A short post on board games, while I finish making graphs from the Who’s Rich survey (which I’ll probably do next weekend).
Never miss a post by entering your email address into the subscription form below.
It struck me recently how some people are unusually good at certain board games – even among groups of people who are broadly peers at board games in general. I have one friend who almost always wins Wingspan, even when playing with other people who play the game regularly – and by win, I don’t just mean win, but often is 20-30 points ahead of other players.
Similarly, a group of us recently played a game called Brass Birmingham for the first time, an awesomely complex and atmospheric game set in the Industrial Revolution. It was new to all of us. We played five games and I won all five of them, the odds of which are about 256:1(1). The people I was playing with are peers in almost every relevant respect; they are people to whom I would expect to lose as often as I won when playing most board games (e.g. Carcassonne, Dominion, Settlers, Smallworld); the other player who plays chess is someone with whom I’m almost perfectly matched. There is no obvious reason as to why I should be unusually good at this game, but I clearly was.
Luck, games and children
This reminded me of how, when at university I first encountered Eurogames(2) such as Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne and being blown away by them. Game mechanisms such as building your own board in Carcassonne, role selection games, different ways of resource collection – and indeed the very concept of victory points as the main route to victory – were incredibly exciting, novel and interesting. And all the elements that people cite as to how they’re superior – no players eliminated before the end; more complex player interactions instead of direct conflict; the downplayed role of randomness (particularly dice) – all did, indeed, seem superior.
And, on balance, they are better. And these are still the sorts of games I most enjoy playing amongst my own friends. But when teaching and playing games to my children (9 and 5), though I have introduced them, I’ve realised I much prefer more traditional games.
The trouble with Eurogames is that they’re too skill based. That’s fine when playing with adult peers, but much less so with children. I recently taught my son Ticket to Ride and he picked it up quickly, played decently (completing his long route) and enjoyed it – but I still got more than 50% more points than him. We could play a dozen games, or two dozen, and I’m sure I’d win every one – and the same for Carcassone or many others.
(It’s also worth noting that children – at least most – don’t really appreciate the ‘superior’ features and think that rolling lots of dice is great fun. I certainly did when that age).
Now, I’m not someone who thinks children always have to win – and I don’t let them do so. But always losing game after game is pretty dispiriting too, and unlikely to make someone want to keep playing. When playing Monopoly, you often just need to throw a generous deal to make it an even game; in backgammon, a slightly more risky playstyle can also help to even the odds. More luck-based games (The Great Game of Britain, for example) you don’t even need to do that. By contrast, to noticeably even the odds at Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne or Agricola you have to significantly sabotage your whole playstyle.
I’m willing to do that for chess, because chess is a fundamental enough game it’s worth teaching (and it’s easy to find appropriately-challenging AI opponents for children to play against). And I’ll keep introducing the Eurogames, so they can play them now and again – including with their friends – and ultimately get better. But until they do, we’re likely to keep playing Great Game of Britain more than Ticket to Ride.
If you enjoyed this post, you can help by sharing what I write (I rely on word of mouth for my audience). You can also ensure you never miss a post, by entering your email address into the subscription form below.
(1) The odds of the first player winning the four subsequent games; not of me specifically doing so.
(2) Or ‘German-style board games’, as we called them back then.