As promised last week, this post is all about German-style board games. I'll skip detailing their characteristics; the details and examples in the aforementioned Wikipedia link are solid. These games are sometimes called Eurogames, but I think that moniker does mild discredit to the handful of American companies like Rio Grande Games, Fantasy Flight and Avalon Hill that do produce excellent, substantive games. By and large though, the best games are European.
While obviously much smaller, the audience community for these games is much closer to what many would like the digital games community to be like. Audiences are quite aware of the games' designers and the release of a new game by a recognized designer is an anticipated event. In fact, in German these games are called Autorenspiel, literally "author games." The best new games are recognized with several prominent yearly awards, none of which are fueled by Mountain Dew.
There's a lot digital game designers can learn from board games, but translation often isn't direct. Many board game mechanics thrive on face to face interaction, which is becoming increasingly rare in an era of networked gaming. And by their nature, board games are turn-based multiplayer affairs, another rare combination. Still, there is plenty to learn if you're willing to take the plunge. Ahead are five of my favourite board games and compelling mechanics from each I'd like to see more of in digital games.
Diplomacy - Allan B. Calhamer
Interesting Mechanics: Complete lack of randomness, hidden actions, alliances and betrayal
One of the oldest games of its kind, Diplomacy was created in 1954. Players control one of seven pre-WWI imperial powers and seek to gain dominance over Europe. Diplomacy is interesting because it's entirely a strategic game, no dice to be rolled, no cards to be drawn. In Risk-esque fashion, player direct military forces. However, the actions for their units are submitted in secret and are only resolved once all players have turned in their orders. This means each turn consists of fierce negotiation, conspiracy and politicking. The game can be won by a single player or an allied pair, but no more. While some digital games like Civilization and Alpha Centauri have had some similar mechanics, they're often far more random and the other players' forces are largely hidden. In Diplomacy the board is laid entirely bare, and the real game takes place in the interactions between players. A serious game of Diplomacy is a rare experience and one I highly recommend (with scotch ideally, it just seems so appropriate).
Ticket to Ride - Alan Moon
Interesting Mechanics: Indirect competition
In contrast to Diplomacy, Ticket to Ride involves a great deal of randomness and only indirect competition between players. The game take place on a railway map and each player's objective is to create train lines between certain locations. Different lines require a specific number of coloured train cards, drawn semi-randomly. The routes are also cards drawn randomly and remain hidden from other players. The risk/reward decisions are very good, as each route card is worth a specified amount of points that increases with length, but that amount of points is lost if the route is not complete by the end of the game.
As your primary objective is to complete routes, it's rarely beneficial to aggressively attempt to block other players' possible routes. Occasionally it's advantageous to cut off a route another player is looking to complete, but doing so often jeopardizes your own ability to complete routes. Few digital games allow for success through indirect competition; at best it's an alternative to direct competition and aggression. I'd be very curious to see a digital game whose dynamics make indirect competition the only real option.
Of all the games mentioned here, this is one of the easiest to get into. It's quick to play and simple enough to have broad appeal. I recommend it highly, with the caveat that one should not get the North American map version of the game. It was the first released and after being played a few times, it's clear there are some more dominant strategies. The European and Nordic countries versions that came after are substantially improved.
Citadels - Bruno Faidutti
Interesting Mechanics: Scourge, shared actions
Citadels involves building a vaguely medieval city from a deck of district cards. Each turn, players choose one noble from a semi-random deck as their character for that turn. Nobles have different abilities (detailed here) that affect players' actions. There's a whole lot of getting into other players' heads, guessing at which noble they may have selected given their current money, districts, etc. Getting too far ahead too early is dangerous, as all the other players can easily gang up on a single clear leader. The game also supports up to nine players, but the most I've played it with is five. A nine player game would be madly, but wonderfully, chaotic. The game only uses cards and a few small tokens for money, so it's probably the most portable game I mention here.
Taluva - Marcel-André Casasola Merkle
Interesting Mechanics: Every action alters the game space
Taluva plays somewhat like a combination of Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, but with several fantastic twists. The game consists of creating and settling a primitive tropical island. Each turn a player draws and lays a new geographic tile (a triangle of hexes, if that makes sense) with some conditions. The goal is build a certain number of settlements, but laying new geography can destroy existing settlements. Additionally, tiles can be played on top of other tiles (again, with certain conditions), allowing the game to expand in two dimensions. What's fascinating about this is as the game is played, the island begins to look remarkably like a proper island. Ridges, plains and valleys all emerge naturally through gameplay, as do the locations of villages and temples. At first the game seems simple, but about halfway through the first game, the full scope of its complexity starts to be revealed.
Betrayal at House on the Hill - Avalon Hill
Interesting Mechanics: Betrayal, dynamic environment
Of all the games mentioned here, Betrayal at House on the Hill has my favourite mechanic. The game consists of the players exploring a "procedurally generated" abandoned house made up of randomly drawn tiles (not unlike how Torchlight generates its dungeon). While that alone would be interesting, the twist is that at a certain point in the game, one of the players is randomly revealed as the betrayer. At this point, they become substantially more powerful and it's them vs. the rest of the players.
That former ally transforming into a villain is such a great dynamic that I cannot fathom why this hasn't been done (well) in a digital game. The closest thing would be the bank heist multiplayer in Kane & Lynch that consists of a bank heist. The heist is split amongst all the robbers that survive, but off your comrades too soon, and you may not be able to complete the heist at all. Interesting, but nowhere as compelling as Betrayal at House on the Hill. While I haven't played it, I've heard the new Battlestar Galactica board game has a similar mechanic. Currently, Betrayal at House on the Hill is out of print, but in looking for information about this post, I discovered that a second edition is forthcoming! I highly recommend giving it a look when it arrives later this year.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a mountain of German-style board games of all stripes. Arkham Horror marries cooperative play with steep, steep odds fighting horrors from the stars. Settlers of Catan's legendary trading gameplay creates a great cooperative/competitive dynamic. I just picked up Pandemic as a gift for friends and am really looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.
As creators of digital games, we ought not to lose sight of developments in the non-digital gaming world. There's a lot we can learn from there, as they can from us. Pass on Monopoly, head down to your friendly local game store (Drexoll is Vancouver's) and find something worth analyzing. You never know what lessons may dwell inside the box of a humble-looking Autorenspiel.