A record-setting 1,040 players taking part in a single game of Settlers Of Catan at SPIEL 2015. Photo: Merz-Verlag.
Keyboard GeniusesKeyboard Geniuses is our occasional glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the community’s discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity.  

Tabletop Tribulations

This week, we heard from Chris Field (AKA CNightwing), who once again took a trip to Essen, Germany for the Internationale Spieltage, the world’s largest board game fair, and filled us on in some of the most interesting games he came across. One of his highlights was Pandemic: Legacy, a blown out spin on the popular contagion-containment game that adds some permanent elements that stretch between sessions and affect each subsequent playthrough. It’s a similar system to Risk: Legacy, which even asks players to do things like tear up cards. Considering the significant investment a game like this can be, DrFlimFlam was a little worried by that kind of permanence:

I find Pandemic hard enough without permanently crippling the board. These games would be better served if they used Colorforms (or magnetic components) to adjust the game as it goes instead of asking players to tear up cards and pay out again once their board is ruined and only Atlanta is left standing.

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JRB disagreed and laid out why such drastic measures are valuable:

Having played a complete Risk: Legacy campaign and being roughly one-third of the way through Pandemic: Legacy, I strongly disagree that the games would be better served by reversible adjustments. The fact that cards get ripped up, stickers get permanently added, and writing is done in pen adds a real weight to your decisions. Do you treat the disease in Moscow because you risk losing this game if you don’t? Or do you treat the disease in Tokyo because another outbreak there will cause it to “fall,” resulting in consequences in every future game you play?

The fact that you have no idea what the next twist will be from the event deck just makes those decisions all the more fraught. My group finished our April game last night and spent 30 minutes discussing which end-of-game upgrades we should use. I don’t think we would have been even half that thoughtful if we knew we could just wipe the board clean and start again if we didn’t like the results.

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And all this chatter got DL thinking about the cost of board games:

I mentioned something once about the price of board games, and a friend reminded me that I’d easily pay that much for a video game. At that point, the entire system of false economies fell apart in my lap, and I now see entertainment value in what I call “disposable” or “one-way” games—games that become permanently altered and/or have a definite conclusion.

I will say they’re not for me right now, but that is more related to my social outreach more than anything. I need something stable for the random company we might have.

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Chris also featured 504, which is something of a game-creation toolkit that provides a selection of nine modules—rule sets, themes, etc.—to combine into up to 504 different games. This reminded ItsTheShadsy of a more DIY attempt at board game fusion:

504 reminds me of a time my old apartment attempted to graft Risk pieces onto Settlers Of Catan, resulting in a 5-hour nightmare of a game that no one should ever play. The process of writing the new rule set was lots of fun, though, and it sounds like 504 might be similar in that it’s more fun in the conceptual stages than the actual playing of the games. After the Catan/Risk debacle, I worry that I wouldn’t have the patience to experiment with it for too long if enough combinations ended up being sloppy, but it’d be a hoot to try once in a while with the right crowd.

Elsewhere, discussion turned to another fraught board gaming topic: Finding people to play with and teaching them how to play. Michael recounted having trouble introducing friends to more complicated games, specifically Arkham Horror, and Disqus_F3dme7ZCKO (who I’m guessing had a different name at some point that was devoured by the vacuous hellbeast known as Disqus) responded with some thoughts on why that might be:

There’s just something about the way people perceive board games and their rules that makes them challenging. They’re more “physical” than a video game but at the same time they’re less tangible too. You read the rules and see the pieces, but it all seems very esoteric until you start playing, and so everyone seems to take to different rules and games.

My group is made up of the people I share the house with, which means we can get a group of three-to-five people playing, and there’s an interesting mix of players. My friend who lives upstairs buys the most games and his girlfriend often joins. She doesn’t play a lot of games, but she’s open to them and she can easily get into most games and understand the rules and strategies relatively quickly. My two roommates play a lot more games, yet they have a much harder time getting into new ones. Rules just confuse the hell out of them. I think confidence plays a huge part as well. She never balks when she sees a lot of new pieces or a large game board, where as the other two are immediately like, “This looks so hard!”

Arkham Horror is interesting because I feel like it’s frequently brought up for the reasons Michael stated. It’s the kind of game that is definitely more complex than something like Settlers Of Catan, but it’s also not that complicated, so it’s fairly popular with people getting into games but appears so daunting that it scares potential players away.

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And The_Misanthrope had some tips for introducing players to new games, which is kind of surprising considering their name:

Here are a few good tips for getting hesitant players into new games:

1) Let them choose a game from several options—not all the time, but enough so they feel that they are not just some new person “along for the ride.”

2) Do a lot of the number crunching—modified dice rolls, cost-benefit analysis, and the like—at least until they get accustomed to the game

3) Try to be patient with their turns, and

4) offer light advice if they appear distraught or indecisive, but don’t hold their hands or flat out tell them what to do.

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Get To Know Xeno

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a mammoth game of exploring an fantastical alien world and using giant anime robots to murder the dinosaurs that live on it—at least, that’s what I came away from William Hughes’ review thinking. It’s also another installment in the string of not-so-related Xeno(blank) games directed by Tetsuya Takahashi that goes as far back as 1998’s Xenogears. Beema remembered playing that first one and enjoying it but wasn’t sure about the Xenos that have come since and wondered which ones might be worth playing. TheLastMariachi delivered a helpful, extensive breakdown:

Xenogears: Totally worth finishing. One of the most interesting games to come out of that period in the late ’90s when game developers were experimenting with all sorts of crazy ideas. While the second disc is infamous for being mostly exposition, the game explores a wide variety of issues and themes that most games nowadays would still hesitate to touch. The soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda is a stone-cold classic.

Xenosaga: An attempt to make a massive six-part space opera that only got as far as Episode III. It was a game I really enjoyed growing up; it’s got a lot of design issues (areas with no music and solely environmental noise are common; it’s very linear, not particularly subtle at points; and it can be finished relatively quickly at 25-30 hours, though that may be a plus for some), but what it does well it does really well. Another hell of a soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda, great characterization across the board, solid voice work, compelling antagonists (Albedo is still one of my gaming favorites), and it presents a number of mysteries that help keep a player invested and curious after the game is done, which is exactly what the first part of a multi-part series oughta do. Until…

Xenosaga Episode II: Essentially the nail in the coffin for this series. Due to a number of very questionable changes made by the suits in charge (including but not limited to removing the main scenario writer, a shift in directors, a complete change in art direction, different voice actors for a portion of the main cast, a shorter playtime than the first, a very obtuse battle system, a lot of wheel-spinning in the plot), it sold and reviewed very poorly. It didn’t garner enough outside interest despite the changes that were made expressly for that purpose and alienated fans of Xenogears and the first game enough to swear off any further entries. It’s not all bad, though. The portion of the soundtrack composed by Yuki Kajiura is excellent, though it clashes with the background music by Shinji Hosoe, and there are some cool moments (mostly involving Albedo).

Xenosaga Episode III: The best of the bunch. It attempted some serious course correction after the misfire that was Episode II by getting back most of the previous voice cast, putting Yuki Kajiura in charge of the entire, shifting to an art style more reminiscent of the first game’s, massive overhauls to the battle system, a healthy amount of callbacks to Xenogears, and honest-to-god closure for most of the main plot elements. It was too little too late, however, and while it faired well critically, the series was unable to recover and it died with this one.

Xenoblade Chronicles: A friggin’ masterpiece of game design. The plot is really interesting and engaging, even if the writing isn’t always up to snuff. There’s a massive world to explore and a ton of things to do in it, another great cast of characters, an intuitive battle system that integrates the story element better than most, and it’s just plain fun. It strikes the best balance between action and story in the series to date, and it’s one of my favorite games in recent memory.

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Well, that should help get any interested parties up to speed. That’ll do it for this week, folks. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!