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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hot or Not?

BoardGameGeek recently added a section on the profile page to list one's "Personal Top 10" and "Hot 10". While it is pretty clear what goes into the former, the latter was purposefully vague. Different users have come up with their own interpretation of what defines "hotness", and part of the fun has been reading the discussion about how the BGG gang plans to use it. One of my favorite aspects of boardgaming itself is when folks have to work through ambiguities to define their own meta-structure. Here are some examples:

  • Voting criteria: In Apples to Apples, players must first determine for themselves what constitutes a "good match", then must adjust to how other players apply their own criteria. An even looser structure is found in The Big Idea; players take turns pitching products to each other, then vote on which product to invest in. However, the rules give no indication on what basis you are to vote! Design-wise, it's a poor marriage of party game and strategy game, but trying to make sense of the whole thing is amusing.
  • Acceptance criteria: Scattergories is the classic example here, as players need to decide on guidelines for accepting someone else's word; you might recall this aspect of the game was actually highlighted in the commercial. In Kaleidos, where players identify words starting with a given letter in a picture, are you going to get away with something like "chin"?
  • Rules adherence: In Mystery of the Abbey, are you really going to require players to ring the bell? In Loco, what do you do when someone forgets to say "Loco"?
  • Information sharing: The best example here is Shadows over Camelot. The rules discourage table talk but there are no clear guidelines for what is acceptable. A group of players needs to work this out. Even more interesting is when you bring together experienced ShoC players from different groups, each with their own pre-established ideas of how things should work.

Now, social engineering does not always paint pretty pictures. Our group has refused to play Ricochet Robot since an argument ~5 years ago over whether and when 180-degree moves were legal. There is maybe too fine of a line between the examples I gave above and outright rules lawyering. I am also a believer of everything in moderation; I have absolutely no interest in Werewolf, which appears to be nothing but this. However, often what I am most interested in is not the game itself, but the playing of the game.

A game that may be hot for me right now is Dungeon Twister, which I played for the first time yesterday. This title would not be out of place in the Fantasy Flight Games line, as it shares similarities with the likes of other FFG dungeon crawl games like Drakon and Cave Troll. The thematic setting - two teams of adventurers pit against each other by an evil wizard - feels almost like that playground game where kids try to run across from one side of the gym to the other without being tagged. Most similar games have the players fighting some sort of dark force; here, it doesn't feel very good to kill your opponent's characters when they are hapless adventurers screwed by fate.

Theme aside, Dungeon Twister is marketed as a no-luck strategy game, but there are two things that distinguish it from other abstracts. First, it has the well-worn "hand of combat cards" mechanism seen in A Game of Thrones and LotR the Confrontation. Go too strong early, and you're looking at a serious disadvantage for future combats. It is one of my least favorite combat resolution methods, but it is acceptable, especially here where there is enough imbalance between the characters that it removes much of the guesswork. Second, it avoids the I-go-you-go of most abstracts; each player take 2-5 actions per turn. As there are no restrictions for assigning these actions (e.g., you can have your Thief move 5 times for a total of 25 spaces!), it makes the search tree rather large. It looked bad on paper, but, in practice, it wasn't a problem at all. Characters tend to not engage en masse, but in small clusters that get resolved before additional characters come in to clean up the corpses.

The simple rules allow for some cool tactics. In our match, I had brought a Cleric into a dead-end hallway to revive my Thief and Wizard. My opponent followed me in with his Troll, expecting an easy three-course meal. I played my highest combat card with my Cleric, knocking out his Troll, then had my Thief run past the Troll before he regenerated, closing the portcullis behind her! The Troll had no way of escaping without first going through both the Cleric and Wizard to get to the gear mechanism to open up a hallway. My Thief then grabbed some treasure and ran out of the dungeon to give me the win. I really look forward to playing Dungeon Twister more to explore the strategies. Some initial thoughts:

  • The Troll is too slow to mobilize from the starting line. In a short game, you will need him in the middle of the board for the skirmish; in a longer game, he may be able to sit back and protect half of your board as a goalie, but I would expect the opponent to keep his characters out of range and using the "5 actions" card to zoom past him. The risk of starting him further up is that he is a key target for the Wizard's fireball due to his ability to regenerate.
  • The Wizard has incredible mobility, with a one-time ranged attack in the fireball wand, and he is on the hunt for the Troll. You want to use your own fireball before your Wizard gets killed; you want to kill your opponent's Wizard before he uses his fireball, especially as you will then have a chance to use both wands. Do you engage him early on to hunt down the Troll, or do you hang him back, waiting for the right moment? Who do you send after to take the initial shot at the Wizard (currently, the Wall Walker gets my vote).
  • The Thief is an excellent escort; at the same time, she is effective in going off by herself early to try to steal some of your opponent's objects. Escorting others and moving between pits doesn't take advantage of her superior mobility, but perhaps she can move the heavies to the middle of the board before taking off on her own.
  • Getting the first wound on a Cleric is huge. Keeping him within range of the action without making himself vulnerable will be tricky.

So, there you go. My "Hot One".


  • At 10:53 AM, Blogger Dug said…

    I will note that, according to the publisher, my interpretation of the 180 rule in Ricochet Robot was indeed the correct one. Yet we do not play this game!

    I will also note that this is the only game I have seen played in the group where tempers flared over a rules interpretation. This is over more than a six year period, and speaks quite well of the mix of personalities our group has.

  • At 11:44 AM, Blogger dave said…

    Note for the public: I was on Doug's side of the debate. :)

    While this is now water under the bridge, I notice that no one uses the phrase "designer's intent" anymore...

  • At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Rita said…

    You've obviously never played MTG with me if you've only seen tempers flare over rules once. I can't seem to play that game without arguing heatedly about something!


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