POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #48: My Favorite Things

By Jeffrey D. Allers

The most successful artistic expressions are those that start with something familiar, then take it in a new, unexpected direction.  John Coltrane did this with the tune, My Favorite Things, from the popular Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. While it is true that the well-known melody can be heard many times throughout the 14-minute piece, the quartet also transforms it into something completely different–music that would have no recognizable link to the title, if it were isolated from the rest of the song.   The familiar context, however, is a starting point that encourages the listener to join Coltrane’s exploration of a musical space outside the familiar, leading to something completely different—and beautiful.

I was first introduced to the song by an architecture professor who encouraged us to build the same way Coltrane played—to take familiar themes, forms, spaces, and materials, and transform them through an architectural narrative into something unexpected and beautiful.

I’m not really one to do “Top 10” lists, but I can certainly write a bit about “my favorite things,” especially as it pertains to the gaming table in 2010.  And, true to Coltrane, the games that stood out for me the most were those that started with something familiar and took me to an unexpected place that was both new and enjoyable.  These were also the games that were played and requested repeatedly by a wide variety of friends and game group attendees.  In fact, I’ve found that the “familiar” part serves as a hook for those who do not play new games every week, while the “other place” is the appealing part for those of us who get jazzed by new game mechanisms and can’t wait to explore new territory.

The Resistance

One of the first party games I learned in Germany was Mafia, otherwise known as Werewolf.  It was interesting and fun—as long as the company was also interesting and fun—but my patience with it wore thin after awhile.  I longed for an alternative that added more depth to the basic concept, while keeping it’s communicative center.  Late last year, I was excited to learn about The Resistance, which takes much of what is familiar with Werewolf and transforms it with deduction elements and a more cooperative feel.   The tension and opportunity for bluffing are still there, the heated accusations and defenses weave in and out of the story like a familiar melody, but there are added means at a player’s disposal to discovering the truth about each player’s identity.

The narrative is this:  a group of underground resistance fighters are battling with an evil totalitarian government in some Blade Runner-esque future. Players are dealt secret identity cards, with a minority being government spies.  The spies know which of the other players are spies, thanks to the “all players close your eyes, now spies open your eyes” mechanism familiar to Werewolf fans.  The other players do not know who the other spies are, however.

Each round, players take turns playing the part of the leader, who then puts together teams of varying sizes to go on missions.  The first mission may require only two team members, while a later mission may require four.  The other players must, by majority vote, approve the team selection, otherwise the role of leader will pass to the next player and another attempt at assembling a team ensues.

Finally, the approved team goes on the mission.  Each player on the team is given two further voting cards: blue means they are working for the mission, red means they are sabotaging it.  The resistance players naturally only play blue cards, while any spy present in the team can either play a red card to sabotage the mission, or play a blue card to help conceal her identity.  All but one of the five missions require only one red card to fail.  The first team to win three of the five missions wins the game.  There is also a set of expansion cards included in the box that make things more interesting, as each card has a special action on it, such as allowing the recipient to assume the role of leader, or even to look at another player’s character card.  Each leader distributes two of these cards face-up to two different players at the beginning of the round, allowing more opportunity for concealing or revealing that leader’s identity.

I have played The Resistance both with and without the expansion cards included in the box, and the game works beautifully either way.  Although I am not very good at playing the saboteur (I am terrible at concealing the truth, which is otherwise a good thing), I enjoy very much the skill involved in deducing and routing out the moles when I am part of the resistance.  And even if I am easily detected as one of the government spies towards the beginning of the game, I can draw attention away from my colleagues in order to sabotage the required 3 missions.

Timing is critical, as there are only three missions required for the win, and when played well, the tense game builds to a nail-biting climax, when the fifth mission is finally revealed to a mixture of cheers and (often surprised) groans.  Besides the tension and narrative, I enjoy exercising the different skills needed to play this multi-dimensional gem.  Choosing team members, forming temporary coalitions, and awarding special cards all require much thought, but taking too much time can also blow a player’s cover if he happens to be the spy.

In The Resistence, the familiar, accessible elements of Werewolf and other, more recent semi-cooperative games, combine with new strategic and deductive layers, making this one of my most-played games of 2010—and 2011—and I expect to be playing this for many years to come.

Freeze

Although I usually stick to writing feature stories on culture and game design, this game inspired me to write my first review for Boardgamenews before Essen last year.  Since then, I have played the game many more times in a variety of circumstances and with a variety of people, all of whom enjoyed the experience enough that they wanted to immediately play it again.  Furthermore, so many of them have purchased the game afterwards that Berlin co-designer Andrea Meyer may want to start paying me a commission.  I still get Facebook messages occasionally that read, “Thank-you, Jeff Allers—Freeze was a hit at our retreat last week!”

Freeze, like the others on this list, takes elements from games familiar to just about anyone—such as Charades and other common party games—and transforms them into something unique and fun.  Making an improv comedy boardgame also has its challenges, as it is something that many people would love to try, but few are talented enough to perform successfully—it’s just not as easy as it looks.

Freeze, however, succeeds in making an improv game that is accessible to players of different skill levels and personalities.  The team approach and limits to each sketch (role and time) give just enough room for extroverts to play up the scene, while introverts do not feel uncomfortable playing their parts.  And the ranking system adds a level of strategy to the game that transcends mere “guessing games,” as actors must also pay attention to the roles that the others are playing, and adjust their own roles accordingly.

Most of all, players in Freeze noticeably improve as the game progresses.  They learn better awareness of the other actors in each skit, and they become more skillful in communicating their rank to each other and to the audience. And as they get better, the skits become more entertaining.

7 Wonders

I am not someone to swoon over a single game, always preferring variety in my limited gaming time, and I am therefore not really interested in hype.  7 Wonders, then, makes it onto my list more in spite of its recent popularity than because of it–and because it made it to the table at least once every game session since its release late last year.

7 Wonders may not have much new, but I find that, again, the familiar elements are comforting for a diverse group of gamers.  Many typical game design elements are present:  resources, building costs, card drafting, set collection.  Anyone familiar with this vocabulary can jump into the game quickly, and it’s all over so fast that a follow-up game is almost a requirement.  What could have easily joined the family of multi-player solitaire games, however, instead includes some subtle—but important—player interaction, that is admittedly more evident with few players.  The flexibility to deliver a decent gaming experience with seven, however, is also a nice touch, and one of the reasons it receives so much attention in our group.

These are the three published games that I’ve played the most in 2010.  One could argue that they are too light or too short to be compared to a Coltrane composition, but I realize that the analogy is limited.  I wanted, instead, to focus on recent games that take familiar elements and expound upon them (and perhaps I’ll address another type of game in the future, that which introduce a single innovation and surrounds it with familiar elements, something evident in 2010’s Die Speicherstadt and many others).

Admittedly, my own gaming time is very limited, and there are several promising games I am anxious to try, most notably Hanabi, Navegador, Famiglia and Sun, Sea and Sand. Instead, most of the games I’ve played multiple times in 2010 were actually prototypes that will be released this year or next.  I’m very excited about these, of course, especially two heavier games I’ve been working on and a new card game for Irongames from Bernd that is my favorite game of his to date (even a visiting publisher exclaimed, “That’s the kind of game I want to publish!” after playing the prototype for the first time).  And there is a new designer in our group from Canada who has breathed new life into the negotiation game genre. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his prototypes, even though this is a type of game I normally avoid,  and I’ll be happy to help him make connections with German publishers.

Of course, I’ve played quite of bit of Wampum, also a 2010 release, but game designers—even more than “cult-of-the-new”-gamers—are always distracted by the future.   These were a few of my favorite things of 2010, but if you ask me what my favorite game currently is, I can’t help but answer, “My next one.”

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About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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