Entries in Boardgames (4)
One of my favourite topics here at LvlofDetail is an examination of complexity & streamlining: I’ve written several posts on the topic. Twilight Imperium is the opposite of all of that.
The box contains over 350 pieces and is about two feet long. Average playing time according to BoardGameGeek is four hours, and that’s assuming a skilled group who knows how it’s played. My group had one skilled player and four new players. We played from 1:00 PM until about 6:00, when we decided to drop it and play Munchkin, an utterly delightful game that’s everything a fun casual game can be.
Twilight Imperium took about half an hour to set up, including a basic introduction of how to win (amass 10 victory points) and a quick explanation of some of the stuff I need to keep track of. There are command points, used for “activating” star systems, strategic points, used for taking advantage of secondary actions played by your enemies, fleet points which govern the maximum size of your fleet in any given system, resources, and influence. Because opposing alien nations at war will often vote and be bound by on the law, so having some influence on your side can help. Right.
Anyways, one of the core game mechanics is “activating” systems. For example, when I want to move my two cruisers over to another system, I need to “activate it”, sending my cruisers over. Say I want to then move some ground forces over in a carrier to take over a planet; I can’t move them, because the system is already “activated”. Why? No fucking idea. That’s Twilight Imperium.
IMO, all (or nearly all) actions you can take in a board game should have some sort of real-life action associated with them. Activating systems doesn’t mean anything, it’s just an idiotic game mechanic. The most abstract board game I play is probably Puzzle Strike, but nearly everything in that has a direct correlation to piece of design from a gem fighting game. Activating star systems makes no sense, and so do “ground troops”. If we’re these super-powerful space civilizations, why do we still need specialized ground troops? Does the Death Star (I’m sorry, the “War Sun”) not have troops capable of taking a planet? Also, moving ground troops is just awkward, because they need a carrier to ferry them from place to place. Finally, we just gave up before they actually got into a fight.
That’s right. Five hours of Twilight Imperium and not a single bit of space conflict happened. The time was entirely setup, attempts to explain the rules, and space economic growth. Whoop-dee-doo. There wasn’t even an illogical political conflict!
In any event, after several hours of brutally trying to slog through it, I realized something: when you have a game this complex, it should not be represented by a board game. I’m sure that hardcore wargame / Twilight Imperium fans love it, but I don’t think this game is made to be a boardgame. It should be a videogame.
This is precisely an advantage of videogames over boardgames. Show me exactly which actions I can take, grey out what I can’t do. Let me focus on the strategy & social element, rather than trying to figure out a game far more complex than Civilization 4. Let me watch Netflix on my second monitor, so I don’t need to pretend to be interested in how the guy across from me is researching Cybernetics.
In short, I pretty much hated Twilight Imperium. Everything that people hate about Risk is amplified to the nth degree, but without the simple game mechanics. I don’t even want to know how long Twilight Imperium would have run if we didn’t cut it short, and I hope to never play it again.
In a previous post I mentioned one reason why Agricola didn’t work at a board games night: it was too long, and too much of a risk.
My biggest concern, however, is that it’s a total pain in the ass to learn. The manual is twelve pages long (plus diagrams on large cardboard pieces). When pasted into my word processor, the manual is 14000+ words. Fourteen thousand. Longreads.com estimates a 3000 word article takes 11 minutes to read; I’ll let you extrapolate from there. This doesn’t even factor in time required for rule comprehension. My girlfriend and I managed to dig up a multi-part Youtube video of two guys explaining and demonstrating the rules, which helped enormously. (Side note: this is the video. Highlight: six minutes of explaining game pieces alone). So we tried a 2 player match to learn the rules before we presented it to the group, yet we were still unsure of good potential strategies.
Thus, when the group did try playing Agricola, we were sort of playing blind. “Are buying Fences now a good idea?” “No clue”. We were sort of bumbling around with no guidance on how we should proceed. Picking random action spaces isn’t compelling gameplay. Should I amass sheep? Get a massive amount of wheat? (Protip: don’t just amass wheat. You lose points for not having other farm elements like animals.)
While the basic mechanics can be learned with an online video or two, how they gel together is not. I know I need to earn “points”, but how the hell should I do that?
The game mechanics and strategies need to be explained for the game to be engaging. Something like Starcraft teaches the strategies in the campaign mode (“Use Hellions to deal with large swarms of Zerglings!”). Yomi is at it’s core dolled up rock-paper-scissors, so everything you do revolves around that. Street Fighter games have many strategies, but the end goal is always extremely clear. Furthermore, strategies are visually implied by your character: Zangief looks like a big heavy bruiser. Even new players are likely to recognize that Sakura will play much differently from Zangief. Thus, while they cannot determine which is the best character to use for them, it at least provides something with which to base your learning on. Agricola provides … nothing. Without a knowledgable player to mentor you, you’ll just have to pick a strategy and see if it works for the next two hours.
Now, I’m not just here to rant: I have a suggestion. Imagine a little bit near the start of the manual, listing the basis of three or four potential strategies for Agricola. Like “Try farming lots of wheat, then transitioning to vegetables” or “Try rushing for a big family quickly, then use your additional actions to grow as much wheat as you can”. Sort of like how Dominion has suggested card combinations for your first games, Agricola could provide simple strategy bases like those to get beginning players up and running.
Despite this, I really like Agricola. What little I’ve played has been extremely enjoyable. It’s just that I feel it would be much more popular if it included better documentation. And poor documentation/tutorials is not at all unique to Agricola. That’s just my example for today.
“Chunking” is my preferred method of playing games. And no, it’s not sitting down for epic 14+ hour stints and crushing a huge amount of gameplay into a small space (although the rare time I can do that is pretty awesome). It’s actually taking a longer, epic game, and breaking it down into easily digestible chunks. This makes it insanely easy to maintain a commitment to a long game.
Admittedly, I repurposed the psychological theory of “chunking” for this post. Chunking allows our minds to remember long strings of information by squeezing them into related “chunks”. So if my password to log into LvlofDetail is ‘dndmtgwowlbp’, I can chunk it into ‘dnd-mtg-wow-lbp’, four acronyms that are well known to me. Thus, I’m only really remembering four chunks, rather than 12, making this password string easy to remember. Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a fifty hour game: it’s actually fifty hour-long games.
A chunkable game can stretch over weeks or months. Asynchronous online games are built on this idea. Chunking is the only reasonable way to play most games.
What got me writing about chunking is that you can’t easily chunk board games. Sure, you can leave your game of Risk on the table and come back to it after lunch, but it’s really hard to come back to it after a long wait, and even harder to keep the entire table pristine. With digital versions of board games, it’s quite easy to chunk them.
I think that this is why my “Summer of Board Games” didn’t quite pan out. Frankly, many board games simply require serious commitment, and can’t be chunked. I whipped out Agricola at a board game night a week ago, but the reception was lukewarm. Not just because an individual game of Agricola would take a long time, but also because we weren’t sure what would happen in the next two hours. If somebody were to arrive, what would we do? It’s not like we could save and continue tomorrow. Instead, most of my friends preferred to play several games of Magic the Gathering, and how could I blame them? The next game I really want to try is Arkham Horror, but with a suggested playing time of 240 minutes according to BoardGameGeek, that’s a big risk to take right after the $70 Agricola failure.
I’ve sort of digressed here, and I actually cut a chunk out for a future post. Rather than letting this diverge from my original idea even further, I’m instead going to continue a week-long Civilization V game; Genghis Khan has to finish crushing Egypt.