Planet in sight. Preparing for arrival…

Terraforming Mars is not a game that a novice board gamer can easily teach themselves…unless they get the digital version. My husband and I blithely attempted to play the physical board game, thinking that we’d just read the rules then play. [Insert slightly hysterical laughter] Instead we spent a frustrating day googling and attempting to play, and after many hours—and with a very long list of questions still unanswered—we gave up. I laid the game out a number of times after that, watched videos, and attempted to get some grasp of the basics. Inevitably I’d draw a card that raised some question for which there didn’t seem to be any answer available. Then I’d feel a momentary flash of rage for every experienced reviewer who scarcely spent any time on the cards because they were so “simple”, “easy to understand”, and “obvious”. I kind of wanted to slap them. But mostly I felt this sort of sinking despair. I really, really, really wanted to like this game, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to play it, or enjoy what little I did figure out. There were so many things to keep track of—and to do—that playing the game felt more like a chore than something that would ever be fun. (Six resources which you must track changing amounts of both production and amount available for every generation, terraform rating, generations, oceans, oxygen, temperature, victory points—which don’t actually assure you of victory—and I-don’t-know-how-many tags on cards which sometimes need to match up with requirements, and sometimes do other things, plus special actions that are triggered by blue cards, as well as all the other miscellaneous iconography and symbols on cards, and the conversion of resources to tiles which must be placed according to both the layout on the board and the tile placement rules.) To say the game is complex is something of an understatement. If one doesn’t have a lot of experience with contemporary board games and the style of game often called a “eurogame”, then it’s bewildering. Neither my husband nor I had ever seen anything even remotely like this. Even if we weren’t in the pandemic lockdown, we didn’t know anyone who knew how to play, so there was no chance of anyone being able to walk us through it and answer individual questions. It was over our heads and likely to remain so.

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So when the digital version turned up on sale for half-price on Steam I hesitated. On one hand, I’d had good luck teaching myself a simpler digital board game on Steam, but on the other hand, it seemed a bit like throwing good money after bad, as the saying goes. I felt like this was both my last and only hope to learn the game…and gameplay seemed like it was so laborious and overwrought that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it even if I learned how to play. But I got the digital version anyway. I had to try. The tutorial was well-done and reiterated what I’d already dimly grasped, as well as the ten million other things I needed to learn. I wondered if I would be able to remember everything.

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I needn’t have worried. The digital board game is in many ways everything the physical board game is not. It’s easy to play, easy to understand, and gameplay is super-smooth and enjoyable. Why the big difference? It’s baked right into the whole idea of making the game digital. All of the things that seem like insurmountable obstacles to a novice board gamer when they look at the sprawling bits of the game spread out all over the dining room table are things that digital games excel at handling. Both production of resources and amount of each resource is automatically tracked and laid out simply. Ditto for all those actions on the blue cards. It tells you how many you have, and which you can use. It shows you where you can place tiles. You can even look at your opponent’s resources, just as you can in a physical game. There’s no figuring out if a play is legal, or accidentally playing a card that you can’t yet play. The game will not prevent you from making stupid mistakes in strategy or gameplay, but it will prevent you from accidentally doing something you aren’t allowed to do. I learned how to play the game by playing it. I picked it up surprisingly fast, within maybe two dozen games. (Your mileage may vary; I’m a novice gamer.) That sounds like a lot if you’re thinking about bringing a physical board game to the table, setting it up, then putting it away, and doing that weekly or maybe twice a week, especially if you’re thinking about spending whole afternoons playing with a gaming group. That many games would take a lot of time on the calendar. But that’s another way that learning the game digitally really shines. There’s no setup. You can start a game and quit and the game will be saved, so you can literally play almost anytime. The AI plays fast; it’s not going to spend minutes pondering its next move the way a human would. My first game against the easiest AI lasted about an hour—and that was with me dithering over what I should do next. Also, there’s no reason you should finish every game if you’re just playing to learn; you can forfeit a game at any time or forfeit a saved game. I said two dozen games…I had already won a couple of games by then even though there were still strategic things I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of yet. Play 2-3 games in a row—and take it from me, that’s very easy to do—and you’ll know everything you need to know in a matter of days, add another week of obsessive play and you’ll be racking up wins more often than not! The digital version of Terraforming Mars is probably the fastest way to learn the game, and it works great even for the totally clueless!

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There are three levels of AI one can play against, and you can add AIs and human players besides yourself if you want to play with other people in your household, and there are online games against real people, too. Playing against an AI isn’t the same as playing against real people, but it serves an excellent purpose for learning the game. You are playing with an experienced player. You can observe how they use certain cards, and if you don’t understand exactly what a particular card does, well, just try it and see. If I misunderstood what a card did playing against my husband, who knew no more about the game than I did, then the two of us might be making all kinds of illegal plays without ever being the wiser. Playing against the AI, one can learn how things are actually supposed to work. It was utterly painless to learn and more than a little addictive. There’s a number of variations besides just mixing it up with AIs; there’s a solo version which is a very different experience than playing solo against an AI. You must win in 14 generations against a “neutral player” who passes each turn. You also have all the other options of the board game. You can play as a Beginner Corporation or choose one of two randomly chosen corporations. You can choose to play a standard game or use corporate era rules and cards. You can also turn on the draft variation.

I can’t speak for the digital versions on other platforms but there are achievements on Steam and I’ve gotten them all except the one for winning 10 online games. I haven’t yet played against people yet. (I keep hearing Han Solo in my head saying “Good against remotes is one thing…Good against the living, that’s something else.”) There are both Android and Apple apps if you’re not on Steam. Neither the apps, nor the game on Steam are free. Cheaper than most video games or board games, but some may balk at the price. I wish there was some basic version (maybe Beginner Corporation only, no Corporate Era, no solo version, no draft variation, or higher level AIs) which people could play for free because this is such an excellent way to learn this great game that it would be beneficial for gaming groups to be able to have players who were unfamiliar with the game learn it via the app/digital game before introducing it to the table at a game night. The learning curve for the physical board game might not be that steep for an experienced gamer, but everyone is a novice gamer when they first start playing board games and it’s not friendly or pleasant to be thrown in over your head, not to mention teaching the game takes time. I’ve watched gameplay videos of Terraforming Mars, but none of those really made the game click like playing the digital game did. Binge-playing the digital version for a bit is, in my opinion, a much better way to learn to play the game. It’s got everything the physical board game has, only streamlined, compact, and smooth. It’s such a compelling playing experience that I’d recommend the digital version for that alone, but as a way to learn the physical board game, it is unparalleled.

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Women Designers in Board Gaming

Inclusion has historically been difficult in board games and board game designs, despite the overwhelming participation of women as gamers throughout history. Representation of non-binary and women characters remains very low, and very few women or non-binary designers make their way into the top 100 of board games. Given that the name of our blog is Girls Who Like Board Games, I have no interest in discussing the reason behind the lower representation or why it occurs. Our blog has made our case abundantly clear: We support people of colour, we support women, we support non-binary and abinary folks, and we support their inclusion in board gaming in every facet in which they wish to participate. 

Therefore, this article attempts to highlight board games designed by particular women and non-binary designers in the hopes that more people will seek out these designers and play their games. There are many more, but these are a few that I have personally played and enjoyed. Comments with additional ideas are encouraged! 

Susan McKinley Ross has developed Qwirkle, which won the Spiel de Jahres in 2011. Qwirkle is a game published with Mindware that is easy enough for small children to play but complex enough for adults. You match colours or shapes in lines to obtain points. By placing your blocks strategically, you can score points to ultimately win the game. This game, with thick and colourful shapes on a black background, is visually appealing to players and can be used for simple shape and colour recognition for younger children or for people with disabilities. This is really where Ross shines; she makes games that children and adults both love and want to play together. Qwirkle is, in my opinion, her best, but her game Hoot Owl Hoot also deserves a place on the shelf.

Rachel (Bowen) Simmons is a transwoman who created The Guns of Gettysburg and Napoleon’s Triumph. Both of these games bear mention for being nominated for a small pile of awards and for their outstanding gameplay. Those interested in war games that simulate these time periods will enjoy these games quite a bit. Even as a mostly non-war gamer, I found Napoleon’s Triumph extremely enjoyable and interesting to play, to the point that it really sparked my interest in wargaming in general. This game specifically recreates the Battle of Austerlitz by Napoleon and really brings home that battle in a way that I truly appreciated. 

Grace Holdinghaus works for Fantasy Flight games and co-created Mansions of Madness 2e. This game holds a special place in my heart due to my time spent with friends playtesting it and some of the expansions. Mansions of Madness manages to take the overextended Lovecraftian Mythos and make them interesting and playable in ways that few other games have managed. The pieces are solid and beautiful, it comes with miniatures (always a perk!) and runs off of a well designed app that allows all players to play together in a cooperative adventure. 

Nikki Valens also works for Fantasy Flight games. Although they also worked on Mansions of Madness, I feel their inclusion here is most necessary because of Legacy of Dragonholt. First, I don’t think enough people have heard of this lovely game. My children and I had the pleasure of playtesting this game, and have subsequently bought copies for others (as well as for ourselves). My oldest daughter specifically wrote to Valens to exalt the beautiful storytelling while we were involved in playtesting for this game. As an introduction to RPGs, this game really excels. In some ways, Dragonholt is a fantasy based choose your own adventure cooperative game, but it goes far beyond simply that. We also learned that much of the game can be completed (so long as you have someone who can read) on long car rides, so it’s 10/10 for entertainment value based just on that!

One of the most beautiful games that I’ve ever played is Lotus, designed by Jordan and Mandy Goddard. This game is simplistic in its beauty and design, and somehow managed to recreate the feeling of cultivating a flower garden using beautifully rendered cards and a handful of colourful, insect-shaped wooden pieces. Lotus lists itself as appropriate for ages 8 and up, and it is truly one of the most calming games in my collection; it’s a game you can pull out as a palette cleanser between heavier gaming sessions, as a last game of the night, or even just in its own right as a light but thoughtful game. I particularly enjoy playing this game with my children as we talk about heavier topics; the beautiful artwork creates a zen-like atmosphere that makes those discussions go smoothly.

Having had the pleasure to meet Shanna Germain in person a few times, I can say that she has always seemed to me to be one of the most enthusiastic game developers I’ve known. Like many of the other wonderful women developers here, Germain has seen her name on several big name games, but I’m going to focus on one of her lesser known delights. For Germain, this is No Thank You, Evil. This RPG designed for children is a fun and upbeat way to show kids how RPGs can be as much fun as you’d like. It also introduced to our gaming group an extremely important point: the “No thank you, evil” trump card, whereupon a triggered or upset player can put down a “Nope” card to indicate that they do not wish for the continuation of a current point on the table. As older gamers, we sometimes see that certain topics are off limits to certain players. Session zero often takes care of the big topics, but what if you absolutely forgot something that might trigger a sensitive player that you never dreamed happening in Session Zero. And every Game Master knows that players are absolutely notorious for taking the game beyond what you ever dreamed at the beginning. Having the ability to subtly but firmly take something out of the game if it is unduly upsetting is something that gaming groups really need more of if the point of the game is to be fun for everyone.

I have plans for other writers and developers for tabletop games, but couldn’t possibly cover all of the wonderful women, non-binary and transfolk in one article. Please feel free to comment if you have an idea for someone who you feel should be included in future articles. 

 

Writing for Girls Who Like Board Games

The Mighty Microblog

20200614_164208Girls Who Like Board Games is a international group of women with a presence on various social and game platforms. I stumbled across them and loved the vibe of the group. I have to say I feel more comfortable chatting with them than other board game groups I’ve tried out. I’m not sure if it’s because the gender identity of the group is female or if it’s just the chemistry of this particular group. When they said, “It’s time to start a blog, who’s in?” or words to that effect, I raised my hand: “me, me, me, me, me!” The group blog was launched and my first piece was published yesterday: Horrified: A Review with a Village Full of Monsters. They liked it so much they’ve asked me to be a regular contributor to the blog.

I’m not a super-experienced gamer with floor to ceiling shelves packed with hundreds of…

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