BEFORE WE START: I’m not going to pretend that this will mark the return of regular updates from NGD. As I said on my other blog, I have neither the need nor the inclination to post every week like I used to, so I’m just gonna post whenever I get the sudden urge to write a big thing like this. No empty promises this time. Here’s one post.
Board games have, for over a century, been commonly used for family nights. You know, the parents and the kids sit around the table, roll some dice, share some laughs, and the little one will probably end up flipping the table in the end? Fun for everyone.
But as Geek & Sundry’s well-received show TableTop aptly demonstrates, board games also have a lot of potential for use at geek parties. And with the internet being an invaluable tool for advertising and purchasing products, we’ve seen independent developers flourishing lately with all sorts of interesting and inventive games.
Last night was my friend’s birthday party, so some friends and I came to her house and played two board games: The Resistance and The Game Of Life. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of that first one.
This was my first time playing The Resistance; all I knew going in was that it paved the groundwork for the greatest TableTop episode ever:
(Seriously, if you have a spare half hour, watch that episode. It’s solid gold.)
So, here’s the gist of The Resistance. You’re all part of a resistance against an evil authority figure, but the catch is that a small number of you are actually spies from the government sent in to sabotage the Resistance’s plan. (In the TableTop episode there were two spies out of five players. In our game there were three spies out of eight players.) The spies are chosen randomly by drawing cards and no identities are revealed. At the start, the rest of the players have to keep their eyes shut while the spies get to see who they all are. Then they shut their eyes, everyone opens their eyes, and the game begins.
Each round one player is deemed captain, rotating in clockwise order, and that player chooses who will go on the mission. Here, let me show you this:
See that board taking up the bottom left of the picture? That board shows each of the five missions that play out during the course of a game. The number on each one indicates how many players have to go. So, three players have to go on the first mission, four on the second, etc. Once those people are chosen, all players have to vote on whether to approve the mission or reject it. If the majority votes on approving, the mission goes on; if it’s rejected, the mission is cancelled, the captain’s chair moves to the next player, and that person gets to pick for the mission.
Once it’s approved, each player on the mission gets a Pass card and a Fail card. The Resistance members have to choose pass, and there’s no reason for them to choose otherwise anyway. The spies can choose either to pass or fail. And the real kicker: other than the fourth round, all it takes is one Fail card for the mission to bomb.
If three missions succeed, the Resistance wins. If three missions fail, the spies win.
Let me give you a rundown of how our game played out. Bear in mind that to tell this story properly, I have to explain how the game works. If that seems like it’d be boring to read, skip to the picture of the gorilla and the shark.
Person F was the first captain. She picked herself, me, and C. Everyone approved, and the cards were put down, shuffled and revealed. One of them was a fail. First mission failed! At least one of us three was a spy! I told them I wasn’t a spy, but they didn’t listen to me. Of course, none of us listened to C or F when they claimed they weren’t spies. I squinted at C and came to the conclusion that she was totally a spy because she made a weird face. I told her this, and she made more weird faces at me.
G was second captain. He picked himself, D, A, and E. We all approved, and this time two of the cards were Fail! Two failures in a row! That meant the Resistance had to succeed all three other missions in order to win. I thought we were screwed right then and there.
But then A pointed out that this gave us a lot of information. By playing so aggressively, they showed that all three spies have been in a mission so far — this meant we knew that B was absolutely not a spy. This also meant that only one person out of F, C and I were spies. I had to use this knowledge as captain of the third mission.
I picked myself, since clearly I’m not a spy, I mean come on, I keep telling you I’m not a spy! I also picked A; since he was pointing out so much useful information about who may or may not be a spy, I figured he couldn’t possibly be one of them. I picked B, because as previously established, he was 100% trustworthy. As for the last one… I had to pick E as an estimated guess based on body language. He just didn’t seem like he had anything to hide.
We approved the mission, played our cards, and… Four successes. Okay, phew. We absolutely know now that all four of us are legitimate Resistance members; after all, if one of us was a spy, he’d have just played the Fail card and ended the game right there.
The fourth mission, as I mentioned earlier, requires two fail cards in order to bomb. It was A’s turn, and he obviously picked the four of us guaranteed non-traitors. He had to pick one more. After a moment of thinking, I pointed out that we knew for a fact G and D were spies; out of the four from Mission 2, we already established A and E as non-spies. So he picked Person C — again, estimated guess. Not that it mattered a whole lot; we were guaranteed to win that round because four of us were clean.
Approvals all around, and five success cards played.
A: “Okay, so now we know who’s good. Just pick the same people again!”
Me: “No, no, no! She might have just played a success card to get on our good side so we’d pick her to make us fail this round!”
A: “Oh, shit. You’re right. She might be a spy…”
C: “I’m not a spy, stop calling me a spy!”
It all boiled down to this: C or F. One of the two was a spy, and B had to figure out which one.
Me: “I think it’s C. She’s been making weird faces!”
C: “YOUR FACE IS WEIRD!”
Me: “It’s clearly her. I mean, look at F, she just looks all normal.”
A: “Actually, F has been sitting quietly in her chair trying not to attract attention this whole time…”
Me: “No, it- actually, you’re right.”
A: “I think it’s her.”
Me: “It’s totally her.”
Me: “Pick C! She’s not the spy!”
C: “I KNOW! THAT’S WHAT I SAID!”
B picked himself, me, A, E, and C.
Cards passed down…
Successes across the board!
We came to the conclusion afterward that we won mostly because of how aggressively the spies played early on. It gave us way more information than they intended.
So I hope this has given you an idea of why I had an absolute blast with The Resistance. By the standards of most board games it has very simple mechanics, but those mechanics are finely tuned and calculated to make the perfect storm of teamwork, uncertainty, suspicion, and deception. Person A and I put on our thinking hats and analyzed the situation from top to bottom and that gave us a huge upperhand, but it didn’t make us win outright — we still had to observe how each player was acting and come to conclusions based on subtle cues.
Also: Person C was the Birthday Girl. And I accused her of being a spy almost the entire game. Yeah, she was pissed about that.
Anyway, after that we played The Game Of Life.
I won’t go into great detail explaining the systems underneath The Game Of Life (or LIFE, as it’s come to be known), since it’s far too complicated and you’ve probably already played it anyway. The short version is, you randomly draw a “career” card and a “salary” card and then take turns spinning a wheel to determine how many spaces you move each turn. The salary cards determine how much money you’ll get at each regular pay-day space, and they vary from $20,000 to $100,000 — considering the winner is the person to accumulate the most money by the end, whoever gets the $100,000 card is going to have a huge advantage, simply because of luck.
Then again, almost everything else in the game is based on luck as well.
Most of the game you just spin the wheel, move your piece and either gain money or lose money based on the tile you land on. There are rare occasions in which you get to choose which direction you move on a brief branching path, but other than that, you’re just spinning and hoping for the best. There are many games that factor in dice-rolls or other forms of randomness to add uncertainty, but these games usually at least involve the player in some way. In LIFE there’s practically no strategy, skill or thought involved at all. After a certain point I almost felt like letting Person A spin the wheel for me on my turns, since I clearly wasn’t an important factor in whether I would win or lose.
I don’t know if this is intentional or not. It’s been said by many that Monopoly was designed specifically to be frustrating to play because it was supposed to be a biting commentary on unrestrained capitalism. Maybe this game is a commentary on how random and luck-based real life is? If so, it does a great job of conveying how much life sucks. I’ve also heard the excuse that the game is “meant for kids,” and that excuse I don’t buy, because I remember hating loss based on random chance even when I was little. If I lose, I want to know it was my fault and why so I can work on it in my next attempt.
Between the two games we played, I can’t see how LIFE could be construed in any way as better. As I said earlier, The Resistance is simple, but every mechanic, every aspect of it exists for a specific and important reason. From the number of players per mission to the voting system to the two-fail requirement on mission four, it’s all carefully designed around a gradually increasing sense of tension that almost always raises to a thrilling finale. LIFE, on the other hand, is a giant pile of random elements that either give or take points for no discernible reason other than because you spun the thing and a thing happened.
We talked about each game as we were playing through LIFE, since we clearly didn’t have anything to talk about regarding what was happening in the present moment. I pointed out how much less fun I was having than when I was playing Resistance, but Birthday Girl said the opposite; it turns out while Mr. A and I were analyzing the situation and weighing options, C was getting bored of the talking and just wanted to go on with the game. We pointed out that talking and figuring it out is the whole point of The Resistance, and she essentially responded with, (paraphrased) “Well, yeah, but I was getting bored. I just wanted to hurry up and play it, you know?” Person F expressed similar feelings.
I suppose that while The Resistance is undoubtedly a triumph of minimalist game design, it’s also true that not everybody is an over-analyzing, metagaming nerd like me. I still think that LIFE is an over-bloated mess, and I won’t be bringing it to the table if/when I’m a father, but I can acknowledge that it has its appeal for some people.
Different people play games for different reasons.