138 Games: From Can’t Stop to Borderlands

It’s time for the 80s.  It appears the Opinionated Gamers have a soft spot for the 80s as there will be a few entries in our 138 Games series with nothing but 80s games, starting with Can’t Stop from 1980 today.  We’ll work our way up to 1982 today through Borderlands, but will come back next time in 1983 with a few well-known games that you may just be able to anticipate.  Until then, check out these games from dice rollers, to crayon drawers, to harbingers of a gaming future rich with resources.

- Can’t Stop -

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  I think Can’t Stop is the flag carrier of the “push your luck” genre: the push your luck game par excellence.  Simple, elegant, essential using just what is the luck symbol: dice.

No complex rules, no attempt to hide its essence: rolls and risks, risks and luck.  No one can avoid the desire to roll more and the name is the essence of the game:  you can’t stop.

Matt Carlson:  An elegant push-your-luck game that only requires four dice to play.  The board is an elegant piece of work that allows even non-math types the ability to gauge the probability or value of any given combination of dice. The name itself rings true… it is hard to stop rolling when you think you can get just a little more progress.  I recently brought this game out to teach my kindergarten aged-son.  Even at that young age he took right to it.  As he continued to roll and roll (getting an insanely lucky streak) I was able to point out how the name of the game was important “you just can’t stop!”.  At first glance, this looks to be a dry game, but treat it as a light filler or party game with non-gamers and watch in wonder as people get intensely interested in this fairly themeless game.

Larry:  A decade ago, if you had asked one of your gamer friends to play a dice game from his collection, you undoubtedly would have been shown Can’t Stop.  Sure, something like Farkle or even Yahtzee can be fun with the right crowd, but the Sackson game combines elegance, speed, skill, and great fun in one concise package.  Why not play the best?

Today, there are many more fine dice game choices available to us, but Can’t Stop still holds a special place in our hearts.  For one thing, more than 30 years after its creation, it remains the pre-eminent “push your luck” game.  Despite its wonderfully simple rules, you’ll need more than mere luck to be successful; good judgment and a little probability awareness are definitely helpful.  The game was made for smack talk–good naturedly ripping into your opponents for their “cowardly” decisions to stop rolling or laughing at their failed attempts to try “just once more” is as much fun as rolling the dice yourself.  Maybe the best recommendation I can make is to note that in the majority of the Can’t Stop games I’ve seen, there is a sizable contingent of kibitzers rooting the players on (and giving them a hard time when they crap out).  You don’t see onlookers for games of Agricola or Puerto Rico, but Can’t Stop is so good and so much fun that you can enjoy yourself even if you aren’t participating.  Maybe that’s why when it comes to this particular dice game, we just can’t stop… playing.

Nathan Beeler:  I’ve come to realize that while I love Can’t Stop, I don’t have the balls to be very good at it.  It’s in my nature to play it safe, and someone always comes along behind me and takes all my carefully built progress.  Several folks I know swear by the “cap or crap” method of not stopping until they’ve capped off at least one column (or crapped out).  Seems to work for them, but I can’t manage it.  Also fun, by the way, is the version taught to me by my friend Dave Arnott: Can’t Stop Can’t Stop.  In that variant you are not allowed to stop rolling if one of your turn markers is on top of another player’s piece.  Hilarity always ensues.

- Civilization -

Joe Huber:  There is a myth about Civilization, that the game takes forever to play, to the point that you need to devote a full day to playing it.  While my favorite way to play the game is to set aside a day for it, last year I played my only game of Civilization at the end of a day of gaming, playing for about four and a half hours, and finishing the game when we ran out of time.  It’s not the best way to play the game – but if you’ve avoided playing Civilization because you don’t want to spend eight hours, just play with a time limit.

Of course, even having decided to play a fixed length game of Civilization (for which my recommendation is to set up front a plan not to start a round after a particular time – this allows folks to plan for the end of the game in advance), you’ll need to decide whether to play the original game or Advanced Civilization.  Both have many proponents – each game presents interesting tradeoffs.  One advantage of the original is that it’s a shorter game.  On the other hand, there’s no explicit incomplete game scoring in the original game, while Advanced Civilization has a full set of scoring rules for ending early.  Personally, having tried both recently, I’ve come to realize that I really prefer Advanced Civilization – but I’d argue that the best way to play it, at least the first time, is whichever way the people you’re playing it with prefer.  It’s worth noting that Advanced Civilization does not make the game more complex, particularly – but it does add some length to the game.

Just as with Acquire, I didn’t vote for Civilization – because again I thought it was obvious that everyone should play Civilization.  So, set aside some time (I’d recommend at least four hours), gather up some folks (ideally at least one person familiar with the game to get you quickly through the early turns and into the meat of the game), and give it a whirl.  You might or might not enjoy the game – but you’ll have a lot more appreciation for the many, many “two hour Civilization” attempts.

- Empire Builder -

Mary Prasad:  Empire Builder is the flagship of the Mayfair crayon rail games. It is the quintessential pick-up-and-delivery game. Not to mention that it has crayons and you can draw all over the board. But that aside, the game gets its name from the premiere passenger train of the Great Northern (GN) Railway of 1929. The train itself was named in honor of GN’s founder and railroad tycoon James J. Hill who was given the moniker “Empire Builder” for obvious reasons.

Empire Builder has spawned an entire series of crayon rail games – all still very popular today. There are at least 12 in the series, including the newest addition Empire Express (2012), a more simplified, streamlined introductory game to the series. Empire Builder is in its 5th edition; it has been continuously in print for over 30 years.

- Axis & Allies -

Matt Carlson:  I wanted just one gift for Christmas 1982, this giant wargame with piles of plastic pieces called Axis and Allies.  I knew I liked Risk but this seemed to be something like an advanced form of Risk.  Celebrating Christmas far from home on a ski vacation in Montana, I awoke to find Axis & Allies awaiting for myself and my older brother.  I do not remember much from that vacation beyond the one day we decided to take a break from skiing to rest up – which meant I got to play Axis and Allies (nearly) all day long with my brother.  While other similar games may have existed before (simple wargames with economic components), Axis and Allies was produced for the public in a way that marks it (to me) as the first great “Ameritrash” game.  Rather than simply providing armies for cash, Axis and Allies allows players to shop for the units they want to buy.  Save up for that battleship, or buy piles of armies for defense now?  Armies were produced at factories bringing in primitive supply lines to the mix – buy armies now so you can push into Russia two or three turns from now, etc…  By allowing me to choose the make-up of my own army, Axis & Allies was able to bring me into the role of the country I played far better than most wargames I’ve played before or since.  The game also provides a nice asymmetric setup for five players (2 vs. 3) with any one player needing to perform reasonably well or the rest of their team suffers.  Other games came out in the mega-box with plastic pieces Game Master line of games, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Axis & Allies.

- Borderlands -

Larry:  So it’s 30 years ago and you sit down to play this game.  And it’s something like Risk, only you don’t get awarded new armies, you have to buy them.  And the resources that pay for them come from the territories you control and the things you buy can not only increase your military strength, they can also bump up your production ability.  What’s more, the game involves shipping and trading in order to make these resources work.  And lots of diplomacy and negotiations.  And, oh yeah, the game uses variable starting positions, so that no two games are remotely alike.  And to top it off, combat involves absolutely no luck and yet still involves wonderful surprises and lots of scope for brilliant gambits.  And believe it or not, the whole thing plays in less than two hours.  And this is thirty years ago!

If you think your jaw would be hanging open after playing such a game, then you’ve pretty much grasped my reaction the first time I played Borderlands.  The game was so far ahead of its time that it took 20 years (and a change of continents) for me to find games that really rivaled it.  Bruno Faidutti called it “the missing link between Civilization and Settlers of Catan” and it really did anticipate an awful lot of mechanics that made Settlers the best known modern game in the world.  And despite an awful lot of advancements in gaming, this Eon classic has held up very well over the years.  It has a nasty learning curve (since, like Settlers, your most important decision is your first one–the initial placement of your pieces), but for those who take the time to understand the strategies, this remains one of the great experiences in gaming.  The best thing is, if you want to try it, very shortly you won’t have to go through the effort and expense of buying one of the few existing copies.  After many delays, FFG finally announced they will release their version of the game (to be called Gearworld: The Borderlands) sometime during the second quarter of the year.  I have no idea what changes (if any) will be made, but the fact that all three of the Eon designers are on board gives me great hope.  Maybe then this great unknown game will finally get the acclaim it so richly deserves.

Ben McJunkin:  Despite being relatively new to the gaming hobby, I included Borderlands on my board game bucket list for the very reasons that Larry alluded to. The game was so far ahead of its time that, sitting down to play it today, you can really see the bridge it built to so many modern board game traditions.  While the gameplay no longer rivals the best modern games, if you are someone who cares at all about the development path that the hobby has taken, then Borderlands is a necessary chapter in your historical education.   Just as Acquire serves as the archetype, and quintessential reference point, for shareholding games, Borderlands is a progenitor of territorial resource-production efficiency games.  Considering its historical context, it is a design marvel.

To be continued…

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4 Responses to 138 Games: From Can’t Stop to Borderlands

  1. ianthecool says:

    Yeah, Empire Builder! Eurorails is my all-time favourite game.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      I love Eurorails too, even with a lack of real player interaction and the game coming down to the luck of the last load cards drawn. My favorite memory is a 5-player game on the train from Prague to Berlin. It was a 5-hour ride, and we finished just as the train was pulling into the last station. I even delivered beer from Prague to Berlin during the game, so I had to have a Czech beer when we arrived:-)

    • rprasadusa says:

      I do enjoy the crayon rail games, but I love love LOVE what they did with the Empire Express cards! I don’t play any of these games enough to know the details of all the cards, so it was very helpful having the necessary information (sources of goods, map) right on the cards. If they’d release maps/cards like those for the other games, I’d happily replace the old versions!

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