NY Times tackles board games

I’ve been meaning to find time to “dive in” to boardgamegeek for almost a year now. My art professor actually first mentioned it to me. In that wired article though, the co-founder of the site says that a reason why monopoly sucks is because you have to crush your opponents to win, instead of cooperating or trying to win more rather than defeat. Is that really a common view? I would figure that the way the system of rules is design would be much more important…

I don’t see games in that way at all, which is another reason why I disliked the NYT article. It described every game in terms of its “skin.” Selling beer, curing diseases, etc. I get that it fit within the article’s angle, but I certainly think of a game’s setting as more of its excuse. Something to lure people in, abstract the mechanics and make it memorable. Ultimately though, Battleship isn’t about naval warfare. It’s about patterns and guessing and shit. If Battleship was about office politics or skydiving or something, it would be the exact same game in my eyes.

I haven’t read the wired article, but that is not why Monopoly sucks. There are a couple reasons that Monopoly sucks:

  • Hidden “real game”: it’s not obvious at first, but the real meat of Monopoly has almost nothing to do with rolling dice or the board. The real meat of Monopoly is the auction / negotiations game that takes place between turns. But there are so many other trappings with dice, Chance cards, Hotels, that it isn’t obvious. Thus, when most people play Monopoly they aren’t playing the game they thought they were (or the game they want to play), and as a result don’t have very much fun.

  • No Endgame: As a corollary to the real game being one of auctions and negotiation, most games of Monopoly end up coming down to 2 extremely powerful players who’ve out-played all the other players at the auction level. All other players are eliminated, and the two titans have so much money that neither is really able to do much to the other, and both are too smart to give away the game at this point. Now, you have to wait until the random elements of the game throw just enough jitter in one direction to completely destroy one player.

The second reason is similar to why Risk sucks. (if you aren’t willing to spend 10+ hours on a game, you aren’t really going to win Risk if there aren’t massive skill imbalances). That’s why recent versions of Risk essentially limit the game artificially. Monopoly needs a rule like this, where whoever has the most money 10 turns after the last piece of property is purchased wins.

Monopoly also has the deadly “long time to fail” ending, where you’re forced to keep going after you know you’ve lost.

It’s what it would be like if in a martial arts movie it took an hour to die after the guy ripped your heart out of your chest and showed it to you.

We’ve been playing board games for a few years now with friends. Outside of one attempt to play Risk since we started, using the original sucky rules, we haven’t played any other games.

I’ve prone to wandering around and calling Monopoly, Risk, and most classic American board games horrible, horrible games, but my wife doesn’t believe me yet, mainly because she hasn’t actually played any of them recently.

Then we got onto a discussion of kids games, I pointed out that Hi-Ho Cherry-O, Candy Land, and Snakes and Ladders all had horrible game mechanics (and I think I claimed they made kids stupid), and she wondered if I had any alternatives.

Then I was stumped. Not like I have kids, but are there any non-sucky games for kids or is the main purpose of board games for kids to learn the basics of taking turns, drawing cards, looking at the board, and most of all, not hissyfitting when you lose?

Kids manage to play adult boardgames just fine, although which ones to pick is entirely a matter of the kids attention span. For reference, I have two boys, age 9 and 5.

Some games I’ve had luck with for both kids:

  • Carcassone. Both my boys like this, and there are a bazillion variants.
  • Ticket to Ride. This got my older son into boardgames, but my younger son didn’t care so much for it.
  • Pitch Car. Great dexterity racing game, with modular tracks
  • Micro Mutants. Tiddly wink bug wars.
  • Robo Rally. Works much better for kids than I’d expected.
  • Techno Witches. Plot your witches flight path around an obstacle course.
  • Galaxy Trucker. Timed spaceship construction
  • Ghost Stories. Cooperative Kung Fu action, though harder to grasp for little kids.
  • Red Planet. Competitive steampunk colonization of Mars.
  • Red November. Half drunk gnomes try to escape their doomed submarine.
  • Four Dragons. A card game very vaguely reminiscent of hearts.
  • Culdecept Saga. A videogame, but very boardgame like.

Some games that I thought might work, but didn’t:

  • Dominion
  • Race for the Galaxies
  • Agricola
  • Puerto Rico
  • Power Grid

Some games that worked for my older son.

  • Battle Lore
  • Caylus
  • Descent
  • Mare Nostrum

Some games that might work, but I never tried:

  • Settlers
  • Small World

Haba Games makes an excellent line of games for kids. Link

I think he’s talking about classic games. Obviously, if we include modern board games, then there are tons of good, kid-friendly games out there.

Re: Monopoly: in addition to the problems mentioned (dragging game length, too long to fail), I’d argue that Monopoly also has a lack of interesting choices. Yes, things like property auctions and negotiations to sell properties to other players can add interest, but that stuff is infrequent enough (and in the case of negotiations, completely optional) that it can hardly be considered the “real game.” You don’t have property auctions every turn–heck, sometimes you don’t have any for the entire game. And most players don’t negotiate trades every turn, either. There is actually relatively little incentive built into the game to compel players to trade with each other, and no means for acquiring specific properties for the purpose of trade, since the initial property distribution is essentially random. You each have to end up with something that the other wants at random. Additionally, one player almost always comes out ahead in any trade, because rent values escalate around the board. So if player B offers to give me something I need to complete my set in exchange for something he needs to complete his, one of us is always getting a better deal, and it’s always clear who that is.

So in most of the games I’ve played, trading happens, but only infrequently–maybe three or four properties get traded over the course of an entire game. That’s not a lot of interesting decision-making for a game that typically drags on for hours. And the “real game”–the stuff that each player does every turn–offers basically zero interesting choices. “Buy a property or not” is the only choice you are ever offered by the core mechanics, and that’s not really an interesting choice because there is pretty much always just one correct answer.

It depends greatly on the game you are playing. For instance, I taught Fantasy Flight’s Twilight Imperium to three people who had never played anything more complicated than Risk (yep, I’m probably nuts - but they all had a GREAT time) last weekend and while TI is a massive, long game, the game rounds are broken up into many ‘turns’ where you do usually one small thing then it’s on to the next person. So, you’re never really out of it for long, especially since a lot of the actions also involve direct participation from other players.

The same thing goes for War of the Ring. Essentually a two player game, but there is almost no downtime between plays, unless your opponent REALLY can’t decide what card to play or who to reinforce on his action.

On the other hand, I haven’t played Titan, but I hear with more than three or so players, downtime can get pretty tiring. But that’s just what i have heard some fans of the game say.

As for good games to whith which to try out the hobby, I’d like to add to the list Cleopatra and the Society of the Architects. It’s a lesser known Days of Wonder game with the same “either collect cards or build something on your turn” flow as Ticket to Ride, but there are a lot of tiny wrinkles in scoring and timing strategy that make it a lot more engaging for me, while still retaining the ease of learning and teaching the rules.

BTW, anyone that wants to play a game about investments, auctions, and accumulating wealth, ditch Monopoly and try Modern Art instead. It plays a lot faster than Monopoly (games typically finish in less than an hour), offers a lot more interesting decision-making, and is just an all-around superior game.

Classic games? Acquire, Clue, Caroms/Crokinole, Chess/Go/etc, or card games then. Maybe Tactics II (older than I realized!) or even Little Wars, if you want to get into wargaming.

Honestly, there’s not much more than that, as modern boardgames are pretty much entirely superior to classic boardgames – it’s no coincidence that the only pre-1980 games in boardgamegeek’s top 100 games are Crokinole, Acquire, and of all things, Dune.

Monopoly actually ranks as one of the better classic games (provided you play by the actual rules, and leave out broken additions like “Free Parking = Free Money”). Not that I think it’s a good game, of course!

Dune is basically a re-themed version of Cosmic Encounter (well, the other way around, actually, since Dune came first), so it’s not surprising that Dune ranks high on BGG.

Cosmic Encounter came out before Dune. Also, just because they both use colored circular chits doesn’t mean one is a re-theme of the other; they’re very different.

Also, IMO Ra is a much better auction game from the same designer as Modern Art. Unless you really like collecting paintings, can’t argue about theme, but Knizia perfected his auction mechanics craft with Ra.

Well, you can sometimes trade two properties for one, or the person who is getting the better property has to add significant cash to the deal. I don’t think it’s obvious what level of cash is needed to make it an even deal, since it depends on player’s development levels and how much cash they have on hand.

Sometimes even a pure cash deal can make sense, if the player recieving the cash doesn’t have enough to develop his properties. Also, all the trades are going to be positive-sum, so there’s some incentive to be willling to trade even if the gains aren’t equally split. Most of the time, however, people are unreasonably opposed to trades so the game is basically pure chance.

Peter Olotka, Bill Eberle, and Jack Kittredge were involved in the design of both Cosmic Encounter and Dune, and there are a lot of parallels between the two because of their focus on letting individual players break different rules.

As for Modern Art vs. Ra, I think both are worth owning because they are so different that one can’t replace another. Ra is fantastic with three people but has fallen flat when we have more people than that, and Modern Art shines with four. I don’t get your comment about Knizia “perfecting his auction mechanics craft with Ra.” The mechanisms he designed for that game work great within that game, just as the mechanisms that drive Modern Art work perfectly within that one. There are far too many auction mechanisms to claim that one of them is superior to the others.

Mike Jamieson caught most of what I was going to say re: Monopoly. Also, to clarify, voluntary trades may not happen often, but you will have either auctions or trading in any game with more than 2 people, since those are the only 2 ways to liquidate somebody’s assets when they leave the game. When I say they consitute the “real game”, I was referring to the lack of meaningful choice: the only way to positively affect your performance in the game is by using these “secondary” mechanics, otherwise, as noted, it’s just random. The corollary to this is that many, many people have never played a “proper” competitive game of monopoly. Those that have tend to hate the game, because their parents crushed them when they were children.

Classic Games that hold up? There aren’t that many. The really abstract ones like chess, checkers, and go, obviously. I would add backgammon and othello (reversi). Party games (pictionary et al) hold up well if you just want to spend some family time, with some exceptions (Trivial Pursuit has a broken endgame too, and isn’t good for inter-generational play).

The best classic board game that still holds up, in my mind, is Stratego. It’s a classic combo of an RPS mechanic with minesweeper and psychology. It’s absolutely great.

“A lot of parallels” is not the same as “basically a re-themed version.” I think Dune and CE diverge enough to be satisfyingly different games. Magic the Gathering and Netrunner both had the same designer and a focus on letting individual cards break different rules but Netrunner isn’t a re-themed version of MtG.

Not sure what the general opinion is of the game, but I recently played Sorry and was surprised how much fun it was. There are rare strategic decision points, but they do exist every few turns. Really, though, the game’s fun comes from its ability to set players in positions to exact revenge, even when it’s not a strategically sound choice. It also helps that both turns and full games are short, so the fact that it’s luck-based didn’t offend in the few rare times I’ve played it. I don’t think it’s as fun as most modern games, but I like it a lot better than Risk or Monopoly. At least it knows when to end.

Sorry, “re-themed” was a poor choice of wording. I wasn’t bashing Dune, just pointing out that it was very obviously the inspiration for CE, and therefor it’s not surprising that it’s popular, since the two games have a lot in common and CE is a highly ranked game on BGG.

Ra is a good game, but I prefer Modern Art. That’s probably a matter of theme, though.

Ra has some definite advantages in terms of replayability, depth, and ease of set-up. I think it’s a better game on pure mechanics. It’s certainly the one that out more people want to play again (and again, and again).

Modern Art’s main advantage is, I think, that it actually makes you feel like you’ve learned an important lesson about art vs. commerce.

CE had been out for a few years before Dune was released, so I don’t see how Dune could have inspired it.