Ra!

My induction to boardgaming began early in 2004, when I started playing The Settlers of Catan. I’d played plenty of other traditional ‘boardgames’ before that point, such as Monopoly or Risk or the Game of Life, but after Settlers, I quickly realised that these weren’t real boardgames – they were ‘boardgames lite’. They were ‘roll and move’.

‘Roll and move’ is a disparaging but perfectly descriptive term given to games where you roll some dice and then move your piece. To the vast majority of people, that’s what a boardgame is – you’re represented by a counter and you move around the board by rolling. Occasionally you get to make a decision, like buying a house or changing course or answering a question, but it’s basically all ‘roll and move’. Why, most would ask, is that a bad thing?

Boardgame players would respond that ‘roll and move’ games are all about chance, and not about strategy. They would – and I would – say that they aren’t even that fun, not compared to other less popular boardgames, and in the case of games like Monopoly, just not fun at all. They’re overly competitive, pitting friends and families directly against each other, producing awful grudges, and often players will be knocked out of contention early on, leaving them at the sidelines for hours. How could that be fun, other than for what you get from the good company?

The solution, my friends, is Euro games. Euro games, as they’re termed in the boardgaming community, refer to ‘European style’ or ‘German style’ games (which means that many ‘Euro games’ are in fact designed by non-Europeans). Euro games are characterised by play that is not directly competitive, featuring deeper interaction and co-operation between players, and a higher emphasis on strategy. That does not mean that they are all impossibly difficult to play, or not fun. In fact, a recent Euro-style boardgame I played only took about ten or twenty minutes to learn – just about the same as any other boardgame.

That game was Ra. Ra is one of the most popular Euro-style boardgames and was designing by a guy called Reiner Knizia. As with most Knizia games, at its heart, it’s a bidding game, even though it pretends to be set in Ancient Egypt. The game is divided into three equal epochs, and every epoch, each player has three or four bidding tokens. The tokens are ranked, so no two are the same, which means that bidding is never deadlocked.

What you’re bidding on are tiles. At the start of each turn, a player will usually turn over a tile and add it to a pile in the centre of the board. The tiles are things like gold, or monuments or pharoahs. Individual tiles, or sets of tiles, are worth points. When someone decides the pile is appropriately big, they can call an auction, which everyone can take part in. This is where you use your bidding tokens, and basically, whoever places the highest bid wins and gets all the tokens.

Mixed in with the tiles are ‘Ra’ tiles; when you pick one of these up, an auction is called and the tile is added to the ‘Ra line’. When the Ra line is full up, the epoch ends, everyone adds up their points, resets their tiles, and starts the next epoch. And that’s it, basically. There are obviously other rules and subtleties – for example, every epoch you usually end up changing some of your bidding tokens – but it’s essentially a bidding game where you’re trying to get the best possible tiles in order to get the most points.

While the rules are just as simple as any other game, the reason Ra is so fun is because of the dilemmas and strategy that emerges from the rules. For example, when you bid for tiles, you obviously want to get as many as possible. However, if you don’t hold a high ranked bidding token, you’ll almost certainly get beaten if you try to bid on a huge stack. What to do? Well, a favourite tactic of many is to call auctions when there are piddling numbers of tiles available. In those circumstances, you are basically daring the other players to use their high ranked tokens. If they don’t, you can just scoop the tiles up for a pittance, and if they do, they waste a good token.

Another dilemma involves the use of your tokens. You only have three or four, depending on the number of players, so you can only win three or four auctions every epoch. When do you spend your tokens? Do you wait until everyone else has spent their tokens, in the hope of picking up some good, uncontested bargains at the end? If you do, then you run the risk of the Ra line being filled up and the epoch ending before you get to spend all your tokens, making things a complete washout. Or do you spend your tokens at the start, in the hope that a lot of Ra tiles will emerge and all the people hanging back will be forced to hurriedly spend their tokens on poor deals before the last Ra comes out?

In my games against my brother and his wife this Christmas (they got me the game!), the game would whiz by for the most part, but occasionally someone would become hesitant, look at everyone’s tiles and tokens, look at their own, and linger in a torn dilemma about whether to spend their ‘good token’ now or save it for later. Now that was fun. Importantly, Ra is short! A game only lasts 30 to 45 minutes, as opposed to the exhausting marathon-like durations of Monopoly or Risk. To be sure, there are Euro games that are longer, taking 90 to 120 minutes, but they almost always have set limits that ensure they don’t drag on forever.

The other thing fun thing about Ra was that everyone had fun right up until the end – no-one is ever knocked out in the game, and while a couple of front-runners might emerge early on, it’s always possible for lagging players to surprise everyone else and win right at the finishing post.

Now, when was the last time you played a boardgame like that? And imagine if every game you played was like that… Welcome to Euro games.

If you want to read more about Euro games, check out the Top 50 list at Boardgamegeek. It’s a great site for reviews and discussion of all boardgames, but inevitably most energy is directed to Euro games, since basically that’s what all the users like.

Power Play

We had a rather astounding game of The Settlers of Catan tonight. The board setup was basically conventional except for the desert being the centre tile, which I feel stunted the growth of the game quite a bit and also served as a natural barrier. Andrew and I took up positions giving us a lot of expansion room while Shakti and Kalli boxed themselves in in about a third of the board.

Relatively quickly, Andrew pulled ahead due to his productive settlement placement and the other players seemed even for a while. Kalli was stunted by the fact that one of his two ‘free’ initial settlements was on a port, reducing early game production; having five productive tiles instead of six may not seem like a big deal but growth in this game is exponential, not linear. For that reason, when Andrew built a chain of roads and then a city, he was able to command growth on the board.

I managed to expand to build one or two more settlements and a city, and Shakti and Kalli ended up maxing out with three or four settlements apiece (further expansion wasn’t possible due to their being confined by Andrew and I). At this point we all realised that Andrew, with the longest road (giving him two points) and three cities (worth six points) put him within a mere two points of reaching the ten point victory total. All he needed to do was to build another city and he would win. Given his enormous production capacity, it seemed almost inevitable that he’d win.

I decided to put on my diplomat’s hat and form an unholy alliance with Kalli and Shakti, explaining to them that if we didn’t team up, Andrew would win in short order. The only person who could stop him was me, but I didn’t have enough resources to do the job, which initially was to build two roads to deny him access to his prospective city site. Unfortunately, no sooner had we announced this that Andrew received the resources to build the road to his site; now all he had to do was to build a city.

Barring extreme measures, the game looked totally lost to me; Andrew would easily have the resources to build his city within two or three turns, especially with his trading port. The only way to stop him was to build a longer road than he had – this would require me linking up two stretches of my network with five or six roads – a pretty enormous amount. Over the next two turns, I alternately cajoled and threatened Shakti and Kalli to give my the wood and brick required for this, and in the process bankrupted myself. In what can only be described as a monumental construction effort, I won the road building war and everything seemed even again – I had 7 points, Andrew had 6 and Shakti had 5.

I was a little bemused by Shakti’s reluctance to donate resources towards the construction of ‘Adrian’s Wall’ considering that she didn’t seem to have a hope in hell of winning, with a mere 5 points on the table. This would cause problems later. Meanwhile, I had manoeuvred myself into a tricky position – I was the leader, but only by a single point. Shakti and Kalli essentially refused to trade with me any more and whenever the robber was activated (which was pretty often), he usually was despatched to one of my more productive tiles and nicked some of my resources.

It was clear that the only way I could win was by stealth, through development cards. I already had two soldiers – one more and I’d have the biggest army, bringing me up to 9 points. From there, I could easily get a final point by buying enough development cards to get a victory point or building a settlement (the length of ‘Adrian’s Wall’ meant that I had plenty of potential building sites). Thus retooled for a development card effort, I managed to get a soldier quite quickly, increasing my total to a stealth 9 points.

Of course, the other players hadn’t stopped (well, Kalli had, but there you go). Andrew was attempting to build another settlements and buy some development cards in order to regain the throne, while Shakti seemed in a world of her own, building another settlement and some development cards. When she bought her fourth card and then divided them into two piles, Andrew and I experienced the horrible realisation that she in fact had two victory points, two soldiers and five points on the table. It wouldn’t have taken her much to win – just one more victory point and upgrading a settlement to a city.

Luckily, in poker parlance I had plenty of ‘outs’ and my next development card happened to be a victory point. With the longest road, largest army, five points on the table and one victory point, I had won. Shakti had 7 points, Andrew had 6 and Kalli had 4 or 5.

The interesting thing about this game was that three people all had a very good chance, at various stages, of winning. With his superior settlement placement, Andrew dominated the early to mid game and very nearly won; the reason he didn’t was because he was visibly the frontrunner and we all understood the need to take him down. In the end game, I was the new threat but my win didn’t seem quite as imminent since my soldiers were concealed; Shakti was also close to winning for the same reasons.

I think that our next game will once again be very different – firstly, the desert will be in a different place. Secondly, we’ll all be trying extremely hard to have more expansion space. Thirdly, we now know firsthand exactly how important development cards are and will be keeping a very close eye on who’s buying what. Clearly my winning strategy will not work next time around and I think there’ll be at least a couple of people aiming to get the largest army.

Once again, this game took a little over two hours, but only because we allied to prevent an early win by Andrew; now that we understand what it takes to win the game, I think the next one will be a fair bit quicker.

Where’s the Brick?

Almost three months after I bought it, I finally got around to playing the Settlers of Catan with my friends at college this evening. I’ve written about it before and there’s a more detailed description at BoardGameGeek but in brief it’s a very playable four-player strategy building game that features a lot of trading.

The other players, Kalli, Shakti and Andrew, looked a bit askance when I hauled out the various bits and pieces of the game but to their credit they were more interested in the peculiar way in which the board was randomised and the unusual rules. After about ten minutes of explanation and setup, we were able to start and everyone got the hang of the rules quite quickly.

Unfortunately since I’ve only played it once before myself, I gave rather simplified advice on where to set up initial settlements which had knock-on effects throughout the entire game; essentially Kalli and I were bunched towards one end of the board whereas Shakti and Andrew had more space on the opposite side (which admittedly also had the useless desert tile). This meant that while Kalli and I had an edge over the others in the early and midgame due to our proximity to the important resources (wood and wheat), we ultimately were undone by our lack of expansion space for roads and additional settlements. In particular, I had to resort to buying development cards in the hope of getting more points.

In the end, Shakti won after accumulating an enormous number of resources in a few turns from very lucky rolls of the dice (and to be fair, some very inattentive opponents) and going on a road and settlement building spree, racking up four points in single turn. I came in second with 8 points, Andrew had 7 and Kalli had 5.

The whole game took a little over two hours, which is very long by the standards of Settlers – games usually only take one hour. Obviously the fact that most people were beginners slowed things down, and also we experienced a debilitating lack of the brick resource in the early game, mostly due to an unlucky placement of tiles and counters. I imagine the next game should be around 90 minutes – still quite long, because we tend to take our time on exhaustively examining every single possible trade option.

We’ll also be a lot more wary and forward-planning in the next game, which should spice things up no end. The randomised board and the fact that we’ll choose our starting positions much more carefully will totally transform the game. Everyone really enjoyed it and we’ll probably be playing again pretty soon; I hope to try Hare and Tortoise and maybe buy Carcassonne in the near future as well.

It’s Complicated, It’s Complex!

(Arrrgghhhh! Safari just crashed on me, right on the verge of finishing a long post, reconstructed below. Let no man give Apple unqualified praise now – they have erred, and they have erred greviously in allowing such a shoddy, slow, pre-beta, crash-prone piece of bug-ridden garbage such as Safari to be released to the general public. Mozilla might be a memory hog, but it never had problems with my pressing ‘undo’ in a textbox. Damn you, David Hyatt, damn you to Hades!)

Last weekend, I went over to the Mitre pub here in Oxford, walked upstairs and immediately found myself embroiled in such a charged atmosphere of political intrigue and horse trading that it would make even the most hardened BBC Today programme journalist blanch in fearful wonder. No, I hadn’t accidentally gone into a meeting of the Oxford Union (I would only ever come near them accidentally) – I’d come to the OxCon boardgame convention.

In the US and UK, boardgames are treated like a distant relative – you don’t mind spending time with them at Christmas, and you even occasionally enjoy their company, but seeing them isn’t something you’d like to do every week. Boardgames just aren’t all that popular anymore. As the highly knowledgeable BoardGameGeek FAQ succintly puts it:

“Here in America anyway, when someone says ‘boardgames,’ 99% of the population (aka, ‘non-gamers’) think of Monopoly or Scrabble, maybe Pictionary, and that’s about it. ‘Non-gamers’ think of gaming as a once-a-year event under the Christmas tree, rather than a viable way to spend an evening with a group of friends on a semi-regular basis.”

What is it that stops most people from venturing beyond the likes of Monopoly into the verdant pastures of new, beautifully designed and balanced games like The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne? Undoubtedly the rise of more visceral forms of entertainment like computer games and TV (as it is today) must shoulder much of the blame, but I feel that ignorance and anxiety are also responsible. It really is true that most people wouldn’t be able to name more than a couple of boardgames other than Monopoly, so no wonder they aren’t playing anything else. Yet at the same time it’s unlikely that they’ve never encountered new boardgames like Settlers. The fact is, people are scared of new boardgames, especially those that contain more pieces than I have fingers. They think that they’ll be too complicated and boring.

This is demonstrably not true.

When I made it up to the boardgame convention, to meet a reader of this weblog (Chris Dickson) I felt a bit out of place. I’m not what anyone would describe as a boardgame player – in fact, I only own two ‘advanced’ boardgames, and I bought one of them at the convention. So despite everything that I’ve said here, I was a little anxious that I would, yes, find the convention a bit boring and too complicated. My fears were only deepened when I sat down at Chris’ table to watch them play a space colony boardgame that seemed to involve a plethora of complicated cards and little markers.

As it was, after Chris was kind enough to answer my questions and I watched for twenty minutes, I pretty much had all of the rules figured out. This was without actually reading the rule book. This means that anyone reading this would be able to pick it up just as quickly. Similarly, when the game finished and we started a new game of The Settlers of Catan, I knew exactly what I was doing within ten minutes (of course, I still lost).

The point is not that all of these ‘advanced’ boardgames (in the sense that they are a bit more complicated than Monopoly) have simple rules. They’re not always simple. But the rules of the good ones are always straightforward and logical, and they make sense.

Of course, the real reason why people play these games has nothing to do with the rules, it’s to do with the fact that they’re a lot of fun. In fact, the reasons why they are fun are almost identical to the reasons why they’re not like games like Monopoly.

Firstly, they reward skill, not luck. You could be the best player of Monopoly in the world (not that that’d be difficult) and you could still very easily lose. That’s not fun.

Secondly, they involve you actually talking to your friends about the game. Many of these advanced games require interaction between players, for trading and bargaining of some sort, and that’s where the real fun comes from in boardgames.

The third and final reason is that they invariably don’t involve direct competition between players. The majority of players find this sort of thing uncomfortable and occasionally upsetting, for good reason, so in advanced games while there is still enough competition to make things exciting, there’s also an element of co-operation. A side-effect of this is that in the best-designed games, it’s literally impossible to be knocked out of the game and have to sit the rest of it out on the sidelines – all of the players will play to the end, and they’ll have a stake in the final result even if they don’t have a realistic chance of winning.

The new and popular advanced games like Settlers, Carcassonne and Puerto Rico are in a completely different class to what most people think of boardgames. They’re incredibly rich experiences that offer many more possibilities than just hoping that your next roll will be a six. I don’t mean to denigrate Monopoly that much – I know that it can be a fun game – but let’s face it, it’s not that game that’s fun, it’s the company. That’s the reason why boardgame players beat on it so much to the extent that a recent review of Settlers said:

“…They liked the game enough that they are going to buy it. Another family that doesn’t have to play Monopoly anymore, the world feels at peace.”

Have a look at the top 10 games at BoardGameGeek. See if any of them sound interesting to you, and take a chance, buy one of them and introduce it to your friends; that’s what I’m going to do. I promise that it’ll be more fun than seeing that distant relative once a year.

(Coming soon: a review of The Settlers of Catan…)