Friday, October 14, 2005

Passive Aggressive vs. Aggressive Aggressive

"This just in… it seems a number of… creatures… have started menacing the U.S. and Southern Canada. Reports are scattered, but apparently there are… What? A giant gorilla, squid and a floating eyeball?"

Dave… is this for real?

"Okay, we're going to connect with our correspondent in Chicago to get a better idea of what's happening over there. Stan, can you hear me?"

"Yes, I can. Thank you. Carl, I have to say, I can't believe what I'm seeing. There's this giant ape just… wrecking… everything. It's about a half mile away from me. I'm hiding at the mouth of a parking garage and watching it swat the army jets out of the sky like flies. Oh, it looks like one of the rockets scored a hit! Wait a minute… IT'S A ROBOT INSIDE. Sparks are flying everywhere. It looks angry. OH MY GOD IT"S RUNNING TOWARDS US. GET…"




"…umm, do we have anyone else? OK, Helmut. OK."

"Allo, I am here vith ze giant creatures. There is a big noise here, ze gorilla is literally MASHING the eyeball. Now he has the squid by the neck. Oooh, that wasn't pretty. Uh-Oh. It looks angry. OH MY GOD IT"S RUNNING TOWARDS US. GET…"





Okay, enough of that. This Wednesday we played Monsters Menace America and Tikal. (Sadly Shemp couldn't make it due to possible illness).

Monsters Menace America is a straight up aggression fest. Players take the role of large monsters inspired by B-Movies (as well as the role of a branch of the US Military). The goal is to "Stomp" as many sites as possible with your monster, accumulating strength and mutation powers along the way, until a point were a climactic battle occurs between all the monsters. Players also use their military units to attack other player's monsters in order to try to weaken them (the monsters can't attack each other until the final battle).

The game is simple fun. On the good side, the graphic presentation is quite good and the theme is captured quite well by the game. On the bad side, the rules of the game don't feel like their as good as they could have been. For example, it's odd that the creatures can't interact for most of the game. Also, for all the time they take up in the game in deployment, combat, movement and upkeep, the military units don't feel as useful or integrated as they need to be.

These are all relatively minor criticisms. If you are looking for another Puerto Rico, look elsewhere, but if you are looking for big monsters to go out and fight, it fits the bill. There is carnage. Players have fun. It's just not a very sophisticated game (they don't all have to be!)

Next was Tikal.

Tikal is a game I kept hearing about (along with it's cousins Torres, Java and Mexica) but despite the fact that Kramer designed them I never felt compelled to investigate… This is particularly odd considering that two of my favorite games (EL Grande and Princes of Florence) where designed by him. However, when Kozure mentioned he had bought it, I got very excited to play.

Tikal is game involving the discovery and exploration of ancient temples. Players send out teams of explorers into the jungle, hoping to claim the greatest of the discoveries for themselves. There is a distinct "Indiana Jones" feel to the theme.

The gameboard is a very attractive depiction of a jungle. The canopy of trees prevents players from seeing what is underneath, but in one corner a jeep and base camp indicates that the exploration has begun… 2 temples and an empty field have already been uncovered. The first order of any player's turn is to draw a tile to place on the board (the tile is designed to look like the canopy of trees has been cleared, revealing either an empty space, a temple or a treasure site). The remainder of the turn involves spending 10 action points on various potential… ummm… actions. Introducing a researcher at the base camp costs 1, for example. Other actions include moving the researchers, searching for treasure, delving into temples, etc. On occasion, a volcano turns up as the tile to be placed, and players must score their position. Points are awarded for temples which have been claimed, for unclaimed temples where a player has a majority and for treasures acquired. The game ends once all jungle tiles have been placed on the board and a final scoring takes place.

The result is an excellent, excellent game. It's not nearly as abstract as most German games, the play is strategic, and the theme is so accessible (and the rules so natural to the action), that I can't think of a medium weight game I would rather first introduce to new gamers. Carcassonne, High Society, For Sale!, Ticket to Ride, etc are all great gateway games but are decidedly "light". I much prefer this to Settlers of Catan, the medium weight "intro" game most would suggest.

The game does have one rather significant potential downfall… those 10 points can take a while to spend if you are not careful about analysis paralysis. On top of that, there isn't much to do when it's not your turn (I'm sure it's no coincidence, but these are also criticisms often leveled at El Grande and Princes of Florence). I'm perfectly happy to live with it as it is, however, because the number of points allows for some surprising comebacks and clever play. I think 3 players is probably the sweet spot for this one to keep downtime manageable (2 player might also be good, but I'm afraid that 4 player might drag).

I think my excitement for the game is partially due to a bit of Knizia overload. I REALLY enjoy those games, and have even purchased Tower of Babel recently because I think he is an amazing designer, but they have a very different feel than Kramer's games… Knizia games seem to revolve around a clever mechanic or two, with a theme applied (sometimes appropriate and well reflected by the system, sometimes not). Players must come to grips with the challenge and turn the system to their advantage against the other players. As much as they are intellectually challenging, the are a bit mechanical and often mathematical (the only Knizia game I find thematically engaging is LotR, although I consider that to be a huge achievement). Kramer's games avoid this… Elegance is found by tying theme to gameplay with innovative mechanics. The results can be abstract (Princes of Florence), Literal (Tikal) or in between (El Grande), but the results definitely have more "soul" than Knizia's games.

Not surprisingly, in my opinion the "Perfect" game (Ra) has been designed by the exact and calculating mind of Knizia, while the rest of the top 4… those I love playing but are each imperfect in one way or another, are all Kramers (El Grande, Princes of Florence and now Tikal).

For the record, as Konk in Monsters Menace America I CRUSHED Luch and Kozure, while Luch beat us both handily at Tikal.


Monsters Menace America: 6
Tikal: 9


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Glad to hear that you all enjoyed Tikal. i agree with your assessment of Tikal as a great introductory game, as it was mine. I had, for some time, noticed Settlers on the shelf of our local WotC but never bit. But then one year, when we were in Santa Barbara, we wandered in on a sale and I took the plunge blind and picked up Tikal plus some other things (that proved forgetable). Later, when Maria and I opened it up we were blown away by the beauty of the game...and then immediately read through the rules and began playing. That was it. Hooked.
    Eventually we did pick up Settlers and were wow'ed by it too, but for us it was Tikal. (b.t.w. I still have never played nor own the other 2 of the trilogy, but want to pick them up.)

    Gotta play it again soon.

    And on a related note Tom Vassel has a great interview with Kramer on the Dice Tower which ends with the best quote about gaming that I have yet to read.
    Check it out: Wolfgang Kramer's interview with an optimist

  3. Glad to hear about last weeks session! Sad to miss the crushing.

    To Clarify: I wasn't really sick, but thought I would be a carrier, and w/ wee Kozure Jr. in the place, thought it best to stay home.

    Easy: I don't really want to get into this argument/discussion again, but could you clarify for me in which ways Princes of Florence is more abstract than El Grande?

    'Cuz I really don't see it.

  4. "Abstraction", like "complexity", are terms we clearly use differently. No worries.

    Things in games which make them feel more "literal" to me:

    1) Spatial movement (i.e. moving a pawn from one "world" location to another)
    2) Game mechanics which at least attempt to interpret real world actions with an appropriate mechanic.

    #2 is hard to describe.

    El Grande is clearly abstract in many ways, but it's kind of a gentlemanly wargame in my mind (power struggle rather than all out combat). To me, war games are pretty literal. There is a literal connection betwen the map of Spain, the idea of caballeros gathering in provinces to amass power, and the influence the King has on these events. Soldiers are trained and then sent out to the regions. The action cards are vaguely representative of political upheaval, and their results generally make sense in context. The Castillo is weird, but it's close enough to "reinforcements" that it doesn't suddenly make the game feel "abstract" in my eyes.

    On the surface, Princes of Florence seems fairly literal (section of Florence for buildings, with jesters, etc), and the scoring of "works" is fairly literal as well (quality of works increased by the preferences of the artist, works translate to money and prestige). But the actual mechanics making up the gameplay are all pretty abstract and disjointed from the events (in my opinion). Auctioning lakes, jesters and Prestige cards works as a game mechanic, but I can't resolve this with real world equivalents. Similarly, it's easy to understand purchasing buildings, but bonus cards and freedoms aren't.

    Clearly, in the end it's an arbitray judgement. Still, it's definitely how I see them.

    Funny how the last discussion we had on the topic had me arguing that Lord of the Rings was abstract and you were saying that it was literal. I actually find it quite entertaining to slowly discover the fine points of how someone else sees the same thing as me, but differently.

    Do you agree with my assessment that Tikal is the most literal of the three?

  5. Sorry, Shemp. Stupid question. I'll ask again AFTER YOU'VE ACTUALLY PLAYED IT.


  6. In the ride home from Shemp's in tonight's session, Easy and I discussed the difference between thematic abstraction and game mechanic abstraction.

    Thematic abstraction, to me at least, relates to how well the concept of the game and its gameplay relates to the theme. If a game could potentially be shifted to a completely different situation or time period without significantly altering game play, I say the theme is abstract.

    Game mechanic abstraction is what I think Easy refers to generally as abstraction - whether the mechanics of the game are discrete from what's actually happening in real life - auctioning jesters and lakes, for example.

    Thematic Abstraction (from most abstract to least):

    1. El Grande
    2. Princes of Florence
    3. Tikal

    Thematically, with a little tweaking of wording, you could set El Grande in WWII, or ancient Greece or the moon - I don't think this would be too difficult.

    Princes of Florence would be harder, but you could move it to modern day or classical rome without too much variation.

    Tikal is pretty time and place specific. You could conceivably set it in some other ruin, but it would almost always be some manner of archaeological dig.

    Game Mechanic Abstraction (from most abstract to least):

    1. Princes of Florence
    2. El Grande
    3. Tikal

    Prince of Florences game mechanic for the auction is pretty distanced from real world execution, and the placement of buildings inside the compound of each Palazzo is similarly abstracted, but important in ways that aren't significant in real world situations.

    El Grande is less abstract in this sense for many of the reasons which Easy suggests - it's more or less a wargame mechanic of superiority of numbers, but with the elabourate and elegant twists of the King mechanic and the various intrigue and power cards.

    Tikal, once again, is fairly specific, mechanically speaking. You can relate pretty much every action to an understandable real world equivalent.

    I'm big on theme, as I've mentioned elsewhere, but I do find the analysis paralysis to be a pretty major (negative) factor in Tikal. I still enjoy the game very much, and look forward to seeing how the game dynamic changes with 4 players.

  7. I completely agree, and appreciate the clarification re: thematic and mechanic abstraction in games (I definitely tend to focus more on mechanics than theme in general).

    The one rule in Tikal which feels out of place, in the context of this discussion, is the "teleporting" of workers from one base camp to the next. Really, really not a big deal, though.

  8. Oh, and Kozure... If you ever want to ditch your copy of Tikal, I'll take it off your hands...