Back to the Future: Dice Through Time (Saturday Review)

Release Date: 2020Players: 2-4
Designer: Chris Leder, Ken Franklin, Kevin RodgersLength: 45-60 minutes
Artist: Matt Taylor, Pilot, Sam DawsonAge: 10+
Publisher: RavensburgerComplexity: 2.0 / 5

“So, let me illustrate. Imagine a line that represents time and at one point is 1985, to the left of it the past and to the right of it the future. If we travel back in time and make some small changes, the timeline skews off at an angle, creating an alternate 1985 – or rather, it’s an alternate to you, Einstein and me, but a complete reality for everyone else. It turns out that Biff took the Sports Almanac into the past and thereby created this new timeline. It’s now up to us to find a new way to get Back to the Future: Dice Through Time by Ravensburger.”

That explanation, that I loosely based on the explanation by Doc Brown in Back to the Future II, explains why up to four players can travel through time all at the same time using their own DeLorean each. Four independent timelines have been created by the various evil doings of Biff when he stole the time machine and travelled to the past in the film.

However, you can also play the game with two or three players, of course. Just imagine that some of the temporal paradoxes somehow resolved themselves in such a way that it’s impossible to tell whether the extraneous alternate time streams are actually different or not.

Time streams, temporal paradoxes, multiverses and alternate futures are all very complicated, so let’s not worry about them too much, but focus on the much more important, and seemingly much easier, action of time travel itself. Your and your other selves’ job, after all, you’re all Martys or Doc Browns, is to travel through time and “restore temporal balance, […] by ensuring certain events occur and restoring items to their proper place and time,” as the letter by Dr. E. Brown Enterprises tells you on the back of the game board.

Yes, this is a co-operative game where all of you can communicate with each other using some not yet understood temporal device, but none of you shall ever meet in the same place and time, or you “could destroy the entire universe,” as that same letter helpfully explains.

As I said, don’t think too much about the science behind all this, but give yourself over to the wonderful world of the Back to the Future franchise – and wonderful the game truly is. Everyone gets a real DeLorean – well, a real scale model, which is highly detailed and comes in the four possible player colours. There is nothing stopping you making it lift into the air and fly into the future – or the past, depending on where the next temporal event is that needs fixing. I just wish you could actually swivel the tires, like the “real” car does in the second film.

Anyway, so you’re all working together going to one of the five different locations in one of the four different timelines to fix temporal events, which you draw from a shuffled pile of cards at the beginning of each round, by rolling dice and hoping you get the right combination of symbols you need to fix things, pick up items and return them to their proper place and time.

I know, I’ve made this sound very boring, but it certainly isn’t. Yes, there is a lot of luck involved in this game and when you play for the first couple of times, you do get the feeling it’s impossible to win this game – because if you run out of time, you lose – and you feel like you all need an extra dice to have any chance of dealing with the ever-increasing amount of paradoxes.

However, there are a lot of ways to deal with the luck you’re dealt. The randomness can definitely be handled and shaped, and once you’ve played the game a couple more times, you have worked out what you need to do and how you need to go about things. You will also start to harness the power of rippling dice through time, so that the next player can deal with events that maybe you couldn’t have dealt with on your own.

Suddenly the game switches from something completely random and unsolvable to a tense hour of working together to find the best moves for everyone’s DeLorean and to decide who should biff Biff when and where to. You, as a team, develop strategies and tactics to finally beat the game.

Of course, all games of this ilk beat you more often than you beat them – but the odds do get better over time and you do feel more and more like you control your own luck. If it feels like it’s becoming too easy, you can, of course, make the game harder by choosing a higher difficulty level as shown in the rulebook.

If you like co-operative games, then you will like Back to the Future: Dice Through Time just as much. My wife is a testament to this. It’s one of only a handful of games that she kept asking me to play, which means a lot.

If you love the Back to the Future films, then you will love this game. I’m a great fan of all three films, having them all on DVD (I know, I’m showing my age), and the little DeLoreans are just wonderful. All of the components in the game are of great quality, as you can see in my unboxing video, so you should have a lot of fun.

Anyway, I have got to go. I’m almost outatime. Time for me to do a bit of time travelling…

Useful Links

Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • I was sent a review copy of the game by Ravensburger.

Unboxing Video

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)
Music: Rising Sun by Sascha Ende (https://filmmusic.io/song/86-rising-sun)
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Sound Effects: FreeSound (https://freesound.org/)

First time teach (Topic Discussion)

I have now spoken quite a bit about how to teach board games to people. Those articles were about teaching games that you have already played yourself and therefore know relatively well. However, when you buy a game, you will be faced with the difficult task of teaching the rules for the first time, before having played it yourself even once.

Of course, the best thing you can do is get the rulebook, learn the rules as far as you can, set up the game and start playing it by yourself. Play a few rounds to see how the game works and get a feel for it. You will quickly see how the rulebook relates to the game and where to find the information you need. You are likely to stumble across some edge cases or exceptions.

Many people are also quite visual. So having the game in front of you allows you to actually see it all for yourself. Actually setting up the game and playing it also works for people who are pretty tactile. I think generally speaking, physically moving pieces and touching components tends to help with remembering the rules and how the game plays.

Rules Complexity

If the game has only a relatively small number of rules and/or exceptions, you are probably ready to teach the game now. In fact, the fewer rules and exceptions there are and the clearer the rulebook is, the less likely you actually need to set up and play the game to be able to teach it to others.

If the game isn’t quite so simple, then even a full solo playthrough is unlikely to help you properly teach the game to others. Chances are, you will still need to refer back to the rulebook and check things as you explain everything to people.

open Namiji rulebook resting on one knee held with left hand

You could write your own teaching guide to help you, of course. That’s what a lot of people do who create rule teach or playthrough videos, for example. After all, the layout of a rulebook often doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to how you actually teach a game to others. You might find it easy to learn a game from a well-written rulebook, but that’s usually because you don’t actually read the rules cover to cover. You probably end up skipping certain sections.

For example, if a game allows players to take actions on their turn, you probably won’t read through all of the actions in the rulebook. You might read one or two, but then you’ll probably skip to the next section, so you can continue to learn how the game works.

Similarly, when you teach that game to someone, you probably won’t go over every single action straight away, but leave that to the end of the teach or maybe describe the actions as you explain certain areas on the game board.

More Than Just Rules

Teaching rules for the first time is also not going to be able to cover anything other than the rules themselves. That might be fine for your games group, but quite often people would like to have a rough idea about strategy or tactics. That’s not something you will have been able to learn when you played the game by yourself as you learned it from the rulebook.

Again, it’ll depend on the complexity of the game. However, in heavier games, the best strategy will only come out as you play the game more often. That strategy is also likely to change with more plays, as your player group will come up with different ideas and different ways of winning. So unless the rulebook gives players a guide to how they should play the game, or their specific faction, your first teach is unlikely to be able to help your games group in that respect.

The only thing you might be able to say is where victory points come from, but even that isn’t always obvious or straightforward. It’s also not usually known what an average victory point score in a game is. So it’s not usually possible to gauge how important certain actions might be, if you base it purely on the number of victory points they give players.

the game set up on the table

Learn As You Go

I think it is really important that the people you’re teaching the rules to for the first time are happy to learn as they go. So many games will only really start to shine after several plays anyway. As long as nobody minds just bumbling along and trying out different things, you all can learn the game together. I would suggest you all say out loud what your plan is and why you think a certain action might be worth trying on your turn.

Also, discuss your first game afterwards. Share your experiences and talk about what worked and what didn’t. If you have an idea about how a certain faction might be played better, then do tell everyone about it. Your first game is an opportunity to learn from each other.

It is really important to accept that more complex games won’t immediately make sense. As long as the base rules are understood, then just start playing. If you’re not sure how a certain situation should be resolved, then maybe just make a decision as a group and carry on playing, rather than stopping play and spending a while searching through the rules to find the answer. More often than not, what feels right to you as a group is probably how the game wants you to play it. If that’s not the case, then you can correct it for the next game.

What About You?

I wonder if you’ve found a good way of teaching a game you’ve just bought. Do you tend to learn the rules yourself and then teach it to your group? Do you ask everyone to learn the game themselves before you play it together? I would love to hear how you approach the tricky business of teaching rules for the first time.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)
Background Music: Way by AShamaluevMusic (https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com/)

A Race in Time (Saturday Review)

Release Date: 2022Players: 2-8
Designer: n/aLength: 60-75 minutes
Artist: n/aAge: 10+
Publisher: History HeroesComplexity: 1.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: <1%Air to Components: 0%

History was an interesting place for all of us. We recognized a number of famous figures, while some were new to us. As we travelled through the ages, we encountered new people and learned about different events. Some eras were more familiar than others. Our aim was to be the first to reach the present day. We all took part in A Race in Time from History Heroes.

I love it when games try to teach us about the past and the present. I was never any good at history, so I always shy away from trivia games. However, A Race in Time is different. It is aimed at players from as young as eight to as old as eighty, even though the upper limit is really only academic of course. That’s quite a claim, because I don’t think many eight-year-olds have a huge grasp of historic figures.

Looking at the characters that you have to try and guess, there are many names that I didn’t recognize. As I say, I’ve only got limited knowledge of history, but while many of us, me included, will have heard of Aristotle, Boudica or Columbus, not many people will know Angelou and there are many others who feel a little bit more obscure.

Choose Your Difficulty

So in that sense, everyone, whatever age, will come across people whom they know nothing about, which creates a sort of level playing field. A Race in Time goes further though. There is a poster with all the people that appear in the game that lists their names and a brief fact about them. The rules encourage you to use this poster as much or as little as you like. You can basically choose the level of difficulty that you want.

That means you could say that older players around the table aren’t allowed to look at the poster, while younger players can. You might also allow everyone to look at the poster before the game, so they can try and remember some of the people they’re not familiar with. It’s really up to you how you want to play.

In fact, the whole game is all about choosing the difficulty level you want, because on your turn, another player draws a card from the deck of the era you’re currently in. That card shows a historic figure from that time and six facts about them. These facts are numbered 1 to 6 and the higher the number, the harder it is to glean the person from the fact. If you guess right, you move that many spaces forward on the timeline. If you get it wrong, you don’t move.

a card from A Race in Time with six different facts to choose from
a card from A Race in Time with six different facts to choose from

So choose 1s or 2s every time and be relatively confident that you can name the person. You will move forward only 1 or 2 spaces, but it’s slow and steady progress. If you go for 6s every time, you gamble on a big leap forward, but you also risk standing still. You could even house-rule it so that older players have to choose a more difficult fact.

Slow Progress

The thing is, when we played A Race in Time, everyone around the table, irrespective of their knowledge of history, ended up using the poster all the time. That really slowed things down. Of course, we usually found the right person and learned something new, but sometimes even with the poster, we got it wrong. So halfway through the game, we wanted it to be over.

I think there is a certain age group who will be great at this game. My daughter’s history knowledge is huge for example, as she’s fresh out of school. She breezes through the facts and easily wins the game, while I struggle to guess some people even with the easiest fact. Mind you, it also depends a bit on the era in time that you’re currently in. I found some of the ancient history characters easier to guess as well as some of the modern times, while the other two time ranges weren’t quite my thing.

Yes, there is also a bonus fact on every card that is supposed to give you an additional clue, in case you get really stuck. However, even that often didn’t give me enough information to be able to identify the person on the card. In fact, sometimes the harder facts seemed to be easier and better options.

two standees from A Race in Time
two standees from A Race in Time

I think A Race in Time could work well as an educational game, but you have to accept that it will take a while to finish it. Maybe you allow everyone to move twice as many spaces to shorten the track a little. I would also say that an eight-year-old is possibly a bit too young to benefit from this game. A starting age of 10 seems a bit more appropriate to me.

A Race in Time

The great thing about the game is that there are expansion packs, which add more characters to the different time zones. I guess it’s a must for every trivia game, because if you play it often enough, you will know everyone – and of course, that’s the aim of the game. So you can expand your knowledge further if you buy a new pack with more cards.

So overall I think A Race in Time needs some tweaks, but it really can teach you more about figures from history. As an educational game, it can work really well and I think younger players won’t actually lose patience halfway through, as we adults did. They’ll be eager to be the first to reach the finish line. So maybe it’s all about who plays this game and what they’re trying to get out of it.

Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • I was sent a free review copy of this game by the publisher.
  • At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the game supported me financially or by payment in kind.

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Cold Journey by Alexander Nakarada
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/4760-cold-journey
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com/

Keeping time – how time limits can speed up games (Topic Discussion)

I enjoy games with quite a wide range of playing times. I like long games that take a couple of hours or more to play, up to a certain point at least. Anything above three hours is probably going to be too long for me. I also love quick games that take 15 minutes to half an hour, but I’m definitely not a fan of real-time games. In this article, I want to look at how timekeeping affects the gameplay experience.

Quick and Dirty

Let’s start by looking at games that play in under an hour. The shorter they are, the better they are for when you’re waiting for others to arrive or to wind down after a long game evening. These games tend to be light on rules and usually don’t require a lot of thinking. You usually make quick decisions and it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes, because you can easily play again. Winning or losing is often a secondary motivation to play quicker games. They’re more about fun and filling time.

That’s why analysis paralysis doesn’t usually set in during lighter games. Nobody feels they have to fully think through their turn to make the best possible choice. Nobody worries that they’ll be spending a lot of time on a single game and therefore want to ensure they get the most out of it. Everyone knows that the game will be over quite quickly and they can either play again or move on to something else.

There are some quick games that come with a sand timer or similar device to keep the game moving. These games try to enforce a time limit to ensure it’s all over within a relatively short amount of time. I think that’s extra pressure that’s unnecessary. As I said, I don’t like real-time games and even if a game isn’t real-time as such, having a timed element in it can be really off-putting and create stress. I play games to have fun and to get rid of the worries and strains of the day, or the week. A game shouldn’t rush me. I want to enjoy it in my own time.

However, there is something to say in favour of finding a way to keep a game moving.

a number of coloured sand timers and two people playing the card game Kites (Photo courtesy of Floodgate Games)
sand timers in Kites (Photo courtesy of Floodgate Games)

Longer Games

If we look at the other end of the spectrum, where games take several hours to play, things change. Many longer games require a bit of planning. If you go in with a rough strategy, you’re probably better off. Even though it doesn’t matter quite so much at the beginning, thinking through your turn becomes more important towards the later game. Analysis paralysis becomes a reality in longer games.

These types of games also tend to have more rules and require more thinking. They can sometimes be quite complex, so you have to be careful and have a clear head to make sure you make no mistakes. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t become clear until the end whether an earlier turn was actually a mistake or not.

Longer games also tend to slow down towards the end. Many people will have come across the “last round syndrome“. It’s when everyone spends ages calculating how many points every possible choice offers, so they can take the action that gives them the most points. It often happens in the last round of a game, or if a game has a fixed number of rounds, it can be the last two or three rounds that slow to an excruciating crawl.

So if you were to introduce a sort of timer, maybe something along the lines of a chess clock, in those last couple of rounds, you could potentially speed up the game and probably make it actually more enjoyable overall. I know, I said that I hate real-time games and that I don’t want a sand timer. However, even I appreciate that sometimes it’s important to keep a game moving and not stretch it out longer than necessary. You don’t want games to outstay their welcome.

Gut Decisions

I think it’s sometimes useful if you trust your gut. Making perfectly calculated decisions may seem like the only way to win, but it also often takes longer. If you just play in a way that feels right, it’s going to be quicker. I must say, I’ve started to play that way a lot more often recently.

Some games are designed in such a way that the setting, theme, rules, mechanisms and everything mesh so perfectly, that you can literally just follow your gut instinct. The game almost leads you to victory and you’re not forced to constantly think through various options and weigh up the pros and cons of different decision trees.

If a game isn’t designed that way, then introducing a timer can push people towards following their noses. It’s probably going to feel odd and as I mentioned, can add some unwanted stress, but if everyone relaxes into it and maybe is less competitive, then being forced to make a decision on the spot can actually be fun. Get it right and you will feel amazing. Get it wrong, then the consequences can be disastrous and hilarious at the same time.

As I say, it’ll take some getting used to having a timer. You will have to agree as a group on what a good time limit is. It has to be realistic and not be set too low. Forcing the game to end early at all costs is not going to help. You probably also don’t want to be too strict in enforcing the time limit, but see it more as a rough guide about how long people should take on their turn. You probably also only need to introduce it towards the end of a game.

the game board and box from Brass (Photo courtesy of Roxley Games)
taking turns in Brass: Birmingham can take some time (Photo courtesy of Roxley Games)

Finish on Time

One game night, we decided in advance a hard deadline of when we would finish. So we didn’t have a timer, but instead said that we’d end the game at a certain time, irrespective of whether we’d actually finished or were still in the middle of a turn. I knew the game would last about two hours, so the deadline was actually achievable. When we reached about an hour before the end, I let everyone know and then made a time call about every 15 minutes.

I was surprised at how well this worked. We had a good hour where we could play leisurely and then another hour where we needed to speed up. We all wanted the game to finish on time and even though every decision became tougher towards the end of the game, we all started to trust our guts. In the end, we finished the game with three minutes to spare. Sure, we still had to put it all away, but that didn’t take too long.

So that’s another way to approach it. Again, you just have to make sure that the deadline is realistic and choose the game, or games, you play accordingly.

How About You?

Now I wonder if you’ve ever tried something like this. Did you ever have to finish at a certain time? Have you ever used a sand timer or chess clock to keep things moving in a game that doesn’t come with a timed element? Do you use other means to keep a game flowing? Maybe you don’t care and have all the time in the world. Whatever your experiences, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Lofi Chill Hip-Hop by WinnieTheMoog
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/6347-lofi-chill-hip-hop
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://linktr.ee/taigasoundprod

Repetitive Variety – a game doesn’t have to be different every time (Topic Discussion)

The concepts of replayability and variety are often considered to be one and the same. I have previously looked at whether replayability and variety are linked. My article “Variable replayability” came to the conclusion that those two concepts are not necessarily related. A game can offer a lot of variety, but little replayability and vice versa, a game can be very replayable without much variety. However, in this article, I want to look at whether variety should be important to players or whether we should focus more on replayability.

Let’s start with some basics. I think we can all agree that how many times a game can be played while still being enjoyable is important. Even legacy games that, by definition, can only be played once, are often sold with recharge packs or offer other ways to reset them. Additionally, even though many of us play a game only once or twice and our shelf of opportunity of unplayed games grows all the time, I think we all want games that are replayable and don’t become samey after a couple of plays.

For players, the main driver is probably that games aren’t a cheap commodity. People understandably want to see a reasonable return on investment from their spending. They want to be able to enjoy playing the same game multiple times to make it worth it. As a result, publishers and game designers want to make games that can be enjoyed many times.

Replayability and Variety

Next, let’s look at whether replayability should be achieved through variety. A game that offers a random setup, hundreds of cards, modular boards or creates variety by other means can be hugely replayable. I know, that’s not necessarily the case, but for the purpose of this article, let’s assume it is.

The main problem I see with variety is that it makes it harder for people to actually get better at playing the game. Using the same strategy for a highly variable game will most likely lead to very different outcomes every time. You can’t try different things and slowly refine your approach over time. You can’t compare games to each other. The more randomness there is, the harder it will be to work out which of your decisions made things better and which ones made them worse.

Let’s use Tapestry as an example. So you won the first game by a huge margin. You played a specific civilization really well in game one and are elated. However, in the next game, you get a different civilization. Playing the game, in the same way, will probably not work. Sure, you could argue that you have to use a different strategy depending on the civilization you’re playing. The problem is, even that won’t work. Depending on what civilizations other players have, your strategy will be better or worse. Additionally, how well you play will depend on what tech and tapestry cards come out and in what order. The game is much more about tactics.

a close-up of the Tapestry game box with some plastic components on top (Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games)
a close-up of the Tapestry game box with some plastic components on top (Photo courtesy of Stonemaier Games)

Strategy and Tactics

If, on the other hand, you play a game where the setup is always the same and there is no randomness, the match will be decided by the better player. Chess is a classic example of this. The only difference between games will be whether you play white or black. That’s much more akin to playing a different faction in other games, but other than that, you can plan out every move in advance. You can take turns in your head and work out what the opponent’s best move is and then decide how you would respond to that and so on.

The more you play chess, the better you will get at it. You will learn what worked and what didn’t. You will even develop a sort of gut feeling for the game. There will be times in a game when you take turns without really thinking about it. You won’t need to work out every move and counter move. The right decision will feel right. Strategies will emerge and you will learn them, because you won’t have to deal with randomness.

Of course, games like chess will have certain standard openings. I mean, chess has books full of all the different possible openings with full analyses of their effectiveness and the resulting strength for the white or black player. Memorizing these openings is something that most chess players will have done. It means that the first few turns can be lightning-fast and that can feel a bit boring.

Random Excitement

I think that’s why games with a lot of variety or randomness can feel a lot more exciting. Rather than playing from a list of pre-defined, well-known and much-explored standard openings, your first turn will be different every time you play. Playing a game that requires tactics more than strategy can seem a lot more enjoyable. It’s the unexpected outcomes of card draws or dice rolls that can create moments of high emotion. Not knowing what card is on top of the draw deck can lead to suspense and the sudden release of this tension can lead to laughter.

Yet, I would argue that games like chess also have these times of tension and suspense. Watching two grandmasters play is mesmerizing. It’s the end game where it all happens and comes to a head. Every decision will become excruciatingly difficult for players. You can see it on their faces, even if they try to hide their emotions. Watching top players get out of seemingly hopeless situations and fight for another round is amazing. So, even a game of chess can create a lot of emotions, for players and spectators alike.

Personally, I prefer when players’ wits are pitted against each other. I’m not saying I despise all randomness in games, but it has to be limited. A variable setup can make things more interesting, as long as the rest of the game is much more predictable. At the same time, I really don’t like when a game is won on a dice roll. Being able to have the challenge of playing factions with different powers is exciting, as long as the game allows you to explore each one and actually get better at playing them.

custom wooden token and metal coins from Clans of Caledonia
custom wooden token and metal coins from Clans of Caledonia

Replayability without Variety

I think that’s why I like games such as Clans of Caledonia or Scythe. There is a bit of randomness at the beginning, but after that, it’s player against player. You get a chance to learn each faction and explore its strengths and weaknesses. You can see how they perform against each other and adapt your strategy accordingly.

Scythe does have a limited amount of randomness during the game, in the form of encounters and battle cards, but it’s not too bad. Mind you, some factions heavily rely on having a good first encounter or they will struggle hugely. Yet, once you know that, it’s fine.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do also love playing games with randomness. It’s these games I probably have the biggest chance of winning against my games group. They are a lot of fun and some of the most memorable moments were made when I played a game with lots of luck. However, my brain loves it when it has to do all the work and can’t rely on the right card being drawn or the wrong dice being rolled.

What About You?

As always, I wonder what you think. Do you like games with randomness or do you prefer games with none or at least only very little? What are your favourite games and how much randomness do they contain? Do you enjoy playing games repeatedly so you can get better at them? Or do you just want to play games and have fun and don’t care about improving? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Relaxing Piano Improvisation by Alexander Nakarada
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/5978-relaxing-piano-improvisation
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Artist website: https://www.serpentsoundstudios.com/

Family Game Time – games that are great for all the family (Topic Discussion)

I recently asked for some suggestions for board game topics I could write about. Phil Gross answered my plea and suggested I write about the best game to play with your in-laws. I loved the idea, but I wanted to open it up a bit wider and talk about games that are great for all the family, young and old, blood relatives and in-laws alike.

Let’s try and frame that question a bit more. We’re basically looking for games that are quite easy to explain and have very little rules complexity. We probably also want games that don’t require too much maintenance and play relatively quickly. I always think that time is often the biggest barrier for people, because they don’t want to have to worry about spending a lot of time on a game they might not enjoy. Shorter games also allow you to try lots of different ones, so you can find one that fits the group of people you’re playing with.

We will also have to consider the age range. After all, family does mean kids and grown-ups alike. So we probably want to find games that kids enjoy and that have age-appropriate content, but that still offer the adults something that they will enjoy. I suppose we’re looking for the equivalent of a DreamWorks film which has adult humour, without being an adult film, while at the same time offering a lot of action and kids’ entertainment, without being too childish for the grown-ups.

I think that covers it pretty well and is already quite a high ask. So let’s look at what games I can think of that fit those criteria.

Classic Family Games

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest Monopoly or Mouse Trap. Yes, those games do tick a lot of the boxes we want to be ticked for a good family game. However, they also haven’t aged very well and I don’t think they offer quite the right amount of interest for older players. Instead, I’m going going to suggest Carcassonne.

I can’t believe I still haven’t reviewed this evergreen tile-laying game that is still going strong. It’s such a brilliant game that really suits the whole family. You don’t really have to explain much to get going. You can explain most of the rules as you go along. It’s also such a visual game that it will click pretty quickly with everyone.

Placing tiles in Carcassonne is very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle. There is the tactility of the thick cardboard tiles and the lovely wooden meeples. There is the actual puzzle-solving part of finding the best place for your tile, as well as the best orientation for it. You also end up with a lovely map at the end of the game, just like you end up with a beautiful picture after completing a jigsaw. So even if you’re not very competitive by nature, you’ll still enjoy making the map and imagining the reasons for the three churches being built right next to each other.

There are many different versions of Carcassonne now and many expansions that you can mix into the base game. That way you can make the game as long or as short as you want. You can even play a co-operative version now, if you really don’t like the competitive and sometimes cut-throat nature of the game.

Modern Classics

A game that I would consider a modern classic is Ticket to Ride. It’s another game that I haven’t reviewed and that is great for the whole family. It might not be suitable for very young kids, but it still covers a wide age range. You can choose between the various versions of the game for different kinds of experiences, but whatever one you end up playing, they’re all pretty easy to teach and don’t take too long to play. It might require a little more patience from younger players though.

Ticket to Ride is a very visual game. You have the map right in front of you and you can see where everyone’s tracks are. Finding places on the map can sometimes be a little tricky, but then again, it’s a great way of improving your geography knowledge. It’s almost an educational game in that sense.

For me, it also ticks the nostalgia box. If you’re my age, you will probably have played a game where you travel around a map, usually roll-and-move style, and need to get to certain destinations along the way. Globetrotting is a pretty simple, yet somehow magical and enticing, theme. Ticket to Ride uses that to create an interesting and exciting gameplay experience that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people.

the board and components of Ticket to Ride: Europe (image courtesy of Days of Wonder)
the board and components of Ticket to Ride: Europe (image courtesy of Days of Wonder)

Modern Family Games

Now let’s venture into the present of hobby games. What I want to suggest next is a roll-and-write game. No, it’s not Yahtzee. Instead, I want to talk about Aquamarine, a game that I did review. I’m not generally a huge fan of roll-and-write games. They often seem more like filling in a spreadsheet than playing a game. For games from the genre to get my attention they need to capture my imagination. I don’t want a game that says that it will take me on a scuba dive into a beautiful reef. I want a game where I actually really feel like that’s what I’m actually doing and Aquamarine does that perfectly.

The rules are really simple and you need only the tiniest smidgen of algebra knowledge just to work out the difference between two dice results. That’s it. The rest is about working your way through the reef to see the fish, explore shipwrecks and generally have a wonderful time swimming through the water. You may even feel a bit claustrophobic as you reach new depths. Instead, you may find playing Aquamarine meditative as you get into the rhythm of rolling dice, drawing your route, marking off oxygen and looking at where you want to go next.

Sticking with the watery theme, I would also suggest Deep Sea Adventure as a great family game. Simple rules, quick playing time, plenty of dice rolling luck to level the playing field and generally a lot of fun. You can also adjust the way you play according to the audience, making it more or less cut-throat as you see fit. The game looks great on the table, has wonderful components and is just perfect as a family game.

How About You?

So that’s my list of family games I would suggest people add to their collection. However, there are many more that I haven’t mentioned. Are there any you love to play with the family? What are your favourites? Are there any games that you think look like the perfect family game, but really disappointed you when you played them? If so, what were they and why did they not work out? As always, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Let’s try and collate a long list of family games together.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Chill Lofi by Ramol
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/6788-chill-lofi
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Right Time, Right Place – board games and socialising (Topic Discussion)

Apart from being a great way to meet new people and make new friends, just like any other hobby, for many of us in the hobby, playing board games is a social activity. We enjoy spending time with friends or family and catching up over a game or two. We have snacks and drinks and chat away in between turns. However, not everyone shares that view and there are good reasons for this. So in this article, I want to investigate why games can be a great conduit for socialising while also potentially being a hindrance.

Gloria Liu‘s recent article in The Atlantic beautifully describes how games can be a help, as well as a huge barrier for people to enjoy their time together. If you’ve been part of the hobby for a while and have a number of games under your belt, you will have come across that yourself. Everyone’s journey from absolute beginner to board game pro, whatever that actually means, is different. Some of us will have grown up with games, while others not so much.

Social Blocker

Whatever your experience though, you probably know board games that require the players’ full attention. They don’t lend themselves to socialising. Even though some games offer space for socialising in between turns, it can make the conversation a bit haphazard. After all, when it’s your turn, you need to stop talking and start thinking. These games also tend to require a lot of attention for the rules teach.

So if someone comes to games night to socialise, they will be disappointed when they are exposed to half an hour of someone explaining complex rules, which is only interrupted by the odd question. When the teach is followed by an hour or two of focused gameplay that leaves no space for even simple small talk, many people will reject the idea that game nights are fun and a great social experience.

You could argue that this is still socialising, in the sense that you spend time in the company of others. However, most people expect socialising to include catching up on what people have been up to and generally chatting about life, the universe and everything.

Even quick and easy party games can actually be a turn-off for people. Not everyone likes having the spotlight put on them or having to perform in front of a group of people. Even though you work together as a team, at some point one of you will have to be the spokesperson. There are also party games that can be a bit cringy. Some try to force funny situations that not everyone finds funny. While in a smaller group that might not be an issue, in party games that problem is exacerbated, because of the larger number of players.

Social Aid

Of course, we know that there are also games that actually help with socialising. As I mentioned above, having a shared interest is a good basis for a relationship. If a game then helps people build trust, we’re onto a winner. Gloria quotes Rachel Kowert, the research director for Take This, in her article as saying: “[…] in a game, if you helped me kill this dragon, I immediately have some foundational level of trust.”

So games that are easy to teach and don’t require your full focus tend to be ideal to introduce new people to the hobby. You’re looking for games that have maybe one or two core mechanisms and that don’t have a huge amount of depth. I would say that many card games are a great place to start. Fluxx, Love Letter and similar basically have only one core mechanism. There is very little rules overhead, because the rules are basically on the cards in front of you. Both games also tend to encourage conversation about the game itself, which can easily be mixed with idle chit-chat or catching up with the people sitting around the table.

So when someone joins your games group or friend circle, don’t bombard them with your favourite medium-weight game, but start somewhere lighter and simpler. I was recently reminded that people who are new to the hobby still need to learn the terminology that we take for granted. While we know what draw decks and discard piles are and that you usually shuffle your discard into a new deck, to someone who only knows Monopoly or chess these concepts are completely new.

a selection of cards from Love Letter laid out on the table
a selection of cards from Love Letter laid out on the table

Draw Them In

Once someone has learned one or two mechanisms and played a couple of games a few times, they will feel comfortable and be ready to absorb new mechanisms. They will also start to realize that you can still have a conversation while playing games, if you choose appropriately. They might even start to think about strategies and how they can get better at winning.

Either way, you need to slowly introduce them to heavier and more rules-involved games. You need to constantly check that they’re still comfortable. Everyone has their limit when to comes to games. Some of us want to play more and more complex games with more and more depth that take longer and longer to play. Others prefer to stick with medium-weight games that take an hour or less to play. Both are equally valid, but we need to be aware of what the people around us like and where they draw the line.

If you do it well, you will have made a new friend and added another person to your circle of board game players. If you’re lucky, you will have infected them with the board game bug and they will start to introduce their friends to our hobby.

At the same time, it’s absolutely fine if someone really doesn’t get on with games at all. If they prefer to meet in the pub and chat over some drinks and snacks, then that’s perfectly valid. Everyone likes what they like and it doesn’t have to be board games all the time.

How About You?

Have you got friends who just don’t like board games? Do you think they have been put off by heavier games? Have you tried introducing them to lighter games? Or do they literally just want to spend time with you, but without board games? As always, I’d love to hear about your experiences. So please share them in the comments below.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Village Ambiance by Alexander Nakarada
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/6586-village-ambiance
License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

About Time – time as a mechanism in board games (Topic Discussion)

Time as a concept, is something we are very familiar with in our daily lives. Sometimes time goes quickly, at other times it seems to almost stand still. Time is also a concept that appears in board games. There is the play time, of course, but some games also use time directly as a mechanism. I want to look at how board games represent time and how they use the concept in different ways.

Play Time

Let’s start with a game’s play time. We all enjoy spending time with friends or family while playing a board game or two. Some people love longer games, while others prefer shorter ones. Picking the right game for the right crowd and the current mood is important. Pretty much every game will show its expected play time. That allows us to try and choose a game that fits the amount of time we have to play or that people are willing to invest in a specific game.

However, we all know that play time is often a very rough measure. It is very hard to define precisely, except maybe for games where there is an actual time limit. Even then, play time is only one metric. How long it takes to teach a game to people, setup time and the amount of time to put everything away again are also very important. If a game takes half an hour to explain but only five minutes to play, people will probably be disappointed. Similarly, if a game takes long to set up and/or put away, but plays much more quickly, it has a negative effect on the gameplay experience.

Putting that aside, actual play time often varies heavily, depending on who is playing, how well they already know the game, what mood they are in, how tired they are and many other factors. So, while it is useful to have a rough idea of the expected play time, be prepared that the actual game may be quicker or take longer than is printed on the box.

the score track, goal cards, point tokens and timer from Nine Tiles Panic (Photo courtesy of Oink Games)
Nine Tiles Panic is a real-time game using a sand timer (Photo courtesy of Oink Games)

Real Time

Before we move onto how the concept of time is used within games themselves, let’s look more closely at real-time games. These games use time in its literal form as a consciously chosen mechanism to create the intended gameplay experience. There is a whole plethora of real-time games that use sand timers, rely on phone app clocks or some other way to keep track of actual time.

One of my favourites is Nine Tiles Panic. I don’t know why, but I still haven’t reviewed this game. There is a lot of tactility in this game that comes with thick cardboard tiles and a lovely little sand timer. Having to arrange nine tiles into a 3×3 grid with continuous roads and certain elements in specific places, depending on the current scoring goals, within a relatively short time limit is a lot of fun. I love visual puzzles like this, even though I’m generally not a fan of real-time games.

For me, the pressure of having to take your turn within a short amount of time is often too much. Saying that, I previously wrote about how having a hard deadline for the end of your game night can speed up players’ turns and while I think having a time limit is useful, generally speaking, it needs to be sensible and allow players to enjoy the game and not feel overly pressured into rushing through their turns.

In-Game Time

Now let’s look at how games represent the concept of time.

In some games, actions always take a certain amount of time to complete. Bremerhaven is probably my favourite example here. In the game, you fulfil contracts with resources delivered by boat to your harbour’s quayside. The contracts are lorries waiting to deliver certain types of goods or coaches waiting for passengers. The problem is that boats and contracts have a certain amount of time assigned to them.

Boats stay in your harbour for a fixed number of rounds, blocking berths for other goods deliveries. Similarly, coaches and lorries wait in their parking lots for a specific amount of time, limiting how many contracts you can have open in parallel.

That time limit can work in your favour, allowing you to wait for another delivery to fill up one of the lorries or to leave goods on a boat while your quayside is full. Of course, the time limit is also often ruthless. Boats will sail away, even if you’ve not unloaded them. Coaches and lorries will drive off, even if you’ve not delivered the passengers or goods they had asked for, which incurs penalties. Not only that, even when you have fully unloaded a boat or completed a contract, they won’t go away until their timers have run out.

So while Bremerhaven isn’t a real-time game, time management plays a huge part. You really have to keep an eye on everything, which can create a lot of pressure, in a similar way to sand timers that trickle down in real-time.

close-up of the game board around Birmingham with a number of industry and link tiles on it
Brass: Birmingham plays over two eras

Epochs, Eras and Generations

There are also games that don’t use timers as such, but there is still an element of time passing. In these games, time is usually linked to rounds or turns, but rather than making this necessarily an obvious, direct link, it is a bit more subtle than that to create a sense of the game lasting a number of days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries or even longer.

In Brass: Birmingham for example, the timer is the draw deck. When it runs out and everyone has also played the last card from their hand, the game goes to a scoring turn and then resets, ready for the next era. You begin in the canal era and then switch to the age of steam. The game covers a time span of 100 years in a matter of a couple of hours. So while the game’s play time isn’t the shortest, the in-game time is even longer. You do really get the sense of playing through a decade or so every round, as the board fills up with new industries and new infrastructure.

Tapestry really plays with the emulation of time. While there is no link to turns or rounds, your civilization develops new technologies and skills as you draw cards or move along the four tracks. The game is set in a fantasy world, so there is no expectation that inventions will play out in a realistic way. It’s very possible that your civilization has developed the credit card, but still has no language and relies purely on symbols. It bears no resemblance to humanity’s history, but you still get a sense of how you’re progressing through time.

What Time Is It?

These are the ways I have found games handle time. Have you come across any other examples? If so, what are they? Do you like real-time games or do you prefer to take your time? Do you enjoy when games use time as a mechanism in some way? What is your favourite game that emulates time in some way? As always, I’d love to hear what you think. It’s time for you to share your experiences in the comments below.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Breaking News 6 by Sascha Ende
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/10180-breaking-news-6
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article: