One of the most difficult things to do when purchasing games is how to know if a game is any good. You can watch game review videos (try the Dice Tower), read reviews online, and pay attention to the general zeitgeist and what others are thinking. What you should really know about purchasing games is that there is no magic wand that can tell whether or not a game is for you unless you have the benefit of perspective. For me, that has only come with many years of playing games, mostly good games, but more importantly, all games that represent the pinnacle of that genre or mechanism in game design.
If you asked me “I hear a lot about Carcassonne. Would I like it?” The only answer I can give is “Have you played a tile laying game before?” There are some qualities in tile laying games that all games of that genre share. When you have played one, you gain a certain amount of experience and perspective to know what another game with the same mechanism will be like.
Where this breaks down, unfortunately, is that there are dozens upon dozens of mechanisms and combinations thereof. A recent game that cropped up on my radar is Tyrants of the Underdark. On the surface, this sounds like my kind of game. It’s an area control game that uses a deck building system for taking actions. I love area control, but once I saw the game in action, I saw how far the deck building component was used.
Deck building is a mechanism that does not appeal to me greatly. Of the deck building games that I have played (Dominion, Trains, Ascension, Lord of the Rings, Legendary, Thunderstone), the mechanism itself doesn’t conjure any enjoyment in me because it gives the illusion of control. A deck building game doesn’t allow you much choice in your decision when playing cards besides just how you have selected cards for your deck in combination with other cards. Your hope is that you form certain combinations at certain times to make grand moves. The important word in that sentence is hope. You are always at the mercy of the shuffle.
When deck building is used as an action mechanism, the area control freedom breaks down. I am currently working on a game design (I might write more about this in the future) that has a certain combination of these things and my fear is that I fall into this same trap. Area control requires calculated moves at certain timings. If this isn’t allowed by the action mechanism, the ability to maintain that control gets lost. This is just one small example of how a combination of mechanisms can result in a frustrating unenjoyable game. However, that doesn’t mean others who enjoy the deck building mechanism more won’t find the fun with Tyrants of the Underdark.
One of the goals of this blog is to give gamers tools by which to judge games and understand why mechanisms work in games and why they don’t. Gaining the ability to use this perspective arms you with a much greater ability to judge if games will be right for you and what you will like or dislike about them.