Trying to pick favorite games, it's tempting to home in on the 'gamiest' game, the most intense experience. Thinking about my favorites in terms of the games I play most often, and find most gratifying both during and after gameplay though, I'm drawn more toward the workhorse Honda Civics than the powerhouse Corvettes.
As it turns out, all five of my favorites were chosen in part to the social structure that surrounded or inspired the game. Game play is vital, but often these games are ingredients in a larger setting. All in all, these are five games that have greatly influenced my life.
Tijuana is a simple elimination dicing game where the critical factors for success are luck, the ability to lie with a straight face, and the ability to tell when others are lying.
Two + (number of players) dice and an opaque dice cup are needed, along with any number of players, from two on up. Each player places a die with 6 pips up in front of them. This is the score marker. Each time they lose a point, they put the next lower face up. When they have one pip up and lose a point, they are eliminated from the game.
A player rolls the pair of dice and peeks underneath to assess their roll. In Tijuana, a roll is expressed as follows: If the dice are different, the higher die is the tens number and the lower is the ones. So a 4,2 is 42, a 3,5 is 53, and so on. The ranking of rolls, from lowers to highest, are: 31, 32, 41, 42, 43, 51, 52, 53, 54, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, and then come the pairs: Aces, Twos, Threes, Fours, Fives, Sixes, and 21, the 'lowest' roll, is actually the trumping highest roll.
As the roller, you turn to the next player in the rotation, and tell him what you have (you can lie). They either believe you and scoop up the dice, or they call you on it, by lifting the cup. If they life the cup, and you have less than what you claimed, then you lose a pip from your score die. If they call and you had equal or higher than what you claimed, then *they* lose a pip, and you roll again. After a bid has been called, the next roll is a 'fresh roll' with no required minimum to beat.
The catch is that if they call you on your roll, they have to beat your roll on their turn which immediately follows. If they don't, then they have to convince the next player in line that they did, and hope that player doesn't call their bluff.
The 'extra rule' in Tijuana is that 21 is the highest roll, and is called 'Tijuana'. A regional variant, played at renaissance faires and a few other places, calls this roll, and the game, 'Cadiz' after Cadiz, Spain, since the city of Tijuana hadn't yet been founded. When tijuana is called, the downstream player can either attempt to call the bluff, with the stakes doubled, so that the loser loses two pips, or they can 'eat it', scoop the dice, sight unseen, take themselves down a single pip, and start with a fresh roll.
This game is usually played very aggressively, and is not a 'nice' game. Lying is required, and cheating can be common. I learned it from a guild of fencers (the blade kind, not the stereo-lifting kind) who took the game rather seriously. When teaching the game to newbies, they would make a list of the rolls, and 'help' the players by showing them the line where they should think about calling bluffs, since it becomes increasingly unlikely that they could beat the roll on their next roll. This line was referred to as the 'pussy line'.
|Roll Score (highest first)|
|62||<-- 'Pussy Line'|
This chart, always drawn up for newbies, creates the illusion that the 'pussy line' is the line where 50% of the rolls are above, and 50% are below. The nature of the chart reenforces this belief, since the line is halfway down.
However, since the pairs are statistically rarer, the 'true' pussy line is actually closer to '54', misleading many newer players.
All kinds of bluffs, high, low, even unnecessary bluffs, are common tools in Tijuana. Often a downstream player will flat-out ask the roller "Are you lying?" just to get more data to make their decision (trusting the delivery more than the answer itself). In the end the rolling is almost secondary to the mindgame.
Now and then we'd play for money, with each person putting up a $2 ante, last man taking the pot.
Cribbage is my family's game. Everyone in my greater family plays it, and during family gatherings (two or three times a year) we regularly hold tournaments with anywhere from 10 to 25 people, to determine the Cribbage Champion. The main tournament, held every Christmas for the last 25 years, usually sports at least 16 entrants. Starting about 10 years ago, we started archiving the results on the back of a giant wooden cribbage board, for future posterity and gloating.
We've been playing so long that we have all found our own skill level and strategies, and can play fairly automatically. The better of us takes in to account who they're playing against, and how that player thinks, to plan the peg out and discards to the crib.
Cribbage, for the Fox family, has moved beyond just a game, into the fabric that ties the family together. When someone brings a new significant other home for Christmas, it's considered high praise to pull them aside and teach them the rules of the game, so that they might enter into the family tournament.
Anyone who has known me long enough has suffered at least one cribbage lesson from me, and a few of my friends have taken to it regularly. Cribbage is a rare enough game that you can feel comfortable going up to strangers who are playing it and remark upon the game. Playing against an experienced stranger is an exciting experience because my own knowledge and strategy is so inbred. The Fox family members are all experts against each other, but we so rarely play against outside experts that we don't really know where we stand.
The appeal of cribbage is that there is a steady learning curve that seems to top out, but actually goes a bit higher, dealing with more subtle discarding based on the state of the game (especially in the endgame) and the ability to read your opponent's 'tells'. Luck plays a large enough factor that even beginners can defeat experts, but not consistently. This helps newcomers to not be discouraged, yet encourages study and practice to make winning less of a random affair.
Specific to me, cribbage is my main bonding activity with my dad. He has a board with him wherever he goes, and I rarely travel out of town without one. It's assumed that when we're in the same place we'll play, often until the early hours of the morning.
Karen and I came up with the movie game one night about nine years ago while waiting in the theater for a movie to start. Though other people play a very similar game, usually called 'Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' (after John Gare's play 'Six Degrees of Separation'), we hadn't heard of it at the time.
To start, each of us would pick a movie in secret, then tell the other what we had picked. If the other wasn't very familiar with the movie, we would name the major actors in it for them. After that we would sit quietly and try individually to make a chain from movie to actor to movie to actor to movie, bridging the movies together by a common chain. Paper is not allowed.
As simple as the structure of this game is, it can be incredibly difficult. It's the clearest example I've ever seen of the '7 +-2' principle of short-term memory. If the chain gets too long, it's easy to find one that works, only to forget how you got there when you try to tell the other player. In fact, it's very common to be racing along, linking movies to actors to movies, only to find your way back to the movie you started from, and not realize it until you recite the loop back to your partner and realize your error.
This game has a long and slow learning curve. It relies heavily on cultural knowledge, and on the hard-learned skill of keeping the chain in your head as you extend it. There are tricks, such as finding 'nexus' ensemble movies, like The Big Chill, Saint Elmo's Fire, Soapdish, Mars Attacks, and The Breakfast Club, which can greatly help linking between very different movies. Players will often find 'pet actors' like Val Kilmer, Glenn Close, or Matthew Broderick, who have been in a large number of movies in different genre, to gain an area of expertise.
As Karen and I got better at this game (having played for so long on our own, we quickly found that many other people didn't like to play with us because we had a comparative advantage), we modified it to require links of only two or three intermediate movies, stopping 'wild goose chains' that might contain 12 movies, but could be found faster, like a car blindly searching for a destination instead of a person pouring over the shortest route on a map.
Emily and I played this game a fair amount as well, though we would occasionally turn to paper to create a network of movies and actors, giving the game a state. In this case we would keep adding movies to our little system, scribbling with crayon on large pieces of paper, making a huge mess of stars and films, giving a physical representation to the abstract paths in our heads.
I like this game because playing it quasi-collaboratively with a friend (sometimes taking short breaks to tell each other 'where we are' and what we're exploring) is an intimate experience. Whether competitive or collaborative, the game board is inside the working mind, and there's a sense of shared experience spanning across decades of movie-watching that each player brings to bare.
It's also a great way to get to know what films someone has or hasn't seen. It starts conversations, inspires trips to the video store, and is in general a great jumping off point.
Zendo is played using Loony Labs's 'Icehouse' set of plastic stacking pyramid pieces. It was designed by Kory Heath, and is promoted along with Icehouse.
One part 'mastermind' and one part 'twenty questions,' Zendo's difficulty is directly attributable to its players. At the outset of the game, a 'Zen Master' is chosen to start. That player secretly chooses a 'quality' that defines the 'Budda Nature.'
A quality can be anything that can be described using the Icehouse pieces, arranged in a configuration (or a 'koan'), with a few limitations. Examples are 'a koan that has more red pieces than yellow ones' or 'a koan where at least one of the smallest pieces is upright.' The zen master then creates two configurations, one that does exhibit the budda nature, and one that does not exhibit the budda nature, and marks them with coins or pebbles, to signify which is which.
Players take turns creating configurations of pieces and being told whether the piece does or does not exhibit the budda nature, and they can earn credits to guess what the budda nature is. If they guess wrong, the master creates a koan that exhibits the proposed nature, yet does not exhibit the budda nature.
This game requires a lot of concentration, and even more patience. It involves trying to sort koans in your head easily, seeing if your proposed nature matches the examples given so far, and also requires a fair amount of imagination, since the budda nature could involve a quality that the players had never thought of before, such as: 'a koan has the budda nature if the number of pips on the piece farthest from the geometric center of the koan has binary parity with the number of pips on the three pieces closest to the geographic center of the koan' (binary parity in this case meaning odd=odd or even=even).
Zendo varies tremendously from group to group that plays it, and typically 'cells' of Zendo players will form. These people will play every week, and understand the limits of difficulty they are typically willing to accept (or able to surmount).
Given several hours and a few Zendo fanatics, this is a very fun game, but only if you have quiet, patience, and a smattering of the budda nature within you.
I've probably spent more time playing Fluxx over the last six years than any other five games combined. Fluxx has several features that I find really valuable in a casual social game, features that have been essential to its success relative to the tiny promotional budget Loony Labs can afford.
Fluxx has a fast learning curve. With one minute of instruction and three minutes of gameplay, players know about 70% of what they need to enjoy Fluxx. The rules, while diverse, start simple. Though Fluxx's ruleset is truly organic, it starts simply. If Fluxx gets complex, it's because the players make it complex, and can follow the progression each step of the way.
The remainder of the learning curve consists of learning what all the keepers are, and all the goals that match them. After that, actual strategy helps gameplay some over time, but after a few games of Fluxx, most people play at a pretty equal level.
Fluxx doesn't take up 100% of your cycles. You can play Fluxx fast, with full concentration, or you can play it leisurely, talking about the weather, what you want to order, or the movie you saw last night. Fluxx can be played with a narrative, for new players, or with no words at all, if a conversation is going on. Like MahJong or Bridge, Fluxx is a good excuse to spend time socializing.
Fluxx is replayable. Depending on the flow of the game, Fluxx can take on many different personalities, from a 'draw one, play one, hand limit 0' mode that has no free will at all, to a 'draw 5, play all' scenario with a dozen keepers on the table and turns that take minutes. One commonality about Fluxx though is that victory is almost never imminent, and usually comes by surprise. This abrupt change from normal gameplay to a victory state makes it easy to shuffle the deck and dive in again. In fact, the idea that Fluxx games can start and end within two minutes often makes me start a game even when I don't have much time to play, since maybe it'll be a fast game (and not one of the 40-minute, three times through the deck games).
Fluxx is an ideal training game for Game Designers. You can remove almost half the cards in a Fluxx deck and (assuming you remove the proper goals corresponding to removed keepers) the game will still be relatively balanced. It would take a lot to unbalance the game, but through repeated gameplay, it's easy to see what works and what doesn't.
You can buy blank Fluxx cards, to create your own Actions, Rules, Keepers, and Goals, and playtest them. This game mutability is actively encouraged, and a standard Fluxx deck comes with a few 'Blanxx' specifically so you can try your hand at extending the game.
Trying small ideas out and playtesting them is an easy way to get a feel for game balance, and is a great stepping stone to creating an entirely new framework and game from scratch.