Welcome back to Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games! Missed the last post? Head over and check out Tabletop Tastes #5: Juicy Theme-Inspired Mechanisms.
Elegance is a word that we gamers love to toss around like a baseball at the park. Perhaps we are guilty of overusing this word and stretching it to fit all shapes and sizes (myself included). Yet, it’s hard to argue with the appeal of an elegant game. But what is elegance, anyway? What does it look like? How does it feel?
If I had to really put my finger on it, I would say that…. gazelles are elegant. Hot air balloons are elegant. Humpback whales are elegant. Banana splits are elegant. Why? Well, they have majestic, balanced, brilliant, smooth dignity about them. That’s elegance, right?
So how are board games elegant? To me, an elegant board game has simple gameplay with intricate ramifications. They’re a tidy wardrobe on the outside and a world of Narnia on the inside. They’re a puddle from above and Atlantis from below. They minimize the bookkeeping and maximize the strategizing. They contain low complexity rules with high complexity consequences. Let’s talk about some examples…
Dr. Reiner Knizia is extremely skilled at crafting this kind of thing. One of his newer designs, The Quest for El Dorado, is a game that combines deck building with racing across a map. This combination alone should theoretically result in a mess of rules, yet he somehow managed to cram almost everything you need to know about the rules onto tiny player boards. I can hand a newcomer one of these player boards and teach them the rules in the blink of an eye. Before we know it, we’ll all be scrambling across the wilderness seeking the fastest path to El Dorado in a tense and engaging game with so many hidden complexities tucked away behind a streamlined experience.
Dr. Knizia was accomplishing this same style of elegance decades earlier with games like his famous masterpiece, Tigris & Euphrates. This game, once again, contains almost everything you need to know on the back of each player shield. Your options boil down to 4 simple actions: place a tile, position a leader, replace tiles from your hand, place a catastrophe tile. Where things get wild is that the simple act of placing a tile or leader can bring about massive wars, dramatic revolts, huge payoffs, strategic divides, lucrative monuments, and much more. Thanks to the simplicity of the actions, players are racking their brains through an interactive high-stakes puzzle rather than untangling their minds or autopiloting their pieces through a cascade of menial chores and unintuitive steps.
One can’t speak of elegant board games without mentioning the magnificent Concordia. This medium-weight Euro with a wealth of strategic juiciness amounts to only FOUR PAGES of rules. The management, depth, and balance found within the cards is a masterclass in board game design. Whenever I find myself playing a clumsy, complicated, or unintuitive Euro, I always come away from that game wondering why I didn’t just play Concordia instead.
One great Euro that I eventually burned out on was Teotihuacan: City of Gods, due to its excessive bookkeeping and tangle of turn steps. People (myself included) constantly forget to move a token up a temple track, move a token up the avenue of the dead track, move a token up the pyramid track, upgrade a die, pay a cocoa, shift the eclipse marker, etc., etc., etc., and the fiddliness is a noticeable dampener on the fun. It feels as though I always spend more time running the game than playing it. By the time we’ve scored the final points and determined the winner, my brain is so exhausted that the last thing I want to do is put the thousands of tokens back into the dozens of bags. I prefer much more thinking, strategizing, and planning than bookkeeping, and Teotihuacan struggles to provide this for me.
An elegant board game is, to me, a combination of streamlined rules, intuitive graphic design, simple gameplay, and complex ramifications. Blend me a smoothie of these crisp fruits of elegance and I’ll slurp it right up! Yet nothing may taste sweeter than a game with evocative art…
Tune in next week for Tabletop Tastes #7: Sweet Evocative Art
LOOKING FOR MORE CRISP GAMES WITH ELEGANT DESIGNS? TRY REFRESHING YOURSELF WITH ONE OF THESE:
- Elegant Fillers: Love Letter, For Sale, Startups
- Elegant Euros: El Grande, Isle of Skye, Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done
- Elegant 2-Players: Hanamikoji, Jaipur, The Fox in the Forest
- Elegant Abstracts: Azul, Sagrada, Onitama
- Elegant Classics: Modern Art, Carcassonne, Dominion
- Elegant Recent Releases: Cryptid, Wingspan, Wavelength
What games do you find to be crisp and elegant?