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April Showers

August 17, 2010

A strange pattern has emerged. This is a tale of first impressions and second chances, of underestimation and redemption, and of the mysterious April curse. There are countless games that I relentlessly love from day one and plenty of others that I loathe from first blush, but the ones for which my heart waxes or wanes over the course of time are of greatest interest for further investigation. Evaluating the instances when a game's star rises or falls after repeated exposure is one of the best ways to better understand your tastes. It's these circumstances where you have the opportunity to glimpse the machinery of your gaming preferences in operation, chugging along and working to align with your new-found opinion. When you find yourself suddenly, or even gradually, coming to seek out chances to play a game that you previously avoided at all costs, or dreading a game that you previously championed, that's when you can really discern what you're looking for in a game. As they say, actions speak louder than words, and so I've learned to trust my actual game plays more than my professed opinions, and when I'm suddenly clamoring for a game that I thought I didn't care for, I trust that means I was mistaken.

It turns out I'm mistaken a lot. And April is a particularly bad month for this. I hadn't recognized this trend until I started to gather a few examples for Mark Paul's GeekList "I Didn't Like Them at First, Now They Are My Favorites." Three games came immediately to mind when I read that title: Twilight Struggle, Antiquity, and Through the Ages. There are plenty of games that have grown on me, but these three games have a pair of distinctive features in common -- they are currently three of my favorite games of all time and I hated all of them after my first play of each. I didn't just dislike them somewhat. I planned to never play any of them again. After many months or years I happened to give each of them a second chance, quickly followed by a third, fourth, and fifth play, which led to purchasing them and playing them twenty or more times with many more to come. The amusing thing upon further inspection is that I tried Twilight Struggle for the first time in April 2006 (and didn't play it again until September 2007), Antiquity in April 2007 (and didn't give it a second chance until January 2008), and Through the Ages in April 2008 (and didn't try it again until October 2009). April is apparently the month when I should not trust my instincts.

Twilight of My Discontent

Twilight Struggle, designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, and published by GMT Games, is a game I was destined to hate back when I first encountered it in 2006. At the time I had not yet broadened my gaming tastes to include a smattering of wargames, American-style games, and dexterity games. My experience with the hobby was narrower and limited to the types of games offered by Knizia and Kramer, or winning the Deutscher Spiele Preis (DSP) and the International Gamers Award (IGA). Those types of games have two traits to which I'd become accustomed and which predisposed me to dislike Twilight Struggle -- they tend to have wonderfully produced components and streamlined rules without much, if any, in game text to read. Twilight Struggle was outside my comfort zone in 2006 because it bucked my expectations in both of these departments. Here was a game with a flimsy paper map (instead of the mounted boards I was used to), serviceable graphics, fairly thin chits, and not a wooden component in site. Not only that, but it had mountains of text to digest during the game. Gone was the internationally-friendly iconography that I was used to, and in its place was a dense world of reading. Reading! During a game! It was daunting to receive a hand of 8, or even 9, cards and have to read sentence upon sentence of text explaining what each and every card did and how each card might interact with or be an exception from the base rules. On top of all that, the game didn't take the 60-90 minutes that I was used to for a board game. It was slow and plodding.

What changed? The game certainly didn't, but I did. A year and a half later when I dared to give the game another shot I had been exposed to a much broader array of board games. After seeing a wider cross-section of the hobby, I could appreciate Twilight Struggle in the right context rather than only being able to compare it to the German games that had been my sole frame of reference. I still wasn't happy about the components, especially after 1960 was released at a lower price point with far superior artwork and components, but I could live with them. Familiarity with the cards diminishes the reading problem surprisingly quickly, allowing you to simply skim cards here and there to remind yourself what they do. What additional plays really showed me about the game was the narrative arc that it builds over the course of a few hours. You really don't get that in the 60-90 minute German-style games that had been my bread and butter. They can provide wonderfully tense and interesting decision-making and puzzle-solving, but they almost always lack any narrative element. Twilight Struggle allows players to build a story as they play. A story of the blockade in Europe that steam rolled into a communist takeover, of the revolution in Cuba that was squelched, of never-ending coups in Zaire and Nigeria, or of the Soviet foothold in Vietnam growing into Asian dominance. You can look back over the landscape of the game and spot your triumphs and failures, your instances of cautious optimism and sudden dejection, and all the peaks and valleys in between. I'm willing to put up with sub-par components and loads of in-game text if it means getting a truly memorable experience in return.

Twilight Struggle has become a mainstay of my collection. Out of the nearly 800 games I've tried and over 300 games I own, it's one of only 7 games that I've actually played over five times in a majority of the past four years. Since giving it that second chance in September 2007, it's gotten at least five plays in 2007, 2008, and 2009; plus it already sits at seven plays in 2010. For a game that I originally thought I'd never play again, it appears the sun has set for good on my discontent.

Antique Opinions

The April curse claimed another victim in Antiquity, designed by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga, and published by Splotter Spellen. One year after trying and rejecting Twilight Struggle, I gave Antiquity a shot. My gaming tastes had broadened somewhat, but this was my first experience with the quirky offerings of Splotter. I hadn't yet had the pleasure of trying Roads & Boats, Indonesia, VOC, Bus, Cannes, Duck Dealer, or Greed. Alright, so pleasure and Duck Dealer don't belong in the same sentence, but aside from that exception Splotter has proved reliably enjoyable. In April 2007 though, Splotter was an unknown quantity to me, gibberish even. There were no built-in expectations that came with the brand and the surfeit of tiny chits as far as the eye could see was an unwelcome surprise upon arriving at the game day.

On top of all that, the game was just mean. It was brutal and nasty and vicious. I'd say it was Hobbesian, except it was anything but short. I couldn't possibly care what the other players were doing across the board because I was too busy getting dumped on by the game. Every turn the game instructed me to fill my city with graves when I didn't have enough food to satisfy the famine level. Then kicking me while I was down, the game said it was then time to fill the surrounding countryside with pollution, just because it said so. Soon there was no room to build any buildings in my cramped city and there was no room in the fields to harvest resources. The game seemed to gleefully throw the players head first into a death spiral of the highest order with no rope ladder or life preserver in sight.

Almost a year later, a different friend has just purchased a copy of Antiquity and is searching for someone to teach the game and play it with him. I accidentally let slip that I know how to play and am quickly roped into the game. I suppose it was my lucky day because otherwise I might have continued to overlook this game indefinitely. The second play quickly began to open my eyes to the subtlety and beauty of this game. In the intervening year I had gained an appreciation for the shorter, but almost equally nasty, game of La Citta. The wonderfully difficult struggle to feed your people and construct buildings in a cramped environment in La Citta had prepared me to tackle Antiquity again. I suppose this is why the two games have always been linked in my mind even though others find the similarities less convincing. Antiquity simply ratchets up La Citta another level and takes place on a grander scale, with more resources, more variability, and a larger Sisyphean boulder rolling up a steeper incline.

I'd gained an appreciation for Survival Games because I re-framed them as a competition against the game itself, where you could still triumph in defeat as long as you prevented the game system from beating you down too badly. This has made games such as Antiquity, La Citta, Age of Steam, In the Year of the Dragon, and Notre Dame enjoyable on two levels, both as a competition against the opponents and as a competition against the system. Antiquity is still nasty and brutish, it remains challenging and oppressive, but that just makes success all the sweeter in the rare instances when you do get a taste.

Through the Looking Glass

I'd fallen head over heels for two heavy games that I'd previously dismissed, but I still wasn't ready to admit what a terrible judge I was of my own tastes. I tried Through the Ages, designed by Vlaada Chvatil, and published by Czech Games Edition among others, for the first time in April 2008. I'm still convinced that the computer game Civilization II is the best video game ever, so a civilization board game is an easy sell for me to at least try, and a board game that honors Sid Meier with a Leader card is an even easier sell. Civilization board games often fall into the trap of oversimplifying and over-abstracting, a la Tempus, but this one seemed to fall into the trap of undersimplifying. It brought fiddly and opaque to a whole new level. I was happy to cross an expensive highly ranked game off my list of games to potentially purchase and moved on with my life without ever looking back. It wasn't until a year and a half later after I'd moved to a new city and a new game group that I met someone who had very similar game tastes to me and was shocked to find out that I didn't like Through the Ages because it was one of his favorites. Thankfully he insisted that I give it another try in October 2009 because since then it has quickly become one of my favorites and is actually my most played game of 2010 so far.

The early game that turned me off was an epic four-player game of Through the Ages that seemed to last most of the day. It has been through fairly quick two-player games that I've come to love this game. It can be played in just 2 to 2.5 hours while still providing that epic feeling of progressing all the way from Aristotle or Hammurabi, up through the middle ages and into the present with the construction of Hollywood or the Internet. I love that feeling of progressing such a long way in such a short period of time.

I have also come to realize that the game doesn't undersimplify and that its seemingly fiddly nature is truly an asset. First, the game simplifies plenty in its brilliant omission of a map. Many civilization games take far too long and a big part of that is the time it takes to move and position units on a map. The notion of a map-less civilization game is not one that sounds like it would work in the abstract, but in practice it works remarkably well. There's no need for a map when the military aspect of the game is minimized and implemented in such a way that relative overall strength is all that matters rather than positioning. Second, the game seems fiddly because your play area is covered with all of these yellow and blue tokens that mean something completely different depending on where they are located. At first it seems baffling that the exact same blue token in one place can represent 2 iron while it represents 1 food a couple inches away. And the yellow tokens could be people you don't even have available yet, or unemployed workers, or they could be mines, farms, labs, temples, libraries, tanks, cavalry, or what have you. They're so versatile it's intimidating, but once you're accustomed to the idea it's genius because it means vastly reducing the fiddly nature of the game by reducing the number of different tokens and streamlining the whole process. The very parsimony that creates a high barrier to entry is the quality that facilitates smooth and speedy game play for those who have scaled the sheer cliff wall that is this game's public face. Through the Ages is really a joy to play and quickly climbing my list of all-time favorites. My about face on this game is particularly striking and humbling. I think I may have finally learned my lesson.

End of an Era

The curse may have finally been broken. I have checked the new-to-me games that I tried for the first time in April 2009 and in April 2010 and there don't appear to be any contenders among them for the fourth entry on this list, although only time will tell for certain.

The new-to-me games that I tried for the first time in April 2009 were: Wings of War, Cavum, Diamonds Club, Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, Botts and Balls, Igloo Pop, Sylla, Ruse & Bruise, Agricola X-Deck, Arkham Horror, On the Underground, Ghost Grove, and Good Question. Wings of War and Igloo Pop are already games I've praised at length. Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, Sylla, Agricola X-Deck, Arkham Horror, On the Underground, Ghost Grove, and Good Question are all games I've panned, and while I know I should never say never, it seems highly improbable that any of these would suddenly become favorites. That just leaves Botts and Balls, Cavum, Diamonds Club, and Ruse & Bruise. I've neither particularly praised nor particularly panned these games, but rather found them to be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, not bad, not great. Diamonds Club seemed fairly derivative, Ruse & Bruise fairly not memorable, Botts and Balls a bit too abstract and spatial for my tastes, and Cavum a bit chaotic. But those four seem like the best contenders for this list if I were to someday try one of them again and suddenly begin to see the light on something special in the game that I'd been missing.

The new-to-me games that I tried for the first time in April 2010 were: Dixit 2, Stimmvieh, Richard III, Kill Doctor Lucky, Wicked Witches Way, and Washington's War. I enjoyed Dixit 2 and Richard III right away so they're already out of the running. Neither Kill Doctor Lucky nor Wicked Witches Way were up my alley and while I suppose that could change down the road upon revisiting either of them, it seems highly unlikely. Stimmvieh is a game that my group muddled through as three different people thought they knew how to play, but none of them on their own really had any idea. It seemed like a decent filler card game, but nothing to write home about. Washington's War is the one game that I didn't care for that I suppose has a chance of some day being added to this list. I obviously enjoy some card-driven games like Twilight Struggle and other wargames like Hammer of the Scots and Bonaparte at Marengo, but I was none too fond of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, and Washington's War seemed to fall more into that mold for me. The tug of war over placing influence and the incessant marching around of leaders failed to grab me in the same way as the story-building of Twilight Struggle, Hammer, or Marengo. The seemingly dated restrictions in the implementation of the card-driven mechanic gave the experience a stale feeling. Then again, from my experience with Twilight Struggle, Antiquity, and Through the Ages, I now know that first impressions can be deceiving and that I could eventually come to love the features of a game like Washington's War that I currently perceive as faults.

I'm happy to admit when I was wrong, especially when it means I get to enjoy another great game. I often form strong opinions about games after just one play and many times those opinions are simply confirmed with follow-up plays. But it's those times when a diamond emerges from the rough or when a game's luster quickly fades that I remember how unreliable initial impressions can be and how important it is to give a game at least a few plays to really be able to judge whether or not it's for you. I was fortunate enough to stumble into my second chances with Twilight Struggle, Antiquity, and Through the Ages, but perhaps the lesson ought to be that the only way to break the April curse once and for all is to actively pursue those second chances and avoid waiting a year or more before putting your judgment to the test.

(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)