The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames


Dave Shapiro

February, 2005

The Arena

There may be other universes based on all sorts of principles, but ours is based on war and games.

William S. Burroughs

When you wander through the distributor's area of any board game convention and spot a large group of people gathered about a single game, it is probable that you will discover a game with some real "eye candy". This past Gen Con (2004) it was Fantasy Flight's War of the Ring and Hasbro's Heroscape. Admittedly, these are real "lookers". It is this initial, visual appeal that draws people to the tables. The board is the first component of a game that potential players encounter. Obviously, though it is the first to illicit interest, it is not the measure of the quality or suitability of the game anymore than a movie preview is a reliable indication of the worth of a film.

For me, there is an intrinsic interest in the boards themselves. Some are near works of art while others are little more than a pale canvas with a few lines scrawled about. Comparing the interpretation, the treatment for similar themes or maps can be enlightening. Consider that Vinci, Mare Nostrum, Civilization (Tresham/Avalon Hill), Age of Napoleon (Phalanx) and Risk Godstorm are all artistic interpretations of the same general area of this planet; the difference in the exposition is amazing.

More than just artistic background for a game system, the boards can define the nature of the game. Just as there are certain families of card games (trick-taking, ladder, set collecting, etc.) there are categories of board games. Of course there are several methods for distinguishing families of board games; the style of play, the mechanics, number of players, intended age and many others. In order to maintain a reasonable length to this article, we must limit the discussion to the fundamental formats, excluding the connection between the bits, artwork and in general, the mechanics.

The old axiom "you can't judge a book by its cover" is only partially valid. If I encounter a book with a cover that depicts a scantily clad woman, lusting in the arms of a muscular, sweat drenched version of Julio Iglesias, I'm quite likely to pass. The same is true of board games. Given a board depicting a map of Europe covered with just under 10,000 hexes, it is highly unlikely that you will find it under my arm in a checkout line. The boards are influential; they are the playing field, the arena of the game. Here then is an overview of the various categories of boards.

1. Player Aids

Most games are lost, not won.

Casey Stengel

The first boards to consider are those that stretch the parameters of the very definition of "board" games. For these games the boards merely serve as enhanced player aids; an area to organize a player's holdings, maintain the score, do a bit of accounting or some other game related chore. In most instances, the game itself is unaffected (or minimally so) by actions on the board. Most of these types of games are actually complex card games posing in a board game format; eliminating the board(s) would not detract from the game play itself. Ra Knizia, when speaking of Ra stated: "The small layout board was added later to support the game structure but it has no topology".

In general, popular versions of games employing this type of board, are relatively complex with a longer learning curve than standard fare. Strategies are not immediately evident and, unfortunately, the time and effort required to become competent prohibits the average, casual gamer from enjoying the game. Games in this group include Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, Age of Mythology, Ra and Modern Art. Each is a highly rated, well respected game and each enjoys a very loyal following among gamers.

It is this lack of actual board play that renders these games nearly unique. With the board(s) simply serving as place holders, reminders of what has occurred, the game's action takes place off the board. In some instances, these games share more with role playing games than classic board games as the boards function similar to the character attribute sheets. Pre-game strategies are difficult, if not impossible to develop as the values of any particular activity or tile/card is determined by events in the game. Often discussions of strategy revolve around set collecting or specific combinations, discussions seemingly more appropriate to card games. As these games are so very fluid, there is no "killer app" strategy. In Modern Art for example, the paintings of a particular artist may be worth $30,000 each on the first turn but have no value for the remainder of the game. A particular collection of buildings in Puerto Rico may set a record score in one game and be the route to last place in the very next game. (For those completely unfamiliar with any of the games in this group, an appropriate example can be found in Poker: a pair of deuces may win one hand and be worthless in the next. )

These are games requiring finesse, not brute force.

2. Fixed

If any player becomes too proficient, the game is threatened with termination.

William S. Burroughs

The style board familiar to most people, even non-gamers, is the traditional fixed board. Historically this is likely to have been the model for the original board game. From Chess to Clue, Monopoly to El Grande, Scrabble to War of the Ring, the fixed map board never changes from game to game. These style boards are diametrically opposed to those discussed in the previous section (Player Aids) as the positions and actions on these boards is emphatically integrated into the process of the game. Because these fixed map boards are consistent from one game to the next, they enjoy certain advantages over other types of board games. Generally, these boards and the associated mechanics allow for the development of pre-game strategies and analysis of various positional situations that may occur as the game progresses.

Chess is, quite possibly, the most analyzed game ever. Certainly there is no lack of literature or discussion on the game, most book stores carry several titles on the topic. The discussions range from basic introductory texts to very advanced and specific discussions on maximizing opening moves, mid-game tactics and end game strategies. All of this is possible because of the fixed nature of the board. (It is easier to study a stagnant pond than the Mississippi River.)

Though lacking the immense depth of Chess or Go, modern fixed-board games present many of the same opportunities for pre-game analysis and a generalization of strategies. One attribute common to most of these types of games is the ability to determine the value of specific positions. Based on the stagnant nature of the board, some spaces or areas have an expectation of value (or lack of value) during the game. It is this expectation of value that promotes pre-game analysis and strategic considerations. There is usually a noticeable difference between the value of areas along the edge of the board versus those closer to the center or areas that are adjacent to some form of terrain or barrier. For example, the position of the king in El Grande presents the players with different opportunities based on his location on the board. A king placed in Galicia, Catalonia or Seville allows the placement of units in only two areas whereas if the king rests in New Castile, the players have five areas from which to select.

This type of analysis is actually a determination of attractors. In games such as El Grande, Risk, Condottiere and Power Grid, the attractors are the fixed number of connections for a specific location. Knowing the attractors for a particular game can markedly increase the competence of the player and provides the player with the opportunity to develop strong strategies prior to beginning the game. In Risk, it is certainly advantageous to know that Eastern Australia can only be attacked from two directions while Ontario must contend with six possible routes. The attractor analysis need not apply solely to games of attack or games where dominance is the key. Attractor analysis is applicable to any game in which connections play a major role. Consider Condottiere and Power Grid, both games revolve around connections. An attractor analysis for Condottiere reveals that Modena and Firenze provide seven possible connections while Siena and Torino offer only two. Knowing these factors allows a player to form strategies around these locations based on their turn order and control of the area marker. An examination of the Power Grid map indicates that Kassel is prime real estate with six connections while Duisburg is certainly less desirable with only the connection to Essen available. Power Grid On the USA side of the board, Chicago offers seven connections while Miami connects to Tampa alone. Santa Fe provides connections to eight other cities but the average cost is 19.25 versus an average cost of only 9.28 for the Chicago connections. It is this type of analysis that allows players to develop certain strategies and increase the competition in the game. As players learn more of the intricacies of the board, they can formulate plans that solidify positions and often reduce the affects of random events (card draw, die rolls, etc.).

Dead spots or notoriously weak areas are another aspect to consider. Certain fixed-map board games, by the very topology of the map, may have dead spots. In Risk Godstorm, for example, Corsica is adjacent to but a single area, Roma. Should an opponent be maneuvered into Corsica then a large force in Roma traps his units, effectively removing him as a threat. In other games the dead zones may be generated during play—a declining civilization in Vinci may render several areas virtually unplayable to a particular player. Creating a self-imposed dead zone is one of the most common errors committed by novice Risk players. Very often the new player will develop a large force only to neutralize it by encircling it with his own controlled areas. (This was the reason the Fortification rule was developed.) The King in El Grande along with the Elder and Ancestor in Wongar, continuously create dead zones during the game.

Traditional games, the roll and move type, provide many opportunities to explore, examine and analyze prior to play. Monopoly is one of the most familiar of this group and several tomes have been written on improving one's play in the game. The obvious place to begin is with the dice. As each player rolls two dice in order to move every turn, it is advantageous to determine whether this results in any particular patterns. Many classroom computer science assignments have included this very problem; design a program to determine the probability of landing on each of the various properties on the board given a specific number of turns. Knowing these probabilities is an asset in serious play.

Another aspect to consider in this type of game is the relative value of the sets. The novice Monopoly player often assumes that the value of the properties is consistent with the price/cost to obtain the monopoly; it is not. Without delving into a complete analysis of each monopoly, it will suffice to learn that an investment of $400 for houses on Baltic and Mediterranean produces a return that is superior to the same amount invested on houses for Boardwalk and Park Place. When combined with other known factors, the choices are far less obvious than first appearance would indicate. In classic Risk, the continental sets are even identified on the board with certain groups of areas worth more than others. Pre-selecting groupings of various cities in Power Grid can prove profitable over the seat-of-the-pants alternative. As the Power Grid board is fixed, the cost/return of various connections can be determined in advance.

Even a game as elementary as Ticket to Ride, because of the nature of the fixed-board, provides the player with the opportunity to analyze and develop some pre-game strategies. Certainly any competitive player will have noted the superior payout for the six track lines, the importance of the Vancouver-Seattle and Seattle-Portland connections, the popularity of the various cities on the route cards (tickets) as well as the general differences between the East-West and North-South lines.

Of course, these limited examples are simply provided to demonstrate the possibilities associated with most fixed-board games. Systems found in any particular game may enhance or negate these types of analysis. However, the vast opportunity to develop these pre-game strategies, to test viable responses to specific situations and conditions, is nearly unique to this style of board game.

3. Variable

Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are devils to
their wives.

John Gay

Variable-board games can be segregated into two families: the variable-fixed such as Settlers of Catan or Heroscape and the variable-dynamic such as Dos Rios, Die Magier von Pangea or Vortex (Maelstrom). There are several advantages to the variable board type of game. The obvious advantage is that with the variable set up, games are very unlikely to repeat; there is a greater degree of freshness about them. Unfortunately it is this same advantage that, at times, is the most problematic for these types of games as the variable set up can tip the balance in favor of a particular player in turn order or dramatically alter the value of a specific location on the board. (For example, consider a game of Settlers where the 5,6,8 and 9 tiles are all clustered in one area.) It is this particular problem that makes these games so difficult to design. When a board is fixed, as those described in the previous section, all of the various possibilities can be considered (for specific location and seating arrangement). The permutations of the various possible set ups for Settlers of Catan for example, would be impossible to examine completely. So when one of these variable-board games is designed successfully, it can offer some tremendous opportunities for challenging game play.

3a. Variable-Fixed

The Settlers of CatanThe first type of this genre to consider is the variable-fixed board. Once the board set up has been completed, certain factors will remain constant throughout the remainder of the game. For example, once the tiles and die roll indicators have been positioned for Settlers of Catan, the map becomes fixed; a six remains a six and an eight remains an eight throughout the game. In games such as Battle Cry or Memoir '44, the effects of the terrain tiles are consistent from one game to another even though the actual locations of the tiles may vary. Because of these consistencies, players are able to formulate some generalized pre-game strategies.

The degree to which these strategies can be developed is less than that found with traditional fixed-board games. In both types of games (fixed and variable) board position may be as influential as the game mechanics. However, as the board positions in the variable-board have not been determined prior to the set up of the game, most strategies that develop, do so along relative lines of decision; if A and B then X is a good strategy, if A and C then Y is acceptable and so on. Everything in the variable-fixed board game is determined by the set up. Calculating attractors for example, is impossible prior to the set up and only marginally so during actual play if one is to complete the game in a reasonable amount of time. It is this freshness that challenges the player more than the mechanics. Long term game decisions must be implemented with minimal information and decisions completed prior to the first turn (selecting a start position in Settlers for example) can influence the entire game.

The greatest advantage to a variable-fixed board is the variety of possible games and the opportunity to create an almost infinite variety of scenarios and variants. Of course this assumes that a solid set of game mechanics accompanies the board. In the past few years, the advantages of the variable-fixed board has seeped into the fixed board design. Games such as Risk 2210 and Risk Godstorm for example, have incorporated tile markers that change the map mildly at the beginning of each game. One disadvantage to the variable-fixed board is that the difficulties facing the player are such that most designs are limited in the mechanics implemented. Even a minimal increase in complexity, such as the addition of something similar to the various cards in El Grande, removes the game from the lucrative "family" arena; it becomes a "gamer's game" with an increase in complexity and depth resulting loss of marketability.

3b. Variable-Dynamic

Variable-fixed board games tend to be more tactical than most of their fixed-board cousins but the variable-dynamic boards are the most difficult to contend with while playing. Not only is the board different from game to game but also from turn to turn. Players are usually unable to formulate any strategy until the advent of their turn. For example, in a game of Dos Rios, a player who has just scored heavily may not have even one unit remaining on the board at the beginning of his next turn. The changing board becomes more than just another consideration to contend with; it is an active tool in the player's arsenal. In Pangea the shifting configuration of the board is as critical as the placement of units. A game such as Vortex (Maelstrom) has evolved to an extreme representation of the variable-dynamic board as the pieces in the game serve dual masters—they are the move/attack pieces (as in Chess) while forming the board itself. When a player moves a piece in Vortex he is transforming the board into a new configuration.

There is little if any pre-game strategy possible and the unpredictable nature of these games renders them extremely difficult to playtest. There is simply no practical method for testing all possible game situations. As with some of the popular collectible card games, the potential for a game shattering combination is possible. Very often errata or house rules will be required to resolve situations that occur which had never presented themselves during play testing. Two games that include aspects of this variable-dynamic board and have exhibited this very problem are (old) Avalon Hill's Magic Realm and (new) Avalon Hill's Betrayal at House on the Hill. Both games have required errata to resolve problems with incompatible tile placement.

The proper application of the mechanics to the ever changing board requires experience with the various possibilities that may develop as well as a sound background in the basic game system. (For those of you who may have never experienced one of these games then I ask you to imagine playing a game of Checkers or Chess where 4x4 sections of the board, along with the associated pieces, slide one rank each turn.) It is difficult to become proficient at a variable-dynamic board games but the trade off is that these can be some of the most intense and challenging games ever designed.

4. Domino

No human being is innocent but there is a class of innocent human actions called games.

W. H. Auden

In the last decade we have witnessed the resurgence in the domino family of board games. Creating a free form board through tile laying is the basic mechanic common to each of these games. Beginning with an empty playing area or start tile, players construct the board, called a skeleton, during play. In the classic domino family of games, players strive to evacuate their hand's of tiles and then score. With the infusion of 20th century gaming concepts, the classic domino game has evolved into a more complex and challenging experience while retaining the basic tile laying mechanic.

DrakonDomino games can be relegated into one of two categories. The first group is easily identified by the familiar skeleton growing across the playing field. Included in this group are such games as Carcassonne, El Caballero and the cornucopia of dungeon quest games: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Zombies and Drakon. This family of games often has more in common with card games than classic board games. They are extremely tactical in nature and provide almost no opportunity for any pre-game strategy. Tile knowledge and "card counting" can aid in stronger play. Adding a layer of complexity over the basic domino-type game is the inclusion of the relative value of the tiles mechanic. Specific tile values are not permanent but may increase or decrease in worth as the game progresses. Players must continuously compensate for these fluctuations. As mentioned previously, the variable aspect of the non-fixed board can result in problems of player imbalance. In the particular case of domino-type games, this problem can be exasperated by the limited tile draw. If the gods of fortune are not favorable, you lose. As with card games these games become exercises in managing limited resources. This is not intended to denigrate their appeal; it is a fact that the "luck of the draw" is critical in these games.

The struggle then is two-fold: continuously play against opponents while contending with the vagaries of the tile mix (and draw). With minimal player interaction, it becomes a game of maximizing resources, puzzle solving, each turn. As this basic mechanism is so familiar, these games are great introductions to more sophisticated gaming.

Magna GreciaThe second family of domino based games is significantly different from the classic game. It is a dramatic and evolutionary mix of the fixed-board format and the newer tile/domino laying games. Though retaining the familiar build-the-board-through-tile-placement, the games are far more complex and rarely recognized as a descendent of Dominoes. Representative games in this include Magna Grecia, Stephenson's Rocket, Tikal, Java, Mexica and of course the 18XX series.

Different game mechanics can alter the value of the tiles played; a valuable position on one turn may not be worthy of consideration on the next. In this respect these games share quite a bit with more standard board game fare. Inappropriate placement of a single tile can be devastating with repercussions that affect more than a single player and often last several turns. These tend to be demanding, unforgiving games; one does not play an 18XX game casually. Tile laying is the basic mechanic but there are additional influences altering the structure of the board as it develops. In these games, understanding the interconnection of the tile laying mechanic with the other systems is critical. Superior play in tile placement is not sufficient to win but failure to comprehend appropriate placement is certain to lose. This duality results in an extremely complex gaming experience, greater than that in most other games. Consider the effort required for Carcassonne or any of the dungeon crawls versus that demanded by Magna Grecia or the 18XX series.

Though extensive pre-game strategies are difficult to construct, there is usually a certain Chess-like development during the game and recognition of these patterns as well as strategic methods for countering them are assets that can be developed. Board tactics often include the isolation or elimination of an opponents' tiles(s). Many of these games include confrontation, whether direct (tile elimination) or indirect (tile isolation). To become consistently competent at one of these games requires patience as the associated learning curve is very steep; adept play is simply not intuitive.

One advantage deriving from the distant, fixed-board parentage of these games is consistency of some factors; the majority of these games, though tile laying, are played within a rigid framework. Often certain parameters are established that do not change from game to game; for example the villages in Magna Grecia, the cities/towns in Stephenson's Rocket or the terrain on many of the 18XX boards. These fixed attributes can be analyzed and game strategies developed.

These are gamer's games; complex, tense and deep where the "best move" is seldom obvious and there is a stronger interconnection between the board and other game mechanics than those found in any other type of game. Though these games are demanding they can be tremendously rewarding. However, there is also a price attached—in addition to the steep learning curve, most of these games can suffer from excessive down time as the repercussions of any move are so extensive.

What began as 28 tiles with a few pips has dramatically evolved into some of the most sophisticated gaming available.

5. Hybrids

It doesn't matter how many games you've won.   

Jim Valvano

There is a small, but ever-increasing, group of games that do not technically belong to any of the categories described thus far. These are sufficiently unusual to deserve recognition. These games are a combination of the fixed-board format and the variable-dynamic type of board; hybrids exhibiting strong traits of both groups. Beginning with a fixed map, these boards undergo radical alterations during the game. Games in this group include The Bridges of Shangri-La, Mammoth Hunters (Eiszeit), Maginor (formerly Knizia's Vegas) and Carolus Magnus. Originally, I hesitated to include this type of game as a distinct group as the overall effect is determined by a game mechanic. However, I believe that this elimination of playing area, this shrinking board is sufficiently different to be considered a separate group.

In most fixed-board games, the playing area is continuously available (Monopoly, Chess) or decreases as the board fills with pieces (Ticket to Ride). Even thought the board configuration may change during a variable-dynamic board game (Dos Rios), the available playing area remains constant. For these hybrid games, entire sections of the map become quarantined, unplayable whether filled with pieces or not. The ever-shrinking playable area increases the tension and competition for the remaining space. For example, both Carolus Magnus and Mammoth Hunters are very similar to El Grande in that they are both area control games yet these two games ratchet up the competition by continuously decreasing the available scoring areas. This difference is subtle but significant. Consider the following comparison: In both Ticket to Ride and The Bridges of Shangri-La the available playing area decreases as the game progresses. In Ticket to Ride, trains fill the available tracks. In Colovini's Bridges, unit movement eliminates playable areas; a single piece can eliminate 8% of the board. Every time the playable area shrinks, the remaining board configuration requires a re-evaluation of strategies. A player can expect to be able to play most of his train units in Ticket to Ride in every game, however in Bridges, the number of units a gamer may play depends on how rapidly the board shrinks.

The Bridges of Shangri-LaMammoth Hunters begins with a fixed-board format and then every turn 8% of the board is removed from play. When playing a variable-dynamic board game, the board changes from turn to turn; in the case of these hybrids, a portion of the board actually disappears. Rivers in Dos Rios may wander about the board but when the glacier grows in Mammoth Hunters there is no relief, the area is gone. The same is true of The Bridges of Shangri-La; when any player leaves an area that particular route is amputated. These games are extreme; a single misplay and there may be no method for recovery. Frequently the game is decided long before the final piece is played. There is little or no room for error in these types of games and this dissuades many potential gamers from playing.

Still in its infancy, this new addition to board types has created the potential for unusual and dynamic applications. (A shrinking Settler's board?) Last year's release of Risk Godstorm incorporated a touch of this in allowing one entire continent (Atlantis) to be removed from play with very dramatic effects. Whether the gaming community embraces and encourages these shrinking-board designs remains unknown. The original response to both Risk Godstorm and Mammoth Hunters was unfavorable but that is to be expected whenever some "ground breaking" activity is introduced; in general, people prefer the familiar.

Terminal Velocity?

The art of letters will come to an end before A.D. 2000.

Ezra Pound

Most games published today exhibit attributes of several different families while residing primarily in one category. In some instances, the games may share so many traits as to suggest dual parentage. In Risk Godstorm for example, the map is fixed yet the inclusion of the 4+1 plagues and the ability to sink Atlantis may result in alterations to the board configuration that involves as much as 21% of the playable area! So is Godstorm a fixed-board game? Is it variable-fixed, variable-dynamic? The only certainty is that it is not in the domino family.

There is a counter argument to the analysis presented here; one that suggests that there are far more families of boards than these few categories. The argument suggests that if this analysis is correct, that there are only a few basic types of board configurations, then there is a finite number of possible board game designs. (This excludes any consideration of theme.) Therefore it is inevitable, that all possible board games will eventually be designed; that as Quoheleth claimed: "There is nothing new under the sun". It is a closed club.

Admittedly, there are occasions when I have been introduced to a new game only to develop a feeling of déjà vu; been there, done that. However, the fallacy of their argument derives from their misunderstanding a basic premise: games are an art form, as much as music, sculpture, literature, art or film. The integration of the mechanics and the physical components serves to convey the artist's (designer's) concepts/ideas to the patron (player). You can view Picasso's Guernica as a painting of a strange looking bull or feel the travesty, the tragedy of a people torn apart by civil war. The final act of the film Glory can been interpreted as an outrageously stupid blunder or the actions of a man that transcends the commonplace. Is the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth a neat little trick with horns and drums or an acoustical tribute to freedom?

The difference lies in the treatment of these ideas with the constraints encountered by any commercial venture. For obvious reasons, few games attempt tragic themes and these tend to be war games. Even the treatment of tragedy in war games is somewhat sterile, sanitized. However realistic or historically accurate the claim, there is no blood, no tragedy, no sorrow. The inclusion of tragic or sinister themes though, while dramatically increasing the types of games possible, would not result in a new family of boards. Boards are fundamental structures equivalent to the eight note scale or the three primary colors. Prince's 1999 and Beethoven's Ninth can trace their roots to the basic scale. da Vinci's Last Supper and Warhol's Soup Can each evolved from the same three primary colors. Similar evolution is possible with these basic families of boards.

Art is a universe of infinite possibilities. The basic set of boards, when combined with various mechanics, bits and themes will provide an endless stream of new experiences. The two movements exhibiting the greatest potential, at this time, are the hybrid, shrinking board games and the attempts at including micro-electronics in the boards. The results should be interesting.

- Dave Shapiro

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