There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.
My partner Katy’s made a great many board game trades recently. All the T.I.M.E. Stories are gone (!), but as I have a review of them coming out elsewhere soon, I shan’t talk about them here. Instead, gather ’round to hear the tale of how we ditched Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Dixit, Star Trek: Five-Year Mission and The Witches.
How could we get rid of such an august pillar of Eurogaming? Fairly easily, as it happens. I never wanted to actually play Puerto Rico. I had a positive aversion to the game, and would only participate if someone else in the party really wanted to. Katy thought for a good long while that this meant I hated ‘role selection’ games generally. I think that actually I just find Puerto Rico especially tedious.
I’m finding it hard to identify why Puerto Rico was mechanically such a drag, because I haven’t opened the box in ages–in fact I last played it when we were only somewhat into gaming. Perhaps this means that I should have given it another go, but honestly I wasn’t eager enough to do so to overcome Katy’s manic urge to pack a game the instant a trade’s accepted. Puerto Rico also isn’t considered a good two-player game. We didn’t have the Official two-player version, and you have to jury-rig a sub-optimal variant. Thus it’s not great for our two-person household.
Puerto Rico‘s art’s acceptable, and its components are fine as far as quality goes, but I’m never over the fact that the basic game concept is plantation slavery, and no one thinks that’s weird. That is weird. Calling the black-person-coloured little tokens ‘colonists’ (…) can’t really sufficiently abstract the game from its obvious historical inspiration, especially when you’re directing your ‘colonists’ to do all the productive actions of slave labour. That’s basically necessary in order for you to play. The game thus positions the player as historic overseer and omnipotent controller of fully-objectified workers rather than as participant.
They could have TRIED, you know? The colour of the tokens could have been green or blue rather than mahogany. ‘Puerto Rico’ could have been a historical location associated with colonists rather than slaves, or it could have been an invented fantastic location. The game’s available, necessary actions could have elided options like ‘work this plantation for me’. The underlying mechanics of colonialism might still have been at work (and ‘Eurogaming as a collection of colonial tropes and engines’ needs interrogated and deconstructed in its own right), but active racism might thus be thwarted.
Of course a racist male relative made a meeeeeal of this when we played because he’s the type of guy who thinks it’s funny to ‘get my goat’. This made the creepy content not just ‘Erin being over-sensitive’, but skin-crawlingly inescapable. Sure, it’s just a game. But I’m not keen on the idea of ‘Holocaust Monopoly’ either?
I do think the conceptual underpinnings made me less willing to engage with an otherwise loosely themed and mechanically ‘basic’ game. I don’t see Puerto Rico as all that similar to Race for the Galaxy, one of my all-time favs. I know they share a developmental lineage, but to me, that’s evidence that Puerto Rico was a key evolutionary building-block we’ve now rather moved beyond.
A friend was shocked that a game this tone-deaf/racist came out in 2002, and that that’s not *the thing* people say about Puerto Rico, which is, let me remind you, *the 12th most popular game on BGG*. Guess that’s what happens when a hobby’s pretty white&male, not self-reflexive and doesn’t give many fucks about inclusion?
As board gaming expands as a hobby, gaining more of a foothold in a broad base of casual players (exactly the sort of people who’ll be introduced to Puerto Rico as a classic game), this is really the kind of thing we’ve got to start critically examining. Are you going to comfortably teach Puerto Rico to your black friend who’s come to the game cafe to hang out with you and maybe get into this? If not, are you then comfortable playing it in her absence?
I struggle to see Power Grid as a Eurogame, really. To me it feels like a representative of the better class of ‘standard American board games’. I almost want to pop Ticket to Ride and Turn and Taxis, both of which I like better, in that category as well.
The theme is well-integrated, and while there’s nothing terribly objectionable about providing Germany with a better power infrastructure than your competitors (other than a demonstration of the massive logistical waste endemic to capitalist competition, I guess), there’s nothing terrible compelling about it either. The resource competition mechanism annoys me a little. I don’t tend to like petty, in-game push-pull shit with other players all that much. I’m fine with competing on a larger scale, but squabbling over resources is kind of distasteful. At ‘about 120 min’ (per BGG), Power Grid is rather long for what it is. It drags somewhat, and there’s not all that much to do in terms of making choices. The box is huge, and as shelf space is a finite commodity, that’s not a plus.
I don’t really know how Power Grid‘s ranked 23rd, other than that it’s not that difficult, so a lot of people must play it and then rank it highly? I suppose it’s a decent intro to more complex gaming and thus has a place in the ‘gaming lifecycle’. Peoples’ interests get more developed and specialised as they get more into gaming, and they get better at games generally. What initially seemed difficult and absorbing might now amount to two hours of going through the motions. Katy also changed her mind about gaming and themes some time after we bought Power Grid, and started to hunger for games with more enticing subject matter. We didn’t play Power Grid that much after we started to find games better suited to our particular developing palates, and I’d be a little surprised if people who’ve gotten deeper into the hobby find themselves turning to it all that often, except as newbie ‘seduction’ fare.
People in board gaming have the lowest art standards, I swear to god. Everyone raves about Dixit‘s cards and they’re… fine? You know, a bit fun. Sort of hotel paintingy, but you could almost see some of them on the cover of a mediocre collection of Angela Carter reprints.
Dixit has a simple mechanic. People have hands of cards with mysterious semi-surrealist paintings on them. They go in turns to say a clue, which they hope will lead one and only one other person to guess their card correctly. Everyone else then chooses and lays down one of their cards, and everyone tries to guess the ‘correct’ card that inspired the initial clue. Points are awarded to the clue-giver for having one person guess, and not awarded for garnering either no correct responses or too many. Other players whose contributions fool people into thinking their submission was the one the clue related to receive points. Correct guesses also get you points.
Gameplay is fairly fun, and I like that Dixit relies on intuitive, social intelligences and communal clue-giving. It works more like charades or something than a traditional Eurogame.
The problem becomes, who the fuck do you play Dixit with? In any group of people gathered together to play games, it is really easy, due to the uneven nature of social relationships, to clue one and only one person into most hints. People have varying degrees of shared references, and know one another from different places. It’s not fair for me to play with my girlfriend Katy and anyone else: a giant clam comes up, and I could play badly on purpose and say ‘pearl’, but I can also just say ‘Harry Sullivan’. Katy knows Doctor Who as well as I do and will definitely remember the time in “Genesis of the Daleks” when the companion of that name was memorably almost eaten by a giant clam. If we play with my sister, that favours me, because I know both of them better than they know one another. If we play with Katy’s work friend, that favours Katy. No composition of people won’t be lop-sided. You’d have to all know one another fairly poorly and not have lots in common (in which case why are you playing board games, how excruciating) or all know one another about equally well and share about an equal degree of cultural context. I guess I could save Dixit for a reunion of my uni housemates, but even in that ideal scenario–I still have a bestie? He and I would fucking own? If you played with two couples the advantage would still be with the person better friends with one member of the couple. Dixit might be a uniquely awkward way of making that sort of thing obvious.
I guess you could deliberately try to play Dixit badly by eschewing all ‘personal’ clues, but that sounds difficult to do and like an unpleasant play experience. A game that requires you to fuck it up so it’s functional is a bit broken. Also it’s for 3-6, which makes it not great for our two person (occasionally ‘plus variable numbers of guests’) household.
Maybe Dixit works better for people without really developed shared bodies of knowledge. People without fandoms or anything like them, essentially. But it’s a board game. Played by nerds. So good luck with that, I guess.
STAR TREK: FIVE-YEAR MISSION
When I first got this game, the fast pace and relentless cascades of consequences annoyed the hell out of me. We were still often bad at it when we got rid of it. We couldn’t play it that much because it’s for 3-7 people, and we are most often a party of two. Perhaps if we’d played it more we would have gotten speedier, but it’s a dice-based game, so while there are a lot of decisions to make, there’s also a ton of luck involved. We never played it with more than three people–it might have been easier if we had, though of course given that every person must add another challenge to the stack when they begin their turn, more crew members means more problems. However it would also mean more of the die that solve problems in play, so I think ultimately it’d have been in our favour.
I don’t think we were ever in agreement about how collaborative Five-Year Mission was supposed to be. I thought fairly fully, i.e. you can make suggestions to the currently-placing player, whereas Katy thought that was out of order.
Because it necessitated an additional player, this got brought out as a sort of ‘party game’ when we were visited by people who also liked Star Trek: a stressful, random barrage of shit happening while you ran out of time and your beloved ship was destroyed. Welcome to our house, I guess.
Five-Year Mission combined a theme I’m deeply interested in with no plot to speak of, random dice-rolling over engine-building and decisions, timed elements and threat-addition: my only hate sprung from my only love. It was like a pizza topped with sardines, or an ice cream sundae where the chocolate scoop is actually just a big shit. Frustrating. Unhygienic.
The designer of the excellent Discworld: Ankh Morpork also brought us The Witches, and both games’ theming is on-point. Fun, detail-heavy, integral to the mechanic, worked through the components and play, developed, pleasing to the fan but not alienating for the novice: everything you want theming to be in this type of game.
It’s unfair to compare the mechanics of The Witches to those of its sister-game, D: A-M, because D: A-M is one of the most mechanically exciting, promising titles in the past several years, and few things are in its league. But if I were going to do that unfair thing, Witches would be a bit of a let-down. It’s fine, pleasant even, but a bit too dice-rolly and luck based. The strategy, card-based, deck-building element is the most successful component of the game, but even that is very ‘luck of the draw’.
The Witches is a goodish game I would happily have played more, but it was never destined to be a perennial favourite, and I wasn’t that sorry to lose it.
So what did we trade away all those games to try?
A Study in Emerald
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Boardgame (2002) (not, unfortunately, a game with almost the exact same name, which she thought she was purchasing)
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1981)
Near and Far
Marrying Mr Darcy
Lords of Waterdeep
A few of these Katy also found going used/at good rates. One (Near&Far) she bought full price, and on the day it came out (she really liked Above&Below). But in general, this is just the trading system working out well for us.