, but I don't mind the Alchemy set. During one game with the Familiar, my brother-in-law and I actually managed to deplete the Curse card supply.

Maybe check out Puzzle Strike? David Sirlin claims to have sidestepped several of the problems Dominion has (slightly nsfw pic at beginning):


Well not having played dominion I can only vouch for Sirlin's Puzzle Strike. Another plus it is very easy to play. My girlfriend gave it to me as a present and my little brothers learned to play just after watching us play a couple of times. Plus the mechanics are solid, they keep the game from having a clear winner and then just having to wait for it (I'm watching you, Monopoly). They updated the rules recently with the new expansion but I haven't played the new version yet so I can't comment on the improvement. But it is definetly a blast for 4 players.

His other game Flash duel is also really good. It tries to capture a fighting game (a la street fighter II) with the board game. It succeds in the zoning part imho.

I am personally a fan of another of his games not mentioned here, Yomi. It definitely puts focus in a 1-on-1, competitive aspect where you're not playing time trial and every action you make involves picking the counter to the action your opponent is going to make.

While agricola does have significant luck in the inital game state, this is lessened by drafting the initial cards which almost all advanced players do. This ensures that at most players will only have 1 extremely powerful card, and adds another level of skill with managing the draft. The game itself is extremely skill based, to the point that an experienced player with a poor hand should be able to beat a less experienced player with an awesome hand most of the time. Unlike in caylus, the best players are only able to win 60-70% of the time

Oftentimes old stuff is digged up and reimagined and fitted into new games, too.

A great example of this would be the fairly recent game Trajan which uses a Mancala board as a core piece of the game mechanics.

Computer games started as implementations of board games. But they have gone very far from each other. This comment nails it:


2 points by b0rsuk 4 days ago | link | parent | on: Mining a 1993 game design for innovative game mech...

There's an insightful comment over here: http://crystalprisonzone.blogspot.com/2012/02/whether-they-l....

"""I think one of the very interesting things about modern single-player game development is that it creates exceptionally expensive content designed to appeal to everyone and be played exactly once for 8-10 hours. As anybody who plays European board games will tell you, making a game (read: the body of rules, the mechanics and dynamics) is cheap - all you need is creativity and a lot of playtesting. AAA videogames are entirely different, though - millions are spent on voice acting, scripting, graphics, etc. This is why I'm excited for moderate-budget games like Bastion that can publish interesting and challenging gameplay with a budget lean enough that it doesn't have to sell to absolutely everybody."""


Board games don't just innovate in the rules department. Everywhere outside the computer "game" world, games ARE the rules. Rules is how we distinguish one game from another. If Heroes of Might and Magic III was a board game, people would call it an expansion to Heroes II. It has nearly identical rules. It has 3 extra towns and some extra units and spells ? The same is true for Munchkin Cthulhu. But no one is silly enough to call it a sequel or a separate game.

As far as I'm concerned, 90% of the modern tacticool shooters are the same game, not similar games. They are played in the same way. Weapons and enemies are slightly different.

Board games frequently have mechanics unheard of in the world of computer games

> it also means that anyone can win any given game.

See, I play a decent number of games, and having this aspect in, say, Dominion, really decreases the fun factor. If I can lose/win just by the luck of the draw, I don't have a chance to have skill-based win (obviously with careful card selection in Dominion you can obviate this and drive it more into a build-your-deck game).

The other aspect of Settlers that makes it enjoyable is that it involves a very social aspect, the trading of resources. So you can't just drop out for when its not your turn, or you'll miss things. That always adds to the enjoyment for me.

> Agricola and Dominion fixed the problems Caylus had by adding significant randomization. Not only does that add strategic variety to the games [2], it also means that anyone can win any given game.

While Agricola and Dominion do a pretty darn good job of it, it's often a matter of individual opinion whether adding randomization is a 'fix' or not. I hate playing a game where I feel like I could lose by pure chance no matter what my level of skill is. There's a balance to be had between having guaranteed good strategies, too much of which makes a game feel stale, and real randomization, too much of which makes a game feel like glorified gambling to no effect.

What you really want is just some way of ensuring that you don't play the same situation twice, so that some mental exertion is always required, while keeping the playing field level. One way to go about it is to just devise a game with sufficiently complex positions that players are likely to create new ones on their own- that's what Chess, Go, and Hnefatafl do, despite being very lightweight. Another way is to find some means of randomizing positions that doesn't too seriously impact player standings- that's what randomized Nim does and what Backgammon tries to do. A third is to make game progression depend on player judgments/voting, which magnifies the social aspects of a game; it's a form of randomization, but fundamentally different from, say, rolling dice or drawing shuffled cards, and there are very few popular games I know of that make use of it (Dixit is the only board game I know of, though there are card games like Taboo and Apples to Apples). It seems to me that modern board games tend more and more towards the randomization approach (sometimes with good reasons to do so given the simulation conceits of the game- i.e., agricultural productivity in Settlers). This makes sense because its easy to do, especially in the context of trying to make games that play faster- randomizing starting conditions is a great way to save the first ten or twenty opening moves prior to interestingness that you'd go through in a fully deterministic Chess-style game, even if there's no further randomness- and especially if you're willing to be lax with the requirement to not obviously upset player standings by random chance. But I wonder if we're missing something by not doing more exploration of the space of "interesting" deterministic games.

Incidentally, Tsuro is an interesting edge case- as the board is built during game play, I'm not sure if that counts as randomized initial conditions, or continuous randomization. While Tsuro is the simplest example, there are several games similar to this, like Infinite City or Wasabi. I was recently introduced to a Tsuro expansion that added dice rolls that alter the previously-played board tiles, and it was pretty uniformly considered by the players to be inferior due to over-randomization destroying any real reliance on individual skill.

P.S. Most of my recent exposure to modern games comes from periodic sampling of board game events run by my university SF&F club, so it's entirely possible that there are filtering and selection biases in the kinds of games that I have seen. I would certainly not mind having my entire argument torn to shreds by being introduced to yet more new games that I was not previously familiar with.

> I hate playing a game where I feel like I could lose by pure chance no matter what my level of skill is.

I've discovered this is a crucial element in social games. Because the implication is that someone could also win by pure chance no matter what their skill level is. That makes the game a lot more approachable for people of all skill levels, and makes it easier for a room full of people to have fun together.

Compare with another game I'm particularly fond of, which has absolutely no random element: Go. Considered on its own merits and ignoring any outside factors, it's easily my favorite game. But my usual Go partner moved across the country a while ago, and since then I almost never get to play Go. And when I do, it's really not very much fun. I've been playing it for so much longer than anyone else I know that we both know going into it exactly who's going to win and by how much. There's just no excitement in that. Sure, Go has a fantastic handicapping system and if we wanted to put out the effort of figuring out an appropriate handicap we could even the odds. But for most people that (quite justifiably) feels terribly condescending, so we're not going to do that.

Exactly - it's like the difference between chess and poker. Both are popular but poker is more widely played because differences in skill are less apparent (especially to an unskilled player)

People who don't like randomness mixed with skill just need to stop measuring themselves by the outcome of a single game.

> People who don't like randomness mixed with skill just need to stop measuring themselves by the outcome of a single game.

It's not measuring yourself, it's the emotional experience of playing that one game. If you can play the same game a bunch of times, such that the randomness gets smoothed out, that experience is different from the experience of just playing one game. There is thus something to be said, I think, for games that are explicitly designed to be played in a tournament style. For example, Mexican Train Dominoes- you're supposed to play it in 13 rounds, so even though you may get completely screwed over by bad draws on any one round, it's highly likely that everyone ends up on even footing overall (except for that one time I got a double 6 five rounds in a row...). Or Hnefatafl- it's empirically unbalanced, so standard practice is that you always play two games switching sides.

Hnefatafl has another interesting option for redressing unbalanced skill levels, though; each player can simply bet at the beginning on how many moves they think it will take them to win. If you play beyond the lowest number of moves wagered, that player loses. It's a similar idea to handicapping in Go, but extremely simple and requiring no negotiation such as would seem condescending. Unless, of course, you want to be a jerk about it and just always overestimate your move count on purpose.

> "Mexican Train"

That's offensive to those of us that use that to describe a sexual position!

But seriously, I agree with you. Since I only played it about once a year, I usually forget to play it very conservatively and get a large score. You don't have to win a single round to win overall, but people seem to forget what the real metric is with the excitement of winning a round.

> I hate playing a game where I feel like I could lose by pure chance no matter what my level of skill is. There's a balance to be had between having guaranteed good strategies, too much of which makes a game feel stale, and real randomization, too much of which makes a game feel like glorified gambling to no effect.

One of my favorite parts about Dominion and Race to the Galaxy is how their short play times nullify the downside of randomness; if you can play several games in a hour losing one game because of bad draws doesn't feel nearly as badly as it would if the games took 2 or 3 hours.

> Dixit is the only board game I know of, though there are card games like Taboo and Apples to Apples


> While Agricola and Dominion do a pretty darn good job of it, it's often a matter of individual opinion whether adding randomization is a 'fix' or not. I hate playing a game where I feel like I could lose by pure chance no matter what my level of skill is.

Le Havre (sort of the sequel to Agricola) improves on this. The ordering of the buildings is partly random, and can result in very different games, but it's symmetric to the players and all the information comes at the beginning.

Along the same lines, the game Innovation improves on Dominion by giving players different random decks, many more options for actions, a chance to come back no matter how far behind you fall, and yet still feels like skill is extremely important.

Caylus was wildly popular for a year or two, but it's rare to see people play it now. Ironically, the game designer was too good at removing the element of luck for the game to be popular.

Ah, yes. I had this experience with my card game, Ambition ( https://docs.google.com/document/d/1S7lsZKzHuuhoTb2Wj_L3zrhH... ). I came up with the concept when I was overseas (Budapest Semesters in Mathematics, fall 2003) and had left my German-style games at home, but wanted a low-luck card game (regular deck) to play. Building a trick-taking card game with minimal hand-luck turns out to be really hard, and involved a lot of statistical work, but I managed to get it down to a point where about 3-4% of the variance (in a typical 75-minute game) was drawn cards.

The problem was that it was over-optimized and too complicated and, being a theme-less abstract card game, it still didn't have a fully "German" feel in any case. So I ended up taking rules out and injecting small amounts of card-luck back into the game to make it more fun to play. Now it's closer to 5-6%, which I'm fine with. Scaling back the optimizations made it a better game.

It took some time, though, to convince myself that it's a feature that I (still probably the most experienced player) only win about 45% of 4-player games.

I think Seasons has a low random factor compared to other card games. This is despite the fact the game incorporates both cards and dice. You can play it online for free on http://boardgamearena.com . You can watch people play without registering.

1) Rather than starting with a random hand, the game starts with a draft. Each player gets some random cards, he must pick one of them and pass them to the next player. So even if you get all "great cards" at first, you can only take one. By the time your cards go back to you, pieces of your dream combo might be gone. 2) Dice are used for option selection, not tests of success/failure. Players+1 dice are rolled, each player picks one. The last player usually has an interesting choice too, because the die that wasn't picked determines how much time passes in the game. 3) Cards are balanced very well. Out of 50 cards, there are only 2 clear stinkers: Balance of Ishtar and Idol of the Familiar. The rest are so well balanced the game gets away with "you get -5 points per card in hand at the end of the game" rule. 4) Many card-drawing effects offer you a choice. Amulet of Fire makes you take 4 cards and discard 3 of them. Divine Chalice works in a very similar way, so does Naria. You can even activate a power which gives you a choice between 2 cards when you draw one (draws are very rare in this game, it's entirely possible to win the game without a single card past your initial 9). 5) 3 times per game, for a price of negative VP, you can bend the rules. This is an another airbag against random screwage.

So in summary, there is a random factor but best players keep winning consistently.

My longer description of the game: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/forums/showthread.php?6825-B...

In general, I like games which have randomized options but (pretty much) deterministic results of actions taken. Wesnoth is a bad example, the outcome of your attack is highly random. Neuroshima Hex makes you draw 3 cards each turn and play 2 of them, but apart from that the game is deterministic. Furthermore, if you get bad cards at the start the luck tends to even out over the period of the game, because later you'll be drawing only good cads. Each player has his own deck and the usual win condition is when a deck runs out. I highly recommend the game. You can play it online, too: http://online.neuroshima.org/

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