Wednesday, 10 October 2007

REALLY Deep Thoughts About Gaming...

So I was writing next week's Gameshark column (which is going to be a "Games from the Crypt" installment about TALISMAN) and I had an epiphany. There is one simple mechanic, one singular card, that could save the Eurogame fad from complete extinction while also making even the lamest games suddenly more thrilling.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...the HORRIBLE BLACK VOID.

Imagine you're playing a game of say, PORTOBELLO MARKET when all of a sudden one player is sucked into the Horrible Black Void by an unlucky card draw. All of a sudden, a dull game about selling mushrooms (I guess) becomes dramatic and interesting and in the players' minds a narrative develops about how this mushroom merchant prior to the game's events crossed some wicked sorceror who cursed him to go sailing into infinite doom- how's that for profits being "in the black"?

Of course, the bitching and whining about "the luck element" and the gnashing of teeth that an hour or two was completely and totally wasted since the player's strategy didn't pan out will follow...but that's OK, because rather than monday morning quarterbacking why they lost it's real fuckin' clear- they fell into a Horrible Black Void.

I can't think of a single game that wouldn't benefit from a Horrible Black Void card. It should be a mandatory inclusion in every game just to keep people on their toes. Imagine the excitement it would bring to even the most boring auction game like MODERN ART or AUGSBURG 1620- the HBV turns up and players have to bid to avoid getting sucked into it and being kicked unceremoniously out of the game. Or a game like TICKET TO RIDE when a player's entire train line is immediately '86ed due to pulling the Horrible Black Void while trying to complete a set of green cards.

That's really the key to making it work- the player has to lose EVERYTHING and be put immediately out of the game so they can either fetch snacks and drinks for everyone or go home early, having wasted their entire evening.

I always thought the second person up there ought to be able to catch that guy's Talisman and helmet...


Malloc said...

Wonderful I am going to print a bunch of cards and put them in all my euro games.


neonpeon said...

The horrible black void is a life lesson. All your "best laid plans" can be rendered meaningless due to some cold, heartless, external event outside of your control. Then everyone laughs at you, again just like in real life, but you roll with it.

This valuable life lesson should be taught early on - add the HBV to that Candyland deck (now there's a photoshop).

Juniper said...

Call the card "schreckliche Schwarzl├╝cke"* and distribute it only to readers of a German-language gaming magazine and it will be an instant BGG collectors' item.

I agree with your general point, Michael. Too many games in the German style lack drama or tension because they put so little at stake. They are designed to prevent landslide victories, and that's worthwhile, I suppose. At the same time, though, it's hard to really get excited about a game in which the worst possible outcome is that you'll lose by two or three "Victory Points."

One of the most important rules of storytelling is that the protagonist must put herself (or something dear to her) in tremendous peril in the pursuit of her goal. Self-respect, sanity, the love of her life, the battle of the bands trophy, or something similarly important must be put at risk. Even in a Superman comic, the big guy has to be put in a situation where he's likely to lose something, but since he's invulnerable, that something is usually Lois. Life is about risk and sacrifice, and stories leverage that fact for dramatic tension.

I believe that the best designers of German games understand this. Knizia has several games in which it is possible to fail utterly (of course these are the ones that are under-rated on BGG). For example, Quo Vadis? -- which is a fucking awesome and universally misunderstood game -- assigns an automatic loss to any player who has failed to move any of his senators into the most senior room in the senate. The possibility of complete failure lends tension to the game, and drives it forward.

One of the problems with the German gaming genre is that it is now rife with cottage industry publishers turning out low print run titles by amateur authors. These folks are trying to copy the superficial characteristics of the best Knizia and Teuber** designs without understanding what really makes them work. The result is an industry full of boring games in which each player aims to gain a tiny incremental economic advantage over his opponents. Storytelling has been forgotten altogether.

I don't think that the dearth of storytelling in German games is endemic to the genre. I just think that too many pikers were fooled by the deceptive simplicity of Settlers of Catan and thought to themselves "oh, I can do that." Now they're aspiring to attain the standard of mediocrity that was set by Puerto Rico. Or they're getting "game designer" badges on that other website by making maps for Age of Steam, a terrible design that combines the German games' lack of narrative with the American games' excessive length and lack of clarity.

*thanks to Google Translate

** it's sad that Teuber can almost be classified as an Ameritrash designer these days. He *likes* plastic (see Starfarers and the current German version of Settlers) and has spoken in interviews of the importance of storytelling in games.

Juniper said...

Is anyone else here listening to the new Jens Lekman CD?

Shellhead said...

It does seem like the same kind of players who abhor luck are the players who can't tolerate elimination from a game. To me, part of playing a game is to have contingency plans, in case the die roll is bad, or the next few cards that I draw are unhelpful. Elimination from the game is like the ultimate contingency to plan against.

Also, if the game isn't too long, it's much better to be eliminated than to be stuck playing out a losing position. Even if that does mean getting sent out to pick up food for the other players.

mtlawson said...

Elimination is a part of life, really. Think of all the "right-sizing" and layoffs that happen in the regular world. Think of the small businesses that die less than 5 years after the startup.

--Mike L.

J de said...

Sacrilege! And from Barnes, of all people! Bidding against the HBV is for middle ages unwashed men with too much hair on their face. Real men roll dice.

(You can buy your F:AT 'Real men roll dice' t-shirts, mugs and mouse pads for $ 3.99 from

neonpeon said...

A HBV t-shirt would be awesome.

notbillysparkles said...

Christ, I think that HBV should be an integral part of the managment recruiting process at work.

Let's see the fuckers play favorites then.

Frank Branham said...

Juniper nailed it. A lot of Eurogamers hate being knocked out of a game. They even hate it when it is their own fault.

Antiquity is a case in point. The full game is a pure and almost luckless resource game that requires thinking a few turns ahead. Almost like a psychotically advanced cross between Puerto Rico and one of those jumping peg games at Cracker Barrel.

If you screw up, the game lets you know. Within a few turns, your cities are overrun with graves and clouds of pollution surround your cities.

The early game has little player interaction, and only the vaguest hint of luck. Lots of Euro folks hate the game.

Sadly, I even once heard the same criticism of Black Vienna. A pure and blissful deduction game.

Michael Barnes said...

Cities overrun with graves and pollution? Man, ANTIQUITY 2 is gonna be awesome!

Aarontu said...

Next Power Grid expansion: The HBV

Imagine the tension all of the players feel every time a plant card is revealed...
the 15 plant...
the 27 plant...
the 30 plant...
screamed by the card drawer as he is sucked into oblivion and the HBV card implodes in on itself.

Modern Art would benefit, too:

Anonymous said...

The sheer genius if it!

HBV will now be a part of all my games.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, fond memories of SHANGHAI TRADER.

No matter how well you played ... if you get shot down on the airstrip running for you plane it was all naught.

What I like about the Assassins in Shanghai Trader even better than about the Black Void of Talisman: The Assassins are run by your opponents.

Sweet revenge AND keeping the game open ended. Who can ask for more? :D