24 March 2009

There's a lot more to board games than I thought.

Tonight I read an article called Monopoly Killer in Wired. It is one of the most interesting things I have read in recent memory, and my brain felt like a pinball the entire time. It's about a game called The Settlers of Catan, designed by a German man named Klaus Teuber. Over the past 14 years, it has become one of the biggest smash hits to ever happen to board games, translated into 30 languages and selling 15 million copies globally (FIFTEEN MILLION!). The article weaves Teuber's story into a brief history of board games, pointing out that German ones in particular seem to "get it" (in terms of how engaging and dynamic they tend to be).

Board games were pretty much nonexistent for me growing up, unless I was visiting my relatives in Germany each summer – my cousins and neighbors always had a ton laying around, and we played them all the time. Maybe the fact that I was indeed a kid played a part in this next thing, but over there it always felt like I was actually in the game rather than simply playing it. A glimmer of this memory came back when I read that as Teuber designed The Settlers of Catan, he "felt like [he] was discovering something rather than inventing it."

I never realized how culturally significant board games actually were in Germany until tonight – more are sold per capita there than anywhere else. Germany even has a special award for them called the Spiel des Jahres prize, which is a huge deal in the gaming world (the one Teuber won for Catan was his second).

"Part of the reason we don't play much Risk and Monopoly as adults is that those are actually poorly designed games, at least in the German sense"

Two of the interesting differences pointed out between American and German board games are about the dynamic the players have with each other. One difference centers around "conquering your opponent" vs. "having a good, competitive time" (I am paraphrasing).
"Monopoly has you grinding your opponents into dust. It's a very negative experience. It's all about cackling when your opponent lands on your space and you get to take all their money." Monopoly, in fact, is a classic example of what economists call a zero-sum game. For me to gain $100, you have to lose $100. For me to win, you have to be bankrupt.

Instead of direct conflict, German-style games tend to let players win without having to undercut or destroy their friends. This keeps the game fun, even for those who eventually fall behind. *
The other difference is about how engaged each player is throughout all points of the game.
Most of [Monopoly]'s interminable three- to four-hour average playing time (length being another maddening trait) is spent waiting for other players to roll the dice, move their pieces, build hotels, and collect rent. Board game enthusiasts disparagingly call this a "roll your dice, move your mice" format.

[German games] are balanced, preventing one person from running away with the game while the others painfully play out their eventual defeat. And the best ones stay fresh and interesting game after game.
Reading this article taught me a lot about how complicated designing a game is, in general. Statistics, engineering and probability are all taken into account to allow for a huge number of possible scenarios with not a lot of rules (Did you know that there are more potential moves in Chess than there are atoms in the universe? WHAT?!). There are actual such things as board game scholars and game experts (ludologists).

After doing a little personal research, I learned that my two favorite board games as a child were actually not designed by a German, but rather an American named Alex Randolph! Will you look at that. Both games have won Spiel des Jahres awards :)

* One of the reasons for this difference is actually rooted in a broader cultural shift: Violence in particular is taboo in Germany's gaming culture, a holdover from decades of post-World War II soul-searching. Wow.
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