Monday, March 8, 2010

My 4 Favorite Types of Games

Honorable Mention--Kids' Games
One of my favorite ways to interact with my children is through playing board games. Why is this only an 'honorable mention' then? For the most part these games are difficult to compare to the vast array of games I play with adults since they are primarily designed for kids. So, though I may enjoy playing some of our kids games just as much as the other games in my collection, it is very difficult to rate them on the same scale.

Not only do we own a decent handful of good kids' games, but Abby is old enough now that I can play many lighter adult strategy games with her as well. If we only have time for a short game I'd probably reach for Cheese Snatching, a cute little push your luck game by Haba. If the whole family wants to play, either Suitcase Detectives or Chicken Cha Cha Cha would probably fit the bill. If it's just Abby and I and we have a little time to spend, I'd probably go for Carcassonne, which we both love and that title even scratches that strategy game itch.

4. Heavy Strategy Games Games in this category often have complicated rules, many difficult decisions, and take several plays to really get a firm grasp of the rules and a feel for some of the strategies involved. Though I admire the designs of all the heavy strategy games I own, they have been somewhat hit or miss as far as my enjoyment goes. I love Puerto Rico, Agricola, and Race for the Galaxy (RftG), but thus far games like El Grande and Caylus just haven't clicked for me.

Heavy strategy games tend to rely very little on luck so all the hard work and tough decisions that one makes along the way tend to culminate in an appropriate outcome--if you've played the best game, you are almost certain to win. Strategy games in general tend to function best with a small number of players, tending to play best with 2-4 participants (a number that does not function well for party games in general). There is a lot of work to be done in these games, but a good job is very well rewarded with victory and satisfaction. With the right group of players who have all played the game a number of times and each of whom is thinking independently and pursuing diverging strategies, these types of games have no equal.

There are a number of potential downsides to heavy strategy games, however.

  1. Many people don't want to have to think that much about a board game, especially if they are playing one to relax after having to think all day at work, and therefore it can be difficult to find people who will willingly play them!
  2. They feature very steep learning curves. The rules are often somewhat difficult to understand, and even once you have a grasp on the basic idea of how to play you still have little to no idea how to form an effective strategy. A couple of experienced players teaching one of these games to newbies will have a huge advantage, and it will generally take many plays before the playing field is somewhat level.
  3. Heavy strategy games are all about making many tough decisions and thus players must spend most of their time and energy during the game thinking. This tends to make for fairly quiet gaming experiences. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but often it is nice to have a more lively gaming experience.
  4. If you have a large group of people on hand you just can't play one of these games.
  5. Heavy strategy games tend to take a fairly long time to play, especially with a larger number of players and/or a number of new players. Agricola, for instance, plays in about half an hour per player--that's 2 1/2 hours for a five player game, plus time for rules explanation if it's anyone's first play. While I have no problem with this, it can be a hurdle to getting other people on board.

3. Party Games
These are essentially the opposite of heavy strategy games in almost every way, yet I like them just as much! My favorites (as described in my previous post) include Time's Up: Title Recall, Ca$h'n Gun$, Say Anything, and Wits & Wagers. Two that have potential but for which I harbor some reservations are Dixit and Cluzzle.

Party games have a lot going for them. They tend to be very highly interactive, easy to teach, generally accommodate large groups (at least 6-8 players), and tend to favor creativity or lighthearted fun over difficult decisions.

On the flip side, party games have a weaker connection between making good decisions and victory--quite often the victory conditions are just a guide to maximizing the fun factor along the way. If you're looking for a game that will challenge you at every turn and will culminate with a victory if you've had the best strategy or made the best decisions over the course of play, you should avoid party games! Also, the flip side of the 'accommodating large groups' feature is that party games simply don't work with two players and are not optimal for small groups of three or four.

2. Light Strategy Games
These are much like the heavy strategy games above, but tend to be somewhat more dependent on luck, easier to learn, have simpler strategies, and play in much less time. My favorites in this category are Carcassonne and Dominion, though I also enjoy a host of others including Metropolys, Wasabi!, and Settlers of Catan.

Light strategy games are a good middle ground between heavy strategy and party games. They are much more accessible than the former, and still have more strategic elements than the latter. New players have a better shot at winning than they would with heavier games, and really have the opportunity to have more fun with them almost immediately. These also tend to play in much shorter amounts of time than their heavier equivalents, so it may be possible to play two or three games in the same session as opposed to one.

1. Cooperative Games Though I really only own two games in this category (Pandemic and Ghost Stories), they are amongst my favorite games, and I do intend to add more to my collection in the near future.

Coops place much less pressure on new players than competitive strategy games since they don't force each participant to make all their own decisions and come up with their own strategy independently of the other players. It is also less important to give a complete explanation of the game before play, because there is no harm in teaching some of the rules as the game is played. This being said, Pandemic and Ghost Stories are both very challenging games that demand much thought for players to be victorious over the game, the pressure is simply off individual players to be fully responsible for the entire strategy.

These games succeed when they throw down the gauntlet and players have to brainstorm together to come up with creative ways to combine their abilities and game options to be able to deal with the situation on the board. These lively debates are the real core of the game, and it is possible for the session to suffer if a couple of the players just aren't into it. Also, some gamers might just not get the point of playing a game when there is no winner crowned in the end. For me, there is a place for each of these types of games, but most recently the majority of my favorite gaming experiences have been with cooperative ones, and thus they make the top of the list.

Anyone find it odd that my last post made a big deal about only being able to come up with lists of four, but I follow it immediately with a list of five? Lame.

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