November 21, 2011

Gaming Report: Small World, Dominion

Per our usual, we got a couple games worked in while I kept a keen eye on one of the craziest weekends in college football, ever.  First, the boys and I played Small World.  This is really a true gem.  It is light-weight and light-hearted.  It involves spite and conflict without player elimination and providing plenty of opportunity for pay-back at the same time.  It scales perfectly from 2-5 players.  The artwork is a delight.  It is simple to learn and play.  The replayability factor is high with the random mixing of races and powers each game.  And it's quick with little downtime.  It's just about perfect to play with kids.  The only main drawback is that it's really very light.  Some people prefer games with more meat and strategy.  Even my kids.  Not all the time, though.  Cory was able to nab the Spirit Amazons and then the Ghouls.  I forgot who his third race was, but it didn't matter.  With the Spirit power, he was able to have two races in decline and with his second race being Ghouls, he was able to attack even in decline.  That led to lots of points and he ran away with the game!

Lilly hit me up later for a session of her favorite game: Dominion.  I still enjoy this game, but am starting to get a little bit of a "samey" feeling.  Of course, we just have the base game, so the Intrigue expansion may be the ticket, despite my general distaste for expansions.  The other tactic we may have to employ is the card randomizer; but it's just not always extremely convenient to jump online to crank that out quickly.  Lilly tends to pick many of the same action card piles.  The Woodcutter + Village + Market tends to be the strategy as the best option of drawing extra cards while laying down lots of actions and nabbing additional buys.  I won this time, exacting my revenge from the last game in which she successfully went after me heavy with the Thief!

November 18, 2011

Gaming with Kids: What's in a Number?

On my sixteenth birthday, my best friend and I went to see one of the greatest war films ever made: Glory.  We were huge Civil War buffs and gamers and so beyond pumped to see this movie about the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first U.S. African-American combat unit.  One problem: we were both 16 and the movie carried an 'R' rating, technically meaning no admittance for 16 and under without parental consent.  Somehow we ended up in two lines to purchase our tickets.  The dude selling tickets in my line was some middle-aged, out-of-shape, crooked-tie manager type.  The dude in my friend's line was some shaggy-haired, grunge type not much older than us.  My friend bought his ticket without incident while the manager actually refused to sell me one!  Slightly ticked-off, we solved the problem when my friend went back through the same line and purchased my ticket from the young employee.  We proceeded to enjoy the flick, which earned its 'R' rating with strong language and pull-no-punches, war violence (especially for 1990).  At the time, we were just a couple of immature teenagers with naive ideas about war and sacrifice who just wanted to see an epic Civil War movie with death and carnage amidst fluttering banners and gleaming bayonets.  Although we weren't disappointed, I've since come to appreciate this story 100% more for its humanity, historical significance, acting, and tremendous pathos.  It's one of my Top Five favorites of all time.

I'm often reminded of that day when I ponder one of the stranger characteristics of hobby gaming: the recommended age rating.  In America, I think we tend to look at age recommendations on board games in the same light as the Motion Picture Association rates movies: that is by content.  At least I did.  Video games are similarly rated according to content, which I think further solidifies the perceived connection between a game's thematic material and the age on the box.  But after playing a couple dozen hobby games with my own kids (ages 8-10), and reading a great deal about the hobby and its vast titles, I've come to the opinion that the recommended age rating is almost pointless and almost never about content.  It can still provide a wee bit of measurement regarding a game's suitability for certain ages, but by and large, I've come to even question what the number is supposed to represent or signify.

So first, a quick note on content.  This opinion piece is sort of an extension of a post I did on appropriate game themes for children.  In a few cases, a game is unquestionably adult-oriented and will carry an appropriate rating to denote as much.  On the other hand, some games really flirt with (or outright flaunt) quite suggestive themes.  Tanto Cuore's anime artwork, while not explicit, nonetheless seems disturbingly pedophilic for its 13+ age rating.  A few other games have overly dark motifs.  Chaos in the Old World (13+) is played with some of the hobby's most grotesque miniatures on a board of faux stretched skin.  Yet building up a business empire at the start of the Industrial Revolution, as in Brass, carries the same rating?

One very popular theme in gaming I've no interest in buying is zombies.  It's not that I think they're automatically inappropriate for my kids.  My two boys actually like them and pretend they're eating their sisters' brains all the time.  In fact, they quip they're still hungry afterwards because it wasn't a very large meal!  But personally I've never been into zombies, for whatever reason.  Still, I looked at zombie games on Board Game Geek and this darker theme still rates no higher than 13+ and as young as 10.  The lighter weight title Zombie Dice is rated at 10+, but only has the dice and little troubling imagery outside the container.  The highly thematic Last Night on Earth goes to 12+ with a good deal more disgusting artwork.  Then Zombie Survival one ups that to 13+ with some disturbing cards, including one of a face being graphically blown off by a shotgun at point blank range.  Meanwhile, Zombie State also rolls in at 13+ despite having very little of the stereotypical, horror imagery (and minor at that) on certain tokens.  So what gives?  Well, Zombie State is actually more like a war game.

If thematic material has little to do with the recommended age rating, then the next logical connection would be complexity.  This might equate to the concept behind age ratings listed on toys.  As games can be an extension of the toy industry, the relation seems natural.  Yet here again, various titles' age recommendations puzzle me.  Heavy and meaty games like Le Havre and Caylus rate 12+, while the extremely more refined and sedated Kingsburg comes in at an inexplicable 13 and over?  The rules for thematically immersive classics such as Axis & Allies and Twilight Struggle also carry a 12+, while the equally thematic Cyclades, I would argue, is more straight-forward, yet comes in recommended for a year older?

Then there is always the distinction between complexity of rules and complexity of game play.  Often times a simple rules set that children can understand belies a deeper strategic mindset that is really required to fully explore the game, yet is more suited for older kids or teenagers.  This is certainly more often the case with war games, which are generally rated in the low teen years or just under.  But strategy is not just for war games and I question certain age recommendations on seemingly simple titles.  Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and Yspahan all have very simple rules and have an 8+ age rating.  Yet the actual depth of play gets progressively more strategic from the first to the third.  While Ticket to Ride is a great introductory game for kids, Dominion requires more controlled and long-term planning and manipulating, while Yspahan throws a number of options and scenarios at you that require nuanced transitions between planning and flexibility.  These three titles are not on the same level, in my opinion, despite the same rating.

All this to say: the age rating might as well go.  I know it is only meant as a guideline.  But as outlined above, that guideline is nearly worthless.  Plus it is especially misleading to new or non gamers for whom it is probably meant to serve.  The ratings are just too sporadic regardless of content, complexity, or theme.  We do not have a Herculean collection, but my kids play games that are rated older than they are, and play them well (for example, Kingsburg and Red November).  On the other hand, they can struggle sometimes with a title that is rated in their age range, like Yspahan (which I'll concede could be an anomaly here) and is deeper than they'd like.  If you play hobby games with your own kids, you know where their capabilities and preferences lie.  When purchasing a game, it is a lot more useful to do your homework.  Reading a number of reviews about a title will give you enough information to determine if it is right for your own kids.  Not that I'm saying you should completely shy away from introducing more challenging games, as appropriate.  On the contrary.  Just don't overload them.  And keep in mind they're likely not going to appreciate everything that the game has to offer right away.  Just like my friend and me going to see Glory (a movie really geared toward college kids and adults for more reasons than just its language and violence), I didn't fully comprehend its message, significance, and artistry until I myself grew up.

November 11, 2011

Board Game Review: Yspahan

Yspahan (Ystari/Sebastien Pauchon, 2006)
3-4 players / 8+ / 45-75 minutes

"Mustafa!  You miserable miscreant!  Get your lazy rear up off the ground.  I didn't hire you to lay around in the sun all day.  You can't get a tan, anyhow!  We have work to do.  Goods to deliver.  Shops to visit.  Gold to earn.  All for me!  How am I to be the wealthiest merchant in all the city with you snoring daylight away?!  Now quit wasting my time and let's get this stuff on your back!"


"Oh, unbelievable...did you really just spit on me?"


"Lousy camel..."

What You Get:

This review is slightly different than my others, as we have only played the online/PC version.  So while I cannot speak to the quality of the components, I can pass along what is included.  First, there is a colorful, pastel city board, wonderfully rendered in the Windows version.  You will also have four player boards to keep track of buildings and a caravan board.  Then there are cubes.  This is a Euro, after all.  Happily, the camels are represented by wonderful little camel meeples, or cameeples, I guess.  They even spit!  Okay, so no, not really.  But they are a nice wee thematic touch in a title otherwise unencumbered by its theme.  Especially when the gold is just yellow, wooden discs.  Yawn.  The dice, at least, appear to be big and chunky and wooden and fun to roll.  There are 18 cards which give certain benefits.  If you have difficulty with the icons on the cards, the rule book provides a lot of deciphering help.

What comes out of the box. Courtesy William Hunt, BGG.
The Quick Rundown:

Yspahan pits you against 2-3 other merchants in 16th century Arabia, vying for gold, camels, and control of various city districts.  Whoever manages these resources best earns renown throughout the land for his vast tracts of...points!  You score these points by claiming colored sets of shops in any of four city districts, or by sending goods onto a separate caravan track, or by building a progression of six unique structures which also give you certain benefits in play.

Each turn represents one day and you have 21 days (or three weeks) to find ways to score points.  The unique twist to this standard Euro title is that 9-12 dice will determine what is available each day.  At the beginning of the day, the first player (which varies each turn) will roll the dice and then group and allocate them to a resource "ladder" in ascending order according to their face values.  Dice on the bottom rung allow you to collect camels, while dice on the top rung allow you to collect gold, and any of the four rungs in between let you place cubes on shops in the designated city districts.  How many of each you get depends on the number of dice on the ladder rung.  For example, if you choose the three 4's on the "Chest District" ladder rung, you are allowed to place a cube on up to three shops in that district.  If you take the one 6 value die on the top rung, you collect one gold.  Once a rung's dice are taken, that resource or action is no longer available to others for the remainder of the day.

If the available resources remaining on the ladder don't float your boat, you have a couple of options.  First you can draw a card.  This is not a bad option as cards are always beneficial.  Two, you can move the supervisor a number of spaces on the city streets equal to the pip value of a single dice on the ladder rung you choose.  You can increase or decrease that number of spaces by paying gold or building a particular structure.  Wherever the supervisor lands, any cube on an adjacent shop gets sent to the caravan waiting outside of town.  This might immediately score points for its owner.  When all the camels on the caravan are filled, it leaves town, scoring more points for everyone based on where their goods are located in line.

A for Adults:
The Windows version game in-progress.

It's kind of funny.  Most of the games we play have a recommended age range older than my kids.  Undeterred we take them head on, conquering any mechanic, rule, cube, or victory point track along the way.  Sure there are bumps in the road and minor blunders (not the least of which are committed by me, the adult!), but my kids will slip comfortably and smoothly into many a title with an age rating fully 5 years older.  There's a lot to be analyzed there in a future blog post; but for now, it mainly causes me to question what in the world that number on the box means or what it is supposed to represent?  And Yspahan only reinforces that sentiment, but from the opposite spectrum.  I'm not really convinced that this title is all that more complicated in its ruleset than either Kingsburg (10+) or Cyclades (13+).  Plus Kingsburg offers far less strategic scope, but has an older recommendation than Yspahan?  In any event, at 8+ Yspahan possesses simple rules that children can certainly learn without trepidation, yet belies a thoroughly strategic depth in game play that is often "above their heads."

I say that because Yspahan's strategic reach is mixed with a heavy dose of tactics in such a way that it feels very chess-like in nature.  You must have a plan and stubbornly work towards it; but you must be able to think and react on the fly, too.  The pressure is on, as well, with the limited number of turns to implement your plans.  That style certainly appeals to a good number of gamers.  It did not click with my kids and I suspect that would be a similar sentiment with most children.  Game play proceeds in a move/counter-move manner whereby you're just as concerned with what other players are doing as with what you want to accomplish yourself.  Apart from the tempered supervisor, it's not that you are directly attacking or hindering your opponents in any large fashion.  However, any move a player makes can potentially affect others in a few ways.

First, once you begin placing cubes on a set of colored shops in a district, that set is off-limits to other players (until the end of a week, when all shops are scored and then cleared for the next 7 turns).  Each set earns its owner fluctuating points based on which district it is located and how many shops are in that set - but only if you own all the shops of that color.  Often times, you can start to be locked out of some prime real estate by Day 2 or 3 because other players have already started hanging their shingles out in various sets and districts.  You could use the supervisor to evict some one, but it's a slow process with, usually, one cube at a time.

Cameeples on the Caravan track.
Courtesy David Cox, BGG.
That supervisor is the second chess-like element, so it's fitting that it is a pawn.  This guy gives you a couple options.  One, you can use him to send your own goods to the caravan and score immediate points.  Plus when a completed caravan is scored, the more cubes you have on it, the more points you'll earn.  Or two, you can use the supervisor as a mild "take-that" mechanic in breaking up monopolies.  While sending your opponent to the caravan may score him some points, it may be worth it if you can break up a set of shops that would otherwise score him even more.  This is an especially frustrating tactic towards the end of the week when he might not have time to reclaim his lost business.

The last, but certainly not least, move/counter-move aspect lies in the dice selection on the resource ladder.  Once a set of dice are taken, that resource is unavailable to the remaining players until the next turn.  If you're trying to complete a set of shops in the "Barrel District," but there are no dice on that ladder rung, then you're just out of luck.  You will often need to alter your plans slightly based on what's available when your turn comes around.  You can always take a card, which may seem like a lame pass, but cards are very good in Yspahan.  Still, turn order is important.  Not only does the first player have first choice of available resources, but she can also pay gold in order to roll up to 3 extra dice which only she can use that turn!

Ironically, the serious Euro gamers that might gravitate towards the strong balance of strategy and tactics that this title offers may be turned off by another mechanic: the dice.  Luck plays an influential role here by determining how much of each resource is available.  It is often the case you are able to grab the resource you need, but not enough of it.  And while the cards are all beneficial, the boost can be anywhere from positive to tremendous, depending on your situation when you draw the card.  Some of this randomness can be mitigated by the six structures you can build, but probability is always lurking its head.  For some hardcore gamers, it will lurk enough to sour their taste for future plays.

The ladder. Couresty Jorg Kuck, BGG.
My kids can handle the luck.  Where the disconnect between them and Yspahan seems to lie is in its theme.  Honestly I share it.  Simply put, I can appreciate, as an adult, this game's uniqueness for what it is.  My kids, however, have little desire to explore it further.  The historic trading motif is not necessarily exciting in and of itself.  But then simply placing and removing cubes from one spot to another only exacerbates the detachment between mechanics and intended setting.  My children tend to enjoy games with an imaginative narrative or ones that create an epic arc.  Yspahan is decidedly more abstract.  So our hang-up with its thematic veneer is not really a criticism of the game - it is designed as it was meant to be.  However, I note the issue as one that will limit its enjoyment in mixed-age groups as probably unappealing to the majority of children and even teenagers.  Hence the 'A' rating.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I give Yspahan a 5 on the Board Game Geek scale (Average game, slightly boring, take it or leave it).  If my enjoyment of a game rested moreso on mechanics, this would be rated higher as it is certainly a solid design and probably many gamers' cup-of-tea.  However, theme is too significant a personal consideration for me to rate Yspahan any higher.  While I enjoy the unique dice allocation mechanic as a refreshing 15-minute diversion on the computer once in a while, the theme and game play has failed to draw my children.  Even amongst gamers that favor lightly themed abstracts, this sneakily thinky Euro is probably best left in their adult peer gaming groups.

November 09, 2011

CFB: Attend the Game, Win a Deer Stand!

What do you do when hunting season opens on the same day as a big game, cramping your style?  Give away a deer blind, of course!  In what must be a classic example of "thinking outside the box," Arkansas State University will run a promotion for this Saturday's critical conference tilt with Louisiana-Lafayette: a drawing for a $1,500 deer stand.  This in an effort to boost attendance and lure spectators away from the call of the Wild.  Seems that a large part of the Natural State's northeastern population would rather head to the woods this time of year than attend a Red Wolves game, who have been playing the top level Division 1-A (now FBS) football since 1992.  But, hey, this year the Sun Belt title is on the line!  Snickers from Yankees like me aside (in Illinois where deer hunting is still big), you gotta hand it to the AD for knowing his demographics.  But I thought the South always trumped football as religion above all other things?

November 03, 2011

Board Game Review: Cyclades

Cyclades (Matagot or Asmodee/Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc, 2009)
2-5 players / 13 + / 60-75 minutes

The gravel crunched beneath my shifting sandals as I stood on the shore gazing out on the horizon.  An ominous fleet stretched as far as I could see.  The invasion was surely coming.

"So, Phaedrus," I said quietly to the austere priest beside me, "what say the oracles from the gods?"

"Well, my king," he replied reverently, "we cannot hope for the favor of Ares or Poseidon, so I'm afraid our forces are at the enemy's mercy.  We cannot prevent his landing.  But perhaps," he paused, looking out toward the vast sea.


"We can win Athena's love and so be blessed with time."

"Time," I responded inquisitively.  "What do you mean?"

"She will favor us in these days of Ares' sloth, presenting us an opportunity for our priests to summon a titan that still strikes fear even in the gods themselves.  We can destroy the enemy's fleet before he can launch his invasion."

"Very well, then," I ordered defiantly.  "Release the Kraken!"

 What You Get:

Unique men and boats for all.
Part of me thinks these guys are just showing off.  I mean, for $60 MSRP, this game should be entry #1 under "How to Make Components" in the Board Gaming Encyclopedia.  The board comes in two halves, both double-sided in order to create four combinations scaled to the number of players.  A third board tracks deities and turn order, and all three are quite solid.  The five sets of army/navy figures have separate molds so that each player owns unique infantry and triremes.  All of the cardboard tokens are sturdy and the coins intentionally cut slightly misshapen - a simple, yet tremendous thematic touch. The slick cards are just a wee bit better quality than a standard poker deck.  The pair of custom dice are indented and marbled, with rounded corners, and of a good, solid weight.  The deity tiles will stand up to repeated shuffling, as required.  And there are five mythological creature miniatures of such detail that they almost seem out-of-place in a board game - not that we are complaining (my kids love them)!  However, on average, miniature gamers are probably more suited than board gamers to exploit their true potential with paint.  Finally, the artwork and design layout is stunning all around - other than the use of Kenny Rogers as a model for the philosopher.  I'm no art historian, but the evocative and mystical beauty here seems to be a creation of Miguel Coimbra's familiar contemporary expressiveness mixed in with a classic Greco-Roman style.  On a family friendly note, it also happily avoids suggestive and unnecessary sensuality - a trait unfortunately not adopted in the new Hades expansion.
My apologies for the picture quality - it doesn't do them justice.
The Quick Rundown:

Swag offered by the gods.
The goal in Cyclades is to own two metropolises.  You can construct these through purchasing four unique buildings, which add up to one big city; or by collecting four philosophers, who somehow inspire the creation of such urban sprawl with all their hot air; or through military conquest, whereby you simply take one the old-fashioned way.  The heart of the game lies in an auction that opens every round.  In these auctions, you bid for the blessings of four different gods who each provide disparate benefits.  If an opponent makes a higher offering to a god whom you already bid for, you must make an offering to a new deity.  If yet another player out-bids you for that one, then you're allowed to return to your original choice as long as you increase the offering, thus sending that player groveling to another deity.  And so on until everyone is happy with their choice or too broke to do anything about it.  The gods also appear in random order every round (if you've seen Clash of the Titans, you know how utterly unpredictable they can be), so turn order is variable, depending on who secured which deity's favor.  If you want to build up your army and attack, you must secure the favor of Ares.  If you want to build up your navy and and sail around, you must bribe Poseidon.  If you want priests and temples to give you discounts on offerings and creatures, you must grease Zeus' palms.  If you want to build your metropolises through grandiose philosophizing, you'll need to flatter Athena.  Then there's Apollo - who is so easy to appease that he's free (and always last) - if you want to kick back and rest, or can't afford to out-bid other players.  Mythological creatures randomly appear to throw interesting and pesky options at anyone with the opportunity, and the gold, to pick one up and use their special powers.

E for Everyone:

I am quite puzzled at the 13+ recommended age rating.  While strategy games are more optimally suited for adults and older teens, Cyclades is fairly straight-forward, rules-wise.  No, I'm not saying a fifth-grader will destroy a retired grognard.  But the options and chrome in this title are much more manageable than other games.  That might be part of the perception.  Despite the super cool dudes on a map, don't think for a minute this is standard Ameritrash fare.

The psychological war waged in the gods auction is the meat of the game and this grows in intensity as the game crescendos to its conclusion.  In essence, you are competing for both turn order and role selection by trying to out-bid the other players.  This creates a couple of layers to what would otherwise be a generic auction mechanic.  First, you have to consider the turn order in addition to your desired god or goddess.  The favors granted to you by appeasing a particular deity may be offset by going third or fourth in turn order.  Second, you need to weigh the need of accomplishing your own goals verses hindering another's.  Perhaps you'd like to go after Poseidon to position your fleet for a future invasion, but who cares when your enemy is sitting there ready to grab Athena and her philosophers to build a second metropolis for the win.  All information is available, except for how much gold each player owns, so you know exactly what each player needs to complete their second metropolis.  Therefore, a guessing game ensues in trying to figure out if your opponent has enough money for their offering, as well as to pay for the required resource(s) necessary for the victory.  Then on top of all that, you'll need to consider who the next beneficiary will be in all that maneuvering!

What's with the Apache and Kenny Rogers?
At first, some gamers might be disgruntled that you are limited to particular actions based on which deity you acquire.  Being prohibited from attacking just because you're out-bid for Ares can be frustrating.  But each god and goddess has benefits.  If other players are out for blood with Ares or Poseidon, you can sit back with Athena and collect philosophers in order to complete a metropolis.  If bidding wars are driving up offerings higher than the price of gas, grab Zeus to nab some priests which give you discounts on your bids.  And if you find that you simply can't grab the deity you need at the right time, keep an eye out for a mythological creature that might give you an opportunity otherwise not available.  Even if you have to settle on Apollo, you at least get to save your money while increasing your future prosperity.  Indeed, it is very likely you'll go running his way by choice at least once per game!

There are some other finer points regarding kid appropriateness.  Elimination is not an issue since you cannot attack a player's sole remaining island unless successfully capturing it will earn you victory.  If you own only one island, Apollo gives you more gold to help combat the "weak get weaker" problem.  Battles are resolved quickly and simply - they reward good strategy and favor the stronger side, yet add dice rolls to give the weaker army a puncher's chance (unless outnumbered greater than 3-1).  After the auction round, downtime is minimal and sometimes nearly non-existent.  There are no victory points to gloat over in this one, but the two-metropolis win condition will usually keep this game to around 60-90 minutes.

One metropolis (top).
On the slightly negative side, there can be some irritable moments over losing bids if members of your group are sensitive to frequent interaction.  Some gamers might have issue with the numerous icons used to indicate the various powers of the gods and mythological creatures.  They're splayed all over each player's aid screen and can be confusing at first.  Most adults will have them memorized after a few games while it should only take kids, on the other-hand, a few turns!  The only potentially major issue with the game is analysis paralysis.  As god selection and open information become critical to the end-game, it can very much devolve into a thinker's chess match.  Although you're not allowed to trade any resources, the rulebook says nothing against alliances.  It is probably best to implement a rule prohibiting the free and open discussion of mutual strategy.  There is already a natural "gang up on the leader" element toward the end, but discouraging mutual planning to a degree not only increases the end-game tension, but will keep the game from dragging.  That's purely optional, of course.

Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Cyclades a 9 on the Board Game Geek scale (Excellent game. Always want to play it).  The auctions create a tense, mini meta-game in which you need to balance how to achieve your own goals while thwarting your opponents' strategies.  Kids will learn how to make the best choice available when often presented with limited options.  After all offerings are resolved, game play is smooth and quick.  Conflict plays an important part, yet is not overwhelming.  Luck is mitigated by the deity roles and well-timed planning.  And it does not overstay its welcome.  Cyclades is a unique and highly thematic title seamlessly blending Ameritrash and Euro game elements.

November 01, 2011

Gaming with Kids: (Un)Attractive Themes

Ever look back on something you did in life and wonder what the heck you were thinking?  I only have to blast to the past a couple years ago when Facebook was just morphing into the all-consuming, Big Brother social network mainstay that dominates so much of culture today.  And FarmVille.  Many people I knew on Facebook got hooked on this life-draining, social game to one degree or worse.  If you were impenetrable to its soul-sucking powers than you're a better man - or woman - than me.  My addiction lasted maybe half a year.  Oddly enough whenever I mention those days, not fondly, with a former "neighbor," neither of us can remember exactly why we felt the urge to stay on-line until 2:00 in the morning picking virtual asparagus.  Nor why we needed carnival tents, Roman villas, every conceivable seasonal decoration, and 500 animals and trees that took an hour to individually "click-and-harvest" every stinking one.  Nor what led us to bug our friends non-stop to just hurry up and start a farm and be our neighbor, already!  Sure they were smart enough to ignore our thousand pleas, but just register!  I don't care if you play with your farm - just sign up as my neighbor so I can expand mine!

I'm very much a theme guy in gaming.  Which is the major reason I wonder about my former FarmVille addiction.  I find farming probably the least attractive theme in all of hobby gaming.  Beyond the fact it is not a pull factor for me, it actually serves as a push factor.  For example, I have no desire to play, or certainly to buy, one of the most popular and highly-rated board games on the market: Agricola.  I should clarify here that this does not necessarily equate to the discussion regarding pasted-on themes.  While I prefer games in which the theme intricately interweaves within mechanics and rules, I'm also fine with titles that emphasize strong mechancis and game play which would work effectively independent of a number of themes.  However, whether it is heavily integrated or added on as an afterthought, I want the theme to be an interesting one - which of course is subjective.  Some major and recurring game themes that do little for me include trading, the stock market, and trains.  Ironically, all of those generally involve a degree of building and development, which I do like.  It's just I'd rather be building and devloping elsewhere.  Some very popular, and I'm sure well-crafted games, that seem bland to me are Hansa Teutonica, Acquire, Power Grid, and any of the 18xx genre.  And while I applaud unique themes and am very happy to come across them, some just sound bizarely boring like the new fashion show Pret-a-Porter.

Where do my kids enter this discussion?  Well, so far they seem to fall within the same gaming interests as myself.  Now, one could argue that is no surprise because they're my kids and I'm subconsciously influencing them merely by my game purchases.  That very well might be the case.  It might also be a result of the video games they play and are used to, the majority of which are quite forgettably action oriented.  Then again, it may simply be a fact that they're a bit young still to be engaged by economic themes involving more than an average amount of math.

To examine this a bit further, I first consider the point that they can only play the games I buy.  This is definitely true, but I do let them pick games; and they have their own working wish lists based upon my own.  In the interest of variety, this "master list" includes a number of titles with themes I find less interesting, but which I've added because they seem like nice family games that would suit kids and introduce them to a sampling of the hobby's many mechanics and genres.  To name but a few examples, this includes lighter Euros such as Silk Road and China, plus card games like Bohnanza and Sobek.  Yet still, after seeing the videos and pictures on the Geek, they want the space, pirate, western and medieval games that promise adventure and/or conquest.  Even if it isn't critical to the game's mechanics, the theme still draws them.  And that rarely has anything to do with economics - unless it is more abstracted and folded into building an empire.

Knowing that I can't buy scores of games to test which themes most appeal to my kids, I turned to another medium they are already familiar with:  the computer.  There are a modest number of hobby games made available online either through membership sites, or via free download in Java, Flash, or some comparable format.  Two mechanic-driven games I have had difficulty getting them to test drive are Yspahan and the iconic Settlers of Catan.  Yspahan, available for free in a Windows version and for online play at Yucata online, pits you as an Arab trader against 2-3 other merchants vying to control shops, gold, camels, and caravans in the 16th century.  It includes a smattering of area control (or maybe more set collecting), resource management, building, and a sometimes annoying "take that" mechanic.  However, the fresh twist (for its time) is that 9-12 dice will determine how much of which resources are available every turn.  I downloaded the game hoping that the dice mechanic would appeal to my kids.  Even though the theme is not that interesting, it is exactly because of those dice that I enjoy the game as a unique diversion from time to time.  My kids aren't as interested, though.  After showing and teaching them the game, two have played it to lukewarm response and the other two have yet to try it because it doesn't look fun.

We've had a similar experience with Settlers of Catan.  I downloaded a free (and cheap and ugly) Java knock-off, plus you can enjoy limited play for free at  After teaching them the basics, they all gave it at least a partial go.  Again, I assumed that the use of dice and the Robber, ported as a computer game, would connect with my kids.  But it didn't click.  They didn't enjoy the repetition with little major development (not their exact words, but...).  Now that can certainly be chalked up to their inability to grasp the larger strategies.  But without a strong theme to engage them, they're not likely to stick with it long enough to explore all the game has to offer.  For example, they enjoy the repetition of Kingsburg, yet that title has a more enhanced theme and even a battle at the end of each year - even though ironically both are still abstracted.  Still, it's enough to keep them hooked in order to stay with the game long-term.

One title's online version that they do enjoy is Battle Cry via the member site GameTableOnline.  I have yet to purchase this 2-player only game because my preference is for titles that accommodate at least 5 players.  It has proven a success, especially with the boys.  Combining a board game theme they enjoy with the computer is a win-win as far as they're concerned.

Yes, this is all anecdotal evidence that theme is important for a game's reception among kids.  It won't hold true 100% of the time.  For example, my son is oddly fascinated with Carcassonne.  While I'm sure a fine game with some strategic nuance, it still seems like another exercise in simple repetition with a thin theme, hardly anything like he currently requests.  Then again, FarmVille is very much not like any other computer game I'd load up and plow through.  Therefore mechanics, game play, or maybe originality can sometimes trump theme for me and my kids.  However, for the most part, kids will lean toward adventure and conquest in serious hobby games over ones that focus on economics and bookkeeping.