When I consider new games these days, especially when going through the monster that is the Essen list for this year, it takes a few things to get me to look deeper at a game. Art, designer, publisher, and theme are things that will get me to go to a game’s BGG page. But once there, and I am looking at mechanisms, pretty quickly I want 2 questions answered: “What are we doing in the game?” and “How do we do it?”
For me, almost all games can be quickly categorized and understood by cursorily answering those 2 questions. The What defines what can be visibly seen to be going on on the game board; the action of what takes place. The How defines the methods by which the players control the action; the mechanisms of the game.
Settlers (What: Building settlements, How: Gaining and trading cards) Agricola (What: Building a farm, How: Worker placement) Medici (What: Forming sets of cards, How: Auction)
Those are straightforward examples. Some modern games seem to defy this a bit, by having multiple mechanisms and phases in a game, with an end goal of just abstract victory points. But, they usually have some core What driving the game.
Power Grid (What: Building a power network, How: Buying and using power plants) Risk (What: Global domination, How: Roll dice)
Twilight Struggle (Win the Cold War, How: Oh, lots of stuff)
On the other hand, some games are more obviously defined by their How. The goal might be amorphous, but the ways you get there are interesting enough to carry the game:
Dominion (What: Buy/Gain VP cards, How: Buy Gain other cards) or maybe Dominion (What: Deckbuilding, How: Deckbuilding) Trajan (What: ?, How: Rondel to trigger other actions) Coconuts (What: Get 6 cups, How: Launch coconuts!)
As a hastily thought out hypothesis, I think that as games are continuing to spread put in the ares they cover, we are getting more inventive Hows over time as all the Whats are drying up. How many really new themes and purposes that can be evocative enough to carry a game? And if those new ares of Whats get fewer and fewer, what other area to innovate is there but to invent more Hows? Anyway, just a thought.
I talk about all this to say that while Hyperborea’s What is not the most innovative thing out there, the How makes the game really shine. The game is set up as a map of hexes, with each of 2-6 players starting with 3 of their own hexes attached to the map. Three miniatures start near your home city. (Yeah, the game eschews theme here, and just goes with “miniatures” as the noun for your pieces on the board. Not armies. Not dudes. Miniatures.)
The actions taken on the Hyperborea board are about what you would expect, mostly. Move minis from one hex to another, claim cities to do more actions, claim ruins for a bonus, attack other players’ minis to fun and profit. Nothing groundbreaking here. (A more in-depth overview is available on right here on Opinionated Gamers from our very own Liga here.)
The more interesting aspect is obviously the How. Each turn, players have 3 cubes to a lot to action slots. The cubes come in different colors, as do the requirements for the actions. When you fill up the requirements for an action, you do that action. Any cubes you cannot or do not want to use on your turn, are are wasted for now. At the end of your turn, you draw from a bag back up to three (or as many cubes as you can) and ponder what to do next turn. (Side note: I love when designers have my time in mind when designing turn order structure. Please, keep having me draw at the end of my turn!)
So, now on top of the board actions, we build some actions that affect how we do actions. (Yo, dawg, I heard you like actions….) Get more cubes for your bag, get new/better actions to do, copy others actions, modify board actions. Adding it all up, you end up with a cohesive whole, that works very well. (Other than the snafu created by trying to make the game a littlemore palatable to beginners. Just make sure to check the BGG forums regarding what to do with uncompleted action rows when your bag is empty.)
It is inevitably these action-changing actions as well as the method by which we select them, that has a draw, an interesting- ness, that keeps me wanting to play Hyperborea again. I don’t think that is doing a disservice or diminishing it in any way. Games need a base to build on, and if gamers have a solid understanding of the somewhat simplified things that they are trying to accomplish, they can then focus on the super cool different ways that this game allows them to accomplish them.