Negotiation is a skill. In some cases it is even an art. Negotiation in board games on the other hand is something of an unanswered question mark. Today’s lecture will touch upon how board games incorporate negotiation and how to recognise it.
(There is also mention of the best negotiation game currently on the market. And it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of right now.)
We are leaping headfirst into the unknown… like that Assassin’s Creed guy Fassbender… and boldly throw out episode 34 of this fancy podcast. This time Ben & I talk about conflict in board games. Inevitable and ubiquitous as it may seem, there is still something about being at cross purposes that is cause for friction and unease. So why not bring it out into the open?
Then T.C. Petty III voices his unique take on dominance in Deep Design, touching on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how to deal with dominant strategies (35:35).
We then return to the guild (48:44) and it has been quite busy in our absence. Ben asked if professionalism in board games is a good or bad thing, and the replies have been as enlightening as ever.
Another short commercial break for our sponsor Spielpro.com (1:09:07).
The ever eloquent Nick Mariner speaks as The Boardgame Professor and delights, excites and educumirificates for your and all our betterment (1:10:42). And more importantly draws his blinding analytical gaze to Penny Press.
And finally we review Kreo (or Kreus) by Cooi Mini or Not & Sweet Games. A cooperative card game that may run the risk of being overlooked in the oncoming deluge of heavy hitters. Does it deserve a closer look? We know and we aren’t telling!
If our world were to carry a motto, a legend that would simultaneously underline the core essence of human existence, while transcending those deviations that are caused by social structures and cultural mores, that motto would be ‘might makes right’.
From the dragon-haunted days of warring states China to our current folly of handing the reins of our fragile planet to a rampaging Id, wrapped in orange bacon and topped with a piss-coloured wig, the ability to thump one’s chest and roar as loud as possible has been the way to get on in the world.
The art of the deal has never been clever manipulation, no matter what Machiavelli or Milton Friedman may tell you, but the ability to not show even the slightest remorse as you relentlessly pummel your opponent into the shag pile carpet. Whether that be using a beautifully tempered Guandao or the cast iron certainty that even your lies are true.
This is why CMON and FFG stand so tall in board gaming. It is their sheer adherence to might above all else. If the oil fields of plastic don’t get ya, then buying up all the distribution channels will.
The result of this is that small and delicate voices can be crushed under the sheer volume of weightier titles.
This is what happened to Between Two Cities, the wonderful partnership city building game from Stonemaier Games. No sooner had it been released than Scythe came and stomped all over it with its huge, metal feet.
Between Two Cities was drowned in the smoke of choking diesel and the roars of Siberian tigers and while it’s gargantuan stable mate is of undoubted quality, I want to put a case across for the little guy, and I speak, not as a hollow demagogue, manipulating your prejudices for my own ends, but as someone who feels that there is always room for a subtle voice that implores us to find a more amicable solution.
In this game cities are built between players and each player contributes to the city on their right and their left. Players draft two tiles, 7 Wonders style, then place them into their cities. Tiles represent entertainment establishments, residential buildings, offices and factories. Particular placements score points in particular ways. For instance, entertainment buildings score more points the more of them there are in a city, and offices get bonus points, if they’re next to them, because there is no better antidote to the workaday life than cirrhosis of the liver.
Tiles are placed, draft direction is reversed and reversed again until between each player a four by four grid is sat, that represents their valiant attempts at civil engineering. Some of these may be great metropolis like New York or Kuala Lumpur, and some may be Preston. But the fuel that pushes this game along and gives it its heart is that players will only be scored for their lowest value city, so there is no incentive to allow one city to fall into managed decline and pump all of your resources into the other one (can you hear me, Margaret Thatcher?).
This is a game that scales beautifully, but really sings at its full player count of seven. There is no doubt that there is much borrowed here from 7 Wonders, but this isn’t simply a grave robber making off with the funerary mask of Tutankhamen. Between Two Cities has gently brushed off the foundations of 7 Wonders and built something beautiful on top of them.
This game is short, but nourishing. The decisions and limitations are interesting and challenging. There are enough elements here to make you think but not too many as to overwhelm but it is in the cooperation that this game really stands out.
In building the cities you are compelled to engage with the people either side of you, but with the limitation that you can’t consult with them when you draft your tile. Between Two Cities is a game of compromise and rubbing along with one another. It is a game of presenting what you have and then, with the help of your partner, making it work. Between Two Cities teaches you that your success is directly dependent on the success of those around you. In this it is as much a lesson in social cohesion as it is a game. The important thing is, though, is that it never lets you forget that it is a game and as a game it is beautifully designed and a real pleasure to play.
We are entering an age in which ostentatious bluster will be the norm, and those of a more delicate demeanour are in danger of being swamped by the gaudy, gilt-drenched absurdity of it all. This is why it is incumbent on all of us, who value something more than just size, should make our voices known and extol small, subtle pleasures whenever we can. This is why I’m writing this review and this is why you should play Between Two Cities.
Whoever said that you can’t have an opinion on a game after only one play? Fanboys, that’s who! And since we here at Perfect Information are fanboys of our own opinions first and foremost, we’d never keep the Perfect Information Podcast Listeners (or PIPL for short) from experiencing the raw, real and unrefined reaction to a game we just played.
There are many ways for a game to achieve greatness. It can have rules so refined and precise that they seem impossibly simple and effective (Flamme Rouge). Its design can boldly break new ground to excite and mesmerize (Vast: The Crystal Caverns). The game’s presentation might be so vivid and inviting, that you can’t help but want to dive in and play it (Seasons). Or it may reliably produce a memorable and fun experience every time you get it to the table (Hoax). Actually, there is no limit to the way in which a game can be great and each year you’re bound to come upon a game that is great in a whole new way.
Star Trek: Ascendancy, sadly, only makes it halfway to greatness. The potential for a milestone in licensed board gaming is there. But in what might be the most heart-breaking failure to capitalize on what a game’s design can do, Ascendancy squanders it all when you enter the mid-game.
I cannot overstate just how effortlessly and elegantly the opening act of Ascendancy manages to encapsulate that unique Star Trek feel. The sense of wonder and exploration as your intrepid spaceships go forth to find new planets, interstellar pheonomena and new civilizations isn’t achieved by some mind-blowing feat of new ideas. It uses familiar mechanics and it just plain works. More than that, it sings. In the most basic terms, it’s really not all that different from the way you explore the haunted mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill. Random dice rolls determine distances between star systems and blind card draws determine what you encounter on planets. As an aside, the way that the concept of Warp speed is dealt with in this game – namely allowing you to skip systems if your ship or fleet sits out a few turns – is ingeniously thematic, yet easy to grasp. But all this isn’t something you haven’t seen before. Yet the visual presentation, the references to Trek lore and the suddenness with which exploring ships can simply be lost to the vastness of space make the whole thing crackle with excitement. This is exploration: pure and simple.
It’s also quite interesting, that when Star Wars Rebellion felt more like a remixed version of the movies, Star Trek Ascendancy feels far more like your own take on the Trek universe. The planets, nebulas and events have far less narrative baggage, so when Risa or Deneb V are placed on your table, it doesn’t come across like a re-edit of the series and is instead simply an Alpha Quadrant that is uniquely yours.
Soon enough exploration turns into expansion. You start colonizing distant planets. You begin to expand your cultural influence to make other civilizations join your side. Your presence in space becomes more and more pronounced. The rush and excitement of the opening act gives way to a very traditional area control game. Resources generated at the end of the turn are invested into new buildings, increasing your resource output which allow you to invest said resources in further expanding your presence in the galaxy.
Expansion then quickly evolves into exploitation as your colonized planets start to produce resources for you. Your options widen and allow you to dive into research to get extra abilities, or improve the combat capabilities of your fleet. You can build bigger and bigger fleets. You start collecting victory points.
And this is where the game begins to falter. Because victory points (i.e. culture tokens) are automatically generated in every culture building you control at the end of every round. Which means, much like the highly criticized Imperial I strategy card in Twilight Imperium, that gives you 2 VP each turn for free, the game doesn’t really need much in the way of decision-making to advance you. You simply build as many VP-generating buildings as you can, and then sit and wait.
But the game doesn’t really go completely off the rails, until – ironically – you enter First Contact. That is to say, the first time one of your explored systems connects to one of another player, the game opens up a new layer: direct player interaction. What should be the crowning jewel of any reasonably complex or just any 4X game: the last surge of energy to propel the game into an epic finale… instead turns Ascendancy into a petty squabble over real estate. If the first half of the game is a sandbox that is yours to shape, the endgame is all about trampling other people’s sand castles out of spite with invasions, massive destruction of fleets and razed planetary surfaces.
In what is the most jarring tonal mismatch between theme and license, Star Trek Ascendancy ends as a simplistic, generic wargame where fleets of ships clash into one another, players chuck handful of dice across the table to obliterate the enemy and invade colonies. Because if Star Trek is known, remembered and loved for one thing it is the carnage of its epic space battles and the fighting over territory. When I think Star Trek, I think space war.
It is heart-breaking to see such a pitch perfect opening give way to what is basically Risk. And in 2017 that’s just not good enough. It’s not even one of the recent iterations of Risk. It’s basically a dusty old copy from your uncle’s attic, with all the mission cards missing, a tattered rulebook and most of the pieces replaced by some distant cousin’s Napoleonic wargame tokens from the late 1960s.
But it’s rage-inducingly frustrating because the solution, and the return to a game that is in line with what people love about Star Trek, is so apparent. VP could have been based on completed objectives, like in Twilight Imperium. They could have been based on playing to type, in the way that advancement tokens are awarded in Chaos in the Old World. Imagine a Star Trek game, where you explore planets and then try to deal with planetary crises, espionage plots, outside threats and diplomatic missions to stabilise the quadrant as you all compete for hegemony. THAT is the Trek game I want. That is the Trek game that would bring all the boys (and girls) to the yard.
Star Trek Ascendancy has fantastic production values. It starts off promising and is then content to just let you turtle as you accrue VP, or play a game of Risk. Whoever at Gale Force Nine was responsible for the creative decision to have every game culminate in large-scale fleet battles has badly misjudged the appeal and draw of the Trek license. And while an argument could be made that this is a case of a license being stretched to fit the demands of the 4X-genre, you have to ask yourself why that would be necessary in the first place. The hobby has more than enough great 4X games already, but there is a definite dearth of great Trek games. Even now, with Star Trek Ascendancy on the market.
January is an odd parsnip: a month caught on the Biffin’s Bridge (look it up) between December’s acquisitional excitement/nutritional combustion and the Nuremburg Spielwarenmesse, it lingers (like an eggy fart) to taunt and depress one: back to school for the kids (boo!), back to life (back to reality) for everyone else. There’s nothing happening, the weather is pants, the Events calendar is blank, the podcast community is glowing in the aprés-spunkings of their Reviews of the Year. Apparently, the general rate of suicides peaks in January.
All those games you wanted after the Essen Spiel Buzz are now on eBay/re-selling forums for £Stupid because the great HiveMind has determined them to be Amazing/Awful – usually the latter being the ones you did manage to get but haven’t yet played and now feel slightly dirty/unsure about. Actually, that reminds me of something that really gets on my man-tits: A.N.Expert pronounces that Game X is terrible and is greeted by a slew of “Thanks for letting me know because I was justabout to buy it *Phew*!”. Whatever happened to trying the thing out for yourself at some opportunity? I know that might mean – gasp! – waiting a bit and/or making a flippin’ effort but, you never know, it might be worth your while. The idea that some trembling mouse-of-a-gamer is actually reliant on these parping horns1 to determine the potential completion of their commercial transactions fills me with a palpitating rage; if Rahdo told them to buy Oracle at Delphi or Ein Fest für Odin because it makes you piss pineapples then they’d probably do it2. Probably.
For a month supposedly-pregnant with the hopes and opportunities of the new year ahead, it always ends up a catastrophic graveyard of failed resolutions, discount cookery equipment and ill-thought holiday bookings3. So why do we condone it? Why do we suffer this temporal turd-in-the-toaster to live? Named after the Roman God ‘Janus’4, the clues are in the name for all to see: the ‘J’ – as in that sarcastic ASCII emoticon – and ‘anus’. So, in an attempt to pep things up, I propose a new and different month; a month of workers joyfully-placed, of auctions merrily bid upon, of areas happily controlled, of decks efficiently-constructed and dice dextrously-rolled! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:
Now fuck off (in a nice way) and play some sodding games!
1might be a compliment, might not.
2as any fule kno, Ein Fest für Odin, of course, actually makes you shit strawberries.
3”I’m pretty sure Egypt will be free from street-fighting and the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents by July, Mother.”
4(though I prefer to think it’s named after ianua, the Latin word for ‘door’ – as in door of the year)