Board games, Eurogames, and Chess

2009, September 13th 2:52 AM

I have been thinking, recently, about which board games I enjoy and why.

First, this is a very different subject from computer games. Computer games have plot and flow and artistic beauty outside the raw game mechanics. Board games, fundamentally, don't. They've got flavor, but it tends to be very static flavor – contrast comic books with a single frame from that comic book. Much of this entry doesn't immediately apply to the board game's single-player electronic brethren. I know you guys probably read this for video games, but, well, I'm not a video gamer, I'm a gamer.

Second, what I should be doing is sleeping, but we can probably all guess how well that's working right now.

So you get a development log entry.

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician go to a convention.

That night, they all retire to their own separate rooms. They bid each other good night, remark upon the remarkable weather, and sleep. The aforementioned remarkable weather gets worse, lightning strikes the hotel, and a spark leaps from each person's power outlet and lands in their wastebasket, which catches fire.

The engineer wakes up first. He sees the fire, grabs the water cup from his bedside table, and hucks it at the fire, which goes out. After checking to make sure it's out completely, he goes back to sleep.

The physicist wakes shortly after. He quickly estimates the volume of his cup and the size of the fire, guesses at the trajectory necessary to douse the fire, nods in satisfaction, and elegantly hoists his own cup into the air, perfectly covering the fire. He checks to see if it's out, just to be sure, but he knows it will be, and it is, so he goes back to sleep.

The mathematician wakes last. He derives the volume of water, and proves to himself it will put out the fire. He quickly measures his arm strength and the distance to the wastebasket. He calculates an arc that will land the water perfectly in the wastebasket, then rapidly doublechecks his calculations.

"Aha!" he proclaims. "There is a solution!"

And he goes back to sleep.

I really can't stand chess.

I've tried. I really have. I know it's a good game. I know many, many people play it. But me? I can't stand it. I think I finally figured out why.

There's a solution to chess.

More importantly, there's a solution to pretty much everything involved in chess.

Now, okay, we can't make a computer that can play perfectly. But at this point chess largely comes down to sheer horsepower. Chess AIs can beat humans regularly. It's no longer even worth mentioning. The game is understood well enough, and by enough people, to describe it to a computer such that the computer will absolutely destroy you regularly. But this is not the critical part.

The critical part is that there are two groups of people when it comes to chess. There are the people who have been playing for their entire lives, and there are the people who haven't. If you're in the latter group, everything you could possibly come up with in the game has been done already. There is no room for invention. If a move is uncommon, it's probably because it's stupid. The game, for you, is solved.

And it's not like you couldn't get better. Of course you could get better. You could, quite easily, get better at chess than most people you've ever met ever will be. But you'll never be a grandmaster – you didn't start when you were four years old. (What were you thinking?) You will live your entire chess career knowing that there is a bar that you will never reach.

This is not what I want out of my entertainment.

What I've determined, slowly and painfully, is that the part I find fascinating about games is learning how they work. Learning how the pieces interact. Learning how the options interact. Finding ways to break the game, finding ways to fix those breaks, finding ways to break those fixes. I don't want to hone myself to become an absolutely perfect player at a single game – I want to analyze that game from the inside out and figure out its strategies and design philosophies and understand them on an intellectual level. Nothing more.

And with chess, that's already been done. I can walk into bookstores and find shelves of books doing exactly that.

What's your chess-related question? Oh, let me look that up for you! See? There's a solution! You can go back to bed now.

Alright, I'm not going to bed yet, because I wrote that subject line up there and I'm not going to change it because I was more awake when I wrote it than I am now and there's still one bit in that subject that I haven't touched on.


The history of board games has been a long and complicated one. Settlers of Catan was really the landmark moment in the recent resurgence, and deservedly so, because it is a great game that happens to avoid many of the problems I find in eurogames.

Eurogames are a genre of painstakingly balanced board games, with some light flavor and usually light strategy. A single play tends to make that strategy clear. Perfect execution of the strategy is perhaps difficult, but sufficient execution is usually reasonably simple. Eurogames frequently have further balancing mechanics, so that mistakes made in the beginning and end of the game work themselves out rapidly, leaving a tight playfield at the end for many exciting endings.

Eurogames are a genre of games painstakingly crafted to have limited expert play, with rules carefully constructed to both create an obvious strategy and blatantly demonstrate it to everyone involved. Perfect execution of the strategy is difficult, but except in the absolute highest tiers, largely unnecessary due to internal self-balancing, aimed to insure that everyone is somewhat successful. This balancing can become so extreme that the victory hinges not on your play in the beginning or middle of the game, but on your ability to precisely calculate the entire game state once you're two or three moves from the end.

You see the problem?

It's as if the wastebasket fire came with its own solution. You don't even need to wake the mathematician up, it's already done!

I'm not trying to say that Eurogames are bad games. If anything, the opposite is true – the well-known eurogames are such good games that they are immediately uninteresting. I probably won't be able to break them. The strategy is well-known. In many cases I can't even hone my strategy worth talking about, since either the game result hinges around random chance, or it relies solely on the player's ability to bruteforce the entire game decision tree in his head.

The execution can be fun. No, scratch that, the execution is always fun.

But when I find myself thinking about board games, and wanting to play them again just to analyze them further, I don't think about eurogames. I know how Power Grid works. I understand Settlers. Carcassonne has basically two tiers of play – one involves counting cards, and the other is trivial. Once you learn how not to screw yourself, you're done with Ticket to Ride.

I find myself thinking about the games that I'm not sure are balanced. Starcraft, which, in board game form, is a ridiculously complicated strategy game. Android – I've played it three times, and twice it's ended in degenerate cases that, it turns out, violate the rules. Galaxy Trucker, with an entire major game mechanic that I simply do not know how to optimize yet.

And if I'm not playing a game for the research, I'm playing it for the flavor . . . and with eurogames, that flavor tends to be limited.

It's late, and I'm tired, and I should have been in bed something like (oh god) four hours ago. But at least now I have some basic understanding of why I'm bored of eurogames, and why chess doesn't interest me, and why Go does (it's because the strategy in Go seems less understood, and seems more intuitive, and I don't yet get it, while I do basically understand how chess works even though I can't play worth a damn), and why I'm finding myself rather fascinated with Arimaa lately.

I suppose if there's one thing you can hope to get out of sleep deprivation, it's introspection.

And now I really am going to bed.

  • Kiru Banzai

    2009, September 13th 8:00 AM

    I found myself nodding along with this post–the way I think of it, I'm either playing a game, or executing an algorithm. The first involves interesting, fun mental effort, and the second is just pretending to be a chess computer. Beep boop.

    At that point, the only fun you can have is outlandish trash-talking.

  • Zorba

    2009, September 13th 10:33 AM

    After writing this (and totally failing to go to bed, I am terrible) I ran across a rather neat definition of a board game subgenre called "Ameritrash" which actually does a pretty good job of explaining the different from another direction. In summary, Eurogames are based around elegance, American games are based around drama.

    Which makes it even easier to trashtalk.

  • Lar

    2009, September 13th 8:53 PM

    I deal with analyzing board games the same way, except I call it something about the "skill/volatility curve", which is basically some kind of plot where some intersection of skill (you can get better) and volatility (the amount of luck) and some mix in-between (can I take a riskier move?). And then there's meta-gaming when a game is played enough times (bluffs, scouting player's bias..) and things.

    I haven't been playing many board games lately, half because I don't got that much time, and the games I have, I'm sure you've played, since they all rank highly on BGG. Agricola fits that mold you described perfectly – there's actually minimal randomization, and it's mostly about the execution. Dominion where most of the skill is determining how the cards interact, and go for that strategy all the way to the end, practically. Race for the Galaxy is what's doing it for me right now, in that there's actually quite a bit of luck, being a card drawing game where most of the cards are unique, but after the first expansion it's actually quite incredibly balanced. You'll still get bad beats sometimes, but you can define skill probabilistically, and to some degree, you can control how much risk/reward most of the time. Sometimes you'll aim for a single strategy and win with that, but most of the time it's about adapting to the adjusting environments and analyzing risks.

    It's late here now, so I need sleep too.. haha..

  • zanfur

    2009, September 13th 9:28 PM

    I like chess. But, if I learned it today, instead of when I was 6, I'm pretty sure I *wouldn't* like chess. Chess is only interesting to me because I've studied it long enough that I think of it in terms of over-arching strategies instead of "where do I move now?". People commonly ask me "how many moves ahead do you calculate?" and the only answer, at this point, is "Not Applicable". I just look at the shape and structures on the board, and tweak it so that I like the shape better — the tactics are all background pattern-matching processes at this point. But, if I had to think about the tactics, I'd be pretty bored, pretty quickly, for exactly the reasons you list: it's been solved before, at least at that level.

    Ironically, the reason I enjoy chess (at least, playing with people who are at a similar or higher level than I am) is because it's a search for understanding. I *can't* just look up answers to the conundrums I come across in games — I've already looked up the answers I can look up, and at this point it's a matter of personal epiphanies. That's really a lot of fun.

    I'm learning Shogi (Japanese chess) right now, which I hope will have less of the "just go look it up" factors that western chess has. I'll let you know how that turns out.

  • Christopher H

    2009, September 14th 9:47 PM

    Have you tried Dominion? OK, it's technically a card game, but it's packaged and priced like a board game. :)

    The thing I love about it is that it's randomized and often far from balanced. You start out with a cool non-linear deck-building game, with a huge state space (to a first order approximation, the multiset of cards in your deck and your opponents decks). But then you select 10 cards from 25 (or more, with the expansion) to be the vocabulary of the game. Every game results in different combinations, and the "optimum" play for a given vocabulary isn't necessarily obvious even in hindsight. Sure you could practice and analyze and perfect play for one particular combination, or for a particular core of 3 or 4 powerful cards, but that analysis will only apply very fuzzily to other situations. Some games come down to the wire, some result in complete domination. Some games we'll try antithetical approaches, some we'll be fine-tuning the same solution. In some games luck is a major factor, or the very first hand, but in other games the strategy can change 10 minutes in. It's fast enough that you get to play a whole lot of different games in one session.

    It looks like a Eurogame, but in many respects it's the anti-Eurogame. I, too, hate the "count everyone's resources to the last decimal point three turns before the end" aspect of PowerGrid. In Dominion, as far as I can tell the only thing you need to be counting is Victory Points (and I do OK even though I'm lazy about that). Although there are elements of attack and defense, the gameplay is more independent than many games, which works well for an exploratory game: if you want to try a particular strategy, you probably won't be summarily curtailed by your opponent, you can at least give it a shot.

    Dominion has delivered hours and hours of "learning to play a cool new game" experience for me, and for that I love it. It would be an exciting challenge to write a computer program to play it too: because the state space is so big and non-linear and there's so much randomness, it's pleasantly resistant to attack. Even if you could optimize a search to "solve" a particular combination of cards, the next deal will change the game completely.

  • Zorba

    2009, September 16th 8:20 AM

    I was actually thinking about writing specifically about Dominion, but decided not to :) Basically, though, yes – I think it's a great game for the exact reasons you've listed here, even though I've done basically none of the "randomly choose cards" yet (I haven't played it all that much.)

  • Dughi

    2009, September 17th 3:25 PM

    I have been, for many years, exclaiming to everyone that I met that chess was not a strategy game. It hasn't got strategy. It has a very large fixed outcome tree, and if you have a computer large enough to solve for every outcome, the game is over. For those good at it, it's a type of pattern matching. It has nearly the same level of strategy as tic-tac-toe.

    However, I have found a variant of chess that does seem interesting, and would be fun to play. It's called "Stanley Random Chess," or SR Chess. It plays like normal chess with one exception; each move you make has a 50% chance of being declared illegal, and a computer moderator will make a random – but otherwise legal – move on your behalf.

    So you could get 3 moves entirely under your control, and then 10 totally random. Suddenly it's not an army walking in lockstep, it's a gamble whether or not your rook will be able to attack in two turns, or if he'll be left next to an enemy pawn. You can't plan ahead too far, because you don't know what's going to happen – your opponent won't necessarily be making sensible moves either!

    Alternatively, if you can find a copy of the game 'feudal' ( ), it's a two-to-six person game of similar-to-chess with a comparatively large 4-part board game that has a player-determined setup. Team play is especially fun. Play time usually runs around 20 minutes, so it's not too terribly boring.

  • Jonathan

    2009, September 18th 9:00 AM

    Lately I've been borrowing the Computer Science term (and loosely, the concept) "Decidable" to describe Board Games that suffer the issues you cite. Chess is decidable. Settlers is decidable. Puerto Rico is *very* decidable. At every given moment, there is one *ideal* strategy, while all others are less than ideal, and therefore, non-optimal.

    I disagree with you about TtR in that regard, however; You're dealt a goal; you have the option of risking bigger stakes by taking on additional goals, with a higher payout. And you have to accomplish them without clueing any of the other players in to what you're doing (to keep them from blocking,) which brings me to my next point.

    Board Games have an interesting and distinct extra element that video games largely lack. The meta-game. I think another commenter pointed it out, but I think it's worth another mention. Board games inherit all the nuance of poker, but with more options. If you can convince your buddy that them move he's about to make isn't his best option, you can talk him into doing something less beneficial for himself/more beneficial for you, if you make the case convincingly. This aspect almost saves the "Decidables" — almost.

    Carcassonne, I don't think is decidable, I just think it's somehow boring.

    Games I would recommend trying, which I think would confront some of your generalities about Eurogames (though they may not be strictly in the genre:)
    Wealth of Nations

    Arkham Horror and Pandemic are also both wildly entertaining, but are player-coöp, so are different animals entirely, but are worth looking into.

  • Eryx

    2009, September 23rd 5:36 AM

    I tend to agree. I think Chess is a very good board game, and Bridge is a very good card game, but this does not mean that I agree with suggestions like "let's play Chess/Bridge, that's the best game there is, no other card game matches it". Even if there are lots of interesting strategies in Chess, there are much more interesting strategies in games in general. Mastering Chess is a waste, playing different games is much more fun. Or playing something like Warthog, where each game is completely different.

    Bridge is even worse… it's mostly not about strategy, but about designing efficient protocols for exchanging information between partners. And actually, it's not designing, but learning these protocols from your partners or other resources (unless you are very good with them and can invent something better yourself).

    I think some problems with Chess can be solved by trying mutations. Don't play the official chess. Change some rules and play. If it turns out bad, let it die. If it turns out fun, share with your friends, and let them mutate further. If your friends have other interesting ideas, try to combine them in one variant. Go forth and multiply, cross and mutate. Be a true follower of Evolution.

    And about computer games… they are a very broad subject and hard to generalize about them. When speaking about computer games, most people think something like Counterstrike, but turn-based strategies, puzzles like DROD or roguelikes are much closer to board games than to Counterstrike, IMO.

  • Joshua Rodman

    2010, February 27th 11:37 PM

    The thing about good eurogames is there *isnt* one best strategy. There's a mix of strategies that you have to balance, depending upon what the other people are doing as well. A good example of this type is Peurto Rico.

    Then there are others that are shamelessly transparent in the strategy department, but an exercise of tactics, which still involve interesting decisions. Aladdin's Dragons involves all sort of interesting choices to make in the rounds of blind bidding. There's bluffing and reading and claiming space and optimizing for now or later.

    But yes, a decent set of players of Aladdin's Dragons aren't discovering how the game works. They're mostly discovering how each other work.

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