Sunday, March 24, 2013

Selecting games for a session

A good game session is one that is fun and social. It also needs to cater to various game preferences (theme, complexity, duration etc.) while ensuring that everyone has a memorable time. One essential component to a good game session is the selection of games made available for that session.

I view a game session as a good meal - it needs to be balanced while providing adequate variety. Accordingly, I've come up with a classification system based on how a game fits into a session:
  1. Filler games
  2. Light games
  3. Casual games
  4. Geeky games
  5. Party games
  6. "Only if in the appropriate mood / with the right group" games
Filler games (equivalent of little snacks that you can nibble on any time): These are games which can be played in 15 minutes or less. Typically, the rules are also easy to explain and game play can comfortably co-exist with casual conversation. The games are perfect to start off a games session or to play in-between when people want washroom / coffee breaks. These are also ideal to play with non-gamers (those who dont really enjoy playing games but are nice enough to join in if that's the activity the group wants to indulge in). Most filler games are 90% (or more) luck. Some examples from my collection: No Thanks!, UNO, Cant Stop, Yahtzee!

Light games (equivalent of a soup or dessert): These games play in about 30 minutes and the rules and gameplay are somewhat more elaborate than those of fillers. While the game allows for casual conversation, it does require a certain amount of focus and concentration (at the very least, during one's turn) to make good plays. There is a good amount of luck involved but is balanced by some meaningful decisions to be made every turn. For Sale, Archaeology, Battle Line, Stratego, Bottle Imp would be examples of light games from my collection.

Casual games (equivalent of an appetizer): Casual games are one step up from light games in mechanics and game play complexity. Even so, most casual games also play in about 30-60 minutes. Chit-chat is not a game killer but given the involvement required to play the game well, most of the banter will be around what is happening on the table. Many gateway games (i.e., games to introduce to those who are new to the boardgaming hobby to get them hooked) are typically casual games. Casual games are the tipping point where strategy begins to overshadow luck. I would classify Forbidden Island, Dominion, Blokus, Rummikub, Cluedo etc. as casual games

Geeky games (equivalent of the main course): Geeky games typically have detailed themes, elaborate gameplay mechanics, and a steeper-than-normal learning curve. Understanding the full depth of a geeky game typically takes 2-3 games. Mastering the game can take a lifetime. Chess and Checkers (despite the absence of a theme) are well known games I classify as "geeky". Geeky games can take anywhere between 30 - 150 minutes per game and require focused attention for the full duration of the game. They minimize the role of luck by incorporating "multiple paths to victory" and the mechanics typically are not conducive to the "runaway leader" phenomenon (i.e., where the gap between a person in the lead and the person in the second place can quickly become so wide that there is limited, if any, chance of any of the non-leaders bridging that gap). Thurn and Taxis, Steam, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, The Bridges of Shangri-la, Glory to Rome, and Caylus are all geeky games. Some of the cooperative games which are heavy on theme (such as Shadows Over Camelot or Lord of the Rings) are also geeky because the ability to understand and appreciate the mechanics requires knowledge of the particular topic.

Party games: These are excellent to play in teams to enliven a party. Rules are generally quite simple. Game play duration and win conditions can be determined by the participants depending on their mood and time available. Cranium Wow, Taboo, Pictionary are all classic party games.

"Only if in the appropriate mood / with the right group" games: These are games that are enjoyable only if one is in the right mood and with a like minded group. Cutthroat Caverns in my favourite example of this. To enjoy Cutthroat Caverns, you need to be in a "bash the leader" mood and have a group that can balance cooperative play with opportunistic backstabbing and yet not take it personally once the game is over. Similarly, Monopoly is fun only if you have a group which is OK with player elimination and "runaway leader" mechanic and the objective of ruthlessly bankrupting everyone else to be the last (wo)man standing. Other such games are Apples to Apples and Dixit (both are very subjective in determining a "win" and it helps a huge lot to know the group you are playing with as people - their personalities, hobbies, interests, viewpoints etc. - and not just as gaming buddies).

Naturally, the demarcation lines between the various categories can be quite thin and the classification of a game sometimes does not neatly fit into one category alone. Even so, I have found the above classification helpful when deciding which games to put on the table for a game session.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The top 10 vs. The top 10

I consider myself a larval geek gamer i.e., I play board games often, have played /own more titles than the average person, am open to new games, and enjoy those that are medium-heavy or even heavy in mechanics and game play. Living in India, it is hard enough to find people even willing to play board games much less the "geeky" board games.

My guess is that the following would be the top 10 board games that an average non-gamer I know would most willingly play:

  1. UNO / Card Games (incl. poker)
  2. Scrabble
  3. Taboo
  4. Pictionary
  5. Monopoly
  6. Trivial Pursuit
  7. Cluedo
  8. Chess 
  9. Checkers
  10. Battleship
And just from my current small collection of 40+ games, here are the top 10 that I am most willing to play anytime (only those games considered whose rules can be explained in 5 minutes or less):

  1. Blokus
  2. Scrabble
  3. Rummikub
  4. Jaipur
  5. Archaeology
  6. No Thanks!
  7. Othello
  8. Upwords
  9. Checolo
  10. Stratego
That's a grand total of one game in common (Scrabble) and even then, considering that most people don't like to play with obscure words, aren't aware of the word lists (especially the twos), bingo stems and strategies, so when we do play it is like we are playing two different games. Sigh.

I think it is a pity most people (and more so in India) have no opportunity to be exposed to the variety of interesting and fun board games in the market. Board gaming a cheaper, more social, more fun hobby than (say) spending time at malls shopping for stuff you don't really need, eating unhealthy food in restaurants, or watching random movies. Mind you, I've nothing against movies or eating out per se (I enjoy both on occasion) but if the default answer to "I'm bored today. What can we do?" is always one of "Let's go watch some movie / let's go shopping / let's go eat something at a restaurant", I think that's tragic.

Hopefully as more people travel abroad, learn of board games, and experiment with the hobby, board gaming will become a more preferred entertainment option. Amen.