The Numbers Game
Ticket to Ride was my introduction to the genre of German-style board games, which you may also know as designer board games or Eurogames. There are a number of factors that differentiate Eurogames from traditional western games like Monopoly or Risk, such as the general lack of player elimination and an emphasis on strategy over luck. In particular, the thing that differentiates Eurogames to me is the concept of resource management. For instance, in Ticket to Ride, you’re tasked with managing your tickets, route cards and the unclaimed routes on the board in a way that gets you the most points. Some of my favourite games of this style besides the aforementioned include Power Grid, Last Will and Tokaido.
In general, I’ve grown pretty fond of this style of game. I like the fact that these games generally keep everyone involved throughout and how interesting it can be to manage your resources within the confines of each game’s economic system. When those economic systems are paired up with a great theme that makes sense with the actions you’re performing, the results can be spectacular. On the other hand, when the theme isn’t there and the core mechanics aren’t enjoyable enough on their own, these games devolve into the chore of managing spreadsheets.
The first time I truly experienced this phenomenon for myself was with Small World. Published by Days of Wonder, the same company that brought us Ticket to Ride, it promises players the opportunity to take control of fantastical armies as they battle rivals over a limited plot of land. Unfortunately, the game never truly gave me that sense of conflict.
Instead, it became a numbers game in which you move your guys around to score the most points and then get a new set of guys and move them around after the first set of guys reached their maximum point-gathering potential. Maybe more damning than the lack of any real combat, I didn’t find the economy to be all that interesting. Once you choose an army, there seemed to be a clear best path to scoring the most points, which you’d simply execute over the course of multiple turns. With mechanics that don’t mesh with the theme, and mechanics that aren’t particularly strong on their own, this one was disappointingly dull.
If you want to be reductive, you can say that every board game is a numbers game where you roll dice, play cards or move cardboard bits in order to succeed. However, I find that these actions become far more magical when there’s a clear context for why you’re doing what you’re doing. In Stone Age, players are managing a primitive society as they grow towards modernity. While this is very much a spreadsheet game in terms of the different resources you have to manage, the context behind your actions is clear. There’s a real an in-game reason for why you’d want to gather resources, create tools, hunt for food and make babies. When it comes to resource gathering, it’s super smart that dice are involved, as they’re used to simulate how some resource trips end up being more fruitful than others.
Having said that, the Stone Age experience breaks for me when it’s time to score points. With all of those resources you’ve gathered, you can build huts…and that’s about it. Not even different kinds of huts, but huts that all look exactly the same, but require different resources to make them. Ideally, the game would have different things I could spend my resources on that at least gave me the illusion of building a society rather than using the exact same hut icon, which basically reduces the end goal to a numbers game rather than a true sign of evolutionary progress. You can also use resources to purchase civilization cards, but they too primarily serve as an in-game benefit without making you feel like you’re building your society in a way that makes sense in real life. At the very least, give me different-looking huts to give me the sense that my resources are being used to create a village rather than the reality of me trading them in for more points.
Not every game needs a strong contextual hook or real life analogy. Blokus is just a game about placing blocks on a board and it’s awesome. Splendor tries – and fails horribly at – providing players with a reason for why you’re using gems to buy cards, and then using a combination of cards and gems to buy more cards. Despite that, the game is still excellent because the economy that holds it all together is enjoyable to explore. Even Ticket to Ride, a game I hold in the highest regard, makes no thematic sense whatsoever.
But what happens when you’re playing a Eurogame that has a weak theme and weak mechanics? Oftentimes, all you’re left with is a banal math exercise that the designer thought was rather clever but one that will cause your eyes to roll into the back of your head out of boredom. With the way that board games are moving now where many titles feature the best of both worlds, no one has time for games like that.