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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, October 17, 2005

Against the Grain: Part 2

Last week in Part 1, I looked at how my ratings compared to the collective BGG averages. One conclusion I arrived at was that the set of games to which I give a Top Shelf rating appears to be free of turkeys. This week, I look at some of those that have the lowest averages. This is somewhat akin to the “Underrated Games" geeklists (although I prefer the wording used by Stven Carlberg: “Games I Like Better Than You Do”), except I will not always go into great detail about what I do like about each of these games; I need to hold something back for future blog material. Rather, I will focus on what other folks find lacking. This may help to illuminate what I am able to tolerate better than others.

The three Euros receiving the lowest averages are Dragonland (BGG mean of 6.32), Freibeuter (6.33), and Fist of Dragonstones (6.35). The criticism of Dragonland being light is the one in this article against which I would argue the most. Alan Kwan’s verbose strategy article has a few key points in it. In my last match, I actually was able to pull off the “only two pawns” strategy, which I think even Alan undervalues, as it's not just about your own efficiency, but how efficiently it reduces your opponent's scores. There is some discontentment with being reliant on the dice throws, but I have never felt this to be much of an issue in my matches; with some planning, it is usually easy to “soak” one of the dice by having your dwarf stay in the same spot and grab, for example, an egg piece. Some folks knock it for being a children’s game, but I don’t find it to be any more so than other fantasy/sci-fi games; in fact, I’m comfortable playing this game as a grown-up, whereas a combat-oriented game like Twilight Imperium makes me all too aware of the adolescent tendencies in present company, myself included.

Freibeuter has not received much exposure, but the one common criticism has been luck-of-the-draw. I like setting up for the payoffs, and experiencing the suspense of seeing whether the payday comes in. Fist of Dragonstones (my Game of the Year for 2003) has a decent mean considering the variety of complaints: luck; chaos; game length; target-the-leader. However, the primary knock it gets is for being so repetitive, as the game is little more than a series of quick auctions. Many honestly state that it intrinsically loses some points for featuring blind-bidding. I normally loathe blind-bidding, but it works for me here because there are so many rounds that the "bad luck" of getting just beat out on a bid tends to get more evenly distributed.

Air Baron (6.40) is the one Avalon Hill game I will mention here, as I feel its criticisms are the fairest, as the game could otherwise have wider appeal. Unsurprisingly, folks are turned off by the luck of the chit draw which determines the payoffs; I note that no one complains about the die-rolling for the takeovers, or the luck of the turn-order draw. Linie 1 (6.58) – also known as Streetcar – has a surprisingly low score for such a popular theme (rail-building), but many are turned off by the race bit that makes up the game’s coda. It is not the only game on this list that gets knocked down by comparison to similar games (in this case, Metro and Carcassone).

Card games usually get lower marks than board games. Two of my favorites that are less popular are Mystery Rummy: Jekyll and Hyde (6.62) and Frank’s Zoo (6.72). J&H critics generally find it overly simplistic, with the Transformation card leading to too many shutouts. I think the constrained design makes this the best of the series - the other Mystery Rummy games seem to me somewhat masturbatory - and the threat of the shutout gives the game a nice tension. Just as J&H suffered in comparison to other Canasta variants (especially Jack the Ripper), Frank's Zoo received some poor marks from fans of Tichu and other ladder games. Once again, I was puzzled to see someone think this was a children's game - perhaps there are some retail stores out there misrepresenting their products? - but even those who recognized it as a lightweight games for adults thought that the rules were too complex for what is ultimately a filler.

A couple of games that got dinged because of excessive calculations required to evaluate position are Clippers (6.74) and Medieval Merchant (6.84). Clippers predictably took a hit for the tiny port markers, but apparently folks like some variation in their games, as another common complaint was the absence of random factors. Criticisms of Medieval Merchant centered around the repetition and lack of options in a given turn. Lodged between these two is an old favorite of mine, Entdecker (6.76), which is considered by many to be overly dependent upon drawing good tiles.

Possible trends:

I am more forgiving of repetitive/mechanical/limited turns. I see this in the criticisms of Fist of Dragonstones, Medieval Merchant, and, to a lesser extent, Dragonland. I think a lot of players focus on the tactics that are available to them within a given turn, whereas these games work best with a long-term plan in place, and I enjoy the strategy so much that I can deal with the mechanical motions. This lack of planning also leads to downtime problems, and many of these games listed here require someone to keep the action moving along quickly (see my autobiographical Drill Sergeant entry in this amusing geeklist). Similar games that I give a Top Shelf rating to are Ursuppe, which probably reached a 7.3 due to the more satisfying tactics, and Lost Valley, which I’m surprised to see at 7.14. I would expect to see Lost Valley's rating fall as the game gets more exposure.

I am most understanding when it comes to Fist of Dragonstones. Each round, you plan out what your "ideal" targets are. However, as the round progresses, many things require you to change your plans: who controls the Witch; the order the characters come out; how much gold others have spent; etc. I find this dynamic element quite rewarding intellectually, while the game generates enough laughs and surprises to maintain a light-hearted feel.

Complexity is a non-factor for me up to a point. Applies to Air Baron, Frank’s Zoo, maybe even Dragonland. I don’t mind a little busyness, and often prefer it, especially if it adds some theme. Then again, it's pretty obvious that anyone who lists Blackbeard as his second-favorite game probably has no restrictions on the ratio of chrome to depth.

There is room on my Top Shelf for games with no randomness and games that consist of little more than dealing with bursts of randomness. The list includes both Air Baron and Clippers; enough said.

I don’t like the other games so much. Applies to many of the titles here. Several of these titles are among the first Euros that I played, which likely biases my opinion. I suspect that the similar games also occasionally get dinged compared to these titles, which sort of invalidates this whole exercise, perhaps. Hmm... maybe I did learn something out of this...

In any case, next week I will look at the highest-rated games to which I give a Thumbs Down score. Fire up the grill, Ma, I'm bringin' home the sacred cows!

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