Friday feelings: Computers, AI and board game design

I’m a bit of a Luddite. While I embrace the internet I have no real interest in the zeros and ones in the background – or the scary world of ‘big brother’ AIs.

While I understand computers have huge potential in gaming, I have little interest in exploring these avenues myself. So, will I be left behind? Or worse, has it already happened?

My last published game, Witless Wizards, has a great Tabletopia page done by Drawlabs. While my friend and co-designer David Thompson always creates versions of his prototypes on Tabletop Simulator. These are clearly brilliant for both prototyping pre-publication and publicising post-publication. I’m happy to play on them. But you won’t find me delving into the back-end of them myself.

AI and board game design

Where these platforms really come into their own is big data. I know, for example, CGE ran some serious algorithms to balance factions in its asymmetric abstract game Tash-Kalar. What better way to supplement more emotional human testing than via machine?

You can also see AI and board game design going hand-in-hand simply storing data on matches played. I’m sure Feuerland Spiel used the data from thousands of online plays of Terra Mystica to help them balance factions in expansions and in Gaia Project, for example. While data from the online implementation of CGE’s Through the Ages clearly influenced changes in second edition, A New Story of Civilisation.

I’m not alone…

In a recent survey, (which I spoke about recently on the topic of Kickstarter) 33% of ‘product professionals’ listed their biggest fear as new technology stifling creativity. Look at Tash-Kalar, for example. While I enjoyed the game for a while it was just too dry to fall in love with. Too precise. Might the game have been more popular if those rough edges hadn’t been smoothed away?

Also in the survey, ‘AI and predictive tech’ was listed as the second most desirable technological advancement for those same retail product professionals (40%). We’re clearly a divided market, with as many creatives fearing AI as wanting to embrace it. But I take solace in the fact it was beaten into second place by 3D printing (46%).

What are your thoughts on AI and board game design? I’d be fascinated to hear from those working on digital platforms, where many analogue games now appear in digital form. And where digital games that could’ve been analogue are constantly updated and amended, presumably via big data feedback.

AireCon 5, 2019: Five Top 5s

And so ends another great AireCon (my second) To celebrate, I thought I’d do a 5×5 of top 5s as, you know, it was AireCon 5. Stupid idea? Sure. But here we go regardless.

AireCon 5 Highlights

  1. Space! Despite being attended by 2,000 people the biggest board gaming convention in the north of England never felt crowded. They opened a massive new area this year on the Saturday and while it did get busy up there at peak times, it never felt cramped.
  2. Friendliness: I’m sure the space helps and I’m also sure there were mini panics going off all over the place, the staff of Harrogate Convention Centre and the AireCon volunteers were always helpful with a smile. Great job guys!
  3. The mix: It had a great layout, with retailers surrounded by gaming areas and a few niches to hide in if you wanted them. There was a nice number of events, as well as an RPG area and family gaming; even a conservatory area for those who like daylight.
  4. Harrogate: Talking of Harrogate, I was again pleasantly surprised by just how nice it is. I wandered around the town and sampled a few more bars and restaurants this time – and found great beer and good food. Ans a special shout out to Major Tom’s Social.
  5. Beer: Talking of Major Tom’s Social, they did a great job of supplying some fantastic beers to the con. It’s great to be able to support a small local firm and drink some great craft beer in the process. I’d give the beer a shout out, if I could remember its name…

AireCon 5 ‘new to me’ games

  1. A Feast for Odin: A typical Rosenberg big box game, this time mixing his latest obsession (tetronimoes) with his last one (long worker placement games). It works, and I had a nice time, but it just felt like Caverna with more faff. I’ll stick with Caverna, ta.
  2. Tiny Towns: Brand new from AEG, this is another clever little puzzle game. Make patterns on a 4×4 grid to build buildings, taking it in turns to choose a cube colour everyone must place. Intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. Good stuff.
  3. Hokkaido: A clever, puzzley card drafting game where you overlay cards (each containing six terrain squares) to create a landscape via which you score points. If it sounds like Honshu, it’s because it’s in the same line – just harder.
  4. Dice Forge: A solid family game, where you upgrade the faces of your two dice to get better and better faces, special abilities and victory points. Unfortunately they ran out of ideas there, but it’s a well-produced and fun enough gimmick and to last a few plays.
  5. Raccoon Tycoon: An unremarkable rejig of auction/stock market mechanisms with some of the worst artwork and themeing I’ve seen for a long time. A fun enough game, but it also ran too long and got a bit samey late on.

AireCon 5 old favourites

  1. Gnomopolis: A really clever tableau building game that plays fast. Beautifully balances the desire to get points with a need to house the gnomes you need to get them – while three competing ways to end the game keep you on your toes.
  2. Basari: Das Kartenspiel: The card version of this classic simultaneous action selection game, which loses nothing from the bigger box original. Will you rush ahead, collect gems or simply grab points? But more importantly, what will those other buggers do…
  3. Deus: Played this weekend with the Egypt expansion, this is one of my most criminally underplayed games. The card comboing is great on its own, but the map placement and varying end game conditions take it to the next level.
  4. Archaeology: The Card Game: One of the first game I reviewed and still one of my favourite fillers. There are a few delicious push-your-luck elements to this simple set collection game, as well a lot of luck and a smidge of take that.
  5. Ulm: I think the shine is coming off this a little, but I still enjoy my plays – for now. You can’t escape the fact the game is a little too fragile, which should be fine in a sub-hour light euro – but the more I play, the less patient I get with that.

AireCon 5 (very) slight niggles

  1. Bring & buy: This was well organised but let down by some real scum bags. People had put in broken games, or others with pieces missing, without fessing up on the outside of the box. While other things simply got stolen.
  2. Food: While there was some nice nosh on offer, there were very few options and you had to stand in the (often FREEZING) cold to get it. Sure, town isn’t far away – but gamers come to game, dagnabbit! Worse, it wasn’t even better than last year.
  3. Light! The nicest time I had gaming was on Saturday afternoon in the room that was, sadly, only open on Saturday. It was well it – with real sunshine – and had comfortable chairs. Speaking of which…
  4. Chairs: The main gaming area had truly uncomfortable chairs, which also didn’t bend at an angle conducive to sitting up at a table. this was only about half the seating area, but the other chairs were so much more comfortable. Those first next year please!
  5. Kick-out time: While I get staff and volunteers need to go home, it’s a shame it shuts so early (10-ish). Maybe next year the organisers could put some effort into securing some space in some local gamer-friendly bars or hotels?

AireCon 5 personal goals for AireCon 6

  1. Get involved in an event
  2. Make a GoPlayListen T-shirt to wear
  3. Bring some of my games for the library
  4. Be brave and play with more randoms
  5. Have a beer-free day…

Thanks to The Game Pit/LoB Crew, The Greek contingent (from LudiCreations and Drawlabs), old friends Matt Dunstan, Keef & Clare (and Ray) – plus lots of other lovely journos, publishers and randoms – for teaching, beating, drinking and generally putting up with me all weekend!

Friday feelings: Why Kickstarter game publishing works

Traditional publishers (and many others in gaming) have a fundamental misunderstanding of Kickstarter. They see an upstart publishing platform. Operating as a cheap advertising website, it takes cash upfront while bypassing the distribution/retail chain. And all this without showing a proven product. But while these things are true there’s a larger truth behind it success.

Big companies across major industries struggle to come to terms with modern consumers. They’re no longer passive. They expect to communicate with a brand, rather than be dictated to by it: brands decide trends less and less. Consumers want transparency, collaboration and continuous dialogue. And this is what Kickstarter is nailing, both directly and indirectly.

The state of technology in retail

MakerSights recently released its 2019 State of Technology in Retail Report. It’s well worth a full read, but I’ve included its highlights infographic below. What really struck me while reading was how much of what modern consumers want is provided by Kickstarter. And how much of it traditional publishers are taking for granted.

Some headline stats from consumers:

  • 75% value being asked for feedback
  • 66% want more ways to interact with brands they love
  • 75% say being part of the creation process would increase likelihood of a purchase and of brand loyalty
  • 75% use tech to interact with brands they love where possible
  • 94% think tech has a positive impact on brand relationships
  • 17% said the “ability to have say in how/what product is made was the most interesting/exciting current innovation in retail

Reading this, it’s no surprise Kickstarter is capturing the gaming public’s imagination.

What can be copied from Kickstarter

What makes the report fascinating, though, is it also surveyed what it describes as ‘product professionals’; in a gaming sense, those working in publishing, distribution, retail etc. For me, the two key results from those producing the products were:

  • 43% thought their ‘toughest challenge’ was understanding what consumers want
  • 41% thought retaining customers was their ‘most critical’ challenge

This rings so true from my experience with traditional publishers, variously as a designer, journalist and consumer: largely, they’re living in the dark ages. It’s as it was with the music and film industries failing to adapt to MP3s, or the newspaper industry coming too late to the internet. They moan about upstart ideas rather than learning from them, sticking to their guns until it’s too late.

The land of the luddite

I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried to link a publisher to a review on Twitter, only to find they don’t have an account – or a Facebook page, or an English language web page. Or how often emails have gone unanswered – whether press enquiries, rule enquiries or even missing part requests.

These aren’t options for those running a Kickstarter – unless they want to crash and burn. A good Kickstarter publisher lives and dies on its social presence and its ability to quickly respond to enquiries. These publishers are being forced to answer all the questions discussed above, purely because the platform dictates it. Kickstarter is proving the perfect bridge between old-style publishing and the modern consumer.

Copy the best bits of Kickstarter

While Kickstarter is forcing its publishers to bridge the consumer relations gap, the big plus for traditional publishers is their industry experience. Generally they’re better at finding, developing and publishing games. And they’re better at those important checks and balances that make great experiences.

Too many Kickstarters lack accountability and fail to meet expectations. Because there is such a low barrier to entry, it breeds amateurs and is rife with poor end results. It isn’t trusted, yet. Which gives traditional publishers a chance. Don’t get me wrong: great publishers develop from Kickstarter. But they have those important traits a great publisher needs continue to make great games – eventually driving enough capital to move away from the bosom of Kickstarter into the wider world.

Along with their designers, traditional publishers need to get tech savvy. You don’t need to use Kickstarter to get a social media presence; or to engage with your consumers. You don’t need it to drive conversations with the people you should care most about – those promoting and buying your games. You just need to put some money into what is now the most important part of the business: genuine public relations.

Check out more Friday Feelings.

The Estates: A four-sided game review

The Estates* is a mean 60-minute area control and bidding/auction game for two to five players (although I’d say three to five, as I don’t think it plays well at all with two). Released as ‘Neue Heimat’ in 2007, it got a fresh lick of paint and a re-release in 2018 from Capstone Games.

In the box you’ll find the game board, 53 chunky wooden pieces, two draw bags, 60 thin cardboard ‘cheques’ (read: money) and six business cards (to grab when you take control of a company). While you’ll find the usual complaints about ‘paper money’, I feel it works well in this game and overall the components are of high quality. You can find the game (delivered) for less than £40, which is OK value.

The components and theme come together nicely, although they don’t really make much sense mechanically. As the game goes on players will be taking control of developers as they build a new housing estate. You’ll place cubes to build tower blocks, place roofs on them and extend/shorten the play area.

Teaching The Estates

The Estates is very much about player interaction. The rules quickly get out of the way to let the mind games commence. Players start with 12 (million, thematically – but you can’t make change) cash. This is a set economy, with no more money coming into the game. And you can squirrel away one money per turn, so the amount available unusually decreases as the game goes on.

On a turn, the active player chooses an available piece for auction. In clockwise order, players either pass or place a single bid for the item (which must be higher than any previous bid). When you get back to the active player, they either take the money from the highest bidder or pay them the same amount to take the item. If no bids were placed, the active player gets the piece for free.

If you want to put either a building block or roof up for auction, it must be place-able – and the winner has to place it. Additionally if you’re the first player to take a building block of a particular colour you also take the matching company card. You will now gain (or lose) points for that colour. The other pieces (which we’ll get to) can always be chosen to auction, but the winner can choose to either place them or discard them.

The key to winning The Estates is getting buildings you control to score while scuppering your opponents. The starting area is a grid of 12 plots, split into three columns of four plots. The game ends when two columns are completed (full of houses with roofs). Those two will score positive points, the other negative. The remaining pieces you can bid on extend or shrink this area or multiply the scoring of a column.

The game has 36 building blocks, numbered 1-6 in six colours. But only 24 are drawn at the start of each game, meaning the companies aren’t equal. Apart from a few bungalow plots (which can only have a single block and a roof), most can be built high. Until a building has a roof you can place another block on top if it has a lower number. When you do so, the building changes ownership – so the owner of the top floor of each building will score points for it.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While the Estates’ rules are simple it’s hard to teach what you actually need to do. It takes half a game to start to see how things pan out. This should be OK in such a short game but I do see people disengage. This mix of simple but not seeing can clearly be frustration. I’ve heard, “What’s the point?” too many times as players fail to get into the game. Which is a real shame, as I think it is a very intelligent and competitive design.
  • The thinker: While largely tactical, there is important strategy. Identifying strong colours to try and own is the start. But you need to consider their starting positions on the 3×8 cube grid. You can only put one of the six end cubes up for auction, so identifying cube position can also be crucial. If you end up with a company whose cubes are only on the edges, you’ll need to place, roof and then defend those positions. Cubes nearer the centre will come out later, if at all – so you need to work to get them available.
  • The trasher: Vicious. You won’t find many games where fortunes change this quickly. The Estates defines cutthroat, as the colours and columns ebb and flow. What really defines this are shifting loyalties. Think a player has a lot of spending power? Then try and get one of their cubes scoring in a row you want to complete. While you need to think about your scoring colours, remember you can buy any cube. Taking an opponent’s cube can be just as effective as getting one of your own. Especially if you just want to drum up some funds.
  • The dabbler: I didn’t really get the point of the game. The components were nice and the theme made sense on the table. But why would I pick a purple three over a grey one? I didn’t really have a clue what was going on and I still almost won! I won’t be playing this one again.

Key observations

While The Estates generally looks great, one big miss are the bungalow plot markings. They’re super clear – right up until you put a cube on them. It is incredibly frustrating when someone wins bid, thinking they can place a cube somewhere they can’t. We try to ‘wonk’ the cubes diagonally that are on bungalow plots, but that looks stupid and still doesn’t always work. It could so easily have been avoided with a clearer board – as the original Neue Heimat had.

Also, with the wrong crowd, the game can be a big anti-climax. The game averages well over 7.5 on Board Game Geek but I know people whose reviews I respect who rate it a one. And if one or two players aren’t on board, the game can drag much more than the average. Players can simply not know what to do, which is just about the worst thing to feel while trying to play a game. Especially when you know the rules are super simple.

Take a bidding game such as Ra, for example. It has a similarly simple rule set for bidding. But on top of that is a scoring format based around set collection. This opens the game up for euro gamers, while keeping the interest of bidding fans. Unfortunately, The Estates is far less approachable for a lot of players. Half will be totally immersed – but the other half will be genuinely bored.

The Estates: Conclusion

If you’re looking for a tight, elegant, viscous, closed economy bidding game then look no further. The Estates demands you take a long, hard look at it. The game has depth and tough decisions built into a very simple framework. And it can be so mean. A single well-placed piece can literally see you go from first to last place.

But it won’t be staying on my shelves. Especially for players who love euro or abstract puzzlers (which is most of my crowd), what I see as simplicity often translates to bafflement. Intelligent players sitting around looking blankly at the board, not having a clue what to do. I can’t think of a more divisive game. And not enough of my friends were taken by it to keep it. But I think it’s a fantastic game and I know enough others who own it that I can get the occasional fix.

  • Thanks to Capstone Games for providing a discounted review copy of the game.

Friday feelings: Negative reviews (and why I don’t write them)

After a week off from these posts (sorry, SorCon fail) I’m returning to a topic started in my last Friday Feelings: that I’m not worried about negative reviews. To recap, in my view you simply have to accept them as part of the public creative process.

But other than sticking the boot in with the occasional mean comment about a game (the Firefly game being a total write off, for example) I personally rarely do full length negative reviews. So, why?

The most obvious reason is ‘so many games, so little time’. I like to play a game at least 4-5 times before I do a long review. So, if after two plays I’m playing it right and decided it’s terrible, why go on? I have limited time to play games and I’m having to drag others in to play them. My life is too short, and my friends’ patience only so long. Even if I have to pay postage to send it back, I’d rather do that than force people to play a stinker.

Quality versus taste

On occasion I’ll review a game I don’t really like, but that’s different than it not being any good. That’s the main reason I introduced the ‘four sides‘ review format and why I talk about ‘key observations’: so I can talk about differing opinions (so the negative stuff comes here). The number of reviewers who can’t tell the difference between actual quality and their own personal taste is incredible – but I guess that’s what happens when most blogs, videos and podcasts now have no real editorial overseeing.

On a more cynical point, I’m averse to breathing life into bad games by giving them airtime. It’s a ridiculously busy marketplace. While warning people off a poor game has merit, with thousands being released each year it seems more sensible to euthanize them with silence. I review about 50 games each year. Doing a few bad ones simply equates to not bigging-up a few great ones. Why would I do that?

You bought what?

And in the end, I’m writing because I love writing – and getting some free and cheap games is awesome. Any reviewer who thinks they influence more than a handful of purchasing decisions is kidding themselves – just look at the host of top-sellers that get roundly slammed by reviewers. It’s the same in the music and film – no matter what reviewers say, the public go with their hearts.

Any why shouldn’t they? My voice is just one of many. The right one, perhaps, but still…