Spotlight on Games > Features > Random Musings


Spiel des Jahres '99 and Evolution

RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

2 September 1999 . . . The fine folk of the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) jury are a clever bunch. How they get away with creating Oscar-like subcategories in their award without explicitly declaring them as such, I'm not sure, but they thus neatly avoid a similar problem faced by the Soccer World Cup, that of how many slots to allocate to each. This year's award seems to set aside three slots to multi-player card games Mamma Mia, Money, Verräter, rhymes with "traitor" and as many to two-player abstracts Kahuna, Kontor, Ta Yü, while allocating a heftier five to typical boardgames, i.e. those capable of winning the big prize (Chinatown, El Caballero, Giganten, Tikal and Union Pacific). This has the peculiar effect of making Money look like the committee's favorite Knizia effort of the season whereas more likely it's simply been judged one of the best in category . . . Yet Knizia fans need not despair. Just as in every solemn Oscars show, which draws a surprisingly large audience for a four-hour infomercial, the most beloved films and performers rarely win, certainly not the ones that are the most fun. But there is always a People's Choice Awards and in 1999, the gaming equivalent has once again not forgotten Reiner Knizia, the Deutscher Spiele Preis (German Game Prize) granting Ra the silver medal and Samurai the copper . . . Both award schemes probably have their place after all. Considering the way the German games industry has blossomed over the past decade, and the evident publicity role that the Spiel des Jahres has played in it have you seen the sales figures on last year's winner, Elfenland? the committee is no doubt doing something very right. We in the United States gaming community should be so lucky . . . Absenting Lost Cities from all of the awards seems, at least in these heady, early days of its popularity, rather short-sighted though. The game could easily have been named Can't Stop as few seem able to stop playing it . . . Dubito may be one of the most interesting Knizia games that no one has ever seen. Play it with two 52-card decks, add the idea of a discard pile, and voilá, it plays much like a three- or four-player Lost Cities, sans the colorful expedition cards, of course. Remarkably, Dubito has only been published in a book, in German, and out of print for nearly a decade . . . Playing Lost Cities with an ordinary deck of cards (use the Aces for the board, face cards for the investments) can quickly tell you if your gaming friend is a Physical Design Freak. They exist I think. This type will never appreciate the desktop-published (DTP) game or any which requires supplying your own components and in their hearts will give any game extra value which features high quality artwork and plenty of parts derived from trees. Nor are they the only type. Also roaming the gaming halls are the gamers "V for Violence" who has trouble enjoying a game if he can't kill anything in it, "Stickler" who is bothered by the lack of simulation value in games from Bohnanza to El Grande, "Pennywise" whose favorite game adjective is "overproduced", "Ritalin-Deprived" who finds any game over half an hour "way too long", and "Using All Cells Already" who prefers a game "where I don't have to think". I don't bring up "Low EQ" who if he can't win also can't let anyone else be happy because I don't want to even play with "Low EQ". But, the improverished American gaming community needs every one of them, so let them play . . . Suspect that the Six Types there may be a lot more than just six exist not just among gamers, but also among game reviewers and maybe all reviews should start out telling which one(s) of these characters the reviewer is, and finish up by stating how each character will receive the game which has just been described. . . . Speaking of fine folk, they who brought us Union Pacific, are they aware of what grief they may have sown? To release a popular game and then publish multiple rules changes over the Internet is a huge leap above releasing a game which doesn't really work well and then walking quickly away as some others have done, but on the other hand, I can foresee lots of problems at conventions where one sits down to just play a game and then must spend a fair amount of time ascertaining just what rules the other uses, not to mention the probable incredulity of the not wired participants. Much preferred would be to get these things in the rules before actually printing them, but oh well, maybe this is in the nature of the game type. See Elfenland as well . . . Scoring in games, and whether to hide it, be it Union Pacific or Euphrat und Tigris, seems to be of keen interest to players, but do any see it as inventors do? Of the many things in a game that make it good, a game has a responsibility to discourage protracted over-analyses of potentials, if only because during this time period, your fellow players, not really being able to engage in same, face a boredom factor antithetical to the very purpose of the game: play. It's providing all of the information, as in chess, that leads to just such analyses. Knizia has supposedly said that he keeps points countable yet hidden so that players can gain a glimmer of the current scores, but not such a clear one as to traverse a huge decision tree, and rightly so . . . Titan is a game up to which, as Churchill might say, I have never warmed. It can terminate early, real early, for some of its participants possibly leaving them with little to do for the next four hours or more, while at the same time the lack of die rolls intensifies the rôle of Lady Luck (decreasing that of Herr Skill) much better to have many rolls which could even out over time than three bad ones for movement which get your titan killed on turn three . . . But the game certainly has its adherents and the new Avalon Hill (see the Hasbro man behind the curtain?) has not failed to notice. But today's big corporation can't be bothered with the low margin art house film, the unknown novelist or, apparently, the slightly-more-involved-than-Risk boardgame. So they want to simplify. Which is fine. Even a classic like Chess has had plenty of tinkering over the centuries. You wouldn't need an en passant rule in Chess if someone hadn't decided that pawn movement is too slow to be interesting and started letting them hop ahead at the sprightly pace of two at a time. . . . Evolution in games is generally a good thing, although it can take wrong turns, such as some of those taken by Monopoly (cash to Free Parking and not using auctions being just two), but it's somewhat disturbing in this case that the original Titan inventors, apparently still living and probably the people who know the game best, are not being consulted and apparently have no say whatsoever in this matter. Please tell me I'm wrong. Certainly Hasbro which owns the intellectual property are entirely within their rights to do whatever they like with it, but imagine buying Mona Lisa while Leonardo were still living, deciding that it was just too inscrutable and replacing Mona's enigmatic smile with a wide, toothy grin. Isn't Hasbro, by possibly lopping off the game's tactical portions, doing a rather similar thing? True, there are many copies of the old Titan in the world and true, they can continue to be played for a long time, but in some sense, the old game is being killed off just as surely as the imaginary painting would be. One couldn't give the game one loved as a gift to friends; one couldn't introduce it to new generations; eventually, one couldn't play it at conventions simply due to scarcity. Pieces and boards eventually wear out, get lost, get hoarded, etc. One almost wishes there existed a constitutional Creator's Rights clause and now we're sailing right against the capitalistic "pursuit of happiness" ideas that founded the Republic that would protect the Titans of this world, at least during the creator's lifetime. The idea may not be entirely farfetched. There are buildings that have been declared historical landmarks and plants which have been designated "heritage trees". It appears now that no one will be able to mess with or "colorize" Casablanca, Manhattan or the monochrome portions of The Wizard of Oz, but when it comes to games, it seems such ideas are but a distant glimmer . . . Hannibal, he of the single eye, is the subject of the game that is perhaps the last great effort of Avalon Hill, not that all were so great. But it is another game that appears to be undergoing Evolution. Not yet in its rules, but in its strategy. Last year Karsten Engelmann (inventor of the notable Rise and Fall) made a convincing tournament win at Avaloncon with a rather unorthodox strategy. This year he tried it at the same con, now sporting the name WBC, and did not win. In a fascinating discussion, the new winner has been explaining his theory behind the game right where we all can read it, at consimworld.com. Far from the game's early days when everyone felt that Rome won 60% or more, popular opinion has shifted all the way over to Carthaginian dominance and will probably seesaw back and forth for some time as new wrinkles and ideas are developed. Possibly someone will eventually alight upon some kind of surefire strategy, given some not too unusual card draw, and then the game will need to be changed to prevent it from being too boring, but this kind of evolution, driven from the ground up seems a much healthier way to go . . .

   

Please forward any comments and corrections to Rick Heli