Hey everybody, sorry for the missing update last week. I’ve barely been home and my apartment is a big mess due to some renovations and as such I thought I’d just write a Musings post, rather than try to find a way to photograph a new game for you. So what to write about this time? I’ve thought about making some informational posts telling you about different types of games, or gaming terms you might’ve heard thrown around. But those posts tend to grow very big, and mostly just become lists. I will write one about terms some day though, cause I feel it’s important. And it will probably have to become a series of shorter posts to not overwhelm you. That said, I thought that today I’d just tell you about one game genre and one game mechanic that just do not work for me at all. Many people love them, but we all have different tastes and that’s good! As you have already seen by the title, my probably least favourite genre of game is Abstract strategy, and I really dislike bluffing games. But, what does that really mean and why doesn’t it work for me? Just keep reading and I’ll explain…
Abstract strategy games
First I should say that I’m overall not a good strategist. I don’t like brain burners where you have to think several moves ahead to foil your opponents. But, I do appreciate some strategy in my regular games, where I can have one goal and my opponents another and we just try to get there first, or get the most points etc. And you have your resources or action points, and you strategise based on that. So that kind of gameplay is just fine! But then we have the abstracts. These are the kinds of games that non gamers probably think of together with Monopoly and roll-and-move kids games. It’s chess. It’s Reversi. It’s go. And it is not me.
So what is abstract strategy? In their purest form abstract strategy games should have no luck aspect at all (such as dice rolling or drawing cards) and no hidden elements whatsoever. It’s all about planning your moves (which are always simple), expecting your opponents counter moves, and counter them in turn. And since you can see everything, this planning is possible. Abstract strategy games seldom have a theme, and are usually made up of simple geometrical shapes and differentiating colours. More complicated games might need some more complex imagery to differentiate between pieces, like chess, and these can also come in novelty versions (think Lord of the Rings chess for example). But the “theme” means absolutely nothing and is just a way to tell pieces apart, and of course in the case of actual theme to sell it to for example Lord of the Rings fans.
Because of the absent luck factor, and the complete visibility of both sides’ components and positions, someone who is better/on another level is pretty much unbeatable. I want a chance, and I want my opponent to have a chance too once they grasp the gameplay, even if they are quite new to the game or genre. The whole “minutes to learn, lifetime to master” thing does not appeal to me. Sure, a lot of games gives player advantage to whoever is more used to that particular game. It’s in the nuances and the daring of certain actions. An experienced player will know how to combine certain things, what goals are worth more, etc etc. But once the newbie catches on they can start taking those chances, and making the good combinations. In an abstract game the skilled player will just block and block and block, and there is very little chance of catching up.
Weirdly enough though, I seem to enjoy light abstract games covered with a flimsy theme. Cause that’s just it, I want some theme. I don’t need a lot, I am mainly a eurogamer after all, but I think my brain needs something to relate to when attempting to strategise. Eurogames sometimes toe the abstract line but they usually introduce an aspect of chance, which suddenly makes me like them. They also tend to have more actions to choose from than simply moving a piece. And they have a theme, even if it’s ridiculous or simply boring. At least it’s there. It might simply be placing wooden houses on a board made up of different terrain (that’s a future review for you!) in an attempt to create a kingdom, but it just works. And look back at my review of Chickapig. It is definitely an abstract game, but it has a silly theme and with the dice determining how many moves you have, you can’t actually make heavy strategic decisions several moves ahead. You can do some planning, but it could easily be foiled by some lucky rolls by your opponents or unlucky ones for you – creating too few good moves on your side.
But despite all this I want to get better at abstract strategy. I don’t think it will ever be a genre I love, but at least I could try to learn how to think that way which would be good for my brain anyway. I have been intrigued by the game Hive for a while, mostly cause the tiles look nice and I love insects. It’s very abstract and often compared to chess since each type of piece (or rather: insect) moves in a different way, and you’re trying to capture the opponent’s queen. In an effort to get better as I said, and in a moment of weakness while waiting for a friend yesterday by spending time at the local game shop, I ended up buying Hive Pocket. I like the smaller size of it, and the tiles feel really nice and make a lovely sound in the bag. It also has little bit of a theme with the insects. So, with this new purchase I hope I can teach myself abstract strategy by using cute bug tiles. I think playing it as a kind of practice thing, rather than a serious game, will make me more open to it. I know I’ll probably lose, but I will do my darnest to hold off my (most likely better) opponent til the bitter end.
Bluffing (and social deduction)
So many people love this mechanic. Even as kids everyone wanted to play the card game that we in Sweden called “Bluff”. I don’t know what it might be called elsewhere but probably something similar. I don’t even remember the rules, but it is played with a regular deck of cards and has a lot to do with cheating and bluffing, obviously. And I think maybe that is it – the cheating. I really don’t like cheaters when playing games, and bluffing cuts quite close to that, even if it’s the very purpose of the game. Now, this doesn’t mean that I want everything out in the open all the time. A little bit of misdirection here and there is nice. But when it’s the core of the game, nope, I’m out. Actually, I’m not out. I am forced to play anyway cause everyone else loves it.
Being someone who loves games, and who always keeps her eyes peeled for new fun ones, I obviously often read game descriptions or watch game videos. Whenever a game is said to have this bluffing mechanic I immediately lose interest. It doesn’t really matter how cool the game seems otherwise, if it’s worth mentioning in the overview it’s too important of a mechanic. For example, Skull and Roses looks like a game I would love to have in my collection based on the art and theme (if you didn’t know, I have a Master in human osteology. Bones are my thing), but to quote BGG: “Skull & Roses is the quintessence of bluffing, a game in which everything is played in the players’ heads”. No no no no no.
Now, a genre of game that relies on bluffing a lot is social deduction games. I’m talking party games like the classic Mafia (often played in forums online as well) and it’s variable and ever popular re-theme Werewolf, which in itself exists in all kinds of editions with different titles and from different publishers. These are games for groups of people – the bigger the better, where there’s usually a storyteller and a lot of hidden identities and bluffing. In the werewolf variants you tend to play as a big group of villagers with a few secret werewolves in your midst. The storyteller weaves a tale of days and nights where the werewolves choose an unsuspecting victim each night (while everyone has their eyes closed except werewolves and storyteller) who turns up dead in the morning, with the villagers retaliating by killing someone else – hopefully a werewolf. You’re obviously trying to get your side to be the only survivors. There are also often special characters involved with special powers mediated through the storyteller. As you can probably see, it all hinges on a lot of bluffing about who you are, and a lot of deducing who everyone else is and then accusing each other. I’m sort of okay with simple werewolf games, and if nothing else I can always be the storyteller and not actually have to play per se.
But then there’s the evolution of the mafia/werewolf type game. The problem with those games is that they are best with really large groups, and they require a moderator of some kind who doesn’t actually get to play but also has to be a good storyteller. And when someone is killed, they are out of the game and can’t contribute at all. Since it is such a well liked concept it has been reworked into tighter games where the game itself moderates. A famous one is The Resistance which you can play with as few as five people, no player elimination, and no moderator. You don’t vote someone out of the game completely, but instead you are in secret teams (resistance operatives and imperial spies) who have to go on missions with a few select members. The members then vote on if missions succeed or not. And of course the resistance want certain missions to succeed while the spies don’t and so on. So you want people on your team that you trust to do the same thing as you. Plenty of suspicion, yelling, and sneaky business. And I am not fond of it at all. Maybe I just don’t like being tricked? Even if I’m trying to trick people in turn…
The thing is, I’m not always bad at it. I can sometimes be great. I think what I’m not good at is the deduction and accusation part of things. And I cannot count cards or anything like that to figure out when someone is bluffing about what’s in their hand. But my favourite story about being forced to play a social deduction game, giving in, and then being awesome at it without really knowing what I was doing cause I hate it… well, I guess this is the time to tell it. A guy in my archaeology student gaming group had a PnP of the game Secret Hitler, which is in the same category of social deduction games as The Resistance. and everyone really wanted to play. I couldn’t just be the only one opting out so I just went for it. In Secret Hitler you have a bunch of regular non-nazi people, Hitler, and a fascist or two depending on how big of a group you have. Our group size made for a single fascist. Guess who that was. Yep – me. The cards are obviously handed out randomly (and I should preface this with saying that everyone involved hates the nazis okay? This is just a game and you play to win).
The way the game works is that only the fascist(s) knows who everyone is. Hitler doesn’t even know who’s on his side. And everyone votes on who’s chancellor and president, and laws have to go through or not (depending on if they’re liberal or fascist). It sounds super dry, but it isn’t. It’s a great party game in its genre, which just happens to be a genre I personally don’t like. Anyway, everyone’s suspicious and doesn’t want Hitler and/or the fascist to be in power (there are two people in power at the same time) cause they will let bad things happen and once enough bad things have happened the bad guys win, obviously. Like I said, I’m not necessarily bad at these games. And oh man I was great at this one. Everyone accused everyone else, except me. They always trusted me to be a liberal. In the end Hitler (and I) won – probably cause I got to be president and chancellor a lot. And Hitler turned to the guy next to him and was like “high five fascist bro”, and the guy shook his head. So Hitler turned to the other guy that was quite suspect, but no. Then I waved innocently from across the table. Collective jawdrop. So I was awesome and it made for a great end of the game, but I wouldn’t play it again if I could avoid it. So this example shows that it isn’t just cause I can’t do it that I dislike it (unlike abstracts which just don’t gel with my brain).
So while I want to get better at abstract strategy, there is no getting better at bluffing and social deduction really. I am already good, but I just hate doing it. It doesn’t gel with me for some reason, which is really unfortunate cause everyone else seem to love it. And it’s such a crowd pleaser. I really wish I liked it, but I don’t.
(all the game photos in this post are from the respective official publishers)