Encounters with Genius

Lately I have been truly blessed to encounter a few new games that have just blown my mind. Each of them has contributed something to my enjoyment of games, but also, my thoughts as a designer.

It's not uncommon if you play games frequently to come across great ideas. But, to just be assaulted with an avalanche of brilliance? Truly special. I wanted to quickly highlight some of these brilliant games. Perhaps you can share yours?

Twilight Struggle

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This is the number one game on Board Game Geek. I bought this years ago based on a review on Dice Hate Me. I've longed to play it and have read the rules probably 6 times. Well, last week I finally had the chance to play it not once, but twice.

My word.

After the first game my friend and I both looked at each other and said "Yep, number 1." Then we immediately played again. After that, and for the following week, we constantly discussed ideas on how to play differently and just, wow.

Order of cards in decks both abstracts the historical periods but allows the game to go from focused to broad as it plays out. First you focus on Europe, then Asia, then the Middle East and Latin America. Africa is always a good place to distract your opponent. If follows the timeline in a way that respects history and narrows the game at the outset to prevent you from being overwhelmed.

Scoring drives play dynamically. Players are dealt Scoring cards, which MUST be played the Turn they are dealt (a Turn in Twilight Struggle is more like a Round in other games). If you are dealt the scoring card for Europe, you're going to spend your turn trying to maximize your points there. However, as scoring affects both players, you also need to hinder your opponent. But, how do you improve your standing in the region without completely alerting your intentions?

You must play cards that help your opponent. This is another way the game takes advantage of history without forcing you down a narrow chute. Every card has two basic elements: a number in the top left (typically 1-4) and an Event, with text. The event belongs to either the Soviets, the Americans, or both. You can play cards in one of two ways:

  1. Play it for its Number, the Operational Value. This lets you do things like add influence to the board or conduct Coups.
  2. Play it for its Event. If the Event is yours, you can instead do what the text says. These are often very powerful, or they will unlock additional options.

Here's the rub. You never want to play a card for its Event if its your opponent's Event. It's just bad. But, if you play a card for its Operation Value and its Event belongs to your opponent? Guess what? It happens. This means you play the card for its Operation Value of 4 -- great card! But, revolutions will take place in the Middle East that in no way help you. You're only able to hold onto one card every Turn (again, Turns are Rounds), and typically you can only chuck one card to the Space Race. This means you must play cards that will help your opponent. Which is also true for your opponent. The key is managing it on your terms. Brilliant.

Both players draw from a single deck. However, as I mentioned above, cards "belong" to one player typically. In a sense, this gives you an asymmetric game, but unlike other asymmetric games, you don't need to learn new rules, or work with a narrow set of abilities. In fact, because both of you will always have a large hand of cards that pertain to both factions, it's very easy for both players to learn all the cards in just a few games (though learning them to be GOOD is an entirely different matter).

To put this in perspective, in a single game of Summoner Wars, there are about 60 cards, split in 2, that pertain to only a single faction. That's way more difficult to learn how it all plays. Not only do you need to learn yours in isolation, but you need to learn your opponent's.

Overall, Twilight Struggle feels like a sandbox with the right boundaries that let you play a massive "what-if" in the Cold War time and time again. My highest recommendation.

Cockroach Poker

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A friend recently bought Cockroach Poker and it has become our lunch game du jour. With no hyperbole, I will look you in the eye and say that this is the best bluffing game I've played. The game is elegant, quick, plays with a large number of players, but most importantly? People never stop laughing. It's just a hoot to play.

 

The game features 8 each of 8 types of cards. The cards have a creature on it (spider, rat, cockroach, fly). That's it. You lose if you have 4 of a single creature in front of you, or you don't have cards to play. It's that simple.

The game has no turn structure, which was wildly eye opening for me. At the start of the game, one player passes a card to an opponent. The card is face down from the initiating player's hand. "This is a roach," the passing player says. The receiving player can say "I believe you," or "I don't believe you." If the receiving player is correct, the giving player takes the card face up. If the receiving player is incorrect, they take the card face up.

Or, the receiving player can simply look at the card and pass it to someone else. The process then repeats until it ends with someone. No single player can be involved with a card more than once, so at some point it'll end somewhere. There is this glorious, semi-cooperative habit of "alley ooping" the card from one player until you finally get it to the player you want to lose. The trick is, one player loses the game. Everyone else wins.

This means it's quick to gang up on a player. However, that player has a lot of power to open up a second front, as they say, and stack the odds against someone else. Fortune's can turn quickly in the game and a really good, and lucky player and outlast even the most overwhelming of onslaughts.

It's so good.

Ultimately, the game has a million strategies, all revolving around its bluff mechanic and group dynamics. A game like Coup has quite a few little mechanics, which in a way narrows how you play. But Cockroach Poker is wide open and as a result players are constantly trying new ways to fool and outwit their friends. It's just magnificent.

One Night Werewolf

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Before I encountered One Night Werewolf, I must admit I'd grown wary of deduction games. The Resistance is fun, but it felt very formulaic, at least for me, after a while.

  1. Players go through the first two missions with almost zero information.
  2. Players shout at each other for 15 minutes with zero basis for doing so. "You're the spy!" "No you're the spy!"
  3. Sometimes people figure some things out. Often, people just shout and one side gets lucky.

This isn't the case with One Night WerewolfThere are several characters with very simple abilities, like looking at other players' roles, swapping roles, or having the ability to kill someone regardless of the vote. This is really important, because it means there is enough info to deduce and solve the puzzle. But! Don't forget that people can and will still lie and bluff. And they are working against you. So many games like this are purely social. One Night Werewolf is half social, have logic puzzle, which means you might win the puzzle, but lose the vote.

That game is also absurdly quick, but no less epic. We played 6 games in a row over a one hour lunch the other day. After we learned the ropes in the first few games, the last few? Just incredible.

Combat Commander: Europe

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Combat Commander blew my mind. This game is a wild-west sandbox of chaos, war, artillery landing all around you, and heroes emerging to save their beleaguered comrades.

The game is entirely card driven. If you don't have the action on a card in your hand, you can't take it. Some people prefer the ability to always move, or shoot, and that's fine. In Combat Commander you need to make the best of what you have. This makes it mechanically simple (play the card for the thing), but HIGHLY varied.

But wait, there's more!

Every card has two ways to play it: Order, or Action. Orders are things like Move, Fire, Rout, or Command Confusion, which is a hard that gums your hand. Or, they can be played for Actions at any time, even on your opponent's turn. Actions often modify Orders, like throwing down suppressing fire with that Fire Order, or throwing out a Smoke Grenade to hide your sprint across the open.

When you attack, both players flip their top card and use the dice in the bottom left corner as their roll. This is important because it means instead of purely random dice, you can have a dice-like effect where the designer can set the overall average. For example, the German Army will probably be better than the Italian Army. Some of these dice rolls trigger events. Flip another card, because every card has an event on it.

Events might be sniper attacks, unexpected reinforcements, a fire in the forest (that WILL grow), artillery shell holes to use as cover, and more.

Over the course of a 1-3 hour game, the map evolves and your choices constantly change. It's just incredible. The rule book includes this quote, which I think is perfect:

"The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis." - from a post-war debriefing of a German General.

Have you played anything lately that was just incredible? What did it teach you? Why was it incredible? Share in the comments below!

Comments

Hi Zap -- One Night Werewolf is almost entirely a social game, so your group and play of the game will make or break the experience. But, here's how I frequently encounter the game with my group.

In a 5 player game, you'll have 3 Villagers, 2 Werewolves, a Seer, a Robber, and a Troublemaker (just to pick 3 basic roles). The werewolves know who they are with their partner. The seer gets to look at one player's role, or 2 of the 3 unchosen roles in the center. The robber gets to swap roles with someone and the troublemaker swaps two other players' roles.

Now, 3 of the roles are unclaimed and in the center. This means it's likely that not all the roles and werewolves are "in play."

The key to the game is using the evidence you DO have, working with others, and building a "case" to solve the mystery. In one game, I was a villager. At the start, someone suggested all villagers show their hands at once. I deliberately kept mine down, and 3 other people raised their hand. I then declared: "I am a villager. One of these 3 is lying." Now, the group of 6 knew at least one of those of us were lying. That's info. Then, the seer chimed in: "I looked at Bob's. He IS a villager." Now, we know who the seer player claims to be and that Bob may be a villager. Then, Cindy chimes in -- I'm the robber and I took Bob's. He was a villager. Now that seems like a sure thing -- two players collaborating. However, they could be the werewolf. This is where social comes in. Did it seem likely how they collaborated? Did it come out naturally?

When I play as a werewolf, a tactic I like to employ is, as info is unraveled, I counter their story or I try to pick an out of play role (a guess) to make up a lie. I'm trying to confuse the situation. This is difficult to do and often I have been caught in a lie by two players comparing evidence to crack me.

The key is this. You know what you were. You know what Role you took. And you know the order of operations of the roles. There's an extensive amount of info. I've played ONW about 14 times and Resistance about 20 times and I feel pretty strongly about my assessment. But, it's just an opinion.

I find there are aspects of ONUWW that are rather formulaic.

For instance I can't deduce a reason why the Seer wouldn't always pick the inner two cards. Not only is it more information, it's more valuable information. Because it means there's only one card in the middle that can't be verified and that the Werewolves can't claim. I only have about 20-25 games under my belt but I find being a werewolf rather tough at times. You best ploy is to identify a role that no one else selected and claim that. Which is hard to do without seeing who is claiming what first. Your story of the events during the night is up against the entire village. It's much harder than being a spy

Fair input, though I don't agree it's always better to look in the center. Ultimately, I've found almost every game of ONW to be dynamic and exciting, where that's not always the case for Resistance, for example. Obviously, one's mileage may vary.

Thanks for chiming in sir!

I am terribly impressed with both Concordia and Lewis & Clark. Hand management games blended fairly seamlessly into a worker placement race and traditional Euro area control game, respectively.

Also, I'm so glad one of my gaming circles abandoned CAH for Cockroach. It's the most accessible bluffing game out there, it leads them straight into Coup and Netrunner, and it's non-stop laughing.

I really want to play L&C. It's a theme I love and it's getting fantastic praise. Just gorgeous as well. I've held off on buying it because it's a longer game and I have a handful of longer games I need to play more first.

I don't play CAH with gaming circles, but it's a favorite of mine for Xmas parties and team picnics. But man, Cockroach! Incredible.

I'll look up Concordia.

"With no hyperbole, I will look you in the eye and say that this is the best bluffing game I’ve played."
This is an inherently difficult sentence to trust.

The smartest game I've encountered recently has been Chronicle. While customers come into my store all the time having played Love Letter, few have played what I consider the best Seiji Kanai game, Chronicle. I explain it to people as Trick-taking: The Gathering. It's just so much smart design packed into such a little box, I love it. I think that something you've touched upon in both of the games you've talked about, and which is a factor in Chronicle, is that each of your "pieces" (even if the pieces referred to in all three games are cards) give you so many options. A card that does multiple things when played, depending on when or how it's played? That's the genius aspect to me. This way, you're never trapped with "dead" cards. It's all option optimization and risk management, as opposed to clear optimization or being at the mercy of risk.

I guess I'm confused... I bought One Night Werewolf and we played it immediately. We found there is NO deduction at all because you can't look at your role after all the randomness happens. In fact... having all the randomness means the game has SIGNIFICANTLY less deduction than Resistance because you don't even know who you are. I can assume I still am a villager, but who knows - so why would I fight for any direction? I've played with a couple different groups to make sure it wasn't just a fluke. What am I missing?!