Sunday, January 20, 2013

Look Ma', No Board!

When people ask about my hobby, I tend to respond with, "table top gaming."  If I simply tell others that I'm a gamer, they usually think of console video games.  I could tell people that I play board games, but that invites homophonous jibes and ignores huge segments of the games that I play.

This week, I wanted to explore three fun, family games that don't have boards.

Piece o' Cake

Piece o' Cake was created by Jeffrey D. Allers and is published by Rio Grande Games.  It is a simple, fun, quick game that my six-year old raves about.  What six-year old doesn't enjoy the idea of baking and eating cake?

In Piece o' Cake, there are different types of cake represented by numbered slices.  The slices are arranged together to make five complete, round cakes.  The first player will cut the first cake, separating it into pieces.  Since each cake is made up of 11 slices, a prime number, there is never a way to make the pieces the same size.  The player doing the cutting has to balance the size of a piece with the value of the piece.

After the first player cuts the cake, the next player gets first choice.  This mechanic makes players think ahead.  Which slices will each player want, and how much are they worth to each player?  Which piece will I be left with, after everyone else gets theirs?

Each player is trying to score as many points as possible, and they do this by collecting or consuming the slices they get in their piece.  Each slice is numbered, from 3 to 11.  This not only represents the points the player can get for collecting the most of that type by the end of the game, but it indicates how many of that type are actually in the game.  There are three 3's and eleven 11's.  Collect more of the 3's than any one else, and score three points.  Collect more of the 11's, and score 11 points.

Each slice can be immediately eaten, instead of collected.  Each slice has one or more dollops of whipped cream.  Those indicate how many points the slice is worth if eaten.  The 3's each have one.  If a player collects all three 3's, they score three points.  If that same player were to have eaten all three 3's, they would've scored 3 points.  The 11's, however, have three dollops of whipped cream, meaning a player that eats as few as four will score more points than the player that collected the most.

These pressures, should I collect, should I eat, create the mathematical dynamics that players have to balance in order to win.  They need to be aware of who else is collecting, how many are already collected, how many they need to collect, and how many they can risk eating.

Look at the heaping pile of math infused critical thinking in this game!  Context is everything, however.  The math in this game could be boring, if it weren't being applied to the sweetness of cakes.   That application in this game answers that age old question, "when am I ever going to use algebra?"

The game does have some drawbacks.  While it does have, "2 - 5 players" on the box, the game really isn't the same with just two players.  It lacks a bit of dynamism.

Once one really gets the hang of the game's chief mechanic, it can be a bit repetitive.  I enjoy playing this with my children, but it is not a game that I'd play with my friends from college.

Forbidden Island

I also don't tend to like playing co-operative games with my friends from college.  It usually becomes a play-by-committee affair that suffers from analysis paralysis.  The game would go much better if we just left one person to play while the rest of us watched TV.

With my children, though, the idea is fantastic.  My wife and I don't make any decisions.  We offer suggestions and alternatives, and give the pros and cons for each plan.  We make the children decide.  We put them in charge and appoint them as leader of the team of fortune seekers looking to liberate the four sacred treasures from the Forbidden Island.

The catch, and there is always a catch, is that the island is sinking.

Forbidden Island was designed by Matt Leacock and is published by Gamewright.  The game, like all the games in this article, doesn't use a traditional board.  Instead, the island is made up of twenty four tiles.  There is a corresponding deck of twenty four cards.  After each player's turn, a number of cards are revealed indicating which tiles are flooding.  As play goes along, more and more of the island washes away!

The adventurers must collect the four treasures and make it to the dust-off point before the island sinks.  If any of the treasures are lost, if any of the party is unable to reach the helicopter, or it is unable to land, the entire game is lost.  Everyone wins or loses together!

The game does a fantastic job of building tension.  It really is enjoyable to play, and I love the chance to encourage the children to learn and grow as leaders.  The ability to think through and solve a problem, to manage the resources and stay focused on the goal is what prompts the 10+ age recommendation on the tin. The rules themselves and the mechanics of the game, are very simple.

This is a game that I highly recommend for family gaming.  Unlike most games where there is competition, where there are winners and losers, this game is a collaborative effort. The whole family must work together. I don't think children should be completely isolated from competing.  I think the bruises to their egos from defeat will help them mature and grow, but I do recognize that there is a need to give children a space to explore and grow where they don't feel like they are alone versus the world.

While this game does top my list of recommendations, there are some disclaimers I must give.  This game is for two to four players.  It doesn't scale beyond four.

The game also has a few moving parts, and does feel a bit fiddly at times.  No single set of rules are complex, but there are two decks of cards to be managed, the island of tiles, and each player gets a special ability that lets them break one of the core rules of the game.

Still, for any family just starting gaming, I recommend Forbidden Island.

Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan was created by Klaus Teuber and is published, in the US, by Mayfair Games.  It, again, doesn't use a board.  Instead, the game uses hexagonal tiles, arranged randomly for each game, to create the board.  Once the board is created, it is static.

Settlers of Catan is a resource game.  Players vie for position and collect a number of raw materials.  They can trade these materials to build and expand.  Once the game ends, their expansion, their assets, are counted and the player with the most wins.  It is very simple.

In that regard, it is like Monopoly.  Unlike Monopoly, Settlers of Catan is actually good.  Players are engaged the entire time.  They make decisions from the beginning.  Their moves are not scripted.  And unlike Monopoly, the competition stays close the entire time.  The game does often come down to the very end.  One more turn, and someone else would've won.

Settlers builds on all those skills that one expects in a game like Monopoly:  resource management, trade and negotiation, planning and building, and like the real estate mantra, location, location, location.

In Settlers, most tiles produce a resource.  They are all assigned a number from 2 to 12, excluding 7.   On each turn, two six sided dice are rolled.  The tiles with a number that matches the result on the dice produces their resource that turn.  Every player that has a settlement adjacent to that tile receives the production for that turn.  There is an open trading period, then building, and repeat.

There are a few different things that resources can be spent on, meaning there are a few different paths in which players can score points.  This keeps the game dynamic and close.  This gives players chances to be flexible and competitive.

The game also has some expansions, and there are rules for playing on a larger island, using two sets, allowing for more players.  Meaning this game is well suited for larger family gatherings.

In the interest of fairness, I have to admit, I don't like Settlers of Catan.  There is something about the game that just doesn't connect with me.

I would also warn, as far as family ages go, I would put this one a little on the older side.  The 10+ on the box is more reasonable.  Since there are a few different ways score points, younger family members aren't as likely pick the right one, and may not be as competitive.  Without really understanding all the ways to score points, they won't really understand the value of all the resources, which will put them at a further disadvantage when making trades.

All that aside, this is still the game that should replace Monopoly at the family gaming table.

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