New Year, New Games

On the heels of Micheal Pecks list of Holiday Wonk games at Foreign Policy.com

Here is my Top 20 Must Play games for 2012:

1) Wei-Qi or Go. Most Western games, Chess in particular, or analytic games of decomposition. You start with all the pieces on the board and the goal is to remove them (in chess, one in particular). Wei-Chi or go is the opposite, its a synthetic game of constructing opportunity from a blank slate. This makes it a very different game from what wargamers in particular are used to. If you have not played this game, and do not want to embarrass yourself, there’s an app for that! Go Free from AI Factory Ltd is a good introduction to the game on your Android device. I have it on my new Kindle Fire. It is not going to make you an expert, but when you can concsitently beat it on level 10, you will at least not embarrass yourself against introductory level players. Many Faces of Go is the best computer Go game, but is 90$ for the full version. It combines Monte Carlo search tree alogorithms with a board comparison to a database of Master level games. SmartGo is a cheaper alternative at 50$ and has a cheaper, iPad/iPhone version. No Android version yet for my Fire ;(

This is the starting point for “out of the box” thinking about strategy for the Western Way of War thinker.

The remainder of the list presents a few examples in each of the game categories I have been working with over the last year as part of study into innovation: “Euro-games”, “Deck-building games”, “Card driven wargames”, and “Block wargames”. I also have a couple computer games. I know I will leave out favorite games in this, but these are ones I either have already acquired, or plan to acquire, for my NUWC “Strategy and Innovation gaming” group. Feel free to opine about why your favorites are better than mine 😉 The goal of that group is to create a cadre of “gaming savvy” engineers and analysts by introducing then to a variety of types of games that stretch their biases about games and demonstrate there usefulness as decision-practice engines and as Matt Caffrey refers to them – “wind tunnels” for innovation. I started at the begining of FY 12 with weekly game sessions after work for 2 or 3 hours hours, followed by dinner and discussion. One thing to point out in this list is that many of these games are here because of interesting decision-making mechanics, NOT because of “fun to play” factor (though that obviously helps). Some are definitely “work” to play…

Euro-games a defined by a number of elements, different sources include different ones, but the primary one I use is a “which came first, the game system, or the game narrative”. Traditional wargame design takes a topic – the game narrative – and develops a game system by which to tell the story. The Euro-game is a game system first, which presents the players an interesting co-evolution of decision-making situation, that then has a narrative added to provide a context. Obviously this is a continuum, with various degrees of abstraction in the “narrative” and while “pure” Euro-games are almost conflict-averse and are almost “simultaneous solitaire” games, to me inter player conflict can occur in what I consider a “Euro-game”.

Euro-games

2) Agricola While it builds on the shoulders of several great games, Agricola has several elements that I exploit as part of my program. In my mind it is the “architypal” Euro-game. Its mechanics are “worker placement” meaning that you have options to do tasks based on the number of workers you have. The narrative, starting with your spouse and a hut and some empty fields that you want to build into a flourishing homestead, could be almost any “empire building” narative. The simplicity of the narrative, to me compounds the lessons of decision-making under uncertainty as compared to “executive decision-making” of broader scope. The basic decisions revolve around resource collection and resource allocation. It is fundamentally an economic game where you start from a meager baseline, and build value through the work you decide to have your workers do. The choice of actions increases as the game goes on, but a given action can only be performed once per round, so while this is essentially a “simultaneous solitaire” game at its root, player interaction limits decision options. This aspect of the game, together with the increasing richness of the information landscape, opens this game to criticisms that its “competitive spreadsheet analysis” and not really a “fun game”. Well there is feature not a bug to some (like me ;)), particularly when it comes to educating folks whose job tends to focus them on tasks that “if planned well, will turn out well” on how to deal with the times the best laid plans fall prey to “the real world”. The major drawback is that it can easiliy become a lengthy affair, often taking more than 3 hours to play be experienced players. Caylus and Stone Age are other examples of “worker placement” type games.

3) Puerto Rico is another form of “simultaneous solitaire” economic development game, one that uses “variable role selection” rather than “worker placement”. Players take turns selecting a role (ability to perform an action at an advantage) after which everyone gets to perform that action (with only the role selector getting the advantage). One has to balance selecting the role with the advantage they feel is most helpful, with the strategy of ordering the actions to acquire objects that are in limited supply before competitors. Compared to “worker placement” games, “role selection” games tend to constrain the decision landscape by scarcity of resources, or the need to create a full “supply/production chain”, with all the decisions being available (albeit not in the desired order, or with the desired advantages. Worker placement games typically have unconstrained resource (or at abundant) resource pools, but present the player with a diverse and complex decision space from which only a few choices are available.

4) Power Grid is an example of a “network building game”. Classic examples of this are the railroad building games. Power grids use of electricity generation capacity and progressing efficiency, add elements to the game play that are to me more interesting than the rail games. Players have to balance increasing the efficiency of their network, with the expansion of their network, since the winner is the player who, when any player adds a 17th city to their network, can supply the most cities with power with the resources at their disposal that turn. The decision-making fly in the ointment is the auction process by which new power plants are acquired. As newer more efficient power plants become avaiable, older models can be had more cheaply – upfront – but will cost you down the road. Resources will also cost you Elecktros (money). It also costs more to build a 2nd or 3rd power house in a city in later rounds, so establishing the configuration of your network is important also. A whole host of decisions to make about relative resource value and supply chain management.

5) Dominant Species Is a “Euro-game meets wargame designer” title. It takes “hex edge and vertex” ideas from “Settler’s of Catan”, the “area-control” aspects of El Grande. Melds them with a very nice “worker placement” mechanic and some very cut throat special power cards to make a sort of “holy grail” of Euro-game mechanics, something many players find overwhelming and unable to adapt to. The biggest problem from a player perspective is that you very easily find yourself just totally at the mercy of other peoples opportunities… gee sounds like the Real World… 😉 A great game to show the problems with the Military Decision Making Process applied to co-evolving interaction on a dynamic competitive landscape!

Deck-building games are card games that generally don’t have boards or pieces (expect as tokens to represent victory points or resources). Deck building games come in two main varieties – open and closed. Open deck building games are those where the deck that is built is open and available (usually arrayed in front of the player as a grid or tableau) with its powers and value building over time. Race for the Galaxy and Illuminati are examples. Closed deck building games have the players construct a deck either before game play begins, or during game play and select a hand from it each turn to play from. This is also known as “hand management” and Magic: The Gathering is the archetype. Dominion combines both hand management and building the deck as you go along.

6) Dominion is the most accessible of the deck building games, and combines both hand management and dynamic deck-building. It has “simultaneous solitaire” feature/bug of many Euro-games, but the expansions to it add various ways to interact on a limited basis with opponents beyond the game ending mechanic of card pile exhaustion. The interesting aspect of the game is the wide variety of card types, only 10 of which are in play in any game. The expansions and promos have extended the number of card types to well over 100. The basic game mechanic is pretty simple – you spend money cards from your hand to buy other money cards, action cards or victory cards. So why not just buy victory cards? Well they tend to be expensive and you need to chain together action cards in your hand to draw enough cards from your deck to be able to afford them. And you have populate your deck with a cunning mix of money and action cards to have a good chance of getting the combinations you need. Just because the cards are in your deck, does not mean you will draw them when you need them, so there is always a need for plans B and C… Choosing cards at for inclusion at random can lead to some odd combos, so there are several several types of house rules for bidding, drafting, or vetoing the base game set-up to keep balance threatening combos out (or in – if you are the only one that perceives the synergy…).

7) Race for the Galaxy is one of those games that has a number of really cool mechanics, but takes it almost beyond the pale of “fizbin” when the expansions are all used. The iconography on the cards is also elegant to the point of obscurity at first pale. Once it is understood it becomes second nature, but the learning curve is a bit steep – but that can be a feature when using it to reinforce the point that sometimes as a decision-maker the information is right in front of your face, you just don’t understand it yet… The game is als a great teacher about the relationship between planning and opportunity cost. You have to pay for playing cards to your tableau by discarding a number of other cards from your hand. The more powerful the card, the more cards you have to discard to play it. It also uses a variation on the role-section in Puerto Rico. Each round you select the action you want to perform that round and by playing it you get to execute it with a bonus. Everyone else just gets to execute it. You can explore (2 types), develop, settle, trade, consume or produce. You only get to pick one, and its a blind selection, so you have to anticipate what opponents are going to be doing at times. You win by accumulating the most victory points, either by “consuming” goods for victory points, or by the victory point value of your cards themselves. Its once again “simultaneous solitaire” but the expansions allow for limited military takeovers.

8) Illuminati is the original game of network warfare. The “Conspiracy building” narrative is clever, though many of the later cards are a “reach”. Rather than simply add your cards to a tableau, cards in Illuminati are played adjacent to other cards to form a network. Money passes from the remote tentacles of your web, to the nexus. Unlike the other Euro card games, attacking other players networks to either suppress them or to hack them off and graft them onto yours is a community effort! There are no limits to what can be bartered to get other players to help out in dismembering a common foe (though often as set up to a more devastating one – back-stabbing is encouraged early and often!. The interesting game mechanics are those that relate to the power and vulnerabilities of networks. Especially the notion that no network is EVER as secure as you would like it to be… The large number of cards can make for interesting house rules for a “deck building game” prior to the actual game play can make for a whole “game before the game”, but can make things over-long and tedious in the end without some house rules for hiding victory conditions so it doesn’t degenerate into “kill the guy with the lead”.

Card driven wargames are a rather new innovation. Often attributed to Mark Herman (Now of Booze-Allen fame) with We the People in 1994, Mark took the extremely complex “special situation rules” many games were adding that required complicated dice roles and look-up tables into a deck of cards players drew from so they had a set of special rule options available in a ‘hand’. I would argue that Kingmaker in 1974 was the first “card driven game” and John Prados’ “Cold War” from Victory games was actually the first “card-driven + hand management” game, though Mark evolved the ideas to a “next level”. Richard Borg enhanced the idea further for tactical games which put game actions in the form of cards you played to move and attack. “Battle Cry” was the first of these and the system was expned on to WWII in Memoir 44 and to Ancients and Naploeonics periods in GMTs Command and Colors series. I divide these into games that use conventional cardboard unit counters on a networked point to point or area movement map, and those that use blocks on a board of hexes.

9) Washington’s War is Mark Herman’s remake of his original “We the People” game, with a number of refinements making it simpler, faster and with updated cards. It covers the revolutionary war in an engaging way that simplifies some decision-making through limited card options, but complicates operational decision making in the way it forces players to choose between playing a card for its political value, or for its value to perform tactical action. This dual use mechanic was a unique expansion on the “two -deck” system in Cold War – one for events, and one for tactical interaction. This combined with the inherent “Irregular Warfare” nature of the conflict makes this a timely lesson in the power and limitations of both political and military action.

10) Cold War / Twilight Struggle are two quite different games, but I count them together because of the similar dynamics and subject matter. I have not played twilight struggle, but Cold War seems to more explicitly include the elements of DIME – you had political, economic and military control markers a system of “espionage” cards that let you perform (or block) various information warfare type actions. If you want to demonstrate the DIME concept to someone, its the perfect vehicle, though in that sence almost “generic”. Twilight Struggle on the other hand is deeper in its representation of the actual events and decisions of the time. It is far less abstract in its mechanics than cold War, but appears to be more pol-mil oriented without the “spy-vs-spy” interaction of Cold War and the economic aspect. TS is on my list to acquire now that a new printing has been released. One of my early “melding attempts was a set of linking rules to combine an abbreviated Illuminati network game with Cold War to make a “Post-Cold War” influence development game.

11) A Few Acres of Snow is similar in some ways to Washington’s War, but has more of a Euro game feel to it. I played this once and have been looking to get it ever since. It is another nice DIME game that demonstrates very elegantly the interaction of the military, political and economic aspects of the long conflict between the British and French in New England and Eastern Canada. It combines card play aspects of Dominion (though not the same kind of deck building) with the card-driven game aspects of Washington’s War.

12) Pandemic is interesting in that it is a cooperative game – the players all win, or all lose. Each player has role card that allows a special power. the board is a grid of locations which appear in the two card decks. There are also special power cards that allow one time special powers. The goal of the game is to cure the 4 diseases endemic to the 4 major regions of the world before they become a pandemic. Players move pawns around the board eliminating cubes representing the curing of infected people. The game can be played at a variety of levels of difficulty by varying the number of “epidemic” cards added to the infection deck. There are also recommendations that limit the information the players may share when you play at higher levels. I use a house rule for “heroic” play that restricts strategy discussion to the beginning of a turn, once the turn starts and the card play causes disease to spread, each play must make their own decisions based on the information they have. This also prevents experienced players from “playing the game themselves” while less experienced players sit back and simply do what their told… There is an expansion set that adds an active bio-terroist to the mix, a 5th disease and new role cards. An interesting planning event could pit multiple teams playing multiple games against each other to see which team wins in the fewest turns (or survives the longest number of turns if all fail… Players find themselves drawn to the notion that the narrative for the game would work just as well for a game about a Zombie apocalypse, the little cubes eliminated being various ZOmbie forms, rather than curing sick populations 😉

13) A Game of Thrones – this game is a composite of a number of Euro and conventional wargame design elements. IT has some degree of card play – but is not what I would consider a “card driven game”. The original edition was a combination of the old “Diplomacy” game mechanics (small number of units per side and “plotted” movement for a turn – written in Dippy, indicated by order markers in AGoT). If you are unfamiliar with the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series and the recent HBO adaption, then you have missed out on one of the great fantasy sagas. Taking elements of the historical War of the Roses in England, the story adds some unique elements that must be read (or watched) to be appreciated. The original game had two sequels, one of which was in essence a separate standalone version of one particular subset of the overall conflict. The resulting conglomeration of rules led me to cut and past my own rules summary for the “Complete, original game”, which was haphazardly spread over the three rule books. This has been done officially now, together with some new fan content to make a much better integrated 2nd edition. The is a masterful integration of key aspects of the world and the stories, several game design elements of classic wargames, and some innovative uses of card play to make what might be one of the most cut-throat, back-stab filled games out there. From a decision-making point of view, like Diplomacy, no player can win the game on there own. It requires the negotiation of both short and long term alliances, one of the most elegant logistics systems around. One story spoiler I will have reveal is the most interesting element to me in the game. The Island of Westeros is on an earth-like planet, configured much like Britain, but with a very different orbital dynamic, which leads to a variable ratio between winter and summer, the seasons lasting months on some orbits like ours, but once a generation or so produces a very long summer followed by, in our terms, a multi-year winter. The fragile system of checks and balances between the competing Houses is breaking just as, in the series catch-phrase “Winter is coming” suggests is the worst possible time. A time that triggers the “wildlings” of the far north to surge southward threatening all. So against the conventional backdrop of conflict between houses for domination, they must occasionally pool their resources and cooperate when the Wildlings surge south, or all will perish. This adds a unique element of conflict tempered with cooperation that can change the balance of power!

14) Command and Colors Napoleonics is to my mind the best of the Richard Borg “Block” games. It captures the various advantages and disadvantages of the Napoleonic combat arms (Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery) in a very “miniatures-like” way. The card-play captures the sequential nature of command decision, and commitment of forces. This is a great introduction to “combined arms warfare” where units have mutually supporting strengths and weaknesses when integrated properly. Failure to plan well can leave a vital force at the mercy of an enemy that can exploit its Achilles heel. The ancients games are also good, but to me don’t have the depth of unit synergy the Nappy era does. I’m hoping the series returns to its origin in a US Civil War version… I will put a plug in here for the WWII Combat Command series, which is considerably more complex, and uses counters on hexmaps. It does for understanding the basics of WWII combined arms tactics in the most accessible way I know (but then I’m a reformed Advanced Squad Leader player…).

15) Athens and Sparta is to me the best of the Columbia “traditional wargame’ style block games. Many would disagree and say Hammer of the Scots, which I put second… The game does a very good job capturing the essence of the decision making surrounding the period, and the asymmetric situation between landpower and seapower strategy. The effects of this assymmetry on strategic decision-making is where the key decision-making lessons come in.

Computer games are often not the best tools for teaching the kind of lessons I’m trying to get at with this series of game sessions, but a couple in particular have value as “homework” and in a LAN setting where the players are in one room around differnt computers.

16) Civilization V is a game that is significantly streamlined compared to other empire building games and its own predecessors. This does make it a lot more accessible to new players and gets at key prioritization decisions in a more straightforward manner. ITs a variation on worker allocation, each city produces food, industry, gold, research, culture,and great leaders based on how its population is allocated. Micromanagement is possible, but mostly you can tell it to optimize for one over the others. Your trade network also produces gold, and your buildings and armies require maintenance fees. Your population gets unhappy, the more densely packed your sities beocem and you have to find luxury resources and produce buildings to keep them happy, or in teh worst case, rebel armies appear and rampage around. Your research and Culture production allows you to develop technologies and make cultural advancments that enable you to produce a wider variety of military units, buildings that magnify your cities production of resources, and grant bonuses for certain tasks. Depending on how big a “world” you choose, you are competting with a number of other civilations, and city-states who you can entice to befirend of ally with you based on actions you take, or “foreign aid” you give them. THee are 5 ways to win the game, through research by building a spaceship to leave for another planet, through Culture by achieving a cultural Utopia, through Diplomacy by getting a majority of civilzation and city-states to vote for you in the UN, and by the old stand-by, Military conquest, but being the last civilization to have never lost their original Capital. There is time victory based on points, but I have only won that way once and it was aa artifact of really weird resource placement that stunted the early growth of all the Civs. It sounds really complicated, and in a way it is, but after a couple of games it becomes second nature thanks to a very well designed interface. The definitive “just one more turn” game and being turn based, avoids issues with constantly pausing “real time” games.

17) Gary Grigsby’s Word at War – This is a game published by Matrix games, which I helped form, but it remains the definitive ‘Game’ of world war 2 in my mind. It captures the global strategic logisitcs, and tech investment decisions that faced the various major powers in a game you can actually play in a reasonable amount of time (quarterly turns, even if it goes way long, you talking in the high twenties of turns). It is fairly abstract, with units representing ‘capabilities” more than actual military units. Its area movement and the new edition adds some chrome like leaders and unit experience. In the old days we called this a “beer and pretzels” game – but compared to typical “hard core” computer wargames with hundreds of turns, thousands of units and requiring the actual length of the real war to complete, its actually playable. A great engine for resolving paly between teams demonstrating the military decision-making process.

18) Space Empires, the computer game style board game that is better than most computer space games, because its simple enough to understand! Explore, expand, exploit and exterminate are teh four “X”‘s that make 4X space games. This board game adaptation of what had been computer games of enormous complexity, lets players focus in on the decision making associating with “empire-building” in an economic/military focused competitive landscape.

As I wrote this article I expanded from 15 to 20 and want to call out two “blast from the past” games that have interesting mechanics but don’t fit in the categories above to fill out:

19) Kingmaker. I mentioned it above, and recently played it again for the first time in 20 years and it hit me what was so neat about it. It has a mechanic where each turn you draw a card that has summons on them for the nobles with certain titles to go to certain board locations. The stronger a noble is (in tiles and associated military retinue, the more often he gets called away to deal with the business of his office, usually at the worst possible time when comes to your heir to the throne keeping their head on their shoulders. This elegant mechanic for representing the loss of control associated with power has always been one that makes this game a planning challenge. Especially when you get “rewarded” by another player with a powerful, but flighty title!

20) Freedom in the Galaxy. This 1970s SPI title was actually a retooling of the wonderful “Empires of the Middle Ages” with a Space Opera narrative, in an attempt to leverage the popularity of Star Wars. It has a number of innovations, including a unique map design, one of the first games to have “special power cards” (Characters that gave a bit of role playing aspect to the game) and a the asymmetric “Empire vs Rebellion” story line.

Anyway that is my list, and am waiting to hear from others on games they hope to play this year and what they hope to get out of them!

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About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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3 Responses to New Year, New Games

  1. brtrain says:

    Paul, a very interesting list! I wouldn’t violently disagree with anything you have put on it, since I am not sure of what biases you are trying to dispel among the members of your gaming group. I might offer, though, that some of the games you have picked would not comfortably fit into the 2-3 hour time period you specified for meetings, especially when you might have to teach the game before really getting under way.
    You mentioned “role selection” games – a short one that might fit the bill is Citadels, which gives players a choice of what special powers to hold temporarily without the “supply chain setup” headaches (though it may not be much of a headache for the engineer types you are playing with).
    Speaking of special powers, an interesting point about Illuminati: New World Order (the CCG variant of Illuminati) is that most cards break or change one or more rules of the game – this is an interesting feature too, that reaches its height in FLUXX – but some people don’t enjoy that one as they feel it gives them little or no control over how to play (but games are over in a few minutes, so no real harm done, you control freak you).
    A simple empire-building game that involves a lot of choices is Vinci – fun, little time to set up and teach and it can be played quite quickly.
    And many thumbs up for mentioning Go!

  2. Paul Vebber says:

    The time frame thing is always an issue – many times we don’t play a game to conclusion but to get far enough to spark a conversation about some aspect of strategy decision-making or innovative play or “mods”. I focus on the latter to help install the lesson that a huge value in manual games is that you bend, fold, spindle andmutilate them with ‘house rules” to make specific points. Its a “train the trainers” sot of thing to both educate and try to find out who the nascent game design/developer types are out in our population. The “official” goal of the group is to develop a sense of the value of gaming, and the various “innovative” game mechnics out there that many who may have gamed back in the 70s and 80s may not be aware. My own ulterior motives are to develop an unofficial in house game design and execution group to at some point come out of the closet and officially recognize an internal wargaming analysis capability. A ‘bottstrap’ operation at this point 😉 I’ll check out Citadels, and I am a fan of Smallworld (a fantasy twist on Vinci that address a few problems as I understand it).

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks Paul, it sounds as if you have the right idea, and if you have a group to whom the discussion of play processes or how players arrive at decisions is more rewarding than dancing around the table yelling, “I won! I won!”, then that’s great. It’s true there are/were a lot of innovative mechanics in games of the 70s and 80s, and while that body of knowledge has not been completely lost, it has been ignored.

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