Thursday, May 30, 2013

Game Ratings Redux: Matt's Five Axes

A few months ago, Alex posted his rating scale for games. (If you haven't seen it, be sure to check it out, because it's really well done.) I had never personally been inspired to create my own rating system, preferring instead to ramble on with qualitative reviews. But a few weeks ago, I saw an intriguing review on BoardGameGeek, which I'll paraphrase here:

Agricola's rating on BGG is something like an 8.2, though I'm not sure I'd ever rate it that. As a strategy game, it probably deserves a 10. But I'd rather watch paint dry for three and a half hours than actually play an entire game of Agricola.

That got me thinking: what other dimensions might a game be able to score well on, if not as a strategy game? Slowly, a new ratings framework came together for me, one that shares quite a few attributes with Alex's. Games on my scale won't necessarily describe how technically wonderful a game is--strategic excellence is necessary but not sufficient to make a truly outstanding game. Instead, this scale tends to favor games that look pretty, play quickly, feature novel mechanics, and accommodate a wide variety of players. Think of any discrepancies as features rather than bugs.

The following five scales or "axes" each receive a score from 0.0 to 2.0, generally in 0.5-point increments. A game's total score is simply the sum of all five category scores. I've given examples for each score, trying to rate mostly board games and Euro-style games (but a few "standard deck" card games made their way onto the list too).

Aesthetics: How compelling is the game's theme? Does the theme enhance the strategy or mechanics? How does the visual (or other sensory design) contribute to the game play?

0.0: Chess. Entirely abstract.
0.5: Kingdom Builder. Some attempt at a theme, but the game could be entirely re-skinned with basically no change to the game play. Art is generic and generally uninspired.
1.0: Puerto Rico. The "colonial-era settlement" theme is obvious, but the in-game justification for exactly what you're trying to do could be better fleshed out. Player boards do a decent job of conveying the game state, but the buildings could really use some pictures instead of all that text.
1.5: Hotel Samoa. Simple but effective: improving your hotel feels like you're making real progress, and the color scheming for tourists is a useful layer of abstraction.
2.0: La Citta. Big cities aren't just mechanically powerful, they look and feel powerful too. The Italian Renaissance-esque artwork is gorgeous.

Adaptability: How well does the game scale for multiple players, and does it avoid massive rule changes? Can the game support varying play styles or levels of intensity? Does each time through the game feel like a different and interesting experience?

0.0: Checkers. Supports exactly two people and each game feels almost exactly the same.
0.5: San Juan. Plays with only "the usual" 2-4, and the 2 player game requires a rather significant rule change. Each winning strategy is mostly a derivative of two proto-strategies.
1.0: Carcassonne. It's nice that it supports 2-5 players without harsh scaling, though the 2 player version is a bit flat. Everyone has a hilarious Carcassonne story, but most of them stem from creative interpretations of the game state rather than new mechanical experiences.
1.5: Betrayal at House on the Hill. A rarity in board games in that it's actually better toward the "more players" end of its 3-6 player range. So many possible scenarios that it would take more than 90 games of Betrayal to play them all, but the quality of experience among those scenarios varies wildly.
2.0: Poker. In principle, supports two to a dozen or more players. Each game is subtly different, with different skills required depending on not only the number of players and their strategies but your position relative to them also.

Fun per Time: Most importantly, is the game fun? Does the possibility of two consecutive games still sound fun? Is the game active, or is there a lot of down time? Do early-game decisions change the possibility of fun later in the game?

0.0: Monopoly. Unbounded length, which gets steadily more discouraging as fewer die rolls go your way.
0.5: Agricola. The "30 minutes per player" projection is optimistic (40-45 is more likely), many minutes of downtime can exist between turns, and a missed opportunity two hours ago can weaken your position even now.
1.0: Fluxx. There's not much to Fluxx, but there isn't trying to be. Plays so fast that two or three games can be played without getting tired of it.
1.5: Ascension. Usually fast enough that another game doesn't sound like a dreadful proposition. Downtime while waiting for other turns can get boring, but egging on other players to pick cards that help you is a fun metagame.
2.0: 7 Wonders. Constant decision-making, very little boredom, and lots of action packed into less than an hour.

Strategic Depth: Is variance used responsibly as a way to make the game more interesting and not simply more random? Can variance be mitigated? Do optimization decisions seem intriguing rather than like shores? Are there multiple paths to victory?

0.0: War. Completely random.
0.5: Risk. Between excessive die rolls and card draws, there's a surprising amount of chance in what's sometimes considered a strategy classic.
1.0: Settlers of Catan. Yes, most games do come down to "who can roll the most 5's?" But Catan incorporates negotiation and social engineering in an entertaining way.
1.5: Last Will. Most turns offer many compelling choices, and there's a great assortment of potential strategies to pursue, though not of them are created equal.
2.0: Power Grid. Auction mechanics, a dynamic resources market, and land-development intrigue mean there's a whole lot going on in Power Grid, and all of it is designed brilliantly.

Mechanics: Are the rules intuitive and easy to digest? Is there a particularly elegant or innovative system of rules? Does the game let you do everything you feel should be possible, or does something seem missing? Can new players be introduced to the game relatively quickly?

0.0: Mancala. There's exactly one mechanic; the only decision is where on the board to apply it, and most of the time, that's a trivially easy choice to make.
0.5: Hearts. Probably the best-known of the trick-taking games, but still just a trick-taking game, and it lacks the bidding framework of its cousins Spades and Bridge to give it some mechanical structure.
1.0: Tongiaki. Another game with exactly one mechanic, Tongiaki leverages it to do a lot, including choosing exactly competitive or cooperative you want the game to be.
1.5: Seasons. A veritable explosion of mechanics, Seasons has die-rolling, drafting, card tableaus, and dynamic point tracking on two different axes. It deserves a 2.0 for ambition and a 1.0 for execution, as the game's most innovative mechanics have an unfortunate habit of not taking the spotlight.
2.0: Race for the Galaxy. Along with San Juan, a pioneer of the brilliant "pay for cards by discarding other cards" mechanic. The iconography, once you get used to it, becomes intuitive to recognize by sight.

So how does Agricola, the game indirectly responsible for inspiring these ratings, stack up?

Aesthetics: 1.5. The "Harvest Moon: the Board Game" theme is consistent throughout. Pigs as brown wooden cubes is an abstraction that takes some getting used to, but it's fun to populate your pasture with plants and animals.
Adaptability: 1.5. Works equally well from 2-5 players. I haven't played the 1-player game, but conventional wisdom holds that it's one of the few popular Euro games with a 1-player variant that both works as a game and is substantially close to the multiplayer game. Drafts for improvements and occupations complicate the game but are a nice set of variant rules.
Fun per time: 0.5. From above, the "30 minutes per player" projection is optimistic (40-45 is more likely), many minutes of downtime can exist between turns, and a missed opportunity two hours ago can weaken your position even now.
Strategic depth: 2.0. Agricola is a decision-maker's dream, with as many as dozens of choices presenting themselves every turn, and most of them mattering a surprising amount to the outcome of the game.
Mechanics: 0.5. The fact that another player can steal my action and set me back for half the game is frustrating, and plenty of other games (see also Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy) pack in as much strategy without the frustration. Feeding your family adds to the game's verisimilitude but becomes a real chore toward the end of the game.

Total: 6 / 10. Per BoardGameGeek, "Fair. Some fun or challenge at least, will play occasionally if in the right mood." I'll confess: that's maybe a higher score than I would have given Agricola in a vacuum, absent any ratings guidelines, but I'll play by my own rules. I'm not sure if there's a circumstance when I'd proactively suggest playing Agricola; it's just too long and too frustrating to make it worth it.

But, contrary to what my pro-Agricola friends might assume, it's not that I'd never play Agricola. I'm lucky enough to have a group of friends that also enjoy playing Euro-style board games, so the least I can do is play one of their favorites every so often.

My feelings toward Agricola are similar to my thoughts on the IPA style of beer. I'm not saying it's inherently bad. I acknowledge that there's a large population of people, many highly educated about the subject, who like it, and in some way I'm in the minority for not liking it. In the abstract, I see why it's so highly regarded in some circles, and I'd be lying if I said I'd never had a pleasant experience with it.

But it's really just not my thing.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Quandary: A Lost Cities Endgame Conclusion

Last month I posed an intriguing decision I faced in a recent game of Lost cities. The decision required making an assumption under great uncertainty while closing the door on an equally palatable option.

Before I get into my proposed solution let me quickly recap the situation and review the details.

I am currently behind with 7 cards to go choosing between the Blue 8 & White 8. By selecting the Blue 8 we lose the opportunity to draw and play the Blue 6 & 7 and similarly by playing the White 8 we lose out on the scoring opportunity of the White 6 & 7, which among other things would score us an eight card bonus in White.

Now there is a distinct possibility that out decision is insignificant here and that our opponent does not have the right cards to exceed our maximum current score of 9 points. But we are facing a competent opponent and in order to improve our position we'll try to make the best decision possible.

I went over this in the initial post in greater detail but essentially the way this game has played out gives us the inclination they hold the White 7 or White 10 as they would have played the White 6 by now as the next natural play. 

Our opponent also played their Blue 10 on turn 8 with 28 cards to go in the game, giving them 11 turns to draw additional blue cards they would currently be holding. Since I didn't draw these cards we can conclude it is a greater likelihood that our opponent drew at least one blue card than the probability that both are sitting in the remaining seven cards of the draw deck.

I give the edge ever so slightly here to playing the Blue 8, as even if only the White 6 is available to draw it would seal the victory. I'm still incredibly conflicted over this choice.

I elected to play the White 8 when this game took place, but I didn't have nearly as much time then to reflect upon it.

In order to get some sort of idea I summarized the situation and put it up in several corners of the internet. The best results (predictably) came from Boardgamegeek.

Judging by the responses I may have been restrictive with the options, but the results are listed below.

The users of Boardgamegeek found playing the White 8 to be superior and there is certainly compelling evidence for that option as well. What do you think? Is there even an optimal choice?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Game Night Recap: Sprint for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is quite possibly my favorite game. Unfortunately, all too few of my Euro-gaming friends are as big fans of Race as I am, so the opportunities to play don't present themselves too often. When they do, I jump at the chance to play.

My most recent Race happened a few weeks ago, where I had the ignominious distinction of drawing Epsilon Eridani, a "jack of all trades, master of none" of a starting world. If pressed for a number, I would have guessed that my win probability plummeted from 25% to about 15% based on this clunker, but I pressed on with my opening hand to see if I could make anything work. I discovered a surprisingly tough decision.

I could either go with Galactic Federation, and set myself up with a Develop strategy...

...or I could pick Alien Tech Institute, and pursue lots of Alien planets.

Playing a 6-cost Development as your first play is a risky, aggressive decision. Either of these cards is a significant investment; since the starting hand is 4 cards, it requires a "wasted" turn of Explore to get one of these in play, and even then you're dumping your entire hand to make it happen. On the other hand, most of the 6-cost cards provide powerful benefits, so the earlier they come into play, the better.

In a vacuum, Galactic Federation is almost always the better play. -2 cost to play any Development, plus a bonus point for every Development, is a huge advantage. The only factor that made this a decision at all was that I already had two high-cost Alien planets in my hand. If I could get a near-monopoly on Alien planets, I could pursue my strategy in a niche that nobody else would want to enter.

I decided to go with Galactic Federation anyway, so I Explored enough to get some fodder and plopped down the Federation on turn 3. By this point, whoever had New Sparta had already Settled two worlds, and someone else was already in business at the Interstellar Bank. I wasn't feeling so good about my decision to pitch my entire hand for the one 6-cost card. My engine stalled for a bit, and I got out some low-cost military worlds and a few generally useful support Developments.

My fortunes changed when I picked up my second 6-cost, New Economy. Another 6-cost that encourages placing Developments, New Economy told me exactly which cards to play for the rest of the game, Developments that had Consume powers.

At that point, I sprinted toward the end, trying only to end the game. I never selected a role other than Develop for the rest of the game, and a few lucky draws later, I amassed the most points I've ever seen in a game of Race. Here's my final tableau:

For the sake of refining my game rating process, here's a quick review of Race for the Galaxy:

Aesthetics: 1.5. The space-opera theme is fun and fits the game's mechanics reasonably well, but it's hardly unique by this point. Card art is as good as you could reasonably expect.
Adaptability: 1.5. Huge variety of cards means it's virtually impossible to play the exact game twice, but unfortunately only supports 2-4 players.
Fun per time: 2.0. Turns are taken simultaneously, so there's little downtime. The hand limit and small number of actions per turn mean you're constantly engaged, and analysis paralysis doesn't strike easily. (A player who prefers a more interactive game might knock Race down a fraction of a point here.)
Strategic depth: 2.0. Plenty of strategies for generating points, and most of them are sufficiently viable to win the game. Cards are drawn randomly from a stack, but the card turnover is high enough to mitigate variance.
Mechanics: 2.0. Along with San Juan, a pioneer of the brilliant "pay for cards by discarding other cards" mechanic. The iconography, once you get used to it, becomes intuitive to recognize by sight.

Total: 9 / 10. "9 - Excellent. Always want to play." Exactly correct--the only real way to improve Race would be to expand its player range or do something truly revolutionary with the design.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May Game of the Month: Ascension: Rise of Vigil

I've posted about Ascension before; it remains one of our game night standbys, and with a new expansion debuting in the last month, it was inevitable that we'd pick it up. Rise of Vigil, like Storm of Souls before it, adds a new mechanic to the game. But this one is far more disruptive than Storm of Souls' Events, and it's not clear how much better it makes the game.

Style and Gameplay

Briefly, Ascension is a deck-building card game that might invoke comparisons to Dominion or Magic: the Gathering, depending on if you come from a Euro game or a competitive trading card game background. Cards in the deck are used to either get points (called Honor) or to get new cards, which are more efficient at getting points. The premise is simple, but the variation among the different cards is sufficiently big that it would be tough to cover here.

Rise of Vigil may or may not count as a proper "expansion"--it can either add to the base game or stand alone and be played by itself. Its new mechanics are Treasure and Energize, which work in the following way: when a Treasure card would be added to the center row, keep flipping cards until a non-Treasure appears, then put all the accumulated Treasure under it. When the non-Treasure is acquired or defeated, all the accumulated Treasure comes with it.

Treasure becomes part of a deck, but each Treasure card (in Rise of Vigil, there is only one card of type Treasure, the Energy Shard) replaces itself when drawn, so decks appear much larger than they really are. Energy Shards grant 1 Energy--that's a new resource type, in addition to Runes and Power, and a handful of Heroes and Constructs also grant Energy. If a certain Energy threshold is passed, some cards' Energize feature trigger. Energize triggers can be anything from reducing card acquisition costs to manipulating the size of the Honor pool.

Rise of Vigil therefore becomes heavily focused on the Energize mechanic, so much so that individual strategies (Lifebound Heroes, Mechana Constructs, etc.) are almost obsoleted. Having so many Energy Shards in your deck, while not decreasing deck velocity, does increase shuffling frequency to a surprisingly frustrating degree. Even so, a game of Rise of Vigil tends to be about as long as one of base Ascension: the "30 minutes" on the box is a clear lie, but 45-60 seems more reasonable.

Analysis and Anecdotes

We're not sure if we like Treasure and Energize yet, but we're leaning toward "no". Its biggest effect is to ramp up the game's variance. Absent any Treasure, a certain Hero in the center row may a moderately attractive proposition, but with a nice stack of five or six Shards under it, it can become game-breakingly good. The same goes for Energize triggers: sometimes you have twenty Shards in your deck and need three of them to make your deck function like it's supposed to, and you draw two.

Similarly, the high-end mechanics, many of which also depend on Treasure, seem way too good compared to those in previous sets. One acquires or defeats the entire center row; another destroys all opponents' Constructs. These "marquee" effects are few and far between, such that the average effect of a card is comparable to ones we're used to, but the deviation is broader. For a game that was already a little swingy in a design community where high-variance is a four-letter word, it's not a mechanical change that's appreciated.

In one game we played, I killed Herald of Doom after a particularly lucky Treasure draw (I had maybe 9 or 10 Energy in my deck and happened to draw 7 of them). I got all the cards in the center row. Then, as a replacement for one of the cards, our buddy Oziah here flipped, which I also acquired for free, since I was still at 7 Energy. There wasn't much question that I would end up winning that game, but it wasn't a particularly satisfying or exciting victory in that I didn't feel rewarded for either pursuing a dedicated strategy or adapting well to the changing game state.

Another time, someone (not me) picked up Lifebound Muse with seven Energy Shards under it on turn 1. Guess who won?

Rise of Vigil is supposed to integrate with the other Ascension "blocks," but it's unclear how well that would work. On one hand, it might make "get Energy" its own strategy, on parallel with "kill Monsters" or "make a lot of Constructs". On the other hand--and this is the scenario that seems far more likely--it might dilute the Energy Shards and the cards that require them so much to make them useless.

Overall Impressions

I like where Ascension is going with Rise of Vigil, but I fear the inspiration was much better than the execution. It's a way to change up the Ascension experience, which is always nice. but so far it seems like a change-up that simply introduces more randomness. A bit of tweaking might get Rise of Vigil to a more playable state, but for now, it's probably going to end up taking a back seat to Storm of Souls and the base game.


Aesthetics: 1.5. Ascension's absurdly high-fantasy theme won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's clear throughout, and the game finally appears to have found its artistic tone.
Adaptability: 1.5. There's enough variety in the cards that you don't feel like you're playing the same game twice. Scales well mechanically from 2-6 players, but 5-6 takes a miserably long time.
Fun per time: 1.5. Usually fast enough that another game doesn't sound like a dreadful proposition. Downtime while waiting for other turns can get boring.
Strategic depth: 1. In principle, there's some strategy to be mined here, but more than any Ascension in the past, Rise of Vigil relies heavily on lucky draws.
Mechanics: 0.5. The new mechanics here have promise but are fraught with balance issues and may not play very nicely with the rest of the game.

Total: 6 / 10. According to BoardGameGeek's recommended rating, this means "Fair. Some fun or challenge at least, will play occasionally if in the right mood." That sounds about right--I'd nearly always prefer other incarnations of Ascension, but I can't rule out playing Rise of Vigil occasionally. Base Ascension gets a 7 / 10 for me.

(I'm experimenting with a new game rating system. If I like it, I'll post in the future about how it works and what some benchmarks are.)

1-4 players (1-6 with other sets), 45-60 minutes, $40 at a game shop or $30 on Amazon.