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 #12: A Balanced Diet.
Remember the glory days of your elementary school cafeteria? Lunch periods spent eating unappetizing foods from questionable sources while longingly eyeing your friends’ lovingly homemade lunches? At least that’s how I remember it.
One school lunch memory in particular always gives me a chuckle. My friend was munching on potato chips out of a zip-lock bag from home. He offered me the bag, and the chips appeared to be your average, everyday Lays. I reached in, grabbed a couple, and popped them in my mouth with a crunch. That’s when the unexpected blast of vinegar hit my unsuspecting taste buds. In the next instant, I was spitting out the horrifying flavor, rinsing my mouth with water, and crying tears of fury at the cruel prank my friend had played on me.
Was it really a cruel prank? No, but I had never tried a Salt & Vinegar potato chip, and vinegar can taste like a potent pranking flavor when it’s unexpected and unfamiliar. Funnily enough, two decades later I often find myself opting for those tasty salt & vinegar chips over all the other options in the potato chip aisle. These days, whenever I’m having myself a good sub sandwich, salt & vinegar chips just hit the spot!
While salt & vinegar chips have stayed the same, my preference for them dramatically transformed over the years. The reasons for this boil down to expectation, purpose, and an acquired taste. And just like that sneaky, bold vinegar flavor, one can quickly come to crave meanness in board games, especially when it is purposeful, potent, and expected.
It’s Not Easy Being Mean
So let’s explore these key elements of meanness a bit more. Meanness in games is related but not limited to a mechanism known as “take that.” Take that is defined by Board Game Geek as the following:
“Competitive maneuvers that directly attack an opponent’s progress toward victory, but do not directly eliminate any characters or components representing the opponent. Such mechanics include stealing, nullifying, or force-discarding of an opponents resources, actions, or abilities. A take-that maneuver often results in a dramatic change in the players’ position of power over a relatively short period of time.”BoardGameGeek.com
Take that mechanisms get an understandably bad rap from many hobbyist gamers. Playing a pointlessly mean game is like drinking a tall glass of vinegar… there is simply no context or reason to have such potency. One glass of vinegar game that comes to mind is Cover Your Assets or its younger sibling, Cover Your Kingdoms. The crux of the game is this:
Players are collecting sets of cards into their personal public stashes by playing sets directly from their hands. But here’s the thing… On my turn, I can take that nice set of cards on top of your stash unless you get lucky and have more of those cards in your hand to block my attempt (and thereby absorb my attack card and your defense card into your stash). Suppose I’m victorious at snatching away your set, now gloating over my newest prized possessions; well the victory is short lived, because soon somebody else is going to take that same set of cards from me unless I get lucky and nobody else has that card type right now. So I’m hoping to cover up that set with more and more layers of different sets. Ultimately, we’ll just mindlessly draw and steal points back and forth, typically with some players losing every set they ever play, until Lady Luck randomly gives someone the biggest pile and the game finally ends.
Cover Your Assets shamelessly wallows in its own mean mud, yet its mud-slinging gameplay feels like throwing mud just for the sake of throwing mud. The novelty of thievery quickly grows old and agitating. It blatantly abuses the potency of maliciousness and sours the flavor for everyone. Cover Your Assets is merely the tip of the iceberg of lazy, mass market designs that have plagued game shelves and web pages across major retail chains. The truth is that the proper implementation of vinegary meanness into a design dish requires great skill and effort.
Cranky Bus Drivers
Bus, the classic network building game from the legendary Splotter Spellen that was recently refreshed by Capstone Games, is a textbook example of how to properly use potent meanness in a board game. The game is deeply entrenched in player interaction and cutthroat strategy, with not a speck of luck to be found anywhere within its box. Each round consists of a worker placement phase followed by an action resolution phase. Participants seek to expand their own bus routes in a quest to transport passengers. Points come sparingly and are only earned by moving a passenger to their desired destination.
Thus far, nothing about this design sounds particularly mean, but the meanness stems from the restrictions of the gameplay. When there are only three passengers along your route and one of them is already at their desired destination, things get interesting as you realize that the remaining two passengers are up for grabs between you and any opponents whose routes reach those same meeples. Your crafty plans can quickly crumble as opponents plot to snatch those bus riders away. When you find yourself in a round where competitors are set up to score big and leave you in the dust, your best bet might be to stop time.
That’s right, Bus has a single worker placement space that gives a player the decision to stop time. While your opponents gleefully set themselves up for a huge turn of delivering passengers to work, you can sneak out the back door into another dimension and cause those same passengers to want to stay at home for another round. Suddenly, all of the actions your opponents took to set themselves up to rake in the points will be for naught. The key rule that keeps this especially nasty action from being overly abused is that by stopping time, you take a time stone worth negative 1 point and march the game one step closer to a premature ending where the space-time continuum implodes. In a game where 10 points is a common final score, losing even a single point to a time stone makes one hesitate to mess with their friends unless absolutely necessary.
So while Cover Your Assets hides its shallow brutally within the shadows of Lady Luck, letting her spring out and blindside victims, Bus lays its meanness all out in the open and gives it substance. The game board of Bus is completely readable as player’s intentions are manifest by the placement of their workers. This element of expectation is another key aspect of properly placed brutality.
All or Nothing
The unexpected feeling of having your precious valuables stomped to pieces or ripped from your grasp is much like the sensation of biting into a potato chip and tasting an unwelcome blast of vinegar. Games that contain such unpleasantries include Citadels and Catan. In Citadels, players are seeking money to build buildings for points, and this is aided by charactes cards that are secretly drafted each round. Two of the eight characters are particularly meddlesome, namely the Assassin and Thief. The Assassin sees its selector naming another character of the 7 possible options, and if any player happened to select that character then they lose their entire turn. The Thief follows a similar structure, except it steals away a random player’s gold rather than their turn.
The skip-a-turn effect of the Assassin harkens back to household names including Uno and Phase 10. Despite it’s common use, this is perhaps the absolute worst form of take-that ever conceived. It’s a mechanism that shoots itself in the foot by actively restricting participants from actually playing the game. At least with cards games like Uno and Phase 10, the turns typically go fast enough to quickly get to your next unskipped turn. Citadels, on the other hand, is much more punishing thanks to a longer downtime.
The Thief character is also unimaginatively brutal. When someone sabotages your plans, you often never expect it or see it coming (unless you are clearly in the lead), so there is no bracing yourself for impact. And after you’ve been ground down to dust and rubble, there is no major opportunity to gain sweet revenge or make an epic comeback. What results is a higher occurrence of wasted turns, which is one of the quickest ways to disengage players. This is also a problem we touched on previously with Catan, which is amplified by the dreaded robber which freezes production in an area and likewise involves thievery of cards.
While Citadels and Catan both contain ill-informed meanness, Tournament at Avalon is an even crueler game, but it harnesses its cruelty to delightful effect. I reviewed this trick-taking game last year and touched upon how players spend each trick beating on one person like a piñata that spills out increasingly insane vengeance upon its attackers until one piñata finally splits in two.
The beauty of being the victim in Tournament at Avalon is that rather than stripping the fun away with skipped turns or stolen resources, those who take the biggest hits receive the best weapons for the following rounds. The players in last place are blessed with Godsend cards to help them enact revenge while clawing their way back to the lead. Furthermore, the design gives way for competitors to make clever and defensive plays against would-be attackers. If I lead with a low value card, I understand the risk I am taking in that my opponents may be able to pile on higher value cards and force me to claim a trick of nasty hits.
The Fun of Playing with Fire
Take that mechanisms don’t feel so carelessly tacked on when the punishment is the result of strategic conflict or pushing one’s luck too far. One of the all-time classic worker placement games, Caylus (more recently reimplemented as Caylus 1303), understands the fun of taking big risks among nasty opponents. This design features a winding path of ever growing worker placement actions that are built by players throughout the game.
While the expanding tail end of this path has the best possible actions, placing your workers on these spots is always the most risky. That dirty, rotten scoundrel known as the Provost starts each round near the tail end, and players have the option to invest in moving him forward or backward along the trail. Wherever he stops at the end of the round is the cutoff for eligible actions, meaning that any spots where you placed your workers that are outside of the limit of the Provost become a waste! Wise players will jump at the more valuable tail-end actions when they are prepared to hold off the Provost or when they see opponents are also invested in tail-end spaces.
While positive player interaction is a great way to keep participants engaged, it can’t quite replicate the tension, drama, and range of emotions that come with negative player interaction. The key is that potent meanness, much like vinegar, works best when it is purposeful and expected. Tossing a whopping dollop of cruelty onto the occasional card or lazily serving it up in a tall glass of meaningless mechanisms will merely continue to repel players from the better games that exemplify its virtues.
Speaking of tall glasses, nothing quite hits the spot quite like a refreshing beverage to a parched throat.
Continue on to Tabletop Tastes #14: Refreshing Replayability
More scrumptiously nasty games:
- For players with Icy Hearts: The Estates, Tammany Hall, Lords of Vegas, Bristol 1350, Stick ‘Em, Watergate, Age of Steam
- Cute games that Bite: Azul, Renature, Love Letter, Arboretum, Root
What are your favorite mean games?
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!