Hamlet’s Hit Points for Boardgamers

I recently finished reading Robin D. Laws’ book Hamlet’s Hit Points. This is a short, highly readable book that I recommend for anyone interested in a little deeper understanding of how these games of ours grab and keep our attention and interest. It’s true that the book is written primarily with role-players in mind, and will be invaluable for game masters, but the concepts and techniques discussed are 100% portable to the realm of boardgames.

The basic idea is this: the conception of narrative that you probably got back in school was one of escalating conflict and tension, followed by a climax and resolution, then denouement. This is also how I tended to think good games should feel. It has a lot of intuitive appeal, especially in the light of various practical problems boardgames usually have. Given that hobbyist games don’t tend to get a ton of replay and mixed experience levels are very common, you’d like to give your players a chance to warm up with some lower-stakes conflicts early before proceeding to the high-stakes endgame. It also serves as a built-in catch-up mechanism since players who make poor choices or have bad luck early can still get back into the game with good moves later.

But as Hamlet’s Hit Points makes clear, while this may be true on the macro level, this misses out on a very important key to how narratives keep and hold your attention during the moment-to-moment action. The book takes three classic plots – Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca – and plots the action on a hope/fear axis. In each moment (or narrative “beat”) your empathy for or feelings about the protagonist or other characters in the narrative are moving somehow: towards hope that things are going to work out well, or towards fear that they are not. Narrative tension relies on skillfully moving back and forth between these drives, not giving you too much hope without an injection of fear, or vice versa. In his analysis of Hamlet – an analysis I agree with – he finds that “down” (towards fear) or “up” (towards hope) beats in the story never cluster together in groups of more than about 3 in a row.

Bearing in mind that everything is obvious once it’s been properly explained, this seems so clearly true, and so useful to GMs, designers, and people just wanting to understand a bit more about games, it’s surprising nobody’s said it before. Maybe they did, they just didn’t have as clever a title or explain it as clearly.
Anyway, this simple concept has a great deal of explanatory power as to why some games work from a narrative perspective and why other, quite similar games don’t.

Before starting, I’ll stipulate a lot of boardgames don’t necessarily succeed or fail based on emotional engagement or narrative. There is a branch of boardgames (let’s call it the Caylus/Age of Steam branch) that fans like because of the pure intellectual challenge, and as such perhaps has more in common with a puzzle than a play or movie. Some players enjoy the lengthy period of frustration followed by the exhilaration of finding a solution. Having said that, let’s also not make the mistake of associating “narrative” strictly with “thematic”, or not looking at how nominally abstract games can engage us emotionally. Many successful abstract games, like the GIPF-series games or the classics like Chess and Go, do work with this pattern of balance between hope and fear.

With these caveats though, looking closely at the hope/fear beats of boardgames shows pretty quickly why some games are so engaging and some are not. I’ll look at a pair of games, one successful, the other not so much: Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings and Arkham Horror.

The turn structure of these cooperative games, which is “do something good”/”do something evil”, is clearly aimed at this modulation. In Lord of the Rings, the fear of what the tile draws from the bag are going to be is quite visceral. Looking at the structure of the events on the boards, which is what drives the fear of those tile draws, usually the events that occur early in each narrative are of the structure “meet some condition to receive a significant reward, otherwise suffer a significant penalty”, which give the players hope for success but fear of failure. Later events tend then to get very bad, but at this point they are balanced against the hope of actually finishing the episode and moving on to the next, when the game reset involved in the episode transition gives the players a large jolt of hope as they move on to face the next challenge. Then when you get a chance to take your turn, you almost always receive clear, immediate, useful rewards that feed your hope of getting out of this mess alive.

So why does Arkham Horror not work as well as Lord of the Rings? If you think about it as an exercise in trying to move between hope and fear in reasonably tight circles, it’s fairly obvious: Arkham Horror neither reliably rewards the characters to give them hope nor does it reliably put them in enough danger to be really fearful. Often you will visit a building with some hope of receiving a useful item or piece of information, but too often the rewards are minor, nonexistent, tangential to what you are trying to achieve, and generally not enough to inspire hope. The Mythos cards rarely have the dimension of meting out rewards or punishment that could inspire hope or fear, they are simply one-off events that the characters too infrequently can’t do anything at all to anticipate, they simply respond. They are also too unreliable in their effects to get into any kind of cycle between hope and fear. An event that is not foreseen with at least some clarity can’t inspire fear. The same thing can be said for character actions: too often there isn’t enough you can do to give you hope, because clues are unavailable, you have to waste time in the hospital to recover health or sanity, and a route towards positive progress is not reliably open. Without some way to reliably make significant forward progress, we are denied the jolt of hope we need to keep interested.

This is not to say Arkham Horror can’t get onto this virtuous cycle; sometimes the cards flow well and the situation develops in an interesting manner. But compared to the well-plotted structure of Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror is relying on the luck of the draw to get into a good narrative zone. This is obviously not a great way to do this. As board gamers we tend not to like “scripting” in games, but scripting is obviously a mixed blessing. To the degree that it constrains player choice, it’s not great. But narrative needs structure to work. As a recent convert to the GUMSHOE roleplaying system (designed by Robin Laws), I appreciate the book sections in the Esoterrorists book (also in Trail of Cthulhu) where he talks about railroading and the importance of giving the players the illusion of player control while keeping them on the narrative straight and narrow. These things are not contradictory.

While the comparison between Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings is clear, you can see the logic here in tons of boardgames. For me, the difference between Dominion and Thunderstone in that Dominion is a fairly linear procession, while Thunderstone has some of this modulation. The flow of monsters up from the depths of the dungeon obviously helps. If you think of breach effect, traps, and treasures as hope/fear modulators and amplifiers, they make a lot of sense. Crucially, by giving you a set of characters with at least some personality that you can hope will advance in level and get more powerful while being afraid that they will die, Thunderstone helps you get invested in the game and actually feel something. Dominion gives you nothing.
There are plenty of other good examples in thematic games. Small World, where hope spring eternal when you draft a new race – and the personalization of the races and powers make a huge difference in our being able to identify with them – but gives way to fear as the race reaches the end of its rope and it becomes incredibly fragile in decline. Agricola is another classic manipulator, catching you between fear of starvation and ruin and the hopes that you have to build your farm, and thinking in these terms its tremendous popularity is easily explained. Classic games like Dune, Civilization, Titan, or Republic of Rome operate on longer time scales, but have amplified peaks and troughs of hope and fear, as anyone who has stared at their opponent across a combat wheel in a high-stakes battle in Dune can attest. Traditional games like Risk give you a lot of hope on your turn as your armies rampage across the board but then leave you to be very afraid of what your opponents are going to do to you once you pass the dice.

When you think about it terms of hope and fear, the visceral appeal of card driven wargames, especially the good ones like Hannibal, Successors, and Paths of Glory are likewise easily explained. Even titles which may not be as solid on game system merits (like Labyrinth or Twilight Struggle) can nonetheless be compelling because of the way they are always jerking you between hope for the cards you are holding and fear of what your opponent is going to do to you. Similarly, block games like Rommel in the Desert and EastFront manage this hope/fear balance, as they have the players playing in an environment of scarce information which is revealed in fits and starts, sometimes answering questions, sometimes creating new problems for you to grapple with, and giving you plenty of room to create your own hopes and fears.

Being about RPGs, one challenge that boardgames face that Hamlet’s Hit Points doesn’t talk about is how a narrative can keep this structure of hope and fear going when you play the game 5, 10, 15 times and know the general contours of the experience. This is not as much of an obstacle as you might think. The source narratives Laws analyzes are plays and movies which have survived a fair amount of repeat viewing. These emotional experiences the narrative aims to evoke are fundamentally manipulative. If you succeed the first time you can probably do it again.

This sort of modulation is obviously not the only way that narratives can be compelling. As mentioned in the book, rules are made to be broken, and some of our most compelling art comes from rules-breaking. But the lessons of Hamlet’s Hit Points are extremely powerful as a tool to understanding what makes games tick.

Shadows over Camelot

At its core, Shadows over Camelot is a very close sibling to Lord of the Rings (if you haven’t played or know nothing about Lord of the Rings, this review will ultimately make more sense if you read that piece at some point). Each player is a different Knight of the Round Table (Arthur, Galahad, Kay, Gawain, even Bedeviere if you download him from the Days of Wonder site … but, shockingly, no Lancelot, depriving us of some of the best jokes). You have a hand of cards, which you spend to accomplish quests. These can be numeric fight cards, useful for defeating the Black Knight, Picts, Saxons, finding Sir Lancelot (where is he anyway? Only his armor shows up), or defeating the Dragon. There are also Grail cards, which – shockingly – help in finding the Holy Grail. The grail in the game looks more like the sort of cup that would get you disintegrated if you drank from it; if you should ever run into the sort of situation in which this kind of knowledge would be useful, remember to choose more wisely. Maybe that’s why they had such a hard time finding it. And there are also special cards, which allow various sorts of actions.

The Knights all begin at Camelot. But rather than all progressing together through linear adventures, as is the case in Lord of the Rings, they now are able to split up and pursue quests as individuals or smaller teams. Some may choose to stay in Camelot gathering more cards. One may go to face off with the Black Knight in a tournament. Or one or more Knights take on a larger quest, heading off in search of the Holy Grail or Excalibur. Once you’ve made your way to your quest, each turn you may play a card: if it’s a fighting quest, you play a numbered fight card to try to get high scores in various patterns (the Black Knight requests two pair, the quest for Lancelot a full house, the Picts and Saxons a straight). For the Grail quest, each Grail card simply advances a track. Once you run out of useful cards to play on a quest, you may move about amongst these available quests, although if you abandon an individual quest, you have to lose one of the played cards for your faintheartedness.

While you are doing this, each turn you (generally) draw one card from a black deck. These will usually make one quest harder, by canceling progress, upping the target total of fight cards required, or by counting down a clock.

As each quest ends, either because the Knights played enough cards, the bad guys maxed out their strength, or the clock counted down, you figure out who won. Some quests – the Saxons, Picts, the Grail, Excalibur – end in failure as soon as the clock counts down, or success if the good guys play all the required cards first. Combat quests, like the Black Knight, involve counting up the total card values played when the quests ends one way or another. Regardless, the major side effect of ended quests is Swords, which can be black or white, which are victory points. If, at the end of the game, there are more White than Black swords, the good guys win. If not, they lose.

If this was all there was to the game, I could write its obituary right now and save a lot of time: “A less thematic, less challenging, less well-balanced, and less interesting Lord of the Rings that has noticeably more down time. The only thing it has more of is, arguably, complexity. Oh, and the endgame can be tedious”. Fortunately, there is one more detail which really makes the game: the Traitor. The Traitor plays as a normal Knight, but with different goals: he is trying to both a) keep his identity concealed and b) make sure the loyal Knights lose. You can throw around accusations of treason, which will score a white sword if accurate or convert white swords to black swords if not (very nasty). If the traitor is still unrevealed at the end of the game, two white swords will be converted, which will make it harder for the good guys to win (whether this will actually be hard is still an open question in my mind). The doubt and suspicion engendered by there being a traitor in the player’s midst is fun, and amusingly out of proportion to the traitor’s actual ability to slow the other players down, which is not that considerable. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt a loyalty card – either Loyal or Traitor. I recommend in the strongest possible terms the optional rule which includes as many Loyal cards as there are players, plus the Traitor, instead of always including all 7 Loyal cards. As I say, the Traitor makes the game; if the odds of having one are too low, the game loses substantially in flavor, challenge, and interest. This variant will ensure that there is usually a traitor, but keep open the small but entertaining possibility that there isn’t.

Although we are still a little ways from the end of this piece, I will now give you my bottom line. I enjoyed Shadows over Camelot. There are more cooperative games out there than you might think, but almost none are in this somewhat heavier weight class, or at the level of sophistication and professionalism of good German games. It’s certainly not on the same level as Lord of the Rings, but the Traitor adds a very nice twist, with each player’s moves being analyzed for possible disloyalty (hmmm … I can sense some sort of comedic, Soviet-era spinoff coming. Maybe Paranoia: The Board Game). If this is the analysis you want to hear, you might want to stop reading now.

Because even with those strengths, and even though I’m ultimately giving it a thumbs up, Shadows over Camelot has a number of problems, some potentially rather significant. The two most obviously problematic are a) a suspect endgame, and b) clear replayability questions. Another has to do with game balance. To take them in order, then …

The Endgame: Games should, cooperative or not, ratchet up tension towards a climax. This is why many Battle of the Bulge games end at the German high-water mark rather than after the Allied counterattacks despite the appeal of symmetry. Once the Germans have succeeded or failed in reaching their objectives, most of the tension has drained out of the game. In Lord of the Rings, you have the agonizing struggle over the last board to the final goal of Mount Doom as your resources dwindle to almost nothing. In Shadows over Camelot things are not driven to conclusion adequately and there is sometimes not a clear finish line to strive for, and the game does not carry its own momentum to the end. The Knights sometimes seem to get into a holding pattern, where they are trying to not lose the major quests like the Holy Grail while they wait for some minor quest, like the Black Knight, to fill up so they can lose it, thus filling up the Round Table with swords, ending the game, and winning (because there are ultimately more White than Black swords). If there is a Traitor out there it can add a little tension, but I found the endgame ultimately unsatisfying. There is also a mechanic of Catapults outside Camelot: once 12 show up, the good guys lose. Unlike Sauron’s implacable advance, though, Knights can dedicate their turn to the elimination of catapults. So as the threat grows, more and more Knights are just sitting around rolling dice to blow up catapults, which is a drag and not fun … so the game actually develops more inertia and becomes more plodding towards the end, just when it should be accelerating, cranking the tension up to painful levels.

Replayability: A game tends to be replayable if it has decent variability, which is usually tied up in a well-done theme. Even though Lord of the Rings is linear, the challenges presented by the wide variety of different events, rewards, and penalties are hugely varied, as is the flavor of the game depending on the rate at which event tiles come out. This gives it thematic depth as well as guaranteeing no two games will be alike. Shadows over Camelot is clearly a far less rich game. You’re just trying to rack up various poker hands (what is it with poker these days?), and the event cards on both sides of the table are limited in numbers and fairly bland. There is some pacing with the different quests, but the rewards and penalties are very abstract, homogenous, and not not very thrilling either thematically or in terms of generating compelling choices or game play. Also, the special powers of the various Knights are neat, but with the exception of the clever card-trading power of King Arthur, and perhaps Gawain and Galahad, most are not so different that playing different ones would lead to a significantly different game experience. A couple Knights will, in fact, never use their special powers. Virtually without fail in the eurogame genre, a lack of fundamental variability translates into a lack of replay value.

Balance: One of the great strengths of Lord of the Rings is that Knizia understood that players were going to start from a low baseline, and then learn and improve fairly quickly. So the 15-level game is interesting for newbies, but provisions are included to take you up to the 10-level game, which is a finely-balanced game where players will almost always be challenged. It is not clear that the same level of attention to detail in terms of balance has been put into Shadows over Camelot. My first early games had comfortable and relatively non-challenging wins for the Knights (even with a Traitor), which was worrisome. The reports I had heard indicated a substantial win edge for the Knights. For this game to work, I feel that the pressure really has to be on the cooperative side. If the good guys win too easily, or are not feeling constant pressure, the game lacks interest and staying power. I’ve heard that in the Sauron expansion for Lord of the Rings, Knizia aimed for a 50/50 win split between Sauron and the good guys, and this feels right to me – not in terms of fairness necessarily, but in terms of keeping the game compelling.

Subsequently, I started hearing of a few Traitor wins, and witnessed one myself. However, my worries in this respect have not really been mitigated. The Traitor win I saw was explicable mainly in terms of bad luck. There is enormous variance in the power of the black cards – several Morgan cards are extremely nasty (with all Knights losing cards, life, or forcing the immediate draw of three new black cards), so seeing these early and often (after a reshuffle) will really whack the Knights. So my perception has shifted a bit … the question is still “is the game balanced?”, but not so much in terms of win/loss but whether or not player skill will dominate the chaos of the game.

Regardless, I find it hard to imagine that any serious, minimally-cooperative group will be significantly challenged by the basic game, that is, playing without a Traitor – even on their first game. Given average luck, I really don’t think the Traitor is going to win anywhere close to half the games of Shadows over Camelot, although it’s also true that I think the game could work with a lower ratio. My games have been enjoyable, but I (as a Knight) simply have not felt under the gun to nearly the degree that we do in Lord of the Rings, with dire things closing in from all sides and – critically – feeling like I have the options to deal with them. In Lord of the Rings, when things start to get tense, you still have a lot of options, and even when things start to snowball, you can aim for a respectable score (or at least not having to enter one of the lowest scores on the high-score sheet) or cut your losses on the current board and try to better on the next one. In Shadows over Camelot, it seems like once things start to snowball your options become extremely constrained for the rest of the game (and so it feels more like you just got hosed by the cards) and you can’t even play for an honorable loss because there is no scoring, so you have to play longer with no real hope “winning”, and nothing else to shoot for.

It is also worrisome that the designers have not clearly staked out a path from inexperience to experience in the rules, with just some various wishy-washy suggestions about how to increase the difficulty, which indicates to me that they haven’t thought that much about this important detail or paid enough attention to the overall game balance, instead hoping that the players will work it out for themselves, or “solving” the problem with a big chunk of randomness (and I should mention that one of the difficulty options, the Squire’s Game, where players start without a Knight card and must earn one is almost totally uninteresting to me since the special power of your Knight card is a decent chunk of what flavor the game has). This is the difference (or one of the differences, anyway) between Knizia and the rest; Knizia has the attention to detail to identify and nail down these things.

This leads in to my ultimate frustration with Shadows over Camelot, I think, even though I like the game well enough in the short run. That is that Knizia has clearly shown the way on this. Lord of the Rings will not be for everyone, but given what it is trying to be and the theme and the inherent limitations of the genre, I feel it is an example of a game that has almost achieved perfection, a game that after dozens of plays it’s hard to imagine any significant way in which it could be improved. Shadows over Camelot is highly derivative from Lord of the Rings (you could argue – perhaps not entirely successfully, but still – that Shadows is little more than a Lord of the Rings where you have to spend a turn moving between the quest lines, and with a Traitor), and yet it simply seems not to have grasped the important fundamental lessons illuminated by the prior game: the importance of randomness and variability, pacing, short-, medium-, and long-term planning, balance, player experience, flavor, and tension, and how these challenges can be successfully tackled. With more attention to detail, Shadows over Camelot could have been a top-tier game. As it is, it’s a decent game, and it’ll be fun for a while, but its unlikely to be one I’ll be playing in six months – never mind 5 years hence.

More Euros, plus the long awaited Watch Your Back

Shadow of the Emperor: Last time I wrote about this game, I talked a bit about what I call gratuitous hoseage, i.e., that players will often be forced to make a decision that helps or hinders one of the other players, and the only thing driving the decision is who he or she thinks is winning (or, if we were to be less generous, who he or she doesn’t like, finds annoying, won the last game, etc). The “Munchkin” factor, perhaps. For obvious reasons, I don’t like to see this sort of thing in games to any degree – if you’re going to have to whack someone, there should ideally be some in-game reason which you can plausibly claim directly helps your own prospects. So if, on a scale of 1 to 10, we rate Munchkin a 10 and Quo Vadis a 1 in this respect, where is Shadow of the Emperor? Probably about a 3 or 4. Not bad on the scale of things, but just enough to make me slightly uncomfortable, and enough for my enthusiasm for the game to taper a bit. I still like it, as the game has a wealth of interesting tactics and flavor, and I am not disappointed with my purchase. I’m still good for a few more games, so it’ll make it to 10 plays comfortably. But I think it’s not a long-term keeper.

Lord of the Rings: Black Tiles: We had 5 players. Lord of the Rings was the game we settled on. We didn’t want to deal with the complexity of Sauron or difficulty of Friends and Foes. “How about this black tile mini-expansion from Sauron?” he asks, innocently. “They probably won’t make the game much more difficult, and they might be interesting”. With this blissful appraisal, we started Sauron on 10 (as I always do when playing the basic game). By the time we were out of Moria (exiting via the last event, not through card play), Sauron was on 5, several Hobbits were up to 3 and 4, and things were looking grim. No, I think “hopeless” might be a better word.

But I’m always energized by these hopeless causes, perhaps because I spent my youth rooting for the Cleveland Indians in the late 70s and into the 80s. Sure, we may be just a few percentage points from being mathematically eliminated, and it might only be May, but that’ll just make victory all the sweeter.

With that kind of lead-in, I hardly need tell you that we didn’t win. However, we did save considerable face by making it a chunk of the way into Mordor, which is better than any of those Indians teams ever did – I figured we’d be lucky to make it through Helm’s Deep. And I think if we had played with a little less desperation, we would have made it at least a little further still, and if we had started on 12, we would have had a pretty good shot at the win. In retrospect, those black tiles are pretty nasty. If they had been designed to make things easier, I guess they would have been some friendlier shades of blue or green. So learn from my experience, and start Sauron one notch higher when you break them out. But, I do really like the more varied penalties on them, along with the choices about which to face, and I think they make the game somewhat more interesting. And once you’ve played a game as often as we’ve played Lord of the Rings, it’s good to have some variety.

Einfach Genial: Last time, I mentioned that I had become a little dissatisfied with the 4-player version of Einfach Genial, because a losing player will sometimes get to make a move to decide who wins, which occasionally can’t be done in an impartial way (the 3-player version doesn’t appear to have this problem). So when we had 4 again, we went with the partnership version. I enjoyed this version, and it seemed a much more satisfactory game than the regular 4-player version.

Wings of War: Watch Your Back: This long-delayed game was always going to be the make-or-break set for Wings of War. Famous Aces was a very fun game, but it required a certain “suspension of competitive instincts” to play well, in that everyone had to be willing to mix it up and not run away or delay or try to optimize too much. Now, though, we have some two-seaters and scenarios with fixed objectives and no excuses. Cool. We played the scenario with an Austrian bomber and escort opposed by two Italian fighters.

Here’s the thing. The Austrian bomber is faster, more heavily armed, and not measurably less maneuverable as the lousier of the two fighters trying to intercept. So the Austrians have not only more ways to win (reaching the objective and returning, or just shooting down the interceptors), they also have arguably better planes. This didn’t thrill the Italian players; this scenario might have been more balanced if there had been no Austrian escort at all! Something to think about the next time we have 3 for this game. Those two-seaters are really tough, they can just keep blasting away as it’s really hard to avoid the guns, and the lack of maneuverability is not as critical in the short, fixed-objective scenario.

So … if we did this again, I would definitely upgrade one of the intercepting fighters to a Sopwith or a Spad from the Famous Aces set, to at least give the interceptors a more significant speed, maneuverability, and firepower edge. All that said, though, seeing the two-seater in action was cool. Keeping in mind that some of the fighters in the Watch Your Back set are quite weak, I’m definitely ready to try it again.

Game Night

After our defeat last time, both Jeff and I had been hankering for another go at Friends and Foes. We had 4 players, and started Sauron on 15.

Last game, we got hammered in Bree. This time, we had much better luck. We were able to keep the Foes under control. We were able to get past the nasty Nazgul Strike by completing the Hiding track, thus saving Sam’s powerful Valor special ability for a later day. We managed to scoop up all the goodies and clear out all the foes, and skipped Moria.

Part of this was just better luck; we didn’t have to deal with the avalanche of foes we encountered last time. But part also was because we were much more willing to expend resources earlier, rather than hoarding thim. We used Merry’s foe-defeating special right way, along with Frodo’s insight. We also used Gandalf’s Letter very early. This all helped a lot.

We cruised through Isengard, skipped Helm’s Deep, were able to use Sam’s Valor to avert potentially rather serious problems with the Faces of the Dead, and cruise through Mordor while keeping the Foes in check (we played with the Black Gate, which requires re-creating the Foes deck to basically take the military victory out of play).

In the end, we were able to win fairly comfortably. And there was much rejoicing. Even if it does sacrifice a little bit thematically, Friends & Foes is a pretty cool addition to the game that had been effectively “off the table” for a while because it was considered too difficult; now, maybe we’ll play it some more.

Last up was Im Schatten des Kaisers, an area control game reminiscent of both Kremlin and El Grande, although lighter than either. I think this is a rather clever game – pretty simple, fairly thematic, with significant strategy, and it is a unique game. That all said, you might want to watch for one thing: unusual for a German game, Im Shatten des Kaisers has a little bit of that dreaded arbitrary hoseage. If you are emperor, you will sometimes be presented with a choice between which of two other players to help and which to hinder, but the ability to make deals is rather limited so you end up picking somewhat arbitrarily. I don’t consider Im Schatten des Kaisers to be a diplomacy or deal-making game in the traditional sense because there really isn’t much to negotiate with; basically, it’s just “I’ll vote for you for emperor”. “No, I’ll vote for you for emperor”; there isn’t a lot going on there. So it boils down to trying to remember who has the most victory points, and people’s memories are virtually always faulty in this regard. At some level, this is just an artifact of the system, which is otherwise quite good, and since it doesn’t show up that often and the game itself isn’t very long, I can live with it.

Game Night

Fab Fib: this is a bluffing game in the mold of Liar’s dice or Coyote. It’s played with a pack of cards, of values 0 through 9. The start player draws three cards. He or she then bids a triplet of numbers, for example 6-5-2, and the next player must decide whether to accept his bid. If he or she does, they take the three cards, discards at least one of them, refills to 3, and then must increase the bid. He instead they call, the cards are revealed and unless they match the bid exactly, the challenge is successful. The loser of the challenge gets number of points that is somewhat random (it’s noted on the cards, usually 1-3 per card). When you get 10 points, you’re out. Yes, this is basically Liar’s Dice with cards. The problem is, unlike Liar’s Dice, you have essentially no information with which to make your decisions. When deciding to call, all you really deciding is whether you think your opponent is the type who would bluff. That’s it. This game really has nothing to recommend it over Coyote or Liar’s Dice, but it is at least short.

Lord of the Rings: Friends and Foes: After my recent playing of this expansion, I was angling to give it another shot. I decided this time that I was going to recommend a strategy of skipping Moria. That’s all well and good, but right out of the gate in Bree we got whacked with a large number of foes. This made it impossible to clear up the queue, and thus impossible to skip Moria. Then we proceeded to get blasted in Isengard. We skipped Helms Deep, but as noted skipping two in a row is very difficult so we got stuck trying to go through Shelob’s Lair, and didn’t make it out. It’s interesting, I noticed in this game that the groups I play with have become much more reluctant to allow Hobbits to be killed off. We now go to great lengths to keep everybody in the game as long as possible. Interesting, because if it’s become clear your character is dead weight, you almost have to find a way to commit suicide (I was in this position and couldn’t pull the trigger, so probably ended up dragging the party down). In the basic game, this is not a big deal, but in the much tougher Friends and Foes, with which we have a lot less experience, we probably need to be willing to be a lot more ruthless. Once again, I enjoyed this game a lot, and hope to be able to play this configuration again soon, and maybe win one. There is clearly still lots of room for improvement in my game.

Maskenball Venezia: This is a fairly nice party-style game from Adlung. Each player is dealt a card which illustrates a gesture – a salute, patting your head, covering your eye, stuff like that. The idea is that everybody sits around a table staring each other. Everyone then tries to make their gesture such that less than half the people at the table notice, and also watch for other players making their gestures. When you think you see somebody making a gesture, you pick the matching card from the reserve. At the end of the round, you reveal who you think made what gestures. For each one you get right, you get a point. You also get a point for every other player who sees your gesture, up to half the players. If more noticed you, you will instead lose points. This is very bad, as the game is only played 10 points. This is just a light silly game, but I must admit I enjoyed it. It’s actually harder than you might think to notice what everybody is doing, and tricky to keep track of everything. I think If it were longer, it would probably get old pretty quickly, but at about 15 minutes, it’s just right. More is better; play it with 7+, I think. My only complaint is that the cards, while physically very attractive, are sometimes hard to identify at a distance. Still, given the price, a nice game from Adlung.

Lord of the Rings: Friends & Foes

Unlike Lord of the Rings: Sauron, Friends and Foes is an expansion that it just feels like I haven’t played much. After this game, I checked my high score sheet, and it appears that I’ve played it 7 times – not bad – but a number of these were right after it came out, and very little since. I think part of this has to do with the won-lost ratio; apparently, the Good Guys have won only one of those games.

I think part of the problem may be that most groups I’ve played with try to skip Helm’s Deep and Shelob’s Lair back-to-back because they don’t want to have to miss out on the goodies at Lorien (which you do if you go around Moria). But skipping those boards in sequence is very difficult unless you’ve saved up a couple of the fairly rare cards that automatically defeat foes and make sure the Ringbearer has 5 shields; and Moria is one of the toughest boards. If I play again soon enough to remember this, I’ll recommend skipping Moria next time.

Lord of the Rings – Sauron

I hadn’t played this particular configuration of Lord or the Rings (Knizia) in quite some time and had forgotten how cool it is. It’s interesting to have players on both sides for a change, and it’s also interesting that Sauron’s position (which I was playing) is so much different from the Hobbits’. You have to choose between building up your own position (by moving the Rider to get more Nazgul cards) and actively attacking the fellowship. When attacking, you have some choices of which types of resources to try and drain, and the choice of when to use the Nazgul cards is both difficult and critical. This latter area is where I made my main errors this game – there are so many powerful Nazgul cards, the temptation is to save them until you can administer a real killing blow, but it’s hard to set up anything that is quite that devastating, so you need to be judicious. Saving a bunch until the end will leave you without enough time to play them, many of them are better early than late, and it seems hard to set up any kind of “combination” action anyway.

We had the full compliment of 6 players and started Sauron on 15, as I always do when using the Sauron expansion, and I had a very tough time of it. The Fellowship traipsed through Moria and Helm’s Deep with hardly ever a bad tile draw, and so the situation was not looking promising (for Sauron) going into Shelob’s Lair. Even unleashing the Nazgul was not enough to make things close, and the Fellowship won handily with 86 points.

I thoroughly enjoyed this game, even though it wasn’t that close, and even though the lack of any die rolls (triggering Sauron’s “full” turns) left me idle at times; the Sauron position is still very interesting. Plus, as Americans I think we’ve been trained to believe that good theme is actions cards with thematic-sounding text (see Munchkin or House on the Hill), but Lord of the Rings certainly proves the bankruptcy of that idea – despite being pretty “abstract”, it certainly has a great feel to it.

Getting soundly thrashed left me with a burning desire to play again, as well as to break out Friends and Foes. It also challenged my assumptions that the Sauron expansion set makes it extremely hard for the Fellowship; it’s no cake walk, but I’ve always aimed for the maximum number of hobbits (5) and started Sauron at 15. I think 4 hobbits would be fine and 3 probably would have some chance, and with 5 it might even be worth considering starting Sauron on 12, at least if your players are mostly reasonably experienced.