Mar 212016
 

Well, my collection has now been flooded with 2015 Essen releases, so I figure it is time to update my list.

As before, this is a completely subjective list. The bottom line methodology I continue to use to determine the ordering is: if I were to show up at a gathering of board gamers, and one table was looking for a last player to play game A and another table was looking for a last player to play game B; then all other things being equal, which game would I chose to play? That game would be above the other in this list. A few games are noted “w/ N players”. These are games that in my opinion for lose something when played with more players (usually the situation becomes more chaotic and so less strategic, but sometimes it gets just too long to play). Other games are noted “w/ some expansion. These games in my opinion rank that high only when payed with the indicated expansion.

As expected, games have shifted around, not just to make room for new games but some older games have moved up/down. This is particularly true of 2014 games that I have been able to play more, and have been able to develop a deeper opinion of. Expect a lot of the new 2015 titles to shift around in 2017.

2016A Rank Game Players Time Year Designer 2015B Rank
1 La Granja 1-4 120 2014 Michael Keller / Andreas Odendahl 2
2 The Voyages of Marco Polo 2-4 90 2015 Simone Luciani / Daniele Tascini 15
3 Hansa Teutonica: w/ East Expansion 2-5 90 2009 Andreas Steding 4
4 Rococo 2-5 90 2013 Matthias Cramer 6
5 The Castles of Burgundy 2-4 90 2011 Stefan Feld 13
6 Concordia 2-5 100 2013 Mac Gerdts 10
7 Coal Baron 2-4 75 2013 Wolfgang Kramer / Michael Kiesling 8
8 Dogs of War 3-5 75 2014 Paolo Mori 1
9 The Staufer Dynasty 2-5 90 2014 Andreas Steding -
10 Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King 2-5 60 2015 Andreas Pelikan / Alexander Pfister -
11 Murano 2-4 60 2014 Inka Brand / Marcus Brand 9
12 Orleans 2-4 90 2014 Reioner Stockhausen 3
13 Village 2-5 90 2011 Inka Brand / Marcus Brand 11
14 Amerigo 2-4 90 2013 Stefan Feld 12
15 Kraftwagen 2-4 75 2015 Matthias Cramer 5
16 Between two cities 1-7 15 2015 Matthew O’Malley / Morten Monrad Pedersen / Ben Rosset -
17 My Village 2-4 120 2015 Inka Brand / Marcus Brand -
18 Porta Nigra 2-4 120 2015 Wolfgang Kramer / Michael Kiesling -
19 Raiders of the North Sea 2-4 90 2015 Shem Phillips -
20 Grand Austria Hotel 2-4 90 2015 Simone Luciani / Virginio Gigli -
21 ZhanGuo 2-4 120 2014 Marco Canetta / Stefania Niccolini 7
22 Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar 2-5 90 2012 Simone Luciani / Daniele Tascini 20
23 Glen More 2-5 90 2010 Matthias Cramer 16
24 The Manhattan Project w/ Second Stage 2-5 120 2012 Brandon Tibbetts 24
25 Troyes 2-4 90 2010 Sébastien Dujardin / Xavier Georges 25
26 Endeavor 3-5 90 2009 Carl de Visser / Jarratt Gray 23
27 Spirits of the Rice Paddy 2-4 120 2015 Philip duBarry -
28 Shakespeare 1-4 120 2015 Herve Rigal -
29 Automania 2-4 75 2015 Kenneth Minde / Kristian Amundsen Østby -
30 Shipyard 2-4 120 2009 Vladimír Suchý 22
31 Cuba: w/ El Presidente 2-5 120 2007 Michael Rieneck / Stefan Stadler 17
32 Rome: Rise to Power 2-4 90 2015 Elad Goldsteen -
33 IKI 2-4 120 2015 Koota Yamada -
34 Lewis & Clark (w 3 players only) 2-5 120 2013 Czdrick Chaboussit 18
35 Targi 2 60 2012 Andreas Steiger 26
36 Roll for the Galaxy 2-5 60 2014 Wei-Hwa Huang / Thomas Lehmann 36
37 New Amsterdam 2-5 90 2012 Jeffrey D. Allers 28
38 Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island 1-4 180 2012 Ignacy Trzewiczek 19
39 PrimeTime 2-4 120 2015 Elad Goldsteen -
40 Kashgar: Händler der Seidenstraße 2-4 60 2013 Gerhard Hecht -
41 Gold West 2-4 60 2015 J. Alex Kevern -
42 Signorie 2-4 120 2015 Andrea Chiarvesio / Pierluca Zizzi -
43 Queen’s Architect 2-4 60 2015 Volker Schächtele -
44 Bruges 2-5 90 2013 Stefan Feld 33
45 Tuscany: Expand the World of Viticulture 1-6 120 2014 Jamey Stegmaier / Alan Stone 21
46 The Gallerist 1-4 150 2015 Vital Lacerda -
47 Firenze 2-4 60 2010 Andreas Steding 34
48 Bretagne 2-4 120 2015 Marco Pozzi -
49 Inhabit the Earth 2-4 90 2015 Richard Breese -
50 Asking for Trobils 2-7 90 2015 Erin McDonald / Christian Strain 27
51 Arctic Scavengers (w HQ and Recon) 1-5 60 2015 Robert K. Gabhart -
52 Citrus (2 player only) 2-5 60 2013 Jeffrey D. Allers 29
53 Middle-Earth Quest 2-4 180 2009 Corey Konieczka / Christian T. Petersen/Tim Uren 31
54 Assault on Doomrock 1-4 180 2014 Tom Stasiak 32
55 Warhammer Quest Advantuare Card Game 1-4 90 2015 Justin Kemppainen / Brady Sadler / Adam Sadler -
56 Three Kingdoms Redux 3 180 2014 Christina Ng Zhen Wei / Yeo Keng Leong -
57 Elysium 2-4 60 2015 Matthew Dunstan / Brett J. Gilbert 35
58 Castles of Mad King Ludwig 1-4 90 2014 Ted Alspach 54
59 Churchill 3 180 2015 Mark Herman -
60 Vinhos 2-4 120 2010 Vital Lacerda 37
61 Yedo 2-5 180 2012 Thomas Vande Ginste / Wolf Plancke 38
62 7 Wonders 2-7 60 2010 Antoine Bauza 55
63 Snowdonia 1-5 90 2012 Tony Boydell 39
64 Oh My Goods! 2-4 45 2015 Alexander Pfister -
65 Spyrium 2-5 90 2013 William Attia 41
66 Steampunk Rally 2-8 90 2015 Orin Bishop -
67 Akrotiri 2 60 2014 Jay Cormier / Sen-Foong Lim 42
68 Five Tribes (w Artisans) 2-4 60 2014 Bruno Cathala 43
69 Lords of Waterdeep w/Scoundrels of Skullport 2-5 60 2012 Peter Lee / Rodney Thompson 44
70 Russian Railroads 2-4 120 2013 Helmut Ohley / Leonhard “Lonny” Orgler 45
71 Nippon 2-4 150 2015 Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro / Paulo Soledade -
72 London 2-4 90 2010 Martin Wallace 46
73 Frontier Stations 3-5 60 2015 Jeremy Lennert 47
74 The Speicherstadt w/Kaispeicher 2-5 60 2010 Stefan Feld 48
75 Champions of Midgard 2-4 90 2015 Ole Steiness -
76 Glory to Rome 2-5 60 2005 Ed Carter / Carl Chudyk 49
77 Asgard 2-4 120 2012 Pierluca Zizzi 40
78 Dungeon Command: (any/all) 2 90 2012 Peter Lee / Rodney Thompson / Kevin Tatroe / Chris Dupuis 50
79 Mudus Novus 2-6 60 2011 Bruno Cathala / Serge Laget 51
80 Merkator 1-4 90 2010 Uwe Rosenberg 53
81 Rialto 2-5 60 2013 Stefan Feld 56
82 Burano 2-4 180 2015 Yu-Chen Tseng / Eros Li -
83 The Name of the Rose 2-5 90 2008 Stefan Feld 57
84 Deus 2-4 90 2014 Sébastien Dujardin 58
85 The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game 1-2 90 2011 Nate French 59
86 Codenames 2-8 20 2015 Vlaada Chvátil -
87 Istanbul 2-5 60 2014 Rüdiger Dorn 61
88 Finca 2-4 90 2009 Wolfgang Sentker / Ralf zur Linde 62
89 Fresco 2-4 90 2010 Marco Ruskowski / Marcel Süßelbeck / Wolfgang Panning 63
90 Nations 1-5 180 2013 Rustan Håkansson / Nina Håkansson / Einar Rosén / Robert Rosén 75
91 Pandemic 2-4 60 2007 Matt Leacock 64
92 Peloponnes 1-5 60 2009 Bernd Eisenstein 52
93 Tobago 2-4 60 2009 Bruce Allen 65
94 Walnut Grove 1-4 60 2011 Paul Laane / Touko Tahkokallio 66
95 Trajan 2-4 120 2011 Stefan Feld 68
96 Archipelago 2-5 200 2012 Christophe Boelinger 70
97 Glenn Drover’s Empires: Age of Discovery 2-6 180 2015 Glenn Drover -
98 AquaSphere 2-4 120 2014 Stefan Feld 108
99 Drum Roll 2-4 90 2011 Dimitris Drakopoulos / Konstantinos Kokkinis 76
100 Stone Age 2-5 60 2008 Bernd Brunnhofer 71
Jan 032016
 

I have to say, this was a VERY good year for new board games. I think you have to go back to 2012 for another year with this many great games released. I sometimes wonder when this boom in board game development will start to subside (it will eventually), but clearly not yet.

A couple notes on the list: First, it obviously includes only those games I have played. This year that statement particularly matters because there is one game that is near the top of just about everyone’s top 10 list that I have NOT played even though objectively it might belong. Second, I count the years here based on the games release in the U.S., so there are a couple game that were released in Europe in 2014 but still made this list.

10. Codenames
“Party” games never make my list. This is the exception. They took the idea of “Password” and turned it into a fun and challenging game that can be played with almost any number of people.

9. Signorie
Squeaked in under the wire (I received it 12/30). The game provides a rich set of trade-offs that the players must navigate to lead their renaissance family to greatness. Just enough randomness that you have to be prepared to adjust your plans as the situation changes. This may be my new favorite game published by ”What’s Your Game”.

8. Kraftwagen
Another brilliant game from Matthias Cramer, using one of my favorite game mechanisms – the action rondel from his Glen More.

7. Grand Austria Hotel
Fast moving and fun dice selection game with some deep challenges pleasing guests at competing hotels – and don’t forget to keep the Emperor happy as well!

6. Murano
Brilliant game using a rondel with traffic jams set in the developing Venetian glass industry. One of the more interesting facets is that the big points come from secret goals that you don’t start the game with. (This was a 2014 release in Europe).

5. Raiders of the North Sea
Vikings seems to be one of the new “hot” game themes (I am glad zombies seem to have become passé). Simple but novel game mechanic (each turn you place one worker, and pick up another, thus activating two actions); but that generates a LOT of interesting strategic and tactical possibilities.

4. Between Two Cities
A fast playing game for up to 7 players with high player interaction. You and the player on your left and on your right cooperate in building 2 cities. Your score is the weaker of your two cities; so you want both to be as good as they can be; but doing that also helps your neighbors. I saw this is prototype form and knew immediately that it would be a winner.

3. La Granja*
What you might expect if Ewe Rosenberg and Stefan Feld (two great game designers with distinctive styles) collaborated on a game; only neither were involved. Oh, and add in a touch of Carl Chudyk’s multi-use cards. You are running a farm and its associated farm stall in town; but face a multitude of tough trade-offs. Every option comes at the expense of multiple others.

2. Isle of Skye
The best source of complexity in games is the other player, and this is a game that makes maximal use of that principle. Each turn every player gets 3 random times and in parallel eliminate one and sets the price of the other two. Then each player in turn may buy one tile from another player as the set price. Any tile not purchased MUST be bought by the player who set the price (so don’t set it too high unless you want it). Understanding how much the other players will value your tiles and setting the right price right makes fro a brilliant game.

1. Voyages of Marco Polo
By far the most replayable game I have seen in a LONG time, with some new twists on dice placement as a game mechanic. What puts it over the top is that each player has a special ability that seems incredible overpowered, but all of the players abilities are equally overpowered, so you could play the game with the same layout but a different character and get a completely different experience. I am confident I will still be playing this years formnow.

And here are my “honorable mentions”. Each of these games were on some version of this top 10 list as I was putting it together

11. The Staufer Dynasty
12. Orleans
13. Asking for Tobils

Sep 152015
 

Change.

Life is change.

We refer to any object that stays exactly the same, day after day, as “inanimate” – without animas, without life. Living things grow up and grow old. We as people learn and we mature. Every fleeting interaction leaves its mark on us and no day in our lives leaves us unchanged.

It is common to talk about youthful idealism and the cynicism of age. The truth behind that trope is that the world is a complex place and it takes a great deal of experience to appreciate its complexity. When we are young, we see simple answers to what appears to be simple problems. As we grow old we come to appreciate the complexity of the world and how often simple answers produce unintended consequences. Many people as they grow to appreciate this give up on even trying, while those who continue to struggle to improve the world tend to be satisfied with smaller gains as they come to understand how difficult it is to make any gain that is not balanced by some other loss.

I’ve been reading my old blog from 5-10 years ago and noting how much I have changed in that time. There are many things I wrote back then that I no longer agree with. Actually, that statement is a simplification of matters. Every opinion I held back then continues to inform and influence my opinions now; I have just grown to appreciate complexities that my simple answers back then did not address. My response is almost never “No, that’s wrong”; but rather “Yes, but…” followed by a long list of qualifications and limits to my earlier statements.

While the core tenants of my faith remain unchanged, my beliefs about the practice of it has. Reading the blog I recall my earlier enthusiasm for the house/organic/simple church movement. I stand by my earlier statements that the best Church experience I have ever had was in such a community, and the second best was in a more traditional church that integrated some practices of that movement. However, my understanding of why those statements are true have evolved and become more nuanced. Yes, there is virtue in house/organic/simple church; but there is also a price that is paid in those practices; which is why I now find myself worshiping in a mainstream liturgical church (but do so without denying in any way my evangelical roots).

It is odd to be looking back at the “youthful optimism” of my late 40’s; but I take it as a good sign. It means I am still changing, still learning, still alive. An open mind is a great way to preserve one’s youth, no matter how your body responds to the years. It allows you to find a balance between optimism, always looking for simple answers, and cynicism, being realistic about the limits of those answers. I’ve known more than one person who held tightly onto some position (political, philosophical, religious) until it shattered in their hands, breaking them in the process. I hope to never stop asking why I believe what I believe and therefore hope to never stop changing, never stop living.

Aug 142015
 

OK, here’s the list of my top 100 games, in order, as of August 1, 2015. I am using that date as a cut-off as it includes pretty much all of the 2014 games I expect to play but is before the bulk of the new 2015 games have started to show up, so you could look at this as my ranking as of 2014. The full list goes down to 250+; but I’ll stick with just posting the top 100.

The bottom line methodology I used to determine the ordering here is: if I were to show up at a gathering of board gamers, and one table was looking for a last player to play game A and another table was looking for a last player to play game B; then all other things being equal, which game would I chose to play? That game would be above the other in this list.

A few games are noted “w/ N players”. These are games that in my opinion for lose something when played with more players (usually the situation becomes more chaotic and so less strategic, but sometimes it gets just too long to play). Other games are noted “w/ some expansion. These games in my opinion rank that high only when payed with the indicated expansion.

I certainly do not claim these are the objectively best 100 games – there are several games whose designs I respect greatly but that I personally have very little interest in playing and therefore do not fall into this list. See my previous post on what I like in a board game to get some hints as to why some games fall where they do.

I also expect this list to be dynamic and plan to republish it every year with a new ordering. This isn’t just because new games will inevitably show up to displace some of the old ones here but also my interest in some games will decline (or perhaps rise) over time. I already see some games that used to be favorites aren’t on this list anymore. The most common reason for this is that I believe I have discovered the ideal strategy for winning the game and therefore it ceases to provide the same intellectual stimulation to play.

Without further preamble, here’s the list:

Game Players Time Year Designer
1 Dogs of War 3-5 75 2014 Paolo Mori
2 La Granja 1-4 120 2014 Michael Keller / Andreas Odendahl
3 Orleans 2-4 90 2014 Reioner Stockhausen
4 Hansa Teutonica: w/ East Expansion 2-5 90 2009 Andreas Steading
5 Kraftwagen 2-4 75 2015 Matthias Cramer
6 Rococo 2-5 90 2013 Matthias Cramer
7 ZhanGuo 2-4 120 2014 Marco Canetta / Stefania Niccolini
8 Coal Baron 2-4 75 2013 Wolfgang Kramer / Michael Kiesling
9 Murano 2-4 60 2014 Inka Brand / Marcus Brand
10 Concordia 2-5 100 2013 Mac Gerdts
11 Village 2-5 90 2011 Inka Brand / Marcus Brand
12 Amerigo 2-4 90 2013 Stefan Feld
13 The Castles of Burgundy 2-4 90 2011 Stefan Feld
14 Mage Knight Board Game 1-5 180 2011 Vlaada Chvatil
15 The Voyages of Marco Polo 2-4 90 2015 Simone Luciani / Daniele Tascini
16 Glen More 2-5 90 2010 Matthias Cramer
17 Cuba: w/ El Presidente 2-5 120 2007 Michael Rieneck / Stefan Stadler
18 Lewis & Clark (w 3 players only) 2-5 120 2013 Czdrick Chaboussit
19 Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island 1-4 180 2012 Ignacy Trzewiczek
20 Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar 2-5 90 2012 Simone Luciani / Daniele Tascini
21 Tuscany: Expand the World of Viticulture 1-6 120 2014 Jamey Stegmaier / Alan Stone
22 Shipyard 2-4 120 2009 Vladimír Suchý
23 Endeavor 3-5 90 2009 Carl de Visser / Jarratt Gray
24 The Manhattan Project w/ Second Stage 2-5 120 2012 Brandon Tibbetts
25 Troyes 2-4 90 2010 Sébastien Dujardin / Xavier Georges
26 Targi 2 60 2012 Andreas Steiger
27 Asking for Trobils 2-7 90 2015 Erin McDonald / Christian Strain
28 New Amsterdam 2-5 90 2012 Jeffrey D. Allers
29 Citrus (2 player only) 2-5 60 2013 Jeffrey D. Allers
30 XenoShyft Onslaught 1-4 60 2015 Keren Philosophales / Michael Shinall
31 Middle-Earth Quest 2-4 180 2009 Corey Konieczka / Christian T. Petersen/Tim Uren
32 Assault on Doomrock 1-4 180 2014 Tom Stasiak
33 Bruges 2-5 90 2013 Stefan Feld
34 Firenze 2-4 60 2010 Andreas Steding
35 Elysium 2-4 60 2015 Matthew Dunstan / Brett J. Gilbert
36 Roll for the Galaxy 2-5 60 2014 Wei-Hwa Huang / Thomas Lehmann
37 Vinhos 2-4 120 2010 Vital Lacerda
38 Yedo 2-5 180 2012 Thomas Vande Ginste / Wolf Plancke
39 Snowdonia 1-5 90 2012 Tony Boydell
40 Asgard 2-4 120 2012 Pierluca Zizzi
41 Spyrium 2-5 90 2013 William Attia
42 Akrotiri 2 60 2014 Jay Cormier / Sen-Foong Lim
43 Five Tribes 2-4 60 2014 Bruno Cathala
44 Lords of Waterdeep w/Scoundrels of Skullport 2-5 60 2012 Peter Lee / Rodney Thompson
45 Russian Railroads 2-4 120 2013 Helmut Ohley / Leonhard “Lonny” Orgler
46 London 2-4 90 2010 Martin Wallace
47 Frontier Stations 3-5 60 2015 Jeremy Lennert
48 The Speicherstadt w/Kaispeicher 2-5 60 2010 Stefan Feld
49 Glory to Rome 2-5 60 2005 Ed Carter / Carl Chudyk
50 Dungeon Command: (any/all) 2 90 2012 Peter Lee / Rodney Thompson / Kevin Tatroe / Chris Dupuis
51 Mudus Novus 2-6 60 2011 Bruno Cathala / Serge Laget
52 Peloponnes 1-5 60 2009 Bernd Eisenstein
53 Merkator 1-4 90 2010 Uwe Rosenberg
54 Castles of Mad King Ludwig 1-4 90 2014 Ted Alspach
55 7 Wonders 2-7 60 2010 Antoine Bauza
56 Rialto 2-5 60 2013 Stefan Feld
57 The Name of the Rose 2-5 90 2008 Stefan Feld
58 Deus 2-4 90 2014 Sébastien Dujardin
59 The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game 1-2 90 2011 Nate French
60 Parfum 2-4 60 2015 Marco Ruskowski / Marcel Süßelbeck
61 Istanbul 2-5 60 2014 Rüdiger Dorn
62 Finca 2-4 90 2009 Wolfgang Sentker / Ralf zur Linde
63 Fresco 2-4 90 2010 Marco Ruskowski / Marcel Süßelbeck / Wolfgang Panning
64 Pandemic 2-4 60 2007 Matt Leacock
65 Tobago 2-4 60 2009 Bruce Allen
66 Walnut Grove 1-4 60 2011 Paul Laane / Touko Tahkokallio
67 Hansa Teutonica 2-5 90 2009 Andreas Steding
68 Trajan 2-4 120 2011 Stefan Feld
69 Wallenstein (second edition) 2-5 120 2012 Dirk Henn
70 Archipelago 2-5 200 2012 Christophe Boelinger
71 Stone Age 2-5 60 2008 Bernd Brunnhofer
72 Belfort 2-5 120 2011 Jay Cormier / Sen-Foong Lim
73 Courtier 2-4 60 2012 Philip duBarry
74 Argent: The Consortium 2-6 150 2015 Trey Chambers
75 Nations 1-5 180 2013 Rustan Håkansson / Nina Håkansson / Einar Rosén / Robert Rosén
76 Drum Roll 2-4 90 2011 Dimitris Drakopoulos / Konstantinos Kokkinis
77 Dungeon Petz 2-4 90 2011 Vlaada Chvátil
78 Runewars: w/Banners of War 2-4 180 2010 Corey Konieczka
79 Warrior Knights 2-6 180 2006 Bruno Faidutti / Corey Konieczka / Derek Carver / Pierre Cléquin
80 Tomb 1-6 90 2008 John Zinser
81 At the Gates of Loyang 1-4 120 2009 Uwe Rosenberg
82 Praetor 2-5 90 2014 Andrei Novac
83 Versailles 2-5 90 2014 Andrei Novac
84 Notre Dame 2-5 75 2007 Stefan Feld
85 Viceroy 4-Jan 60 2014 Yuri Zhuralev
86 Shadowrun: Crossfire 2-4 60 2014 Mike Elliott / et. al.
87 Goa 2-4 90 2004 Rüdiger Dorn
88 Libertalia 2-6 60 2012 Paolo Mori
89 Progress: Evolution of Technology 1-5 90 2014 Andrei Novac / Agnieszka Kopera
90 Canterbury 2-4 90 2013 Andrew Parks
91 Fields of Arle 1-2 120 2014 Uwe Rosenberg
92 Colosseum 3-5 90 2007 Wolfgang Kramer / Markus Lübke
93 Runewars (no expansion) 2-4 180 2010 Corey Konieczka
94 Race for the Galaxy 1-6 90 2007 Thomas Lehmann
95 Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game 2-5 120 2014 Jonathan Gilmour / Isaac Vega
96 Star Wars: Imperial Assault 2-5 90 2014 Corey Konieczka / Jonathan Ying / Justin Kemppainen
97 Castaways 1-4 120 2013 Alberto Corral
98 Hansa Teutonica: Britannia 2-5 90 2014 Andreas Steding
99 Dominare (w 3-4 players) 2-6 120 2012 Jim Pinto
100 Thunderstone Advance 2-5 60 2013 Mike Elliott / Curt Crane / Jeff Quick
Aug 132015
 

I recently went through the exercise of rank-ordering all of the games I have played (what is my #1 game, #2, #3, etc.). I did this for a couple reasons: First to make culling my collection easier – while I have a few games marked “keep despite low rank” (for instance, because Anne likes them), mostly I just pick the bottom N games that I own as the next games to cull. My second reason is to help me make better decisions about what games to buy (and thus have fewer games I would want to cull) – the idea being that by ranking my games I could see patterns in my preferences and therefore avoid buying games that would end up getting ranked low on the list.

I do plan to post the top 100 from my list (along with some more on my methodology); but for now I’d like to focus on what I learned relative to goal #2 above – what common factors exist to games that rank high/low on my list.

First, I play games largely for a mix of intellectual challenge and social interaction where intellectual challenge is more important. For me games are a way to stretch my brain in new ways. While my day job can require a lot of intense thought, it tends to push my brain in predictable (and well developed) ways. Board games are my mental form of “cross training” – using a variety of different intellectual “muscle groups” to exercise my brain. And for the record, I do think I am a better engineer because of the mental exercise I get playing board games.

I do however recognize that there is a limit to this. There are games that I have had no luck wrapping my head around that have fallen down my list because of frustration. I need to feel like after each play I am at least marginally better at playing the game. On the flip side there are games that I understand well enough that they lose interest to me as well. So the games at the top of my list are generally games that I am good at but often lose. The key is that I am still getting better at them,

As to the mental/social interaction balance, I do enjoy the occasional solitaire game (in fact I tend to play every new game I buy alone the first time to get the rules set in my mind and to figure out how to teach it); but I prefer playing games with other people. Board games provide the ideal social context for me – interacting with a small group of people at a time with a well understood context. On the flip side I tend to hate “party games” that are focused primarily on providing a social experience with low intellectual barrier to entry. I’d put my sweet spot somewhere around 75/25 mix of mental challenge and social interaction.

A key corollary to my playing games for intellectual stimulation is that I strongly prefer games with some degree of variable setup. A game that has the same initial state every time you play can be “solved” more easily than one where there is some degree of variability to the challenge each time you play. It is harder to find the ideal strategy for the meta-game. When you look at the top 20 in my list, it is dominated by games that have a variable initial state (only one exception that I can see).

Second, without a doubt I am drawn to game mechanics over theme. I used to say that theme had no effect on my choice of games and then Artipia Games released “Pole Dance” and I realized that there are some thematic lines I have no interest in crossing, regardless of mechanics. This gets back to the previous point – the games at the top of my list are all there because they have interesting (and often novel) game mechanics that push my brain in new ways. Games with well-established game mechanics (yet another worker placement game, yet another card drafting game, yet another deck building game) tend not to rise high on my list – there needs to be some new twist to the mechanic.

Third (although of key importance) is the idea of “fun per unit time” or in my case “intellectual challenge per unit total time” for the game. There are a lot of sub-factors to this point. To start, it is the TOTAL time to play the game that matters – how long it takes from when we decide to play a certain game to when we start deciding what to play next. So this includes the time it takes to set up, to teach the rules (there is almost always someone who has never played a particular game), to play the game, and then to put it away, and there are games that have fallen on my list because each of those time periods was “too long” for the level of stimulation the game provided.

Now this isn’t an absolute barrier. I have a couple long games that take a long time to set up and teach in my top 100 – they just (in my opinion) provide a LOT of fun once they get going and so more than compensate for the investment in getting going. Nonetheless, most of the games I prefer can be set up and taught in 20 minutes and play in under 2 hours.

Even within the play of the game, “fun per unit time” is a factor. If players take their turns in sequence and it takes 5 minutes for each player to take their turn, then in a 4 player game I am actually only taking my turn for 5 out of every 20 minutes. Whether this is an issue depends on how engaged I am while other players are taking their turn. In the example above, if it takes 15 minutes for me to figure out my next turn, then I am 100% engaged the whole time. Likewise if there are opportunities for me to react to other player’s actions, then I remain engaged. On the other hand, if every turn I can get up from the table for 15 minutes until it is my turn again, then the “fun per unit time” drops precipitously. The other way to address this is for the game to have a fast cycle. If each turn takes 15 seconds, then I’m only waiting less than a minute each turn, which is often consumed by planning my next turn.

A corollary to this is that I prefer strategic over tactical games. A strategic game is one where most of your actions will pay off several turns later, while a tactical game is one where decisions primarily have payoff in the turn they are made. Actually this isn’t a either-or choice, it is a spectrum from “every decision I make in the game is only for immediate benefit” to “every decision I make is only based on end game benefit”, and I usually think of the scale in terms of the average number of turns I am having to look ahead to play a game well (a pure tactical game is a “0”, while a pure strategic game is N where N is the number of turns in the game.

This is related to “fun per unit time” because it effects how engaged in planning I can be between turns. If I have to wait to see the state of the game when my turn starts to make good decisions about my turn then the game is purely reactive and I can’t plan ahead so there is little to do while waiting for other players. If on the other hand, if I can plan well ahead and only occasionally change my plans because of other player’s actions, then the game provides me more I can do when it isn’t my turn. When I publish the list you can see a few games noted as “only with 2 players” or “only with 3 players”. This is almost always because the game in question becomes more tactical the more players are involved (the board state changed more between times when it is your turn when there are more player).

Another corollary to “fun per unit time” is that I hate games that require an investment outside of playing the game. As an example, there is a whole class of games that require you to learn the details of a myriad of individual cards and then build those cards into a custom deck before you can start to play the game. I have never found that kind of preparation to be fun and only one such game has managed to stick in my collection (and that because the rest of the mechanics are so interesting).

Fifth, I prefer “European Style Games” over “American Style Games”. Now in the hobby the definition of those terms are under constant revision and debate, so I will be more specific:

  • I prefer games where the random factor (dice, cards, etc.) determine the options the player has to take action as opposed to the outcome of their actions. I prefer games (as an example) where I draw a set of cards and then must play one as an action as opposed a game where I pick an action and then draw a card to determine how it turned out. For the game to be a good intellectual exercise, the outcome of my decisions must have some degree of predictability, but some randomness in the set of possible action provides desirable variability in the challenge.
  • I prefer games where the conflict is indirect and not zero-sum. Consider the difference between a tug of war where one side’s gain is the other’s loss vs. a track race where generally my forward progress on the track does not reduce yours (although I could maneuver to make it harder for you to pass me).
  • I strongly prefer games where there is no player elimination, and some uncertainty in who is winning is preserved until the end of the game. This again is a “fun per unit time” issue as games cease to provide engagement for eliminated players and provide reduced engagement to the extent to which it is clear that one’s decisions can no longer materially impact the outcome of the game.

 

Jun 192015
 

Read Andy Weir’s “The Martian” this week (a movie of which is due this Fall).

I’m a big fan of “hard” science fiction (SciFi that stays within the bounds of known scientific principles, so no faster-than-light travel or other “magic” technologies). “The Martian” is an example of the gene at it hardest and best. The bulk of the novel is a series of diary entries of an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars and out of communication with Earth. He knows the soonest Earth could possibly launch a rescue mission, and the story is his “working the problem” of how to survive long enough to be rescued.

While the book contains a lot of technical details on how he solves a myriad of problems, the quality of the writing and the personality of the main character is so compelling that it doesn’t come off as even the slightest bit dry. It also “feels” realistic in that he makes a number of costly mistakes along the way as well as being hindered by various events completely out of his control. It is amusing how many of the diary entries begin with “well, I almost killed myself again today…”

Excellent read and I am very much looking forward to the movie.

Jun 132015
 

I had been hopeful that this new series written by J Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, The Changeling) and the Wachowskis (The Matix) would turn out to be worthwhile. What I will say is that if you are one of the minority who liked The Wachowskis’ movie “Cloud Atlas” you might well like this; but if not, stay away as it has a very similar feel.

It kind of reminds me of a student writing exercise where you are presented with a challenge to write a story under some odd constraint. While the result can often be respected for its craft, it usually doesn’t actually make a good story.

The premise is that 8 very different people from different cultures around the world suddenly find themselves linked, sharing senses, emotions, knowledge, skills.  The Wachowskis and Straczynski however use this to tell 8 fairly mundane stories as each character basically continues to live out their normal lives only occasionally communicating with or using the skills of another in the group

There are some interesting meta-narrative points where you see parallels between the stories, and there are themes woven between the stories concerning humanity’s similarities despite our obvious differences; but in the end I didn’t believe in the characters or care much about the outcome of their stories.

 

Jun 132015
 

Between 1992 and 2004, Neal Stephenson published a series of 6 books that are in my opinion true masterpieces: Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and the three books of the Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

These book delivered on 3 fronts: interesting ideas, compelling and engaging stories, and most of all, high quality writing. The greatest tribute I can give these books is that they are quotable! They are wordsmithed so well that there are lines and phrases of such clarity and strength that they stand alone and are worth repeating outside their original context. IT is for good reason that a critic referred to Stephenson as the “Hacker Hemmingway”.

Now an author who can manage to write one such book is rare, and fewer still manage to do it again. To do it six times is quite an achievement. Unfortunately, six may prove to be Stephenson’s limit, and his subsequent books, while good, do not live up to the quality of his work it its height.

Anathem had some great ideas, but the story never grabbed me and I can’t recall a single passage from the book. Reamde was a ripping action story that drew me in; but I found the ideas only mildly interesting and once again the writing was merely “good” (although it was the better of the two in my opinion)

Now his next book is out: Seveneves, and unfortunately, I think it represents another step down. While there are some interesting ideas in the book, they are presented much less clearly than in his previous work, and I found the story line muddled and too slow at first and to rushed towards the end. The conclusion is also far from satisfying (perhaps he intends a sequel).

Now to be fair, it is still better than most fiction that gets published these days; but had this been the first novel of Stephenson, other books by him would have ended up in the bottom half of my reading queue.

May 292015
 

So if you cull out the shows that the network cancelled and those that I simply stopped watching, here’s what I was still following at the end of the season:

While most of my comments here are pretty tepid, just remember that everything else was worse!

Forever – Proving once again that immortality makes for horrible television. Here’s the problem – what makes immortality interesting is a sense of scale. Once you fix the main character to the present day with recurring mortal characters, the only way to give that sense of longevity is flashbacks, which gets tired very quickly. Novels and movies about immortal characters are great because you can follow the character over their whole life; but the only way I could see making it work on TV is setting it over the course of history with the only recurring characters being immortal. While I finished the season, I don’t think I‘ll resume it next.

Gotham – Hanging on by a thread. The bottom line is that this show has to work as a police procedural in a corrupt city ignoring all of the DC references, and for most of the season it didn’t. There was just enough good episodes to keep me watching, but not enough to actually recommend it. If it got cancelled, I wouldn’t have missed it; but I will watch at least the first few episodes next season to see what they learned over the summer.

Backstrom – Another hanging on by a thread. The main character was annoying, but the supporting cast was interesting to watch. Nothing really to recommend here. Again, I’ll check out the first few episodes next season, but suspect I’ll drop it.

Marvel’s Agent Carter – A decent, enjoyable show. Not a must watch; but the short season worked it its favor. I’ll definitely do next season.

iZombie – this turned out to be the real star of the season for me. Entertaining individual stories, interesting world building, and using the “experiencing someone else’s shoes” to comment on the human condition all make this a great show in my opinion.

Daredevil (Netflix) – Not sure if this is a cheat or not, but Netflix did an excellent job of bringing this character and his world (slums of New York) to life within the larger world of the MCU.

Feb 232015
 

Winter of 2008, two unrelated (but significant to me) things occurred. First, Anne and I moved up to San Francisco from the South Bay/Peninsula area. Second, Vineyard Christian Fellowship – Fremont, the church that had been our home and where I had served in various capacities, closed down.
In the intervening years, I haven’t really had a church “home”. We certainly attended a variety of Christian communities, both in San Francisco and back down in the South Bay when we moved back. I learned from all of them, and was even able to provide some minor service to a few along the way, but none felt like “home” for me – merely temporary waypoints on my journey. There never was a sense that “this is where God wants me to be”.
Until now.
After 7 years, Anne and I appear to have found ourselves a new Church Home: St. James Anglican Church in San Jose (associated with the Anglican Church in North America – not the Episcopal Church) – a conservative, evangelical, and casually charismatic Anglican Church that is rooted in ancient traditions but very contemporary in their attitude and approach.
In an interesting bit of synchronicity, when we first started with the Vineyard movement (to which our last “home” church belonged), the president of Vineyard USA was Todd Hunter. As it turns out in the intervening years, Todd was led into the Anglican Church, and is now the Bishop of the Diocese who which St. James belongs, so for all the changes this represents, there is also continuity.