So, there I was, sitting around a table a little while ago, playing a Euro sort of game with some friends. The game was a gift, and we were learning the rules together.
I soon realized that, while I had never seen this particular game before - I had talked about it after reading some of the reviews - it seemed awfully familiar. It really felt as if I had not only played it, but had enjoyed it before. So did my friends, including one guy who generally hates Euro games because he never gets to kill anyone.
The game was Discworld. If you aren’t familiar with the publisher, Treefrog Games, they offer games which usually feature smart rules, good art, straightforward game mechanics and a at least a pinch of random events.
Discworld reminded me of Treefrog’s A Study in Emerald, in which the players are secretly allied to either the Royal Family or to the Anarchists. (Being Treefrog, the Royal Family is in the control of the Dark Ones out of H.P. Lovecraft, while the Anarchists are freedom fighters. Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty are also around, but they may change sides. Its the kind of thing that makes Treefrog fun).
Anyway, the comparisons were easy to make. Discworld deals with control of sections of a large city. Emerald requires control of cities across a map of Europe. In Emerald, you can lose control of a city if you can’t keep enough henchmen in it. In Discworld, you can lose control of a neighborhood to another player who first kills off your servants. (That’s the part that my friend seemed to like).
One action card in Discworld generates a dragon that will level random cities and kill all the people in it. Sort of “don’t count your potential victory points until the dragon egg hatches.”
The players in Discworld all have hidden victory conditions. Some conditions make it impossible for another player to win, others don’t. The first player to reach their goal simply says “I won.” And, one player can win by doing nothing at all, providing no one else has won when the action deck runs out.
Kinda the same games. Kinda not.
But, the similar feeling the two games have - and they are very different when you play them out - got me thinking. Just why do those two games feel the same? How many others do? And what the heck does that ill-defined word “feel” really mean?
I have several games covering the same periods, or which use similar maps. And everyone has likely encountered some “quad” games, with the same basic rules and separate “special” rules that let you fight with those basic rules across different historical periods or different campaigns.
But do those games feel the same? Usually not at all.
You can, of course, argue that all games are similar. I have a dozen World War II games that have counters for tanks and trucks and infantry that all look alike. Most take place in Europe or on some flea speck in the Pacific. And they’re not the same at all.
Heck, I don’t know anyone who will say that playing one of the later incarnations of Squad Leader will give you the same feeling as playing the classic original.
So, two questions. Just what makes one game feel like another. And, does that feeling actually mean anything?
Well, for the first question, lets start with an observation. A good game sucks you in. You pay attention to the rules and to the way the game play evolves because you care about what’s happening.
Good games also provide a lot more than counters and maps. They exist in a historic background, and they highlight limitations of armies and commanders, and can throw in luck or supply or weather into the game in a meaningful way.
But, the feel of a game kind of oozes out between the cracks. You could argue that we don’t really have the language to properly compare the “touchy-feely” aspects of a game, or that every game will “feel” different to every player. It sort of involves how you do what the game allows you to do.
Still, we have a good way to talk about game feel - its all how you look at things.
I type a lot. And, I use a lot of different keyboards and computer screens, since I do a lot of typing in different places and for different reasons. This article, for example, is being typed on a Macally keyboard on my wife’s Mac, because that’s the easiest one to use in my house.
Some keyboards feel pretty much the same, while others don’t. All the letters and symbols are in the same relative space, but I type faster on some keyboards than others, and I make more typos on some models. Just try writing something on a strange keyboard in a friend’s house and you will see what I mean. Shift the keys just a bit and your hands don’t set up right. Try to type an “L” and you end up hitting a colon.
I can tell when it doesn’t feel right. In the same way, I can tell when a game feels right to me.
That’s why two games can feel like each other, even though they don’t actually look the same, or are on different subjects. They trigger the same response, of fun, of challenge, of enjoyment. Discworld is really nothing like Emerald if you look at the art, the victory conditions or the game mechanics. But the games feel the same, which should be important to the people playing them.
On the other hand, games which look very similar can be completely different.
Victory Point Games, for example, has published some games which use the same basic playing system. They are played along a track - actually several tracks - of linked boxes, and you move up or down the tracks until you end up winning or losing. And, you are playing solitaire.
Lets look at two, one set in the Middle East, the other tracing the growth and collapse of the pre-Columbian Indian empire in Eastern North America before the Europeans arrived in the 17th century.
Israeli Independence, a fast, simple-to-play game, has five tracks with numbers from 1-4, each radiating out of west Jerusalem, which would be box “0”. Each track is the path of an invading Arab army in 1948, coming out of Syria or Jordan or Lebanon or Iraq. The cards are numbered - not all are used in each scenerio - and each card will show which Arab armies advance and how many counter-attacks the Israeli side makes. The Arab army is pushed back if the modified roll is greater than the Arab army’s combat value.
The play is fast and smooth, the strategy is minimal, and the Israeli turn centers on deciding just who to fight. Players will likely learn some things from reading the historical background on each action card.
Good way to spend a spare hour, or to teach the grand-kids how to play.
Mound Builders, on the other hand, uses its path to represent the expanding - and later contracting - pre-Columbian Indian Mound Builder culture in eastern North America from its origins around 250 BC to its final destruction by the Spanish around 1600 AD.
Its more exciting than it sounds.
While you go up and down some tracks, there are negotiations with Indian tribes, trade policies to work out, strategic alliances to plan, and economic phases which are as important as military ones.
This is one of those “dense” games that pack a lot into each turn, and by the time you get through the well-researched action deck, you may feel as if you’ve taken a graduate course in the culture of the Mound Builders, natives who left earthworks which can still be seen today. It takes a lot more than rolling a die to get from one box to the next.
Same look, same company, totally different feel.
So what does this all mean to gaming? That is, of course, the point of this rambling essay.
What it means is that you can’t just judge a war game by its cover, or by almost anything else, without opening the box and playing it. Maybe even playing it more than once.
When I go to my favorite game store to buy a new toy, I become a kid all over again. I am attracted by big, colorful pictures on the box covers, splashes of text, drawings of great army leaders or voluptuous sword maidens. And rocket ships and steam engines and even a cute puppy dog being chased by zombies.
Then I turn the box over and look at pictures of the map - if provided - or player aid cards or counters. Yes, this means I look at lots of pictures of yellow and green and black cubes. As well as a nearly-endless series of cardboard 4-4 infantry counters, which shows how little our war game soldiers have changed from ancient Greece and Egypt to the American Revolution or the World Wars and into the far future, where my 4-4 infantry are killed by the bugs on some world far beyond the solar system.
But, I never see anything on the boxes about the “feel” of the game. Its even hard to get that feel from on-line reviews or player forums. But, its there somewhere. A game’s feel is what we talk about in the bar at a convention when a long game turned out to be surprisingly good. Didn’t know it when we signed up. Didn’t know it until we got done playing.
I remember one cowboy shoot-em-up where I lit a stick of dynamite and threw it into an outhouse where a friend of mine was cowering. Not realistic. But, it felt really good.
I have some reservations about on-line game comments. Any comment limited to saying “wow” or “awful” without explaining why isn’t terribly helpful.
You might get a hint about a game’s feel by looking at what the game is trying to do. Moving whole armies across France isn’t the same thing as moving a squad toward Moscow. The kind of weapons used in a game and the effect they have can also give you some insight into how it will feel to play. If you roll a die and take out a city on a 7-12, you know the game will be fast and that careful troop movements isn’t really a strong point. You’ll get some insight by just seeing what you have to do and what tools the game provides to do it.
Of course, the best way to get the feel of a game is to play it. Go out on a limb and try a game you would otherwise never consider playing. And give it a fair chance - you won’t really know what a game feels like until you finish it.
If you’re lucky, you could be playing a batch of games over the next year or so that seem really familiar, even though you’ve never played any of them before. And, maybe, there are some dusty games on that back shelf that you really should try again. Might feel really good.