I noticed the other day that some of my favorite games from this past year are direct spinoffs of earlier games. Titles like Ora et Labora, Airlines Europe, and First Sparks are new versions of earlier gamers (respectively, Le Havre, Airlines/Union Pacific, and Funkenschlag/Power Grid). In some cases, I feel the newer games are improvements on the titles they are derived from. However, there are other cases where I prefer the earlier game. This got me thinking about how often those preferences matched those of my fellow Opinionated Gamers. So I asked them and, since we’re all so opinionated, most of them let me know just how they felt and why. The result was interesting enough that we thought we’d present these findings to you and possibly see how some of you felt as well.
We’re going to call these groups of designs game families. A game family is a collection of games which all originate from the same source. For example, Small World comes from the designer’s earlier Vinci and, as we’ve already seen, Power Grid (and Power Grid: The First Sparks) were derived from Funkenschlag. There are more instances like this than you might think; if you’ve got a good idea, why not try to rework it into a form that might sell better (or that might sell just as well to a new audience)? Usually the designer for all the games in the family is the same, but that’s not a requirement: Das Zeptor von Zavandor and Phoenicia are both derived from Outpost, but the three games have different designers. The connection needs to be pretty direct, not just a thematic or titular tie-in. For example, Settlers and the Settlers Card Game aren’t all that similar. The different games need to be different; simple repackagings, rethemings, or retitlings aren’t enough. Finally, we decided to rule out expansions, partly because that wasn’t the original intent, but mostly because there’s so damn many of them that they would overwhelm the process. We’ll save those for another article.
Over the next few days, we’ll present some game families and show you how many of us preferred each of the games and how many have no preference. In many cases, people also wrote the reasons for their preference. If you want to give us your own feelings about any of these games in the comments section, that’ll be great.
We came up with a total of 25 families that enough of us cared about to consider. We’ll do them in chronological order. Today, we’ll cover the families whose original game comes from the pre-Settlers era (prior to 1995). During the next two days, we’ll look at the late nineties and the 21st century. But first, let’s start with one of the most influential games ever designed:
Cosmic Encounter [older versions] (1977-2000)
Cosmic Encounter [FFG version] (2008)
The Eon designers decided to self-publish Cosmic after it was rejected by Parker Brothers and it has seen many versions since then. We decided to group together all the older versions (including the Mayfair, West End, and Avalon Hill versions) and compare them to the latest version from Fantasy Flight. The FFG edition changes a number of rules, under the guidance of Kevin Wilson and the blessing of the three original designers.
Older Cosmic preference: (3) Fraser, Dale, John P
FFG Cosmic preference: (1) Erik Arneson
No preference: (1) Brian Leet
Fraser: I used to play Eon Cosmic a lot with gaming friends when it was the one and only. Some of the more recent ones may look prettier, but it is still Eon for me (usually with multiple powers and no moons or lucre).
Dale: The reasoning here is simply that I felt lost the one time I played the FFG version. I don’t know if the older rules are “better” or not, but at least I know them.
John P: Mostly for sentimental reasons as Eon is what I grew up on. I like it warts and all. And if anyone has expansions 8 or 9 they’d be willing to part with, let me know!
Advanced Civilization (1991)
The original Civ, of course, is one of the greatest games ever created. That didn’t stop a group of fans from putting together some revised rules in an attempt to improve the experience. This was subsequently blessed by Avalon Hill, which put out a boxed version of the game 10 years after the original was released. Civ crazies have been arguing ever since which version of the game is better.
Civ preference: (1) Fraser
Advanced Civ preference: (3) Joe Huber, Dale, Greg Schloesser
No preference: (1) Brian Leet
Fraser: I will happily play either given the chance, but the less forgiving nature of the original Civilization puts it in front for me. Set aside seven players and most of a day.
Joe: After having played Advanced Civilization most of the time for more than a decade, we played the original recently, and found it – enjoyable, but honestly not as good. In particular, we found it was much more difficult to hold an early leader back, and the shortage of civilization cards felt unthematic; why should other players having discovered metalworking prevent my civilization from doing so?
Dale: The original Civ is simply too brutal/capricious for a game of its length. I am not against playing the game all day, but to be totally screwed by one random card with not much way to get out of the hole it creates is no longer my choice for fun.
Greg: My thoughts mirror that of Joe and Dale. I much prefer playing Advanced Civilization for these exact reasons.
Brian Leet: The opportunity to play either is so rare I don’t discriminate.
Union Pacific (1999)
Airlines Europe (2011)
Airlines is Alan Moon’s first game to be published in Germany and he updated it twice. UP switches the setting to trains and adds an uber-stock, Union Pacific. Airlines Europe sends us back to the friendly skies and takes away the route cards but adds a financial element to the game.
Airlines preference: (1) Joe Huber
Union Pacific preference: (5) Ted Cheatham, Nathan, Patrick Brennan, Erik Arneson, Greg Schloesser
Airlines Europe preference: (5) Larry, Dale, Mary Prasad, Patrick Korner, Brian Leet
No preference: (0)
Joe: Airlines Europe came closer to capturing the charm of Airlines for me, but I still prefer the original edition, as the addition of a generic, global stock to the game took away from the tight feel.
Larry: The monetary aspect of Airlines Europe adds the extra element that, to me, makes a really good game even better. The other changes from UP are basically refinements, but I think they’re all improvements. So while I’ve always rated both Airlines and UP highly, I have a clear preference for Airlines Europe.
Nathan: Like many of these situations, I played UP first and so it is the one I’m most drawn toward. The other two, when I finally got to play them, didn’t have nearly the same appeal to me.
Dale: While I’ve played UP the most, I am very very frustrated by the debate that preceeds every game of UP as far as trying to figure out how and when people can buy UP stock. Also, I’ve always felt that the track cards in the game are an unnecessary obstacle to building.
Mary: I prefer Airlines Europe; I like the refinements.
Patrick K.: I like Airlines Europe as it feels like the share system is the most refined and complete. The way the Air Abacus shares are handled makes them feel like an important (but not all-important) aspect of the game, which is not something I felt I could say about the Union Pacific shares in that game.
Brian Leet: I’ve liked each step of the evolution. Larry and Patrick’s comments sum up my thoughts as well.
Das Zeptor von Zavandor (2004)
Outpost was released by tiny TimJim Games 20 years ago. Its small, but fanatical following was enhanced when an enthusiast made it the basis for Zeptor, which turns the sci-fi setting into a fantasy one. Independently, Tom Lehmann, who had worked closely with TimJim, designed Phoenicia, which boils down the game’s mechanics to their essence, resulting in a much faster game with an historical setting.
Outpost preference: (1) Joe Huber
Zeptor preference: (3) Patrick Brennan, Patrick Korner, Greg Schloesser
Phoenicia preference: (2) Larry, Ted Cheatham
No preference: (1) Dale
Larry: I’ve never played Outpost, but I never thought it would be a favorite; a longish, pure auction game with a significant luck factor didn’t sound that appealing. Zeptor is a good game, but its length kept it from getting to the table very often and the theme doesn’t do much for me. Phoenicia, OTOH, blew me away from the start. The luck is greatly reduced, I prefer the historical theme, and every decision matters. It’s a fascinating exercise of valuation and judgment with lots of player interaction that plays very fast. The poor job that the publisher did on the rules and components is very disappointing, but that doesn’t stop this from being one of my favorite designs of the past five years.
Ted C: Larry is spot on. To me, Outpost and Zeptor are just too long with most players (not Huber speed).
Joe: First – Outpost, even with new players, can be played in 2 hours; with experienced players, we’ve played a 5 player game in as little as an hour. It’s also not, despite Larry’s claim, a pure auction game; the heart of the game is an economic growth game, with an auction element on the side. Phoenicia is a fine attempt at capturing the heart of the system, but for me, it falls short. First, it’s too rapid; there’s not really an effective choice between slower and faster paths, as there’s not enough time for a slower path to play out. I’ve seen players come back in Outpost by saving up, and buying the first Moon Base; I’ve never seen a similar approach work in Phoenicia because the game’s over too fast. And unfortunately, Phoenicia doesn’t solve the main problem I see with all three games – the fallaway trailer. In about 50% of the games I’ve played, of any variety, one player has been completely out of the running by mid-game. Fortunately, I enjoy Outpost enough to not be too bothered when that player is me.
Dale: No preference. I honestly don’t like any of these. Outpost and Zeptor are borderline too long, and I’ve always been turned off by the fact that most players need a calculator in order to play effectively. Phoenicia was a disaster for me with the awful rule and production issues – I (attempted) to play it twice when it came out, and I could never get past those issues. I didn’t – and still don’t – see the need to waste time fussing with a poorly produced game when there are plenty of well-made published games out there.
Patrick K: Strong preference for Zeptor here. Outpost is too long and fiddly with the multiple currencies and lack of change – it forces you to do a ton of math on the fly, which drags the game down. There is also little to no way to rein in a leader, which makes early inefficiencies very painful as the game wears on. Zeptor, in contrast, has a much more forgiving monetary system that nevertheless retains the multiple production methods. It also has penalties for being in the lead that are just enough to make it hurt a little – but not so drastic that the game turns into a turtle-fest. Phoenicia I didn’t care for. Too fast, too difficult to overcome early mistakes.
Greg: I hate to sound like a parrot here, but Patrick succinctly explains my reasons for preferring Zeptor over the other two versions.
Elfenland is the shorter, more family-friendly version of the classic transportation game Elfenroads. The earlier title put Alan Moon’s company White Wind on the map; the later one gave Moon his first Spiel des Jahre.
Elfenroads preference: (2) Joe Huber, Ted Cheatham
Elfenland preference: (4) Patrick Brennan, Dale, Erik Arneson, Greg Schloesser
No preference: (0)
Joe: It’s the map. Shortening the game wasn’t a bad choice, but the map for Elfenland just isn’t as interesting as that in Elfenroads, even when you add the Elfengold expansion to put the economic system back into the game.
Patrick: True, but the Elfenroads map generally led you in the same direction each game, whereas the new map gives a bit more freedom so the shortened version gets the nod from me.
Dale: I like Elfenland a bit better. Yes, it has issues that multiple players often get to 20 cities, so it usually ends on the tiebreaker – but as long as you know that going in, you change your game plan accordingly. Unlike Joe, I prefer the game without the economic system – this has always been one of my go-to games when introducing TGOO to newbies.
Santa Fe (1992)
Santa Fe Rails (2002)
Santa Fe is another White Wind game. Moon’s two redesigns of it were released more or less simultaneously. SFR resembles the original fairly closely, but Clippers not only changes the setting, but greatly reduces the luck factor as well. It also features some of the worst components ever found in a professionally designed game.
Santa Fe preference: (1) Joe Huber
Clippers preference: (5) Ted Cheatham, Larry, Patrick Brennan, Dale, Greg Schloesser
Santa Fe Rails preference: (0)
No preference: (0)
Ted C: I sold Santa Fe when the others came out because it was selling at a premium and I am not collecting for collecting sake. I keep both Santa Fe Rails and Clippers in the collection and like them both. I hate the little city counters in Clippers, but I do like the lack of luck in the game play.
Larry: Santa Fe/SFR contains the basis for a good game, but in my eyes, they’re severely hampered by the fact that track cards are blindly drawn throughout the game. As a result, you can be handed a worthless card or a super valuable one purely through chance, and I really dislike that. The considerably reduced luck in Clippers, OTOH, strongly appeals to me. It’s a really good design that would get more table time if the components weren’t so criminally awful.
Joe: To be honest, I have a very small preference for Santa Fe over Santa Fe Rails; I’m happy to play either. But Clippers, with the annoyingly tiny components and (for me) much less interesting theme, didn’t come close to capturing the interest of the original for me.
Dale: Clippers for me. Big minus for the miniscule flag pieces. But the game play is just so much better IMHO.
Well, that’s the first batch of game families. What’s your favorite version?