POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #53: Elegance and Efficiency, or Hitting Two Flies with One Swat

By Jeffrey D. Allers and friends

Berlin had mild weather this year, and although my sons were disappointed in the lack of snow, it allowed us to keep our bicycles out from Autumn through Spring.  Not that bad weather would ever deter Berliners from braving chilling winds and taking to the icy streets on their velocipedes.  After all, most of our friends here live by the motto, “There is no bad weather—only bad clothes.”

Unlike most American cities, bicycling in Berlin is a common and respected form of transportation.  They have the right-of-way on city streets, and auto drivers are taught to keep an eye out for them, especially when making turns. Bicycles even get their own red-paved paths alongside busy avenues (and pedestrians had best look both ways before crossing them!), complete with cute miniature traffic lights that give them a head start on motorized vehicles.

The downtown areas feature the Velo-Taxi, a kind of modern-day rickshaw for western Europeans.  Tourists and residents alike appreciate a more relaxed ride through historic thoroughfares and neighborhoods.  They can also be rented for special occasions: when my wife and I returned from our wedding in the U.S. several years ago, our German friends organized a second celebration by picking us up in a Velo-Taxi.  They then escorted us through the café-lined streets of our neighborhood on their own bicycles, ringing their little bicycle bells all the way.

Although there is an occasional cyclist on a racing bike, decked out in so much gear you’d swear he was entering the Tour de France, most Berlin residents ride bicycles just to get from one place to another.  Students ride to class, adults ride to work, families ride to the park with toddlers in back seats or babies fastened securely in attached wagons.  Even the elderly can be seen pedaling their way to get groceries.  In the U.S., overly-concerned relatives would probably rather keep them sequestered at home, in fear of an accident: “But, Grandma, you’ll fall over and break a hip!”

There are many benefits to using bicycle transportation, of course.  In the city, it reduces emissions and traffic, and it saves people money they would normally use for fuel and parking.  I like it especially because it has the duel benefit of giving me exercise while getting me where I want to go.

I could get exercise in any number of ways, of course.  There is a chain of reasonably-priced fitness studios that have sprung up all over Berlin.  They do carry the unusual name, McFit, which does not exactly sound healthy to an American ear, but I suppose it has something to do with the German perception that anything with a “Mc” and the beginning means “easy and cheap” thanks to the ever-present McDonald’s restaurants. There is also a McPaper office supply chain, for example.

But I do not really enjoy fitness for fitness’ sake.  Riding a stationary bike, running on a treadmill, or doing either in a circle gives me the feeling that I’m not getting anywhere, a bit like being trapped in an M.C. Escher drawing.  Besides, it only serves one purpose, and I would much rather “kill two birds with one stone” (or, as they say here, “hit two flies with one swat”).

It’s no wonder, then, that I also prefer board games that manage to do this, either with their components or with their rules. This is the ideal for most Eurogames, which have been touting the mantra “less is more” for years, but even the most immersive “experience games” can benefit from their example.

As I’ve tried to design my own games, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the process of streamlining, which is where the real work begins after all the brainstorming sessions. It is then that many of the initial rules need to be tweaked, while others need to be eliminated completely.  Most rewarding, however, is when multiple rules can be consolidated—or when multiple game components can be combined—while maintaining a sense of intuitiveness in the gameplay. This is what I would call creating “design elegance.” Just as bicycling can accomplish more than one thing simultaneously, an elegantly designed game can provide depth with an efficient set of rules and components.

Hitting Two Flies with One Component

Components with multiple functions, for example, have been especially common with card games in recent years.  “Engine-building” games like San Juan, Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome, and Innovation all use cards in multiple ways, which may include currency, resources, actions, buildings and points.  Because of the efficiency of their components, these small-box card games pack a big-box board game punch when played.

But even those bigger games can use components for multiple functions.  Take Macao, whose dice have multiple functions.  The color on each die serves to generate  a specific resource, while the number on the die determines both the quantity available of that resource and how far in the future that resource will become available. The resource cubes also have multiple functions: the color is important in activating a card or determining which tile a player can buy in the town, while any color of cube can be used to move a player’s ship or advance on the wall.

Fellow Opinionated Gamer Jonathan Degann adds, “In Castles of Burgundy, the value on the dice you roll might determine which batch you may take a tile from, or the location on your own board where the tile may later be placed, or the sort of good you may ship.  The color of the tiles determines the type of benefit you get from them, but also determines their placement on the board, and the type of set that you are hoping to complete for bonuses.”

Hitting Two Flies with One Mechanism

In addition to games with multi-functional components, there are also many examples of game rules and mechanisms that accomplish more than one purpose.  The learned staff of Opinionated Gamers recently discussed the topic:

Mark Jackson: in Fresco, choosing your turn order also sets your prices for the turn and increases or decreases your “happiness” level for your apprentices.

Greg Aleknevicus: In New England, your bid (which is more of a worker placement mechanism) determines both the price you pay and the order in which you purchase.

Jonathan Degann: In Caylus, the “road” establishes the order in which actions get executed (which can be important) and also affects the ability of the later actions to be executed at all.  The provost  establishes the starting position of the bailiff (forgive me if I’ve reversed their names), and also paces the game – determining when parts of the castle close and when the game ends.

In Le Havre, you buy ships to ship things.  But that has two meanings.  Most immediately, it lowers your need for food.  Later on, it enables you to ship items outbound for money.

Lorna: In Guild, your bid determines the number of items you can buy, the cost of each item, and the turn order.

W. Eric Martin: Last Will features a turn-order-combined-with-other things mechanism, with your choice of turn order space determining how many things you can claim that round, the number of cards you draw, and how many actions you can take.

Village is another action merger with a number of cubes laid out on various action spaces at the start of a round. On a turn, you choose a cube and (in most cases) optionally take the action associated with that space. Sometimes the cubes help you on that same action, and sometimes you’re stockpiling them for later use. (And sometimes you take a plague cube that does nothing more than hasten the death of one of your villagers. Also, you can play three cubes of the same color to opt out of selecting a cube and take an action of your choice.) When no more cubes are on the board, the round ends. I played this one twice last night and thought it worked well.

Larry Levy: look at Get the Goods (Reibach & Co.). In order to start a meld, you have to first play a card face down. This accomplishes several things.  First, it means it takes more time to begin a new meld, which is critical in that it makes it harder to overcome a player with an existing meld.  It allows you to get rid of unwanted cards.  It adds a little hidden information to the game.  It gives a player with a lead in a good a way of using the cards he chose of that good to keep other players from snatching them.  All wrapped into one simple mechanic.

In Reef Encounter, when players choose a space on the Open Sea board to end their turn, they get both larva cubes and polyp tiles.  So it’s a two-in-one drafting problem.

In Santiago de Cuba, the space you move to determines both which action you can take and which subset of buildings you can visit.

In Quebec, when a player places cubes, he 1) gets to do an action; 2)puts himself in position to increase his position at one of four areas, where a majority of cubes earns points; and 3) gets the owner of the building closer to earning points herself.

Also, look at Emanuele Ornella’s games.  His design signature is highly multi-faceted actions.  This is particularly true in Il Principe, where things are extremely tightly interwoven.  It’s part of Oltremare and Hermagor as well.

Jeff:  Many thanks to my knowledgable friends here on OG for their contribution!

Hitting Two Flies with One Game

I play games because I can enjoy the experience on many different levels. An elegant, efficient design should be the goal of every game—and every game designer.  After all, most of us don’t really want to feel like we’re doing time on a stationary bicycle when we get together for a game night.  We want the mental exercise, but we also want to go somewhere, and an efficient, elegant design makes the ride smoother and every aspect of the experience easier to enjoy.

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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6 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #53: Elegance and Efficiency, or Hitting Two Flies with One Swat

  1. As an American walking in Berlin, the natural course is to walk on the wide red brick path that is free from the other pedestrians. Only by the luck of having a friend pull me violently out of the way did I avoid being run over for walking in the bike path. They have little bells but who listens to a bell? They need air horns on the bikes to get the tourists to move a little faster.

  2. Us Germans believe everything with “Mc” is cheap, because the Scotish are said to be very… price sensitive here. I don’t know where that comes from, but it is a common preconception.
    And as “McXXX” just sounds Scotish to us (like “O’Hxxx” sounds Irish)… :-)

  3. Eric Brosius says:

    On my first trip to Hannover, we were walking in a bike path when a bicyclist rode up to us and started shouting at us in German. This was also the same day we visited a restaurant and found one entree whose price was determined by rolling six d6’s and paying that amount in Euros (unless you rolled six 6’s, which meant your dinner was free!)

  4. Adam Rule says:

    Nice post. I liked how you wove your observations from Berlin into gaming.

    I don’t own any of the games you mention but I’ll be sure and check them out.

  5. Tom Rosen says:

    Great Postcard as usual Jeff. Makes me want to visit Berlin again and play some games. Nice wedding photo too!

  6. Nicefiller says:

    Ihave to test with you here. Which isn’t something I often do! I take pleasure in reading a submit that will make people think. Additionally, thanks for permitting me to remark!

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