It’s time for the next five games in our 138 Games to Play Before You Die series. You can see the previous entries in the series here. We left off last time in 1966 with Brian Leet’s discussion of Twister and pick up today a few years later with Joe Huber’s comments on Lines of Action from 1969. We’ll make it all the way to the end of the 70s in this entry and will pick back up next week by forging ahead with the 24 must-play designs of the 1980s.
– Lines of Action –
Joe Huber: I don’t enjoy abstract games. Themed abstracts are okay – I’m primarily a fan of German games, so to claim that I don’t care for games with an abstract base would be facetious. But pure abstracts – games that do not offer a theme, but simply a play experience – rarely interest me.
But it’s fun to try new games, so I was happy to give Lines of Action a try. And, much to my surprise, it not only caught my interest, but held it through many plays. So what makes Lines of Action stand out for me? First, you can make direct progress towards the goal along the way. Many abstracts have a very binary feel to them – you keep taking turns until one player wins. Here, because of the need to bring _all_ of your pieces together, there is continuous progress. I’m not sure why I find that more appealing, but it definitely does work for me. Another common issue I have with abstract games is that they’re only played well via deep analysis. While deep analysis would no doubt help with Lines of Action, the set of possibilities in the near term is clear enough to make it easy – and quick – to scan through them quickly, allowing players to easily avoid silly mistakes.
I’m not a strong enough player of abstract games to give an opinion about the quality of the game, but it has proven to be a strong enough game to build up a significant cadre of players. And most importantly, trying the game requires nothing more than a set of checkers – even if the game holds no appeal in the end, it has a lower cost to try than any other game on this list.
Luke Hedgren: Lines of Action is my favorite game to play or teach when there is only a checkers set lying about. Like, in front of Cracker Barrel or at a bar or cafe that has board games of dubious quality available to use. I’ve taught it to quite a few people that way. They all pick it up quickly, understand the goal, and are amazed at this new, weird game. “Where did you hear about this?” “Oh, you know, there are a ton of board games out there, that are a lot of fun, and that you might not have heard of.” “Tell me more….”
– Hare & Tortoise –
Larry: Has there ever been a game as beguilingly misleading as Hare & Tortoise? The pastoral graphics, those cute little bunnies–surely this must be a children’s game? And yet, not far beneath the surface lies a coldly calculating and highly competitive survival of the fittest. A facility with numbers will assist you, but even more necessary are the imagination and planning capabilities of a master strategist. The race doesn’t always go to the swiftest, nor to the richest, but instead to the one who can manage to reach the finish line with as little left over as possible. Gamers love it, but this is also a wonderful family game, which painlessly teaches some math skills while engaging both child and parent. It works well with 4-6 players and is, in fact, one of my favorite six-player games of all time. And, as you probably know, it won the first SdJ award. That happened almost 35 years ago and yet the game is as fresh as ever and as charming and incisive as an Aesop’s fable. Don’t be a silly bunny: play it today!
Greg Aleknevicus: I agree with Larry’s assessment, but with one exception: I don’t think it works as well with five or six players as it does with four. Much of the skill is in predicting what your opponents will do and this becomes much harder with greater numbers. I also think the tortoise strategy is too powerful with a full slate. But with four players it’s a wonderfully challenging game!
– Schützenfest –
Joe Huber: Back in the 1960s, while Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph were making their reputations at 3M, Rudi Hoffman was doing the same thing in Germany, contributing not only via his game designs but with his artistry. By 1975, he was perhaps the most prolific designer in the country, and regularly turning out delightful games such as Schützenfest.
Like many of Hoffman’s games, Schützenfest is a simple game to pick up, with some hidden depth to it. Players either play one or more cards from hand to hit a target exactly – or play a single card that is lower than the target, leaving the remainder for the next player to complete. When you can’t play, you’re out for the hand, and cards in hand count negative. This leaves for interesting decisions about when to hit the target and when to try to force your opponents out early, and a game where six hands can be played in a half hour comfortably – and very enjoyably.
– Cosmic Encounter –
Matt Carlson: While I didn’t list it as one of my 10 nominees, I have no problem at all with Cosmic Encounter being present on this list. When people want to cite a game that has asymmetrical player abilities, Cosmic Encounter is at the top of the list. At its heart, it is a player vs. player conflict-based game, but there are so many bells and whistles included that even conflict averse players may find something to enjoy. One might think this game is squarely targeted at my play style with the huge amount of zaniness (especially with further expansions), player interaction, and variety of play (due to the mix of races available – no two games are ever alike). Unfortunately, I tend to avoid the game like the plague. It is a player elimination game that has strong luck components (and thus a player can be eliminated early) along with a significant “beat up the leader” component (thus prolonging the game past its welcome). When a game moves smoothly, it is quite a fun romp but far too often for my own tastes, the game lasts too long. However! Cosmic Encounter is a must-play game for any aspiring game designer as it shows just how far player roles can be pushed to provide variety (and chaos) while still maintaining a playable (and enjoyable) game.
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: This is probably one of the games that, even though it hasn’t had the sales of some other titles, has a central role in the history of games. Many designers point to this title and the EON Design Team as masters.
The various reprints, including the most recent 2008 FFG edition, show how this game is still active and the design innovative. It is one of the first games to show the great possibility of player interactions and faction interactions: two Cosmic Encounter games are never the same. Of course, there are balance issues and explosive combos, but the overall mechanism is great and the way the game encourages player interaction is fantastic.
It is one of very few games that has found a regular place on gamers’ associations tables for years. It is also the ideal training for diplomatic skills and the ability to find and use combos as well, particularly if you are looking something that can be played in less than 45 minutes.
There are other games, such as The Resistance, that are similar in player interaction, but without the power-combo component. I really love this game.
– Dune –
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: For a 1979 game, Dune was a really great design; another hit for the excellent EON Design Team. As in Cosmic Encounter, the heart of the game was about diplomacy. Factions in the striking Dune universe are fighting for control of the planet. Of course there are rules, in the usual amount and complexity of Avalon Hill 70s and 80s designs, but the core of the game, again, was in player interactions.
The factions move on the map trying to control territory. The battles are resolved using bids and cards in a way where alliance, diplomacy, and bluffing usually make the difference. Factions have different powers that have to be used the best to win the game.
FFG made a new edition of the game with a new theme but preserving most of the core mechanics. This is another game I think you have to play at least once in your life, even more so if you like games with great player interaction.
Greg Aleknevicus: There are very few games that capture the essence of their source material as well as Dune. Although the game can contrast sharply with the book (the Atreides can ally with the Harkonnen!), the spirit remains the same. Alliances, hidden plans, sacrifices, betrayals… all tools you must use in your quest for dominance.
Nathan Beeler: I love the Dune universe, which was the initial hook to get me interested in the game. But then I heard the rules. I can’t imagine a game more opposite to my tastes: it’s long (can be extremely long – my first game took 13 hours to complete), full of direct player aggression, diplomacy, backstabbing, and a significant luck factor. I should have run screaming just on the description, except it was Dune themed. I’m glad I stuck around to play it, because it was a complete blast, and as Greg points out it does capture the feel of the books quite well. I now make a concerted effort to get a play in at the longer conventions I attend.
To be continued…