Welcome back to Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games! Missed the last post? Head over and check out Tabletop Tastes #3: Savory Thoughtful Production.
Have you ever opened a box and discovered a dementor emerging from it to give you the dreaded kiss of death as all light and hope is vacuumed from your body? Even worse, have you ever bitten into a tasty looking sandwich only to encounter a mouthful of soggy bread? I have… several times. These boxes or “sandwiches” were called things such as Phase 10, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Mexican Train, Monopoly, and more.
Some games just make me die inside, and the ones that do it best are the ones that completely lack meaningful decisions. If the game is playing me and my actions are on autopilot, then I might as well be soulless. But I’ve found that meaningful decisions are not always a black and white affair. There are plenty of games that get stuck in that gray area of mildly amusing yet ultimately hollow decisions.
My most recent hollow encounter with a somewhat soggy game was the 25-year-old classic known as Take 5 or 6 Nimmt! It comes close to hitting that sweet spot with its simple gameplay and suspenseful reveals. The issue is that there is not enough structure to the design where choices feel clever or victories feel earned. You see a player have to “take 5” because of the card they revealed, but no other player reaps the psychological reward of directly causing their opponent’s misfortune. The game is not tight enough to be able to take calculated risks or make clever predictions.
For Sale, on the other hand, absolutely wipes the floor with Take 5. It is likewise a filler card game from the 90s with simple gameplay and suspenseful reveals… but For Sale’s decision space has a real crunch. In the first phase, a set of houses is auctioned off each round where passing earns you the lowest house of the set (at half the price of your stopping bid) while the highest bidder pays full price for the best house of the set. One must bid wisely during the first phase, as leftover money counts as points; furthermore, the houses in your hand are then sold for even more points in secret auctions where selling a better house relative to your opponents will earn you a better money card. This tasty combination of bluffing and bidding morph an appetizer game into a fantastic feast of fun.
One game that I love to appreciate but not to play is Flamme Rouge. From a design standpoint, the game is a delight. The rules and mechanisms form a sweet melody of authentic cycling; the winding track and classy bikers stir the heart with their thematic charm. Unfortunately, from a decision standpoint, this game lacks purpose and thrill. Each turn feels a bit too arbitrary and random as players are unable to predict their opponents and can only hope to succeed at the single interesting decision of the game: when to start sprinting. The game succeeds at being safe family fun, but not in making me feel clever or keeping me fully engaged. At least if you asked me to play Flamme Rouge, I would rarely turn down the opportunity to enjoy this mildly amusing bike race… unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Betrayal is the Toby Flenderson to my Michael Scott in every conceivable way. This average, unassuming game somehow manages to suck my soul from my body and rid me of all happiness and hope. Fun theme and concept aside, the game amounts to moving, stopping, drawing a card to discover what happened to you, and rolling some dice to determine a result. Now you can decide to move upstairs or downstairs… you can decide to move left or right… you can decide whether you want to try to win or try to lose… but that is unfortunately as deep as the well goes. Never did I encounter a tough decision, an interesting puzzle, a tricky situation. Never did I feel clever, crafty, or mentally stimulated. If you want an experience where random thematic stuff happens to you and your friends until somebody eventually pulls out the win, then you may enjoy Betrayal. As for me, I will keep singing, “Goodbye, Toby!” as I have no intention of seeing this one again.
I prefer experiences that frequently allow me to take a calculated leap of faith. Who doesn’t love that feeling a game offers when every option of a decision feels too essential to reject, yet only one can be selected? Or when a seemingly simple choice makes you hesitate as you realize the ripple effect it can have? There is something about the agony of those decisions that hurts so good.
My top games with meaningful decisions would no doubt include Arboretum with its tight scoring qualifications and juicy hand management, Tigris & Euphrates with its deep well of action ramifications from the simple placement of a tile, A Feast for Odin with its wide sandbox of worker placement fun and tasty challenge of covering the dozens of negative victory points, and Inis with its clever balancing act between passing to gain hand advantage and playing to gain board momentum.
I recently had the chance to try 2019’s Watergate which was a complete playground of meaningful decisions. Each card provides an opportunity to play it for token movement along the tug-of-war track or for a unique event that may result in the card being trashed due to its one-time use limit. Determining the specific benefits and sequence to use from your hand feels critical in staying one step ahead of your nemesis.
Gugong is another example that takes itself from good to fantastic with the luscious decision space it provides. The gift cards are where the game really shines. One must decide the best order and location to play out these cards, and the mechanisms surrounding how and when you can play them are the beating heart of this clever worker placement style game. Gugong entices you with a constant stream of good reasons to exchange one gift for another…. the action locations, the card actions, the destiny dice, the cards available to claim, the cheap action opportunities, barring other players from an action, etc. It’s an exquisite flow of sneaky cultural corruption across a well-balanced expanse of interesting options.
While every game in my diet needs to have interesting choices, because I dread a soggy-sandwich game that lacks meaningful decisions, the most memorable ones often contain theme-inspired mechanisms.
Click on to explore Tabletop Tastes #5: Juicy Theme-Inspired Mechanisms
LOOKING FOR MORE GAMES WITH A CRUNCHY DECISION SPACE? TRY CHOMPING ON ONE OF THESE:
- Optimization Decisions: Scythe, Brass: Birmingham, Concordia
- Gut-Feeling Decisions: The Mind, The Quacks of Quedlinburg, Skull
- Deep Strategy Decisions: Onitama, Tzaar, Samurai
- Risky Decisions: The Estates, Treasure Island, Startups
- Costly Decisions: Patchwork, PARKS, Isle of Skye
- Sandbox Decisions: Five Tribes, Great Western Trail, Dominion
What games give you the crunchy decision space you need?