It seems the basic mechanic people think of when they consider board games is what we would call "roll-and-move": Roll a die and move your piece on the board. Now that's fine for children's games, but no wonder many adults don't consider board games an interesting hobby.
Of course, those familiar with the newer crop of strategic board games know there's more. Many of the best new board games rely on a mechanic where players have several different actions but may only choose a few of them. Budgeted action points (see Budgeted Action Points by Steve Kurzban) is one variation of the theme. It unfortunately often leads to slow analysis; both of the games I use as my examples usually move swiftly.
I'd like to analyze two games in which the tension comes from these decisions, where the number of options you can choose is restricted. Both games were greeted with a great deal of hype when they were first published and by the fact that despite this hype, they have proven to be very good games. I enjoy them both immensely, largely because of this restricted actions mechanic. They are Princes of Florence by Wolfgang Kramer/Richard Ulrich and Puerto Rico by Andreas Seyfarth.
Princes of Florence is a prime example of "restricted actions". In each of the seven rounds played during the game, each player will purchase one item during the auction and will perform two actions during the second phase. A total of 21 actions during the game means there's very little room for mistakes. One has to choose a strategy, especially for the auctions, and one has to hold to it. There's some room for flexibility, but wasting a lot of money on an even relatively useless item can be a disaster.
To make the game a bit more tense, the players will compete for the same, limited resources. Consider the freedoms players can purchase—no matter how many players in the game, there won't be enough for everyone. There's maximum of one Jester sold each turn, and I'm quite sure everyone would like to have at least one as they're very useful. So, the question is: should I use one action to buy a freedom now or can it wait? If I wait, will there be a freedom to buy next turn?
Consider the money issue, the most devilish part of the game. Even though you start with thousands of florins, that's not enough, you'll need more. Even if you pay the minimum amount for everything, you'll run out before the game ends and if you're paying the minimum, it's unlikely you'll be getting what you want at the auction. On the other hand, if you pay too much in the auctions, what you purchase might not be worth the price you paid.
What really makes the money issue problematic is its' source. After a player completes a work, it's evaluated and money is earned. A moderate work of value, say, 14 points earns 1400 florins. These—and only these—florins can be used to buy Prestige Points. In the end, only Prestige Points count (money is only used to break ties). So, if you want to win, you can't take too much money but if you want to earn more points, you have to take the money so you can buy the stuff you need at the auctions. It's hard to estimate the amount of money you need beforehand, only after you've either run out of money or finished the game with several hundred useless florins is it really possible to say what would've been the correct amount of money to take.
Puerto Rico is a different game. Again, players are faced with tough decisions to make, but this time they're a bit different. Puerto Rico isn't quite as restricted as Princes of Florence. To start with, players have more actions and the resources aren't as limited. The main difference however, is that there's more interaction between the players, your decisions are influenced much more by your opponents. In Princes of Florence, the interaction between the players is pretty much limited to the competition in the auctions and the fact that each player depletes the same resources.
In Puerto Rico, players choose roles each turn and these roles determine what actions are performed, which phases that round includes. When a role is chosen, each player does the corresponding action and the player who chose the role gets a small privilege. An easy way to decide is to choose the action that benefits yourself the most. "I need to build now, so I'll choose the Builder." It's kind of like playing Princes of Florence but this isn't always the best way to decide as it's necessary to consider your opponents. Will someone else need to build as well? Perhaps that player will choose the builder, so I can choose a Prospector and gain money. Perhaps another player has just purchased an expensive and useful building. Why not choose the action that the building enhances, before that player has a chance to man the building to get the enhancement?
This can often lead to situations where a beginning player will help the player sitting on his or her left. For example, triggering production by choosing the Craftsman is often a mistake as it often benefits other players more. I would be very happy indeed to sit next to a player who kept choosing the Craftsman over and over. These situations just don't happen in Princes of Florence, but that doesn't make it a worse game—just a less interactive one.
The actions triggered by the choice of role cards leads to more decisions. Choosing which plantation you want from the few choices is usually simple and there aren't many tricks involved in the placement of new colonists. The Trader phase is also pretty straightforward, however, it's the Builder phase which most often leaves me puzzled. Money is needed to erect new buildings and quite often it's a scarce resource. Should I buy this cheap building now, with some benefits, or should I save money to buy that more expensive building later, with greater benefits? Will I have enough money when the next opportunity to build occurs? Where will I get the money? Also, since there's a limit on the number of each type of building, it's necessary to act quickly if a popular building is on your list to buy. Another phase with tough decisions is the Captain phase. Fortunately, you can often work through the math: "If I ship indigo, then Bob will ship sugar and Carl will ship tobacco, so I'll have room to ship my sugar." However, it isn't always that simple.
Both games offer different difficult decisions to make, but it's definitely these decisions that make the games so delightful and entertaining. These games can be ruthless and unforgiving of mistakes but this does make the games tense and exciting. Both games need experienced players in order to get the most from them and play best with certain numbers (Princes of Florence five, Puerto Rico four) but when the conditions are correct, you're in decision-making heaven.
Of course, Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico aren't the only games of this kind, just two that I greatly enjoy. Probably the best of all decision-making games, or at least the best I've discovered thus far, is Die Macher, the four-hour game of German politics. It's a bit too obscure to be used as an example and has too many details, but if you enjoy these games, it's highly recommended. If your tastes run more into classical games, Go is highly recommended.
- Mikko Saari