Flash of Steel header image 2

More than a feeling

August 13th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

Between finishing up an article and doing some much needed house cleaning, I found the time to learn three new board games. My friend and colleague Bruce Geryk is always introducing me to new stuff, either because he pities my mostly board game free existence or because he just likes finding new people to humiliate.

The titles of the games themselves are quite evocative: Lost Cities! Ra! Thurn und Taxis! Well, that last one isn’t very evocative since I’m not quite sure what it means. But Bruce told me it was about delivering the mail across Germany.

Only it wasn’t. Ra wasn’t about the Egyptian Sun God either. And Lost Cities was only peripherally connected to the exploration of uncharted lands for undiscovered civilizations. For all three, the mechanics of the game were only tangentially related to the themes surrounding them. Thurn und Taxis could have been about map making or road paving, since it was about tracing routes on a map. It didn’t have to be Germany, but it is a German game.

Brett Todd was playing a couple of the games with us, which is interesting since we’d recently engaged in correspondence about the recent Roman city builders Glory of the Roman Empire and CivCity: Rome. (You can find his reviews of both on Gamespot.) One of the central points we are both interested in for a city builder is whether it “feels” right. Is the historical ambience there? What connects the player to the setting?

No one has these sorts of expectations for a good board game. The very best board games (Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, even chess) are able to exist simply as rule sets with themes only loosely attached. There are exceptions, of course. Many of the greatest Avalon Hill games were perfect blends of theme, rules and playing pieces.

How many computer games have that luxury? If Stronghold didn’t focus your attention on the building of a castle, players would be miffed. Caylus, a game about a castle, can be won without building the castle at all.

It’s easy to say that this is natural because board gamers can’t process all the stuff that a computer can, but that’s putting the question backwards. Abstract design is discouraged and the setting of a computer game becomes the determinant of what goes in and what stays out. Developers seem to start with “let’s make a game about World War II” and then try to find a way to make WW2 happen on screen. I doubt anyone sat down and said “We need an Egyptian board game” and then decided that it should involve bidding on cards with point values.

One is not better than the other. And I’m not going to give Glory of the Roman Empire a do-over because it might have been trying to keep things light and abstracted. But it is intriguing that computer game designers clearly put the setting at the beginning of the design phase where many great board games do not.

Oh, and all three are very good games. Ra was being billed to me as “the best 3 person game ever” and pretty much lived up to that billing. It probably helped that I didn’t embarrass myself too much in any of them.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Darius Kazemi

    There’s a Thurn und Taxis game? Sweet!

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Yep. You can find it on Brettspiel.

    It is really a neat little game with a disposable theme but a great set of choices. I’ve played a few more three person games recently, instead of the two player I started with, and the game takes on a quite different look.