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Your Game Alignment

Anthony Simons

June, 2003

I am not a great lover of rating systems, they mislead the reader of any review and are either cumbersome or inaccurate. Those which use a smaller scale (for example the die is often used) seem to work better; the system used on BoardGameGeek works fairly well as it bases its ratings on how often the person rating the game is prepared to play it.

However neither case here is an absolute indicator of the game's qualities; and in both cases the ratings are fairly meaningless without some sort of reviews. I propose the international gaming community should adopt a standardized system of ratings that indicates in a very short format what kind of game you are about to play or consider buying. I call this system Game Alignment, a term I have borrowed from my misspent youth in role-playing games.

Avalon Hill rating systemA game's alignment can be worked out in the form of axes along the given spectra (complexity or theme for example), resulting in a game being firmly seated at a given point (something that was once used in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons I seem to recall); but if we allow more than two spectra this becomes more difficult to read. I recommend the familiar sliding scale system once common on the reverse of old Avalon Hill and Games Workshop titles.

The attributes used for these scales have taken some thought; complexity I mentioned earlier is far too subjective and not likely to be accurate because a complex game to some is a walk in the park to others. I would not use the attributes luck and skill for a scale; these have generally appeared on such scales in the past, but how one would measure (let alone define) them is probably more subjective as anything else. The scale I would use in their place would be one running between chaos and control; still subjective but less so, because this is being assessed from the viewpoint of an individual player and that player's options as the game progresses. I will go into detail about this and the other attributes I suggest later.

How big should the scale be? High numbered rating systems (from 1 to 10, for example; or percentage ratings) lack accuracy because there is too great a range of values to assign to any one attribute. It is easy to assess a game as being 50% chaos and 50% control, but how would we differentiate between such a game and another rated with 51% of one and 49% of the other? How would we arrive at these ratings in the first place? The smaller the scale the less range there is between games, and hence the more accurate the scale is. My initial thought was a three-point scale; with the chaos-control example this would have consisted of mostly chaotic, mostly controlled and about even. This works fairly well, but replacing "mostly" by "dominant" and adding in "more" between the extremes and the median gives a more informative scale without reducing the accuracy.

The attributes used ought to be informative about the game rated; and the first ones I have chosen are chaos and control. This is because it is not the degree of the luck or skill involved in a game that often makes it more or less appealing, but the amount of control a player has over his or her actions in the game. A "dominant chaotic" game would not necessarily be a bad thing, but if being ruled by the dice just never seems like fun to you then such an indication would help avoid an appalling experience. Therefore the scale goes from "dominant chaotic" to "dominant controlled". Chess would be described as "dominant controlled", Monopoly as "dominant chaotic". "More chaotic" would be any game in which the balance is obviously tipped in favour of the chaotic, but not far enough so that it becomes the omnipotent ruling influence. I would put games such as Ave Caesar in this category; you cannot decide the cards drawn, the hidden information is beyond your knowledge but you do decide which card to play. "More controlled" is where the game turn is carried out ultimately at the decision of the player despite some chaotic influences; I would put games such as Web of Power here, as despite the chaos of the cards drawn, the player only plays what the player decides within the confines of the cards (an advisor or a cloister in any one region) and decides which cards to draw, whereas in Ave Caesar the player draws cards blind and is more restricted in the action allowed (move the chariot forward using one of your three cards).

The next scale I would pick is one from "dominant abstract" to "dominant themed"; again often subjective, but again more of an indication of the type of game to be experienced. A "dominant abstract" game is going to be almost completely lacking in thematic strength; examples would be Chess, Go and Mah Jong. Proprietary examples would be games such as Fossil and Cathedral. "More abstract" would include games such as Web of Power and Torres, were there is a fitting theme that lacks strength enough to be seen as a solid theme. The midpoint here would probably be occupied by something like El Grande, where the theme is neither strong nor weak and the abstractions fairly representative of the subject matter. "More themed" would include a game such as Ave Caesar, where the game is clearly about chariot racing, and the mechanisms tie in to this theme fairly well but are clearly abstracted from it. "Dominant themed" games are obviously games that are designed around the theme, with the mechanisms selected to fit as closely as possible. Not necessarily a simulation, but simulations would certainly fall within this range. The classic Formula 1 would fit here, as would the much later Formula De.

Last but not least, I would use a scale between heavy and light. This is not the same as complex and simple; in this sense it indicates how much depth there is to the game. For example, the fairly easy to learn games of Web of Power and Auf Heller und Pfennig can hardly be called complex, but the depth of play can often be surprising. They are hardly the heaviest of games, but can get fairly heavy; therefore they would fall in the "heavier" category on a scale from "lightest" through "lighter", "middle" and "heavier", to "heaviest". An example of "lightest" would be something like Raj , "heaviest" would be something brain-burning like Torres. As with the other two categories, this is important to gamers in selecting the game for play at any particular time; indeed another common attribute between all three scales is that they are all something that gamers get a feel for; as a result most gamers should have no trouble relating to them.

The result of all this should be a fairly clear guideline as to what kind of play you can expect from a game; the danger of any rating system for a game is still there, however, so caution should still be taken when purchasing a game based on such ratings. One should always consider reviews in any case; they will always be less fallible than a rating system based on subjective qualities; but then the intention of this system is its use as a guideline.

To help give you an idea of how this system works, here are the game alignments for a few popular titles:

Union Pacific

Chaos - - - I - Control
Abstract - - I - - Themed
Light - - I - - Heavy

Union PacificUnion Pacific should be familiar to most of you, as it is fairly popular. I gave this game the alignment of more control, and middle ratings on the abstraction and depth scales. The game has more control because of the choices facing players at each turn; whether to lay down shares or expand railways. This is offset slightly from dominant control by the unknown elements of blind shares in the draw deck and the uncertainty of when the scoring round is going to occur. The abstraction and depth spectra are middling because the theme is not overly dominant, but the abstraction isn't either; and the game has depth of strategy overall, but from turn to turn the choices are never really too difficult.

Amun-Re

Chaos - - - - I Control
Abstract - I - - - Themed
Light - - - I - Heavy

Admittedly, I am still a little unsure where to put this one on the spectra, as I have not played it enough yet; but there is no doubt about certain aspects. First of all, the game is unequivocally under the control of the players at almost all times, so the alignment is right up that scale. The game also tends toward the abstract, as with most games of this type, as basically it is a tricky little auction game; but so far I wouldn't say it completely evades the theme of power in Egypt. After minimal plays, I think the way in which the game is scored pushes it to the more heavy side of the scale.

Big City

Chaos - - I - - Control
Abstract - - - - I Themed
Light - I - - - Heavy

This game is definitely at a balance regarding chaos-control; cards are drawn blind to dictate a player's available lots, but the player gets to choose which neighbourhood they come from. Also the type of building chosen and where it is built can affect everybody's strategy greatly, but your cards might just restrict what you build. The theme is quite strong in this one, you are building a city after all; and the game is on the lighter side, some have said the choices are fairly obvious.

Wallenstein

Chaos - - - I - Control
Abstract - - - I - Themed
Light - - I - - Heavy

Wallenstein has dominant control; the order of the last five events every season is unknown, and the result of a combat may be affected by the tower, but for the most part the player has control of every decision and usually the outcome of the combat is predictable. The game is mostly themed, but doesn't quite go as far as the actual mechanics of logistics and warfare. I would say the game sits midway between light and heavy; the choices are restrictive, but the aims are fairly clear.

Torres

Chaos - - - - I Control
Abstract - I - - - Themed
Light - - - - I Heavy

TorresTorres is an example of the almost completely abstract game with lots of depth and lots of control. Players' decisions on their turn are never influenced by unknowns and are invariably the sole decision of the players. The game is not totally abstract, but quite obviously the theme sits lightly on it. The scoring and hence the play tend to be on the heavy side by virtue of their nature, and competition for larger castles can be intense.

As you read this, you may find other attributes more significant; feel free to voice your opinions, as I would certainly be interested. Perhaps you feel complexity has a place here? Perhaps you feel this is too cumbersome or archaic or just not as informative as it should be? I am always open to suggestions; I would like to see something like this adopted as a standard.

-Anthony Simons

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