Architecture, Aesthetics and Gaming
It's early Sunday morning and I'm in the mood to do a few minutes of Internet surfing as I prepare to write a game review. I type the name "Antoni Gaudi" into Google. He's the Spanish architect/artist who inspired The Antoni Gaudi Tile Game. I'm surprised and delighted to discover several dozens of pages of listings, including biographies, virtual museums, and books. I click on the virtual museum (you should too) and take a tour of Gaudi's designs. Apparently Gaudi is considered one of the founders of the Art Nouveau movement. I'm not sure exactly what that is, but a glimpse at his work reveals an extraordinary artist. Gaudi's buildings resemble the set of one of those intriguing alien cities from an old Star Trek. You know, the ones that seem to endow traditional Earth architecture with otherworldly qualities. More precisely, Gaudi's work is Moorish, Medieval, and Futuristic, both lavishly ornate and elegantly simple. Our world would be much more beautiful and interesting if our daily lives were enriched by his designs. Have you ever read Italo Calvino's remarkable book Invisible Cities? It's a series of short fictional vignettes in which Marco Polo describes the unusual cities he observes on his Eastern expedition. Surely Antoni Gaudi designed one of those cities.
Why is this relevant for a game review? Because The Antoni Gaudi Tile Game (which I shall now refer to as AGTG) introduces itself by transporting you to Barcelona: "Here you are in the Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona. Isn't Gaudi amazing?" For it is his tile design that is the basis of our game. "You find yourself staring at the pavement: these hexagonal tiles are crazy. What a brilliant idea, to introduce marine animals into the middle of the city and set them dancing in perfect harmony." I was anxious to review this game because I think a great game design is equivalent to a work of art, and there is a correlation between abstract board games and abstract art. Both venues challenge you to explore colors, forms, and symbols.
Amazingly, this obscure Spanish game (designed by Oriol Comas and Jep Ferret), has already been reviewed by Greg Schloesser (Westbank Gamers Web Site), Stuart Dagger (Counter, 2002), and Kerry Handscomb (Abstract Games, Spring 2003). All review the game favorably, essentially describing it as an interesting game experience. Why has the game received so much attention?
Before I address the relative virtues and context of the game, let me dispense with the play details. Since all of these reviewers explain the play mechanism with the requisite detail and clarity, I refer you to their reviews for the full explanation. Assuming you are seeing mention of the game for the first time, you want to know that AGTG consists of 84 three colored (orange, green, and blue) tiles, consisting of drawings of three different marine invertebrates. Surely this is the first tile game to feature jellyfish! Do the math and you realize that there are 84 different ways that you can divide up three colors and three marine invertebrates. You choose from a set of cards that provide you with both a color and an organism. Essentially we have a tile matching game (in the dominoes tradition) in which you score points for making matches that reflect your color/organism objectives. There is some flexibility here as you are allowed to place one, two, or three tiles on your turn, assuming that with two tiles there is at least one match and with three tiles two. However, none of these have to be a scoring match for yourself, so there is ample opportunity to waste scoring chances for your opponent. When you do create a scoring match for yourself, you mark it with a little circular fish. You score one point for a color or organism match and two points if it's both. That's basically it.
How does it play? I can think of no better evaluation than Kerry Handscomb's observation that it's a "gentle game." In other words, nothing brain busting, not too deep, but pleasant to play. The game is primarily tactical. It's very hard to think ahead as you don't know what tiles you'll draw. Most of the time you search out good matches that allow you either to take advantage of a scoring opportunity or to waste your tiles and disrupt someone else's score. However, you'll be hard pressed to worry too much about your opponent's moves. Most of the time you'll just be gazing at the unusual tiles, trying to get the marine invertebrate patterns straight, so you can find a valuable color/organism nexus. Although there are provisions for 2-6 players, practically this is a two, or at most three player game, as beyond this, you have virtually no control. As a two-player abstract tile placement game, there is really nothing special about it. Perhaps if you play the game several dozen times, you become so familiar with the tiles that you can assess what's left in the deck, and the game might become more strategic. But it seems to me that is the wrong way to play this game, as there are better options for people who require such depth (Kaliko, Trax and Tantrix immediately spring to mind). In that sense, I found the game slightly disappointing as I was hoping for a deeper gaming experience. However, the game succeeds wonderfully well as an aesthetic, relaxing gaming experience, and if that sort of thing moves you then you will enjoy messing around with this one.
Why then has AGTG received four !!! reviews? First, spurred by the success of Carcassonne, tile-laying games are becoming increasingly popular. I can't explain this more broadly, other than to suggest why I like this genre so much. The tile laying process allows you to create a unique gaming landscape each time you play, and it demands that you react to ever-changing board conditions. This is especially the case with Carcassonne, in which every play reveals a new landscape. Indeed, within the landscape lies the game's mystery. This is also true of the more abstract games in which you are surprised by how curved lines form knotty loops or how rich color patterns score points. A set of tiles, if well designed, not overly complicated, but rich in variety is not unlike a deck of cards. With every deal, or every draw, a different playing condition emerges. For me, the most interesting aspect of The Settlers of Catan is the development of the tiled map landscape and the process of choosing your position on the board. For most of the game, you merely play out the deal.
Is it presumptuous to suggest that our cadre of reviewers were anxious to support a tile laying game with such a blatantly artistic/architectural, even ecological theme? Aren't we all searching for great games that are beautiful to play? Many years ago, Sid Sackson invented a series of pencil and paper game books. He had one called Beyond Tic Tac Toe. Each game in the book is inspired by and named after a great artist (Vasarely, Miro, Mondrian, Arp, Delauney, Klee, and Springer). This is a delightful collection and the games are quite good, too. I would love to see the best of this collection released as a series of board games.
The AGTG may be just a "gentle game," but it's a terrific concept. Might one of our talented game designers attempt a series of tile-laying games that not only reproduce the essence of an artist's talent, but also yield new gaming ideas. I think we've run the course with Ancient Egyptian history by now. Karl-Heinz Schmiel attempted this art-making theme with KunstStucke, a beautiful game deserving of more attention. Is this too esoteric a request?
I congratulate the designers of The Antoni Gaudi Tile Game for attempting to bring the world of art and urban design into the tile game genre. Although the gameplay is not groundbreaking, the idea for the game deserves commendation. Let's hope that this inspires a while new way of thinking about games, perhaps a means to break out of a few thematic ruts, as well as more support for the merger of aesthetics and gaming. Might someone design a plaza of city tiles where the pedestrian can take fifteen minutes and play a game on tiles by virtue of where he or she steps? Is there an architect out there who is also a spielfreak? Think about making our public places both more beautiful and more fun, by encouraging architecture that you can play!
I'm not sure my gameplaying experience was deeply enriched by The Antoni Gaudi Tile Game, but surely my life experience was. I think I'll go back on line, and see if I can find a book about Gaudi's work, and then maybe I'll pull out the game again and imagine playing it on a city plaza in downtown Barcelona.
- Mitchell Thomashow