Thursday, December 08, 2005

Why I Hate Diplomacy

Don't get me wrong - it's an excellent game. It really is. It would have to be - it's been in print since 1959, and, until very recently, survived in the hobby gaming market.

And, in theory, I love the game.

In practice, however ...

Kenneth Hite wrote an article for a recent issue of Games Quarterly entitled "Not Miserable Yet? Play Diplomacy!" For those of you who don't know, Kenneth Hite is one of those Crazy Uncle characters for the Gaming Industry. He's quite mad, and very very funny. He's also very sharp and often on-target.

For those two or three of you who are unfamiliar with the game, here are the basics of Diplomacy:

Players play one of seven powers in pre-WWI Europe who are competing for control over Supply Centers. The first player to 18 Supply Centers wins the game. Units consist of Armies and Fleets. The only significant differences between the two are where they can move - fleets can only move to sea spaces and coastal spaces. Armies can't move onto the sea (but they can be convoyed across the sea by Fleets).

The basic options units have in the game are Move, Hold and Support. Assume each unit has a power of 1 + Support. When two people try to move into the same space, compare power. Winner moves in. Loser stays put. If there's a tie, no-one moves.

If it sounds too simple to be believed, it is.

The difficulty in the game comes from negotiation and give-and-take.

The game is played in turns - each turn is 15 minutes of negotiation, after which everyone writes down their orders, and the orders are processed. Then there are fifteen minutes of negotiation ...

Yes. Until someone wins.

"I can support your troops and you can support mine. You and I? We can work together to push that guy away and take his supply centers, which, of course, we will divide equally."

See, after the first two or three turns, every supply center in the game is held by someone. So, in order to grow, you need help to beat someone else up.

As Ken Hite said, "Speaking of names, however, Diplomacy should perhaps be more accuratey called Backstabbery ... "

Now, I play a number of games at which I am ... less-than-skilled. And I enjoy most of them. But Diplomacy brings out the worst in me. The absolute worst. Because I take every knife in my back personally. It's to the point where I won't even play the game face-to-face, anymore - I'll only play online. Ideally with strangers. Failing that, in a double-blind format where I don't know who I'm negotiating with. Because I don't want to believe my friends are capable of that level of backstabbery. Especially against me.

I like my friends. I like to think highly of them. I don't want to see the knives come out. And they always do. Usually my friends stab me before I stab them. And, because they are my friends and I trusted them, it hurts. Deeply and personally.

Maybe I'm just too trusting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Little Game

Here's a little game for you. Try to answer these questions without referencing anything but your own memory.

And yes, I do give some answers in the text. There are some questions that you shouldn't read ahead before answering, if you want to make an honest go at it.

And I'm assuming that most of you are gamers - if you're not, there's not really any point to reading this.

1) Name five authors.

Too easy, right? Okay:

1a) Name five Science Fiction and/or Fantasy Authors.

Still way too easy, isn't it?

1b) ... who are still alive

Again - very easy.

1c) Name five science fiction and/or fantasy authors who have written books based on games.

It's a bit tougher, but still (for most of you) doable - I expect that, if this were a written test and I were a teacher, I'd see a whole lot of R.A. Salvatore and Michael Stackpole on your papers. A smattering of Weis & Hickman.

Let's turn it up a notch:

2) Name five fantasy artists.

Right. Let's cut to the quick on Question 2, shall we?

2a) Name five fantasy artists who have contributed art to a game.

Larry Elmore. Brom. Timothy Bradstreet. These are the names I would expect to see the most.

3) Name five role-playing games.

Most of you can probably do this in your sleep.

3a) Name five role-playing game authors.

That is, five people who have written role-playing games.

Not as easy, is it?

Gary Gygax is going to show up a lot. I expect a smattering of Jonathan Tweet and Robin D. Laws. Some of you will list Steve Jackson or Kevin Sembieda. Can you name any others?

4) Name ten board, card or miniature games.

Again - you can probably do this in your sleep.

4a) Name five people who are credited as writers or editors for any of those ten games.

Reiner Knizia. Klaus Teuber. Richard Garfield. Christophe Boelinger. Bruno Faidutti. Richard Borg.

Yeah. Even I sometimes struggle with that last one.

Why is that?

We can easily name people who tell stories, but we struggle to name people who laid the framework for those stories.

We can spout endlessly about rules for our various games, but we can't usually tell you who wrote those rules.

It doesn't help that a number of the family games we grew up playing are uncredited - look through the rules of some of those games sometime. There are some very good games which are uncredited - I am a huge fan of Sabotage. I think it's one of the best two-player games ever produced. But there's no credit given for it - not in the rules, not on the box, no-where on the board. No credit. One of my all-time favorite games, and I don't know who to thank for it.

Checking the Geek, I can see that there are a lot of uncredited games.

Why is this? Someone wrote the game - even if it was a committee. Even if all they did was glue new names to the Monopoly board, someone had to pick those names.

So why don't we give credit where it is due?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Good? Fun?

When discussing games, there are a number of questions I will ask myself every single time, but the two most important questions are:

1) Is it fun?
2) Is it good?

I'm of the opinion that games are like movies, however. A game doesn't have to be any good to be fun. There are a number of games which are just ... not good. But they are a blast to play, depending on the environmental conditions.

When I refer to a game as being good or bad, by the way, I'm not talking about the quality of its components. I'm talking about how it plays, as well as how it feels to win or lose.

Environmental Conditions include the group you're playing with, your current health, your mood, the mood of your opponent(s) ... there are thousands of little things that make up a game environment. My cat, for example, has made the environment of our home a hostile environment for some members of the group.

Good or Bad is also relative - there are good games that I'm not willing to spend a lot of money on. It's one reason I hate being given review copies - it's hard to accurately review a game that didn't cost me money. Sizzletoad, for example. It's fun, but it's not $20 fun ... I think. But I have no way of knowing for sure. I much prefer just spending money on the game. That way, if it sucks, I genuinely feel robbed. If a game is a gift and it sucks, I fail to feel robbed of anything but time.

So what do I look for in a game?

1) A Good Balance of Skill vs. Luck - I prefer games where skill will beat luck. I enjoy some games where there is no luck at all, but I do enjoy a slight random element that will allow newbies to occasionally win.

2) Replayability - The CSI board game (which I don't own) only comes with a handful of cases. Once they're solved/beaten, there's no reason to ever play the game again. Unless you have a really bad memory. But this can apply to games that are not scenario-based, as well. Shadows Over Camelot, for example. It's a good game. It's a fun game. But I can only play it once a month or so, because it always follows the exact same patterns.

3) Player Interaction - A good game has at least some measure of player interaction. Some games that I own, I enjoy ONLY because of the interaction. This is not just the interaction of players, however. In Mall of Horror, when I move to the Security Office, it may force you into the Parking Lot - I consider that interaction, because my choice directly impacted your choice. In Ticket To Ride, If I take the Seattle-Portland route, you may need to rethink your entire strategy.

4) Rewarding Play, Even When Losing - When I lose at Dungeon Twister (which is often), I look hard at that loss, and try to avoid repeating those mistakes. I don't think to myself, "Eh. So I lost. Big deal." I also get to learn from my opponent's tactics. It makes me look forward to playing again against that same opponent.

5) Variety of Available Tactics - If all you need to do to win is follow the same pattern every single time, then it loses its fun. Nautilus didn't even have much of a choice.

6) The Ability To Come From Behind - Pirate's Cove is an example of an otherwise excellent game with one critical flaw: If you get knocked down early, it's very difficult to get back into the game. This makes the game Not Fun for those who might as well have been eliminated early in the game.

7) A Level Playing Field - Yes, it's true that some players will be better at some games than others, but a game should be balanced so that players of equal skill will all win approximately the same number of games. If a game has a decent handicap system, so much the better. This pretty much applies only in games where players have pre-set starting pieces and points. Axis and Allies succeeds fairly well at this - even though there are uneven starting forces, the two sides are well-balanced enough that the game could go either way.

There are more things I think about when looking at new games, but these are (for me) the big ones.

Feel free to comment - agree, disagree, whatever. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Small Update

A very small update, actually:

I adjusted the links to the right of the page – all of them now point at gaming sites and/or blogs that I read.

Monday, November 21, 2005

I Lied/What I'm Going To Do Here

Okay, I lied. It's really not fair of me to point you at a mostly-locked blog. This isn't going to be a terribly active blog, however.

My name is Eric, and I like talking about games. Board games. Card games. Role-Playing games. If it's a hobby-market game, I've almost certainly heard of it. And the odds are better-than-average that I've played it. And there are decent odds that I own it (and even better odds that at least one of my friends does).

I've worked as an editor and playtester for several games. I have playtest credits in Paranoia XP, Bloode Island XPG, and several others. I have editor credits for the English version of Dungeon Twister and its first expansion (so far). I have credits in several (as yet) unpublished games, as well. Including at least one that I'm writing myself.

I also host a weekly board game night with an average draw of eight to ten with an average age of 30 - not the biggest game night on Earth, but it makes me happy. I also participate regularly in another game night with a similar draw and a younger demographic (average age of about 22).

I've run leagues and tournaments for several collectable card games. I've run leagues and tournaments for several board and miniature games, as well.

I've been to both GenCon and Origins as an Exhibitor - paid by a manufacturer to demo their products. Because they had faith in my ability, I suppose. Or my skill.

I tell you all of this so you get an idea of my qualifications. I'm not going to paint myself as The Expert, and I readily admit that there are many people out there who have more experience or a better grasp of rules for Game X than I do. But I feel that I am qualified to discuss games.

And that is what I plan to do, here. I plan to discuss what makes a good game worth playing. And yes, we'll look at bad games, too. I'll occasionally post reviews of games and spend time detailing what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of these games.

As I'm going to be talking about what is Good, Bad, Fun and Not Fun I do feel that it is important to state that any and all posts contained herein contain my opinion, which cannot be bought. I'm not posting here as a representative of any company, past or present.

I hope you like talking Game. I do.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Go Elsewhere

If you're reading this, you're in the wrong place.


I'm much easier to find here.