A cup of solidarity – Community, trauma and tea in The Grizzled

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It’s so unique, that it took playing with exactly the right group of people to realise just how brilliant the Grizzled is.

There are plenty of war games, but few really feel like games about war as I have spent a lifetime thinking of it. Most war games are about tactics and strategy.

The Grizzled is about suffering.

You spend the game unable to fully communicate, desperately trying to survive through a slew of dangers and threats, not knowing who is holding on to what trauma, what problem you’re dealing with next. You can become phobic or traumatised, giving you temporary shakes and shifts to your personality. You could become prideful, and insisting on always being the last one standing. Or you might be mute, and unable to speak at all.

It’s a savage world, which is only fitting for a game about life in the trenches of the Great War.

But really, that damage and brutality is not what makes the game so powerful. (As vivid as it is to see someone you love and care about, who you know has been marginalised and silenced in the real world, made mute).

Really, the game is about community. It’s about caring for each other, and supporting each other, and being together.

It’s based on a real group of soldiers, some of whom were relatives of the game designers. A group of friends who signed up together and got to the frontline, and tried to survive, together.

For most of the game you are getting rid of cards, putting them in front of you, or in ‘no man’s land’. They are your personal problems, or the group’s problems (but everyone needs solidarity with everyone else to survive).

But that card play is never the key emotional moment.

Each round, when you can’t take any more, you pull out of the round…and you put the kettle on.

It’s a tiny thing, that the act of ‘support’ is tied to something as mundane as a hot drink, but it is so damn vivid, so real. Deciding how to distribute your support, who you will make the effort to try and help, is critical to the game.

If you all focus on one person, you can have a huge impact, but if you spread your support around, that’s also useful for everyone. The community works together to warm each others hearts. Solidarity is bound to the bones of the game. It’s all about helping each other.

I love that this grim and sad game manages to be so uplifting, focusing so hard on how important friendship, love and caring in even simple tiny ways is. I love how much it tells you about desperation, survival and tiny, humane hope.

I love that it recognises the importance of a cup of tea in troubling times.

(Of course, the game and soldiers are French, so probably favoured coffee or hot chocolate. And to be honest, I actually prefer hot chocolate too, I just can’t stop saying it’s tea when I’m playing.)

The Grizzled is an odd, bleak game that warms my heart despite some of the grimmest subject matter available. There is no romance here, but there is kindness.

And tiny kindnesses are so important.

The Grizzled is a tiny, kind game. I think it’s important.

What makes a favourite? – #My9BestBoardgames

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So these are some of my favourite games.

I got caught up in a little swirl of hype, as people on Instagram shared their favourites, and spent a little bit too much time photographing them. Partly to make sure I really meant it. Partly to make you sure I really meant it.

I’ve done a chart before, and it nearly broke me, but at least here I didn’t have to rank anything.

For accessibility, here’s the list, in no particular order:

  • Food Chain Magnate
  • Mottainai
  • Patchwork
  • Glass Road
  • Maria
  • Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace
  • Panamax
  • City of Remnants
  • Mage Knight

Now. The thing that surprises me is how heavy and inaccessible this list is. This does not function as a good primer for board games. There are only two games on there that I think I could easily teach anyone who was put in front of me. Only one of those that I’d be sure they’d like. Somewhere, my favourite games became more about my esoteric and challenging needs than about the games I think are best for the average table.

There’s exceptions. Patchwork is an elegant masterpiece, combining simplicity and ruthlessness into something pretty and odd and tactile. Glass Road is quick and whip smart. City of Remnants is made up of lots of moving parts, but all of them are separately straightforward, and it tells a mean story.

But Maria needs an entire page to explain the annexation of Silesia. Even I don’t understand how to play the strategic map half of Churchill. Panamax has one of the worst rules books I’ve ever tackled. Food Chain Magnate is brutally unforgiving, to the point where I can’t bring myself to play it with new people, because I know someone will make a mistake early and have a miserable time.

There’s some real un-fun in this list, from certain perspectives.

But these are my favourites. These are the ones I get lost in. The ones that swamp my brain. The ones I want to sing songs about and tell stories about.

If you hear me talk about games, I’ll often talk about bringing people together, about telling stories together, about learning things about each other, and about teaching each other things.

It’s not that these games don’t have that, they have it in spades, but they have it in a little walled garden. You need to bring your own siege engine (and, in the case of Maria, make sure you’ve kept it in supply).

These games represent the weird and tricky end of the game spectrum (apart from Patchwork, which I would recommend to absolutely anyone at any time, and I will teach you to play in thirty seconds). They include games I convince people not to play, because I’m worried they’ll be scared off.

They also represent so many fascinating ideas. Each one has some quirk or delicacy or foible that makes it utterly unique.

And that’s why I love them.

I love them for the weird victory conditions, the desperately dangerous card draws, the gutwrenching intensity, the satirical undercurrents, the puzzles within puzzles, the quick infuriation, the accidental teamwork, the meditative frustration and the delicate simplicity.

Have fun matching those up to the games, by the way.

I’m not here to talk about the details though. I just want to let you know that I love these games, and want to be playing them always.

Complication makes great stories. It gives decisions weight and heft and danger and doubt. Complicated games create weird motivations and unreliable alliances. Complicated games can get your wrapped deeper and longer, and stay under your skin for days after.

They also make games hard to teach. And hard to get to the table.

None of them are impossible. They’re just tougher to crack. What’s inside is definitely worth the effort if you can get there.

But they aren’t for everyone.

I’m a nerd, and I love the rules and complexities and weirdnesses and innovations. My list was always going to tilt to the extreme.

(I’m also a fan of late era Scott Walker.)

But you know what I love more than my 9 favourite games?

Playing games. Whatever they are.

Teaching games. Whatever they are.

Bringing tables of people together, and making them hate and love each other, at least or a short while.

Don’t go out there looking for someone else’s favourite 9 games.

Go out looking for yours.

If you do, you will find more than 9 moments of joy. More than 9 great stories. More than 9 strange imaginary worlds.

And you’ll have shared them, every step of the way.

Games can fill tables, rooms, hearts and minds.

And they need you to do help them do it.

 

That’s no moon (oh wait, that’s a moon) – Enormous stories in Terraforming Mars

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Mars is in vogue right now.

I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of the space fever caused by digital access to more detail about space exploration missions, and an uncharacteristic bit of game industry self awareness.

Games have been obsessed with colonialism for a while, and its pretty distasteful. I think it’s useful for game designers to follow the mythical version of it, with ‘unspoiled’ isolated chunks of land for people to carve into their own. It gives you a good reason for all the things you need to make a good engine game. Narrow resource streams, room for development and an immediately graspable narrative.

Of course, it’s pretty shitty, and generally washes out all of the cruelty and violence in the abstraction.

There’s rightfully been a lot of stick given to publishers for distasteful choices. I think this is part of the reason for the sudden jump to Mars.

You don’t have to think about the horrors of colonialism if you’re in space.

It’s still a recognisable story though. There’s been enough sci-fi, science and Matt Damon for us to imagine it. We’ve got something to visualise.

Terraforming Mars is designed by a science teacher, and it shows (in the good ways). It wears its passion for the Red Mars trilogy on its sleeve, the manual includes an example game between Kim, Stanley and Robinson.

The flavour text is interested in fleshing out why a certain technology might produce a certain effect. The game wants to tell stories that make sense, could be real, could help you understand how much work would go into it. How incredible technology can be. How incredible technology is. How world changing. Literally.

But that’s not the story I end up telling in the game. I love the science, but it’s not the imagery that comes to mind.

I think about someone tending their own little allotment on this strange landscape, and make it quiet and real in a different way. Each player ends up building their own little patch of land, and filling it with plants and trees and tardigrades and space mirrors and zeppelins.

But because it stays at the level of the individual playing, it still feels small. It’s one of the lovely things about games, that because they’re still at the table, they’re always filled with people. You can simultaneously be yourself, and an interplanetary corporation.

I’ll demonstrate, in the best way I can.

By crashing asteroids into your garden.

One of the main ways to increase the temperature on Mars is to chuck giant space rocks at it. There’s quite a lot of cards that let you do this, ranging in size and scale. Almost all of them end up destroying other players plants.

Now in mechanical terms, this means you choose someone, and they have to throw away some of the resources in their ‘plant’ space.

But I can’t help but visualise two neighbours, jealously peeking over their fences, and finding ways to scuff each other’s lawns.

One time, someone dropped a comet in my backyard.

On my next turn, I reminded them of this, and slammed the damn moon into theirs.

It’s two different, irresistible stories at once. Quiet neighbourly passive aggression, slowly escalating beyond belief, and the vast, destructive creation of scientific progress, which can move from throwing rocks to hurling satellites.

Deimos is only small, relatively speaking, but there’s nothing quite as evocative as slamming the moon into the planet. You just can’t argue with moon-made climate change.

I love the parallel stories games create. The stories within stories that weave in and out of each other. The stories the mechanics tell, the stories the theme tell, and, breathing life into it all, the stories we tell, as we sit at a table, and imagine together.

Often it’s to paper cracks: mechanics that don’t quite line up with the ‘real’ story. But that doesn’t matter, because it allows us to make the story our own.

These shared stories are why gaming can be so glorious. So intimate. So damn fun.

Because I can still see the moon sticking out of your garden.

I’ve made a huge mistake – Doing the wrong thing in Welcome to the Dungeon

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The thing about games, is that you’re in control. Most games have choices in them, and if you have good choices, you have good games.

Good choices normally means choices that are crunchy and important.

You can spot decisions that are crunchy and important, if you proclaim ‘I’ve made a huge mistake’ after each one.

Welcome to the dungeon (also known by its better original title ‘Dungeon of Mandom’) is a good but not necessarily brilliant game, but it excels at one thing.

It amplifies your mistakes as much as possible. Doubling and tripling down on that feeling of making the wrong move.

As the turns pass around the table, you have to decide to give up, or make things worse. You don’t know how much worse you are going to make things, you just know you will. You also only have limited information on how bad it already is. The game does not give you enough quite information at any point. It encourages bad decisions, even though every decision has a real impact.

When teaching the game, I sell the theme as being about a bunch of macho adventurers making a series of ridiculous, escalating dares, at the edge of a cave. Each person has to either agree to go a little bit deeper (facing more monsters) or do it with less clothes on (okay, really it’s equipment, but ‘strip spelunking’ is an easy concept to sell).

The game shines brightly by placing the perfect amount of dramatic emphasis on the moment you realise you’ve agreed to fight a dragon while naked.

Every time you don’t pass, you’re saying ‘I can take this’. But it’s implicit, so it’s very easy to forget you’re saying this. It’s the default. You can do it by accident.

Every time you don’t pass, it’s only after you’ve said ‘I can take this’, that you see what you have to take on (and even then, you still don’t know half the story).

Eventually, you don’t pass at the moment when everybody else around the table, one by one, says ‘no way’. Each one is more confident than the last.

It’s a marvellous piece of theatre, with each ‘pass’ emphasising just how exposed you are by getting your friends to tell you ‘you’ve made a huge mistake’.

Whether it’s a mistake or not, is actually still to be found out, and if you’re lucky, you’ve not. But first, everyone at the table has to give you that vote of no confidence. A disingenuous pat on the back saying ‘good luck with that’.

It’s a perfect emotional tipping point, and only makes the occasional glory of success even more momentous. Winning means proving everyone wrong.

But it’s rare.

Normally, you’ve made a huge mistake.

Mistakes are a glorious thing.

Some of the best games make every decision punishing, every move to feel like the wrong one. It’s masochistic, at times, but it proves just how much you can care about these little cardboard worlds.

Some of the worst games I’ve played have been the ones where I don’t care. There’s still plenty of joy in losing, but only if you cared about the process of where you got to. A satisfying mistake is often all you need.

Mistakes are great.

Make more of them.

Play a game.

Efficiency, exploration and the commercial Buddhist – Mottainai’s little soul

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In one of my absolute favourite games, you’re running a weirdly sales oriented Buddhist temple.

Mottainai means ‘a sense of regret concerning waste’ or perhaps ‘every little thing has a soul’. It’s an oddly philosophical way of implying the key drive of so many board games…efficiency.

My elevator pitch?

It’s Mage Knight rebuilt with the sensibilities of Love Letter. Or perhaps the other way round.

That won’t help you understand the game, but it might make your ears prick up (they are two of the best and most different games in town, for a start).

It’s a card game about simple but weighty decisions. Each card has three different roles to play, and using them in certain ways makes them available to the other players. This means every action has many, many opportunity costs as well as unknown benefits for your opponent.

To progress in the game, you have to discard most of the options you are given, carving your own path.

You have to make sure every single step takes you closer to your goal, while helping your opponent as little as possible.

It’s about ruthless efficiency, and brutal choices, but it’s oddly meditative to play. It feels like you’re exploring a set of possibilities, rather than hammering together machinery. Each game will be different, as the entire deck represents specific unique works, each with fundamentally game shifting rules, making each starting hand an opportunity to explore a totally new field of the game.

I am gripped by it, every time I play. I am enthralled by the weird simplicity held underneath it’s intensely complicated form. It’s a bastard to teach and learn (I’ve had one player give up during their first game, and many not come back for a second).

For all its depth, it’s so damn short. With people who know how to play, it will take you less time than a full game of Love Letter. Fifteen minutes tops, for a two player game with people who know the game. You don’t have time to get a really complex temple-engine going, but you will still do wonderfully new things, every single game.

I love it so hard.

Its speed means you get to dip into it, try things quickly, with very little cost except a potentially lost game. More than any game I play, in fact, I don’t think I care about whether I win or lose, I’m just excited by what we’ll find as we play, and happy to find myself swimming in its decision water.

Okay, okay. I probably can’t just make up a term like ‘decision water’ and hope for it to make sense. In principle, I’m using it as an alternative to ‘phase space’ which is a game theoryish description of all the possible options a game can offer. But I also want to be suggestive of the notion of flow, giving yourself over to a game.

Now, I may spend half of my turns in Mottainai banging my head to try and make it decide faster, but I still think of the game as pretty meditative. It has just the right balance to make short term decisions intense and in your hands, whilst leaving the broader strategy just, kind of out there, all around you.

The cards you’re handed define the specific sort of game you’re going to be playing. The most important thing is often just how efficient you are as you get to the point where this specific game comes into focus. The first few rounds tend to build a foundation, and that dictates how you are going to explore.

Until your world turns upside down, and the game is suddenly won or lost.

But it’s always you who got you there. Still you who made those choices.

Mottainai feels like a car that uses the desire for efficiency as fuel, and the randomisation of the deck as the map. You use those tools to get to a destination, and then you sit back and enjoy the view.

I think it might just be one of the best views in boardgames.

Can heuristics fun? – Building an approach to Splendor

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I’ve been putting this off, because I’m not sure whether it applies to the mission of this blog. It’s hard to talk about personal approaches to puzzling out puzzles in a way that’s about the feelings of games, rather than the mechanics or actions, but I think it’s worth trying.

One of the core hidden pleasures of a boardgame is building heuristic approaches, testing them, and changing them.

A heuristic is just a systematic approach to a problem, a set of rules to follow. It’s the system of guesses you build up to solve a problem where you don’t know all the variables, and can’t accurately calculate what the best course of action is.

I think it’s often unconscious, but the state of flow certain games can induce is often about applying a way of thinking that deals with the uncertainty. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest bugbears of gamers can be waiting for people with ‘analysis paralysis’. This is a problem that steps in when enough information is available to a player for it to be possible (but difficult) to calculate ‘the best move’. It comes from trying to calculate every possible outcome as far as possible, and it’s painful to watch.

It’s why I don’t play Chess. I always feel like every mistake I make was just a lack of time spent thinking.

If someone is playing thoroughly and analytically, they need to run through every option. Someone with a heuristic though, has just decided a few simple rules they’ll follow that they intuit will help them. When things go off track, they adjust the heuristic

Let’s get concrete. Or rather, cardboard.

Splendor is a lovely little game, ostensibly about jewellery, but actually about collecting colours and numbers. It’s one of a subset of games I love that, rather than turning the table into a hubbub of chatter and drama, makes everyone stare silently at the table. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between someone having a whale of a time playing Splendor and someone who has just remembered that we’re all slowly dying.

Sorry about that.

I find it hard to recommend games like this, but they offer a pure sort of puzzle solving that is really fun. It’s a core part of games. Not every game is about chat and negotiation and drama, some are just ruthless little puzzles.

Anyway. In Splendor, it’s possible to plan ahead. You’re screwed every time someone takes a card, as it changes the shape of the plan,  but it has a clever counter to this, in that you can reserve a card. Of course, if you do, your plan is going to run less efficiently (it’ll take at least an extra turn to buy that card, and every turn counts), but at least you can’t be foiled (and you do get a lump of gold, a wild card, that can at least be intensely useful if your plan changes).

But I don’t think planning ahead is the way to win. It’s much better just to have an approximate plan and stick with it.

Common plans in Splendor are:

  • buy lots of cheap little cards, and just try and race to the nobles
  • always get anything that’s free
  • always take three different stones, so you’re getting the most out of a turn
  • pick a target card at the top level, and collect the cards and tokens that push towards that specific card…try not to get distracted

Now. These aren’t quite heuristics, but they aren’t far off. Some of them will work, some of them won’t, but they’re the sort of things people will do.

They’ll normally be doing a lot of this pretty unconsciously.

There’s a state of flow that can be found in a game like this, where you’re just automatically doing the thing that feels best. You won’t necessarily realise you’re doing this, but it happens quite a lot. It’s one of two reasons people are quiet during Splendor. The first is that they are trying to analyse everything and build a perfect set of turns, the second is that they’re in the zone, just allowing the options to wash over them, and trying to work out the underlying structures that encourage them to take certain choices.

The latter, I think, is happening all the time, but people don’t always notice.

It’s a really joyful way to play a game. Just letting it flow through you. Taking moves patiently, looking (not too closely) for an underlying pattern. It’s almost letting the game play you.

I don’t think many people would feel aware of it, but building up that personal set of rules, that you don’t necessarily explicitly state, is one of the great joys of becoming familiar with a game. It can put you into a rut, but it’s a legitimate pleasure.

I started thinking about this, though, when I spotted a problem in my play.

I’ve got a few games that I play in apps on my phone. Galaxy Trucker, Ticket to Ride and Splendor all have very well put together apps. It’s really satisfying to get to tuck into a quick ten minute game of something, even if it doesn’t have the simple joy of a table full of friends to make it really magic.

Unfortunately, because it’s only ten minutes (or even less), it’s quite easy to play a lot.

This means you build and test your unconscious heuristic much quicker. You learn your system, and then the next time you sit down to the table, you’re suddenly loads better, but also frustrated by how slow the process is. Each individual decision still takes you less time, but the gaps between decisions are suddenly spaced out by all these other (lovely, honestly) people.

The problem is different in Galaxy Trucker. The game is no slower, you’ll just be able to build quicker, and better, and suddenly you’re getting into port every time, while everyone else is even more haphazard, because you rushed them, and they get into a worse state. Galaxy Trucker is one of a very few games that get less enjoyable the better you get. It’s not really about winning, it’s about the chaos that happens on the (space) road.

The solution is the same both times. Just nudge yourself into a new pattern. Tell yourself you’re going to get way more guns this time, or you’re going to collect loads of tickets, then just hope for the best, or you’re going to go hell for leather for one particular colour gem.

Because even a little shakeup can really make a difference.

Just be careful not to think too closely about what you’re doing.

Like this post is…

Oops.

Learning to love to learn – Learning and politicking with Maria

A statue of Maria Theresa has fallen over. Cards and tokens are falling out of the cracked ceramic head.

It’s probably the biggest obstacle to gaming. The difficulty and complication. The big rulebooks. The teach.

I’ve heard it described as the only form of entertainment that starts with a reading comprehension exam and an oral (or aural) exam. First someone has to learn the game, then they have to teach the table.

It’s a hurdle for many, and that’s fair.

But there’s also an excitement there.

I can love the first time I roll through a rulebook, spotting quirks and wrinkles and clevernesses, building excitement and anticipation about the games to come. Games are almost inherently emergent, about watching a stable ruleset expand into a set of specific situations that might not have been predictable. Reading the rulebook is often about trying to speculate about what the rules might lead to, looking for the invisible magic trapped in the diagrams and text.

It was during a verbal teach, rather than a rulebook, that I had this particular burst of rulebased excitement. We were getting read to play Maria, and I was trying to unwrinkle all the weird little quirks of this strategic take on the War of the Austrian Succession. My brain was burning slightly, and I was worried I’d missed an important part of the politics, not quite understanding how accepting the annexation of Silesia would work.

But then, a bomb was dropped.

It started familiarly, and I had an expectation. The statement began ‘any deals made during the game’ and I was so used to hearing the words ‘can be broken at any time, immediate trades can be made, but promises for the future are a matter of honour’. It’s a typical rule. Leaving room for betrayal and mistrust, which is what people are generally after in diplomatic games. They want the cut and thrust of drama and betrayal.

But no. In Maria any deals made during the game are binding. If you promise someone you’ll vote with them in the next election, you have to do it. If you promise to subsidise someone for three turns, you’d better make an explicit caveat that you’ll stop if they invade…and probably define what ‘invade’ looks like.

It was such a tiny detail, but hearing it, and realising it’s implications. That’s powerful. The teach wasn’t an obstacle, it was the first step of the unfolding drama.

I was immediately terrified of the implications of politicking for the game. Betrayal wasn’t an option, so this wasn’t a game of bluff and threats (although it is, sometimes), this was a game of cold economics, dangerous politics.

It was perfect.

Picking out details in the rules and wondering what they’ll do to a game is one of the great joys of gaming. One of the finest pleasures.

Because really, learning is what games are all about. They are little testbeds in which we play out implications and try out new ideas. The reason we play games again and again is because we are convinced we learnt something with the last game, and might now be able to use that knowledge to better effect.

Learning is one of the joys of play. Learning the system. Learning the game. Learning about people.

Not to mention learning about the annexation of Silesia.

Unfolding cardboard worlds