2015 is looking to be the year of Rosenberg for me. That is if you can look past Roll For The Galaxy attempting to monopolize all of my play time.
Insofar as anything has managed to slip past this ruthless tyrant and make it to the table, Rosenberg is leading the charge. The year started with the excellent Fields of Arle (though technically I managed to get a copy in December). After joyfully punching and bagging the many, many bits I envisioned taking it to my game group and having a dedicated table where my fellow Rosenberg enthusiasts fought for their place in line. “Don’t worry, everyone will get a turn!” I’d say as I gladly accepted bribes and compliments from those who simply couldn’t wait.
You may be as shocked as I was to find out that this wasn’t, in fact, how things went down. I did show up to group with Fields in tow, giddy and excited to play. I walked in casually with my prize possession clearly peaking out from my bag, just waiting for someone to notice it. No one did. That’s fine, they must all be too enthralled with their games. I’ll just take it out and set it on this table… BAM! The poor table’s legs buckled under the weight of my behemoth. Heads turned, eyes fixed on the box. “What’s that?” I could hardly believe my ears. How could they not know? This is Rosenberg that we’re talking about. ROSENBERG! I kindly educated everyone and waited for the inevitable game bailing and queue forming. Once again I got no response, hardly even a hint of interest. Here comes the worst part. I had to resort to begging. One kind soul took pity on me and agreed to play THE BEST GAME OF HIS LIFE. We had fun, no one lined up for a second game and I moved on to something else. Such is life.
I’m still a bit perplexed over the whole thing but let me share another story to help clear up the mystery. This one is about another absolutely brilliant Rosenberg from this/last year, Patchwork.
I had just received Patchwork in the mail and was feeling optimistic. My spirits were somewhat dampened from the recent Fields incident but I wouldn’t let it deter me. I had since gotten several people to try Fields and a couple copies were purchased so I considered it a success overall despite the somewhat tepid reception. I showed up to the same group and meekly pulled Patchwork out and gently set it on the table. I mustered a faint request, “Anyone want to play Patchwork?” “Is that the quilting game that everyone is talking about?” someone shouted. “Why yes it is!” Actually, that’s not entirely true. Let me start over.
I showed up with Fields on the top of my stack as I did every week and pleaded anyone who would acknowledge me to play it. I could see a group in the corner avoiding eye contact, “don’t go near Andrew, you’ll end up in a 3 hour game of Fields!” No takers. So I switched baits, out came Patchwork. This one will only take 30 minutes and you won’t want to cry part way through AND your head won’t explode. It worked! I played two back-to-back games and followed it up with another play the following week. People looked on, discussed it, and mentioned buying a copy for their collection without even trying it.
Consider these two games. Same designer. Both 2-player only. And a couple of key difference: weight and length. I want to briefly explore these three points.
Does the designer make a difference?
What is the best way to get people to play your latest acquisition? That’s what I’m really getting at here considering the context. Enthusiasm often isn’t enough when you’re competing with staples and the latest hotness. Instead you may have to prepare a pitch to convince others that it’s worth their time. Newness by itself is usually a moot point since it requires folks to already recognize and be excited about your game at which point no pitch is required. This leaves us with other established selling points such as mechanics or theme. Another angle that I thought would be a sure thing is a well known and loved designer. However, I think this can fall into the same trap that selling based on newness has. Namely it still seems to require recognition. If people like a given designer they probably already know about their games by the time they come out. As a result if they know the designer they will likely have already made up their mind about trying the game at hand. Simply put, a designer may get people interested in researching a game but it seems less likely to sell them on playing it. Mechanics and theme, the cover and artwork, story and setting, those are the things that will convince people to play something they haven’t heard of.
I’m not saying this is the case all the time and for every group but I think it holds true for most. Chances are even your favorite designer has made a game that you don’t like (assuming they’ve made multiple games). You may be more prone to enjoy something from a designer you like but that’s no guarantee. Most people seem to know this and they won’t play a game blindly just because it has someone’s name attached to it. My point isn’t that designers don’t matter, gamers seem quite loyal in that regard. What I am saying is that people seem more sold on other elements of a game when considering what to play. Ultimately I think the designer is more important for those purchasing games and less so for those being persuaded to play.
I’ll look at two more quick examples. The first is a game that I had hoped someone in my group would buy so that I could try it out, The Staufer Dynasty. The designer, Andreas Steding, is most well known in my group for Hansa Teutonica. While that particular game hasn’t seen a lot of play recently it is well regarded so I was very surprised that no one picked up a copy of The Staufer Dynasty as we tend more towards the hot & new end of the gaming spectrum. Fortunately I got to play it with a buddy and was so impressed that I purchased it shortly after in hopes of playing it more. I brought it to group and was again surprised that not many there (I think just one) had heard of it and were interested in playing. That was enough to get a game started which attracted several more players but I don’t think it was because of Andreas’ name on the box. In this case, I (the purchaser) had recognized the designer and cared about the connection. The other players involved had joined out of interest in the game (or simply because it was what we had decided on playing). With one play down I now have my foot in the door and the game will likely sell itself on its own merits not that of the designer.
The other example I want to look at is a broader category than designer, that of branding. The game in question is, of course, Roll For The Galaxy. I bought it with the intent of playing it solely with my fellow Race For The Galaxy enthusiasts (of which there aren’t many in my group). There was quite the opposite reaction to that of The Staufer Dynasty, many had heard of it and wanted to try it out. They didn’t want to play it because of Tom Lehman’s name (one of the co-designers). In fact, some of the interested players didn’t even like Race. Yet they still wanted to try it. That’s the power of recognition. Instead of saying “this is a game designed by so-and-so” you can say “this is a game like such-and-such” and that seems to work even if the games aren’t all that similar. Brands exists for a reason and they are strong selling points that a name-on-the-box can’t quite replicate (from my experience). To an extent publishers can suffer the same fate.
The challenge of introducing 2-player games to a group
If I wasn’t able to sell Fields of Arle based on the designer’s authority there must have been something preventing people from trying it out. This is where the 2-player aspect comes into play. Yes, it also has the long and heavy thing working against it but I’ll come back to that later. When you show up at a game group or any social setting it can be tough to convince someone to join you for a one-on-one affair. The fact that Fields is long exacerbates this effect. If anything these type of games see the most play time when two people show up at the same time and everyone else is already playing something. Oh well, might as well look for a 2-player game (disappointment ensues). In this regard they tend to work as fillers to pass the time while you wait to join a larger group. Unfortunately 2-player games have a specific role in groups which doesn’t let them compete with the games that support more players. I saw this manifest itself when some folks opted to pass on Fields because other heavy Rosenbergs such as Agricola/Caverna accommodated higher player counts in addition to 2. Almost as if that made those games strictly better in some sense. I disagree and believe the opposite to be the case, Fields is the better 2-player game hands down because it was designed specifically for two.
Instead it seems 2-players games are well suited for couples and people who can’t get a whole group together. I play the majority of 2-player games in those settings: between games at my group, with my wife, or when I get together with a friend. That’s much more limited than I would like and one of the reasons why it’s been hard to get Fields of Arle to the table frequently.
This makes me sad because there’s this fantastic 2-player line of games from Uwe Rosenberg that I would absolutely love to play more. The games in this series are Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small, Le Havre: The Inland Port, and Patchwork. Recently I’ve had some success with Patchwork because it falls into both the new and quick categories that fit my group perfectly. The other two games in the series are neither new nor as quick so I fear that they will remain largely unplayed. Fortunately my wife enjoys All Creatures since I bought it to relieve her from the stresses of Agricola but The Inland Port is in troubled waters. And that’s a shame because I LOVE The Inland Port but simply can’t find the right setting in which to play it.
As further proof that 2-player games have to fight for their place at the table I want to look at a game that supports more players but excels with two, Ascension. When the newest set, Dawn of Champions, came out I saw a lot of people asking when it would be available for iOS/Andriod. I was expecting that question as it’s quite popular in that format (which is largely 2-player). What I didn’t expect was the second most frequently asked question (that I saw), if the Champions introduced in DoC would be playable with 5-6 players. This isn’t judgement on those that enjoy playing Ascension this way, I just didn’t think people actually did it. Not only do you have more control with 2 but the game players much faster. For me, each additionally player detracts from the strengths of the game. What I didn’t consider was that, for others, each player added actually strengthens the experience. If I had 6 people I would absolutely recommend splitting into two groups of 3 to play Ascension and would outright refuse to play in a 6-player game. But I don’t have a problem with splitting groups up whereas others view it as a devastating blow to the group dynamic. Why get together if you’re just going to split up? I understand this mentality but this is what leads 2-player games to being relegated to filler territory. I love sitting down with one other person and getting to enjoy a game with just them. That’s an experience that we should be encouraging not dismissing.
The 2-player niche: Filler or Lifestyle – The challenge for heavy games
Finally we can address the biggest thing holding Fields back. Not only is it 2-player only but it’s also long and heavy. It doesn’t fit into filler territory which means you’re taking someone away from the group for a longer period of time and the couple friendly appeal is right out. There’s a niche for this type of game but it falls more in line with the “lifestyle games” that are more prevalent among the CCG/LCG genre. Essentially, you need a dedicated opponent. You can’t just pull it out at group and expect people to jump on board, it’s a commitment and that greatly saps appeal. Even the most well regarded games fall into this camp in my opinion: Twilight Struggle, Android: Netrunner, Mage Wars, Command & Colors. It isn’t until you break into filler territory that you get the kind of games that you can easily pull out and have a reasonable shot of playing, games like Star Realms.
Patchwork fits this role much better than Fields and my experience is pretty good proof of this. I’ve accepted this fact and shifted my focus when I don’t have any takers for Fields. Fortunately Fields can still be played solo and I have made very good use of that fact.
I don’t have much of a point, just my story to share. Does this ring true for others?