Some Thoughts on PBEM Gaming

June 28, 2011

Looking back over my board game records, it’s clear that I haven’t been playing a lot of games in the past few months. There are a lot of reasons for this: my wife working in the evenings, shouldering new new personal and professional responsibilities, other hobbies like roleplaying and homebrewing taking a front seat, etc. But with a bit more time at home this summer, I have been picking up a few play-by-email (PBEM) games; I mainly play these turns when the baby is taking a nap, or in the late evening once she’s in bed. These online games include the Blog v.s. Podcast Smackdown previously mentioned, as well as a few different games in the engrossing and delightful Combat Mission series of computer games. Still, if I had the choice, I’d stop PBEM gaming and stick with face-to-face experiences instead; online gaming is sort of like caffeine-free, diet soda–it’s a paltry substitute for the real thing! However, online games still have their place in the way I approach the hobby:

Learn a Game, Learn New Strategies: Since I really got into boardgames five years ago, this is what PBEM has been all about for me. I post a message on a forum looking for someone who knows the rules cold so I can learn from them. This is how I came to understand Wilderness War and Here I Stand, two games that have a pretty steep learning curve. Then I take the lessons and bring them back to my own local group. Incidentally, sometimes I have ended up paired with some really talented opponents who have shown me new strategies.

Engage in a Competition: When there just aren’t enough folks around to justify a local tournament of sorts, I head to PBEM gaming. I was able to participate in a Here I Stand tournament this way (and got past the first few rounds!), and also participate in several Combat Mission tournaments. Again, the level of competition is fierce and I end up learning a few new tricks to bring back home. This can lead to revitalizing our local group’s interest in a game too.

Keep a Gaming Connection Strong: Living where I do, some of my gaming buddies are pretty far away. (Russ, for instance, is a 45 minute drive away on a good day!) So a PBEM game allows us to keep playing something even when circumstances keep us apart physically. This is true with my dad too; we’ve played a lot of Combat Mission over the years because playing it in “hotseat” mode takes hours, but PBEM is five minutes a day.

In the end, I greatly prefer the social interaction of a face to face game. Play by email will always be a distant second to it, but it can be helpful. I think it makes me a better gamer, but even as I described my three reasons for online play above, I realized that it all comes back to my local group and my friends.

Integrity or Victory?

November 15, 2009

In today’s game of Here I Stand, I had an interesting dilemma.

I was the front-running Hapsburgs, and in my desperation for an alliance, I made a deal with the last place English. However, as the turn went on, the English ended up as the only team that could win except for myself. We were the only ones with meaningful cards left, and I would win any VP ties. In hindsight, I should have added a caveat to our deal, “I won’t play it if it comes down to you and me.”

If you agree to a card play in diplomacy, do you play it knowing that if you don’t you are guaranteed to win? At what point is winning the current game worth undermining your integrity with friends and in future games? Winning is great, but do you screw a friend out of a chance of winning just to lock up victory for yourself? Or is the breaking of deals just so common in Here I Stand that I’m just being silly? Probably. In one hand, victory and betrayal. In the other, a dice fest in which I had about a 50/50 chance of winning. What if you know you will be playing with the same group again? Is integrity worth more then? I know I remember who can be trusted . . .

I chose to keep the deal, but it wasn’t an easy choice. The play of Book of Common Prayer ended up winning the game for England after the Protestant player succeeded in rolling him to two additional VP’s. Then in the New World, he scored 1 VP on an explorer, putting him up on me by 1 VP. Granted, without England’s help, France may have won the game (England took a French key). I’m just curious if anyone else has a similar horror story. What deals have you made that ended up putting you in a similar spot? What did you do? Would you do it again?

Low-Interaction Games

November 4, 2009

“Dude, it’s your turn.” Rick is staring at me from across the table.

Huh? My brain freezes. Where are we? I was munching on a cookie and thinking about whether or not I had remembered to close the garage door after leaving the house earlier in the evening. Oh…right. Power Grid. I run my hands across my face, blink a few times, and glance at the power plant market. It takes a few seconds before I can fully re-focus on the game and concentrate on playing. These moments happen to the best of gamers–fatigue, stress, or distractions can pull our minds away from the game in front of us. But sometimes the blame for the momentary lapse in concentration lies not with us, but the game we’re playing. I call them low-interaction games.

Power Grid is perhaps the worst offender in my collection. An average game runs 90-180 minutes without much direct interaction between players with the exception of power plant auctions. There’s also a lot of mental math, which kills table talk as each player tries to figure out how he or she can spend money in the wisest fashion. There are many things I like about the game, but if I want to interact with people, it’s strictly through off-topic conversation, which lengthens the playing time. I sometimes find myself glancing at the board and thinking, Are we still playing this? Shouldn’t it be over by now?

Another low-interaction game is Ticket to Ride, which is not so much a communal  game as several solitaire games. I’m trying to fill in my tickets, you’re filling in yours on another end of the map, and there’s  terrible excitement if a player (heaven forbid!) snatches up a key section of a route before someone else. However, this game plays more quickly than Power Grid, so it’s not as bad.

A third game that comes to mind is Carcassonne, which I’ve been playing a lot recently. Gameplay is very intuitive, though there’s not much direct interaction. People are usually only directly competing if they are trying to out-do each other with farmers, or trying to connect up two cities. However, the “beer and pretzels” nature of the game is such that we can hold a conversation while playing. The game is so simple it can take a backseat while we talk about anything under the sun. And the 30-45 minute playing time means I’m never staring at the table wondering, When is this going to be over?

Since really getting into board games two years ago, I’ve learned that low-interaction games aren’t exciting for me unless they are simple and short. Conquest of Paradise is an example of a game that, while interesting in its theme, drove me up a wall. The game ends just as you are ready to interact with othe1r players (i.e., raid their villages, burn down their huts, and take their freaking yams–mwahaha!). I prefer to be playing games where the auctioning/trading/fighting is fast and furious, and people are engaged most or all of the time in what’s going on in the game (or if they’re not, they can carry on a conversation because the simplicity of the game allows for it).

This realization makes me wish Board Game Geek would include an “interaction rating” in each game profile. We’re in a recession, every dollar is precious, and I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash purchasing games that don’t have lots of player to player wheeling and dealing or pillaging and looting. If I wanted a low-interaction game, I’d fire up FreeCell on my computer.

Are there games that you love/hate because of the low or high level of interaction? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear about them.

I Want to Match Purple

October 7, 2009

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I enjoy playing board games together.  One of our favorites is Ingenious.  It’s a tile-matching game – a bit like dominoes – using a board.  There are 6 different colors that you keep track of their score individually.  The twist is that the lowest score of any color is your score.  (For example, if you have scored 14 points on blue, yellow, green, red, and orange but only 2 points on purple.  Your score is 2.  If you opponent scores only 3 points on each color, they win 3 to 2.)  This means you have to score on all the colors while trying to prevent your opponent from scoring.

The game is perfect for us.  It’s simple enough to allow us to enjoy a nice conversation, watch TV, or keep an eye on the kids while playing.  Yet, there is a good amount of strategizing (scoring versus playing defensively) to keep the game competitive.  It’s also a game where we are on completely even terms – we’ve each won about half the games we’ve played.

I got the game out a few nights ago for us to play after our children were in bed.  The next day, my almost-3-year-old saw the game and wanted to play.  My wife and I paused for a second, then said sure.  One of the first things my daughter learned were her colors and she can easily match them.  We were both thinking that this is a game that she would be able to handle.

After dinner we opened up the box and explained how to play.  To make it easy, we all played with our tiles face up.  My wife and I played first to show how it worked and then it was her turn.  She grabbed a tile and placed in on the board.  We told her she scored 1 point for yellow and her face lit up!  We continued to take turns.  When it was her turn, we would ask her what color she wanted to match then help her place the tile on the board.  “I want to match purple,” (her favorite color) quickly became the answer every turn.

She lost interest in keeping track of point totals on her score card and played with the little wood markers instead.  But she was having fun playing a “big kid” game with Mom and Dad.  My wife and I were also having fun.  We tried to play out our normal strategies, but would often get thrown off track by the “random” play of our daughter’s tile.  Once when I closed off a color that my wife needed, our daughter opened it back up by playing the exact she color needed!

The game was a bit long for a two-year-old’s attention span, but she finished the game with just a little prodding to take her last few turns.  My wife and I agreed that the “random factor” of her plays added a fun element to the game and we’re all looking forward to the next game.

Why We Don’t Play Risk Anymore

September 21, 2009

Whenever I describe the particular flavors of games that I tend to play, people always ask, “Are they sort of like Risk?” This has got to be up there with, “You mean like Dungeons and Dragons?” a phrase commonly heard by roleplayers holding conversations with the uninitiated. The equivalent for a hardcore video gamer would be, “So you play games like Pong?” The answer in all three cases is a vague variation on, “Yeah…but the games I play are more fun than that.” I think what gamers mean to say is, “The games I play are more elegant than that.” These hobbies develop, and the mechanics of the past feel cumbersome to regular enthusiasts.

All of this does lead to an interesting question: why don’t I play Risk anymore? It’s sitting upstairs on my game shelf, but it has been banished to the bottom of the pile alongside Clue and Monopoly. I played a decent amount of Risk between 2004-2006, perhaps four games a year, but as my interest in gaming grew, it fell by the wayside. This is due, in large part, to the mechanics.

Risk is, quite obviously, a dice fest, and one in which I don’t feel the better player comes out on top. Simply put, it has a high degree of randomness to it which detracts from the play experience. In a shorter game, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but Risk sessions do have a tendency to stretch past the four hour mark.

In addition to this, the reinforcement mechanic is just plain whacky. I can’t think of another game in which you get greater numbers of reinforcements as the game progresses. This means the game actually slows down as you play! You think you’ve got your opponent cornered when he turns in a set of Risk cards and suddenly he’s laying out 50 new armies. “Congratulations,” I always think to myself, “You have just extended our play time by another hour…”

Last, this game suffers from a defect most older wargames share: players can get knocked out early on in the game. This means one of your buddies faces the awful choice of a) watching over your shoulder for two hours, b) channel surfing while you finish, or c) driving home hours before everyone else.

Risk isn’t a terrible game by any means, but game design has moved beyond it. I think the best thing it offers us hobby enthusiasts is a way to identify people who might be interested the newer games we’re playing. If ever I hear a person say, “We pulled Risk out over Christmas and had a blast,” I know I need to invite him or her to our next gaming get-together. And every niche group needs something to play the role Risk does–it’s a small piece of the hobby that is recognizable by the public and serves as a gateway to more enjoyable and rewarding games.

Table Rules

September 13, 2009

[Note: It’s been a very busy few weeks with moving and starting another school year at work and graduate school. I haven’t been playing a lot of games, hence the “game culture” type posts.]

Since entering college in 2001, I’ve spent a lot of time playing either boardgames or roleplaying games. I’ve played in dorm rooms, apartments, convention halls, houses, and tents while sitting, standing, and kneeling. During that time, a group of “table rules” has spontaneously grown up through various play experiences, and I’d like to share them here:

  1. Dice Etiquette: We’ve all had similar experiences. You get at to a critical moment in a game, someone rolls a handful of dice, and one or more fall to the floor. Do you “read it from the floor” or re-roll it? My call has been “Re-roll it!” If you can’t keep your dice on the table, you need to cast them again, Butter Fingers. Similarly, cocked dice need to be re-rolled. If it’s resting drunkenly against a rulebook or soda can, it’s not a fair roll.
  2. Food: I know some gamers will scream in horror, but we’re okay with food at the table. We just ask that people use a napkin to clean off their fingers before handling game pieces. If you get the China Card greasy, there will be heck to pay.
  3. Drinks: For the past eight years, I’ve had no problem with drinks at the table, as long as they’re on coasters and people are mindful of them. However, I have personally spilled two drinks in the past two months and ruined two player aid cards. Now I keep my drink off the table, either on a nearby surface or at my feet. I also learned an interesting way of dealing with drink spills at the WBC: “You ruin someone’s game, you buy him a new one.”
  4. Mulligans: In years past, we have been just fine with people rewinding the game state to fix a mistake. However, after reading and playing Wellington, I’m adopting Mark McLaughlin’s rule: if you were playing a rule incorrectly, don’t rewind the game, but begin playing correctly as soon as you realize the mistake.
  5. Speed of Play: I gripe about analysis paralysis and “perfect move” play styles frequently, and rightfully so, dangit! But my brother has often reminded me that there is such a thing as playing too fast, especially when you have a number of inexperienced players at the table. Moving through a turn deliberately is crucial to ensuring everyone feels comfortable with what you’re doing. In short, it gives them time to see the move, think about the move, and react to the move.
  6. Teaching v.s. Coaching: This is a fine line in boardgaming. At our table, we ask that you assist other players fairly. For instance, if a new player asks you, “What’s the best move to make here?” you should not deliberately avoid talking about that best move because it will hurt your own position on the board. Also, you are obligated to deal with other players as fairly as possible in negotiation phases, etc. Concealing the impact of a deal from a new player puts you on the level of a wet-palmed, shifty-eyed, lemon-dealing used car salesman.

Are there any table rules you use at your gaming table that I haven’t mentioned? Let’s hear about them in the comments section!

“The Perfect Move”

August 24, 2009

Attending the WBC this August gave me an excellent opportunity to meet  people who have different styles of playing boardgames. This led to some interesting conversations on the ride home as Russ and I swapped stories about the different styles we encountered.  We spent a good deal of time talking about the problem with “the perfect move” style, a way of playing that is agonizingly slow and deliberate. This is different from analysis paralysis (AP), where one is so overwhelmed by his choices that he is incapable of playing through his turn until someone prods him.

Chess masters sometimes stare at the board for hours before making a move. But is it right for boardgamers to do the same?

Chess masters sometimes stare at the board for hours before making a move. But is it right for board gamers to do the same?

“The perfect move” style frustrates me to no end. I have discovered that it really cuts down on interaction at the table, especially in two-player games. Table talk, joking around, and discussion of the game itself can dry up completely as one person contemplates his move for an unacceptable amount of time. I get the feeling that a “perfect mover” is seeing the game in an entirely different way than I am; he is looking at it not as a chance for two or more people to have fun while competing with each other, but as a sort of brain puzzle that morphs with each turn. I am only serving as a sort of “adversarial intelligence,” an intellect that is presenting the perfect mover with various challenges.

To illustrate this a bit more fully, I’ll tell a quick story from the WBC. I played a war game against an highly skilled opponent. After a few turns, it became clear that I was no match for him, and he could have quickly crushed me while losing a few units. However, wishing to play a “perfect” game, he took no risks at all, and instead moved so deliberately that the game dragged on for four or five more turns than it should have. A game that could have ended in 90 minutes took three hours to complete. This is one of my favorite games in my collection, and yet this particular session felt like a trip to the dentist.

Playing a board game is an experience that offers us three things: a chance to hang out with other people, compete in a friendly manner, and get better at the game itself. However, analyzing a situation to death usually allows one to get better at a game at the cost of the other two, social interaction and friendly competition. I think that play-by-email (PBEM) play can help those who have the “perfect move” style, because more time elapses between turns. If you’re reading this, and you know you fit into the “perfect mover” category, try something new: take a few risks! You may find your enjoyment of the game increases greatly as you make a risky move which turns into a brilliant maneuver or concentrate more on the conversation that goes on around the table. If all we are looking for as gamers is a challenge, we can always go pick up a single player video game. Let’s not spoil the fun of board games by ignoring the other people around the table for the sake of the “perfect game!”

Headed off to the WBC

July 31, 2009

It’s official– on Sunday, Russ and I are headed the 1,128 miles from Rockford, MN, to the weeklong World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. Mike is tagging along for two days; he’ll stay Sunday night with us in Pittsburgh and then hop a train from Lancaster to New York City. In recent days, we have learned that the WBC has shattered all previous records and a huge number of people have pre-registered this year. We expect around 1500 gamers to be there, along with various boardgame manufacturers. The heart of the WBC is competitive play, which is why we chose to attend; other options included GenCon and Origins. What will we be doing this week, you ask? Well, I’d like to divide that into four categories: compete, meet, try, and buy (catchy, I know!).

Compete: This is truly the core of the convention. 125 different games will be played; winners will take home plaques declaring them to be the champion for 2009. In essence, we are traveling to Lancaster because we want to match our skills against the best of the best. Tourney formats differ, but most include a few rounds of preliminary play, followed by a quarter-, semi-, and final round in which the winner is determined. Some tourneys have hundreds of people competing, while others have only a few dozen. I’ve packed my schedule because I’m thinking that I’ll get knocked out in a lot of first or second round games. Here’s the list: Here I Stand, Hammer of the Scots, Wilderness War, Twilight Struggle, Britannia, and Crusader Rex. Russ will be tackling most of these same games, but he’ll also add 1960: the Making of the President.

Meet: I’ve had the good fortune to rub elbows with a fair number of gamers and game designers via various blogs, Web sites, podcasts, and Play-by-Email (PBEM) tournaments. We hope to see some of these people and person, and no doubt we will make some friends across the gaming table as well.

Try: This is the other exciting part of the WBC. Many games are demo-ed by the designers themselves. Often, there is a one-hour slot in the convention schedule during which you can meet up with other interested people and the designer, and he/she will teach you the game. You often then have about an hour before the tourney begins. Russ and I have both compiled lists of games we’d like to demo at the convention. The other cool part about trying games is the Open-Gaming Room, a massive ballroom with a free games library. You can just check a game out, find some random people, and begin play. I’m hoping to learn Britannia this way; it’s sat on my game shelf for two years now, and I’ve never played it. If I’m lucky, a group of veterans will have mercy on me and teach it! I’m interested in trying the following: San Juan, Thurn & Taxis, Britannia, Advanced Civilization, Fields of Fire, Battlestar Galactica, Steam, and Puerto Rico. Many game designers also take this time to playtest games they’re tweaking. I’m hoping to at least see Virgin Queen (the sequel to Here I Stand) and War of the Roses in action.

Buy: We are gamers on a budget, but that shouldn’t stop us from picking up a game or two. WBC has a Tuesday auction that goes practically all day, and an silent auction store running at the same time. I have a list of things to shop for, but I’ll wait and see what I actually purchase before it ends up here on the blog.


The games I'm taking to the WBC.

Are we excited for this? You bet! This is the culmination of ten months of planning and a personal promise that I made to myself: to get in shape and lose twenty pounds. This trip (definitely made possible by the amazing support of my loving wife!) is the long-awaited reward for that. Expect to see semi-regular updates from the convention–check back often as we offer coverage, analysis, and musings from the Lancaster Host Hotel.

The Space Around the Game

July 10, 2009

I’m a person who is usually thinking about the aesthetics of things, their beauty, if you will. And this does not change when it comes to board games. There is something beautiful about them, something about the geometric shape of the board and the  pieces resting on top, the colors, the feel of the dice or cards in one’s hands–more on that in the future. But I believe there is also something important about the space around the game–the table, the room, etc. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t have called me a particularly neat person, but that has changed as I’ve gotten older. And I have become slightly obsessive about what goes on around the game:

The room: This is a key aspect of the game. Where are we playing? I like the room to be clean and relatively free of clutter. If we’re playing at our apartment, this usually means we’re in the kitchen at the table. If we’ve eaten beforehand, I like things set away in cupboards and the dishwasher before we begin. Usually the table has only two things on it: the game itself and a few drinks on coasters (though some people call foul on the drinks). A cluttered game table drives me up a wall, as does a pet running around during a game. Televisions, video game systems, etc., should be turned off. Russ does an excellent job of all this, especially when we’re playing a roleplaying game over at his house. He keeps character sheets in folders, draws out his maps beforehand, and places extra dice and figures off to the side on a desk and covers it with a gamemaster’s screen. This is why I love playing at his house!

The chairs: This is critical, especially in games that go over an hour. Chairs that are too comfortable cause people lose focus; chairs that are too hard make everyone restless. I think the worst thing of all is to have a chair that is not suited for the table. My in-laws used to have dining room chairs that drove me nuts! They had these soft vinyl cushions stitched into them so as the game went on, I would find myself “settling in” and unable to reach parts of the board. A nice, average dining room chair will usually do it. This is important for both me and my dad because we both suffer infrequent but uncomfortable bouts of sciatica. Sitting on the floor is a no-no too. This can also mean we’re playing on a low coffeetable and that’s just wrong on so many levels!

Temperature and Lighting: Like most people, I enjoy playing in cool, dry places. In Minnesota, we usually range between “hot and humid” in the summer to “unbearably cold and dry” in the winter so A/C, a fan, or a humidifier are necessary. My friend Melissa comes prepared for temperature fluctuations, and I’ve learned a lot from her as we’ve attended gaming conventions together. She always brings a light sweatshirt or sweater of some sort, in case it gets too cold. Proper lighting is also needed. If it’s too dim, we can’t see the board, and if it’s too bright, it’s often difficult to examine the board off of the plexiglass we use for war games. Playing in an unfinished basement with poor lighting? Not if I can help it!

Music: This is a difficult one. If it’s low music that is theme-appropriate and not too distracting, great! However, if there’s someone in the group who has trouble with that, it should be turned off. Some of my favorite game experiences have included music. My brother Mike and I once played Wellington while listening to the Gettysburg soundtrack–a perfect selection from his enormous music collection. On another occasion, Sara and I played Settlers of Catan with my mom and dad in a stormy power outage while listening to a playlist of 17-19th century folk music from an mp3 player. That night, with the soft music coming from the battery-powered speakers and the faces of my family lit softly by candles, will probably go down as one of my most vivid memories.

I’ve listed a lot of things to not do or have, but a few general themes should be brought out. The space around the game should emphasize a decent level of comfort, cleanliness, and focus. It’s really about making other people feel at home around the game table. Clutter detracts from the overall experience, whereas a clean table accentuates the artistic design in a game (see this example: nice job, people!)

Do you insist upon similar standards around your game table? Discuss!

Edit: Cross-posted at Board Game Geek