Wednesday, May 18, 2011

TIMELY TOPICS - Tension in games - Ratchet it up, please!

I love tension in games. I'm sure you know what I mean, those games where the tension builds and you can feel your adrenaline start to rise. You get that little bit of shakiness as you are about to pull off what you hope is a big move, but afraid of how the other person might counter.

The other night I got to play some good, tense games with my friend Cary. It's amazing how something as simple as a game with just cards, bits and a handful of rules can have such an affect on you. Your blood starts flowing and you get an almost euphoric feeling. Like I'm feeling right now after playing several tough games.

Tension is probably the biggest draw for me in a game - the tensest games are the ones I seen to remember and enjoy the most. Every move you make seems crucial. You can't let your guard down one bit or it will be the end of the game for you. You are engaged and focused on the game throughout.

What kind of elements seem to make a game tense for me? I'd say its a handful of things:
  • The ability to plan ahead and make a clever move that surprises your opponent.
  • The ability to quickly turn the tables then have it turned right back on you again.
  • Racing to meet certain conditions in a set period of time (not just 'time' itself, but in the depletion of cards or resources)
  • Multiple possible paths to victory.
  • Auctions where every auction has value in it, either for what's in the auction or for the need to prevent someone ELSE from getting what's in it (or at least making them pay the price).
  • Brinkmanship - taking a chance and putting yourself out on a limb in the hopes of achieving a goal before others can stop you (hopefully)
  • Tight two-player games (this isn't crucial for me, but I love head-to-head competition and find it the most interesting in games. Don't get me wrong, multi-player games can also be tense and terrific at those higher numbers, but 2-player to me is where it's really at.
So, what specifically got me so amped up in these games we played? Well, let me tell you...

Well, first Cary taught me Times Square. This is a game that I had seen and read good things about, but also heard it was a bit of a difficult game to wrap your head around. Basically, it involves you trying to get people to come into your bar before they go into the other person's bar. Ok, it's a weird theme and that alone tends to make it a bit inaccessible. Why do you have to go to all this work to get certain people into your bar? Perhaps the theme is lost on me since I don't really frequent bars.

The idea is you must play sets of cards to control 2 boozers both of whom have restrictions to their movements (one is famous and has 2 body guards that slow her down, the other one is just drunk I think), and try to get them into your bar. Then you can control the handsome dude that has the special ability to make one of the body guards, or the famous boozer herself to come to him immediately  In fact, he can get her to go immediately into the bar (for the win) so you have to watch out for wiley dude if he's in the other person's bar. There is also a dancing lady you can control. OR, she can control someone else on the board, apparently her swaying hips are hypnotic that way. Normally, only certain cards can control certain players, except for when the dancing lady is between the famous lady and your own bar. I guess that combination just makes other people go nuts or something.

The tension lies in the fact that you can move all these people around in different and sometimes difficult to predictable ways based on the combination of cards you have in hand and the board position. There is the added tension of 3 possible ways to win - by getting either one of the two boozers into your bar OR having the deck run out and having the famous lady closer to your bar at that time.

It's a brain burning game and the card draws do have some impact on what you can do, but there are so many options there's almost always something you can do. You just have to be careful not to overlook anything and leave the door open for the other player or you may find yourself on the losing end.

There's something about this type of game that just grabs me. It is asymetrical in the player functions and movement and I find it very interesting the interactions and how the different pieces can be moved around the board including how one of the pieces that can only move together with 2 other pieces, but you can move them in an uneven way (in fact, you really are forced to to except in certain circumstances)

I must say this game is often overlooked (including by me) -- I mean, it was on my radar but it just wasn't a priority to get. I think I'll definitely make an effort to pick it up soon.

Tension Factors: Clever play with long term as well as tactical plays, race to get someone into your bar and/or to flush the deck and end the game, multiple paths to victory, tug-of-war type game play on multiple levels.

First, normally I'm not overly particular about the artwork/pieces in a game as long as the gameplay is good. One exception for me here is this game - I LOVE the original German version of this game and refused to get any other version. I got lucky and picked up a copy earlier this year for a decent price. Woo-hoo! The reason is that the German version has actual movies, actors, directors, etc on them, with actual photographic images and such. The newer versions of this game have cartoony/funky art that just doesn't appeal to me as much.

In this game you are producing films and trying to get the best actors, directors, music special affects, guest stars, composers and such for them (although there is also a special prize for WORST movie)

What's great about this game is how tense the auctions can get, even with a 2-player game - maybe even more so. Here's why: it is a closed economy meaning that whoever wins the auction pays the loser(s) of the auction. This means that if you really go for it and spend all your money on an auction you are going to be out of the next auction or two - this may or may not be good depending on what you really need versus what others need. And what makes the auctions terrific is that there are multiple ways to value the auctions.

There is the desire to complete movies quickly early on to get some of the early bonuses, but also to complete some movies with the best ratings to earn other mid-game and end-game bonuses - but you'll have to be patient and wait for the right auctions to do this. Then, you are also trying to maybe create at least one really BAD movie to get that special bonus. So, you have these and several other factors to weigh when evaluating an auction. How are you going to use those movie components vs. how badly does someone ELSE want them. Do you risk upping the bid to try to get someone to pay more for it only to find you get stuck paying for something you don't really need?

Tension Factors: Race to complete movies, multiple ways to score and build up points, valuable auctions, brinkmanship in bidding wars, tight gameplay (2 player or otherwise)

Finally, we finished up with Court of the Medici which I had picked up recently but hadn't played it. It's actually pretty much just a regular deck of cards with nice art, flavor text and special text in the case of some of the cards.

Each player has a separate deck of cards of 25 cards - 2 sets of cards numbered 1-10 plus 5 cards with special abilities. Each player has 4 of their cards in the center of the table - the 'court'. You play cards on top of other cards to form alliances (2 or more cards, this can be done with your own cards or the other player's cards in any mixture). You can also start new stacks in front of you and build on those to make alliances as well. The alliances can kill other alliances if the total values are the same when you play a card on them. Thus, you are trying to kill off all of your opponents color of cards from the center of the table (only) to force the end game. At that point, all remaining cards on the table are added up per person and the highest total wins, which means you can win even if all of your cards in the center were all killed.

Interestingly, you often have to kill off your own cards to also kill the other player's cards. You must weigh which cards you try to protect versus which you sacrifice to accomplish the goal of getting ahead in points and forcing the end of the game at the same time. What makes the game really interesting (and ratchets up the tension a lot) is the cards with special powers that can break up alliances, kill alliances directly regardless of value, or can provide a powerful variable amount making it easy to pick off other alliances when in play. You don't know if your opponent has any of these cards so you have to play as if they do OR take a risk with a play and hope they don't have them.

Tension Factors: Race to kill off your opponent's cards, limited hand of cards, brinkmanship in making certain moves, special powers that can quickly turn the game.

Thinking about tension in games makes me think about some of my other favorite tension filled games that ratchet it up as you go further along in the game:

  • Power Grid - As you get closer and closer to the end game you have to decide when you can pull the trigger to end it and hope you can power more cities than anyone else. Also, the auctions throughout keep you on your toes the whole game looking for the right combination of power plants.
  • El Grande - High tension occurs every round in fighting over the action cards and getting what you want. Every time another scoring round occurs it ratchets up the tension, especially when cubes are pulled from the Castille and placed on the board.
  • Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries - With 2 players this map can be ruthless - and the more tickets you draw the more difficult it gets. You have your tickets you're trying to get, you have a limited number of trains, and you have routes that have a certain amount of risk required to complete them (ferries)
  • Yspahan- This game is very tight and that alone gets the tension going. You are also fighting for points/control in a number of ways. You must balance control of the souks with control of the camel train and, at the same time, try to get buildings built with resources. The resources are valuable for a variety of uses so you must manage them carefully and try to get the best use out of them.
  • Tikal - This game naturally ramps up the tension as the game progresses - the board begins to fill and you can see the end drawing closer and closer. Jockeying for position around the temples, trying to be in a good position before scoring rounds, and optimizing the use of your action points to eek out points all keep the game tight and in constant contention.
  • Haggis - With the constant threat of being bombed by the other opponent and not knowing whether they have a secret bomb it was brings the tension in this game up. Plus, you are racing to shed all of your cards before the other player(s). The scores can swing wildly from hand to hand but the win often comes down to the final hand or two.

What are your favorite tension-filled games? How much tension do you like and is it possible to have too much tension in a game?

Now go play a game filled with tension and get that blood flowing...


  1. You and I disagree on our favorite number of players.. :-) But otherwise this is spot on. Well done.

  2. Well, you like 3-players more I think, but I love head-to-head. Of course, games like Power Grid and El Grande are better with more people so it's not an absolute rule or anything, just a guideline :)

  3. With experienced players Battlestar Galactica is incredibly intense as it's so hard to figure out who the Cylons are. You know a couple people are and that they are screwing you but you can't find them. It's what makes BSG a great game.

  4. The traitor (Cylon) aspect intrigues me but I've never been at the right/place time to make the time commitment for this game. Thanks for reminding me of this one!

  5. "Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation" is awesome like this. When you lay out your pieces, you have a plan. Then it starts falling apart, and the game is to try to get at least some bits of it to work to give yourself the advantage.

  6. @Friendless: I've heard good things about that game but never have tried it. I'll have to look for it.


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