Capital in board games

In economic strategy board games, it’s very common to have an arc of growth over the course of the game. You start out with few resources, and then you invest those resources to bolster your income, which then gets reinvested to grow even more, following an exponential trajectory. Central to this growth trajectory is the concept of capital.

In economics, capital is understood as durable goods that are used to increase or enable production. The classic example of capital is factory machines, but capital could also be something abstract, such as an education. People commonly understand capital as simply money, which is true insofar as money is commonly invested into capital. And so it is in economic board games, where you invest fictional money into fictional capital in order to increase fictional production.

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Firewatch was too hard

cn: moderate spoilers for Firewatch.

Firewatch is a 2016 walking simulator about a man named Henry, whose wife is suffering from early onset dementia. He joins the firewatch as a way of running away from his problems. Gameplay consists of hiking through a naturalistic forest, while Henry chats frequently with his boss, Delilah, over the radio. At some point they learn that someone has been listening in on their conversations, which ignites in both of them a paranoid fantasy.

Firewatch has a linear narrative, with no major branching points and no fail states. Nonetheless, I found it too difficult. I had already been spoiled as to its general plot and themes before I even started. And yet, I still felt like I didn’t “get it” in my own playthrough. I felt like I had watched a walkthrough but was still unable to perform the actions that I had seen others do.

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Empathy games and critiques

Empathy games are a genre of game that enables players to understand and appreciate other people’s feelings or experiences. Supposedly, games are uniquely positioned to cultivate empathy because of the embodied experience of playing. In a game, you can almost literally walk a mile in another person’s shoes. Empathy games also offer a counterpoint to the mainstream viewpoint that video games are all about “fun” or plain bloodlust.

Among my readers, I suspect that many have never heard of the concept of empathy games. And when you first hear about empathy games, you might feel that it’s a great idea. However, in games critic circles, especially among queer critics, it’s often considered passé, or even a discredited trope. Marginalized creators have spoken out about the limitations of empathy, and its commodification. Exploring their perspectives may help us understand pitfalls in media representation of marginalized groups.

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Semi-cooperative board games and the win/loss binary

In Twilight Struggle, if you cause nuclear war, your opponent wins and you lose. Twilight Struggle is a two-player strategy game that simulates The Cold War. As you know, in the real world, if there is a nuclear war then everyone loses. But in Twilight Struggle, nuclear war leads to one winner and one loser. This speaks to limitations in what a strategy board game can effectively simulate.

Twilight Struggle is simulating a semi-cooperative situation, which means it combines cooperative and competitive elements. A semi-cooperative game is one that allows one player to get ahead of the other, but also allows outcomes which are good for both players or bad for both players.  Note that ties don’t count, because they aren’t good or bad for both players!  A semi-cooperative game requires at least three distinct outcomes, outside of ties. In Twilight Struggle, the three outcomes are USA wins, the Soviet Union wins, or there is nuclear war. This is challenging to adapt to a board game format, because players are accustomed to only two non-tie outcomes: winning or losing.

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Ranking the Cyan games (again)

By In April, I wrote a ranking of all the Myst games. I emphasized that the list was a “recollective” ranking based on how I remembered them, as opposed to a “retrospective” ranking based on giving them a fresh look. Well, I gave them all a fresh look, and that caused my assessments to move around.

For the Myst games, I watched Keith Ballard’s blind Let’s Play series, which lets me see the games through the eyes of a new player. I also replayed Obduction, and added the new game Firmament—at which point this is no longer a Myst ranking, but a Cyan games ranking.

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Ranking the Myst games

I’m ranking the Myst games for no particular reason. I like thinking about them and I like writing, so here we are. Some readers may be surprised that there were more than two of these games–this list is for you.

This is emphatically a recollective ranking, not a retrospective ranking. I played these all a long time ago, and my memory has condensed into a few moments and emotional reactions. My ranking reflects not just the games themselves, but also who I was at the time I played them. I did not make any attempt to overwrite my memories by playing the games again, and I only did research for fact checking purposes.  (ETA: I later ranked these games again using a retrospective approach.)

7. Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (2003)

Uru was developed as a massively multiplayer online game, and was released the same year as Second Life, one year prior to World of Warcraft. If you’ve never heard of this before… welcome to this list!

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Dodging and blocking

I really enjoy Iron Pineapple’s “Steam Dumpster Diving” series which covers a variety of obscure “souls-like” games from the indies to solo and student projects. The series naturally raises the question “What is a souls-like?” Generally, a souls-like is any game that is somehow evocative of Dark Souls and its successors. However, the practical consensus among the games in the series, is that a “souls-like” is a game with a dodge roll.

The dodge roll, as popularized by Dark Souls, has two distinct components: An initial moment of invulnerability (i-frames), and a quick repositioning of the character. This can be contrasted with older interpretations of rolling in games–for example in, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the character can roll (or backflip or side-jump), but this does not have initial i-frames, and mainly serves to quickly reposition the character.

Repositioning and i-frames represent two different defensive modes. Repositioning tends to be the more intuitive mode; if an opponent swings a sword, you get out of the way. i-frames tend to be more counterintuitive, because i-frames allow you to roll directly through the sword. In fact, rolling into a sword is usually better than rolling away from it, because it reduces the amount of time you need to be invulnerable to pass through it.

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