The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Letters - September, 2004

David Andreasen: I really enjoyed your article, German Games are Fraudulent. You make a lot of really great points and I'd also love to see more German-style mechanics with more American-style theme strength.

I'd like to comment on your Tikal example. My personal take on the justification for players drawing and placing tiles is that it's an abstraction representing good luck for the active player and/or bad luck for the other players. If players were required to point to an empty space on the board and then determine its orientation randomly, for example, the game would likely end up with mostly mediocre placements, with some players getting a little lucky sometimes. This would be a perfectly fine way to play, and I actually might try it next time. However, when players get to think about the placement, you end up with more extreme good and bad luck situations, which I think the game author was going for. It's more interesting to explore a jungle when temples sometimes appear in the perfect place for expeditions to reap their benefits and when volcanos pop up in the absolute worst position.

I completely understand that you have nothing against the actual mechanic of flipping a tile and placing it, but I think that in this case, this mechanic abstractly generates the luck extremes that make ruin exploration exciting.

Jim Sandefur: I enjoyed your article about theme in German games. As much as I love German games and don't expect them to be very good simulations of any real world theme, I am often bothered by the way some designers play too fast and loose with theme, seemingly just tossing a theme onto a game mechanic for the graphics. Chris Kirby, the writer of many of the descriptions for our German games, starts his description of Phalanx's Marco Polo with, "Does Reiner Knizia live for camels? Does he dream of leaving behind his esteemed game-designing empire for the open arid highway of the desert? Somewhere, buried deep inside his overly-analytical mind, he must..." because so many of Knizia's games are set in the desert, even though many of them could just as easily be set in a rainforest. Theme adds immensely to a game and makes a game a narrative instead of just a series of abstract problems to solve. It took the German game invasion to teach Americans that aesthetics are important to games. Now, maybe we can teach the Germans that theme is important, too. A few days ago I addressed this issue briefly in my description of the Ragnar Brothers' Viking Fury.

Rich Pardoe: I enjoyed your article about themes, but what was most interesting were you comments about Duell (En Garde).

I was most intrigued by your conclusion to the Duell section wherein you state: "A "de-themed" Duell, on the other hand, would be instantly recognizable as a fencing match to anyone who plays a few hands. The mechanics not only suggest the theme, they practically demand it." Especially as I first played the game without the fencing theme.

I first discovered this game (actually En Garde) as a shockwave, web-based game called "Blip Sumo"(1) wherein the theme of the game was not fencing, but two rikishi charging at each other trying to force the other off the dohyo. Granted sumo has a circular dohyo, but I felt that the linear abstraction still worked. One is either near the middle, with one's back to the edge, or forcing the opponent near the edge. So I could accept the abstraction. The game does miss out on additional complications of sumo (namely throws and other means of forcing the opponent down instead of out).

The key for me is that playing this game, I didn't sense a fencing duel at all. I was enjoying an abstraction of a sumo bout.

Eventually, I did discover that Blip Sumo! was an implementation of En Garde (now Duell). And I discovered the original theme for the game.

At least sumo and fencing share some similarities—2 individual opponents facing each other and advancing/retreating in a fixed playing area. Both games do involve move and counter-move. But in the end, I would agree with your points about the marriage of theme and mechanics in Duell. Once I saw the original theme for the mechanics, I could also see that the mechanics are a better fit for the fencing duel. The sumo implementation simplifies the true sport of sumo much more than the fencing implementation simplifies the true sport of fencing.

Again, thanks for an interesting article, I just wanted to share my exposure to the game, especially as I did see the game without the benefit of the fencing theme.

Frank Hamrick: I enjoyed the article on fraudulent themes. Don't you think that the reason American games appear to match their theme more closely than German games (generally speaking), is because designers for years in the USA have started with a theme, and then added mechanics; whereas German style designers seem to start with a new mechanic or two and then patch on a theme?

GGA - I'm not convinced that this is a universal truth. In fact, several German designers have specifically stated that their games do begin with a theme rather than a mechanic. I think the difference is in the degree with which they allow that theme to influence the design. That is, when faced with a design difficulty will they defer to the theme or will they let the mechanic determine the better rule?

To use the example of Tikal—imagine that most of the game is developed with the exception of placing the tiles on the board. It's discovered that having the tiles placed randomly doesn't result in an enjoyable game. So, what to do? If you're Wolfgang Kramer you may decide that the best solution is to let the players place the tiles wherever they choose; the theme is secondary to the mechanics. A typical American designer might reject this "solution" and come up with a more cumbersome, but more realistic, rule.

So, even though the game was originally designed "theme first", the different approaches have lead the game in different directions.

As a youngster, and even today, I remember looking for a theme, and upon finding a theme that would interest me, I'd try to develop a game around it. As a 12 year old (1950) I designed a game I called "Cargoes." My idea was to pick up and deliver cargo from city to city and make money. Having developed the them, I then worked on mechanics. Later, (1955) I developed a war game which I called "Conquest." The theme came first, then I tried to figure out how to make it work. Later I would design a boxing game, a NASCAR race game, and a couple of basketball games. Always the theme came first and then I concentrated on how it would work (mechanics).

This always seemed to produce mechanics that supported the theme, and appeared to be a bit more of a sim than many of the games today. In fact, until I discovered German games the concept of "mechanics first" had never occurred to me. So, I tend to think of German games as fundamentally different from what I grew up with. It seems to me that the quest for today's designers is to come up with a mechanic that no one else has used and then patch a game to it. This has led me to read many reviews of games that mislead me. The reviewer was in love with the mechanic because it was original - even if the game wasn't that great and the theme was pasted on!

Personally, I enjoy a theme more than the mechanics. Give me an ancients theme, or a game of conquest, expansion, discovery, or development of a country, etc. and I'll love it far more than building a house in New England, or planting beans, no matter how original the mechanic may be!

Thus, my favorite games often have themes that I really enjoy—not necessarily mechanics I enjoy—ie, Euphrat & Tigris, Memoir '44, Settlers of Catan, Goa, Saint Petersburg, Attika, A Game of Thrones, Pirates Cove.

Peter Clinch: You finished off your "Fraud" article with "I'd like to see games that feature the clever mechanics of recent German style games with the strong thematic connection of earlier American games. Such games really would be the best of both worlds."

I'm not sure that earlier American games ever lacked clever mechanics. What they generally did lack were simple, concise rules and playing times less than 2 hours. It's those latter factors, far more than "clever mechanics", that draw me most to German games: I can play them with Normal People in the time frames available, and just as a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a game on the table is worth more than one on the shelf. I've several old favourites on the shelf that never get played because I, and my potential opponents, just don't have the time.

Jim Deacove: Richard Huzzey has helped to clarify my objections to Uberplay's using the title "Oasis" for their new game. [See Letters - August, 2004] This is not, for me, a trademark issue. It is a copyright issue. When I copyright a game design, this copyright includes all the printed parts, the artwork on the board, box, pieces, the rules, and the name of the game, which is an integral part of the copyright. The mechanisms and other content may be quite different and, as Richard points out, may also be similar insofar as it is about the same theme or concept. That is not the basis of my objection and I apologize for not being clear enough about this.

My objection is twofold: first, for violating my copyright and, secondly, for the confusion caused in the marketplace by having two products with the identically same name.

Let me use an analogy with books. Let us suppose that I titled my next book, Lord of the Rings. I may have written a book about Lord Montbatten leaving dirt rings in every bathtub he used during the war. Different theme, concept and content than that other book already out there with the same name.

It may be true that I had never read the other book (no excuse) and wasn't aware of its existence when I titled mine, but surely it would be the responsibility of my publisher (and me) to do a title search and inform me that I can't use this title, because someone else already has claim to it. Song writers are always doing this chore of title searches.

I had a similar situation with my Mountaineering game some years back, when I received a call from a Toronto publisher saying that he was in the process of printing some chap's game, titled "Mountaineering" and, at the last minute, thinking it sounded familiar, did a title search and found that I had the title already copyrighted. Yes, the other game was competitive, while mine was and still is co-operative, but the publisher wisely made a title change before a lot of expensive printing had to be scrapped. And what a coincidence that Richard should mention Knizia's, Through the Desert. My game was already being played in our game group sessions at least six months before Knizia's game appeared.

Our gamers had already become accustomed to referring to my game as Thru the Desert (American spelling). We were all quite stunned to learn of Knizia's publisher using the title, but even though the title best expresses my game and had prior usage, I had to change it to the less satisfactory, Oasis, because I had not yet copyrighted it or the contents of the game.

This also happened with one of my latest games, Power Blackout. My game is on the subject of the massive Power failures in North America, affecting some 50 million people because of the lack of co-operation between the power grids on this continent. My game was being played by our testing group and on the verge of publication with the title of Power Grids, when Rio Grande came on market with the English version of Power Grid. My game's title had an "s" on the end, but hardly enough of a different to warrant my running with virtually the same title. Hence the change to Power Blackout.

So, my final caution to game designers and publishers still stands—Do a title search before you go to press with someone else's title.

P.S. Richard, my Oasis game is not only for children. It is a three-in-one package, with game rules for children, for adolescents and a Master's game for adults, using the same equipment, with no expensive extensions to buy. Although an Oasis Jr. version....hmmm...there's an idea. I'll have to do a title search first.

GGA: The issues of copyright protection depends on the countries involved although the Berne Convention attempts to set international standards. (Note that Uberplay is American whereas Family Pastimes is Canadian.) I've consulted my (Canadian) lawyers on this and the 1998 Copyright Act says that the copyright on a "work" extends to the title only when such title is distinct and original. As there is no definition of "distinct and original" this means that it's largely a matter of case law (i.e precedents) and in practice the presiding judge will be the final arbiter. While I don't presume to be a judge I do have my doubts that the title "Oasis" would be deemed distinct and original.

Michael Andersch: I have recorded the results of all games I played for nearly two years now, and I found another aspect very useful—one you didn't mention in your article:

Knowing about the results of a given game also helps newcomers to find more quickly into it. If I tell everyone that—for example—to win a game of New England with 4 players you usually need about 35 victory points, everyone new to the game has some sort of guideline and can more easily determine the worth of an item or an action, thus avoiding heavy mistakes.

All the other aspects you mentioned are valid for me too, with one exception: Recording the results doesn't make me play more "competitively" or more "aggressively". I'm always quite relaxed.

Greg J. Schloesser: Dave Shapiro writes in his review of Risk Godstorm, "A few years ago, Hasbro/Avalon Hill stepped up to the plate and smashed one out of the park with Risk 2210—the best version of Risk ever published."

Although I enjoyed my playings of Risk 2210, I was consistently bothered by the endgame. Since the game is pre-destined to end in five turns, the final turn always resulted in a mass expansion by each player, with little concern given to defense. Points were scored based on the territories held, so there was little incentive to establish defensive positions on that final turn. Rather, players simply attacked until all of their armies were depleted. This felt unsatisfying and marred an otherwise entertaining and engaging game.

Larry Levy: Just a note to The Games Journal readership—while I plan on writing a few more articles covering game designers similar to the Martin Wallace article this month, there are still some excellent modern designers remaining that I don't feel qualified to review (and that Joe Huber didn't cover in his original series). If anyone out there is looking for a topic to write about for The Games Journal and enjoys the work of one of these men, I'm sure Greg would be happy to publish it. Here's a sample list of designers that I'd like to see someone cover:

  • Richard Borg
  • Leo Colovini
  • Francis Tresham
  • Dicken & Kendall (Ragnar Brothers)
  • Kris Burm
  • James Ernest (Cheapass Games)
  • Steve Jackson
  • Glenn Drover (Eagle Games)
  • Reinhard Staupe
  • Doumen & Wiersinga (Splotter Spellen)

GGA - Larry's correct, I would love to see future articles on any of these (or other) designers. If you're interested in writing such an article, please e-mail me.

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