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It Takes Two

January 13, 2009

Four-player games are a dime a dozen, but four-player games that allow players to compete as 2 two-person teams are diamonds in the rough. An exceedingly small percentage of four-player games let the players divide themselves into two teams to square off against each other with a partner at their side (figuratively of course, as the partner is usually sitting across from you). Whatís so special about these team games besides their obvious rarity? Itís hard to pin down precisely, but working with a partner adds an extra layer to the decision-making process in a game. Not a minor wrinkle, but rather a major shift. It forces you to reformulate your entire approach so that youíre thinking in terms of ďweĒ and ďusĒ rather than just ďIĒ and ďme.Ē This is all on top of the more traditional mechanics of the game, whether those involve resource management, spatial positioning, trick taking, dexterity, hand management, etc.

Team games also force cooperation (and sometimes compromise when you have differing visions of how best to proceed). Not simply cooperation against the game system as in Pandemic or Ghost Stories, but cooperation against another team of human opponents that are working just as hard to combine their talents to emerge victorious. Whatís especially satisfying about team games is that they allow players to experience the zero-sum tension of a two-player game while playing with four people. Two-player games have the distinct advantage of always knowing who your enemy is, who youíre out to get, and who is out to get you. Thereís no finger pointing and mastering the art of deflection that becomes so prominent in multi-player games, such as El Grande. On the other hand, multi-player games have the advantage of accommodating more players and providing a richer experience as more minds and personalities clash. Team games provide the best of both worlds.

Team Rubium

Nexus Ops is one of the finest examples of this theory in practice. Itís a decent game with two players squaring off head-to-head or with four players in a free-for-all, but it truly shines when four players split into two teams of two, vying as a partnership for control of the rubium mines and the Monolith. Nexus Ops is Avalon Hillís hybrid board game that combines victory points, dice-rolling combat, various units and terrain, hand management, and gobs of colorful plastic components. Itís often referred to as a stream-lined and shorter version of Twilight Imperium, which is vaguely accurate, but misses the crucial improvement of Nexus Ops over Twilight Imperium. Aside from the fact that it takes one quarter of the amount of time, Nexus Ops does a masterful job of encouraging combat. Unlike many games involving combat that reward players who avoid combat and adopt a strategy of turtling (i.e., sheltering in a corner throughout the game), such as Twilight Imperium and Antike, Nexus Ops requires players to go out and attack in order to gain victory points, generally speaking. This makes for a good game regardless of the number of players involved. However, the more players the better since it makes for more units scurrying around the map and more frenetic activity. Except for the fact that with three players thereís the inevitable problem of two people potentially ganging up on the third person, whether intentionally or by happenstance. There are so few games that really thrive with three players because of this problem of ensuring that everyone competes on equal footing. San Marco, Ra, China, Byzantium, and King of Siam are a few that stand out with three players, but more often than not, three player games can devolve into unfair and frustrating alliances.

Playing Nexus Ops with 4 players remedies some of the problem of playing it with 3 people, while still allowing for (and further increasing) the frenetic activity of a plethora of army units enclosed in a small space. If two people gang up on the third, then the fourth player will probably find it in his or her interest to attack the exposed flank of someone from that temporary alliance, which will force players to be a little more cautious and tempered. The four-player game certainly has the possibility of developing temporary and shifting alliances, but why settle for these fleeting imitations when you can have the real thing. The rules include a variant for playing with teams and if I had my way that would be the main rules, and the variant would be not using teams.

Take the fun of landing your Lava Leapers on the Monolith and double it when your teammateís Rock Striders are standing guard below. Take the strategy of planning how to wrest control of the best rubium mines from your opponent and double it when you have to figure out how to outflank and outthink your two opponents working in concert. Take the difficult decision-making of figuring out how to manage your resources, what units to build, and what cards to play when, andÖ thatís right, double it. No, triple it. Not only do you have to work with your teammate on all of these facets of the game, but thereís a brand new facet of passing cards to your teammate that you think he or she could use more effectively than you. Just one extra thing to ponder while your units are getting cooked by your adjacent opponentís dragon fire.

Yet another distinct advantage of playing Nexus Ops with teams is that it diminishes the problem of inequitable spacing of the rubium mines. Thereís no longer any chance that all of the good mines can be on your opponentís side of the board because youíre sitting opposite your teammate with your opponents at your sides. While thereís still some chance that your opponents will have slightly easier access to better mines, thereís no way those mines could be nearly as far away from where your team builds units since the maximum possible distance drops from 5 spaces down to 3 spaces. Iíve tried using variant setups for the mines when playing with 2 players to create a more equitable distribution of the mines that provide two rubium, but none of them seem to work great, or at least nearly as well as adding an extra couple players for team play when you have them handy. So start working together and grab a partner for your next match of Nexus Ops.

Team Knizia

Nexus Ops isnít the only game by any means thatís okay with two players and okay as four player free-for-all, but truly shines as a four-player team game. Reiner Knizia throws his hat in the ring with Ingenious (or Einfach Genial for those of us who learned the game on BrettspielWelt). Ingenious is an abstract tile-laying game with two-part tiles like Dominos, a rack of tiles to choose from like Scrabble, a scoring system like Tigris & Euphrates, and hexagons like just about every German-style game out there. Itís fun and quick, and despite the inability of the participants to exert significant control over the outcome, itís usually enjoyable. Thereís a good deal of luck of the draw in terms of what tiles you get and when you get them. Although thereís certainly some opportunity for good and bad plays in choosing which tile to place and where. Iíve found in 58 plays that itís more about deciding when to expand the opportunities for scoring in a particular color and when to close off a particular color, than it is about simply boosting your own score at every opportunity.

That being said, as you can certainly expect Iím about to say, the game improves markedly when you have a teammate to work with and a team of rivals to contend with. The game retains its zero-sum scoring nature (which is a significant loss when you play this game with more than two individuals), but adds in the element of trying to setup your teammate for a good play (and block your opponents from doing likewise). Itís no longer simply a game of being self-interested and constantly thinking ďme, me, me.Ē Maybe Iím just a fan of puzzling through the trickiness of cooperating with an ally, but it does seem to elevate this game from a light and enjoyable (if not entirely compelling or thrilling) pastime to a tense struggle. It may be that team play adds an extra element to think about and try to manipulate to your advantage, which makes the game all that more deep and engaging. Reiner Knizia does a nice job of incorporating team play into this game, but itís the only Knizia design I can think of that does so. Are there any other Knizia games out there that allow two teams of two players to compete?

Team Dexterity

Crokinole is the perfect blend of dexterity and strategy when two teams face off against each other around that 30Ē oak battlefield. Youíve got to have fingers of steel as you flick your way to victory. But youíve also got to strategize as you plan where to place your discs to thwart the opponent acting after you and as you plan which of your opponentsí discs to shoot for and which to leave for your teammate to handle later. Thankfully you donít have to do it all alone, but you do have to learn to bite your tongue when your teammate whiffsÖ for surely youíll make a mistake or two of your own at a critical moment in the future. Working together effectively can be tough, especially when you have different styles of play. Some players focus primarily on knocking their opponents into the ditch and consider their own disc a secondary concern, whereas others emphasize the trajectory and placement of their own discs over and above everything else. Itís a tricky balancing act, made all the more so by needing to align your interests and your approach with another.

Team Tichu

If you want four completely different games, then you donít have to look much further than Nexus Ops, Ingenious, Crokinole, and Tichu. They all have team play in common, but not much else. Tichu is designed for four players to compete against each other as two teams, just like other trick-taking card games such as Bridge or Spades. Team dynamics are particularly essential in Tichu. Itís all about passing the right card to your teammate to signal what kind of hand you have, helping your teammate when he or she calls Tichu or Grand Tichu, and generally working together to make sure one of you wins the hand at all costs. Even more so than all the games listed above, Tichu requires self-sacrifice in the name of the team. The team needs to come before yourself and if that means hurting your own hand to facilitate your partnerís efforts then so be it. I havenít played nearly enough Tichu to fully appreciate its depths, but Iíve scratched the surface over the past few months enough to see that thereís a lot there to explore and enjoy. I hope to return to it time and again to test and hone my teamwork abilitiesÖ and maybe just learn a thing or two for cooperating effectively in my next game of Nexus Ops or Ingenious.

Team Potential

There are a few games that include team rules that Iíve played before but not using those team rules yet, such as King of Siam and Ta Yu, and there are a few games that include team rules that I havenít played at all yet, such as Napoleonís Triumph and Bridge, and I thought Iíd take a moment here to mention them.

King of Siam is a very good three-player game that Iíve enjoyed playing 4 times and the rules include an option of four-player team play, but I havenít had a chance to try competing for control of Siam with a partner. Itís an area majority game distilled down to the genreís essence really. Itís a quick eight rounds and each player has eight actions, but you can spread your actions among the rounds however you like, taking many early on but having few for later or the reverse, or if you have an overabundance of self control then maybe spreading them evenly throughout. Another very nice twist in King of Siam is that you donít inherently care at the beginning of the game whether one color or the other wins because you only gain interest in a color by taking that colorís cubes from the board. So if you think Yellow is going to win and you plan to aid Yellow in that endeavor then youíll want to take Yellowís cubes from the board, but in the process youíll be weakening Yellow and making it less likely that Yellow will win. Itís a double-edged sword as you need to take cubes from the board to gain a stake in which color will win, but doing so is an excruciating process indeed. Itís a deceptively simple game with wrenching decisions to be made, and it makes me wonder whether team play would make it all the more involved. I like it with three and am hoping to love it with four.

Ta Yu is another good game that Iíve enjoyed playing 5 times, but never with the optional four-player team rules. Itís a surprisingly good game considering how much I dislike the similar winding path building of Metro and Tsuro. It looks as if it would be as unpleasant as Metro and Tsuro, but the simple fact that there arenít countless intertwining paths to trace made all the difference in the world. Instead there is simply one path to trace around the board. Moreover, the components are excellent, the rules are simple, and the game plays fairly quickly. What I love most about the game is not the straightforward two-player version, but the somewhat odd and quirky three-player version. Itís like the two-player game with two of the three people competing against each other to link opposite sides of the board, but the third person is trying to obstruct both of the other players. The third player isnít trying to score points for himself or herself, but rather is trying to keep both other players below a certain score threshold by simply getting in the way as much as possible. The players bid to determine who will play as the third player. Itís a quirky and unique system, but one that works surprisingly well. Iíd be happy to try the game with the four-player team rules, but Iím not sure how much it would add to this particular game, and the real beauty of the game is in the clever three-player system. Itís fun to play as one of the regular players trying to gain as many points as possible, but itís also a blast to simply play as the troublemaker trying to wreak as much havoc as possible and block your rivals at every turn.

Lastly, Iíd like to try the king of team games Bridge at some point as many laud it as one of the best, if not the best, card game. Iíve read the rules recently and will have to give it a shot sometime. I have played Bonaparte at Marengo, but not Bowen Simmonsí follow-up Napoleonís Triumph. Iíve definitely enjoyed my 6 plays of Bonaparte at Marengo, and am intrigued by the possibility of playing a game with a similar system that allows for team play, so Napoleonís Triumph is on the list of games to check out.

Thereís clearly a lot of potential in the world of team games and a number of games with team rules that I need to try out. But surely you can name a few more. What else is out there with great team rules?

Team Sabotage

Lastly, a twist on the team concept. And one that turns it on its head. There are a couple new games that involve two teams of two, but only allow for a single person to win in the end, not a team together. Peter Struijfís Krakow 1325 AD and Peter Hawesí prototype War of the Roses both divide the four players into two teams and both force you to cooperate together, but they also sow suspicion and discord by declaring a lone winner, which means that you canít quite trust that dear old teammate of yours as he or she will have every incentive to subvert the team as the end draws near. Itís a very tricky balancing act in the trick-taking intrigues of Krakow (check out a compilation of the designerís articles in my Krakow or Bust article) and equally delicate in the world of combat and bribery in War of the Roses (check out my description of the prototype in my November Madness: Part 2 article). Neither is truly a team game in the sense that Iíve been discussing here, but they comprise an interesting branch in the family tree of team games. Theyíre a vicious and nasty breed perhaps as you backstab and claw your way to victory, but sometimes thatís a welcome relief from all the handholding and Kumbaya singing of traditional team games. Sometimes you just want to stand alone as king of the hill, but there are other times when it does take a team of two to bring out the best in a game.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)