From Farm to Odin's Table

The best authors of any medium have a distinct style. One of the pleasures of being a more veteran player of tabletop games is appreciating the styles of my favorite designers. One of my favorites is Uwe Rosenberg. He is so prolific, yet so sharp, and I find myself looking forward to his new titles more than many others. On one hand it's easy to discount his productivity as many of his designs are ultimately iterations of past efforts. Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Indian Summer. Agricola, Caverna, A Feast for Odin. But, I think it's a mistake to note his efforts are the obvious next steps. 

Far from it. I think he's truly special in not just making his games smoother, but ultimately more satisfying. He's making his games more fun. 

Years ago I played Agricola, ranked as the 15th best game of all time on Board Game Geek. I recognized its excellence, but didn't love the experience. The purpose of this piece isn't to review it or add my two cents to a decade of opinions. But, as it matters for my thesis, you should know the gist of my critique.  I found myself overwhelmed by the personalized hand of unique cards, the non-intuitive end scoring, and the relentless pressure to feed my family.

Side Note: I've always wondered, though, if the time at which I played it was the wrong one. I didn't play many heavy euros at that point, or even many games longer than an hour, and was still relatively new to tabletop games. I may not have been ready for the farming dish I was served.

A few years ago, I got the chance to play Caverna. I fell in love with it immediately. In fact, it has been one of my favorite games of the last few years. It just makes sense. Everything except the basic resources are worth a point at the end. Buildings modify the value of your actions and resources. Feeding can be solved in a variety of ways. More is good, which is easy to understand. It's the tweak to the formula I needed. 

Just last week, I played A Feast for Odin, and it may be my favorite of the three. I've been thinking about the experience constantly. I think it's the final evolution. I'm so impressed with the culmination of subtle and important changes since Agricola. He didn't just make the game easier to play, though. It's more thoughtful, more fun, but also, better recognizes what makes humans happy and what causes angst. 

It isn't just that Rosenberg is clearly refining a thesis he first penned a decade ago. Any designer can and should be doing this. I mean, look at the differences between Cry Havoc and York and you'll see an obvious effort to smooth and polish a foundation. Look at how Borg evolves, polishes, and expands his Command and Colors system. What fascinates me are how the changes to A Feast for Odin directly address player experiences. They address anxiety and risk aversio while providing the dopamine drip of a reward and true satisfaction. These are things I don't think are largely in York. It makes me take a step back. Also, when I think about what Rosenberg has done, it makes me think of Blizzard's efforts in video games.

I normally wouldn't jump to video games, but I think it's an interesting comparison. I think Rosenberg is succeeding, whereas I think Blizzard is making more boring games. 

Note: I'm talking about my opinions here on Blizzard's designs and my own experiences as a player. They're clearly killing it financially and I'm in the minority here. 

Blizzard became one of the most successful video game studios on earth by taking other people's ideas and making them better. I personally think they were most successful with World of Warcraft.  They started with Everquest, but removed the aimless wandering and camping a hill or orcs spawning and replaced it with quests as the primary drivers of XP. They eliminated the terrifying corpse run and gave you a temporary debuff instead. I'm painting with a broad brush here for the sake of brevity, but the idea worked. I think it's the right formula for a largely cooperative game about building characters over weeks, months, and years. 

I think Blizzard is far less successful with Overwatch and Hearthstone. More precisely, I think their formula is a rather boring sledgehammer when applied to competitive games.  I wrote about Overwatch just over a year ago. You should read the article, but the gist is that Blizzard overly constrains the potential skill gap in their playerbase by turning everyone up to 11. They want everyone to be successful and they do everything in their power to keep you in the game positively contributing no matter how bad you are. While it makes the game more inviting and accessible initially, I think the end result is the oft-lampooned blue ribbon for participation. 

Uwe Rosenberg has also been doing this though, right? He's been making his competitive games easier and more accessible, right? Yes! But, he hasn't removed the teeth. He hasn't removed the skill or depth. He hasn't plucked the low hanging fruit. I think Rosenburg removed the ulcers, but preserved the head scratching. I think he did something much harder and really smart. 

I think this is significant. I think we as designers and publishers should be taking notes furiously. In my opinion, A Feast for Odin accomplishes this with three primary changes:

  • Worker inflation
  • Do everything, but with shapes
  • Perks along the way

Worker Inflation

I think one of the most important differences from Agricola and Caverna to A Feast for Odin is the increase in the number of workers you have. In the former titles, you begin with two and will likely end with three or four workers if you play typically. In the latter, you start with six, immediately gain a seventh, and eventually have 13. That means a huge increase in actions and choices, right? No, not at all. Rosenberg paired the inflation with a very elegant cost for placement mechanism. The actions you take are arranged in four columns, which cost one, two, three, or four workers each. This means on the first round you can take one action by placing four workers in the fourth column, one action by placing two workers in the second column, and a third action by placing your last worker in the first column. Or, you could have taken seven actions by using the first column exclusively, but due to the competition in the spaces and the choices available, it's far more likely you take three to four actions every round.

Three to four actions every round in A Feast for Odin sure sounds an awful lot like three to four workers by the end of a game of Caverna or Agricola. It's basically the same thing, so why the shift in mechanisms? This mechanism reminds me of the joy of a weekend trip to Canada where you get to enjoy Canadian prices with hot US dollars in your pocket. By enriching the binary options of Agricola, Odin alleviates a lot of stress.

Having more workers allows for flexibility. It provides the sense that you have plenty of options and can react to any situation. Players can evaluate the relative cost of actions and experience the feeling of earning a deal instead of one price for everything. It gives different actions a comparative value, which means a two tends to be better than a one, but not as good as a four. This means when you pay for the four, you get the satisfaction of investing big.

I'm reluctant to overreach and pair these to economic principles, but I can't help but think that A Feast for Odin is a better representation of a satisfying market economy, one that allows players to think at the margin, to weigh opportunity costs, and dealing with trade-offs. If everything has a uniform price, it's more difficult, and stressful, for the human mind to break things into intangible currencies. 

Another beautiful side effect of this mechanism, probably intended considering the designer, is a blessed reduction in choices. If everything costs one, then you can still perform every available action on every turn, excepting those already chosen. This can be overwhelming for a lot of players. Most players, I'd wager.  However, if all actions have a cost of 1-4 and you have only two workers remaining, for example? Half of the options are eliminated. You don't even need to consider the three and four cost options.

I think this is a really meaningful change. 

One of the most difficult problems to address in development are the things that make players like the game less without knowing why they like a game less. Folks can't quite put their finger on why the game doesn't work. Sloppy exceptions and edge case rules are often the culprits here, as they erode a player's ability to enjoy. People only have so much mental space to devote to rules and strategy, and if rules occupy the space, they'll struggle with the strategy (i.e. fun) part of the experience. Time between turns or important decisions is another issue. Players get bored and grow distant from the experience. Once disconnected, even enjoyable elements are less fruitful.  In this case with A Feast for Odin, there is an overt move to make it clear what you can and cannot do on your turn. Many games have implied or subtle limitations, which means you can still technically consider them. Rosenberg naturally leads every round to a decrescendo, usually, of options. Tension ramps down after that first choice. 

Do everything, but with shapes

Negative points are a recurring cast member in Rosenberg productions. I think the Blizzard approach would be to eliminate them entirely. But, I think negative points present a crystal clear goal for new players. They're the shaggy nail that needs to be hammered. It's a smart accessibility tool that assumes your players aren't dim.

A Feast for Odin accomplishes a similar final result in a more satisfying way with its use of negative points. In Agricola, you're dealt negative points for...hell, I can't even remember. It's not super intuitive. In Caverna, you're dealt negative points for not covering up spaces in your mine or farm and for not having at least one of every livestock. In both of these cases you have to remember rules. There are exceptions. It's the desire of the designer that you have to do everything, at least to some degree. In A Feast for Odin, Rosenberg still preserves that goal. Every player has a board, and most of this board has squares with "-1." The direct result of almost every action in the game leads to obtaining tokens you will use to cover, and therefore negate, these negative points. 

Here's the thing. You have to follow a few placement rules in A Feast for Odin. You can't just place squares willy nilly, which we all know from the history of the vikings. Eh hem.

Green tiles cannot be placed orthogonally to one another, but blue can! This means you need a mixture of some blue, but greens are easier to come by, so perhaps you'll mix and match. There's more. Red and orange cannot be placed on your main board, but unlike blue and green, they can feed your people. You'll need to have a balance between keeping some red and orange to feed, while upgrading some red and orange into green and blue to place on your board.

The end result is almost identical to Caverna. It is eerily similar to needing one of every livestock and doing a little bit of farming and a little bit of mining...but with no rules to remember. There's a tiny graphic reminder of the blue green business. You don't need to dedicate mental space to remembering it. 

But wait, there's more. There are also some deeply satisfying elements of this system of collecting big thick tiles versus resource tokens you amass in a pile. Bigger tiles cover more space, which means bigger tiles negate more negative penalties. Arranging the tiles on your board is tactile, intuitive, and a tricky puzzle that is deeply compelling. It's satisfying, like packing four weeks of underpants in a one week luggage. You don't need to plan the intricacies of three to four turns ahead. There is no Sword of Damocles threatening your every turn. No, right now, you can rotate and tweak and place pieces until they fit. Or, don't. There's a beautiful immediacy and physicality to it. Physicality is also one of the things that makes tabletop games truly special, so Rosenburg is leaning harder into the medium. 

Rosenberg is still expressing his philosophical desires. He wants you to participate broadly, dabble in everything, and accomplish a great deal. That is true in all three titles mentioned here. But, A Feast for Odin is paired with fewer rules and comes with a more satisfying physical manifestation of the end result. It isn't just a smoother system, or an obvious evolution, but a better expression of joy for the player. 

Perks along the way

Agricola famously emphasizes the family feeding phase. You need to provide for your family with shocking frequency and it's very difficult. At least, for new players. If you don't do it, you suffer punishments that further remind you of subsistence farming in the middle ages. Caverna lightens the burden by providing additional avenues to feed your family. You have more choices, which is more or less the theme around Caverna. But, still, it's a looming threat. 

I understand and appreciate the feeding phase. Firstly, it provides a goal. You know you need to feed, so as a new player, whenever you take care of that,  you're doing something good. Secondly, it restrains you so that you need to take risks and be calculated in your expansion. You can't just do whatever you want, but are hemmed in by the needs of the family. 

A Feast for Odin also has a feeding requirement at the end of every round that uses the same mechanism as the main board. You need to place sufficient orange and red tiles on a small subset of spaces to feed your people. It also scales with your clan. As you gain more workers, you also need to feed more of your people. 

While this feeding requirement is solved in many of the same ways as Caverna, it actually becomes more satisfying as the game progresses because of the free perks you gather along the way. Earlier, we discussed how you cover (and therefore negate) negative points. But, you also tend to surround bonuses, which increase your income of both silver (essentially a flexible resource) and basic goods to place on your board or feed your people. This means that as you solve your core problem (negative points) you begin earning freebies to accelerate your growth and solve your second problem (feeding your people). It's a two-in-one bonus and it feels so good. Remember: this is tied to the deeply satisfying mechanism of placing big tiles to cover large swaths of negative points. You can hear the sizzle of joy it's so satisfying.

Once more, this is a similar result to his previous games. In Caverna you gain buildings that make your exchanges of resources more efficient, or you go on larger quests for more loot. You can harvest more in both Agricola and Caverna. But, in both of those games it's multiple steps to see the output. The feedback loop is more diffuse. There are more steps from action and reaction. In A Feast for Odin, many things are earned with every placement. There are perks along the way.

Ultimately, the takeaway here should not be that A Feast for Odin is an excellent game (it is), but that the work Uwe Rosenberg is doing is beyond just making a good idea better. He's enhancing player satisfaction. He's solving for accessibility in a way that doesn't remove the game's sharp edges and depth. He's making the experience just more pleasant overall.

I think it's a move worth celebrating and studying. I think it's a burden with which we should all burden ourselves. I'm deeply thankful to Uwe Rosenberg for his games, but also, seeing how he turned a good idea into a much better one.