Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Big Games

In my previous post about Die Macher, I commented that an exceptionally long game needs to deliver an exceptional experience. I also mentioned that I am a fan of several games that run as long, or longer, than Die Macher. Here are the games I was thinking of:

Roads and Boats is unlike any other game in our collection. Most of the action is simultaneous, which is good because it means the game can take four hours instead of all day. R&B has its down sides: for example it is an incredibly "fiddly" game, by which I mean there are dozens and dozens of tiny cardboard chits to be stacked, unstacked, and moved around the board. "Fiddly" can also refer to the finicky calculations needed to efficiently produce, route, and deliver these chits. R&B is a civilization-building game, in which you start with a few donkeys and geese, and some boards and stone, and by the end you hope to have trucks, steamships, factories, and stock exchanges. To accomplish this, you must transport goods to appropriate locations, use them to build new facilities that will manufacture new goods, and lather, rinse, repeat until you have a civilization.

Raods and Boats is a definite brain-burner, and one that has little panache. (No pirates, no spaceships, no ninjas, no monsters, no wars, just... donkeys.) But you do get the pleasure of creating a functioning and intricate machine, of building your civ up from nearly nothing into a sprawling, prosperous nation. There is continual change in the gameplay: breeding donkeys in the beginning, building factories in the middle, finally building mints and stock exchanges and pushing your gold production for all it's worth. The satisfaction of building coupled with the changing "story arc" is what preserves your interest for a full four hours.

Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition, by contrast, has incredible panache. This is a sprawling space opera of a game, where every player has his own alien race competing for supremacy with all the others. A game of TI3 does not have to last all day, but we once ran an 8-player, 12-hour session with the Shattered Empire expansion, and it was a great day. TI3 seems to have a little bit of everything. It is in large part a wargame: you can build fleets of starships, annex unoccupied worlds, and conquer occupied ones. But without ever fighting a battle you can also engage in trade, vote on issues that can actually alter the rules of the game, and climb the "technology tree" to improve your race's capabilities -- and you can win by doing so.

Fantasy Flight Games made TI3 one of their premier productions, and the game comes with wonderful artwork, background stories for all the races, and finely detailed plastic miniature spaceships. The game stays interesting throughout because your empire keeps expanding (or shrinking!), you gain new abilities as you climb the tech tree, you can set long-term goals to work toward, and you have an ever-changing constellation of neighboring races to fend off, maneuver past, or negotiate with.

Through the Ages is one of our very favorite games these days. In TTA certain cards represent technologies. You acquire these cards via competitive drafting from a common pool, but you can't make use of them until you have acquired and spent sufficient "science points", basically using research as a currency for purchasing tech. Once purchased, most of these technologies have to be built, which requires spending resources produced by your mines. Once built, they must be staffed, so you must allocate some population to them, and your people have to be fed by your farms. And so on -- it's much more complex than that.

TTA also lacks a map, a fact that astonishes (and dismays) some people. Usually civ-builders are all about maps, and usually they include some aspect of wars or battles that take place on the map. Yet TTA preserves the notion of military conflict. Some of the techs are military, and building and staffing them increases the might of your armies. Military conflict isn't tactical; instead it's a matter of who can summon the most military strength from their visible and hidden resources.

TTA keeps your interest by a constant process of building your civ's capabilities: agriculture, mining, research, government, population, military, and more must all be grown and kept in reasonable balance. This constant growth, the need for balance, and the pressure from your opponents keep the game fascinating throughout.

By now a theme should be apparent: what a game requires to keep interest alive is change. Doing the same thing all afternoon and into the evening gets boring. A game that keeps presenting new and different challenges to you, and that lets you build something to show that the preceding hours weren't wasted, is a good game.

No comments: