Monday, June 12, 2017

Boardgame Trends: Complexity- At multiple levels

In his post on G. E. V.,  Jeffro made a statement about "runaway complexity" in Eurogames. Now, it's part of a larger view, so I'll put up the whole paragraph:

But the big collectible card game craze of the nineties changed a lot about hobby gaming. Games like Dominion look like relatively simple games. But if a veteran of the Magic Tournament sits down at your table, you’ll get a lesson on just how good “kids these days” are when it comes to stacking a deck. And Euro games that at first looked like something that would double or triple the size of the potential player base become entirely opaque when played by competent players dead set on winning. I almost wonder if the runaway complexity within that space is driven by a desire to further obfuscate the sort of conflict that Euro-gamers consider to be déclassé.

Now, I'm going to have to dissect this carefully, as Jeffro gets some things wright and some very much wrong within this post. I'm not saying that as an insult, but more along the lines that his bias likely colors his perspective very much. There will be more than that to this post, but it's my starting point.

The first statement is absolutely correct. CCGs, and now their cousins the LCG(Living Card Game), and ECG(Expandable Card Game), have definitely changed hobby gaming, some for the better, some for the worse. For those not in the know, the differences between these three(really 2, LCG is a trademark, and ECG is a non-trademarked implementation) lie in distribution. CCGs, randomly distribute cards, and each game has its own scarcity insertion rates in booster packs(8-15 cards, depending on the game). LCGs(and ECGs) have NO randomization. There's an expansion every so often (1 month to three), which has a playset of every card for the expansion in it. Each game also has its own rotation rules.

One of the things this does is maintain the rules through a vast number of changes to the game. However, the changes are through things like cost and interactions. In Magic, a single card will make 3 or 4 either useless or viable. In Android: Netrunner, the game has asymmetrical play, so one card for one side of the game will change the viability of potentially 6-8 cards(these numbers are just rough guesses right now). But what doesn't change? The goal and general mechanics of the game. Some cards will introduce new keywords or mechanics, and these enhance or limit the usefulness of the card.

Dominion, for those not in the know, is NOT a game of this model. It is a cardgame with variable setup from Rio Grande Games. There's two base boxes and about a dozen large boxes. Each box has 25 different cards, with ten copies of each(base boxes also have money and victory point cards). At the start of the game, you have a small deck of 10 cards, and you'll buy more as the game progresses.  But, you choose which 10 cards are available for purchase before the game(money and VP are in every game). Star Realms is another, more compact example of this game type, dubbed "deckbuilding".  Like in CCGs and LCGs, card interaction is a BIG deal.

As to the Magic tournament player statement, yeah, some of those guys cheat on how they shuffle. Others are merely very good at seeing how cards interact. But, a good Eurogamer should be able to keep pace with one that only understands cards about evenly. Card gamers only get interactions, they tend to have trouble with extracard mechanics, so they see trouble learning boardgames until they participate in a turn or two(yes, I've taught card players a boardgame or two).

 " And Euro games that at first looked like something that would double or triple the size of the potential player base become entirely opaque when played by competent players dead set on winning."  I'm not sure what this statement is really referring to. Games like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan have both massively increased the player base. However, I also know players that want to understand the game completely the first time they play, and will lock up thinking for minutes when their turn comes. But that isn't restricted to Euros, I've seen it in minis and wargames. Without a concrete game example, I'm going to let that lie for my response.

As to it being runaway complexity, I'm going to simply disagree. It's a more obvious complexity than what Jeffro is accustomed to. Jeffro even states about OGRE, " It took a decade or two and several tactics articles for me to realize just how well the game really worked." That's because it's complex. Incredibly so, in fact. There's a big difference in how the complexity works, though. In a minis/wargame, pieces might have simple rules for how they work. Terrain usually has simple rules for how it works. But putting the two together creates a beast of complexity, especially in games with modular terrain setups. Any game where a player can have an epiphany evan after several plays of it is by nature very complex.

Meatier Eurogames usually do this differently. The complexity is in more places. The rules have a slightly higher initial learning curve, with multiple mechanics potentially interacting for your decision. There's a more to be done in the way of opportunity cost thinking, as choices are potentially vast, but you only get one or a few options that may not return. A good many have point salad type victory points at the end of game, and focusing on a sole method is typically disastrous.

Do most Euros avoid direct conflict? Absolutely, and in some cases, it is a flaw. Part of that stems from a reaction against player elimination, which is seen as bad. But I've also recently seen an increase in Euros with specific points of direct conflict. These are working balance points between solitaire style(pure non interaction) and pure war/elimination games, and I think they're starting to get good results. And one of the best things with Euros is the way they balance at multiple player counts. Direct conflict games are much harder to manage in that respect.

One thing that confounds me when I see Jeffro or Lews Pulsipher bash Euros for the lack of direct player interaction is that it didn't start there. If you look back to the days of 3M games,(yes, they had an excellent game line), they started here, in Minnesota to be precise. Biggest designer of the time? Sid Sackson, whose work for them included Acquire, Venture, Bazaar, Sleuth, and Executive Decision. All of these games avoid direct conflict, and are great fun to play. 3M sold of the game division to Avalon Hill, which continued printing some of the best, and now, they're part of the Hasborg collective.

Jeffro, if we get together sometime, we should play Star Trek: Ascendancy(yes, we'll need a third). I think you might dig the middle ground it occupies between Euro and direct conflict.

Next time, I'm going to discuss the impact of Kickstarter on boardgames, both the good and the bad.

When you play Social Justice, the world loses.


  1. I thought jeffro's point was the use of complexity in euro games to hide player conflict.

    1. That may have been Jeffro's point, but mine is that OGRE, etc., are really not any simpler. They just look it because of rules vs. interacting pieces.