Sunday, September 12

Summer Board Gaming: Long Distance

I started a new job recently, which had me staying in San Francisco for two weeks. To stay connected, Cait and I tried playing some board games together online. We used because it has a wide variety of games that play asynchronously. Due to the time difference, it wouldn’t have been very practical to carve out a chunk of time to play in real time.

Asynchronous gaming has its challenges; not every game adapts well to the format. Certainly nothing where players are directly negotiating with each other, though at least that mechanic is rare in two-player games. The most fitting games are ones where:

  • One player can take an entire turn without any interaction with the other.
  • Turns are on the longer side, or at least have some interesting decisions.
  • Strategies are either obvious enough or non-existant enough (i.e.: pure tactics) that there isn’t anything to forget between play sessions.

Stone Age is our favorite of the games that Yucata has available, so we went with it first, but we gave up after trying a round or two. The game has so much back and forth each turn as you alternate placing your meeples. Since your actions over the course of the turn tend to be pretty coordinated, we couldn’t imagine playing it effectively with so much time between each move.

Thurn and Taxis was the next one we tried, and it fit the playing model perfectly. You have enough to do on each turn, you can play independently, and your current route is always there reminding you of what you were trying to get done from the last time. Unfortunately, playing asynchronously just highlighted how much Thurn and Taxis is multiplayer solitaire, a race to the end without one player affecting the other. Being non-realtime actually exacerbated this: at least face-to-face you can see your opponent take the card that you really wanted. With hours between turns, you tend to forget which cards were face up the last time you played, so you tend not to miss any that were snatched away before you could get them. We played two games of this, but didn’t think it worth starting another. There was no feeling of actually playing against the other person.

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers was the best of the games we played. Though Carcassonne has low interaction (at least when we play it we don’t do too much stealing), the amount that it does have survives online, unlike with Thurn and Taxis. Though it requires many short turns to complete a game, each of those turns is nice and discrete: you look at your tile and play it. You know it won’t take you very long, and there’s nothing to keep in your head for when you next go back.

We really only had two problems with Hunters and Gatherers. The first was that we had never played this version before (we generally prefer The City), and so were not yet comfortable with its scoring or particular strategies. The second was that Yucata does a very poor job of informing you of the scoring that goes on, both during the game and at the end. You can watch the points go up if you remember what they were the last time, but there’s no “Caitlin scored a forest for 8 points” sort of message. Even worse, when the game’s over you just get an email about winning or losing. There’s no depiction of how the meadows or huts ended up.

Nevertheless, Hunters and Gatherers is something we’d be happy to play again online. Since it is going pretty cheaply on Amazon, we eve picked up an IRL copy to get more familiar with it. I also expect it to be very baby-compatible: as shown, it can be played in short, disconnected spurts over time, or it can be played with one hand holding the meeple, as it were.

Hunters and Gathers may even end up becoming our favorite of all of the Carcs. I particularly like how many of the tiles have unusual configurations, which is a definite advantage over at least vanilla Carcassonne. There also seems to be a greater ability to score meaningfully during the game, rather than everything being dominated by the scoring at the end. This may be because the quirky configurations tend to keep the meadows small.

Finally, we tried a bit of Egizia because it was available and we already knew how to play. Or, perhaps more accurately, we already knew the rules. It seems to suffer slightly less from the back-and-forth problem that doomed Stone Age, but definitely has some “where did these points come from” issues. Overall, we’re not taken with it, which isn’t really a surprise since the face-to-face version didn’t grab us when we first tried it. In fact, Cait hasn’t been interested enough to check back in to finish the game ever since our last Hunters and Gatherers round ended.

Bonus physical game:
I poked around in Games of Berkeley for a game I could play solitaire, and came away with Dungeon Twister 2: Prison. I was deciding between it and Space Alert and, I think it retrospect, I probably made a mistake. (I think I need to remember to apply a dampening function to all Tom Vasel reviews. The guy just likes everything.) Dungeon Twister looks like a dungeon crawl but is actually very puzzley. Your characters are trapped in a maze, and negotiating its traps and rotating (“twisting”) board segments is as much of the game as fighting enemies.

While I have to give the designer credit for putting a lot of work into the solitaire version, which cleverly gives the enemy characters realistic (if somewhat rudimentary) behavior, I wasn’t taken enough with the game to really tolerate the bookkeeping. While admittedly I played on the easiest difficulty level to start, there wasn’t enough going on that was interesting. I prefer fighting to negotiating the maze, but the fighting mechanic (each player chooses and reveals a card simultaneously) is the weakest adaptation to solitaire play, since the “opponent” does not apply a strategy that one could try to out-guess. It’s worth comparing to Ghost Stories, which plays very well solitaire (pure co-ops tend to), where there’s something you have to figure out how to defeat nearly every turn, and bringing about that defeat is a puzzle in itself.