There are two unassailable truths about existence: first: there is an unbridgable gap between knowing the self and knowing others; and second: I definitely left my keys right here and now they’re gone.
While we can never fully grasp the implications of the latter, the first is reasonably easy to deal with. In our case we are going to look at board games (this being a board game podcast it seemed somewhat appropriate) and talk about the discrepancy between perception and reality. In other words, what do non-gamers see in this hobby as opposed to us.
Our stay at the guild is short, yet fruitful as we talk about unsalvagable rules and mechanics according to the most discerning listenership in all of boardgaming, and the one that is far too clever to be taken in by cheap flattery. (41:20)
The board game professor (commonly known as Nick Mariner) has come to bury Mombasa, not to praise it. Or at the very least talk about the good and the bad of it. (01:08:40)
This episode’s review (01:22:18) looks at a game that sets out to tackle questions of ethics, morality and metaphysics… by way of killing a bunch of things for fun and profit. We talk about one of the many recently released Eric Lang games: The Others.
It’s not always easy to review a game. Sometimes it’s because you’re too dense to figure it out, even after reading the rulebook twenty times. Sometimes it’s because putting the undeniable strengths and the blatantly apparent weaknesses of a game into words seems to cause more confusion than clarity. Or sometimes it’s even because your opinion runs so hilariously counter to everybody else’s, that the task of carefully and clearly laying out the reasons why a game fails, and gearing up to defend and argue your position just isn’t really worth the bother.
Hein? (or Huh?) fits none of these categories. This is a game that is hard to review, because its design seems so minimalistic that it is barely perceptible. Hein? is basically spoken Charades using a Dixit-like scoring method.
There. That’s it. Review over. If you know Charades and Dixit, you should know whether this game is for you. Or not.
No seriously, there’s little to say here. It’s like reviewing a re-themed version of Monopoly. Although, admittedly that comparison is a little off, since Monopoly is actually awful. (And I don’t care if people have fun with it or not. Arguing that Monopoly is in fact a good game, is like arguing that McDonald’s food is in fact healthy for you. It just isn’t. Stop deluding yourself. It really doesn’t matter how much you love any of their burgers.)
Admittedly, if there is one thing that can be said about Hein?… it is that it may not be ambitious enough in putting a new twist on an established idea. Yes, the scoring mechanism works very well. It gives players a challenge – vaguely reminiscent of Codenames – to tackle: reduce your hint to the absolute minimum and do it as subtly and cleverly as you can to make sure that as few people as possible actually catch on.
By doing so, your attention is drawn to the game portion of Charades as opposed to the activity of prancing about urging your team to say “fish” instead of regurgitating the same three ways of calling Prince by name. You are trying to get into people’s heads, your mining your shared knowledge of pop culture (as this edition of Hein? deals exclusively with movies, celebrities and TV) and choose your words very, very carefully.
Of course, it goes without saying, that this only works if you care about scoring points at all. Something that a great many games of Charades quickly dispense with as the evening drags on, because yelling at each other is just so much gosh-darn fun.
But fun is something that Hein? actually does fairly competently. It’s not a game to revolutionise the outer fringes of board gaming, where aunts, uncles and grand-parents converge to indulge their “playful” side. Yet it is a decidedly non-painful way of playing a game with people who feel intimidated or uneasy in the presence of more than one die, actual artwork on a board or cards with more than one game-function to them.
Still, Hein? lacks the one special ingredient to make people sit up and take notice. The je-ne-sais-quoi of game design. Like suggesting to play Twister in mixed company. (Or if I were still in puberty: non-mixed company.)
As it is, Hein? is a perfectly servicable, arguably superiour alternative to a basic parlor or trivia game. It’s not a ground-breaking, must-have addition to people’s collection. It’s a great gift to bring to your in-laws, even if it won’t get them excited or interested in some of the more unique pleasures of board gaming. And maybe that’s ok. Not every game that is good, needs to be ground-breaking and redefine its genre. Sometimes good is good enough.
In our little, local, gaming group Boffo is an intractable coot, Jobbers is painfully-prone to AP, Byll witters when he should be taking his moves and Smudge (frustratingly) doesn’t like PvP combat in games; none of this is of any consequence, however, because I love them all dearly…and, besides, I’m a volatile prima donna myself. Mind you, I don’t pretend that they are the bosomest of bosom buddies – we barely meet outside of a gaming context (if at all, in some cases) – but my life is most-definitely richer for having them in it.
In a wider world context, I have enjoyed the most excellent company of gamers since getting in to Magic: The Gathering in the late 90s: ‘Friday Night Magic’, Nationals, GP and PTQs; indeed, from 1999 through to 2001, halls up-and-down the UK would be filled with the same 128 faces. Since Surprised Stare Games, and my own evolution in game designing, have developed through the 2000s, the circle of acquaintances has exponentially – and Internationally – increased and its utterly brilliant: heart-swellingly, trouser-stiffeningly wonderful. If anything could be said to illustrate this best then it would be my experience at Essen 2016 (you can read a daily summary on my BGG blog) with every evening spent talking, laughing and breaking bread with friends old and new…no games in sight!
The downside is, of course, that real life likes to chip it’s oar in now and again; the cosy, colourful bubble that my hobby inhabits is pierced by the knitting needle of a cold and indifferent Universe – sometimes we lose people. Be these losses for personal, professional, criminal and/or mortal reasons, our gaming groups are ever-evolving; some, like mine, change tectonically-slowly while others are like one of those frenetic, time-lapsed clips of a busy railway station. So, I cherish my group – and its petty foibles – because the alternative is playing with oneself or (even worse) elitism; thus, I say:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you a starting hand (and set of wooden pieces in your colour). Take a Turn Reference card and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find I won’t crush you in your first game. For my jokes are cheesy and my boardgame is light.
(This article is dedicated to the memory of my dear gamer pal Peter ‘Greblord’ Armstrong – R.I.P)
Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark… allegedly… we can’t find any evidence for it really, except for some dusty old folios in Ye Olde English Library… but what Ben did find during his northern adventures were 30 minutes with Danish designer Asger Granerud.
Over the course of gaming history some ideas have been banished into the wilderness, to be forgotten… or at the very least ridiculed and dismissed as superstitions of an older, less civilized time.
But not everything old is bad. (Although, admittedly it might as well be.) There are some things worth rescuing. And if not that, we can at least recognise that certain practices served a purpose then and may still serve a purpose now. What am I babbling about?… well this week’s topic of course: the ostracized rules mechanisms of yesteryear.
In our guild we look at your guidance as to whether evangelising the hobby is a good or bad thing, and whether we even should. (36:25)
And finally we review Barcelona: The Rose of Fire (01:05:05). A beautiful game of property expansion, people coming to a city to make a future for themselves and something about the growing threat of anarchy breaking out. I’m not telling if it’s at the table or in the game… and which one of those two may be preferable.
I wear ear plugs to bed. Uncomfortable wads of polyurethane foam stuffed into my auditory canals. An inelegant but effective solution to the problem of pissed people screaming at the top of their lungs; Chicago, The Doobie Brothers and Skynard blasted through my walls and the swish-honk-swish of the fleets of cars, that make their endless parade past my bedroom at three o’clock in the morning. Living in the city is the price I pay for my arts degree. I stand before the dour threshold of middle age, qualified for nothing and living cheek by jowl, with humanity at its noise generating worst, because if you’d put a hammer into my hands, I’d try to sing into it.
T’was not always thus, though. I was raised in a bucolic idyll. Childhood summers filled with endless days, clumping through sweet-scented orchards or wheat fields being transformed by the alchemy of the sun. I remember lying, lizard like, on hay bales, soaking in the syrupy early autumn heat, feeling the countryside leech into my blood. Screwing my face up at the sourness of freshly scrumped fruit and throwing clods of mud at friend and foe alike. Those formative years made me into a “country person”, so much so that if you cut me I smell like composting grass and oak apples.
This is why Cottage Garden, the first game from Berlin imprint Edition Spielwiese and the umpteenth from game design Titan Uwe Rosenberg made me salivate like one of those dogs that got too friendly with a Russian psychologist.
This is a game that enters the room waving faded Polaroid pictures of me weaving in and out of my Auntie’s bean poles and eating garden peas directly from the pod. It promises to pull me out of the white noise and dirt of the city and plonk me into a land of eternal gentle summer where strawberry cake abounds. It promises to do this; but does it achieve it?
Uwe Rosenberg is an iterative designer. His games are built on the foundations of his previous ones. He tweaks and teases rather than starting anew. His influences shine through strongly in each of his designs and his influence is always and unabashedly, Uwe Rosenberg.
Cottage Garden owes a lot to Patchwork, a beautifully tight, two-player race that pits you against your opponent but also the tyranny of time as you scramble to build a button-rich quilt. Patchwork is a tense game and a harsh game and, due to its two player nature, can be a zero sum game. Patchwork is pure stitch and bitch and it is all the more glorious for it.
Cottage Garden, while superficially similar, is a much more gentle pursuit. Rosenberg’s iterationon his original system allows for player error in ways that Patchwork never does.
Players are parochial horticulturalists, trying to find the perfect arrangement for their newly acquired box hedges and hardy perennials. This is simulated by the players choosing from a pool of polyominoes and placing them on their square-gridded garden beds. The goal is to cover every available square except the ones that are already occupied by clay flower pots or blown glass plant covers. When every space in the bed is filled, they are scored with the flower pots yielding one point each and the covers yielding two. Then you grab another bed and start again. Tokens with cats on them can be used to cover single squares or point gifting pots can be bought at the cost of your access to a plant tile for a turn. After six rounds, the gardener who managed to leave the most pots and covers intact wins the game.
This is a game that trades fully on its gentility. From the E.H Shepardesque artwork, blooming with hydrangeas and lazy bumble bees, to the pleasing tactility of laying those puzzle pieces; Cottage Garden is a game that strives for pleasantness rather than challenge and in this it succeeds admirably.
There is a game here but it is much more forgiving than its snarled up predecessor. In Patchwork there is no recycling of tiles. Once a tile is taken and laid on the board, there it stays. In Cottage Garden as soon as you complete a plant bed, the tiles are added back into the general supply. The choices in Patchwork are like tattoos while in Cottage Garden they are more like a haircut. They may be disastrous now but they don’t mark you for the rest of your life. If you make a mistake you can ride it out and, in time, fix it. It’s not like you’ve had an India ink spider web needled onto your private parts.
It is in its gentleness that Cottage Garden revels and in its gentleness that it succeeds. This is a game that is a pleasure to play. Cottage Garden works the brain while lowering the blood pressure and while it is true that a diet of clotted cream and summer pudding would result in angina and gout, there is no doubt that a little bit of what you fancy does you good. Just as the right doses of gentle, pleasurable games like Cottage Garden can be a veritable polish to the soul.
Those hazy, sleepy, sepia days of my childhood are gone for good. Only traces of them remain in regret or nostalgia but Cottage Garden, for the hour it takes to play, gives me a feeling of what it was like ramble through those corn fields or be taught a forward defensive stroke by my father and for that I applaud it and highly recommend you play it.
After that bit of shameful self-promotion, we dive into our topic… ominously (or confusingly) named: The Board Game Encyclical. All about the unique cultural traits and dynamics of this hobby, and maybe what to do about them?
The great TC Petty III. once more spews wisdom, hard-earned experience and at least one naughty word in Deep Design (38:56) all about The Hook. Which contrary to common belief is not the porn name of anybody on the show… any longer… but that magic quality of a game that makes it click. Shouldn’t it then be called the Switch? (Although that IS the porn name, one of us currently uses… so… moving on.)
Comrade Nick introduces you all to Marxism by way of talking about the socio-political commentary buried within Euphoria: Build A Better Dystopia. All this is of course done in the name of higher learning as he is The Boardgame Professor. (1:15:35)
When I stumbled over Inspire: Works of Mercy in my preparation for Spiel 2016 I was intrigued by the hook of the game: you go out to help people in need. Not in a somewhat abstracted, top-level manner where you eradicate dangerous diseases before they spread out and cause harm. Nor in that almost superheroic manner where you drag a young woman (and later her dog) out of a burning building before it collapses on top of you. Instead you reach out to people who are homeless, who suffer from addiction or depression. You reach out and try to help them. The problems in this game are normal life-type issues. This grounds the game, makes it relatable and to be honest… kind of awesome.
Unfortunately the rest of the game’s ideas are hopelessly outdated and barely functional. You lay out cards in a 5×5 grid, representing people that need help and people that may support you in helping others. In order to move your cube towards one of the people in need, you roll a die. In order to help them, you need to spend resources depicted on the card you landed on, which you get by first moving to one of the corner spaces of the play area and rolling a die. In the tradition of such game design luminaries as Snakes & Ladders or Monopoly, dice make all relevant decisions for you.
To be fair, the game does have a kernel of two good ideas buried within it. The card piles of “people in need” and “helpers”, that make up the play area, are both are face down, so you don’t know what awaits you when you end your turn there. Some cards have arrows on them, that add costs to moving off of them in a specific direction. This could have been used to make movement a clever and engaging little puzzle. But since the cards are set up in an alternating pattern, it only matters if you’ve rolled an odd or even number. Odd numbers will move you onto a different card type, even numbers will move you onto the same card type you started on.
The other kernel of a good idea is the introduction of an “everybody loses” ending to the game to encourage cooperation among players. When you reveal a person in need that you can’t help, other players may spend their resources to keep the card from being discarded. If they don’t, the card is removed from the game, and once you’ve discarded 7 cards this way, everybody loses. But since players are actually capable of counting, this threat is both toothless and easily ignored.
Basically, the game is not very good. It replaces decision-making with randomness, and the short bursts of enjoyment when you can claim to have helped a lonely old man by showing an interest in him, and giving him a gift… are simply not enough to keep you engaged for the 20 minutes it takes to play this game.
Which means now is about the right time to talk about the game’s central idea: Christianity.
Inspire is clearly not supposed to be played as a game, to foster social interaction, to create a space for play or even appeal to the puzzle-solving or challenge-seeking player. Inspire exists to promote Christianity. Most likely Roman Catholicism, since that is the most wide-spread strand of Christianity in Poland.
In fairness, it’s not particularly shy or coy about it. The box comes with a small booklet named “Message of the Game” and has short descriptions of the historical and fictional characters featured on the cards. As well as an “inspiring” (Get it? Get it? Did you get it?) opening chapter that talks about the power of mercy, and God’s love… and possibly accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour. (I am not sure about the last part actually, my booklet was badly miscut.)
Honestly, all of this isn’t much of an issue – assuming that you don’t have any particularly complicated feelings towards organised religion. You could insist that a depression isn’t cured with a nice chat, a gift and a job offer. Which is all true. But then, neither do you plant and harvest a wheat field by putting one worker in it. Nor does the crop double in size, because you send their brother after them. Call it abstraction or simplification, but it would seem strange to criticize Inspire for doing what all games do.
Sure, you could also get offended that being a non-conformist (“rebellious”), an atheist or an orphan is treated as a personal crisis akin to unemployment, homelessness or addiction. Yet a game like Chaos in the Old World rewards you for murdering innocent peasants and we treat it as a non-event and trivial fiction.
Because it is.
Actual murder is awful and harrowing. Rolling a 4-6 and removing a piece of cardboard from the table… is not. Whether a card says Atheist or Conservative doesn’t really matter. Sure, in reality one means that you’ve given your soul over to eternal damnation and abandoned what moral compass you had, and the other that you don’t believe in the existence of god(s)… but in the end it’s only words. We don’t celebrate murder, because we slaughter peasants for points; nor do we assume atheists are deeply unhappy people, because we get to “help” them in this game.
Ultimately the idea of helping people in need is great and fun. Inspire is at least respectful enough of non-Christians (the atheist card notwithstanding), that the tokens used to aid people have a religion-themed name and a secular name. Prayer is also conversation. Word of God is also “kind word”. You can easily fill in the thematic negative space with a narrative about how you had a heartfelt conversation, gave somebody a gift or spend some time together to help them turn their life around.
Whatever good intention of promoting kindness, solidarity and compassion might have found an outlet in people turning to the bible, which in turn led to the creation of this game… Inspire’s design simply falls short of capturing anything but the most superficial details of it all. The act of helping people becomes rote and mechanical as you play. There is no uncertainty, no risk of failure, no sacrifice. The ennobling act of helping the helpless is instead replaced with players reading out a card’s flavour text, i.e. quote from the Bible, as if it were a game of Arkham Horror.
Inspire is simply not very good. The rules fail to coalesce into an interesting game. It is not even a good piece of Christian marketing, but possibly on par with a typical issue of The Watchtower.
Inspire’s game is pasted on and that is how it undoes whatever missionary purpose it was supposed to have. It doesn’t fail, because it’s religious, but because the game fails to promote the values with which Christianity promotes itself.