Summer Reruns #6 — Getting Better All The Time

Many games lose their appeal after you’ve played them a few times, maybe most games.  You spend months looking forward to their release, perhaps you even pre-order the game and then check the FedEx or UPS tracking number constantly once it finally ships.  Then it arrives and you eagerly tear off the shrink wrap, punch out all of the pieces, bag them, and read the rules (if you haven’t already downloaded and read a PDF of the rules).  You bring the game to a game day and convince the group to give it a try.  If you’re lucky it’s a blast and everyone enjoys it.  Then you play it again a couple weeks later, and maybe a third time within a month or two.  It’s still fun but it’s no longer shiny and new.  It’s still enjoyable, but not quite as exciting and the sense of adventure is gone.  Then again, this may not sound like a familiar pattern to you, but it certainly is to me.  That’s why I particularly treasure games that get better the more you play them.  These are games that may not even be very good the first time you play them due to the lack of familiarity with the system or possibilities, but if you give them a chance, they’ll repay you many times over.  It’s a small crop of games, and a disparate one as well.  They’re treasures in my collection because this is the type of game that never gathers dust as it ages.  The only thing they really have in common is that they all fell flat at first, and now their vintage is properly aged and coming into its own.

Original Air Date: October 6, 2008

Fairy Tale, designed by Satoshi Nakamura and published in the U.S. by Z-Man Games, is the game that prompted me to write this column.  It’s an unassuming little card game that comes in a tiny box, was added to a game order simply to hit the free shipping threshold, and sat on my shelf for months before ever getting played.  Come to think of it, it’s a bad game to lead off this article with since it most certainly breaks the mold of the generalizations in the paragraph above.  On the other hand, it’s a perfect fit to exemplify this type of game because it’s so very different from another game I’ll be discussing shortly – Antiquity – and yet they’re both games I disliked after my first play.  They’re both anomalies because the slope of an imaginary graph of my enjoyment of them over time is remarkably positive, unlike the hordes of games with a negative slope.  Fairy Tale is a simple card game for 2 to 5 players, where all you have to do is draft a hand of five cards and play three of them onto the table.  You repeat this process four times, ending the game when you have twelve cards sitting in front of you, and add up the points on your twelve cards to see if you’ve won.  It’s deceptively simple because the structure of the game belies the web of relationships among the various cards and their possible interactions.  It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable or memorable game at first because of its complexity hidden within its simplicity.  That is to say, it seems too simple to be interesting at first blush, but in reality only its rules are simple.  You can’t possibly know or comprehend the universe of cards in the game until you’ve played a few times.  And you can’t possibly appreciate the depth of the game until you grasp all of the cards at your disposal.  So that you don’t mistake my meaning, it’s not much depth, but it’s more than enough to fill this 15 minutes game with interesting decision points.  I’ve played the game over 50 times now and it’s gotten remarkably more and more enjoyable with successive plays.  Now that the variety of cards and their interactions has become second nature, the game has really hit its stride.

Reiner Knizia has designed hundreds of games, many of which are excellent, but many of which are completely forgettable.  Two of them make this list because they may seem like they fall into the latter category at first and their place in the pantheon of the former category only becomes apparent after repeated plays.  Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation and Ra don’t have much in common, but they do have this in common.  They both seemed at first as if they were destined to gather dust, but years later they’re both still going strong for me, and have racked up 45 and 62 plays respectively, with strong showings year after year.  Both games have the same distinctive trait of Fairy Tale discussed above; they’re both deceptively simple, yet they involve complex interactions that are belied by the simplicity of the rules themselves.  The rules of both LOTR: Confrontation and Ra are remarkably easy to teach, having taught both games numerous times, but the strategy of both is very difficult to explain to a new player.  I end up just telling new players to play by the seat of their pants at first until they have a couple games under their belt.  I don’t mean high-level, intricate strategy by any means (which I don’t try to teach for any game I explain), but rather, I mean low-level, basic strategic possibilities, including simply the potential motivation for pursuing various general approaches or paths.  The innumerable possible interactions among the characters in LOTR: Confrontation is something that simply needs to be seen, rather than learned upfront.  You can easily learn the rules upfront, but trying to comprehend the ways in which each character interacts with each other character is a fool’s errand.  Similarly, learning when and where to invoke Ra is not something that can be taught; it’s something that you learn to feel as you gain experience.  The subtleties of both of these games can only be appreciated with experience, and that’s why they not only fall flat at first, but also both get better all the time.

The games mentioned thus far have all been fairly simple games with hidden depths.  Antiquity, designed by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga and published by Splotter Spellen, does not fit that mold.  Antiquity is remarkably complex and overwhelming game at first, which only becomes more straightforward and easy to grasp with repeated plays.  Antiquity is a beast that can only truly be appreciated once you’ve tamed it, whereas games like Fairy Tale and Ra can only be appreciated once you’ve given them the chance to blossom so that you can see their hidden layers.  I didn’t like Antiquity one bit after the first time I played it.  I muddled through, was glad to be finished, and never intended to play again.  It was overwhelming and seemed too complex and fiddly to possibly be enjoyable.  Fortunately, a friend convinced me to give it a second shot about six months later and I got much more out of the experience.  With most of the rules already under my belt, the second experience was entirely different from the first.  I was able to spend more time thinking about what I wanted to do in the game, and less time focused on how to actually do it.  I was able to better appreciate the myriad possibilities and the ways in which the decisions I didn’t even know I was making were having long-term repercussions over the course of the game.  The second play was just the beginning.  The third and fourth plays were even better.  I’m up to 28 plays of this behemoth now and it’s still getting better.  Antiquity is one of my all-time favorites now, but never would’ve been given a second thought if I hadn’t given it another chance to get better.

It might seem at first as if all extremely complex games would fit into the group discussed in this article, but I think it depends on the structure of the game.  While I think that my experiences with Descent: Journeys in the Dark and War of the Ring have paralleled my experience with Antiquity to some extent, I know that Die Macher most certainly has not.  I loved Die Macher from the start, despite its overwhelming complexity.  I think the reason for this distinction is that Die Macher builds significant repetition into the game system.  There are six identical rounds during the game so you have the chance, even in your first game, to learn from your mistakes and gain a better understanding for how the game works.  Antiquity (along with Descent and War of the Ring) follows an arc or progression that does not repeat, but rather builds to a crescendo over the course of the game.  Your early decisions are crucial because of their ramifications later on and you never have the chance to change those decisions, which you certainly weren’t informed enough to make when you were forced to make them.

Abstract games are another genre that tend to improve with experience rather than having the shine wear off.  I know the Project GIPF games, like YINSH and DVONN, are difficult to appreciate at first.  However, the game that most exemplifies this for me is Blokus.  This is a game that takes the principle of simple rules with underlying complexity to the extreme (outshining even Fairy Tale in that regard).  The rules of Blokus can be taught in a matter of seconds.  The way the game actually works takes at least a few practice games to get the hang of.  In particular, the ways in which the various pieces can be used takes many games to understand and appreciate.  Your first few games of Blokus are generally random forays across the board, despite the ease with which you can learn all of the rules to the game.  There’s no sense or order to the way in which you ought to use your pieces and you can’t really be taught to find your way, just as in Ra, but rather need to find your way on your own.  It’s worth investing the time to really appreciate, even if the payoff is minimal at first, as this is another game that will get markedly better the more you play it.

Those 5 games are a few of the rare gems out of the over 900 games that I’ve played that come to mind when I think about games that get better with age.  They’re not my favorite games (as you can see from my Top 100), but they do certainly stand out in their own way.  A couple of other games that I consider contenders for this grouping, but that I need more experience with to make sure that they belong, are Meuterer and Cities.  Both have gotten significantly better with experience and show signs of fitting the archetype discussed above, so I have high hopes that they’ll help add to this small yet significant crop of games.

I should note that, as with many of the groupings of games that I come up with in my columns (e.g., survival games, investment games, games best with three players, games where patience isn’t a virtue, games best as teams), this category of games is fairly amorphous and difficult to pin down.  I invite you to think about what games have improved for you as you’ve played them more and more, and to suggest additional possibilities.  Then again, your interest in most games may not follow the same trajectory as mine, waning with exposure generally, so perhaps it would be quicker for you to make the opposite list of games that get worse with experience.  Either way, I simply close with this note to confess that singling out these games may not make as much sense to others as it does to me, since everyone’s experiences with the games they encounter is very different based on who you play games with and where you are in the hobby when you first encounter any given game.  Regardless, I commend the games discussed above to you, especially to those of you who might have tried any of these games once, and not given them a second shot due to a disappointing first play.  Take another look and you might find an overlooked gem.  I myself have certainly played more than my fair share of games a single time, and I would love to hear about games that I ought to give a second try because you think I’ll likely appreciate them much more upon further inspection.  That second play might be all it takes to discover a new favorite game.

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7 Responses to Summer Reruns #6 — Getting Better All The Time

  1. dancerindc says:

    I couldn’t agree more about Fairy Tale – I often call it an “MVP” in my collection because it has held up so well on repeated plays, is portable, and fits a variety of gaming situations.

  2. Paul Owen says:

    Your experience with Antiquity reminds me of a blog post I did a while ago, “Thoughts on approachability.” I was reflecting on games that I had a hard time learning with my wife, Race for the Galaxy in particular. It made me wonder to what extent is it a game designer’s responsibility to make the game “approachable” to the new gamer the first time through. From your description, the designer of Fairy Tale succeeded admirably in making a game easy to learn with a depth that reveals it self in subsequent play.

  3. huzonfirst says:

    Paul, to me, Fairy Tale actually failed that approachability test. For one thing, the theme was a turn-off, but that’s simply a matter of taste. But the real issue for us was the same one that dogged Race for the Galaxy and that was iconography. It was sufficiently obscure that it slowed the game down while you tried to make out what effects an opponent had chosen. And if you ignored that and played the game at the speed it was intended, it turned into multi-player solitaire. Had it been advertised as a 2-player game, it would have been different, but it wasn’t. I also might have given it a chance if I’d been exposed to Magic-style drafting prior to playing it. But as it was, the game made a poor first impression and has gotten very little subsequent play in our group. I don’t know if iconography that was clearer and still maintained the card abilities was possible. But if they had managed this, it probably would have made a big difference for us.

  4. Paul Owen says:

    Wow, it just goes to show you that the same game can leave two people with completely different impressions. Maybe I should look for an opportunity to play this game before buying it.

    By the way, I admit that the theme is an unlikely one to interest me, and in fact I’m working on a blog post for tomorrow on that very topic. Sometimes I can get past a weird theme for the sake of enjoying a well-designed game, but sometimes I can’t. In this case, I’m willing to overlook the Fairy Tale thing if the game works well.

  5. Tom Rosen says:

    Unlike most quick fillers that can leave many feeling kind of ambivalent, I think Fairy Tale tends to inspire stronger love/hate reactions. However, I think a lot of those that strongly dislike it could actually enjoy it a great deal if they were to play it enough.

    I think on that count it actually fails in terms of approachability. I suppose all of the games highlighted above fail in terms of approachability because they’re ones that you can’t really enjoy until you know them well, but can’t get to know well until you push through the less enjoyable part. A bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, I suppose.

    I think my point may be that approachable games are all well and good, but if you’re ~$30 investment begins to get boring after a few plays, then wonderful approachability be damned, it’s all for naught. Whereas if it’s something that gets better and better, even if it starts off relatively impenetrable, then you may end up with something worthwhile in the end, which is what really matters I think.

    • huzonfirst says:

      I agree, Tom. I very rarely have a problem with a game that has a significant learning curve, as these games are often the ones that best reward repeated play. However, fillers are a bit different, as you kinda want those to be good out of the box (or at least by the second play). The question, as always, is how many plays do I want to devote to this game before I start enjoying it. Perhaps paradoxically, I’m usually more willing to put that time in on longer and heavier games than on a filler. Maybe that’s because we don’t really play too many fillers, but it also may be because we tend to look for a different kind of play experience with a filler and a significant learning curve comes across as more of an annoyance than as a chance to experience something deep.

  6. Frank says:

    It will be interesting to see if 7 Wonders falls into this same category. We played it for the first time yesterday (2 plays), and the first play was rocky as we learned the system, simple as it is. The next game was completely quickly and efficiently, with each of us starting to grasp the strategy, although it was clear that repeated play would generate the card knowledge to really plan.

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