Every once in a while, we here at the Opinionated Gamers like to compile our thoughts on a gaming topic – not just to fill up space (though that doesn’t hurt) but hopefully to provoke interesting discussion amongst ourselves and the folks who read us on a regular basis.
The question I (Mark) raised with the group is pretty straightforward:
What game(s) do you love now that had a miserable/difficult first play experience… and how did you find your way past the horror show that was the first play?
I had the privilege of being one of the first groups in the U.S. to get to play Ra, thanks to Jay Tummelson bringing a suitcase full of games he had just signed at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in the spring of 1999 to Gulf Games. The first play of Ra was with 5 players, one of whom had a rather serious case of AP (analysis paralysis) that day and the game lasted almost an hour & a half. (Note: for those who haven’t played this classic, it should be done in 30-45 minutes.) It was, to say the least, excruciating. I gave it a second chance due to finding it on clearance in a going out of business sale of a high-end toy store… and have never regretted it.
Era: Medieval Age
My first play of Era was at an invitational convention – actually with one of the other OG writers teaching the game! (He did a fine job – this is NOT on him.) Two things stand out: the first (and most obvious) issue was this was before Plan B Games began shipping sticker sets for the player boards – and figuring out which resource was what was extremely difficult. Second, the rules for dealing with swords have a pretty serious downstream effect – you can’t hoard goods like Roll Through The Ages if you’re not going to invest in swords to protect them. So, I liked the 3D buildings and the idea of the game, but the first experience left me a bit cold.
Once again, clearance pricing came to the rescue… that, and the fact that you could play Era solo. Add to that acquiring the excellent (and, in my ever-so-humble opinion, required) expansion (Rivers & Roads)… and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite Matt Leacock designs.
Euphrat & Tigris
Way back when I was a baby gamer, the selection of new games was very tiny but this fellow Knizia was of good repute and had a highly anticipated game coming out from Hans im Gluck. It was only available in German but there was an English translation available and luckily it was language independent. The first game we tried made some heads explode. “Internal vs External” conflicts? Leaders but no player colors? The rules were so hard! I was disenchanted after the first game was such a slog and much complaining from the other players. Fortunately after several years and a lot more rule books under my belt I played again and the game made perfect sense and I recognized it as the classic it is. Luckily I still had my nice copy of the game!
Tzolk’in: the Mayan Calendar
Even knowing that first impressions at Essen Spiel can be difficult to get a realistic view of the game, I still came away from the demonstration game totally disillusioned by Tzolk’in. The demo had gone on for about 90 minutes before any of the befuddled players were allowed to actually make a move and try the game out. On returning to our hotel in the evening we then heard that there were production issues with the gear wheels on the game board. The end result was that as both myself and another member of my game group who had also been at that ill-fated demo, dismissed the game completely.
Consequently, despite getting good reviews, it was about 2 years later before that member of my gaming group bought the game. We all really enjoyed the game with its unique gear wheel mechanics. It is always a welcome addition to our gaming playlist.
War of the Ring
Way back in 2012, I wrote an article about this exact issue (https://opinionatedgamers.com/2012/04/10/april-showers) in which I described how I had this experience with three of my absolute favorite games: Twilight Struggle, Antiquity, and Through the Ages. It’s amazing looking back ten years later in 2022 and seeing that those continue to be Top 10 games for me to this day. I also wrote about other games that get better and better with more plays way back in 2008 (http://games.fooville.net/nycgamer-article-GettingBetter.html), and I still think that’s so true for Fairy Tale, Ra, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. There’s something about 50 plays that really helps you love and appreciate those games. The most notable other game that I’d add to this list would be War of the Ring, which I now tend to think of as my single favorite game. I did not enjoy it at all when I first tried it in 2007, but I began to appreciate it in 2011 when a friend re-introduced it to me and held my hand by facilitating the working of the game. I then fell head over heels for the game in 2012 when I picked up my own copy of the Second Edition, which has a few significant improvements over the First Edition. This is why I can be seen wandering conventions carrying War of the Ring and happy to teach it to new players so they can have a guide to help them appreciate the game’s beauty and brilliance. And now I’ve played War of the Ring 63 times and counting! I’ve turned into someone that will almost always choose a 3-hour narrative experience (like War of the Ring, Twilight Struggle, Antiquity, or Through the Ages) over multiple shorter games.
A friend’s girlfriend taught a group of us a card game from Vietnam she called Charge On. It was my first exposure to climbing games (though she didn’t call it that). For some reason I couldn’t get my head around it. I felt like I was just following along with no choices to make and getting my ass kicked for good measure. Game starved as I was at the time, I put it in the same bucket as War and silently swore that I would never play it again. A few years later at my then regular game night I was taught Tichu after a deck made its way from Germany. My heart sank as I realized it was more or less the same thing as the despised Charge On. But since my friend and host swore by it, I went in with an open mind. Another disaster. Another time of me vowing never to play this kind of game. Fortunately for me, the rest of the group became Tichu fiends, and much as I carped about it, the game kept coming out. Then it clicked — I could suddenly see how important timing was to winning. That holding back power was one of your biggest weapons. I could start to infer what others might have and make plays around that. I saw some of the factors in calculated risks and could choose when to take them based on game state or the style of opponents. So many levers and layers started to reveal themselves. Better still, there were people that I would play against that were just flat better and I could only beat them if my partner and I got really lucky. That meant there were even more depths to plumb. The more I played it, the more I realized Tichu had gone from one of my most despised games to one of my all time favorites, a place it still holds. Someday I should try Charge On again to give it a fair shake.
When we first played this, two of the six players could be clinically diagnosed with Analysis Paralysis. This included taking minutes to choose a character, and then one of them would invariably choose the King, albeit taking ages to do so. Any fun was sucked right out of the game.
It was such an excruciating experience it was quite a few years before I would consider it playing it again, considerably longer for Melissa. So it was the passage of time, and making sure the players from the original play were not present.
I’m also in the camp of folks who had a bad circumstantial exposure to a game that turned out to be a classic. In my case it was Jay Tummelson arriving with the first available copies of Goa to the Gathering in 2004. A group of us sat down to learn and play just after midnight. It was a group of terrific people, but one of the players at the table was prone to analysis paralysis. It was after 4 AM before we finished the game. I never wanted to see Goa again. Thankfully, after a couple days of recovery and seeing that other tables were finishing the game in 90 minutes instead of three hours, I gave it another try. By the end of the week I knew I needed to own it, and nearly 18 years later I still play.
I have no idea what happened with my first game of Stone Age, but I remember not liking it. After that, I’d always turn down playing if any of my groups suggested it. I had no issues with worker placement and quite enjoyed the mechanic, but for some reason, my first game of Stone Age turned me off.
Then came AdamCon. If you’re in the Cincinnati area, AdamCon is a small convention ran by a guy named George. No, just kidding. Adam Bartoszek. The first con I went to had about 75 gamers over a 3.5 day weekend, corporate sponsorship and some really cool door prizes. And tons of games for open play. Over my couple of years in Cincinnati,
George Adam’s convention grew to over 120 people attending and it made for an amazing weekend of gaming.
A group was looking for a fourth player for Stone Age, and I sat down with them to relearn the game and play. And quite enjoyed my experience. Since then, I’ve played a bunch of Stone Age on BGA and continue to enjoy the game.
I rarely give games a second chance if I have a bad experience with them the first time. Rarely is it worth my time to go back and figure out what happened, there are better things to be doing, like playing games that we know we like. It’s funny to me that most of these listed games are older titles, games that now are held, for the most part, in high regard. I thought about adding Agricola to this, as my first play of Agricola was not the best experience of my gaming life. It’s never fun to play something for the first time with folks who have dozens of plays logged. See also, Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy. It makes for a lot of, “I see why you all like it, but probably not for me”. I guess we can go with a genre though. I never really gave much mind to “Train Games”. 18xx style, Cube Rails or Crayon Rails and I still don’t think I’ll ever try another 18xx style game, just too much overhead for me. Cube Rails, on the other hand, have definitely become a bit of an obsession with me, even after playing Paris Connection and Chicago Express early on in my gaming life and just not really enjoying them. The Iron Rail series from Capstone has kind of changed that and my game group gets annoyed when all I do is bring Cube Rails games with me. I’m a firm believer in first impressions in board games, about the only exception I make is if someone teaches something horribly incorrect. I believe there can be depth to games that can be found given enough time, but I just don’t want to give most board games that time, especially if they don’t hook me from the beginning. That’s why I can’t really specify one game that went from bad to good. Most of them just stay bad. I could do an article on all of the one and done games I have played and have people calling for my head. For the record, since my first plays of those previously mentioned “classics”, I have about 10 plays of Agricola, 6 plays of Puerto Rico and 7 plays of Race for the Galaxy. I have played those more and learned to endure them for the most part, but never really enjoy them as much as everyone else.
For me, two revered classics come to mind. My first play of Ticket to Ride was underwhelming, and it wasn’t until the app was developed and we started playing a lot that the game grew to become a family favorite. I had the same experience with Carcassonne. At first, the game felt rather dry and blah, but over time–and learning how to really play the game–helped turn it into another long-term family favorite. These make me wonder how many games we’ve traded away too soon! Perhaps Wingspan, which lasted just a couple plays for us before leaving the collection, was sold too soon ….
My first play of Ra was terrible. It was a four player game and for some reason the whole group completely failed to “get” the game. It seemed simplistic and totally random. It was consigned to the shelf and didn’t make a return for a second play for well over a year later. Over twenty years and 98 plays later, Ra is a brilliant favorite that sees regular play. I don’t know why it rubbed us the wrong way back for that first play in 1999, but we all thought it was rubbish. We could not have been more wrong.
Terraforming Mars deserves a special mention here as well. I first played it with three players. We rushed into the game with no experience and a cursory tour through the rules which were pretty easy to understand except for one horribly misunderstood point. For some reason, we misread or misunderstood the rule about selling your cards. Instead of selling cards for $1 per card, we somehow thought there should be sold for their face value. My opponents sold high value cards for big bucks while I seemed to only draw low value cards. About halfway through I was complaining loudly enough that we reexamined the rules much more closely. Oops. We restarted immediately.
My gaming time is far more limited than I would like it to be. Despite what I like to tell myself, I am probably a founding member of the Cult of the New. Sure, I’d love to play games I like dozens of times, but I highly enjoy thinking about new rules systems. For some time now I’ve played the simplest “solo version” of many games – which is to read the rules and figure out how the game goes. I am typically the game explainer for my group so this works well. As a result, it is a rare game that makes it back around enough times for me to elevate it to a higher ranking. This is doubly-so as I’m the one supplying the games most of the time.
Looking back there are three “solid” games for which I have a really bad taste in my mouth after only one play. I expect I could learn to really enjoy them with a few more plays, but I have more games on my plate that I know I would enjoy so those other games just leave the collection quietly. None of the three are the result of poor rules explanations – they’re mostly all on me. One (from long ago) is Tigris & Euphrates. I spent the entirely of the game trying to suss out strategy. I had the gist of strategy down, but was completely incompetent at judging what tiles the other players had. When I would get up the nerve to challenge people on this or the other challenge, they would invariably have at least one more tile of that color than I expected…. Ughh. So I was constantly convinced everyone had more tiles of a given color and I spent the game frustrated at every turn.
The next two games were poor experiences partly because I was late in player order and so if I went for obvious things, I was often repeatedly beaten to them by players earlier in the order. I’m sure an experienced player would have recognized ways around this challenge, but as a new player I just did not see them in my first time through.
I thought Clank: A Deckbuilding Adventure was right up my alley. It had deckbuilding and I was still a huge fan of it at the time and the way the cards interacted with the board were quite interesting. Most (all?) of us were beginners and so we started into the game and I believe I was the fourth player in turn order. OK, no big deal, but it certainly felt like I was behind the wheel as every “room” I entered was already cleared out. So, why don’t I try going for a brand new angle? I decided I would be the “quietest” player in the hopes that everyone else would get in trouble with their “noise cubes” and I could use it to my advantage. Well, by late mid-game, I estimate the three opposing players each had twice as many “noise cubes” in the tower than I. However, I had the majority of cubes that had come out of the tower. Sure, that was bad luck, but it didn’t make for a fun game where even my self-imposed victory challenge was thrown back at my face.
My final of the trifecta was Yokohama. At my own birthday (gaming) party, I was taught the game by a well known designer. He had played before so he did a great job explaining the rules. However, I was once more last in player order and every goal I targeted was sniped by the teacher (usually) the round before I could bring it to fruition. Sure, it is mostly on me as I should have been looking for things that he wasn’t pursuing, but I wasn’t experienced enough in the game to see where to be headed. It didn’t help that our group let the “experienced player” claim a few things to themselves that we should have made sure got spread out amongst the group.
I would like to think failing epically in my first play of a game would not put me off of it for good. However, when I spend an entire game where I’m late in player order and I feel like I’m always one step behind everyone else… my ego gets the best of me and I suspect future plays would (at least the next few times) be tainted by the experience.
My first game of Caylus was one taught by someone who’d already played the game numerous times. However, instead of patiently walking us through the buildings and what they meant, talking to us about tactics etc…he just explained the game extremely badly and then proceeded buy all the best buildings and use them mercilessly to thrash us.
Fortunately I like a challenge and bought the game soon afterwards, choosing to relearn it properly and play it through alone before gently introducing it to my game group, complete with what I think was a good overview of tactics, how to score points, remeber to always keep a pink cube in hand and watch your money supply, etc etc.
Now, years later I still remember how wonderfully different Caylus was and the rea thrill of learning how to play it. It’s still a great game…I have the new version Caylus 1303 on my shelf but haven’t tried it yet…