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MFQ again

The New York Times Magazine appears to have gone sort of nuts for toys this week. In addition to a disturbingly wonderful slide show of cutting-edge Japanese playgrounds, and another slideshow that’s less wonderful and more disturbing, what with the spray-on polyethylene baby clothes, there’s a fascinating article on MFQ. Well, it’s not about MFQ as such, it’s about Cranium, makers of unconventional board games. The article is called The Play’s the Thing, and it’s by Clive Thompson, and there should be something in it for each of you Gentle Readers to defend and to deny.

Myself, I like the idea that making people feel like morons isn’t a fun way to spend an evening. On the other hand, game design isn’t the primary monster here. Scrabble, for instance, is perhaps the game most perfectly designed to make a player feel like a moron. The problem, however, isn’t usually the player’s vocabulary, but the player’s Scrabble-playing skills. The best vocabulary in the world isn’t going to help you put a g on the end of ‘thin’ and then put ‘grew’ on the triple for a boatload of points. In other words, it’s the design of the game that would totally put off the Cranium folk. But once the player is familiar with it, Scrabble is a terrific game with a very high MFQ.

Also, there’s no discussion of my own pet peeve in game design. In my experience, the most anti-MFQ thing in the actual design of a game is when, having already dropped quite a ways behind the lead, the losing player or players has to endure a long period of boredom. That is, ideally, each player should feel like she could be in striking distance of first almost until the very end of the game (measured in minutes that feel like hours), or alternately, should have things to do that are interesting even if they don’t lead to victory.

In Scrabble, for instance, until the board fills up quite a bit, it’s quite possible either through rack-dumping or through the triple to make up fifty points in a turn. Even if you feel like you can’t make up the difference in the score, each individual play is just as interesting as if you were in the lead, or more so if, like Your Humble Blogger, you find a tight board a challenge. In Settlers of Catan (another brilliant game), though, a bad start can lead to getting cut off of ports and such, and reduce not only your chances of winning, but your play options, until you just try to buy cards and get lucky. That doesn’t happen too terribly often, and the game is short enough anyway to make it not so severe, but it is a problem.

Anyway, the mailman has just delivered my copy of Holy Tango of Literature, so I have to go now.

Thank you,


Until this summer, I was awful at Scrabble. Then I read Word Freak, and my average score improved by ~100 points, not because I'd gained any word power but because I knew the ins and outs of Scrabble and how to think like a pro.

Which leads to another way to measure MFQ: what's the potential for relatively evenly matched games between people of varying experience levels? In my experience, the better Scrabble player humiliates the poorer one every time, while in a game like Settlers, the newbie often wins without any sort of handicap at all.

The worst experience with the "falling behind and being out of it" problem I've ever had was in a game of Britannia where I was purple, and the Scots got eliminated from the board by turn eight. My next race didn't enter until turn 13, I think; I had about an hour and a half to just sit there (during which I didn't; I wandered over to Tarble and went to a party, had a drink, and came back; it still wasn't my turn yet!).

In a lot of games, it's actually better to be in second place for a while, so that the ganging up on the leader sets you up nicely for the win. Once, Joel, Ben, and I designed a game where the goal was specifically to be in second place (using the theme of dot-com startups, the most successful of which would periodically be bought by Microsoft and eliminated from the game).

I am increasingly convinced that Settlers is secretly not a pleasant game. I actually find that there are relatively few instances in which everyone is in the game until the end, especially with four players.

So, it's a slogfest for someone, and, on top of that, no one can agree on what kind of game it is. First, the rules: do you show victory points immediately, turn them up one at a time like normal cards, or reveal them all at the end to snatch victory from the jaws of something-or-other. Most places outside of where i learned to play, people add to the game's problems by hiding resource cards, so that it's a card-counting game in addition to its other sins. And, most importantly, no one can agree on whether it's a fluffy game or a hard-nosed game, and, indeed, one of the best strategies for winning is to convince everyone that it's one while playing like it's the other.

So, i am dis-enamoured of Settlers. It's still fun, but i would argue that it's only fun if (a) no one in the game has ever played more than five times, or (b) everyone in the game has played more than five times against each other. I think monopoly has some of the same problems, but monopoly has the advantage that it was never a good game, so it's not such a big deal. :>)

Despite Wayman's note (i was in that game too. I was green, and the Welsh were exterminated, which is... slightly atypical), i actually really like Britannia as a game because the short-term goals are as much fun as winning. The victory condition is just who can rack up the most points while performing their short-term goals, so, even if your total is low, you can still keep trying for your short-term goals, and you keep getting more troops even if you squandered the previous ones by rolling badly.

Another great game is Iron Dragon: even if you're losing, you still get to draw with crayons.

I think the problem with Settlers is also the lure of the second game. You may have had a perfectly pleasant time playing the first game; perhaps you came close to winning. The trick is to stop there. The second time always seems to devolve into "playing to hose", getting even for the trade someone wouldn't make that theoretically would have turned the game around for you if only we rolled more 5s. I think that's another MFQ issue--Word-a-Rama seems to have a 4 round play time for us, long enough to warm up, have a good round or two and quit before you see "tomatillo" one more time. And the host of this blog will try and tell you that the secret of Monopoly's MFQ is to play "speed Monopoly"--don't slow down to think, keep those dice rolling. He's wrong--it makes a bad game slightly less long and drawn out. Perhaps it equalizes the playing field between those who think that way easily and those who never think that way if you can shout "All your cash!" but there are many many better games.

I didn't mean that I thought Britannia was itself a flawed game; I do love it. But that particular instance was the most extreme example of being totally out of it for a long time. Unless you count the six-player games Jyhad we played during high school, where on average one player is eliminated per hour. But after an hour or two of fun kibitzing by the early dead, they can go off and play another game and finish at around the same time, and everyone knows that's how it works going into the game, so it was never a problem.

Chaos's theory about when Settlers works is interesting; it certainly works well when the players are me, Joel, and Sarah, and better then than with other sets of players which includes me, perhaps largely because we've played literally hundreds together. (It's such a default activity for us that we actually once started a game after Sarah went into labor!) But I also think it works well for us because it's a much, much better game for three than four.

Oh, and I can add from experience that Monopoly doesn't improve if you play it cut-throat and keep meticulous statistics on probabilities of landing on each space. The summer I was in France, we had a set in the kitchen and kept a notebook of statistics on every game and an updated chart on probabilities. It was still rarely fun.

If nothing else, Settlers is a godsend because there are so few games that are any good for three players. But it's true that I've never enjoyed it as much as the first time I played it (and not merely because I won that time). In later games, I always felt like I was faced with the same decisions I had to make in previous games, and I got a little bored.

I mostly like Cranium, but the problem with it is that I enjoy some bits of it so much more than others. Like -- I don't want to answer the easy trivia questions, I just want to play with clay. That sort of thing. It is a good equalizer for people of different skill levels, but mostly I'd rather just play Pictionary (or charades, or Ricochet Robot, or...) with other people who are good at it. Fortunately, I do most of my game-playing at National Puzzlers' League events, when there's enough of a critical mass that it's generally not hard to find other people willing to play the sort of game you'd like to play.

Have I mentioned lately that Puerto Rico seems to me to be one of the most balanced games I've ever played? Different players can choose radically different approaches, make a few mistakes along the way, and still end up with everyone having a decent chance of winning at the end. I've only played a few times, but each time I've been impressed at how nicely a multitude of options balance each other.

Though I've never played with anyone really cut-throat. And I should note that I always like games better when I tend to win them fairly often, as has been true of Puerto Rico. :)

Re Scrabble: my problem with Scrabble is that I can't stop thinking of it as a wordgame. Which makes the non-wordgame parts of it really annoying to me. I'm much more interested in coming up with cool and pleasing words and making them interconnect than in knowing five hundred two-letter words that nobody but Scrabble players have ever used that will allow me to place a word next to another word and score big.

I think the last time I played Scrabble was with Michael some years back. (Hi, Michael!) Michael has the remarkable ability to both come up with amazingly cool words *and* play them on amazingly high-scoring spaces; I think he used all seven of his letters three or four times during that one game, and I think he ended up with about four times my score. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Fortunately, there are only 96 two-letter words in the U.S., and 121 in international competition :-)

Lisa hates it when I do that.

I think a critically important part of game design is figuring out how players will feel about losing. Is it the fault of the game, or the other players, or bad luck, or themselves? Will they want to play again, either immediately or later? While they're losing, is there a hope of redemption? Are there consolation prizes, or levels of losing?

Cribbage offers a chance to come back from a fairly hefty deficit, an opportunity to blame the cards when you lose (and partly credit your strategy when you win), skunks and double-skunks, and little ability to blame the other player for screwing you even if they consistently put cards you don't want into the kitty. All in a pretty simple game. It's a design to aspire to, imho.

The "find cool words" approach is my favorite for almost all word-finding games (Boggle, Scrabble, Anagrams, Syzygy, &c.). It's rarely a winning strategy, but then I'm much more interested in finding cool words than in winning.

The one time it can be a winning strategy is in Boggle, when there are at least two players using the traditional find-all-the-short-words-and-derived-forms approach--in which case the two traditional players mostly cancel each other out, and *everyone* ends up with a handful of cool words.

The one thing that tends to drive me nuts about many word games is that I have a descriptivist's notion of what is a word, with the result that I tend to have a lot of "what do you mean? of course that's a word!" moments, unless I'm playing with linguists or something.

Thinking about this, though, I think what bugs me about the "valid word" rules is not so much the arbitrariness of the definitions as the prescriptivism of them. If there were a word game that said that no valid words contained the letters b,e,g,h,o,r,s,u, or w--or alternately, that all words must contain a silent letter--I'd probably find it quite amusing.

I'll second the vote for cribbage as a fun game. Full disclosure though: I learned to count and add by playing cribbage, and I tend to win disproportionally often as a result--at this point, effective discard choices are almost entirely subconscious. So I may think it's more fun than other people do ;-)

I should learn how to play cribbage again, and not forget immediately this time.

Wayman, a theory: Settlers is a better game for three players because there's more room on the board, such that it's hard to become the person who simply doesn't have room to play enough settlements to win. Thus, the hoseage/fun-building-game tradeoff falls more clearly in the "fun building game" category, leading to less potential for suckage.

When i was younger, i liked to play socialist scrabble, i.e. "i could make a really nifty word if someone traded me an 'r'". But boggle is a better pure word game than scrabble, since you spend relatively more of your time looking at letters, and you have more letters to look at.

Socialist scrabble seems like a terrific example of MFQ at work. Not that I think everyone should play that way, of course, as it's inherent in the MFQ concept that you are talking about a specific group at a specific time, but still, it's a great idea.
As for three-player games, Guillotine works well, as does Fluxx; neither of them are particularly serious games, but they're entertaining. Royalty and Scrabble, for letters-and-words folk. And, of course, there's Word-O-Rama. But you're right, I don't know very many good three-person games, and the ones I know tend to be more social than strategic.
Of course, I like card games, so if there are two players, I default to gin, for three or four to hearts, and for five, six or seven to poker.


Ra and Carcassone work well for three, I've found. (Ra probably works better with four or five, though; and I've never played Carcassone with more than three.)

Hypothesis 1: Bidding games (Ra being a possible exception, but Bleeding Sherwood, El Grande, Condottiere, Europa, etc, all fit) work poorly with three (and better with more).

Hypothesis 2: Building games (Settlers, El Caballero, Carcassone, etc) work well with three (and worse with more).

Hypothesis 3: Race games (Formula De, Hase & Igel, etc) are best with as many players as possible.

Hypothesis 4: Economics games (Merchant of Venus, Outpost, etc) are best with four or five.

Hypothesis 5: Territory games (Advanced Civ, Age of Ren, Britannia) tend to work best with the maximum number of players that doesn't involve expansion rules. (Maybe Adv Civ is an exception, since it's an expansion of Civ, but it's almost its own game. Whereas the "rules for five" for Britannia are just awful.)

Aw, cheese, all the while I've been gathering thoughts and not having time to write them up, you people keep spinning more and more threads I want to pick up.

So forgetting all that and picking up at the end here, Wayman wrote:

Hypothesis 2: Building games (Settlers, El Caballero, Carcassone, etc) work well with three (and worse with more).

Niggling exception: Carcassone continues to work well with more than three players because of the non-zero-sum cooperative building. It's not perfect in that regard, but it's quite a bit more extensible than Settlers. I suppose you could say that Carcossone with a large number of players resolves into local mini-games between three factions, max: the majority claimant(s) of a feature, any minority claimant(s), and players with no claim on the feature.

What about Plaguo!, the game for one to 3,250,000 players?

OK, been holding that one back for a while and could no longer resist.


Hypothesis 4: Economics games (Merchant of Venus, Outpost, etc) are best with four or five.

Hypothesis 5: Territory games (Advanced Civ, Age of Ren, Britannia) tend to work best with the maximum number of players that doesn't involve expansion rules.

So, dealing with 5 first: war games are kind of a different category, because they are balanced on the backs of many rules. Thus, if they survive long enough to have replay value, it is because they have undergone significant amounts of testing of those many rules, and the testing has taken place with the number of people for whom the game was designed. Game balance is worse with any other number of players for the same reason you're more likely to find bugs in the error-handling code of complex computer programs --- it simply hasn't been looked at as much.

As for economics games: It seems like the distinction between territorial expansion games and economic games is that, in the former, your progress is constrained by other players, whereas, in the latter, it's constrained by the bank, and isn't really affected by the number of players. So, in Settlers, if you build that port, i can't (so more people leads to more competition), whereas in Outpost, we can each build as many newchem factories as we want.

Outpost improves with more players because it's a bidding game, not because it's an economic game. Bidding is one of those perfect market activities which fail with an insufficient number of participants --- it works better with more because people are less likely to "get away" with outrageous things and steal the game on the cheap.

I think the optimal point for economic games depends on the game, since the winner is whoever beats the bank fastest, so how satisfying that feels as a gaming experience largely depends on what the game is like otherwise.

Dang, too busy to really get into this, but: Two excellent three-player games are RoboRally and Titan.

For three players and card games, my family defaults to pinochle.

My experience has been that Puerto Rico is a good three-player game, but I don't know which of the mentioned categories it falls in.

Another excellent three-player card game is Oh Hell. It's another of those JoelSarah&me traditions. It's the only bidding/trick-taking card game I've found works very well with three; bridge, hearts, and spades don't seem to in my experience. I haven't played Pinochle enough to have an opinion (or enough to be certain of how to spell it).

V: query: Plaguo?

irilyth: IME, 3-player Titan is fun all the way up until the first elimination, after which point it is mostly tedious (and lonely for the eliminated player). Ron and Sam and I used to play it to that point and call the first eliminator the winner. Ron also invented some easy ways to shorten the game: starting with higher-tier creatures (2x troll, cyclops, lion, + 1x warbear, minotaur), blocking off some of the radial triangles of the board (leaving one for each player), and limiting each player to only 7 legion markers. Playing with all three of these modifications made for a fast-paced, entertaining game with any number of players.

Jed: I've played Puerto Rico with 3, 4, and 5 players, and each way seems to be a slightly different game (but quite enjoyable in its own way). I'd call it an economics game under Wayman's categories.

If PR is a little overwhelming for your gaming crowd, the simplified card game version, San Juan, is also fun and engaging while carrying a lighter burden of analysis.

Dan: I used to really like three-player seven-stack Titan, but eventually concluded that if the three players were good enough, the limit bent the game without actually speeding it up much, i.e. a good player can play fast with ten or eleven stacks too. I don't mind playing it, but I don't think it's essential. As to the elimination problem, just make sure everyone brings a book. :^)

Puerto Rico and Outpost both share the feature that they work with three players, but are very different than the five-player versions. (And Outpost with eight is also a lot different than Outpost with five.)

Three person games & cribbage:

Actually, you can play cribbage with three people and it works pretty well. There are two variants for how to deal the cards:

1. everyone gets five cards instead of six, a card is dealt directly to the crib, and everyone puts one card each into the crib, or
2. The dealer gets six cards and the other two get five; the dealer puts two cards in the crib and the others each put one.

The latter gives the dealer even more of an advantage than in the regular two person game; I prefer the former.

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