The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Introduction

I created this blog because I wanted to go a step further after writing a series of four articles in "The Games Journal" entitled "Game Theory 101". I've been playing and loving boardgames for my entire life - really the first present in my life I ever remember asking for was "Clue". When, in Junior High, I became aware of the 3M series of games I became obsessed with them - in spite of what seemed like their insane cost of $8 each. Nonetheless, after endless agony, I bought and loved "High Bid", and in time added "Acquire" and "Stocks and Bonds" to my collection.

Just before entering college, I discovered and subscribed to Strategy & Tactics (through an ad in National Lampoon!) and bought many SPI games but the truth is I rarely played them. They were overly complicated, made it hard to find opponents, but most of all they were slow moving. Even back then, I was a little outside the norm because I preferred multiplayer games.

(The one nice thing about spending money on so many SPI games that went unplayed is that I was able to sell many of them years later at a hefty profit - funding my current habit quite nicely!)

During the 1980's I discovered more player-friendly games, often through exposure to Games & Puzzles, The Gamer, and Games International magazine. It was in this period that I picked up games ranging from 1829 and Civilization to Organized Crime and Conspiracy. While simpler and more approachable than the wargames, it was still very difficult for me to find opponents and many of these games just filled shelves.

Things picked up significantly when I moved to Southern California in 1986 and discovered some of the conventions that are held in Los Angeles. It was here that I got to meet gamers who shared interest in the types of games I enjoyed best, and I started pulling these games off the shelves and actually playing them. I played in public groups and in a small private group - where some of the games of choice included Merchants of Venus, Eurorails, Guerilla, and The Great Dalmuti.

But in the early 90's, things started breaking open with the discovery of Eurogames. The exposure came from several angles. One was meeting a few gamers at these conventions who were taking the trouble to import games directly from Germany. The games were elegant, playable in an hour or two, typically possessing impressive components, and just had plain exciting gameplay. At open gaming tables, I got my first exposure to the beautiful deduction game "Inkognito", the auction business game "Modern Art", and the ambitious game of travelling "Elfenroads". Soon thereafter, I gained access to the Internet, and a friend pointed me to Ken Tidwell's "The Game Cabinet" which featured reviews and rulesets for more of these intriguing games. Soon, at a convention, I was introduced to the recently released games "Manhattan" and "Settlers of Catan". I just had to own them.

Settlers is a favorite of many people - but for me it was the game I had been seeking for over a decade. I love economics and the principles free trade, and had always imagined some game where players collected and traded commodities, and built up their economies. I had actively sought out such a game for many years. The few I found did not really work that well. "After the Holocaust" had more rules than gameplay, and was really plodding in the way it portrayed economic development. "Pecuniary" was a privately published game with some of the cheapest components imaginable (a sheet of paper for the map, sequins for the markers), but more important, all of the mechanisms of the game were flawed. There was a gold standard mechanism, in which you could bankrupt other players, but no sensible player would allow himself into that position. The game was all about collecting full sets of commodities, but again no sensible player would make a trade to allow that to happen. "Cooperation" was also a privately published game that seemed promising - but it not was only flawed, it was bizarrely polemical. The authors were trying to promote a sort of left wing fascism, with private ownership but great government controls - and so rigged the game to discourage capitalism by giving some players incredible advantages and others insurmountable disadvantages.

Settlers was a real game. It really had everything I had been seeking all those years. Just as I'd always wanted, it included a variety of commodities and gave each one unique qualities in what it could contribute to the economy. It showed how trade was mutually beneficial. It also included elements - such as building a network of roads - that I hadn't even thought of. On top of all this, it had really exquisite components - attractive art on its tiles and cards, and wooden houses, cities and roads.

I had to own it. I even took the trouble of buying it from an importer at what was for me the unheard of price of $45. In the same order, I made the even crazier purchase of El Grande - a game I had not played or even seen - for $65. El Grande soon became my favorite game of all time - so I suppose it was worth it. It was worth it not only for the value of the game, but for also opening me up to the wider world of what some of us then called German Games (since, heck they were all being published in Germany and had German rules).

Today they are most commonly called Eurogames (a tip of the hat to the occasional English, Dutch, or French publisher). Game designer Alan Moon has proposed the name "Designer Games", but to me that evokes "Designer Jeans", a term with too many fru-fru connotations. I'd like to propose the term "Alternative Games", paralleling "Alternative Rock", but who am I kidding - the term won't catch on.

This discovery of a certain style of games has pushed me into a hobby that has occupied me for more than the past 10 years. As more people have entered the hobby, I find that I play much less often than many others (my4+ hours a week seems like nothing to some of these guys), and my collection of maybe 125 games of this type is also often dwarfed by folks with deeper pockets and more shelf space. But I can say for myself that I've been gaming for longer than than the vast majority of them, and so I have an appreciation of the history and development of many games that exceeds most other hobbyists. And you can't take that away from me.

A couple of years ago I came up with the idea of writing game analysis which, I hoped, would approach an academic level. Again - so many people write reviews to make another contribution seemed redundant. However, I was taken by a book on art analysis - "A Fine Disregard - What Makes Modern Art Modern" by Kirk Varnedoe. In that book, the author identifies four key approaches to art which developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially by Degas and Gaugin. I wanted to do for games what Varnedoe did for modern art. To that end, I wrote a series of four articles, entitled Game Theory 101, which examined characteristics of game mechanics that I felt took games to a higher level. These four - never intended to be all inclusive - were:
1) Story Arc - the sense of a game developing differently in its beginning, middle and endgame.
2) The Bomb (I still wish I had a better term) - mechanics which create tension by offering players consequences that are disproportionate to the resources invested
3) Agonizing decisions - confronting the players with decisions which defy analysis
4) Nervous systems - an inherent instability in the game which forces players to always reevaluate their strategies.

In this blog I want to do at least two things. I want to continue this series with an examination of other game characteristics which make them successful. The idea here is to examine some of my favorite games to see what broad principles they have in common.

Knowing that this can be taken only so far, I want to also devote time to review specific games. These game reviews will not be like most reviews. They will not rehash the rules in painful detail, and will hardly rehash the rules at all. They will not be intended as a buyer's guide. In fact, the working assumption is that the reader is already familiar with the game. The model instead is intended to be taken from film criticism. The goal is to reflect the sort of approach taken by the great Pauline Kael (and my film professsor, Gerald Mast) rather than, say, Roger Ebert. The goal is to appreciate, reflect on, and analyze.

My hope is that this will lead to the growth of an accepted language in the appreciation of boardgames. In my dreams, this column will encourage gamers to look at and discuss games with a shared perspective.

Unfortunately, I know from the past that my time is limited and I may not contribute as often as I like - but I can only hope to discipline myself.

My first contribution wil be an appreciation of "Ticket to Ride". This game is amazing to me because it so well captures the many characteristics I look for in an engaging game - and does it so simply. Coincidentally, it first came out just around the time I had finished the fourth of my The Games Journal articles - so it was fascinating to discover a game that had it all - in one package - just as I had finished thinking and writing about what makes a great game great.

14 comments:

Phil said...

There's a lot of board game blogs out there, but I'm really looking forward to this one, I hope you update it often.

You are touching on a issue (mechanices, what makes a game "work" etc..) that I've been thinking about alot, and alot of other gamers and designers have this in the backs of their minds, but has never (to my knowledge) but put onto paper.

benno said...

Hello Jonathan,
this seems to be of my taste, as you refer to "Settlers" and "Ticket to ride" as great games - games that other hardcore gamers tend to despise as too simple and luck-driven.
Waiting to see what you write
Benno

Jonathan Degann said...

To paraphrase Duke Ellington: If it plays good, it *is* good. A game that I'll praise can have flaws - like luck - but I'm interested in identifying the positive aspects of games.

Thanks for hoping that I update often - honestly my track record isn't great, but I'm going to try disciplining myself. Mind you - for my needs - once a month is the goal. The plan is to publish fairly full, thought out articles. This is a "blog" only because the Blogger software makes it easy for me to publish.

snoozefest said...

looking forward to reading your comments!

Mario said...

I am hopeful that you will be able to discipline yourself to regular posts. I too am interested in game design and in your critque-style reviews that bypass rules altogether.

Start with setting a short-term goal, like posting once a week for 3 months. Good luck.

David Brain said...

Looking forward to seeing your comments, as I can certainly attest that your previous articles have affected my view of my own designs as much as the way I look at others. Over on the BoardGame Designers' Forum [www.bgdf.com] we have occasionally done some of this sort of work too; maybe you will prompr us to revisit some of our discussions...

Bruno Faidutti said...

Hi Jonathan,

I'm like Benno - eager to see what you write, since it seems we hase similar opinions on games and game design.

Stephen said...

Hello Jonathan. Mind if I take a seat in the back? I promise not to throw spitballs -- it's just easier for me to copy off of Bruno's paper from here.

Do you really consider luck to be a flaw of sorts? I think luck is a very important ingredient in many designs. It's kinda like sugar. Too much will spoil the dish, but in the right quantities it makes for a very tasty treat.

I'm impressed that you mentioned Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and the late, great Pauline Kael in your first post -- these are three of my favorite things. In fact, if your analysis can come even close to Kael, I'll be a very happy reader.

Mark Johnson said...

Jonathan, let me add my name to the list of those that have enjoyed your writing (particularly your ambitious articles for The Games Journal), and am looking forward to more critical analysis here.

However, I'm going to disagree with the idea that you need to publish something here frequently, or on a regular schedule. Blog subscriptions make it easy for your readers to get notified when you've written something, WHENEVER that is. Also, there is already a lot of boardgaming material pumped out on a weekly basis elsewhere on the web. At least for this blog, give me quality over quantity.

Good luck!

-Mark

cloquil said...

Hi Jonathan!
Your project is very interesting!
I will read it everytime you update it.
Good luck for your Journal!
Piero

cyberman said...

I am new to this wonder of Blogs. However, I am now having to save yet another of passwords and Usernames stuff.I would like to know what Jonathan did do since the posting was done in January of this year.If anyone can guide me to the end result it would a big help.

Pulkit Agrawal said...

Hi
You have set up a very interesting Blog. I just wanted to ask you if you ever tried Computer strategy games.They can be really interesting for a person like you, too.

Anisharose said...

This really intrests me, because there are a lot of board games that don't really take me by surprise, but funnily enough I think dat this is really awesome!

P.D.C. said...

Hello Jonathan.

This is really great!

Just wanted to say hi..


~p