Two thoughts on board games

A short post on board games, while I finish making graphs from the Who’s Rich survey (which I’ll probably do next weekend).

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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.

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(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.

4 thoughts on “Two thoughts on board games

  1. There’s potentially a “No true Scotsman” argument here, as “Eurogames”/”German-type games” can be defined narrowly to only include skill-based games. But if you mean “games developed in Europe”, then there are plenty of such games that children can play competitively – I’ve lost Dobble games to a 5-year old. Ubongo is another example of a simple Eurogame – I’m sure there are others, it’s just that the high skill ones are the more well-known. And there are plenty of Anglosphere games that are unfun when played between players of different skill level – Scrabble as an example. So I’m not sure that Euro/Anglo is the critical axis here – although appreciate that there is a tendency for Euro to skew more high skill and Anglo more high variance. Typically, Eurogames get around this problem by encouraging multiplayer games and introducing political/balancing mechanisms – such as the robber in Catan.

    1. I was using the definition of Eurogames as described by wikipedia, which sets out a number of characteristics such as no player elimination and indirect competition, as opposed to meaning ‘any game developed in Europe’.

      Obviously YMMV, but I’ve not yet met a five year old who could genuinely beat me at Dobble (and I know plenty of adults who can).

      You raise a good point that multilayer can make these games more even, especially once you get to four or more players.

  2. I’m not sure what it says about me, or my 8-yr old, but for the past year or so we’ve an equal likelihood of winning Carcassone or Settler of Catan or indeed most games (not chess, which I would win). Oddly, Wingspan is an exception to this rule – I win this about 80-90% of the time and he recognises that there are a lot of trade-offs to balance in the game but doesn’t seem able to do so. In that particular game I actually think it’s because it’s easier to exhibit bias towards favourite birds just because you want to (and we’re a family of naturalists) rather than make decisions on pure strategy and probabilities. That reason could actually account for some of the variability in which games some people seem to do better at – each of us has our personal passions or biases that might be more or less important/get in the way of winning certain games.

    1. That’s an interesting theory – it could well be right!

      On the first, I guess in reality it is less about age than about skill levels. I find Carcassonne so skill-based that there are some adults I can beat 90+% of the time, particularly in two player. There was a time when I thought more skill and less good was strictly a good thing (and I still like those games), but I’ve come to appreciate more that different balances of skill and luck are valuable.

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