If a game is in the top 1000 in the BGG rankings, it’s a fair indication that it’s pretty good. It may not suit you exactly, but you know it’s going to be well designed with good components. The bar used to be top 500, but good games just keep on coming as the designer community grows … I keep finding games I like in the 800’s and 900’s so it seems top 1000 is now a fair guideline.
When I look at the top 1000 however (in the search for games I’m interested in playing), there are two things about the BGG game rankings that peeve me.
Firstly, I haven’t played an Unlock game so I don’t know, but why on earth are the Exit games considered to be games at all. A game has an indeterminate outcome. That’s why it’s a game. These are puzzles. The outcome is predetermined. There’s only one answer. Like a jigsaw. It’s a puzzle. Why is the top 1000 being clogged up with puzzles that I have no interest in?! Surely we can siphon them away and have a separate system and ranking profile for puzzles, can’t we?
Secondly, the number of new editions that have separate entries. I played the original Vinhos. It was fine, but the barrier of entry was too high for the payoff and I traded it away. Now there’s a deluxe entry in the top 1000. It’s got a new set of rules and the components and map have changed, but you know what, it’s still a variant of the same game system. Or call it an edition. Now the original entry of Vinhos could easily contain all this information under its various variants and editions pages, and I’d much prefer all my Vinhos thoughts on all the editions and variants in one place. Separating them into separate entries is aggravating. Additionally, only those who liked Vinhos in the first edition are interested in playing the second edition and rate it. Looking further, it’s obvious that the ratings are artificially inflated for every second edition game out there. They’re not dragged down to their “correct” rating level by all the raters who didn’t like the first edition and are never going to play the second edition. It’s a ranking distortion that I don’t like and one I’d like to see fixed.
Having got that off my chest, let’s throw back to our regular schedule. Here’s what’s been played recently in our neck of the woods.
BUNNY KINGDOM (2017): Rank 400, Rating 7.4
Good fun from Garfield! Bunnies popping up all over the place … it’s an infestation!! 4 rounds of 7 Wonders type drafting, keeping two cards from each hand and playing them. The aim is to connect up your plots, forming kingdoms that contain castles and resources (each kingdom scores castles x its different resource types). There’s a plot card (which allows you to place a bunny) for each of the 100 squares, extra resource cards, end-game point cards, kingdom joiner cards, etc. The pickings are rich and the decisions often non-obvious, but now I know how the game flows and how to better value the cards (why on earth did I *ever* pass on a resource card!), I want to play again to choose more wisely next time. That’s the acid test. There’s a ton of luck in what cards you see so you can’t take it too seriously, but it’s a fun process seeing how it pans out. I might have rated it higher if I’d seen a Fiver card. Or an Elmer card! A strong 7.
COSMIC WIMPOUT (1975): Rank 4871, Rating 6.0
A simple dice rolling game, with some weird re-rolling rules, but it’s quick and some fun. A turn is to roll dice looking for scoring combinations. Usually you can only stop rolling and score if there’s a mix of both scoring and non-scoring dice which makes for cruel moments (but funny for the others) when you’re forced to keep rolling, aggregating a huge score, only to wipeout by rolling no scoring dice at all and losing the whole lot. Get lucky the most and you win, but it’s ok otherwise because it’s all over in 15 mins and there’s been some cosmic drama along the way.
FAIRY TILE (2018): Rank 3829, Rating 6.4
Each turn you get a single move to try and move a figure on the board to meet the configuration required by your current ‘quest’ card vis a vis the other figures and/or terrain. Or you can add some more terrain to try and make things easier next time. The first one to meet all of their card quests wins. It’s simple, I enjoyed it, there are some clever things to do with terrain, but in the end the game falls into the hand of the player who has a series of quests that the other players play into on their turns – because you only get one move! If you have a series of turns where you’re trying to do something at the same time someone else is trying to do the opposite, you’re both falling behind. Also, if the terrain comes out the wrong way, it’s possible that some players simply cannot win, which isn’t great design. Still, at 30 minutes it’s not too big a deal. The game is easy to explain, simple to play, good with kids, nice components. I’d play again if we all know the result comes with much salt attached.
KLASK (2014): Rank 383, Rating 7.6
A restrained version of Air Hockey, small enough to pack and bring with you to games night. While Klask is still fun, the fun in Air Hockey and Fusbal is bringing the violence and smacking that ball with conviction. Here your smacker above the board is controlled by a magnet underneath the board that you’re holding onto. If you get carried away, your below board magnet can de-attach, you lose control of your smacker, and that loses a point. You need to find that sweet spot where you can move quickly enough to intercept the ball without losing control. That however does reduce the fun of air hockey violence! I found it frivolous fun that I’d always be happy to play if it was out, but in no way did I find it compelling enough to chase.
Ditto well, actually a bit more enthusiastic…
PASARAYA: SUPERMARKET MANAGER (2018): Rank 9795, Rating 7.5
I’m told Pasaraya mean supermarket in Malaysia, where this effort originates. You start with a Dominion style deck / hand / process of drawing 5 cards containing money and goods. You use the goods to fulfil open contracts which earn you money. In a nice twist, you choose when to add that money to your discard pile to eventually reach your hand. It will then be used to buy yet more goods to fulfil more contracts to get more money. You can also buy some personnel cards to do things cheaper when they show up in your hand. All of which sounds reasonable but it veers into some not-so-great territory. Most money wins, but the final turn(s) are way too swingy – half your score can be determined by whether you draw the right goods to fulfil a big end-game scoring contract. The game is also fiddly – there’s a new contract drawn and one removed every single turn, making it impossible to plan, making the end-game even more luck-bound. I wanted to like it, but the groundswell of negatives swept us down.
SECOND CHANCE (2019): Rank 4145, Rating 6.7
Rosenberg turns his recent polyomino obsession into a roll-and-write, surfing the latest gaming trend. It works fine. Each player starts with a different shape drawn into their area, ensuring divergence, and each turn all players are faced with a common choice of two different shapes to draw into their area. The player who gets to shade in the most squares wins. The ubiquitous rule that makes it a bit more fun is if you can’t place either of the two choices, you get a free card flip (your second chance) and if you can draw that in, you remain in the game. Otherwise you’re kaput and you can add up your score. It’s easy to learn, it’s quick to play. It’s more interesting than choosing which squares to tick off as proferred by dice rolls, making this a rare roll-and-write that I’d play again, but there’s no need to go chasing as there isn’t any tension (you get what you get) and colouring in squares off an open palate becomes repetitive (as seen in replay) and hardly the stuff of gaming glamour.
SENTINEL TACTICS: THE FLAME OF FREEDOM (2014): Rank 2573, Rating 6.7
Same theming, same characters, but this is a tactical movement and combat game with height and range elements. It’s mechanically a very different feel and one that doesn’t have the charm of the original co-op, especially as it’s now 1 v many. So unless the game-play and the scenarios are superbly balanced, someone’s going to feel hard done by and unfortunately that’s the case here. You only have a handful of effects to take advantage of (rather than a full deck to manage and look forward to) so the game comes down to smart usage (which isn’t that hard) and the luck of the combat dice. It’s good enough to warrant a play through the scenarios to provide a bit of variety, but it won’t get anywhere near the same replay as the original.
SILVER & GOLD (2019): Rank 4561, Rating 7.2
Interesting playing this latest Walker-Harding production in the same week as Second Chance, both roll-and-writes using the mechanic of flipping a card showing a polyomino shape which you then decide where to place. This is the clearly superior game, providing much more to think about. Firstly, thank you for turning all the cards into mini-whiteboards which can be written on and wiped and re-used rather than giving us more throwaway pads. It works really well here. You start with 2 cards – the cards have all sorts of areas to fill in, worth different points, and as you fill in one card you claim your next desired card from the 4 card draft. You can choose cards that give gold bonuses, or palm tree bonuses, or colour bonuses, providing a few viable paths to victory. Four times through the polyomino deck of 8 cards (less 1 discarded) and you’re done in 20 minutes, the perfect length. I found it satisfying and interesting, trying to continually keep options open given what was left in the polyomino deck, but with much consequent swearing (in a good way) if they didn’t come as preferred. Good game.
SKY TRADERS (2012): Rank 4709, Rating 6.2
The designer’s “director’s cut” rules cut the game length in half (to 90 mins or so) which is smart because that’s about all the length that this much luck can take. There are 8 resources. You buy resources in a city, and at the end of the round everyone rolls dice to see what prices will move. Your strategy is to roll up the resources you’ve invested in (so you can send the price up) and hope that no one else has (so they won’t extort you by threatening to lower the price) or otherwise roll in resources that other people have invested in so you can extort them instead. Move, sell, buy cheap, roll well, repeat. And if you don’t like how things are going, invest in crew and go beat up the other players’ ships (through dice battles, crew add pips to your dice) so as to make the game go longer and give you time to catch up. Not a mechanic or strategem that most of us care for really. Throw in a random event card every turn to add some more luck, and be thankful the game is no longer the mooted 180 minutes. If you treat it lightly and everyone plays with a cavalier attitude, the game can be a bit of fun though.
SPOTLIGHT ON: VINHOS
First Edition (2010): Rank 346, Rating 7.5
There are 9 possible actions, and you’ll be taking 2 each turn for 6 rounds to buy vineyards, wineries and meeples and place them all onto your player board to produce wines each turn, aiming for either lots of ok scoring wines or maybe an investment-loaded-up estate or two which will develop high scoring wines. And then spend later actions to sell them to raise money (to re-invest in vineyards, etc), or export them for victory points or use them in the fair competition for other victory points. On top of that, you can aim to lock in the spots that allow victory points for each type of investment you’ve made as well. The game is one of choosing / developing a strategy that others aren’t concentrating on, and doing it efficiently. There are a number of bonus actions that you can acquire, allowing for quite complex turns, but this is also what drags the rating down from an 8 – the long turns and consequent downtime that processing all the options generates. It feels longer and longer as the game proceeds. The rules are a barrier to entry at 45 mins or so, together with the game length at 2-2.5 hours. Despite the decision making being rewarding once you get into it, it felt like too much work for my gaming buddies and it wasn’t getting to the table enough to warrant keeping.
Deluxe Edition (2016): Rank 129, Rating 8.3
Much the same comment except that there are 8 possible actions now.
Look at those ranking and rating differences for the same game. See what I mean?! *Urgh*. I hope it gets changed.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Mark Jackson: Oh, wow… I’m not even sure where my “fancy” copy of Cosmic Wimpout is hiding anymore. (It has a leatherette pouch and a cloth scoreboard.) If I want a short dice game in that vein now, we usually play Bloder Sack or Fill or Bust.
Sentinel Tactics is essentially a dead game system – at least as currently set up. We’ve played a number of games and it’s fun but very, very swing-y. I’d rather be playing the original card game.
Dale Y: I really liked Fairy TIle when I first played it, but then once it became apparent that the winner was the player who had the easiest mission cards, the game became much less appealing. And for the record, whether you think of them as a puzzle or a game, I really like the EXIT series. In fact, I have two of the new ones at home just waiting to be played.
Alan H: I really like Silver and Gold and have played it more than any other in the last month. It has been a huge success with everybody I’ve played with and the main difficulty has been in trying to get hold of a copy.
I avoided getting hold of Bunny Kingdom when it was first available as I thought the game was more frivolous then it turned out to be. Once I saw it being played I realised my mistake and bought a copy. It then got lots of plays in a short space of time as new games tend to, but we found there was more of a runaway leader situation that developed during the game. Curiously, this did not decrease the enjoyment of the game so I am hoping my enjoyment it will be rekindled with the new expansion.
Larry: My wife and I played a version of Cosmic Wimpout with ordinary dice and our own modified rules for a while. It’s actually a pretty good push-your-luck game, although best with 2 to minimize downtime.
When I first read the rules to Second Chance, my reaction was, “Wow, Uwe really mailed that one in!”. But then I played it and I was surprised how enjoyable it was. There are small decisions to be made each turn and your choices actually do matter (although you’d probably rather be lucky than good). Best of all, it plays super-fast, just like a Roll ‘n’ Write should.
Vinhos is the closest I’ve come to liking a Vital Lacerda game. It’s typical of his style: very involved mechanics, major actions triggering lots of minor ones, and gameplay that runs counter to the theme (in this case, your best chance for success isn’t to create great wines, but a lot of crappy wines that you can use to bribe corrupt judges with). I had some fun with it at first, but it turned out to be just a bit too much. Sadly, I’ve pretty much given up on Lacerda games, as they’ve all invoked a similar reaction in me, except more so for the later ones. I’d actually be interested in checking out the deluxe edition of Vinhos, as it’s supposed to be more streamlined and accessible, but I can’t get enough people in my group interested.
As for Patrick’s rant about BGG rankings, I’ve long wanted to see BGG handle spinoffs of base games in a more refined way. Maybe have a set of game families, which would include the original games, all their spinoffs, and all their expansions, and have a single entry for each one. All the related games would be in one place, for easy exploring. Users could give a single rating to a family, as well as each individual member of the family, and you could have rankings by families, which might make Patrick happier. That’s just one possibility. The problem is, it would represent an enormous amount of programming work and would violently change the structure of the Geek. Not only that, but think of the arguments about whether Game X belongs in Family Y or not. So if it happens, it won’t be any time soon, but I would support something like this.
Of course, there are so many inherent biases in the BGG rankings (including a severe bias against titles more than a couple of years old) that the most prudent action is not to take the rankings too seriously and employ a good number of post-production tweaks if you want something meaningful. Eliminating spinoffs from your list of choice shouldn’t be too hard to do.
I’m not as sympathetic when it comes to Patrick’s issues with puzzles as games. Titles like the Exit series can be involving and a lot of fun for those who enjoy such things, so why not consider them to be games? The outcome is certainly not predetermined, if you consider the outcome to be the success the players have with solving the puzzles (which is also the case with most cooperative designs). It harkens back to the screeds about whether The Mind is a game or an activity. If enough people view something as a game, what’s the harm in considering it to be one?