I can’t think of a better way to start off the new year than to answer a few mailbag questions from our wonderful readers.
If you’re only going to write one mailbag every four years, maybe we need to appoint a new Mailbag Postmaster General.
Where have you been and when are you going to write again? If an angry crowd of your readers somewhere I’ll be happy to mail them my torch and pitchfork in solidarity.
If I were a betting man and I had to choose who would finish writing something next between George R.R. Martin, James Joyce, and you, I would bet on the late, great James Joyce. I’d also bet on GRRM in a foot race.
- Sammy R. (Kansas City, MO)
What are the odds that you publish your game before Jame’s Cameron starts releasing his Avatar sequels? Remember those? We hear a one sentence update about them every 2 or 3 years.
Games Precipice: Hmmm… the mailbag seems to be exactly where we left it.
It has been too long but we are back! We’ve been actively playtesting and developing several games and as I write this we’re in the middle of the artwork process on our long-awaited game design Unification of China. I’m extremely excited for us to reveal some of the artwork in the coming months and we’ll finally be publishing one of our game designs that inspired our journey down the game design rabbit hole (this website).
But first, let’s answer your questions. When we last left off we were thinking about Legacy games and we got plenty of responses that I’ve organized into “hot takes” and “cold takes”. It should make sense as we go, so let’s jump right in.
The [Hot Takes] Legacy Mailbag
[Take #1] Pandemic Legacy: Season One is the high-water mark of legacy games.
GP: What a place to begin. A good hot take is intentionally provocative and I like the decisiveness here and I also think the idea has some merit.
It’s hard to argue with everything that has been said about Pandemic Legacy: Season One (a.k.a “PL:S1”); it’s the people pleaser of legacy games. If you like base Pandemic, you will almost certainly like PL:S1. If you don’t, you know to stay away.
If PL:S1 means we’ve already seen the best legacy games have to offer it’d be a terrible shame, but what we’re seeing in the earliest attempts at legacy is that enthusiasm is overcoming development time. For everything it did wrong, Seafall had some great ideas and despite what it seemed to get right, Charterstone never took any risks, narratively or otherwise. PL:S1 nailed the sweet spot of a story arc with emotional highs and lows, evolving mechanics that re-energized the session and it almost always left players with an intuitive grasp on the situation.
While I’ve personally enjoyed other legacy games more, this is a solid hot take; somewhat controversial, but there is at least some legitimacy to the claim. I don’t think we’ll see a legacy game get as much widespread universal acclaim as this one and if it turns out to be the peak of legacy for many people, it’s still a pretty high peak.
[Take #2] Legacy games are the planned obsolescence approach to tabletop games.
- Caleb P. (Rancho Cucamonga, CA)
GP: This is one of those ideas that makes a lot of sense if you just don’t think about it. I love how strong it sounds as a statement, but I just don’t think it has any truth behind it.
Planned obsolescence is production of consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and need replacement. But it’s not the right term nor the right sentiment. Legacy games do their job, its just their intention is trading expendability for the sake of a greater narrative. This blog is always advocating for games to have a sense of stakes and the permanence and actual repercussions to decisions is easily the best attribute of legacy mechanisms. Obsessing over the end of an experience before it has even begun is seeing the forest for the trees.
Part of the skepticism surrounding legacy games comes from an unsubstantiated theory that it drives additional sales based on a gimmick of destructive elements. But we sound like conspiracy theorists if we really suggest “Big Cardboard” is behind a master plan to sell more games when legacy titles are a niche category of a still niche segment of the hobby. A new edition of a popular game with updated artwork and components will generate more sales out of an existing base of game owners than legacy games generate in repeat sales.
While I’ve generally gotten my fill after a full campaign of a legacy game like Betrayal Legacy or Clank! Legacy and don’t feel the need to play it afterward, I do appreciate that others might enjoy revisiting their unique copy post-campaign and publishers have made great efforts to make that an enduring feature. Maybe there is some promising evidence to support this position, but overall, the trail on this particular take is very cold.
[Take #3] SeaFall was an essential step for legacy games and the most ambitious legacy game to date.
GP: I can’t remember another game that has received as much backlash as SeaFall. For full disclosure my game group only made it 7 games into SeaFall before our group called it quits, but I liked some of what I saw and I think plenty of ideas in SeaFall held water even if that meant it was a sinking ship on its maiden voyage.
Seafall was nothing if not ambitious, and I think that deserves a lot of credit. It wasn’t attached to an existing board game franchise and was a major foray into competitive legacy games. That combination is dangerous territory since players are learning a new system and that system has a long memory bank when those players make critical mistakes.
But we do tend to learn more from where games fail than where they succeed. SeaFall had two fatal flaws I can mention without spoiling anything. The first was that the prologue and first game or two really have very few interesting legacy elements occurring. It picks up noticeably from there but legacy games really have to hit a nice tempo to revealing new things and the first stretch of games really felt like the experience had sprung a leak on the maiden voyage.
In many ways Charterstone is a great contrast for SeaFall because it steered the legacy experience too far in the other direction. Charterstone makes unlocking new things and revealing new information the central namesake mechanism that happens several times during each game. Players are incentivized to score by opening new boxes of goodies, but some of those goodies are set aside for the following game. As a result, you learn about a whole bunch of interesting things you might want to add into your strategy next game, but it can really overshadow the game you’re in the middle of playing.
The second fatal flaw for SeaFall was something that nearly all the competitive legacy games I’ve played struggle with: how many things should a player be able to carryover from one game to the next?
I constantly felt like SeaFall didn’t let you bring nearly enough over between games. I remember very late into one game another player had triggered the end and we were playing out the very last turn. I was within striking distance and I made a last ditch effort to score by exploring. I ended up finding a ridiculously large pile of gold – more than I could spend in even a few turns – but the problem was that it was the end of my last turn I could neither use any of it to improve my current score, nor could I keep anything for the following session. It was a total treasure tease.
I had multiple games in a row end this way in SeaFall and I think everyone in my group probably had it happen at least once which leads to a lot of “feels bad” moments of unlocking something really exciting and getting exactly zero benefit from it.
Again, Charterstone I think went too far the other way because it is full of simple and light engine-building mechanisms in a light worker placement game. Because of its decidedly cookie cutter design, some objects in Charterstone are going to have better synergy together and if a player can group those together they can snowball into a nearly unstoppable avalanche. If you find a good strategy engine in Charterstone, you can almost certainly bring all the essential pieces over to the next game and if it is really good, you never need to even consider keeping something else instead.
[Take #4] Legacy games are restoring the golden age of board gaming because they force the Cult of the New crowd to play a game more than three times before moving on.
GP: My favorite thing in legacy games like The King’s Dilemma and The Rise of Queensdale is the shared experience of the campaign and how the story and/or components are gradually shaped by everyone involved. It’s difficult to review them in a way of avoiding spoilers while providing substance and recommending a legacy game you’ve played to someone else feels a lot like telling a person they should watch your favorite TV show when you’re really asking them to watch 12 seasons of something they may not even like. “Oh you just have to force yourself to get through the first four seasons, it gets really good around season nine.”
The problem is we’re still itching to talk about legacy games. It’s wonderful to have a group of people going through the campaign with you to talk about it with, but you may still be reticent to share your thoughts and observations during the game for fear of divulging your strategy. Even post-campaign, spoilers can be practically unavoidable in conversation and online as unfortunately I was aware of the first half of Pandemic Legacy: Season One before I ever got to experience my own campaign of it.
I find this take wildly entertaining and it certainly brings the heat at the current gaming landscape, but I think its too much of a presumptive opinion to push into hot take territory.
[Take #5] A focus on five or more players is a detrimental design goal for legacy games.
GP: It makes sense. The more people you have, the greater the collective commitment, and if the game isn’t jiving with someone it’s going to turn into a chore for everyone. With five people everything gets more needlessly complicated; scheduling the next session, getting everyone on the same page, buying a fifth embroidered cult robe for the blood oath ceremony of committing to a legacy game, keeping everyone involved and interested. Ya know, the usual stuff.
This take is going against the grain of what publishers are looking for in games right now; wider player counts, broader appeal. The most important player count a game should support is at two players, then four players, then probably five players but that is quickly being surpassed by solo modes.
I played Pandemic Legacy: Season One and Season Two with my wife at two players (two characters each) and I can’t believe there hasn’t been a giant push specifically for two player legacy games. Some publisher could pump out a whole line of legacy games aimed at two people who play together often and could actually finish it without 8 months of scheduling conflicts in the middle of the campaign.
[Take #6] A legacy game is the toughest task to design right now.
- Kyle C. (Indianapolis, IN)
GP: I’ve heard that outside of Rob Daviau and his co-designers, once you design a legacy game you never want to design another one again.
It’s hard to imagine wanting to design a legacy game if we really step back and look at it; the process seems to be endlessly demanding, the audience expectations seem sky high and if you manage to get everything right the realistic upside is a satisfied group of gamers who will quickly move on to other games anyway. But I don’t think a legacy game is the most daunting design task ever conceived and there are undoubtedly people out there working on bigger and more lofty game designs.
I’m going to mark this one as a cold take but I do think this is as close as we’ll get to looking at legacy games as a whole and what needs to exist for them to succeed:
- Time Commitment: One things legacy games did figure out pretty early was campaign length. Players need some sense of the commitment level going in and saying it is 12-24 games is a good way to keep the suspense, while also not letting players think they’re wrapping up the campaign only to find Act Two begins when you open Box 7.
- A Strong Base Game: One problem that can occur is when the the fun Christmas Morning-like reveal of new and interesting things in boxes and envelopes can’t overcome a dull base game. The base game or prologue should be sufficiently interesting on its own and ideally it would be a great game without any legacy elements.
- A Game of Secrets: Why not? Give players a secret that will either be revealed to the group later, or give them a chance to speculate about what it might mean for the future of the campaign. The Rise of Queensdale has a way players can really look around for hints that let the mind wander as to where the campaign is going and The King’s Dilemma assigns each house an objective they can be watching out for.
Well, that’s it for this mailbag… wait a second, here are a few more.
Over the last few months I’ve been playing through the Jackbox Party Packs with friends remotely and I’m curious if you’ve tried them and what were your favorites?
GP: Short Answer: I really enjoy the Trivia Murder Party games because they’ve got such a good trivia format that keeps everyone involved even after they’ve been “eliminated”. I also really think Guesspionage is a creative take on a familiar idea and any of the Fibbage versions are instant crowd pleasers.
Long Answer: We’ve been kicking around new article ideas for 2021 and Austin’s email got us spending way too much time re-discovering Jackbox Games. One topic we’re currently working on is our complete rankings of every game in the party packs, expect to see that sometime in the near future.
[Editor’s Note: The short answer and long answer came out to the exact same number of words.]
So far I’ve come up with the name, but I’m trying to work out exactly what its purpose would be. I humbly submit to you for a future mailbag, the Rob Reiner Knizia Award.
GP: Oh this is exciting, I’ve never been the custodian for an award before. How do awards ceremonies get established? How did Nicholas Cage win an Oscar? I have so many questions.
Rob Reiner, an American film director responsible for beloved classic movies like Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride, and Reiner Knizia, a prolific German tabletop game designer behind many of the modern classics of the last thirty years is a great combination.
I shared this email with Matt and here are two more we came up with:
- The Aaron Donald X. Vacarrino Award for Game-Changing Impact:
- Aaron Donald might be the most dominant player ever at his position in professional American football. He is a complete anomaly as a Defensive Tackle, won Two Defensive MVP awards in a short period of time and he constantly disrupts the opponent’s offense on the field.
- Donald X. Vaccarino won two Spiel des Jahres in a short period of time for his work on Kingdom Builder and Dominion. Dominion, of course, is still a defining innovation of the last twenty years as it changed the direction of modern tabletop games and is still a dominant force among deck builders. Also, Donald X. racked up 20.5 quarterback sacks last season.
- The Little Richard Garfield Award for Career Longevity:
- Little Richard Penniman’s musical career spanned more than six decades as the Architect of Rock & Roll. He shattered cultural barriers, blended musical genres and influenced many of the musical icons that would follow in his footsteps. He was on of the ten original inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He was tremendous loss to the world of music in 2020 as he passed away due to bone cancer.
- Richard Garfield is responsible for some of the most beloved games of the last thirty years like RoboRally, Netrunner and King of Tokyo and as he is an inductee of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame and Magic: The Gathering is in the National Toy Hall of Fame. His work will be enjoyed by many generations to come.
I’m working on a game about […] I’ve been reading your blog about game design and it has been a big influence. Do you playtest games for others?
GP: One of the bright spots we’ve had over the last year was that we’ve worked through a backlog of game designs people have asked us to take a look at. We started this blog because we love game design and the community that comes with it and if you’ve somehow made it this far into our ridiculous mailbag, you’re certainly part of our community. If you have a game design you’d like us to playtest and offer feedback on, send an email to us (Mailbag “at” GamesPrecipice.com) with the subject line “Mailbag 2021 Playtest” with a few details:
- A brief description of the game design you’re working on. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just give us an idea about what we can expect to play.
- How can we playtest it? Tabletop Simulator, Tabletopia, Print n’ Play, etc.
We can’t always get to everyone’s game, as we’re also designing and writing ourselves, but we do our best and we love hearing from our readers even if they’ve got an incredibly special project we can’t really offer our expertise on. If we are able to playtest your game there we don’t charge anything, but we ask game designers to make a small donation to a charitable organization of their choice.
That’s it, that’s the mailbag for this time.
If you have a fun or interesting question we can answer, send it our way (Mailbag “at” GamesPrecipice.com) and we’ll try to include it in the next mailbag sometime in the next three to thirty years.
Oh yes, one more thing. We haven’t done this in a while, so let’s finish with what Matt and I have enjoyed the most these last few years:
1. Pandemic Legacy: Season One is still a great memory nearly four years later. My only real complaint was that it felt extremely linear at times and the game pushed you toward the finish line whether you were ready for it or not.
2. Great Western Trail was a huge success for tabletop game design because it beautifully melds a trio of diverse strategies into one enjoyable ride. I’ve since played the expansion which I also enjoy, but the original is full experience by itself and that should be celebrated.
3. Power Grid: The Card Game was a massive surprise for me. I’ve been fairly cynical of derivative spinoff games but I like that this one gets rid of the piece of the original Power Grid I enjoy the least – building your network on the map. I’ve always liked Power Grid but I don’t always love how long it takes to play and now I can enjoy the spirit of Power Grid with just about anyone in an hour or less.
1. Star Wars: Rebellion. This is not a game you want to play unless you can devote a whole day to it, but I was impressed with how much I felt like I was in the Star Wars universe and how epic and galaxy-spanning it managed to feel. Like a sci-fi Twilight Struggle, I was still thinking about this game and all of its intricacies for months after I played it the first time. A new mainstay in the BoardGameGeek top 10 for good reason.
2. Between Two Cities. The 7 Wonders comparisons are easy and obvious, but Between Two Cities adds its own spin with an innovative and possibly unique semi-competitive element. The drafting implications are fascinating in that sometimes you’re trying to steal tiles from the person next to you, and sometimes you’re leaving them in the draft hoping your neighbor plays them on your shared city.
3. Illimat. This card game is nowhere near as idiosyncratic as you might think coming from the band the Decemberists and a designer who’s worked for Wizards of the Coast. It’s a trick-taking game whose theme evokes the 19th century to go along with its 19th century mechanics, but has enough modern flair with common elements ranging from Fluxx to Keyflower that I suspect there’s a lot more to this one than meets the eye at first.
1. The Rise of Queensdale is a solid game in its own right but its greatest strength is how it handles the campaign aspect of a legacy game. Players can take calculated risks toward where they think the campaign is going. The game also doesn’t drag because multiple players can make progress in each session and it bridges all the gaps by delivering interesting mini-games along the way.
2. Coimbra is one of the very few games that I bought almost immediately after playing it and after several more plays I was basically done with it unless it ever receives an expansion. Its a good game but I don’t think it has the same staying power as other games I first played in 2018 like Gaia Project and Teotihuacan. A revised list in 2021 would look different, but this ranking is was where I stood at the end of 2018.
3. Pandemic Legacy: Season Two was even better than Season One in my opinion. While PLS1 narrows the focus of the world over time, PLS2 expands the mysterious world of Pandemic in terms of story, and that is a more interesting dynamic for a legacy game.
1. Scythe: I’m fascinated by this steampunk-Slavic take on Terra Mystica with a bit of narrative storytelling mixed in. I’m a little late to the party on this one, but I’m almost glad that I missed the initial cycle of hype because this is a really great game on its own merits that I’m really excited to dig into further.
2. Great Western Trail: The “builder” genre is nothing new, but it keeps finding new ways to innovate. Great Western Trail feels familiar yet new, and the geographical inaccuracies introduced by designers who have obviously never been to the American West only add to the charm.
3. Troika: From the makers of Deep Sea Adventure come a quick, colorful marriage of rummy and press-your-luck. The design is sharp, clean, and appropriately space-age. It’s not a dense gamer-y Euro, but it’s easily portable and comprehensible to a wide range of players.
1. Clans of Caledonia is one of those games that as a designer I wish I played earlier because it is just so interesting and is probably my favorite among the small group of games that have been heavily inspired by Terra Mystica.
2. Sidereal Confluence: Maybe the most imaginative game with the least appealing title I’ve ever played. I love a negotiation game that really rewards the hustle and this game definitely rewards people who can step outside their comfort zone and work the table to get deals done.
3. Men At Work is one of those games that is more fun than it has any right to be. It’s a modern successor in the Jenga-style of dexterity game and at times it can be even more fun to watch than play.
1. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine is a a breath of fresh oxygen for both trick-taking games and cooperative games. I particularly love the missions that deal with limiting communication to specific responses or hand gestures as it is a really wonderful way to see how a group adapts to a common problem with incomplete information.
2. The King’s Dilemma was a bright spot this year and I really enjoyed the ride of a story-driven legacy game. I read raving reviews that mentioned the end of the campaign as amazing but I felt the journey was more of the highlight than the destination.
3. Brass: Birmingham revisits to an already interesting system and is probably more forgiving which is a welcome change when introducing Brass to new players. I’m not sure which version I prefer, but I like that both Lancashire and Birmingham exist.
1. King’s Dilemma. A rare legacy game that I had the opportunity to play through from start to finish with a consistent group of people. This is not a Euro-style game in the tradition of Uwe Rosenberg and Stefan Feld, and you might be disappointed if you start playing it thinking that’s what you’re going to get. The balance isn’t perfect, new mechanics show up out of nowhere in the endgame, and some players are going to have their personal incentives better aligned with the goals of the kingdom than others. But this is a game you play for the narrative experience and the maneuvering rather than because you must win it, and the truly devastating dilemmas you have to resolve on behalf of the realm will stick with you for a while.
2. The Crew. This is a fun collaborative take on classic trick-taking mechanics: think Hearts meets Hanabi. The “mission” structure gives you the flexibility to play how you’d like–perhaps even treating it as a legacy game if you want to get a regular Crew together–and should allow for extensive expansion and variations on the theme.
3. Terraforming Mars. It’s been on my radar for a while, but I’ve only recently been able to sink my teeth into this one, and it lived up to the hype. Remarkably clever takes on set collection and resource management track technologies that feel progressively more advanced, and there are enough viable strategies to keep hardcore gamers occupied for a long time.