Tag Archives: Arkham Horror

Boardgames in the News: Cooperation and the “Alpha Gamer Problem”

Competition is one of the main characteristics people associate with board games, however, in the modern world of Euro games, this is no longer true.  Firstly, one of the primary qualities of Euro games is the lack of “direct interaction”.  This means that although there is competition, it is difficult for players to be “nasty” to each other.  This is an important aspect of modern gaming as it takes away the aggressive element and makes them more inclusive, particularly for families.  These games still have winners and losers though, and while everyone likes winning, nobody likes losing and some people really, really hate it.  This is where “cooperative games” come in:  instead of players competing against each other, everyone works as a team, trying to beat the game.

Pandemic
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

There are now hundreds of cooperative games available, but although the first of these date back to the 1960s, the explosion really happened about ten years ago following the release of Pandemic.  Designed by Matt Leacock, Pandemic is a very accessible game where players are disease-fighting specialists whose mission is to treat disease hot-spots while researching cures for the four plagues before they get out of hand.  The game board features the major global population centres and on their turn, each player can travel between cities, treat infection, discover a cure, or build a research facility. The clever part of the game is the two decks of cards that drive it.  The first of these enables players to travel and treat infection, but also contains Epidemic cards that accelerate and intensify the diseases’ activity. The second deck controls the “normal” spread of the infections, with players drawing a set number of these, that increases when Epidemic cards are drawn.

Pandemic
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

Since Pandemic, a large number of cooperative games have been published, including Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Sky, all of which use cards in a similar way to Pandemic to increase the threat.  All of these have been designed by Matt Leacock and have a very similar feel, though a different theme.  There have also been a number of variations on the Pandemic game which retain the original theme, including the well-regarded Pandemic Legacy titles which change the feel a lot.  Other similar games by different designers include Ghost Stories, Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Flash Point: Fire Rescue, each with a different theme, but with changes to the mechanism (Flash Point for example uses dice instead of cards) and varying degrees of difficulty (Ghost stories played with four is supposed to be one of the most challenging games of its type to win).

Forbidden Island
– Image by BGG contributor DLCrie

Not all cooperative games are family friendly and accessible.  Arkham Horror is set in the H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulu mythos.  Each player is a resident of or visitor to the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusets during the 1920s and takes the roll of a character ranging from a gangster to a college professor.  The players discover a nefarious cult attempting to awaken a great evil, and, to prevent an invasion from other realms, they must seal off access to Arkham.  To survive, players must equip themselves with all manner of weapons, and spells, while searching for clues to aid them in their mission.  The game has a substantial rule set and the games are epic experiences which take four to five hours to complete (and are therefore not for the faint-hearted).

Arkham Horror
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

While there is plenty of variety available with cooperative games, there are two often cited problems.  Firstly, many players find that cooperative games lack “something”.  In reality, this is largely just a matter of taste, in the same way that some gamers feel that “Euro Games” lack something when compared with highly random dice-heavy games with player elimination.  Perhaps a more fundamental issue is that of the so-called “alpha gamer”. This is where one player effectively becomes the general, and tells everyone else what to do.  This problem arises because most cooperative games are essentially puzzles that can be solved by one player.  Some games designers have tried to fix this issue by adding hidden information, usually in the form of cards, and a rule that players cannot share such knowledge.  Simply instructing players not to share knowledge is much easier said than done, however, as even a slight inflection in the voice or a change of expression can give away a lot of information.

Hanabi
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor aleacarv

In 2013, a very simple, yet clever card game called Hanabi won the Spiel des Jahres.  The idea is that instead of every player looking at the front of their hand of cards and showing the backs to all the other players, hands are held the other way so that each player can’t see their own cards, but can see everyone else’s.  In principle this means players can discuss what a player should do, but a lot of information can be given away accidentally.  For this reason, the best, most intense games of Hanabi are played in near total silence and stony faced.  This is actually extremely hard to do, which is why for many, The Game, a similar cooperative card game nominated for the Spiel des Jares in 2015 has proved to have more longevity.  This is because players can discuss anything they like as long as they never give away specific number information.

Shadows over Camelot
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

One of the early cooperative games was Shadows over Camelot, which is a hand-management and deduction-based board game where players are knights of the Round Table collaborating to overcome quests like the search for the Holy Grail.  In order to get round the “alpha gamer” problem Shadows over Camelot introduced a traitor mechanic.  At the start of the game, players are given a Loyalty Card, one of which says “Traitor”.  The player that draws the Traitor card then tries to sabotage the efforts of the Loyal Company.  Initially the Traitor hides within the Company, so players have to be very careful about what information they disclose as the Traitor could use it against them.  Worse, players have to be very careful about what information they believe as it could be given by the Traitor in an effort to mislead.

Shadows over Camelot
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

Initially, the Traitor acts as one of the loyal knights, but as suspicions mount, players can accuse others of being a traitor.  If outed, the Traitor’s actions become more limited, but potentially more devastating.  Stacking the deck in different ways can be used to introduce different levels of doubt.  For example, four players drawing from eight Loyalty Cards including one traitor, are unlikely to to have a traitor, but the possibility is just enough to keep people on their toes; at the other extreme, if there are no excess cards a traitor is guaranteed.  One of the problems with the hidden traitor in Shadows over Camelot though, is that it doesn’t scale well with the number of players: seven knights playing against one traitor are still likely to win, whereas three knights are always going to struggle.

Lord of the Rings
– Image by BGG contributor fubar awol

In Shadows over Camelot, the scaling problem was fixed with the Merlin’s Company expansion, which introduced a possible second traitor.  Expansions also arguably improved one of the most intense, cooperative games, Lord of the Rings.  This twenty year old game follows the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring, with players taking on the roles of the hobbits.  It is also a card driven game, which players lose if the ring-bearer is overcome by Sauron, or win if the Ring is destroyed by throwing it into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom. The Friends & Foes and Battlefields expansions add complexity and variety, while the Sauron expansion introduces a semi-cooperative element with someone actively playing the Dark Lord.

Lord of the Rings
– Image by BGG contributor takras

The semi-cooperative, “one versus many” style of game is not new, indeed it was the core mechanism of the winner of the 1983 Spiel des Jahres Award, Scotland Yard.  A staple of many charity shops, this is still a popular family game that still holds up more than thirty years later.  Although modifying the cooperative nature solves the “alpha gamer” problem, it doesn’t fix the other problem:  if one player is significantly weaker than others, everyone suffers.  This is issue inherent in any team game: the team is only as strong as its weakest link, however, it is a particular problem when the weak player is the Traitor.  This is actually a problem in any game where one player has a pivotal role though; Codenames, for example, can be a truly awful experience if the wrong person gets the job of “Spy Master”.

Scotland Yard
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor aleacarv

Despite the issues associated with cooperative and semi-cooperative games, they continue to be very popular.  In the recent years, The Game and Hanabi have featured strongly in the Spiel des Jahres awards and nominees, while the top two games in the BoardGameGeek ranking, Gloomhaven and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, both feature cooperative play as well.  With epic campaign games like Kingdom: Death Monster and The 7th Continent continuing to build on and develop the mechanism, cooperative games are clearly here to stay, even if they aren’t suitable for every group.

Kingdom Death: Monster
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Boardgames in the News: Another Year, Another Take-Over

For many, Asmodée is the boardgame equivalent of the Borg, so it should be no surprise that the New Year brings yet another Asmodée take-over story.  This time the targets are the German publisher and distributor Heidelberger Spieleverlag, the French/Spanish company Edge Entertainment, and the Spanish distributor Millennium.  Heidelberger are the German production partner for many companies that are better known in the UK including Fantasy Flight Games, Czech Games Edition, Iello, Indie Boards & Cards and Ferti; they specialise in fantasy, science fiction and horror Games as well as being the distributor for Alea Spiele in Germany.  Edge performs a similar function within the French and Spanish games markets while Millennium is primarily a distributor, but has also produced French versions Citadels and Sutter’s Mill.  The connection between them is that they were all foreign language partners for Fantasy Flight Games who were bought by Asmodée two and a half years ago.  So, these acquisitions give Asmodée complete control of brands like Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game, Android: Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter and Arkham Horror.

Asmodee Partners
– Image from asmodee.de

The list of Asmodée’s “partners” is extensive, so the question is, who will be next?

Boardgames in the News: So, What Are Euro-Games?

A couple of months ago at our game night, one of the gamers commented that there were a lot of good games from Europe.  This prompted a discussion about “traditional games”, “Euro-games”, “American games” and their relative merits.  Most people know all about traditional games even if they don’t know what gamers mean when they use the term:  traditional games are the games we all used to play as a child including Scrabble, Cluedo and love it or loath it, the dreaded Monopoly.  Some people also include in this list games like Chess, Go and Backgammon as well as traditional card games like Whist, Hearts and Rummy.

Go
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor ManCorte

But the front page of the boardGOATS website says, “We generally prefer to play “Euro” style games,” so, what do gamers mean by “Euro-games” or “Euro style games”?  Well, most of the traditional games we used to play as children were produced by publishers in the United States of America, companies like Milton Bradley (who made Scrabble) and Parker Brothers (who made Cluedo and Monopoly).  Incidentally, both these companies are now part of Hasbro, but the aggregation of smaller companies to form a larger one is a topic that’s been covered elsewhere.  While the “English” market was dominated by big players that concentrated on producing a few top sellers, in Germany there was no such dominance.  The effect this had was that the market consisted of a large number of small manufacturers producing more varied products.

Scrabble
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Susie_Cat

This coupled with the traditionally strong German toy industry encouraged the growth of a culture of families playing games together on a Sunday afternoon. It was in this environment that the annual German Game of the Year, or Spiel des Jahres Award, highlighted a range of games from Rummikub in 1980, Torres in 2000 and Camel Up last year.  Over the years, the red pawn of the Spiel des Jahres logo, has become a mark of boardgaming quality, and for many German families, buying the game of the year is something they do every Christmas.  Therefore, the qualities espoused by these awards heavily influence the concept of the “Euro-game”.

Rummykub
– Image by BGG contributor OldestManOnMySpace

But what are these qualities that make a game “European”?  Well, that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, describes them as characterised by “simple rules, short to medium playing times, indirect player interaction and abstract physical components”.   It goes on to say, “Such games emphasize strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.”  On the whole this is not a bad summary, except that it is not very specific:  how simple are “simple rules” and how long are “short to medium playing times”?  Clearly these features are more about contrast, and although there are lots of different types of games including party games and war games, this comparison is usually between European style ames and American-style Games, aka “Ameri-Trash”.

Last Night on Earth
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Bilben04

Although common, use of the term Ameri-Trash (or Ameritrash) is controversial as some see it as unnecessarily negative, however, although other terms have been suggested none have proved as popular or as persistent.  The term itself is over fifteen years old and was probably originally used disparagingly and applied to genuinely bad American games as a comparison with the much higher professional standards of games in Germany at the time.  Since then, the scope has been expanded and many fans of those American games have adopted the term as a badge of honour.

Merchant of Venus
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

American-style games tend to be long, usually over two hours, and classically involve a lot of luck and often feature dice rolling.  They are often considered to be a lot less “cerebral” or “puzzle-like” and, as a result, are sometimes described as “more fun”.  The reference to “trash” may in part reflect the style of the pieces which tend to include a lot of plastic pieces to go with the dice.  There is also often a lot of direct conflict in American-style games, where European games tend to be much more family friendly with indirect player interaction.  Classic Ameri-Trash games include:  Arkham Horror, Merchant of Venus, Cosmic Encounter and Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game.  Sometimes there is also a book or film tie-in leading to games like Battlestar Galactica and Dune.  Even just comparing the titles with those of classic Euro-games like Puerto Rico, El Grande, Tikal and Agricola, the difference can clearly be felt.

Arkham Horror
– Image by BGG contributor igorigorevich

The most essential part of American-style games is the theme, however, which is often integral to the game mechanisms.  This encourages people fantasize they are part of the action when playing the game.  The miniatures, the long playing times, the complex interwoven rule-set and the interaction (often culminating in players being eliminated) all combine to draw players into the drama of the game.  In contrast, for Euro-games, the mechanisms are the focus, and the games can often be re-themed without much effort.  The theme is therefore used more as an introduction to the more abstract European strategy games, making them more accessible, rather than being an essential part of the emotional investment.

Relic Runners
– Image by BGG contributor cnidius

But things are not as simple as that.  The nature of modern boardgaming encourages cross-fertilisation.  There are more highly-themed, strategy-games available now and more long, strategic games with miniatures – these are sometimes referred to as “hybrid games”.  For example, games produced by the Days of Wonder (based in the USA), like Ticket to Ride and Relic Runners have a lot of plastic pieces, though the games themselves are quite strategic and generally run for no more than an hour.  Similarly, games like Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Space Alert use real-time and a sound-track to draw the players in, yet they are both short (Escape takes just ten minutes to play) and have no player elimination.  Vlaada Chvátil’s Dungeon Lords series of games, also have a lot of theme, but are also playable in a manageable time-frame, have a lot of strategy and a reasonably streamlined set of rules.

Dungeon Lords
– Image used with permission of BGG
contributor PaulGrogan

Confusingly however, “hybrid” has more recently also come to mean games that include some sort of mobile device application (and thus require a smart phone, tablet or similar).  Now, lots of games have Apps that help them a long a little (e.g. One Night Ultimate Werewolf), but games like Alchemists and XCOM: The Board Game don’t really function properly without them.  The question is, are these still boardgames?  In truth, they are a sort of hybrid computer-boardgame, but the point is, however appropriate the name, it is all about the game and the other people playing:  the bottom line is, if you enjoy playing it, it doesn’t matter what it is called.

Alchemists
– Image used with permission of
BGG contributor Mouseketeer

Boardgames in the News: Are Asmodée Taking Over the World?

Asmodée is the French translation for Asmodeus, and according to Binsfeld’s classification of demons, Asmodeus is the demon of lust and is therefore responsible for twisting people’s sexual desires.  In the boardgame world though, Asmodée (originally known as Siroz) are a small French game publishing and distribution company, specialising in the family market. For example, they are well known for Dobble, Dixit, Time’s Up! and Ca$h ‘n Guns, but they also publish some more challenging games including Snow Tails, Mr. Jack, Formula D, Takenoko and 7 Wonders.

Jungle Speed
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

Asmodée was started in 1995 by Marc Nunès, a self-trained entrepreneur developing role-playing games, but quickly became France’s foremost games publisher and distributor.  One of the big early successes was Jungle Speed, launched in 1998, which has since gone on to be one of the top-selling titles in France, rivalling Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Pay Day.  The real turning point came in 2003, however, when Asmodée obtained the French licence to distribute Pokémon collector cards, which opened up the mass retail sector.  This development led to an 18% investment from Naxicap in 2005.  Naxicap’s stake was bought out two years later by Montefiore who acquired 60% of the company as part of a deal with management worth €40-50 million.  Montefiore invested €120 million to finance Asmodée’s international growth, funding the acquisition of the Belgian game distributor Hodin in 2008, the Spanish games developer Cromola and the German Proludo in 2009, followed by the purchase of a 60% stake in the UK-based distributor, Esdevium Games in 2010.  Asmodée also strengthened it’s portfolio with the acquisition of Abalone and partnership with Libellud (leading to the distribution rights for Dixit) in 2010.

Abalone
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor msaari

In 2012, Asmodée branched out further, setting up a subsidiary in Shanghai, China,  with the intention of expanding “into a new market taking advantage of Asmodee’s extensive line-up of games and the existing relationships with partners, thus promoting the brand in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan”.  This ambition brought Asmodée to the attention of the Eurazeo, a European investment company and a deal was announced in November 2013 that valued Asmodée at €143 million.   In January, 2014, almost exactly a year ago now, Eurazeo bought 83.5% of Asmodée through an equity investment of €98 million while Asmodée’s management team and original founders reinvested €14 million of their own money.

Ticket to Ride
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor garyjames

With the backing Eurazeo provided, Asmodée then went big:  in August last year it was announced that Days of Wonder would be “merging into the Asmodée Group of game companies”.   Days of Wonder are one of the biggest names in modern boardgaming, and are often credited with the growth of the modern boardgame industry, thanks largely to their flagship Ticket to Ride games, which have sold well over two million copies to date.  This is not the only “big game” in their catalogue either, they are also responsible for Memoir ’44 and Small World, both of which are popular games, demonstrated by the number of expansions they support and which take Days of Wonder’s total number of games sold to over five million since their founding in 2002.

Small World
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor crosenkrantz

According to Forbes, Days of Wonder generates between $10 million and $20 million in revenue annually, not bad in such a niche market.  From Eurazeo/Asmodée’s point of view, such an acquisition makes sound financial sense, not just because of the commercial value, but because they already provided a lot of the distribution for Days of Wonder games.  This wasn’t enough for Asmodée however, and three months later, they acquired the U.S. publisher Fantasy Flight Games.

– Image used with permission of BGG contributor adamfeldner

This was a bit of a change of direction for Asmodée:  hitherto, all the acquisitions had been firmly in the family boardgame and distribution markets.  Fantasy Flight games are a very different animal and their headline games, Twilight Imperium and Arkham Horror are much less family friendly.   Even their X-Wing Miniatures Game which is very popular with fathers and sons, is a long way outside the normal scope of Asmodée, since it is essentially a two-player war game with a Star Wars theme.  However, there are considerable benefits for both parties, since the merger will enable Fantasy Flight to improve its distribution in Europe, while simultaneously giving the growing Asmodée Group access to Fantasy Flight’s North American sales and marketing teams.

Black Fleet
– Image used with permission BGG contributor Toynan

Asmodée weren’t stopping there, however, with Ystari Games, Asterion Press and Pearl Games also becoming “part of the Asmodée family” late last year.  The link with Ystari Games almost certainly comes from their mutual interest in Space Cowboys.  Space Cowboys is a game creation studio created in 2013 by Marc Nunès (who started Asmodée way back in 1995, remember?), Philippe Mouret and Croc (both of Asmodée), Cyril Demaegd (Ystari) and Sébastien Pauchon (GameWorks).  Space Cowboys is a very small outfit, but already has one Spiel des Jahres nomination under its belt in Splendor and looks to be trying for a second with Black Fleet, the gorgeous pirate game released at Essen last year.

Eurazeo
– Image from eurazeo.com

So, what are Asmodée up to?  The concern is that gamers generally like the current diversity in the market and fear that this succession of mergers and partnerships will mean a homogenisation of the games available.  The November 2014 Eurazeo “Investor Day” report spelled out the current state of Asmodée in detail and the good news is that this does not seem to be Eurazeo/Asmodée’s intention.  The report states, “Each studio has its own DNA,” and goes on to say, “Repeated success lies in the full independency granted to these studios, to keep innovating.”  So it seems the diversity is valued, however, by acquiring mid-sized publishers like Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight, Asmodée is positioning itself to compete more effectively with multinational toy giants like Hasbro and Mattel, who publish top board game brands including Monopoly and Scrabble.

Eurazeo
– Image from eurazeo.com

So, is it a good thing that Asmodée are setting themselves up to rival the big boys?  Well, Asmodée is not the only company to engage in mergers:  in 2011 Filosofia purchased the U.S. publisher Z-Man Games, and U.S. publisher FRED Distribution (which releases games under the Eagle Games and Gryphon Games brands), acquired U.S. publisher Face2Face Games.  More recently, in late 2013, Mayfair Games (the U.S. partner for Catan) bought a controlling interest in Lookout Games (the company who first brought Agricola, Caverna, Le Havre and Ora et Labora to the market).

Asmodee
– Image from forbes.com

Clearly a large stable company provides security for designers, as well as providing support for the individual studios who know that one poor decision is no-longer likely to bring about the end of the company, both of which have to be A Good Thing.  However, companies like Eurazeo invest for only one reason:  financial return.  With an effective monopoly, Asmodée are now in a position to squeeze the market, indeed we may already be seeing the evidence of this in the price rises announced at the start of the year.  With this in mind, it will become clear in due course whether Asmodée is good for boargaming in the UK or whether it is genuinely the demon of lust responsible for twisting our gaming desires…