Perfect University 103 – Meaningful Decisions

What does the cup of a carpenter even look like?

Games are full of decisions. Some are trivial like picking a colour to play. Some are less so. But why? And how?

Decrying a game for its lack of meaningful decisions is easy, but how do we recognise when a decision is actually meaningful? What is the metric?

As it turns out, there are four metrics… and they lie at the heart of this lecture at Perfect University.

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No Bad Thing to Celebrate a Simple Life – A Cottage Garden review

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?

wheel-barrowUwe 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 iteration on 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.

completed-bedThis 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.



Perfect Information Podcast Episode 36 – The Phantom Menace

We’ve spared no expense to get some of our biggest and most famous fans onto this podcast simply to remind you to nominate us for the Golden Geek Awards. 

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.)

Some words for our sponsor (52:01)

A quick stop at the guild (54:23) allows us to talk about your cures for gaming burnout. Also the long-awaited update on the potent aphrodisiac that is baked potato & beans. 

A few more words for our sponsor (1:13:30)

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)

And finally we review a successfully concluded Kickstarter: Perdition’s Mouth – Abyssal Rift. A grim, dark and bloody dungeoncrawler that is fully cooperative and comes with more darkness than Charlie Murphy. (1:29:35)

The Curious Case of Boardgame Culture

By Which We Measure Our Pain – An Inspire: Works of Mercy review


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.

Photo by Sławek Wiechowski

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.

Only a man who is spiritually empty would be proud of that haircut.

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.

Minus the long-form articles.

And centrefold.

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.

Ben Thinks – About Theme

Always the deep and ponderous thinker, Ben welcomes you on his mind’s journey as to the question why we want theme, and what we get out of wildly fantastical game settings.

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Everybody Wants Some

[Speaker’s Corner] Odeious Declarations

Ah, ’tis the month of love and romance and rumpy-pumpy! Splurge out on a box of chocs and some flowers…and then, hopefully, you’ll be able to ‘splurge out’ on the object of your desires! But, no – seriously, you need some better tools (no sniggering at the back!) if you want to attain true companionship and soul-mating mating; and by tools, I mean ‘poetry’ so consider this:
Shall I compare thee to the Family Game?
Thou art more complex and more intricate:
Start play’r doth put thy drafted cards in play,
And Stone it never e’er accumulates:
Sometime two Reed is there for you to take
And often Occupation’s tightly fought
And mighty wars do rage for Sow and/or Bake
With Oven, Well and workshops keenly bought
But thy eternal appeal shall not fade
Nor leave the gaming table ne’er returning
Nor sold on eBay or in Maths Trade
I think I’d rather see my gonads burning!
(N)ein Fest nor Dwarfish caverns ever be
Belov’d as much as ‘Gricola and me.
Have you got any Odes (to a Grecian Euro) of your own to share (that one about ‘the good merchants of Venus‘ doesn’t count BTW)?

Perfect Information Podcast Episode 35 – When the Going Gets Tough

Handling the embers of gaming

February has to start on a somewhat dour note as we tackle the big question of how to keep going, when you feel burned out.

A few words for our sponsor: (36:50)

This week’s stay at the guild is shaped by the vibrant and exciting discussions happening on our forums. Particularly your replies to our question of conflict in gaming. (38:10)

A few more words for our sponsor: (1:01:00)

And finally, we review When I Dream by Chris Darsaklis. A small, gimmicky-seeming party game that is much more satisfying than it seems at first. Not least of all because you get to wear a naughty blindfold. Though, possibly not for the reasons you might assume (01:03:51)

In unrelated news, we can neither confirm nor deny that the absence of our regular contributors Nick Mariner and TC Petty III. in this episode has to do with their involvement in a top secret counter-counter-counter espionage mission to get two infamous political leaders, code-named “Man Boobies” and “Puppet”, to play Munchkin until they utterly despise each other.

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Perfect University 102 – Negotiation in Board Games

Everybody Wants Some

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.)

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Perfect Information Podcast Episode 34 – When Two Worlds Collide

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).

A short commercial break for our sponsor (47:47).

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 (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! 


Alright… maybe we are telling.

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Opposites detract.

Living on the Edge – A Between Two Cities review

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’.

Photo by Stonemaier Games

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.

Photo by Ivan Kosak

If Between Two Cities had a motto it would be, ‘Work Together To Your Own Benefit’.

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.

Photo by Stonemaier Games

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.