The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - May, 2001

Will M. Baker: In response to Al Newman's thoughtful article "A Question of Semantics", I would like to seek clarification on a particular point. Does Mr. Newman use "invention" to refer to the creation of physical mechanisms for the game, i.e. gimmicks, while using "design" to refer to the development of how the game system operates, including rules? I am pleased with the article, but still unclear on his distinction between the two. 

Also, in his first paragraph he states, "Even today, roaming the shelves of Toys R Us, you can see a half-dozen new games in the action category. Perhaps Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Loopin' Louie are no longer around, but a host of invented relatives certainly are." My grandfather, Thomas J. McMahon, was the creator of Hungry, Hungry Hippos, so I have been attentive to that game in particular when I've visited toy stores. I have no knowledge of recent sales of the game, but I can say that I have seen a resurgence in its being stocked at Toys R Us in recent years, both in the United States and in Ireland. I've even seen a commercial or two, which greatly surprised me, given how long the game has been on the market. So, the statement that Hungry, Hungry Hippos is no longer around is not, to the best of my perception, accurate. But of course, I've been looking for it, so I'm extremely biased. However, great article Mr. Newman.

Al Newman: I suppose the two words—invention and design—are somewhat interchangeable, so any answer to the question is moot. For example, the Marvin Glass Organization has been responsible for many of the Parker Bros. line in the 70s and 80' that involved gadgets and for action games as well. These gadgets and action games were invented but even so, the Glass Organization was known as a "design" studio.

For most folks, the word invention would probably connote a "hard" design, like a Hippo that shoots marbles, rather than the "soft" design of the size and shape of the board, the theme, or the rules that govern the game. That is about the best distinction I can make. But again, the terms are somewhat interchangeable.

It might be that on that particular visit, the store was sold out and that's what I noticed. Since my youngest is now 14, I don't look at the action games as much as I used to.

Larry Levy: In the last couple of months, there have been no fewer than three articles in The Games Journal talking about the sameness of the new releases coming from Germany and how, for the three authors, the old gaming thrill is to a certain extent gone. Well, obviously I can't refute how someone else feels about their hobby, but as for the assertion that there's nothing new under the sun, I must disagree. I continue to find fresh and new ideas coming out of Germany. For example, San Marco is based on a card division mechanic that has never been used in a game of that complexity and it works great. Carcassonne takes the tile laying game and adds different terrain, different scoring methods, and a restricted supply of "meeples", giving the genre a whole new twist. Lord of the Rings is a brand new type of game, a cooperative game that works. Dia de los Muertos may be a trick taking game, but it's like no other type of trick taking game ever created (or possibly even imagined). And when has there ever been a game remotely like Princes of Florence? Or a two player game with mechanics anything like Babel's?

One of the problems is the way people use other games when describing new ones. We all want a point of reference when something new comes out, but sometimes those comparisons simply aren't very accurate. To say that San Marco is the same sort of game as El Grande because they're both "control the majority in an area" games is crazy: the games have very different mechanics, a very different feel, and require very different skills. I've seen Web of Power described as "El Grande Lite", which is equally absurd to me; it's hard to imagine two games that play more differently. Even when games truly are similar, the differences are often worthwhile. Ursuppe and Evo not only have an identical theme, but also have some very similar mechanics. But I like Evo and find Ursuppe too long and mechanical, so I'm very grateful for the appearance of the newer game. Every now and then you see a completely different type of game appear on the market, but that's very rare. The fact is that there's only so many different classes of games—Boardgame Geek lists about 20 distinguishable types—so naturally there will be repetition within those categories. But it's the new mechanics or combinations of mechanics in those games that will make them different and worth playing.

My mantra is, forget the theme, forget the game classification--mechanics are everything. This lesson was clearly lost on a young member of our gaming group, who one day announced, with a perfectly straight face, "You know, Showmanager and Traumfabrik are exactly the same game—except for the mechanics!" Maybe the thrill of discovery is no longer there, but I think if we focus on the exciting and challenging new mechanics that today's game designers are creating for us, we'll find there's plenty of new things under the sun.

Phil Fleischmann: Good puzzle! I love RoboRally! But what happened to the solution from last month's puzzle?

GGA - Response to the Ricochet Robot "Meta-puzzle" was practically nonexistent so I assumed that there was little interest in it. Brian Hanechak is hoping to write an article concerning the program he wrote that solves such puzzles. I recently met with Brian and he's run into some technical problems as well as finding a suitable machine to run it on. I believe he requires a Unix box with 4 gigs of memory and the ability to let it run for many hours.

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