I had the pleasure of attending my first board game convention this October, in the form of the Shut Up & Sit Down Expo, pleasantly shortened to SHUX. If you’re unfamiliar with Shut Up & Sit Down, suffice it to say, if you’re at all interested in board games, you should be. I’ll sing their praises all day (and, in fact, did, in my post on my travel blog about attending the convention), but, long story short, they’re passionate, insightful, and dedicated to spreading the lovely hobby of board gaming to everyone.
SHUX was an opportunity for board gamers across North America and beyond to come together and play some games, and that’s exactly what I did. The fantastic thing about SHUX was, thanks to the size and diverse interests of the community there, I was able to play a wide variety of board games, games that would be a Herculean effort to put a group together for back home. As a result, I got to check out some extremely cool games, some of which I’m gonna talk about here!
Fog of Love
Perhaps the single most interesting game I played in all of SHUX, Fog of Love is a two player game about relationships. In it, each player at the table constructs a fictional character, one with their own personalities and drives and careers and histories, and over the course of the game the two players watch these two characters attempt to undergo a relationship.
The meat of the game plays out through a series of scene cards, in which the two characters enter a fictional scenario, and the two players need to work out the resolution together, almost always in the form of a multiple choice question. Some of the scenarios are pleasantly mundane (“How should we pose in this picture!”), but as the game progresses they get more and more serious (“If the cops ask, I was with you last Thursday”). How you answer these questions will not only affect your raw affection for one another, but also define the characteristics of your relationship. Are you as a couple focused and organized, or chaotic and spontaneous? Are you saccharine, or are you constantly at each others’ throats? Each player wants the relationship to fit their personality, but without knowing each others’ goals, the two players will have try to intuit where their partner is trying to steer, and if that’s a direction they want to follow.
The most interesting part of Fog of Love, in my opinion, are the Destinies. A hard of cards basically representing each players’ victory conditions, the Destinies are the end-states for the relationship. At the start of the game, each player has all of their Destinies available, representing a young relationship where anything could happen! However, as the game progresses, this hand is slowly, and secretly, shaved down to perhaps a few scant cards, meaning players will have to focus in on what exactly they want this relationship to be. Since these hands of cards are secret, neither player is really sure what the other is going for.
This mismatch is extremely interesting. If one player is accomplishing all of their hidden goals, they might think the relationship is going great, and go for the Unconditional Love ending. However, the other player might be secretly failing all of their goals and, knowing they’ll be ultimately unhappy with this relationship, is instead moving towards a graceful breakup. This need to read the state of the board, and trying to intuit what your partner wants, and more importantly, if you can provide that while being happy yourself, is an example of mechanics beautifully mirroring theme.
If I had one complaint about the game, it’s when this beautiful theme falls away, leaving players staring at a coldly mechanical, and ultimately simple game. In one game I played, near the end, my partner and I were fairly confident that we were going for the same Destiny, and fairly confident that each others’ secret desires were satisfied. With that knowledge in tow, the rest of the game’s storytelling fell apart, as every choice became “well, I know we need to be within 5 affection of each other, and this choice brings us in that range, so we’re just both gonna pick that one”. On a purely mechanical level Fog of Love is a multiple choice test, so when the hidden information becomes less hidden, and the quiet drama of a relationship turns into confidence, the game underneath is forced to stand on its own, and I don’t know that it can?
Nevertheless, Fog of Love is a testament to the way a truly great designer can see the game in anything in life, and better yet, how a great designer can take a moment, a feeling, a train of thought and distill its essence into a game, such that anyone who opens that box and plays that game is transported to the exact moment the designer wants, whether its a far-off battlefield, a tense hospital, or an awkward first date.
All the way on the other end of the emotional spectrum from Fog of Love is a classic, if somewhat austere, game: Imperial 2030. In Imperial 2030, much like in the classic game Risk, players look over a world map divided into territories, one where global powers can amass armies and sweep them across the globe, claiming territory and wiping one another from the globe. Where Imperial 2030 really lives though is in the twist: there are all of these global powers, and you don’t play any of them.
Instead, you play a shadowy cabal of manipulative puppetmasters, vying to see who can make the most money by shrewdly investing into the powers on the board. The act of purchasing bonds is useful on two levels. On a long-term scale, owning shares of successful countries nets you a bounty of victory points at the end of the game, depending on how many shares you bought and just how successful they are. On a short-term scale, however, the player with the most shares of a country is the one who gets to take that country’s turn. I immediately found the idea of a board game that takes place on a sort of abstracted layer above the obvious premise immediately fascinating.
For an example of the kinds of amazing moments this premise can bring to the table, allow me to describe to you one of my favorite plays from my game. I was at the peak of my power for the game, with controlling stakes in three of the game’s six powers: Europe, Russia, and America. I had been using Europe and Russia as cash cows for most of the game, while America was my primary military force, with an oppressive fleet that was shutting out the player in control of Brazil. However, I knew that there was another player at the table who was within striking distance of buying America out from under me. Worse yet, that player also held shares of Brazil, so while he didn’t control Brazil, when he took control of America, it would have been in his best interest to unite the two powers, probably turning the two powers’ massive armies against the next biggest threat: Europe (which, remember, is also me).
I saw the writing on the wall, so instead of enjoying one last cashout from the American coffers, I took the reins of the American army and absolutely crashed it into the Brazilian forces. The results were catastrophic (military units eliminate each other at a 1:1 rate), and the American and Brazilian armies were obliterated, leaving both powers defenseless. The next turn, America was bought out from under me, but I didn’t care. Neither America nor Brazil had armies strong enough to cross the Atlantic, and as a result my combined Russian and European forces were strong enough to keep them at bay for the rest of the game. Even better, since armies end up costing the controlling powers upkeep, America’s newly svelte army meant that American investors made a boatload of money next time the country paid out, and, while I was no longer controlling stakeholder, I was a stakeholder, so I managed to make a killing on a country I drove into the ground.
Imperial 2030 requires a bit of time to wrap your head around, but the idea of players operating on a level separate from that of the board itself was insanely interesting. I already have some designs floating around in my head about how to implement this idea in different games, because it seems a great way to create that “diplomatic puppetmaster” fantasy for the players.
Great Western Trail
The “sad cowboy game” was high on my to-play list for the convention, for the combined fact that my group doesn’t tend to play much that runs longer than an hour in playtime, and my group (and myself) don’t really tend towards Euros, which is ultimately what Great Western Trail kind of is?
Great Western Trail is a sort of stew of game design, with big, hearty portions of game mechanics mixed together to create a single, hearty game, while every piece still remains individually recognizable. The meat and potatoes of this dish are deckbuilding and worker placement: every player has a deck of cows that they draw a hand from, representing the cows that they’ll eventually bring to market at the end of the board, at Kansas City. To get to Kansas City, they’ll choose which spaces on the board to bring their meeple cowboy to, with each space offering the chance to tune and refine that hand for maximum profit, or perhaps to modify the layout of the trail itself, hire some help, or manipulate the player’s train (we’ll get back to that in a second).
On top of this tried-and-true base is a menagerie of other ingredients. Since players’ movement across the board is measured in number of building spaces passed, constructing buildings on the trail, thus giving yourself more options on where to land, actually extends its length. Players collect a series of objective cards, giving them auxiliary tasks like clearing a certain number of obstacles from the trail, or collecting a certain set of cows from the market. However, the most interesting concept in Great Western Trail is the trains.
You see, lining the board is a railroad, one that follows an increasingly distant series of stops, starting from Kansas City and ending all the way at sunny San Francisco. When you arrive at Kansas City to sell your cows, you total the value of the cards in your hand, and can sell to any station whose scoring value is less than or equal to that value, with nearer stations having lower thresholds. If the station is further along the trail than your train (a token that, as I mentioned, is moved throughout the game), you may have to pay a little extra to reach it to cover travel fees. There are two interesting wrinkles to this, though.
- The stations that are closest to Kansas City (including, you know, Kansas City) are actually worth negative victory points.
- You can only visit any given station once.
Plenty of board games are interested in maximizing a system, be it a deck in a deckbuilding game or a route across a board, to produce a maximal result every turn, but what’s interesting about Great Western Trail is that it’s equally about maximization and precision. Pushing your deck to produce the most valuable hand it can every lap around the trail is only worthwhile if that maximum value increases every turn, otherwise you’ll end up wasting value as you sell your fantastic cows at some garbage backwater for no, or perhaps less, points. And, frankly, some turns you just won’t be able to raise the maximum value of your hand as much as you need to, if only because there are so many other systems you need to pour resources into.
As a result, Great Western Trail is a game about planning and fine-tuning. There aren’t a great many surprises in Great Western Trail (it’s a game of near-perfect information), and every turn you typically only need to choose between three or four spaces to move to, making moment-to-moment decision-making easily done. The joy of the game, then, is similar to the joy of a perfect game of darts or pool, or even a perfectly-done parallel park: a celebration of careful, well-considered precision.
The game isn’t without its flaws, though. The learning in the game is heavily frontloaded, as the game relies on a symbolic language on its components to communicate most of its rules, which takes a while to wrap your head around. Interactivity also isn’t really the name of the game here: other than clogging up the trail with one anothers’ buildings, many of which double as tollbooths for the controlling player, there isn’t going to be a lot of interplay between players in Great Western Trail.
Despite both of these, I had a blast playing Great Western Trail. While there are no shortage of games out there about building and refining engines, many of them feel like they’re about blasting forward as fast as your scrap-built strategy can muster, whereas Great Western Trail feels more like playing an instrument, where you’re trying to play the precise note you need in the moment. That note might be a soft, quiet one, not terribly effective on its own, but designed to build up and emphasize a bombastic, booming blast on the next turn.
The word “elegant” is thrown around a lot when it comes to board games, but frankly I haven’t played a game as elegant as Hanamikoji in a long time. The premise is simple: two players vie for the favor of seven geisha, each of whom wants a specific present, represented by a set of cards in a deck. Whoever gives the most presents to a given geisha in a turn gains her favor, and whoever gains the favor of either the most geisha, or the strongest (?) geisha, wins the game.
While the theme obviously plays off of the elegance of the geisha, and the beautiful artwork that adorns the cards, the game also features a strong sense of mathematical elegance. You see, in every round of Hanamijoki, each player takes turns performing one of four actions. Each action affects between one and four cards in your hand, and each of the four actions must be performed exactly once in a round, meaning that the true skill of the game is determining at what point in a round to use each of the four actions. Beautifully, no matter how quickly you churn through your hand of cards, the math of the game works out that you always have exactly as many cards as you need to perform any of your remaining actions.
The game also plays a lot with the idea of hidden information. You see, two of the four actions which you must perform each turn are done secretly, either in the form of secretly playing one gift, or secretly discarding two. Your opponent might be investing heavily in a geisha whose gifts you discarded long ago, or perhaps they’re hoping you’ve ignored a geisha, whose gift you have secretly stashed to be revealed in the eleventh hour to swipe their favor out from under your opponent.
The other two moves are even more interesting, because each involves allowing your opponent to choose some cards from your hand to play themselves. Ultimately, some of the cards you play every round are out of your opponent’s hand, and there’s a fantastic layer of reading strategy that this creates, where you are trying to offer someone cards that aren’t actually very useful to them, or even trying to guide their strategy by offering them the exact cards you want them to have. For example, the 4 action involves creating two stacks of two cards. Your opponent gets one, and you get the other. At a crucial moment in my game, I laid out two stacks, each with two gifts for the extremely valuable five gift grey geisha. With no option, my opponent and I each got two, locking us in a tie for that geisha. However, he didn’t know that I had secretly played the fifth gift earlier, meaning the two cards I had given him were functionally useless: my majority was guaranteed.
Hanamikoji was a wonderfully tight game, but not for reasons I can eloquently describe? The numbers of the game just sort of work, in such a way that trying to predict your opponent’s moves, and develop a strategy of your own is a process of looking at the elegant math behind the game and unfurling it, a sort of dance in which need to know your opponent’s moves and respond with a mathematically perfect move of your own. It’s extremely good, doesn’t take that long, and costs twenty bucks, I highly recommend it if you’re the kind of person who sees beauty in numbers.
Pantone is a uniquely visual game, one that relies on ability to recognize the fundamental features of visual design. The premise is simple: you as players have access to a collection of monochromatic cards, and must combine them in an attempt to visually communicate the idea, usually a pop culture reference, of a card in your hand. The challenge of the game is to try and get the other people at the table to intuit that the collection of colored rectangles in front of you is Bart Simpson, The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, Lara Croft, or whatever it is you’re trying to communicate.
I think Pantone‘s interesting, insofar as I feel like the game’s genius isn’t it’s own, but instead is an appreciation of the cleverness of the last 50 years of animators, costume designers, prop designers, and visual artists. It’s impressive that I can instantly get a table of strangers to guess “Bart Simpson” using only a yellow, red, and brown rectangle, but I don’t think that’s me being clever, nor do I think that’s Pantone being clever, I think that’s Matt Groening being clever. The game is, at its best, a celebration of some of the best visual design in pop culture.
The problem is the game is, at its worst, a somewhat cynical and commercial regurgitation of brands? Parts of me feel this game is in the same vein as those “Guess The Brand Logo” apps, a thinly-veiled manifestation of the hooks corporate branding has on us. The game is also heavily biased towards those in the loop on modern American pop culture. A British player at our table ended up bowing out, as the Ameri-centric cards simply went over his head, and people at our table who hadn’t seen Rick and Morty (lucky bastards), had a disadvantage as several cards appeared referencing a show that doesn’t seem old enough to be a “classic”.
Nevertheless, while I have some disagreements with the implementation, the idea of a game that exists to draw attention and appreciation to another designer’s work is extremely interesting to me. This is a stretch of a comparison, but it’s sort of like how Pokemon Go as a game really emphasizes and draws attention to the work of the civil engineers and planners who laid out the public spaces in which the game prospered, or how something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero directly plays on the work of 50 years of rock musicians. Neither these games nor Pantone could exist without the great design and art that came before them, and yet I think all three of these games allow the player to go back and appreciate their source material, be it visual design, civil planning, or rock music, that much more.
As a game design nerd, if there’s one thing I love more than playing finished games, it’s playing unfinished games, and SHUX was a flocking point for many designers who were demoing their playtests for the greater gaming audience.
If you’re interested in game design, I highly recommend playing in some playtests. Designers will love you for it (the more playtesters, the better), and its a unique opportunity to delve into the mechanics and intentions of design, like ripping the faceplate off a watch and seeing the gears beneath tick. A lot of this is due to the simple fact that the designer is there, playing with you (or perhaps standing awkwardly behind you, scrunching their face in frustration). It brings about a level of metadiscussion about a game: how it’s making you feel, the sorts of strategies you feel compelled towards, the value you’re assigning to the game’s various components and mechanics. If you were the kind of kid who liked taking apart electronics to see how they worked, optionally putting them together again, playtesting is like that for games.
I should also note that playtesting other designers’ games is profoundly inspiring for me as a designer. It’s easy to get sort of stuck in your own design space, getting bored of staring at the same designs day-in and day-out, and that sense of boredom is what usually leads to me abandoning a project and pursuing a new one, turning my Google Drive into a doldrum of design. Interacting with other designers, however, alleviates that sense, as you surround yourself with new and interesting designs which, like a positive feedback loop, energize you to work on your own projects, if only to share them with other designers like they did with you. Seeing clever designs makes me go “Shit, that’s clever, I wanna make something that clever”, and always reignites the spark in me to go and make games.
The best part of that ignition is that it isn’t limited to meeting designers at cons. Designer and playtesting groups can be found across the world, and even if there isn’t one close to you geographically, you can find tons of communities on the internet about game design. There are a few game design Discord servers you can find with minimal digging, and Seattle-based game designer Emma Larkins introduced me to #gamedesigndaily, a Twitter hashtag that game designers can use to share their progress, no matter how atomic, and constantly get that hit of design conversation that can be what you need to be motivated to open that document up and get designing.
SHUX was real good, y’all. I’m definitely going to be going back next year, if I can swing it. Everyone I met there, be it player or designer, exhibitor or organizer, was nothing short of impossibly pleasant, and having the chance to try such a variety of board games over the week, including plenty of stuff my normal group would never try, was a breath of fresh board game air. Which, actually, probably isn’t that fresh, it’s been sitting in a cellophane-wrapped box for months. Nevertheless, my point stands. As far as getting a blistering rush of good board game ideas for three straight days goes, as well as getting a chance to visit Vancouver, SHUX was a wonderful, energizing experience.