Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Game Design: Video of Reiner Knizia discussing game design

What follows here is a Spanish video where Dr. Reiner Knizia discusses some of his ideas on game design. The title and subtitles are all written in Spanish as are the names of the games on the boxes pictured but he is speaking English throughout (with Spanish subtitles at the bottom of the screen).

The introduction and some of the artistic work in this video at the very beginning tends to drag a bit but after getting past that, there are some good ideas presented by the good doctor. Enjoy:

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review: Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit

This review is a version of one that I posted on BGG previously.

Okay, let's get two things out of the way first:

1. I am a Eurogamer. I came into this game not having played any Ameritrash "classics" that I enjoyed. In fact, I hadn't played any Ameritrash games that I really enjoyed - period.

2. I hated Episode I the movie. I found the acting wooden, the dialogue trite, the plot lacking a true emotional tie in (and I'm not even going to start into the whole Jar-Jar issue). Don't get me wrong, I am a Star Wars fan. I've read a lot of Star Wars fiction and I'm a loyal fan of the original trilogy. Perhaps it was because of these things that I found Episode I to be the most disappointing movie I've ever seen - simply because of the anticipation that I, along with many other Star Wars fans, felt leading up to its release.

So, with a general distaste of Ameritrash in my mouth and wearing my Episode I hater cap, I approached "The Queen's Gambit" simply out of curiosity due to the praise I've read about the game. I asked myself, "can a game based on such a lousy movie be any good?" So, what's the answer?

Well, I'm here to tell each and every one of you out there from a certified Eurosnoot that "Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit" is one of the best games I've played in a long time. The game just oozes with theme. Sure there are lots of dice (which are normally a problem for eurogamers) but, with this game, I just didn't care that there was so much dice rolling. The movement of the different characters on the various boards immersed me in the theme of battling Darth Maul, fighting the battle droids on the plains of Naboo, trying to deceive the other player with my two queens, trying to storm the palace and fight my way to the Viceroy, trying to plow through the fleet of ships as Anakin to blow up the Federation control ship, and so forth. I hated the movie, and I expected this game to disappoint me like the movie did, but it wasn't to be. This game is good, really good.

So, why is it so good? It's the details. I'm not about to go into a lengthy discourse on the rules but perhaps a few examples will suffice:

-There are two decks of cards: one for the Theed-Palace area and one for the battlefield / space-battle-above-the-planet area. A player has to play four cards in a round and these four cards are planned out and set in place in terms of which cards and in what sequence before the action begins (so there's some second-guessing and anticipation involved). At the end of each turn, both players draw from each deck (two cards per deck). The result is, if you hammer one area, you will mostly have cards for the other area in your hand - thus providing a natural compulsion to focus on a balanced approach in the game.

-There is an "energy shield" on the plains battle that prevents federation droids from shooting at Gungans from a distance. Droids can walk through the shield (just like in the movie) and can work towards taking out the shield generators so that the rest of the forces can work more effectively. (By the way, "just like in the movie" is a phrase you will hear a lot as you continue reading.)

-The battle between Qui-Gon Ginn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul is set up so that Qui-Gon will take the blunt of the hits at the beginning - thus making it more likely that, if one of the two Jedi die, it will be him - again, just like in the movie. In fact the initial placement of the characters is set up just like in the movie with Qui-Gon having to battle Darth Maul and Obi-Wan stuck having to watch at first.

-Getting Anikan through the federation fleet to blow up the main ship will take some luck. Again, just like in the movie.

-You can ascend the palace through the stairs or on the outside using grapling guns - again, just like in the movie.

-The Gungans will not tend to do well on the battle field as there are three units of gungans per hex while there are four units of droids per hex - thus giving the federation a distinct advantage in combat - again serving as a thematic reflection of the movie.

-In some cases with some characters, you can roll defense dice when attacked. With the Jedi, the possibility of hitting back out of turn when attacked is presented - just like in the movies how Jedi can deflect laser blasts back at their opponents. Also, the destroyer droids (the scorpion looking droids with shields) have defense dice that make them harder to kill. Further, the general luck of hucking a lot of dice fits the idea of a laser gun battle. Sometimes you hit lucky shots. Sometimes you don't.


Now, let's look at one staple of Ameritrash-ism in particular: namely that of bits. I haven't really cared that much about bits in the past. As a Eurogamer, I'm fine with my LWC's (little wooden cubes). However, the bits in this game add a lot to the experience. Trying to imagine this game with abstracted components like cubes just wouldn't work. After a lot of Gungans and droids have bitten the dust, it's pretty cool to watch these bits be set off to the side as a visual body count of the action that's taken place. The way the board is constructed with the three-dimensional aspect to the palace really heightens the thematic feel of the game. It's not just a gimic. It's functional to place the boards as they are because of the ability of the palace guards to use their grapling guns to ascend the outside of the palace to a higher floor.


A complaint that is often layed at the door of the Ameritrash genre is one of balance - namely that the games are often not balanced. This game is not necessarily balanced - but it doesn't matter (at least, it didn't matter to me). There are swings in the momentum of the game due to "bonus cards" that a player earns the right to play when they accomplish something significant. I was getting hosed pretty badly until I finally defeated Darth Maul which not only gave me bonus cards but also allowed me to unleash Obi-Wan on the droid forces. These "swings" in momentum really captured a thematic element that created a rich experience for me. They are also not the kinds of momentum swings that can rob a game of its enjoyment. With 1960 for example, the swings are so drastic from turn to turn that they undermined my enjoyment of the game. With Queen's Gambit, the swings are just as drastic but much farther apart from each other and much fewer in number such that strategy and tactics retain much of their significance.


This game's length clocks in at about two hours and that's about right for what it offers. Both players are involved the entire time. (I'll admit I haven't played this game as a 4-player game but I imagine that it's a stretch to do so. This strikes me as a two player game.)

Audience / Who will like this game?

This is not a game that will work very well for most newbie gamers or those who feel threatened by rules (though it's not a tremendously complex game). If you are looking for a game that is rich in theme then this game is it.


I've personally found, at last, an Ameritrash game that I not only think is good, I actually find the game design to be pretty remarkable in that all of the little details of theme were incorporated so well into the overall flow of the game. I personally feel pretty priviliged to own a copy of this out-of-print classic. If you know someone who owns a copy and would be willing to teach you, it's worth it to take the time to learn this game. It's a keeper.

Review: Ricochet Robots

This is a version of a review I did on BGG some time ago.


Ricochet Robots is comprised of a board (assembled out of four sections), several robots all of a different color (ex. a red robot, a blue robot, a black robot, etc.), a “starting chip” for each different colored robot, and several destination chips (which are one-sided and which contain a symbol with a specific color). On the board are a number of destinations (each of which corresponds to a destination chip) and a number of walls. The robots are placed on the board randomly and all of the destination chips are turned over with the non-symbol side up.

One destination chip is then turned over (symbol side up) and placed in the middle. The color of the symbol is the robot you are trying to get to that destination (ex. red circle = get the red robot to that destination). The trick to moving these robots is that they can only move in a straight line and cannot stop until they hit either a wall or another robot. So, you can’t just stop the robot in the middle of the board without that robot hitting something to stop its motion. Each time you move a robot in a specific direction it counts as one move. Once the destination chip is turned over, each player begins calculating (in one’s head) possible routes to get the robot to its destination. Once someone has a route, they announce a bid. Their bid is the number of moves they can get the robot in question to its destination. Once the first person makes their bid, a one-minute countdown begins (there is a one-minute hourglass supplied with the game). Within that minute, anyone else can bid lower so long as they can actually follow through with their bid and get the robot to its destination in that number of moves. Once the timer is up, whoever bid the lowest number of moves demonstrates the path of the robot. If it is correct, they take the destination chip and move any “starting chips” to the new location of the robots after completing the destination.

The game continues until each of the destination chips have been completed. Whoever has the most destination chips at the end wins.

The board is divided into four sections and each section has two sides. Thus, you can create a number of different combinations of boards to play on (which keeps the game fresh over time). There is a black robot but no black destinations. There is also one destination chip that is multi-colored – meaning you simply have to get any of the robots to that destination regardless of the color of the robot.


Because the board can change every time you play the game, and because the starting positions of the robots are random, the game stays fresh over time. There are also no restrictions on the number of players who can play. You could, theoretically, have 20 people all standing around the table playing the game. You could also, theoretically, play solo where you give yourself a limited time to find the shortest route possible for a given chip.

Ricochet Robots is not a test of strategy. Rather, for each player, the game is essentially a test in spatial thinking. Most people I’ve seen who encounter the game need to see a few examples first of how the robots can move and successfully arrive at a destination to properly understand how the game works. I have also seen people improve over time as they become more acclimated to the type of thinking this game requires.

The game can also vary in its length. It just depends on the players and how quickly they can think through the routes of the robots.

The one major drawback to this game is that there can be a significant skill mismatch among the players (ex. one or two players excelling at the game while the rest just don’t see the routes quickly enough or simply don’t see them at all). There are certain rules that can be implemented to “fix” such scenarios. For example, you could say that, as long as a player who has less chips than the lowest bidding player sees a route with a number of moves equal to the lowest bid, that player can take the chip. However, such “fixes” are often not very fun for the more skilled players in the group.

Trying to see the routes and having a significantly shorter route than what you had at first thought possible occur to you can be really entertaining. However, because of the spatial thinking requirement, this game might not appeal to everyone. I personally really enjoy it.

I have seen people get better at this game over time. However, it's possible that, for some people, the game may move too quickly for them to pick up on it effectively in the early stages. In other words, they may need lots of time to study scenarios at first in order for them to start picking up speed and to start seeing better solutions on the board. However, if such a person were to play consistently with better players, then they would probably not have that time because the better players would probably see the solutions quicker, start the timer earlier, and be ready for the next scenario before the struggling player had a chance to properly digest the scenario that just finished - just something to be aware of.