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A Report From the Heart of the Board Games Industry 81

Posted by Zonk
from the knowing-german-helps-a-lot dept.
Ward Batty, writing for Gamasutra, attended the recent Essen International Game Days event in Germany. The beating heart of German board games culture, it's equivalent to Origins or Gen Con here in the US. Batty got to see firsthand what the future will bring for tabletop gaming - and how that might impact the videogames of tomorrow. He also offers up a few words looking back at the history of boardgames in the EU: "What distinguishes a Eurogame from a typical American board game? Unlike many American games which are net sum (you gain by taking directly from other players) in Eurogames players are generally competing against the game itself. They may compete for limited resources or the best action, but rarely do the spoils come directly from an opponent, but instead from the game itself -- usually in the form of victory points. German games are generally shorter to play, ranging from 20-90 minutes. There is usually a good social aspect to the game as well. Players are almost never eliminated from the game, for example."
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A Report From the Heart of the Board Games Industry

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  • by kornkid606 (1076023) <bjohnso2@digipen.edu> on Thursday November 08, 2007 @06:56AM (#21279405) Homepage

    Unlike many American games which are net sum (you gain by taking directly from other players)...


    Is there anything better than taking from the your fellow man?

    I submit that there is not.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Why, of course! Taking things from the environment is better because it won't get mad at you and refuse to play again.
      • by Bobartig (61456)
        well this doesn't work in the case of some games, like settlers of catan, where the resource distribution can be so skewed that it matters more to the outcome than the sum of all my decision making, at which point you,re no longer playing a game, just watchng events unfold.

        After a few games that progressed this way, I just decided to stop playing because it was basically candyland (also not a game).
    • by deleveld (607488)
      This is exactly why I wont play games with you.
    • Is there anything better than taking from the your fellow man?
      To hear the lamentations of their women?
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by inviolet (797804)

        Is there anything better than taking from the your fellow man?
        To hear the lamentations of their women?

        Funny... when *I* ravish the women of my foes, I don't ever hear lamentations. You must be doing it wrong.

    • I know you jest, but I actually enjoy the eurogame type of board game setup. I have weekly Lord of the Rings [boardgamegeek.com] sessions with friends, and it's great since we are competing against the game.

      Settlers of Catan is also another great example of this format.
    • Unlike many American games which are net sum (you gain by taking directly from other players)... Is there anything better than taking from the your fellow man?

      I know you meant to be funny... but it's rather ironic. Capitalism (or a free market system) is based on mutually beneficial transactions, in other words it's not a zero sum game. But Socialism by definition takes from some players to give to others.

      • by KDR_11k (778916)
        Money is still zero sum unless one entity pays others by printing more money. The material that is traded is not necessarily zero sum since it is produced and consumed. Obviously "socialism" doesn't change either fact, it just changes the operations done with these while they are in the system.
      • If by "based on" you mean "rationalized by" you might have something.
    • by mcvos (645701) on Thursday November 08, 2007 @01:43PM (#21283321)

      Unlike many American games which are net sum (you gain by taking directly from other players)...

      This is a lousy way to describe the difference between American games and Eurogames. It's true that American games are often more aggressive, and more aimed at taking the other guy out, whereas German games are more constructive, aimed at building the biggest and/or best, but IMO a far more fundamental difference is that US games tend to be more simulationist; the game designer takes a certain theme or situation, and comes up with game mechanics that best try to simulate that situation. Eurogames, on the other hand, work more from the game mechanics than the simulation. They often do have some theme or situation that the game revolves around, but it's not sacred, and it's mostly an excuse to make use of these funky new game mechanics.

      The end result is that American-style games tend to be more realistic and more detailed, but also take more time, whereas Eurogames tend to be easier, faster, and more balanced, but a bit more abstract.

      On average, ofcourse. There are some really good simulation games made in Europe, and there are many American games that are more about mechanics than simulation. You might argue that many games from Cheapass Games, for example, are closer to Eurogames.

    • Is there anything better than taking from the your fellow man?

      Yes. Giving to him. Fear Cosmic Encounter's mighty Philanthropist! [google.com]
  • I'm pretty sure that we invented THE GREATEST BOARD GAME EVER! [wikipedia.org] So we win.
  • Example (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Misanthrope (49269) on Thursday November 08, 2007 @07:09AM (#21279469)
    For an excellent example of what the article is talking about, go buy a copy of Settlers of Catan. It's incredibly simple to play, very fast, and there is no time at which you aren't involved.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Dachannien (617929)
      Personally, I like Puerto Rico more, but Settlers of Satan is good, too. You're completely right about being involved at all times - this applies to Puerto Rico as well.

      Of course, I also like Advanced Civilization, where you can take a pretty good nap waiting for your chance to move. And when you spend 14 hours playing one game, a nap isn't a bad idea ;)

      • by tepples (727027)

        but Settlers of Satan is good, too.
        Freudian slip anyone? Or did someone make an expansion or parody of Settlers of Catan set in hell?
        • by sammy baby (14909)
          "I'll trade two Souls for a Good Intention."

          "No way. You're trying to snag that Longest Road in Hell bonus from me."
        • by mcvos (645701)

          but Settlers of Satan is good, too.
          Freudian slip anyone? Or did someone make an expansion or parody of Settlers of Catan set in hell?

          Might make a nice counterpoint to The Settlers of Canaan [boardgamegeek.com] (which does exist).

      • by Specter (11099)
        San Juan [wikipedia.org], the card game version, is actually more playable than Puerto Rico but it still keeps the same flavor/feel.

        Also fun in the card game category is the two-player Catan Card [wikipedia.org] game version of Settlers. It's a different experience than the board game but still a lot of fun.

        Also try Blokus [wikipedia.org]. It's a family friendly board game that scales well for all ages.
      • Catan is okay, but it's extremely dicey, and it's very possible for your initial setup to screw you over for the rest of the game through no fault of your own, which is, IMO, even _worse_ than elimination, as you're stuck playing a game for the next 30+ minutes you know you have no chance of winning. I found it was fun the first time I played it, but it got progressively less and less fun each time I played it afterwards, until I eventually just gave my copy to someone else. (And to note, I won more often t
    • Catan (Score:5, Interesting)

      by apodyopsis (1048476) on Thursday November 08, 2007 @08:59AM (#21279987)
      Indeed yes, we play it in the pub regularly.

      But there are many reasons why this game is so good, some of them quite subtle.

      1. It is self levelling. In the fact that the simple penalty structure, robbers, 7 rolls are all biased to pick on the leader by simple social engineering. This means the losers get a chance to catch up and the leader finds it harder to win.
      2. As a consequence of 1, most games all ends with everybody all "about to finish" - in this respect its commanding social game as nobody is left out and its normally a rush for the end.
      3. There is a strong element of trading and persuasion in the game - this further enhances to social element of play
      4. Statistics. It has been wonderfully designed - from the probabilities of the cards, the probabilities of the game to present a darn good game with numerous tactics you can use to win.
      5. Simple. Its a game anybody can learn in their first game and be competent on their second.

      If you have not played it there are stand alone player vs. PC versions around (a fantastic DOS version which puts up a fierce challange) and multiuser 'net versions notably Sea3D.

      But best of all buy a real board version and play with some friends and a few good drinks, you'll be hooked.
      • by iainl (136759)
        Probably the most notable internet version is the one on XBox Live Arcade. It's certainly through being able to play that one for a mere £6 or whatever that has got me hooked enough to spend £25 on the 'real thing' for tactile niceness and local multiplayer (the 360 game is one per machine, to avoid the whole issue of hiding each others' cards).
      • Settlers is really an intro to "real" board gaming. Eventually, you move on to, in my opinion, funner games like Puerto Rico.
        • by hibiki_r (649814)
          I like Eurogames, but I'd rather shoot myself in the foot that go through a game of Puerto Rico. It's not half as deep as it seems to be, each player has very limited control of their own destiny, and the most important decision in the game is to make sure you have a weak player to your right.
        • by Specter (11099)
          I would argue that you're not talking about "real" board gaming unless you've got to start by punching out hundreds of tiny card board counters and your rulebook [wikipedia.org], in it's most basic version, is a two inch think ring binder.
      • by hibiki_r (649814)
        Unfortunately, significant comebacks are almost impossible, and early die distribution dictates the rest of the game, since the game has an economic engine at heart where rich get richer. The robber allows the players to slow down the leader, but without house rules, getting only a couple of resources in the first 8 rolls pretty much guarantees you're out of contention.

        The game is relatively well balanced, but we've all seen games where someone is just playing king maker most of the time, through no fault o
        • by Specter (11099)
          I agree with apodyopsis, you're never really out of the game until it's over. Nearly every single one of our games goes down to the wire, even for someone who gets jacked with an early set back. The trick is that you've got to be flexible in your strategies. You've got multiple avenues to build up points: growing out, growing up, longest road, biggest army, and development cards. You've got to keep working the avenues that are available and not the ones you wished you had.

          I'm assuming your playing the b
          • I'm assuming your playing the basic game though. If we're talking about the expansions, then yes, I'd agree it's very easy to get shutout early in the game. The Knights expansion, for example, is not really very well balanced.

            I'd be inclined to agree, however I've had my most spectacular comeback in a knights game. 12 turns at the start with no resources rolled, only started acquiring any when everyone else had already acquired at least 3 extra VPs. Went on to win.

            The good thing about the game is that t

        • This has pretty much been my experience with the game as well.

          It's rare that one player is so dominant that they can't lose, but usually about two people (rarely three) are in the running within the first handful of turns, and while everyone else has a lot of influence in which of the leaders will win, it won't be them. What's worse, since a few people could win, no one wants to 'call' the game and start over, even though half the players are basically out of it. I mean, in some situations the rolls late
        • by mcvos (645701)

          When there's groups that can take up to two hours to play the game

          Two hours to play the basic game? How the hell do you do that? Although I don't expect our 15 minute record to be broken anytime soon, a game of Settlers really shouldn't take much more than 60 minutes. It's easy to play a couple of games in an evening.

          By the way, in that 15 minute game, one player started with both 5-8-10 points, and the first 6 rolls were all 5, 8 or 10. It was a quick win from there. Settlers is most balanced when ev

      • by mwvdlee (775178)
        Another important point; there is no single way of winning. The game ends with the first player reaching a set number of points and the game provides multiple ways of obtaining points. If one player is extremely good at playing one particular way, it's still possible for others to win simply by playing a different way.
        • by Sique (173459)
          But on the other hand there are ways that are very easy to play, and others which need more planning skills.

          I find it the easiest to first try to upgrade the two starting villages to towns, thus on average doubling your income. It only takes 5 cards of 2 types (ore and crops) for one additional point, and it's more easy to get than the 6 cards (one road, one village) you need at least to get a new source of income. Further more it's more easy to get good spots at the beginning. Upgrading them pays more than
      • I actually find that the online versions are better than the real game because the anonymity really lends itself to allow optimized strategies. When you don't have to worry feeling guilty for picking on a friend too much or feeling sad for the friend who is losing, you can truly optimize your strategy and in the end, I believe this really takes the game to the next level.
        A good example of this is the old monopoly trick. Trade a few of your resources for some other resource and immediately call monopoly
      • by GeneJoker (549689)
        I have always had two (main) issue with Settlers of Catan:

        1) It is so easy to kill someone off near the start of the game. A well placed road or building and it's effectively down to three players. And there's no "bow out" option, either you keep playing, or the game ends. It is rarely fun playing a game you've already lost.

        2) Other people. Seriously, that game seems to bring out the idiot more than any other game I've played. Rob from the leader, why is that so hard to understand? Someone's on 8 visible po

  • There is usually a good social aspect to the game as well. Players are almost never eliminated from the game, for example.

    "Yay, everyone's a winner!" </Simpsons>

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by iainl (136759)
      That's not what it's saying at all, though. There's a world of difference between being found the loser at the end of the game, and spending the last hour of it twiddling your thumbs while the rest of the players continue to duke it out.

      But then, some people prefer to play Counter-Strike than Team Fortress, so go figure.
      • There's a world of difference between being found the loser at the end of the game, and spending the last hour of it twiddling your thumbs while the rest of the players continue to duke it out.

        Although it's a matter of opinion which is worse. Personally I don't like having to play another half hour of a game I have already effectively lost. I'd rather go and make a coffee, browse the web a bit or read a book.

        Worse still, defeated players remaining in a game often get to be kingmakers. Fine if there's s
      • Dude, thats what drinking is for!
    • Re:Like special ed (Score:4, Insightful)

      by petaflop (682818) on Thursday November 08, 2007 @08:29AM (#21279817)
      The lack of player elimination doesn't mean that that is no competition - just that everyone gets to play to the end. Even if you are out of the race to win, you can still play to acheive the best result you can.

      Good examples include:

      • Chinatown: We play this instead of Monopoly. Unlike Monopoly, the game is fixed length (6 turns), and everyone plays to the end. The person who makes the smartest trades usually wins, although lucky deals sometimes affect the result. However, you often don't know who that is until you count the money at the end.
      • Vinci: We play this instead of Risk - and unusually for a Eurogame it does involve direct conflict. However, instead of playing a single civilization, you play several in succession - part of the strategy involves deciding when to let your current civilization decline and bring on a new one. You also get to pick the special abilities of the new civilization from a limited menu - making the right choice depends on the board.
      Chinatown and Vinci give much of the feel of Monopoly and Risk, but they play in 90 minutes and end before anyone gets bored. I find them both more thought provoking.

      Having said that, a strong case can be made that the Eurogames genre was founded by an American designer: Sid Sackson [wikipedia.org], whose games include classics like Acquire and Can't Stop.

  • The board games I played as a child all suffered from the same problem, the choices to be made were important, but not as important as good luck. Obviously the worst example of this is snakes and ladders, where there are no choices at all, but Monopoly is pretty terrible on this front too as you have almost no control over where you land.

    It was a refreshing change to be introduced to German style games where there is often much less random in a game (if any at all after the initial setup) so it really is do
    • by swordgeek (112599)
      If you don't like randomness in your games, then Go or chess are where you should be looking. The best games which have a random element, in my mind, are the ones that you can win by developing a strategy resistant to randomness. In Monopoly, for instance, you have no control over where you land, but you have strong control over what you _do_ on the square. Just the other day, I saw a statistical analysis of Monopoly properties, and how to develop your properties to win the game.
      Scrabble is another example-
      • by KDR_11k (778916)
        Reduced effect of the randomness does not mean he wants zero randomness but some games have more and some have less randomness affecting the play.
      • Go is certainly an excellent game that I am very fond of, as are "Through the Desert" and "Hey! That's my fish!" which only have random boards, and everyone sees them before game play begins. I do enjoy randomness if it is done well and have seen some really good mechanisms for tempering it to a sweet spot for a game. For example in Power Grid the shuffled deck of power plants is fairly crucial but 8 of them are on display, and you can only buy one of the four worst ones so although there is an exciting cha
        • Backgammon is definitely one of the deepest strategy games, and it uses dice as the primary game mechanic. It's how you manage that randomness that is the challenge. Add in the doubling cube, and you've got an extremely nuanced game with very simple gameplay. It also makes for a great gambling game.
  • I picked up Carcassonne [boardgamegeek.com] recently, and it's extremely fun to play. My regular gaming group and I find Settlers to be a little too random for our tastes, but we definitely like Carcassonne.
    I've also found that Carcassonne works well at parties as it's very quick to pick up and since the games are short, it's easy to get new people to play.
    • by iainl (136759)
      The problem I have as a 360 owner with both games on there is that there are obvious reasons to go spend money on the 'real' version of Catan - the computer one won't let you play multiplayer with a single machine. But Carcassonne runs just fine gathered around the telly, and totting up the scores is rather tedious thanks to farms and the like so getting the XBox to do it for you is handy. So I'm not sure I can be bothered to spend three times the money on the board version as well.
      • by Bohnanza (523456)
        Carcassonne costs about $20 retail, and less at online retailers.
        • by iainl (136759)
          Here in the UK, it's £15, rather than £6 for the 360 version. Which is only 2.5 times. Oops.

          Still, my main point is that I've spent the points for both 360 games already, so that's gone. When deciding which of the two games to get in physical versions, Catan is definitely the more sensible option - Carcassonne is improved by getting the console to deal with all the rule-following stuff, while Catan is hindered by the lack of local multiplayer.

          Still, I'm sure I'll end up with Carcassonne at some
    • For a different version of Carcassonne, try using a snakes and ladders game as the score board. This way, you can really be mean to your fellow players by giving them a point or two, or finishing their city/road/whatever at the right time. Very fun. It changes the game a great deal.

      As the points at the end of the game are collected in random order, don't use any snakes/ladders while counting them.
    • The snakes/ladders one below sounds awesome as well. One variant we play is that you have a 1 tile "hand", and when you pick up a tile you do so secretly, then choose between your hand and the new tile as to which to place. Gives a little more reward for foresight.
  • There actually is a meeting like this in the US: next week will be BoardGameGeek's BGG.CON [boardgamegeek.com]. I'm sure the fact that it follows closely after the Essen conference is no coincidence.
  • This t-shirt [cafepress.com] from the Cheapass Games folks pretty much sums up German games. (Zoom in on the image of the back.)
  • > Players are almost never eliminated from the [German board] game[s], for example.

    Unless they're...

    oh, don't go there, girl!

  • In addition to Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, I like:

    Power Grid
    Tigris and Euphrates
    Intrigue
    Coloretto
    For Sale
    Modern Art
    That's Life

    and of course...

    Bohnanza!

  • It's only since about 25 years that German boardgames have come to be the reference of quality they are. Before that it was just Checkers, Halma and Mikado plus some flashy stuff from Milton Bradley and Parker that came across the pond.

    The German game publisher Ravensburger was iirc the first to regularly put a little more time and quality into their boardgames. Their first steps were sort of academic, one of the first German Boardgames of the year ("Spiel des Jahres") being 'Sagaland' ('Enchanted Forest'),

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