I was sitting at Snakes and Lagers a couple of days ago playing a game of Revolution! – which, it turns out, is not very good at all: it has a serious runaway leader problem in that, if you “win” a round of bidding in the right way, you are more likely to “win” the next round. (And I say this as the person who won the game handily.)
Afterwards, the general agreement around the table was that the game was not very fun, but one player explained that this was all right, because he would rather play five or six games in a night rather than one long one. This is a fairly common sentiment among boardgamers, especially as we get older what with the babies and the adult responsibilities and all: if you’re going to have a game night, better to spend it playing a variety of things rather than one big long thing.
I don’t really agree. This is not to say that I don’t like short games; there are plenty of short games that I really like, and over the last year or two in particular mini-game design has really gone to a new level with games like One Night Werewolf and Mascarade and Coup and Love Letter and Council of Verona and… well, I could go on at length. There are lots of fun short games out there.
But short games are like appetizers. They are a wonderful little prelude (or an after, if you prefer the metaphor to be a cheese plate or something, bear with me). But if all you play is short games, then you are effectively doing the gaming equivalent of a tapas restaurant. And tapas restaurants are all terrible.
Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of Bruxelle 1893. It’s a remarkable design as Euros go – a tense combination of bidding and worker placement and area control and point accumulation all at once, with a lot of interaction and a lot of variable strategy. It also takes about 30 minutes per player and plays best with four, so as a game it tops out at two to two and a half hours, which puts it at the upper end of what most gamers are willing to play on a regular basis.
But here’s the thing: that play length is what allows for individual plays of the game to have their own narrative, which I find to be more and more important to me as time goes on. I don’t just want to interact with people, I want to create my own story through the game. That story doesn’t have to be exclusively driven by the game’s internal narrative, mind you – that’s a reason a lot of people like “Ameritrash” games, and while it’s fun for me to make Warhammer references when I’m playing Chaos In The Old World, the narratives I enjoy more are “I dominate the entire game and then have to fend off a three-person alliance in the last turn” or “I do my best to come from behind but fall just short.” Those narratives are universal, which is why they can come from Euros or Ameritrash games or abstracts or what have you. That’s what I love about board games.
It’s one of the reasons I own every expansion for Battlestar Galactica, a game that almost always takes longer than three hours; it’s why I own six different 18XX games, the quickest of which starts at three hours as well; it’s why I make a point to play Virgin Queen twice a year even though a full game of it takes anywhere from eight to ten hours. (Almost invariably after those games I sit down and have a beer with people who were playing other things and we just swap game stories.) You get out what you put in.