Whither the International Gamers Award

The IGA nominations are out again for the German-style multi-player games. In the past I’ve refrained from commenting on them in my blog for a variety of reasons, but the list of nominations is interesting this year – not least because for the first time, it seems like they are making some effort to distinguish themselves by selecting quite a few off-mainstream games.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the IGA, at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of guys who vote on games they like. This is not to denigrate the contributions to the hobby that some have made; Mike Siggins particularly is a person I have great respect for. But, I searched the IGA website to try to find defining information such as a mission statement (other than a rather generic and meaningless “pick the best games”), list of criterion for game inclusion (other than just the dates of publication), goals of some kind, or rules or guidelines for how the committee was selected, but couldn’t. I’ve always been under the impression that, despite the presence of a few continental Europeans on the jury, it’s sort of a nativist answer to the Spiel des Jahre (which has become increasingly irrelevant to the “serious” gamer) or Deutcher Spiele Preis (which has not); but this is speculation on my part. In reality, in the past the IGA has added little, if anything, to the awards landscape, being essentially an English-language relay for the DSP, except neither as reliable nor as transparent, and conveying significantly less information.

This year, though, things are a bit different; not many of these games are going to make an impact on the DSP. Is this a good or a bad thing? Let’s check it out by handicapping the games. I’m going to ignore the 2-player category for two reasons: a) there is a strange dichotomy in the nominees that I can’t quite get my head around, and b) I haven’t played enough of the games.

Antiquity
Antiquity has no chance to win. It’s a $100+ game, and it’s long. Simple as that; you can’t win the IGA without broad-based support on the jury, and this won’t get it for practical reasons. While quite sympathetic to the new bias for small-press games, issues of quality aside this probably is too far off the mainstream of the IGAs traditional eurogame beat, too much of a niche game, and too expensive and generally unavailable to have been a serious nomination.

Carcassonne: The City
Being a part of the Carcassonne franchise, I don’t think this one has a realistic shot. For me, Carcassonne jumped the shark with Builders and Traders, and around here, The City just didn’t have any legs, as it tried unsuccessfully to lever the fundamentally non-threatening Carcassonne into more of a “gamer’s game” package. I’ll stick with Hunters and Gatherers.

Diamant
This is too light to win, although its chances are not zero. That this nice but featherweight (and overpriced) game was nominated while the novel and genuinely interesting Saboteur was passed over is disappointing. Not that Diamant is a bad game, which it isn’t … but it’s just not one that’s going to leave much of an imprint on the landscape. Perhaps the IGA mistakenly thought that they, like the Spiel des Jahre, might get a cut of the retail price.

Around the World in 80 Days
This is also too light to win. It has a very distant outside shot, but I would be amazed. Another game that’s a bit above average, but nothing special, and as a family game it seems out of place in this crowd.

Keythedral
This is an interesting game, but I’m not sure what it’s doing on the list, especially with Breese’s better Reef Encounter also nominated. A conflicted brain-burner. No chance; all but the most extreme Breeseophiles on the jury will go for Reef Encounter first, and Breeseophobes will avoid either (but Keythedral especially).

Louis XIV
For me personally, this is the winner, although not by a huge margin (and there are games that were not even nominated that I think are better still). Whether the game has serious replayability is an open question, but it’s interesting and unusual, and the theme is passable. But given the lack of interest the jury showed in Traders of Genoa a couple years back, that they typically go for true big-box games (last year’s Saint Petersburg being an exception), and the occasional mental block people have on the whole shields thing, a Louis XIV win is improbable I think.

Reef Encounter
Unquestionably Reef Encounter will appeal to the jury. It’s a throwback to the late 90s and so has a nostalgia appeal to long-time gamers, it’s a pretty good game, and it’s just elitest enough (only available in limited quantities and extravagant prices … but not too extravagant, and it has an impending reprint) to swing votes. All in all a very strong contender. While I certainly don’t think it’s the game of the year, if it wins it will be (given the reprint) probably the best choice the IGA has ever made in terms of doing something meaningfully different and trying to draw attention to a good but underexposed game.

Shadows Over Camelot
You probably know what I think of this game. If I had to make a bet, though, I think this has the best shot at winning, albeit not by a lot in a field that’s a bit more open than usual. Days of Wonder is trendy, the buzz hasn’t quite had a chance to fade yet, and it’s possible the jury won’t play enough to get to the seriously problematic back end. The IGA picked San Marco a couple years back, which was about the 12th-best game in the category that year, and a Shadows pick would ultimately be similar. I don’t think Shadows rises even to the level of being average, but I’d overall give it a very slight edge over Reef Encounter for two reasons. Firstly, the IGA tends to reward broad-based support, and Shadows has better market penetration than Reef Encounter. Secondly, Shadows is closer to the somewhat lighter weight class that the IGA generally prefers.

Struggle of Empires
Well, you either like Martin Wallace games or you don’t it seems. I like Age of Steam but am not generally a fan. Regardless, due to the length, and the free-for-all and wargamey nature of this game, I believe it has no chance to win. Age of Steam was mainstream enough to euro sensibilities to be a plausible contender (it didn’t win); I don’t think this one is, and you need across-the-board appeal to win the IGA.

Ticket to Ride: Europe
Maybe. TtR:E would be a better choice than a number of other games on the list, and it could get the required broad support, but would overall be a disappointing pick for a number of reasons, not least because the IGA desperately needs to distinguish itself from the other awards and one would hope that a “best of year” award might point you to a genuinely great game that you would not otherwise have tried. Most IGA consumers at this point are going to have heard of TtR:E and know whether they want to play it or not. I’d consider this a possible but dark horse candidate, and even though it’s a good game it possibly should have been excluded on the grounds of being a “system” game.

Ubongo
No chance. The nature of the game will turn off too many jurors, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, you need across-the-board support to win.

Ys
This one is probably the most plausible dark horse candidate. Greg Schlosser is a big fan I think, and that may carry some lobbying weight. It’s accessible, and while it’s a niche game it’s still generally available. Again, given the weakness of the field, Ys does OK – somewhere around 5th – but this is not a “best of year” type game, not by a far cry. I could come up with some way to spin it so that it comes out ahead of the other nominees, but even in a weak field I have to work at it. A sympathetic candidate, and really not a bad game, but it would ultimately not be a good choice.

Given the sense of weakness that the nomination list conveys, it raises the obvious question: what was missed? As it turns out, rather a lot.

Probably the most profound thing is that not even one of three very good to excellent Knizias were included – Palazzo, Tower of Babel, and Razzia!. And that’s just the really good stuff; one could make arguments for other games (like King Arthur) over some of the entries. That none were even on the nomination list raises serious questions about whether the IGA is borrowing another feature of the Spiel des Jahre, an almost pathalogical anti-Knizia bias. The omission of Razzia! is perhaps understandable given its Ra heritage, but it’s not a straight reprint and Diamant, Ticket to Ride: Europe, and Carcassone: the City are all highly derivative games. But not including Palazzo or Tower of Babel given some of the stuff that was nominated is mystifying.

Other titles that are inexplicably missing, again given the weakness of the field, are Shadow of the Emperor, Candamir, Mall World, 1825 Unit 3, Revolution, and Friedrich. The number of small-time publishers on the list is laudable, but why give spots to both Reef Encounter and Keythedral? The latter is a nice game, but nothing truly special (never mind the eligability time frame questions), and if you want another small-press game, Mall World is to me a stronger game and deserved to take its place. Candamir was not great in its original German incarnation, but the new Mayfair edition is vastly improved and easily deserved a slot over Carcassonne: The City (among others), and would have focussed on an American company beating a German company at its own game. 1825 Unit 3 is a system game, but so is Ticket to Ride: Europe, and again, 1825 Unit 3 is a very good game – although perhaps for the 2-player list. One could make a very strong case for Revolution: The Dutch Revolt and Friedrich also, especially considering the inclusion of the similarly-lengthy Antiquity and similarly-wargamey Struggle of Empires. All would also have helped tremendously in giving the nomination list some breadth, while currently it, like the Spiel des Jahre has become of late, feels to me like a victim of group-think.

And what about some of the very nice small-box stuff like Geschenkt, Saboteur, or even Garten-Zwerge e V? Perhaps there was some fear that the voting system would have essentially gaurenteed a Geschenkt win, but it would have been nice to see a few of the good small-box games recognized (esepcially since Diamant, a small-box game at a big-box price, was included).

It is a certainty that whatever wins the IGA (I’d handicap Reef Encounter or Shadows Over Camelot, with Ys as a dark horse and Ticket to Ride: Europe as a darker horse, Louis XIV the game that perhaps should win, and no other pick being at all credible), there will be a handful of fairly mainstream releases that I felt were significantly better that weren’t even nominated. While I definitely respect the list’s focus on smaller game companies, and in that sense I feel it’s a significant step towards making the IGA at least somewhat relevant, given the apparent parameters of selection (i.e., that a number of games from major publishers were included) there are simply too many games on the list that are no better than average, and too many excellent and interesting games omitted entirely.

What does all this mean for the IGA? In an industry rife with meaningless awards, the purpose or relevancy of the IGA has never been clear. Given that until now it has done little but echo (with less information) the more prestigious, useful, and reliable Deutcher Spiele Preis, the IGA has yet to find the angle that will make it of interest, at least on the euro-style end (the “historical” end is another matter, and of some interest given the CSR Award‘s recent difficulties). The new emphasis on some decent, off-mainstream games is a step in the right direction, but it’s obviously now a bit conflicted and still not there in terms of achieving both credibility and a clear audience. While giving an award to Ys or Struggle of Empires or Antiquity might set them apart from the crowd of people lining up to honor Ticket to Ride, it’s not clear who the audience for an award that recognized these games would be, or if that audience would need or pay any attention to such an award in the first place.

2014 addenda: Ticket to Ride: Europe won. Sigh.

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Shadows over Camelot update

I have now played a couple more games of Shadows over Camelot, and I wonder if my review was actually far too generous. Quite simply, I realize that I find the game boring. In my last game, I noticed that I was rarely doing anything at all. A couple other Knights and I had gone on the Grail Quest; every few minutes I was just flipping a black card, reading the text, and playing a grail card. I had literally no decisions to make for probably 20 minutes. Then I moved to another quest (Picts) which also offered me zero turn-to-turn decisions. Finally I got to think a bit during the endgame as we figured out how to pull out yet another loyal Knight victory. The only thing I was doing most of the game was watching for the traitor. But since there seems little opportunity and even less motivation for the traitor to really be traitorous (at least not in any way the other players could possibly detect), and since as it turned out there was no traitor in the game anyway, even that wasn’t very exciting.

I am almost at the point of being done with the game, after only 5 plays or so. I’d play again if friends wanted to, but I’d strongly argue for smaller numbers of players (4-5) and with the more-likely-Traitor rules – I don’t think I would play with 7 players again; too tedious.

It’s been a source of some disappointment that my lukewarm review has been essentially the only one that has any reservation about the game at all; both Tom Vasel and Shannon Applecline have had unreserved praise for the game (Tom tells you flat-out to buy it, regardless of your gaming tastes). The main dispute in the boardgamegeek reviews seems to simply be about just how great a game it is. The only exception seems to me the usually incredulous Rick Heli; even he speaks in solid positive overall terms, but at least he does mention some of the issues, and his Geek rating is a modest 7. While I won’t say that the people who like it are wrong, or that there couldn’t be overall strongly positive reviews for a game I’m not that impressed with, still the fact that the reviews have been so uncritical (with the exception of Rick’s) has certainly been a disappointment to me – especially given that the actual BoardGameGeek users have been somewhat more reserved in their response, at least by the standards of major new releases with flashy bits.

If our hobby ever wants to seriously broaden the player base, we’re going to have to start acting less parochial. My theory is that there is no such thing as a non-gamer; everyone has played games. It’s just that they don’t have exposure to good, more sophisticated games, for reasons that may be part cultural, but perhaps are mainly due to the stranglehold of Hasbro, Toys R Us, and Walmart. It’s not a matter of selling people on games; it’s a matter of directing them to the good ones in our niche. There are, after all, probably hundreds of thousands of people playing Scrabble in America, which is a fairly euro-ish game, and games like Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, and Cranium have sold a lot of copies. Generally uncritical reviews are not helping our cause. People may have time and energy for the couple best or most appealing games, and will not give our branch of the hobby a second chance if they play a few games that don’t grab them. It’s the job of the reviewer to point them, and the gamers who indirectly recruit them, towards the great games as quickly as possible. Compare to movie reviews; people in general clearly have an appetite for concise, well-written, critical reviews. Why are game reviews different?

The Greying of an Avalon Hill Gamer

Everyone else in the gaming blogosphere seems to be talking about Lewis Pulsipher’s (the designer of Britannia, apparently) recent article called “An attempt to explain why (and how) boardgaming has changed in the past twenty years“. It even made GameFest’s front page, I’m not sure why – they rarely spotlight outside articles, and when it comes to this one, what the other bloggers have rather generously failed to mention is that Mr Pulsipher is just blowing smoke.

Not one of his sweeping, stereotypical assertions as to the changes in the boardgame world is backed up by a shred of serious data. People are worse at math? You’d think that sort of claim could be made with some statistics if true. But no, it’s simply asserted without evidence, one rather implausible claim after another. Am I seriously to believe that kids are now so intellectually bankrupt that they have to add up the pips every time on the dice instead of simply recognizing the patterns as Mr. Pulsipher would have us believe? This is just the most ludicrous, unsubstantiated claim in the piece (perhaps the school district in his area is really, really bad). In short, what he’s saying here is “back when I was a kid …”, the rant of everyone who starts to realize they aren’t young anymore.

This article has been written many times before by many different people, and what it boils down to is “why won’t people play my favorite old games with me?”. Who cares? We are now, in my opinion, in the golden age of boardgaming, wargaming or otherwise. On the wargame end, GMT publishes more games in a year than Avalon Hill ever did, and games like Paths of Glory and Europe Engulfed are enjoying surprising success and longevity for their complexity, with Paths of Glory just being reprinted for the third time (let’s remember, classic Avalon Hill games were rarely very complicated). Columbia is apparently doing quite well in the low-to-medium-complexity, high-quality niche, with many titles in print – Rommel in the Desert, a classic 20-year-old game worth of today’s standards, was just reprinted. The Europeans are giving us huge numbers of games with a quality undreamt of 20 years ago, achieving more in depth and interest in 60-90 minutes and 6 pages of rule than all but the best comparable Avalon Hill games, and with amazing physical quality (if you want the reason why the boardgaming world has changed, I would suggest you start here). We are now enjoying the games of Reiner Knizia, unquestionably the most brilliant and prolific game designer ever to practice the craft. While the individual US print run numbers don’t compare with the glory days of Avalon Hill, remember that AH had a no serious competition in the “games for hobbyists” segment of the market, foreign or domestic, for several decades. Today there are quite a few serious players in the US (Rio Grande, GMT, Columbia, Mayfair, Fantasy Flight, Überplay/Eagle, Days of Wonder, even Hasbro/Wizards/AH), and dozens in Europe – the joys of internationalization – and the US boardgame market is growing strongly. You can read 20-page analyses of Puerto Rico, Goa, or War of the Ring on BoardGameGeek by twenty-somethings. Kids are playing Magic: The Gathering with opponents all over the globe in tournaments for real money (not as much as they used to, but still). Settlers of Catan, a ten-year-old game, is still a top-seller (having outsold by several factors any game Avalon Hill ever made) and still enjoys wide critical and popular acclaim. And Dungeons and Dragons in it’s new third(ish) edition still, I imagine, outsells them all. And that’s despite stunning competition from great console games like Halo.

In short, the gamer today is part of a broader, more vibrant, more interesting community than ever before, and has access to games that have made a quantum leap in quality in every respect from 20 years ago. That’s what’s changed. Even though the 70s and 80s did produce a few great games even by today’s standards (Titan, Dune, 1830, Squad Leader, and Rommel in the Desert, to pick a few), you still couldn’t pay me enough to go back. Well, you could, but I’d probably give up gaming. Regardless, you take my point.

As a parting shot, I quote from the article:

It would help if we had more short wargames. However, marketing very short wargames is also a problem. I’ve designed a number of wargames that can be played in an hour, but I’m not sure they’re marketable. They are much “smaller” than the typical wargame, and less strongly historical. When people play them they like them, but who’s going to buy them?

I guess that whole Memoir ’44 thing must be a massive shared hallucination. What’s its ranking on BGG? 7th? Days of Wonder isn’t exactly complaining about the sales, what with rumors of three expansions.

I have a couple sessions in the queue here, so we’ll be returning to our regularly scheduled program of gaming criticism momentarily.

GeekSpeak

Scott Alden and Derk Solko were kind enough to invite me to be a guest on their GeekSpeak game-related internet radio show, and I think the session worked out pretty well. We talked mainly about wargames, but the topics also ranged to German-style games, and even a few moments on RPGs. It wasn’t perfect – the Skype internet phone software we used has some inherent delay which meant we were occasionally stepping on each other. And I had some bursts of static on my end, so I was piecing together a couple of the call-in questions. But the Skype connection was overall clearer than my cell phone, so chalk it up as a win.

I thought I might offer a few minor follow-up comments:

Iain’s call: Iain’s blog, inconsequential ruminations, is here. The RPG content on my own blog has been thin of late, and I am going to try to get more back in. My monthly D&D session has still been going, so the material is there.

Robert E. Lee: This question was interesting, but really not something I could go into great detail on given the main focus of the program. For reference, here is the background for Alan’s question, and I think I’ve said about all I’m going to say about the issue on that GeekList.

Favorite Game Designer: An interesting slip-up on my part: I refer to Mark Simonitch as a game “author.” I generally don’t like the term “author” in this context, much preferring the traditional “designer.” Also, I should say that my fondness for Herr Knizia is obviously based on more than just his versatility, but also the incredible professionalism he brings to game design and the amazing elegance and subtlety to his bigger games.

Quebec 1759 being “less complicated than Puerto Rico”, this may have seemed an odd comment – Quebec is actually a lot less complicated than Puerto Rico, I think – but somehow PR has become the bar. If I perceive a wargame as the same order-of-magnitude complexity as Puerto Rico, I feel comfortable recommending it to people who play mainly German-style games, otherwise I hesitate.

Top 5 lists: The 5 games I threw out for wargames and German games as being my favorite were obviously all what I consider excellent games, but were ultimately somewhat random. For a list to which I have applied more thought, see my Top 20 list, which contains all kinds of games. That list still doesn’t include Wizard Kings for some reason, though.

That last question: Yeah, I know, my response to Josh’s (known online more popularly as Mr. Cranky) question was pretty lame. My only excuse was that I got a burst of static right in the middle – first he’s mentioning something about Aristotle and Philip which I still don’t get, and then he’s on to asking about Kim. But Kim got a kick out of it, so that’s cool.

I had a great time doing the show, and I hope you guys enjoyed listening to it. Kim has to fly down to Johnson Space Center in Texas on work every so often, so maybe I’ll see what I can do about helping out Derk with Europe Engulfed sometime.

Good RPG Column – Walt Ciechanowski

I enjoy RPGs, but of late, I’ve been laboring with them. A lot.

The problem is that being the GM is just so bloody difficult, especially for me, the perfectionist. I want the module to have fascinating plot, good character development, a theme, riveting battles, interesting NPCs, and be more like Tolkien or Donaldson than George R R Martin or Kevin J Anderson. Plus, I want it to be a great game, given all my experience with German-style games.

As a consequence, after my first (recent) somewhat unsatisfactory outing as a GM, I’ve been laboring excessively over my next attempt. For, like, almost a year now, on and off (in fairness, mostly off, as the task has been somewhat irrationally daunting).

What I have been trying to find is the Mike Siggins of RPGs. Someone who can write and give me some good tips. Some sourcebooks have some good, practical GMing advice (like the Star Wars d20 Galactic Campaign Guide), but most systems give you too little to go on. The D&D tips in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are particularly unenlightening in the end. And the internet has not been yielding much.

Most of RPG.net’s columns are … well, not that great, and the ones that are good tend not to be from the perspective of a GM. But I recently discovered Walt’s column, which is absolutely awesome (links to previous installments are at the bottom of the page). This is great stuff, good, practical advice you can use, which I think has finally gotten me over the hump. Maybe I can finally finish this thing up.

If anyone else knows of good stuff like this, please forward it along. I’ll add a link to my blog.