Qt3 Boardgames Podcast: Near & Far, Keyforge, Village Pillage

People make auction games all the time. The Estates, for example. Personally I think they should stop.

The difference, in my mind, is that movies express fundamental aspects of human experience, and thus their insights remain powerful even if the presentation changes. Many of the “advances” in filmmaking have nothing to do with this, instead being part of “suspension of disbelief” which can be achieved in many other ways, which is why you can still go an see a performance of Iphigenia in Aulis and be tremendously moved, even though it was written 2,500 years ago.

Boardgames do something fundamentally different, which is why I find the comparison of games to movies difficult, and boardgames to movies even more so, because so much of the success of the boardgame is down to mechanics that the players need to fully internalize, and thus there can be advances in the ways that these mechanics are assembled that achieve the same effect but more elegantly, or achieve a more interesting (!) effect with the same mechanics.

I used to get peeved Tom’s “get your old boardgames off my lawn!” mantra, but every time I play an old game and think of how some new game does X or Y or Z better, I’m a bit more convinced. Sure, you can play Caylus, but my original take on Caylus is now colored by all the better worker placement games I can play. So I think that’s what Tom means. Unless he doesn’t, in which case he can correct me.

Why does it have to be “fundamentally different,” and not just different? Games express aspects of human experience just like movies, but instead of portraying a human story or a visual experience, they expose to us the systems and dynamics in the world around us, neatly (sometimes not so neatly) extracted from the complexity of the real world, with an invitation to play with them and see what happens. Different from movies. But no more so than sculpture.

I don’t disagree that there’s is innovation in board games, and an arc of growing sophistication (and also game-literacy among the audience). But Bernini and Casablanca and Tigris & Euphrates are evidence that while the future might build on the past, it doesn’t devour it.

The sheer number of games being made now means that the quality of the best games out there is really high and the exemplars are many. But expunge the nouveaumania that infects us fan-boys and take them on their merits, and I think plenty of games from decades past can stand beside them. (Including Caylus.)

What do you get from Caylus that you don’t get from various more recent worker placement games? I honestly can’t think of a single thing. Other than nostalgia, why would anyone would prefer Caylus over [insert about 20 recent worker placement games here].

Caylus laid the groundwork for a gameplay mechanic. No one cares that it’s about gathering wood and cloth to build a castle, or whatever, because there are a hundred games that do that. They care about the gameplay concepts, which were once new and exciting, and have been refined and tuned since then. Today, Caylus’ groundwork is buried under an entire genre that has improved on what it introduced in every way.

I’m not even exaggerating. Every way. Seriously, I’m curious what Caylus does that I can’t find in a half dozen other worker placement games that do things Caylus doesn’t.

In terms of boardgames, it does by every metric I can think of! Rankings on Boardgame Geek, sales, critical relevance, influence on other designers, accessibility to new gamers. You show anyone who appreciates film Casablanca and they’ll understand its appeal and timelessness. You show a typical gaming group Tigris & Eurphates and – at best – they’ll think, “Man, that Knizia guy was pretty clever”. But will they think, “Hey, let’s play Tigris & Euphrates this week instead of [insert list here]”?

To be fair, I don’t know the answers to these questions.

I understand that point you’re trying to make, but trying to minimize the difference between a movie and a boardgame doesn’t help your case. :)

You’re conflating art with entertainment! But, hoo boy, is that a whole other kettle of fish. Suffice to say that if you concede there’s a difference between art and entertainment, I can’t see making a case for any boardgame I’ve ever seen being art. Which arguably says more about me than the topic at hand, but it partly informs why I have no problem dismissing certain games as obsolete. Coleco Battlestar Galactica, Wolfenstein 3D, the first Assassin’s Creed, lawn darts, Caylus, and even Agricola.

-Tom

P.S. I’m loving this discussion, by the way, because we’re at separate ends of an ideology spectrum about boardgames. I’m imagining you and me as the Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley of hoity-toity boardgaming talk. I can’t decide which one is me.

To me Agricola has not been (at least to my knowledge) obsoleted and is unlikely to be, because the biggest appeal of Agricola to me was always the way the minor improvement and occupation decks vary an otherwise bog standard worker placement game. And as far as I can tell, no other worker placement game has a mechanic of equivalent substance and variety. It seems to be something that even Rosenberg dropped straightaway afterwards, and to me it makes the whole game.

…that said, I don’t own it.

Um. The provost and bailiff? Is there a game I’m not aware of that has worker placement spots laid out on a track and a system players can manipulate to disqualify spaces on the track?

The bailiff is really unique, but even the road itself isn’t something I’m aware of being in any recent WP game. And what about upgrading of spaces? And players owning spaces? Even the favor track and the turn order system are systems that you might find here or there but you aren’t going to find combined with those other things.

Caylus is a unique worker placement experience. You might prefer more recent games. I haven’t played Caylus in years because it’s too long and a little too thinky for me. That’s a matter of taste. If you were saying “I’d rather play one of the more modern worker placement games,” I wouldn’t argue with you. You’re saying Caylus is effectively not worth anyone’s time. Same with Tigris & Euphrates, apparently.

Indeed it is! Briefly, I don’t think art and entertainment are mutually exclusive categories. Art is simply a category of things that are made by people. When they’re made very very well we might think of them as “art” (a use of the word that causes obvious clarity issues). I think entertainment is best thought of as a purpose that art might fulfill. Most movies strive to be entertaining, and also meaningful and beautiful. Those are some of the purposes of mainstream movies. Games strive to be entertaining. They can also be meaningful and beautiful. That’s one reason I don’t have much problem comparing the two, or comparing them to sculpture, etc. There’s much more to be said, but probably not here! (How off-puttingly pretentious would it be to start a thread entitled “A Theory of Art” in the Everything Else category? Asking for a friend.)

I love this stuff a lot. I only get into debates when it’s a topic I enjoy debating. As far as Buckley and Vidal, we’ll know who is whom as soon as one of us threatens to sock the other in the goddamn face over his opinions about deck-builders.

I haven’t played Caylus in probably ten years. So I had to go back and read over the rules to remember what you were talking about.

Okay, the provost was pretty cool, but I’d hardly consider him unique. What he does in Caylus is make the board more dynamic by letting the players interact with it. He does this by shutting down certain spaces, right? I would offer as an alternative any game where the player’s pieces modify how a space works. That’s just one way to make the board more dynamic. Players have control, but not just to disallow placement. After all, that’s one of the worst elements of older worker placement games: their only form of interaction is blocking. One of the lessons learned in modern game design is that outright shutting something down is less interesting than affecting how it interacts with everything else, jiggering the calculus of whether something is a good idea. All Caylus can do with its provost is say “no”. But because of the way the pieces make the board dynamic, games like Argent, Age of Empires, Carson City, Victorian Masterminds, and Voyages of Marco Polo all say “yes, but…”

So if the point is to make the worker placement board more dynamic, I would be hard pressed to think of any game that doesn’t do it better than Caylus!

From reading over the rules, I couldn’t quite figure out what you meant by upgrading. Do you mean building spaces as the game goes on, along that stretch of road with empty spaces? That’s not the least bit unique to Caylus. There are plenty of games where the spaces evolve or change or get folded in gradually over the course of the game. Like I said, trying to make the board more dynamic. Modular boards, for instance, like Agricola, Argent, Midgard. How about a game where the whole board shifts like T’zolkin? A game like Robinson Crusoe where you have to discover and invent the spaces as you play? Troyes, where you don’t even know how the economy is going to work until you’re half way through the game?

As for owning spaces, Le Havre, Charterstone, Energy Empire, and a little gem called New Beford come to mind. Owning spaces is a fundamental dynamic in those games, and they’re all pretty bog-standard.

It’s unique inasmuch as any entity is unique. If Caylus does A, B, and C, I’m not saying that are other games that also do A, B, and C. I’m saying there are other games that do A, B, or C better. But, yeah, if you demand a game that does exactly A, B, and C – cloth as a resource, something called a provost, upgrading spaces – I don’t deny Caylus is unique. I just think it’s not relevant for modern boardgamers who would have a smoother, more accessible, more competitive, more memorable experience with any number of other worker placement games because they improve on what Caylus was trying to do.

Sure, I agree. But I’m perfectly willing to consign some things to one category or the other. Is there any boardgame you would make an argument for being “art”? I know you’re not saying that specifically, but if you were to make that case for a game (videogame, boardgame, chess), I would completely understand how it would follow that such a game would never be obsoleted.

Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi.

-Tom

We played this several times tonight and it went over very well. I love the amount of interaction and the tension between scoring your own points or taking a chance to stop someone else from scoring points, and maybe nabbing theirs with a mummy. Great recommendation. It’s a keeper!

By the way, my copy has a serious misprint. The amulets in the game that protect you from monsters are super important and there are only five in the deck. But it’s supposed to be six! The only amulet card for the red door is missing the actual amulet graphic. We realized it was supposed to be an amulet when someone noticed the tiny icon in the corner.

So I wrote the word “amulet” in permanent marker on the face of the card. Hopefully Iello can send a correctly printed card and it’s not a printing error for the whole run. In which case, uh, that’s pretty messed up.

-Tom

Really glad you liked Loot n Run! I went and checked my deck, and I have *7* amulets! A red, two yellow, and four greens. Where did you confirm what the right number was?

The provost/bailiff are a whole system that, yes, forbid certain worker spots but also do it in a very specific way. Notice how it’s hooked into turn order. How it costs money to move him, so for instance, three players could gang up with a coin or two each to screw another player or at least get him to spend a bunch more money than the rest of them. But also notice the provost’s effect on the bailiff! The bailiff’s movement on the road determines when scoring happens and when the game ends. By moving the provost before the bailiff on the road, you slow down the bailiff’s movement. So how many worker placement games give players control of the pace of the game itself?

And then notice how both of these systems operate via the interface of the road itself. How many of those WP games that have similar effects do so with a separate track or marker? Look at all the things that Caylus gets from that road metaphor! When I say that Caylus is wholly unique, you know I don’t mean “no other game has a white piece called a provost!” I mean that no other game has the dynamics I just described, or couples them with the other things going on in the game.

Are you familiar with the MDA framework of games? I don’t want to get pedantic, but I think it can illuminate something. MDA stands for Mechanics - Dynamics - Aesthetics. The idea is that a game is literally made up of rules, the Mechanics. That’s what you get when you buy a game (along with the components you need). But the rules aren’t the whole of the game. What the rules do is create dynamics, through their interplay with each other and with human psychology. So there’s no rule in the rulebook that says three players can gang up on a fourth using the provost in Caylus. But that’s a part of the game because the rules enable and incentivize that dynamic. Then dynamics combine in the mind to create aesthetics–how the game feels to play in a more holistic sense. Is it highly competitive or backstabby? Light and breezy? Does it reward concentration or flexibility?

I feel like a version of your argument that I can sympathize with is something like, “Lots of games today have aesthetics that are similar enough to Caylus, with dynamics that are more refined, that I want to play those games instead of Caylus 100% of the time.” Except that you’re stating it in totally different, somewhat bull-headed, terms: “Because Caylus came out in 2005, it can’t be better than any of the more recent games in its category.” That chronological line-drawing (which I know is partly for rhetorical fun) shifts our focus away from nuanced comparisons like “similar enough aesthetics” and “more refined dynamics” to something like “2005=bad.” If you were to join me on the other side of that rhetorical line, I think you’d also have to admit things that make the conversation a lot more fuzzy. Caylus has clearly unique game dynamics. And from those arise some fine-grain aesthetic differences that might be meaningful to players and result in them choosing Caylus over Argent.

I know you’d never tell me, “Chris, you shouldn’t play or enjoy Caylus.” But why I find your argument against it–or Agricola or Modern Art or Acquire–off-putting is that it denies that games are actually very complex organic artifacts, and in that sense they’re too unique to be wholly and definitively obsoleted. Yes, they’re also historically situated, and subject to a web of influence between each other that means that there is a dynamic of innovation and refinement in the practice of their design. (I think I might have just unintentionally made a new argument for why board games are art, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.) Great new games are coming at us a mile a minute, and they have the benefit of building on the shoulders of games like Acquire or Caylus. But none of them can relegate those games to the dustbin, they can only become less preferred by you.

It’s been awhile since I played Caylus, too. What I was thinking of is how you can replace a space on the board with a residence, which removes the ability for anyone to use the previous game effect and gives a benefit only to you.

I’m saying every board game is art because I think that’s the only definition that is consistent. “Art” in the sense of “high art” or “capital-A” art is a notion that I think distorts our understanding of creative endeavors and craftsmanship (long argument behind that). But if we accept any board game as art because it was created by someone, then we can ask ourselves “Is it a top quality board game?” And that’s a question that can be asked by the standards of board games and what they do as a form. By contrast, the distorted “Is it high art?” formulation ends in distorted questions like “Can a board game make you cry?” or “Can it be as profound as Apocalypse Now?” Board games might fail those criteria, but it’s because they have a different purpose. Maybe it’s a less noble purpose–mere entertainment, as I think you’re arguing–and that’s the divide? But when they intersect so deeply with phenomena like friendship and camaraderie, I’m inclined to say they can be as profound an experience as a great film, just on their own terms. Also, they reward very careful attention and dissection, if you give it to them, which is another sign that why not?–let’s put them up there with the Pieta, which is after all nothing but a chunk of marble that you can spend months of your life exploring. Is that so different from cardboard and wood (or digital code and art) that I can spend similar time reflecting on?

But philosophizing aside, yeah, let’s just put chess out there as an easy candidate for masterpiece board game status. I could easily argue that Pandemic qualifies. There’s nothing I would change about the game Kingsburg, so it qualifies for me too. King of Tokyo might be perfect at what it’s trying to do. Because I think as gamers we’re easily enamored of novelty, I hesitate to canonize anything super-recent, but I could totally countenance a Scythe or Betrayal Legacy or whatever game is on The Hotness right now as a great example of the art of board game design, once we can consider it with some distance.

We are totally in a renaissance in board games, so we are being swamped by a lot of titles, a lot of which are very very good. We should feel as blessed as a citizen of Florence or Rome in 1500. Let’s admire the Sistine Chapel while it’s being painted around us. But let’s not kick Heironymous Bosch to the curb in the process.

I love when people argue for board games being art, but I am sometimes afraid that this comes from being uncomfortable with them being called “just” entertainment.

It’s like when people say, “is medicine an art or a science?” It’s very clearly neither. It’s a trade. But when I say this to my colleagues, the bristle a bit, because that sounds demeaning to them. I don’t find it demeaning at all. Just like it’s not demeaning for games to be entertainment.

I heard someone is starting a thread for this somewhere else…

I like that use of “trade.” It feels grounded to me, not diminishing. I like to think my position on art and games (and movies and architecture and so on) is similarly grounded in a notion of craftsmanship that avoids the concerns with capital-A art we often get hung up on. I am not uncomfortable with games being associated with entertainment. I just think entertainment is better thought of as one possible purpose of a game and not as a category that contains games.

Luckily it’s the weekend, so maybe that thread will get started…

Wait, how can Chronicle be good because you have to know all the cards to be good, but that makes Twilight Struggle bad?

I tend to be the opposite, in that I do not tend to see how modern games really do things that much better. I often just see a lot more bloat. Like I enjoy Feast for Odin, but I’m not sure adding Tetris to my worker placement game really does that much.

But admittedly, I have gotten a little tired of keeping up with the few thousand board games it feels like they release every year now, and most gaming groups’ tendency to play each game once, proclaim it the most exciting, awesome thing ever, so much better than X older game was, and then never play it again because something new is out next week that someone wants to play.

P.S. The notion of medicine being a “trade” is interesting. I’ve thought something similar regarding law, although I think (without knowing as much about the medicine side) that law is a little more loosey-goosey than medicine - it is probably closer to the “art” side of the equation in terms of the actual practice. That being said, I completely understand why it isn’t an “insult.” Just like I don’t want my carpenter freestyling cuts and rough estimating “good enough,” I don’t want my cardiologist doing that either.

I wonder if the types of doctors who are upset over medicine being called a “trade” are the same types of doctors who are irritated by evidence based medicine and standardized procedural approaches.

If you want to talk more about art and games and movies and what they do or don’t have in common, join me here in a 2002 thread I resurrected.