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Micro Reviews of Board Games From a Non-Competetive Perspective

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Hi all,

In the last couple of years I've become increasingly interested in board games, and exploring what makes different games fun.  I thought that I might start posting some thoughts as I try out different games -- to help others who have similar tastes find games they might enjoy.

The most important thing I've learned so far is that in the world of board games, there are widely varying tastes -- and a game that is perfect for one person may be near unbearable for another.

First some preliminaries that are very important, to help you figure out if my recommendations will help you:

* First, I'm not a hardcore gamer, and I really dislike intense competition and strategic battles that don't involve some luck.  I've never liked chess and i don't like to keep score when playing tennis.  I am much more interested in the social experience of playing a game and having fun and laughing and being surprised.  Perhaps it tells you something about the anthropology of games that someone like me who is quite anti-social is interested in games for the social experience of it.
* Second, I need a strong theme to enjoy a game.  Theme refers to the flavor and story that is laid on top of the abstract mechanics of a game.  Some people like abstract games and the theme is not important to them -- only the choices and mechanics matter.  For me, I need to feel like there is some kind of story or adventure taking place; the feel and the look of the pieces make a difference to me.
* Third, I have a very low tolerance for tracking tons of tiny little details and counters, and hate the delays in looking up charts to figure out complicated interactions.  Some people love this stuff, but for me, the simpler the mechanics and the less bits and pieces i have to fiddle with, the better.
* Fourth, it's important to me that the game can be learned and enjoyed on the first or second playing.  From a practical standpoint this is important if you are playing with new people regularly, but this is the one aspect of my hunt for the best board game that I'm not very comfortable with; if games are anything like music, I would hate to think of the great games I am missing out on because their appreciation only starts to develop slowly and deeply over time -- and how many shallow games i may enjoy at first and then quickly grow tired of, like pop music. But ideally, i'm interested in a game that is great fun for novices, but becomes a deeper experience over time
* Fifth, I tend to look for games that can support more than 2 players, and I'm a big fan of cooperative and semi-cooperative games.  I have found that asymmetrical games, where players have different abilities, is a great way to ensure that competition in the game is not stressful.
* Lastly, I'm always looking to find board games that involve novel mechanics, so I can think about what makes the game work and why, from a game design perspective.
Ok so if you match the following profile then these micro-reviews are for you:

* Casual gamer that is more interested in a fun/funny social experience than in an abstract battle of wits like chess.
* Theme and story, look and feel are of high importance.
* Want games that new people can learn and enjoy quickly.
* Want fast moving games that don't require excessive table lookups and fiddling with too many counters.
* Like asymmetric, cooperative gameplay.
* Are interested in game design issues.
NOTE: I am not going to write full reviews or guides for these games here -- you can find great reviews all over the web, and i've linked to many good review sites and blogs in a previous thread, and i will always link to the game page on the BoardGameGeek where you can find more user and external review links.

Instead I will focus on giving you my quick bullet point impressions of the game from the perspective i've outlined above -- the aim will simply be to help you decide if this is a game you might enjoy.

My first micro-review and recommendation is for: Pandemic.

You can find good reviews of Pandemic all over the web -- it's almost universally acknowledged as an absolutely brilliant (purely) cooperative game.

Key features:

* Minimalist, bold, simple but tough choices.
* Great sense of impending danger, while keeping you feeling like you have some control over your fate.
* Great asymmetric play through use of roles, and great teamwork and discussion between players.
* One of the rare games that almost every type of gamer of any age enjoys (for young kids you might try Forbidden Island which has same flavor but is a bit simpler).
* Great replayability; nice expansion (On The Brink).
* Beautiful pieces and very fast play.
* No player ever feels like they aren't contributing, or that they are hindered; everyone playing always has full freedom to do what they want from start to finish.
* Probably the best board game I own -- and hands down the easiest recommendation I can make to someone curious about getting into modern casual board gaming.

* Might not be fun if you mix experienced players with people who have never played before; one pushy person may try to direct everyone on what they should do.
* Perhaps "too" cooperative -- there is almost no information hidden among players so essentially every turn can be like a "group" turn with all players agreeing on what action to take with "their" piece.  Other co-op games don't have as much coordination among players which can be fun.
* May not satisfy those players who crave a real adventure/quest -- it's more on the abstract side.
Game Design Interests:

* The sense of impending and escalating threat and doom and chaos just barely under control, while preserving the feeling that the players *can* control it if they just make the right choices, is absolutely spot on, and I've never seen this done better.  Worth studying.
* The mechanic that let's every player have full freedom of movement and action from start to finish is rare in a cooperative game, where typically players get hurt or restricted, or grow stronger, etc.  In pandemic, bad things never happen to the players -- only to the shared board.  The result is that everyone playing always feels like an equal partner and participant.  The effect is quite profound in terms of making it an enjoyable game for everyone.
* This game is a case study on the value of giving players very simple but agonizing and consequential actions.
* Very elegant balancing of randomness with statistical predictability that remains just enough out of grasp to make the brain enjoy trying to anticipate what's coming next.
Final Rating:

* Rating: 10 out of 10 -- a masterpiece; everyone should own this.

Do you like card games? Illuminatiw is a very fun game. Not sure if it's still in print or not.

I agree with your tastes, Mouser.  Following the format you used, here is a micro-review of one of my favorites:
Alhambra - Compete to construct the most impressive Palace

Key features:
The concept is easy to grasp
Heavily 'themed'
Simple setup
Essentially a 'real estate' game but unlike the typical "Monopoly" style.
Unique in that there are four different currencies that must be used.
Minimal options on a player's turn so no one is bored waiting for the next round.
Enough scoring options so as to minimize failure (and discouragement) due to 'bad luck'.
Multitude of 'expansion' options that can be used as mix-and-match easily (yet this game does not suffer from expansion overkill like Carcassonne)

In some respects, you are working on your own.  Some might cite 'lack of player interaction'.
We found the 2-player version needed additional modification beyond what the designer providing in order to maintain a better balance.

Game Design Interests:
As stated, this game adheres well to the theme.  All the parts and pieces are richly designed to evoke the proper mood.
The very interesting aspect of the game is that scoring (which occurs three times in a game) is based solely on your ability to construct MORE of a particular room than your opponents.  This permits a variety of play in each game and enables you to explore multiple strategie options.

Final Rating:
Rating: 10 out of 10 -- This is on our short list of favorites (among the 60+ games we own).  We play it no less than 5 times a week - with 2 players and with 4 players.
The ability to add in expansion options guarantees the game will never become old and uninteresting to play.

I remember loking at the Illimunati cards and being intrigued a long time ago but it never quite grabbed me.

Thanks for the Alhambra recommendation -- i will definitely get one of the Alahambra variants based on your recommendation, i just have to figure out which one (there is normal Alahambra, a dice version, a card version, and a big box version with the original and some expansions).


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