Lessons From Board Games – Xiangqi and Intimidation

Xiangqi is a hard game to get to the table, for various reasons. I could really have picked a lot of games here. But the simplicity and abstract character of Chinese Chess allow me to easily make points about what makes it difficult to get people interested in playing games.

Traditional Xiangqi Set

Traditional Xiangqi Set

Theme – While one could say Xiangqi has a war theme, it is fairly clear once one learns about the game that it is essentially theme-less. The theme is conflict in a general sense, and the pieces don’t really behave in ways their names would suggest. This is a problem as the theme of the game both serves to get people excited about playing it, and also to give them a grounding in reality for when they might not understand why certain game mechanisms are the way they are. Essentially the game is more fun after you’ve played it a few times. But why would you play it if it doesn’t seem interesting?

Iconography – To many people icons symbolize complexity. Games like Monopoly have words written on them. And when the game mechanisms require too many words to fit on the pieces and are replaced by pictures, people don’t want to deal with them. And when the icons are things the have to learn, like a foreign language in Xiganqi’s case, they tend to tune out and look for other things to do.

Strategy – Abstract games and European style games have a lot of depth and strategy, and while hardcore gamers (of both the video and board varieties) relish strategy, regular people tend to know when experienced people will beat them, and don’t want to commit the time to learning something complex that they will lose all of the time at and feel bad afterwards. Glancing at Xiangqi will make it seem simple, but really looking at it will reveal complexities people just don’t want to deal with.

Time Investment – Chess has a reputation for being a long game (an undeserved one in my opinion), and Chinese Chess comes with this baggage as well. People don’t want to commit much time to something new, especially if it has the previously mentioned problems.

Player Count – People don’t like things that require very specific numbers of people because they want to be inclusive and to socialize. Two player games are hard to play for this reason, but so would be games that only play five, or only play eight.

Really, Xiangqi is just a bad game to try to get people to play. If they already like chess and want to learn new things, teaching them might be fun, but playing with people who already know the game is best, either from their heritage, or from discovering it online. People need to be eased into games, especially abstract games. That’s why “gateway” games like Ticket to Ride, Love Letter, and Catan are so popular. People need to be introduced to games that you as the gamer might not like as much but can still enjoy. Starter abstracts like Gobblet and Blokus should be used before introducing some one to Chess and Xiangqi. It’s important that people know they like games before letting these ones intimidate them. And more people gaming means more fun for you.

Lessons From Board Games – Love Letter and Letting Go

Love Letter is a giant of a game, quite disproportionately to its components. I carry a copy around in my backpack every day with a deck of cards. It is that universally appealing and easy to teach. Its popularity is a testament to how many other people feel the same. The game has reached such a wide audience and is such a runaway hit that I’d be surprised if we didn’t have it in print for years to come.


But still, the game is pretty luck based, even though it might seem like it’s not, with its layer of theme and modern game design. But that can really be attributed to the fact that it’s a modern game. It’s designed in such a way that it makes you feel like you’re much more in control than you are. In the end you’re just at the whim of the deck and it’s quite possible to draw a hand with which it is impossible to win.

But that doesn’t make the game not fun, just light. People have enjoyed games in which there is only luck and no strategy for centuries, and this game does have elements of strategy and theme, which make it more fun to play. But neither of these are at their most prevalent. With Love Letter one just has to let go of the idea that they can control the outcome of the game by having the absolute best strategy and outplaying the other players (which still isn’t possible in most games) and also the idea of having a theme that is so immersive that one can’t separate it from the mechanics (A Princess and Batman being the themes of versions of Love Letter make that point).

It’s a great game, and a lot (a Lot) of people really enjoy it. It has a balance of theme, strategy and luck that draws a lot of people to it and keep them coming back for games (and its length helps with that). But one does have to let go of some strategic and thematic preferences to embrace the luck and enjoy it at times.

Lessons from Board Games – Hanafuda and Sorta Maybe Entirely Luck-Based

I chose Hanafuda for this, but it really applies to most card games (I just want to talk about Hanafuda for a bit). Hanafuda are Japanese Flower cards (and refer to some of the games played with the cards): a deck of what is essentially playing cards that were invented in Japan after western cards were banned.  Hanafuda  then spread to neighboring Pacific areas. There are 12 suits (representing the months with flowers) and 4 cards in each suit.  The cards have values of either 1, 5, 10, or 20, though not all suits contain all values. To a western player the lack of numbers can be difficult to grasp, but since most of the games involve matching flowers, it’s easy enough to remember that in general the more decorated a card is the more points it’s worth and to just match cards.


Hanafuda caught my attention when I was looking for a card set for Mah-Jongg. I had been aware the cards’ existence but hadn’t though much of it. I play a lot of board games and have enough regular decks of cards and American card games as it is. Then I bought a cheap copy of Mah-Jongg at a thrift store, and wanted to find an easier to learn and play version. I found a card version, in the related items section there were Hanafuda cards, so I bought those as well.

Now I play a lot of board games, and while in school I started playing cards and chess when I had finished my work. I’ve since moved on mostly to more “complex” (chess is pretty complex at times) games that are more fun and/or accommodate more people. In general, I stopped playing card games because they were so luck based. Even though it might not seem like if for those who used French deck-based games (or even Hanafuda to some extent), eventually, after playing far too many games, one realizes that winning is only luck in such games. And it seemed less fun to have no skill involved in the game. But since I was so fascinated by both Hanafuda and Mah-Jongg I figured I’d take a chance on these luck based games.

This is all far too much information leading up to my basic point: that I’ve played Hanafuda (Hawaii style with a bit of my personal flair) as well as a few other mostly luck-based card games (with a modified French deck) and had a blast. Sometimes it’s just fun to play a game and talk to people, which you can do when no skill is involved. I know I’ve said that before, and some luck-based games like Snakes and Ladders or whatever can be terrible. But the illusion that you are in control that many card games give you is great for masking that and providing a basis for social interaction. Hanafuda only lasts a few minutes for a round, and you only have to play one. But for that you can look at pretty flowers, have a good conversation, and not mind the sorta kinda, entirely luck-based game.

Lessons from Board Games – Wits and Wagers and Knowing who Knows who Knows how to Win

Wits and Wagers is a best-selling party game where everyone answers and people vote on which answer they believe is correct, getting points if they’re right. It solves the problem of one person being completely “unfun” to play the trivia game with because he knows everything, and for that Wits and Wagers is one of the best party games to come out in a long time. And the company (North Star Games) continues to put out great games, of both party and not so party varieties.


On its surface, Wits and Wagers is a pretty simple concept. You don’t have to know the answer; you just have to know who does. And that’s how I play, but I rarely know the answer, or know who knows the answer. That really just comes down to me being bad at the trivia portion of the game. It’s all numbers-based, and while I can remember lots of useless facts related to words, exact numbers are a bit harder.

But one of my friends beats me pretty consistently. Well, until the end when we all just wager all of our points because no one ‘really’ cares about winning. Then I can win by just being conservative on the final question. His points dwarf mine often, though. I know he doesn’t know any more answers than I do, but what he does have is a consistent betting pattern (not every time, but a bit of the time). I’ll let you try and figure out what he’s doing, but as long as the answers are reasonable he’s able to win more often than not. And by copying his bets I could equal almost his score (he tends to bet more than I do, too).

So, for me, the game about knowing who knows the right answer became, for some part, the game about knowing who knows how to win the game based on averages. And I’m okay with that. It’s the answers that are funny; it is a party game, after all. And while it might sound like it’s taking things a bit too seriously, I can assure you, from the context of the game, that it is not. No amount of enjoyment was lost from, nor any significant thinking time put into, the game. It was fun, and playing the game a bit differently was… well, different. I would still play again anytime.


Lessons from Board Games – Dungeon! and Social Interactions

I play a lot of games, some light and some heavy, and for the most part I’m not particularly afraid to jump into something pretty complicated. My group jumped from Risk to Pandemic to Battlestar Galactica in a few sessions, and the Flames of War rulebook is huge (I still haven’t read it all, because I don’t need to learn about artillery and aircraft if I don’t have any).

But still, I don’t mind a simpler game now and then (or 75% of the time) and Dungeon! is quite a simple game. You move, find monsters, roll a die, and either run away or get treasure, then go back to the center. There is almost no skill used in the game, and no strategy beyond the gamble of being at higher levels (which give you better payout but are more likely to kill you), or lower levels (which are easy but don’t give you much. It can be played mindlessly). Turns require almost no thought, just hope.


Just try not to destroy the components


And in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a bad game. Are there better games? Absolutely! But if you’re just sitting around talking, and want to do a little more than talk, it is absolutely the game to go for. Since it doesn’t require much thought, Dungeon! doesn’t impede the conversation. The most interruption it’ll cause is either when you tell someone it’s their turn, or when there is an “epic” battle going on (which the player will almost always lose). In some cases it even helps the conversation to progress: if you have someone who won’t stop talking, they likely will for at least a moment to take their turn, allowing someone else to get a word in while the other can still listen. It also livens up the evening (or any time) by adding in moment of excitement where the players can cheer for either a monster or another player to win a battle, and since most battles are determined by chance, there is very little the “better” gamers can do to make it more likely for them to win.  Everyone’s even, and the stakes are very low, unlike in heavier games, where an aura of tenseness or ill-will can persist near the end of the game. Not that that usually lasts for long, or a grudge is held, but sometimes it’s good to just not have it.

The components got better, but the art isn't as unique

The components got better, but the art isn’t as unique

There are plenty of other games that can fill this role: most dice or “filler-type” games will work just as well. The difference here is that Dungeon! takes a bit longer, which, depending on the scenario, can be good or bad. If you just want to play for fifteen or so minutes and then get to something else (usually a larger game) Dungeon! isn’t the one to go for. But if you have 45 minutes to kill before dinner (supper, lunch, brunch, tea, possibly breakfast) and the conversation, while still going, is a bit down, it works great for that. That doesn’t make it a great game, and just because it works for my group doesn’t mean it’ll work for yours. But I know if I want to have a conversation and play a game with multiple people, Dungeon! is the game I reach for, and I like it for that. It fills a niche I never thought needed to be filled before, and might not ever have intended to fill. So, well done, Dungeon!  My shelf is a bit more well-rounded now.