The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Please Recycle!

Al Newman

July, 2000

In 1986, Wolfgang Kramer designed Around the World in 80 Days, which was published by Germany's Ravensburger. The game met mixed reviews then and does not see much action in the hot Internet market for older German games today.

The reason for the lack of interest in it is that the race toward the finish line was driven by the luck of simple chance cards as much as by the principal mechanism. These chance cards could easily catapult a player from last place into first or turn an imminent win into a frustrating last-place finish. This was most unfortunate, since the main mechanism was not flawed and provided gamers with some interesting decisions.

There were four modes of transport controlled by four types of cards: Balloon, Train, Boat, Car. If you were on a car space, only a card depicting a car would send you ahead. Judicious use of your cards could propel you to the right space to make another move. Unfortunately, the luck of the chance deck overwhelmed whatever potential was visible in the "travel mode" mechanism.

Milking a Good Idea

Fast forward 10 years. Kramer applied the identical mechanism in Der Schatz des Pharoahs (Berliner Kartspiele), a simple card-game adventure of exploring ruins in Egypt. The four modes of "transport" in Schatz were ladders, rope, torches, and shovels, which explorers needed to collect to go from one adventure scene to the next. The deck of cards duplicated the numbers from 1 to 5 in all four "suits," and players met the target qualification for each adventure scene by scoring the prescribed total to advance.

The game was "light" and somewhat luck driven by the draw and play of the cards, but an excellent filler for early or late in the evening. It was very interesting to see how the identical mechanism could fit so perfectly into another game—which leads us to the conclusion that recycling ideas is a very good thing! Fast forward another four years and Kramer has again utilized the exact same mechanism, this time in The Alchemist, a game being published this year by Italy's Clementoni.

Going back thousands of years, we can see how a good idea is made better by a constant reworking of the principle mechanic. Clearly, Kramer has recycled mechanisms on many occasions. To mention two: he used the same Caballero cards from El Grande in El Caballero (Hans im Gluck) and he Action summaries from Tikal and
      Torres.used the concept of Action movement points from Tikal (Rio Grande) in Torres (Rio Grande). Although the Caballero cards were used for the same purpose of controlling territory as in El Grande, they were used in a unique fashion in El Caballero, which clearly illustrated that the author was not content to merely duplicate his prior effort, but intended to go one step further in the design process Vis-à-vis Tikal and Torres, Kramer again was not content to merely duplicate the former mechanic, but to find another stage for the players to wend their way through interesting and difficult decisions.

Some players complain bitterly about the recycling of ideas, claiming that the author presents nothing new and simply reworks an idea to death. Actually, this is as far from the truth as can be. Going back thousands of years, we can see how a good idea is made better by a constant reworking of the principle mechanic.

The Recycling of Chaturanga and Tabula

Case in point: Backgammon. This is probably the oldest game in recorded history, born in Mesopotamia, but nameless until the Romans brought it home as Tabula. Various forms of the game persisted for centuries, but the board we know was not refined until the 17th century in England, the first time the game became known as bac ("back") gammen ("game"), from the Middle English words. Even then, the game needed improvement in order to remain a classic and never became a game of high skill until a doubling die was added in 1925! Chess has been similarly refined over the centuries, beginning as Chaturanga in India in the seventh century (maybe earlier, although evidence is lacking) and finding popularity throughout Europe by the 10th century. The depth of possibilities in chess finally captured the interest of nobles, poets, and philosophers 700 years later; games were recorded for posterity and problems and puzzles were created for entertainment. In this case, recycling led to the chess we know today. And it all began 14 centuries ago. Recycling good mechanics is nothing new. As we fast forward again to today, we see Thorsten Gimmler's Cape Horn (Rio Grande) rework an idea from at least 20-25 years ago, last seen in a game called Trippples. In the process, Gimmler has given us an excellent race game of sailing ships around Cape Horn using tiles placed on the board to show which direction and how far the ships may move. Recycling is a key element in how great games are designed.

More recently, the "drafting" mechanism used by Dirk Henn's Showmanager (Queen) has shown up in the new Vinci (Eurogames). In Showmanager, players need to hire actors to put on various shows, but some are good and some not so good. There are always four on "display" and their hiring cost runs from free to $1000, to $2000, to $3000. When a player completes his selection, the artists still on display move down to fill in the vacated slot. In this manner, even the "wrong" actor for the role stands a chance of being selected for free. And of course, new Actors and Actresses wind up on display, ensuring a constant pool of "talent." The identical mechanism is used in Vinci for the players to select the abilities and special characteristics of their civilizations. One game is about putting on shows, the other about taking over the continent of Europe. Two totally disparate themes, yet both games are able to rely on a very similar mechanic and to employ this relatively new mechanic without making it appear old hat. Last summer, Cheapass Games came out with another one of their $5 games, called The Big Cheese. Cheapass specializes in very low-priced products, many of which are designed around one simple mechanic that is never really fully developed. Well, for $5, you get what you pay for. In The Big Cheese, players bid with 10 chips for "projects." When a player wins the project, he places the chips he bid on the project card and can remove only one chip each turn. When the player finally removes the last chip, the card "matures" and the player scores. When I first saw this mechanic, I realized that it was a terrific idea and could be used in a number of ways in board games. Within months, I found a way to combine this mechanic with Kramer's action point mechanic. Players "spend" the action points, but don't get all of them back on their next turn. They slowly "mature" and come back into the player's supply. In this manner, I have found a way to actually combine three design mechanics. The unique Cheapass mechanism, Kramer's concept of utilizing action points, and now, planning ahead to manage resources. There is nothing really new or unique except the "angle" or perspective of how these mechanics are intertwined. Not that my idea will ever really get off the ground, but this is how great games are designed. Recycling is a key element in game design. So, Mr. Kramer, Mr. Knizia, wherever you are, please recycle!

- Al Newman

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