Small World

I gave my sister a copy of Small World for Christmas. For those who are not aware, I am pretty serious about my board games. If you are interested in game design, as I am, there’s often a lot more meat in a board game than in a computer game. So yeah. I guess you could call this “research”.

Premise of the game:

Someone took the “Rise and Fall” Civ 4 mod and made it a board game. In “Rise and Fall”, you control a civ during it’s golden age, then you cycle to controlling a new one. You often end up sacking the civs you have built up in the past.

So the real genius in this game is threefold:

First, the civilizations you play each game are randomly generated from a stack of “adjective” tiles and a stack of “race” tiles. Like so:

The adjectives and races each have their own special powers, so when you combine them, you get a ton of replayability. It’s like Cosmic Encounter when you play with more than one alien power at a time.

Second, these adj/race combos are sorted in a priority order, so that each player effectively “bids” on the combo that they want. To skip over a combo in the order, you need to place 1 VP on it. Unloved combos accumulate VPs until someone snatches it up.

Third, unlike “Rise and Fall”, the player is in control of when to put their race into decline and pick up a new one. Picking up a new race is nice, because new races come with a vital stack of tokens, which allows you to do more on your turn. Old races tire and eventually run out of tokens, but you score points for every territory they hold. Choosing when to throw in the towel with your current race is often a difficult decision.

In any case, Small World is fun, and if you like to play board games you should pick up a copy. It’s the best new game I’ve played since Dominion.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Greatest Achievement in the Genre

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike…

Remember these? Recently they have been reprinted. I saw a bunch in a bookstore two months ago.

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I wrote this year’s annual Christmas letter in the format of a CYOA book (actually more like a printed copy of Colossal Cave). After reading it, my friend Doug (of the CPH Gaming Collective) pointed me towards a *great* article on the narrative structure of the CYOA books.

The conclusion of the article discusses one very interesting CYOA ending in a specific book – Inside UFO 54-40. The winning ending is unique in that it is disconnected from the narrative graph. There is no series of choices you can make to get to that ending. You can only “win” by “cheating”.

In the story, your concord flight is interrupted when you are beamed aboard a nearby spacecraft trolling the universe for intelligent life. Once aboard you discover your new captors, the U-TY, are interested in keeping you around only to the extent that you can help them find Ultima, the ‘planet of paradise’. The planet’s location is cloaked in mystery and you are only told that it’s a place that cannot be reached ‘by making a choice or following directions’. However this is all foreshadowing for when the reader finally becomes frustrated in the apparently impossible quest and begins flipping through the book hunting for that ending. In fact not choosing is the only way to reach Ultima.

This ending was not just an easter egg for the obsessive reader who didn’t mind skimming every page looking for telltale words. Instead it’s hard to miss in even a casual riffling. A two-page illustration showing what could only be paradise (or perhaps a theme park) leaps out as the only spread in the book without any text. Flipping to the page before brings you to 101, where you discover that your curiosity has been rewarded. You have found the planet, not by following the constraints of the system, but by going outside of them – a fitting moral to the story and an encouraging reminder that any game should be a starting point for the imagination, not the end.

This is a beautiful gem. By far the most interesting ending in any CYOA book, it is significant exactly because it recants the basis of the whole medium! Free will triumphs over destiny. And yet, at the same time, you are still choosing your own adventure. This is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement in the genre.

It’s unusual too – for one of the most fascinating example of an element of a medium to be so deliciously self-annihilating. I can’t really think of another case where it happens.