March 14, 2015 by Jake
As it rains endlessly outside I sit indoors giving the hairy eyeball to the open bag of Turtle Chex Mix Megan has tossed onto my lap. To keep the keys on my keyboard clean I must write as quickly as possible. I have been musing about games a lot lately and how much variety each one can contain within each play through. Most specifically I have been thinking about the presence of variable player powers, or the concept in board gaming that each player starts with an extra advantage or disadvantage from the beginning of the game.
Most of the games I use as teaching or introducing people to the hobby are symmetrical in as many ways as possible. It is easier to break down game concepts and illustrate options to players without having to remind them of little addendum or extracurricular goals. Depending on the complexity of player variation it can be distracting from learning the core mechanics of the game. In King of New York, every player starts out on equal footing, the option is there to customize your character above and beyond other players, but this is not a guaranteed strategy to victory. If I am going to teach players a game with variable player options, I usually ignore those differences until the player demonstrates a grasp of the maneuvers and choices that are available to all. One such exception is Forbidden Desert, where the various roles of Water Carrier, Navigator, and Explorer jump out to players immediately. It is these differences that must be capitalized to ensure victory in cooperative games.
Speaking of cooperative games, almost every dungeon crawler I have ever played involves very unique player options from the starts. This is sort of a staple of the genre and can make teaching games like Super Dungeon Explore and sometimes D&D difficult. When teaching these games I start as basically as possible, outlining the core goal of the game and how we will achieve it (kill monsters, explore the face down tiles, gather treasure, etc.) and then highlight strategies and benefits unique to each player. Most of these games involve choosing your variable player power, which can be a hard decision before even seeing the game in action. I usually boil the options down to very straightforward characters that don’t require much nuance. Everyone wants to play the Werewolf of the Deeproot Druid/Angry Bear, but the time it takes me to explain how difficult it is takes about as much time as falling flat on your furry face. In City of Thieves, the differences of each gang are almost always perks, so I just let people pick their favorite minis or color.
I think my favorite kind of variation on a player’s ability is represented in Euro Games. These almost always equate to an extracurricular way to score points that doesn’t hamper the normal flow of the game. Perhaps a player scores extra for certain buildings or using certain workers, building these sets or those sets. I think this is masterfully executed in Lords of Waterdeep. Each player has a secret advantage that depicts their end game, and experienced players can try to suss that secret out and exploit it. My first game was with a group of veterans who played the entire game under the pretense I had the builder card. I knew I didn’t have this card and had no idea what it was, but I continued to purchase buildings wily-nilly and never denied their accusations, I even role-played a little. At the end of the game I revealed I had a completely different card and still took the game.
I prefer games with subtle player variations over complex ones. I like just a little dash of difference, if I strive to try out a different one each time around it gives me the most mileage on a game. It can be a challenge to avoid using your favorite power when playing with a very competitive rival, why use the same method I always win with as a crutch? Doesn’t your opponent deserve to see a different side to your play style? Perhaps as much as you do. For now I grip the edge of my seat as the explosion of Spring board game news and kickstarter launches fly past me. Variety is the spice of life, but you don’t have to purchase a brand new box when many games have so much diversity built in if you can properly spin it.
What about your favorite games with variations? Are they complex, simple, or does asymmetry make you wheeze and wince?