NYC Gamer              

Super Fillers for 2

September 5, 2007

su·per ('sü-p&r) adjective - exhibiting the characteristics of its type to an extreme or excessive degree

fill·er ('fi-l&r) noun - a piece used to cover or fill in a space between two parts of a structure; material used to fill extra space

Super Filler - Coined and defined by Mike Siggins in the Gamer's Notebook on October 25, 2006:

"The Super Filler is really a subtype of game that I used to call The Middleweight. It is more than a 20 or 30 minute starter, but it does not amount to a main course in weight or play length. The game is 'straight in,' has plenty of decisions, a fair amount of depth, but importantly it is very quick to play. Almost always under an hour, and leaving you feeling as if you have played for longer. In many ways it is an important species of German Game because it can avoid many of the traps – too light, too random, too boring – and appeals to most types of player. And those that don’t like it can see that it won’t last that long. A typical Super Filler is Mykerinos. I would put Yspahan, Taluva and Gheos in the same group."

I am on a quest to find an elusive subtype of this subtype of game, specifically Super Fillers that are best suited for 2 players. I want to find Super Fillers that are great for 2 players, not games that simply work for 2 players. This quest began after trying the "typical Super Filler" Mykerinos and finding that even though it is a good game, the two-player version did not appeal to me due to the "artificial third player" rule (also seen in Alhambra, Acquire, and Louis XIV). Consequently, I want to find other typical Super Fillers, but only those that shine as two-player games. As Mike explained, these should be games that take around 45 minutes to play, and certainly no more than 60 minutes.

In order to provide a little more guidance on games that I think do qualify, I will start by elaborating on what games I think do not qualify.

First, the ideal Super Filler for 2 players should be heavier (i.e., longer and more complex) than all of the following great light games for 2 players: Lost Cities, Balloon Cup, Odin's Ravens, StreetSoccer, Fjords, Can't Stop, Travel Blokus, Pingvinas (also known as Hey That's My Fish), and even Lord of the Rings: Confrontation (although I think that last one almost qualifies as a Super Filler if you each play both sides).

Second, the ideal Super Filler for 2 players should be lighter (i.e., shorter and less complex) than all of the following great heavy games for 2 players: Caylus, Goa, Tigris & Euphrates, Java, Puerto Rico, and even Louis XIV (although I think that last one almost qualifies as a Super Filler if you play quick enough).

Thus, Lord of the Rings: Confrontation and Louis XIV exemplify the outer limits of the Super Filler genre at the light and heavy ends of the spectrum respectively.

Third, examples of good Super Fillers that require (or are better with) more than 2 players include: China, Mykerinos, Clans, and possibly Kreta (if experienced players can get it under 60 minutes). I think I'd also add Yspahan to this list even though the two-player variant works decently well because I think that the two-player rule requiring players to use an action to build weakens building too much, taking away one of the viable paths to victory, resulting in decision-making becoming less interesting.

Fourth, I will arbitrarily and capriciously add a criteria in that eliminates pure abstracts from qualifying for this list. Although the GIPF games and Ingenious would otherwise fit well here, I have an irrational fear of pure abstract games, so I'll acknowledge that Project GIPF includes some wonderful two-player Super Fillers (assuming you don't spend too long deciding what move to make), but they won't belong on this list.

Finally, a few games that I considered adding to this list, but I didn't for various reasons are:

Lastly, I'm a fan of Knizia and all, but the Knizia to non-Knizia ratio of this list is nonetheless a bit out of whack, help rectify that with your own suggestions please!

Hansa - Hansa is the first game I personally think of when considering great Super Fillers for 2 players. I've played it 28 times and have certainly not tired of it yet. In fact, it has grown on me more and more, considering the fact that I was ho-hum about it at first, and am now putting it at he #1 spot here. I think the biggest problem with this game is that the publisher put 2-4 players on the box, while the game shines with 2 players, and is merely okay with 3 and 4 players (although I'm sure there are many people out there who think the opposite is true). De gustibus non disputandum est. For me though, this is the perfect two-player game when I'm looking for a middle-weight game that is heavier than Fjords or Odin's Ravens, but lighter than Goa or Java. It has just enough luck and randomness to make it different every time, but not too much that you feel like the game is out of control and your decisions are meaningless. The mechanic of the boat being used by both players is obviously what makes this game, at least for me, since it provides the most excruciating decisions of figuring out where to leave the boat for your opponent. I just recently tried the Changing Winds and Extrakarte variants for the first time, and while I didn't think that the Changing Winds map added much to the game, I did like the endgame bonus points added by the Extrakarte variant, and hope to try that again soon. As was suggested by one of my opponents recently, if only they'd made the different color barrels into different goods instead (e.g., furs, spices) to make the game feel less abstract, then it would've been perfect.

Through the Desert - I'm surprised at myself that I'd put this gem at #2 on the list rather than at #1 but I'll console myself by considering it essentially a tie between Hansa and Through the Desert for the two-player Super Filler crown. I think that Through the Desert is another game where the publisher made the mistake of putting 2-5 players on the box, even though the game shines with 2 players. This sentiment is a recurring theme with me, except with a few games like Mykerinos and Clans as mentioned above in the header. Anyway, after playing Through the Desert 21 times, I think I can say with some certainty that it's another outstanding Super Filler for 2 players. In contrast to Hansa, it has the benefit of no in-game luck, but uses a nice pre-game random distribution of watering holes and oases to make each game different. I really enjoy the tense feeling of this game, especially in the beginning, because just like Pingvinas, the decisions in the first few turns are the most difficult and most important, and there are far more things that you'd like to do than are possible to actually do. It also has an fun mental component of trying to read your opponent and gauge his or her priorities. However, while the components are unique and enjoyed by some, this is one game that I'd love to see get a Doyle makeover and emerge with somewhat less silly looking bits.

Samurai - Samurai is the third and final game that I'm sure belong on this list (as the other two that I've included are both "maybes"). This is Knizia's second (of three) entries on the list, and while it pales in comparison to Through the Desert in my opinion, it's still a great Super Filler for 2 players. This is the third game on this list and the third game that I think excels with the fewest number of players on the box. As with Hansa, the problem in Samurai with adding more players is that the game has a serious left-right binding issue (even more so than Puerto Rico in my mind). That is to say that sitting to the left of the weakest player is a major advantage in Samurai, which is why I prefer the game with 2 players since you're to each other's left. One thing I love about Samurai (aside from the fabulous components) is that after 23 games I'm still not sure what the best opening hand of 5 tiles is to select. I've tried different opening hands and have yet to settle on a favorite, which is the sign of a good game in my opinion.

Ra - The fourth game on this list and third Knizia game on this list is Ra, but it's only a provisional addition because I haven't played the two-player variant enough times to be sure. While I've played Ra 46 times and am sure that it's a fabulous Super Filler for 3 players (contrary to my GOTW successor's infamous griping, heh), I've only tried the two-player variant a few times. I must say that, as with Goa, I was very surprised at how well the auctions worked with only 2 players. In both games the auctions are more interesting than I would've expected even when you play against one opponent. Ra certainly fits into the time and complexity requirements of this list, but the number of players requirement may or may not be satisfied... only further research will tell.

Taluva - Finally, I'll add a second provisional addition to this list. I've only played Taluva 3 times, so I certainly can't be sure whether it's a great Super Filler for 2 players yet, but my initial impression is that it may belong here. It definitely fits the time and complexity requirements of the list, and also certainly seems like a game that I'll enjoy more with fewer players, but the question remains whether it's great and has staying power, or is merely okay. I do really like the components (both the thick, chunky Java-esque tiles and the nice wooden bits) and the tension of the gameplay was wonderful, so only time will tell for this one.

(See this GeekList for this article plus additional comments on it)