138 Games: From Lines of Action to Dune

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…

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16 Responses to 138 Games: From Lines of Action to Dune

  1. David Brain says:

    Hare and Tortoise is one of those games that I love to hate, because a lot of it is about predicting other players, and – with the bizarre exception of Citadels – I am very, very bad at that. But it is so smooth and elegant in design that you can’t help but enjoy playing it.

  2. Andy Stout says:

    Matt Carlson’s comments about Cosmic – WTF? “At its heart, it is a player vs. player conflict-based game.” What does that even mean? That’s a nearly contentless statement, applicable to nearly every board game ever made, since they ALL have conflict and pit the players against each other; it’s especially bizarre when combined with the later “even conflict averse players may find something to enjoy’. Did you intend to say that it’s a dudes-on-a-map game a la Risk? If so, that’d at least have meaning, but would be incorrect, since it is more of a card game than a Risk-type game.

    But then, even weirder: you ding Cosmic for being a player-elimination game, even saying that a player can be eliminated early. Player elimination is actually *impossible* in Cosmic. So…WTF?

    Andrea – how is The Resistance similar to Cosmic other than “they both HAVE player interaction”?

    I guess there’s not an editor?

    • Matt J Carlson says:

      You make a good point, in that in my attempt at brevity has resulted in some very unclear statements. I’ll beg forgiveness for any errors as I have not played the game in nearly a decade (probably a few years less, but it is still a lot of water under the bridge.) I primarily chipped in my $0.02 here as none of the OPGamer folks had yet to write something for it so it was in danger of not being mentioned at all. Surely it requires a mention in this list if nothing else than for its pioneering use of player powers.

      “Player vs Player Conflict” – My attempt here was to point out one’s sole purpose was to “go after” the other players. There is little to no benefit for any other side goal in the game. Even in Risk there is an advantage (greater income) to gaining territory or sections of territory… Perhaps a better wording would be “At its heart, the game focuses on directly attacking other players with nearly the entire benefit resulting in tearing them down.”

      “Player elimination” – You got me here. Been too long. Clearly there’s no player elimination in the game. In my defense, I’ve played far too many games of Cosmic Encounter where I WISH I had been eliminated early… I was clearly out of the running but the “gang up on the leader” (See below) aspect of the game dragged it on and on far past my stomach for what should be a middle-weight, fun little game.

      Gang-up-on-the-Leader – Claiming the game does not have a gang-up-on-the-leader problem demonstrates it has also been too long since you’ve seen the game in action. Due to the nature of offering alliances during attack and defense, there is plenty of room for negotiation and “Ganging up” within the game. This is even more the case when more expansions (Lucre, etc…) are brought into play.

      PS. Nope, no real editor. We’re a bunch of unruly rabble who spout useless information about games. (Although we sometimes get lucky and have something useful to say.) I lobbied for the logo of the site to include some grumpy old man, but was shot down. Now get off my lawn.

  3. Matt, be honest- have you actually played Cosmic? Because it sure as hell sounds like you haven’t. You have completely mischaracterized the game on just about every level, and if anything you’e demonstrated an almost total lack of understanding about how the game operates at a mechanical level and more specifically how those mechanics enable some incredibly dynamic possibilities for player interaction.

    First off, there is no elimination. You’re flat out wrong about that, and to state that is like someone saying that the combat in Caylus is resolved through die rolls. No player is EVER out of the game, and even a player that has had their system bombed to hell and just about every ship in the warp can still participate, negotiate, and even win the damn game- even if they’re getting one ship out of the warp at a time.

    Second, it is not a luck-dependent game in any way, shape, or form. If you get dealt a hand of low value cards, it falls on you to plan your strategy accordingly, developing relationships with other players and leveraging the function of powers and flares. A bad hand for some powers is a great hand for others, but all are presented with compelling opportunities to use what you’ve got.

    Third, your “bells and whistles” comment makes no sense. Cosmic is a fundamentally simple game. The powers, which are effectively drop-in rules modifications, are hardly “bells and whistles”. You make it sound like it’s TI3 or something.

    I’m glad Andy brought my attention to this article because it really reinforces what I am continually railing against in games writing- zero sense of professionalism or earned authority. Any yahoo can say whatever about a game and get an audience- or a writing gig at a site like Opinionatedgamers.com. Further, if you’re going to say that you “avoid the game like the plague”, stand by that. Don’t turn around with a “gee whiz, I’m a nice guy though, so everybody should play this!” and call it enjoyable. Have the balls to back up your criticism, don’t duck out…unless you are cognizant that you are writing BS about a game you have little experience with.

    But if you’ve actually played the game a couple of times and you don’t like it for whatever reason, that’s absolutely cool. Don’t like it. Write about it. But at least be accurate about what you don’t like and don’t mischaracterize the game. I’d hate to think someone came to this site and is encountering criticism about Cosmic for the first time and they leave thinking it’s a “player versus player elimination game with bells and whistles” and that’s the takeway.

    Don’t mean to barge in here swinging, but when I see bad or irresponsible games writing- I’m going to attack it. Too many very talented and insightful people are writing about games today for nonsense to be tolerated.

    The rest of you guys are off the hook. But I’m watching you Beeler- a 13 hour Dune game is definitely an outlier.

  4. Matt, CE was specifically designed NOT to have player-elimination. It was a reaction to Risk, which the designers played constantly back then. You always get a ship back from the warp when it’s your turn; you’re **literally** never out of the game. So, quite honestly, I question how much you’ve even played.

    As for 13-hour Dune games? Absurd. Were you acting out scenes from the book following every turn?

    • peer says:

      Well, he said it was his first game , probably they looked up rules all the time. Dune can run to 7 hours, even 9 if players play slow. I you add constant rule checking and a porlonged lunch break…

  5. Jack Reda says:

    Another interesting error in the Cosmic Encounter piece is the idea of a “beat up the leader” component. Cosmic Encounter employs something called the Destiny deck of cards, which specifically gets around having a particular player beaten up. While you can have the leader facing every other player when he or she is going for the win, this is often because the player chooses to go for the solo win, not from any inherent component or quality of the game. I personally have no reservations about inviting other players to share the win on my turn, nor joining someone else going for the win. One of Cosmic Encounter’s strengths is allowing for the shared win, or giving a group of gamers the flexibility to not have a shared win. You should try the game out, it’s pretty awesome.

  6. Pedro says:

    I disagree, Jack. When I play, if one player is about to win, all the others make an unspoken (or loud) agreement to do everything to not ally with that player, to ally against him if the player’s color comes up on the DD.

    So, although the entire article completely illustrates that if they were playing something, it was NOT Cosmic Encounter, that one statement was true.

    I’ll echo your thoughts though: You Opinionated (Or rather, Unopinionated And Rather Uninformed) Gamers should actually play the game before writing things that people might read, because people aren’t always going to not know that you’ve never played a game…wouldn’t want to mislead them.

  7. Jack Reda says:

    And I disagree back at you, Pedro. If the players make an agreement to play against the player about to win (unspoken or loud), it is a player decision, and not a built-in mechanic or component of the game. The game does not force or necessarily encourage players to gang up on the leader. That is something completely dependent on whether or not the offense decides to go it alone, and if not, whether the offense can get anyone to ally with the offense. Completely social. Your example only illustrates my point. Your group seems to prefer solo wins. Mine doesn’t. Beating up the leader is not inherent.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      I have not played the game, so I’m curious about this comment. Please clarify: you say because the game allows for team wins (rather than individual wins only), it cannot have this problem? But do the rules specify that it has to be a team win? If not, then individual wins are within the rules and, thus, a component of the game.
      Ganging up on the leader is then sensible strategy for those players not about to win, and therefore, also part of the game.
      Unless the game specifically encourages a 2-team battle to the end, that is (which sounds more appealing to me, but I doubt that is in the rules?)

  8. michaelpaulbarnes says:

    So no opinion from the Opinionated Gamers on Carlson’s gross inaccuracies or the editorial policy that would allow them into publication?

  9. The system that governs The Opinionated Gamers is anarchy — there is little to no hierarchy at all. When an individual writer says something, it’s solely that writer’s opinion. If you’re looking for editorial oversight or policy, you won’t find it.

    With this in mind, I do (alas) agree with the criticisms of Matt’s piece — the factual inaccuracies invalidate the rest of what he has to say.

    In the spirit of a puzzle, I’ll offer this: it’s not *impossible* to be eliminated in Cosmic Encounter. (It’s exceedingly unlikely though, to the point that I’ve never seen it come even remotely close to happening.)

  10. Simon says:

    Then why does one of the guys on your website have the title editor written above his bio? If you have no editorial policy, you shouldn’t have an editor. it gives the impression this is a professional setup, which clearly it isn’t.

  11. huzonfirst says:

    Thanks for the feedback, guys. And the etymology lesson! It’s always interesting to see so many new commenters appear all at once.

    As always, the disparate online commentators at OG strive to improve our product with each posting. Your comments, and all the comments we receive, help us with this goal. Thanks again!

  12. ianthecool says:

    Cosmic absolutely deserves to be here. The reasons that Matt listed to avoid this makes me sad for him. He is letting stupid reasons block his chance to experience a great game.

    • rprasadusa says:

      Yes! The real reason to avoid Cosmic is because it’s really a negotiation game … who wants to deal with _people_?! Where’s that multiplayer solitaire??

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