Welcome back to Tabletop Tastes: My favorite flavors in board games! This is a series where we spend each episode diving deep into an essential element of game design. For hobbyist gamers, this series will help you to explore your own tastes in the hobby and perhaps discover your next favorite game that fits those tastes. For game designers, this series will offer you more tools to add to your utility belt and metrics to measure your projects by. If you missed the previous episode, then go on and check out Tabletop Tastes #10: A Dynamic Arc.
Columbus, Ohio is a fantastic city for foodies. Back when our family first moved there, we were constantly venturing out to interesting, unique, and popular local eateries. We slowly discovered an entire collection of favorite restaurants that kept us returning for the four years we were around. That doesn’t mean that every spot we tried was a hit…
I remember a couple hipster restaurants in particular that provided interesting cuisines but forgot that they were supposed to feed us! We would order a standard item on their menu, pay the full price of a meal, and then receive a pitiful snack. There are few worse feelings in this world than that of paying for a full meal and walking away still hungry. Unsurprisingly, we never returned to these restaurants.
Just as important as a menu with filling meals is a board game with filling turns. It’s one thing to leave players hungry for another session at the conclusion of a game. It’s something entirely different to leave players unsatisfied from one turn to the next. I recently touched upon the topic of fresh downtime and shared examples of Pax Pamir and Root as games that typically come with a lot of downtime but merit that long wait through satisfying turns and engaging downtime dynamics. These games are comparable to waiting in a long line at a popular restaurant, but the wait is all worth it when you’re finally seated at the table having a King’s feast.
One game that recently struggled to provide me a similar turn feast between stretches of hungry downtime was Dune: Imperium. From the creators of the smash-hit deck builder, Clank, Dune: Imperium blends together both deck builder and worker placement mechanisms in exciting new ways. The brilliance of the game is how it often pits the rewards of deck building against the rewards of worker placement. It may cost me a valuable card to place a worker into a matching, powerful space. But if I don’t spend that card to place a worker, I can instead use it to acquire an even better card or other advantages at the end of the round.
Unfortunately, Dune: Imperium demands a level of downtime that I feel it doesn’t merit, at least at 4 players. These dual layered mechanisms give participants twice as much to analyze, and it gets even slower when somebody claims the spot that another’s entire plan was built upon. And even when my entire plan wasn’t blasted to smithereens, I often found myself waiting ages for play to go around the table only for me to do something as minuscule as place a worker and gain 1 water token. When I already know this pitiful action is my best move at the end of my previous turn, that only makes the wait worse.
At least with Dune, I can see myself enjoying the game much more at a lower player count or with fast, experienced players where the downtime hunger is minimized. I’m not sure I can say the same thing for Flash Point: Fire Rescue.
Flash Point is another off-brand Pandemic that paints a nice thematic picture but ultimately fails to justify its existence among the competition for me. I get that this was one of the earlier Pandemic clones, but the formula is so overdone at this point that many cooperatives in this genre struggle to age well, including Flash Point. My experience with this firefighting game revealed a messier design where players are much more likely to encounter useless turns.
A turn in Pandemic earns you extra cards into your hand as a bare minimum; furthermore, it allows you to improve the efficiency of your turns by building research centers, or you can prepare and plan ahead by trading cards or removing infection cubes. Meanwhile, Flash Point tries to compensate for wasted turns by letting players carry over up to 4 unused actions, but that brings little comfort when you wait for play to go all the way around the table only for it to finally get back to you as you realize that the most useful thing to do is skip your turn. Often, there is little space for strategic actions when the negative events are completely random (unlike Pandemic which is strategically predictable).
Furthermore, we played Flash Point at 6 players and that is the WORST idea the publisher ever had for this game. Does the game work at 6 players? Yes. Does it work well? Not at all. If you want the game to be more difficult to win, then sure, have at the 6 player option. But it’s a hollow challenge bump because everyone’s impact on game is reduced relative to the objectives. This is where you get even more frequently useless turns that are even more punishing due to the increased downtime. There is often no point in setting yourself up for your next turn as the game state is going to completely change by the time your next turn crawls around.
What’s the maximum player count on Pandemic? FOUR. It’s because the team behind Pandemic realized that any count higher than four made their game worse in every possible way. Flash Point had the entire cheat sheet to work off of and yet it completely missed the memo.
Speaking of classics that struggle to be filling, Catan deserves a mention here. Most of us have played Catan and can recall the painful rounds where Lady Luck leaves you high and dry and the dice rolls earn you nothing useful. So when it finally comes back to your turn, you have almost nothing to show for all that downtime and nothing you can accomplish that round. Fortunately, in the 25 years since its release, many games have shown us a better way than Catan’s inconsistent methods.
Concordia is my favorite Catan-killer. Both games see players utilizing routes and building little wooden settlements onto a map. In both cases, these settlements will earn players more resources from the map to help them build, expand, and compete for victory. They are both rather easy to teach, yet Concordia contains much more depth to enjoy and explore. Best of all, I can always expect a filling turn from Concordia. This design rips control of the resource production from Lady Luck’s grasp and gives it to the players. When an opponent decides to trigger production in the green region, that will also trigger production for you if you’ve built settlements there. And whenever the quick, slick turns come back around to you, there is always an interesting and useful action to choose from your hand of cards.
Like a big, hearty meal that sends you home with a belly full of food and an armful of leftovers, the best games ensure that each player enjoys filling turns. Of course, filling turns are better than empty stomachs, but the things you consume won’t don’t you much good if they aren’t part of a balanced diet.
Tune in next time for Tabletop Tastes #12: A Balanced Diet
More great designs that serve filling turns:
Critical Turns: Brass: Birmingham, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, Age of Steam, Babylonia, El Grande, Undaunted, Bus.
Combotastic Turns: Curious Cargo, Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade, Blitzkrieg, That’s Pretty Clever, Five Tribes, Wingspan.
What are your favorite games with filling turns?
Article written by Nick Murray. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!