Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cardboard Olympus, Part III: The Demiurge Effect

Last time I discussed two games from the Boardgamegeek’s top ten: Puerto Rico and Agricola, currently occupying the third and fourth position of the BGG ranking, obviously leaving two games out. Now is the time to take a closer look at one of them – and to factor game designers into the equation.

BoardGameGeek logo
Number of copies sold does not a cardboard Olympian make, lest the mere mortals be ruled by Monopoly, Activity and Axis and Allies. If one defines themselves as (more or less) a hobby gamer, one has to focus on what is called a designer board game, which simply means a game more complicated than said Monopoly and displaying the name of its creator (or creators) on the box.

No, we are bathing in the glory of games that require more thought than just making a binary decision after rolling a die and we assess and rate games based on the joy brought to us by making actual decisions, having varied choices or at least nice components (unless, that is, we are fans of Talisman, in which case only the last one stands).

Olympian Names

Deciding whether we like a game or not is simple when the box is already in our possession: we play the game (once or multiple times) and make up our mind. The trick, however, is to properly assess a game before we make a purchase – and here the designer rears their (not always ugly) head. Obviously, some gamers follow companies, with their interest piqued by news of upcoming releases from Ystari or Fantasy Flight Games, but if a publisher wants their audience to sit up and take notes, they need a good (and by “good” we mean: “well known”) designer behind their latest project.

As a consequence, today’s BGG ranking is influenced by big names of designers that were able to crack the top ten some years ago and use that impetus to introduce a second title to the cardboard Olympus. Apart from Uwe Rosenberg, only two other designers managed to pull off this impressive trick: once the top ten housed two games by Donald X. Vaccarino (although it was really just one game sold in two boxes - which might actually be an even grander feat), and now it has room for two games of Vlaada Chvatil.

Olympian Games

Through The Ages - player board in  mid game

Vlaada Chvatil is truly incredible: no two games of his are quite alike. This legendary character has designed heavy Eurogames, party games, an abstract strategy, two completely different adventure games and… Through The Ages, which was his ticket to the mountaintop and a game that, in a way, created a category it solely inhabits.

The box cover of Through The Ages
source: BoardGameGeek/through-the-ages-a-story-of-civilization

If we compare Through the Ages to Agricola and Puerto Rico, we will quickly notice one meaningful deviation. Unlike those two titles, TTA is not easily accessible. The game has lots of rules to take in, a single game takes long enough to miss the graduation of your first kid (if you play with four) and the mechanisms that govern the game are way more abstract than anything Puerto Rico or Agricola throws at us. And yet, as multiple editions and language version prove, Through the Ages remains one of the most well loved and highly acclaimed games – so well loved in fact, that it lately managed to overtake Agricola and Puerto Rico. Where did this sudden comeback come from?

Actually, it came from the USA.

The box cover of Mage Knight
source: BoardGameGeek/mage-knight-board-game
When it came to cracking the top ten, Mage Knight had it all. Firstly, it had a powerhouse publisher. Secondly, it had a brand some people are truly crazy about. Lastly, it had a well known designer. Now, to be more specific: the name Chvatil was there to draw in us Europeans, while the Mage Knight brand was to draw in Americans.  And drew it did, reminding us all how ingenious a designer Vlaada Chvatil is - and pushing us to either play the copy of Through the Ages we already have on our shelf, or to try it out for the first time, forming an opinion and… rating it highly on Boardgamegeek. Mage Knight might have become TTA greatest friend, being responsible for it reaching the one but highest position in the ranking.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Demiurge Effect actually works.
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