Mark Johnson's occasional & opinionated podcast about family strategy boardgames

Friday, October 09, 2009

Last & next month's games

I'm in the middle of more business travel than I've ever had to do before. I know a lot of people have to travel more than I, so I'm not complaining. I'm just experiencing the impact it has on your life, especially your time with family & friends. The family part is my deal, but the friends parts relates to games, which is why I'm writing about it on the blog.

Last month I did play some games. You can see them over to the right in the sidebar. The biggie I played was Le Havre, semi-sequel to Agricola, and just recently the winner of the International Gamers Award.. Now, I missed almost all the excitement about Agricola, but when I finally played it almost a year after the buzz started I kind of liked it. By that I mean I liked it well enough, about the same as many new titles--happy to play now & then, but it didn't displace one of my favorite (say top 20) games. No shame in that--these are my top games after more than a decade of boardgaming, so it's pretty unusual for a new game to be that much better than some proven favorites. Besides, I play more new games in that general category than old favorites anyway. Agricola was in good company, even if it wasn't one of my new favorites.

I figured the same would happen with Le Havre. Like Agricola, I didn't play it when it first came out--I only just played it for the first time last month. I was in no hurry to play it, but I wasn't avoiding it, either. I just knew I'd play it eventually. Now that I have, wow!, I'm not sure why people like this game so much! That's not true--I do understand it . . . kind of. I felt about Le Havre like I felt about Sid Meier's Civilization, Sim-City, or the Realtime Strategy computer games that came shortly thereafter: fun to see how everything works, fun to fiddle with it for a while, but before I finished a single game I was turned off by the micromanagement. Am I the only one who feels this way?

That's why I say I do and I don't understand the appeal. I understood the initial appeal of those computer games, but not their broad success and staying power. To me, Le Havre is a micromanagement boardgame, and that's not a good thing.

To me, of course--to each his own. However, I remember when wargames got too complicated for their own good in the 1980s. I was a borderline wargamer (esp. for the historic stuff), but interested enough to watch it all take place. It's not like gamers & designers suddenly decided complexity and length were good qualities. They just ended up on a slippery slope, where it seemed better to add more "stuff" to a game in order to make it more realistic, more involving, or offer a more rewarding experience. In retrospect it looks like the whole hobby just about went off the rails then, but not everyone thought so at the time. I'm not saying Le Havre is a dramatic lurch in the "wrong direction" for boardgames, but I'm pretty sure it will be a game looked back on in ten years and gamers will wonder why it was so highly regarded.

Or maybe I'm completely wrong. Some complex games like 18XX, Advanced Civ, and maybe Republic of Rome have had staying power. Closer to home, Die Macher and Roads & Boats have their diehards. Through The Ages is perhaps the most recent heavy eurogame with a large(?) group of fans and critical success.

It didn't help that Le Havre was the first eurogame I can recall where I had trouble reading "the fine print" on the game components (resource counters). I could see the ones right in front of me or my nearby opponent, but the stacks across the table I had more trouble with. Some of the resources have distinctly different icons on either side of the counter, but others don't. Mostly that's a problem with the physical design/production of the game (well, that and my 43 year old eyes!), but I think it's also fair to say it's a limitation of the game itself. Ours was the part of the hobby that used to get by (and look classy, by the way) with wooden cubes in a few colors that had no text on them at all! I'm getting old, I guess! :-)

Besides that one game of Le Havre, I've played a fair bit of Race for the Galaxy. Between the online server and the amazing standalone AI download, this has been my go-to game when doing all of this traveling. My record at the game is pretty horrible, but that's what you want in a program with AI opponents--a real challenge and chance to learn. I've always liked RftG, even though I like San Juan (and Dominion) more. Most of all, I think Race is not an easy game for newbies, or to relearn after you've been away from it for a while. Neither of those limitations even shows up when I play it on the computer, though, whether against those sharky AI opponents offline or the sharky human opponents online. It was clear this is a game that rewards experience, strategic thinking, and good tactical decisionmaking. How amazing that both of these implementations are free! My own copy of Race sits comparatively unused at home, but I'm getting its money's worth out of the computer implementations. :-)

Plus I can also go back and read Brian Bankler's strategy articles, now that I can understand them.


P.S. Next month? Oh, I'm not sure what I'll be playing next month, but it should be some face-to-face games with my buddies. Maybe we'll even try Le Havre again!


Anonymous Chris Norwood said...

I just didn't get the "micromanagement" or "incredible complexity" feel from Le Havre at all.

While it's longer than Agricola, it actually feels a little simpler and less stressful in how you play it. It's partly due to the fact that it's easier to feed your workers in LH than your family in 'Gric, but it's also because there's no way to get additional actions, which makes it feel less oppressive.

There's definitely a lot more resource twiddling, but you're still able to plan and execute a strategy with about the same level of forethought.

Maybe you're just getting old, Mark. ;-)

1:05 PM  
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