Two important qualities in a good boardgame are an interesting theme and good mechanics. Theme is the narrative of the game – what it’s supposed to be about. Mechanics is the game considered as a pure logic puzzle – what goes in there, what comes out here.
A subtle but common failure in game design is for theme and mechanics to never really connect to each other, so that the theme is a mere superficial paint job or gloss on what might as well be a purely abstract game. One of my favorite examples is Lost Cities, a game by Reiner Knizia with simple mechanics, deep strategy, and excellent repeated-play value. Its one flaw is that the archaeological theme of the card and box art is completely disconnected from the lovely little jewel that is the game logic. Nothing that you might know about archeology helps you play better or enjoy the game more, nor is there any possibility that you will learn something about archaeology by playing. The result is that the game feels a bit cheesy and contrived even though the game engine is actually an excellent and elegant design.
Two recent releases from Z-Man Games remind us what it can be like when a designer integrates these aspects really well. They’re on a roll lately, seemingly trying to out-Fantasy-Flight Fantasy Flight games.
First up: Polish yer cutlasses, strop yer hooks, and welcome to Merchants and Marauders, a game of piracy and trade in the Caribbean Sea.
There are a lot of pirate-themed games out there; it has been an especially popular genre since the firstPirates of the Caribbean movie busted box-office records in 2003. Most such games are mere fluff, all theme and graphics with shallow and uninteresting game engines. Granted, some are fairly tasty fluff; I probably like Pirate’s Cove, for example, more than I should. But it pales to insignificance set next to Merchants and Marauders.
In this game, you can raid and trade all through the wide-open Caribbean of the 1600s, contending with other merchants, other pirates, and the warships of the great colonial powers. There are multiple paths to victory; you can strive for glory points as a peaceful merchant or bloody-handed buccaneer, or turn either way as fancy takes you. The tactics of sea fighting are abstracted but present real challenges – how much damage will you risk for a fat prize? You can optimize your ship, captain, weapons, and crew for different styles of play. And yes, attacking other players is an option, sometimes a very lucrative one.
You’re going to start with a small ship, a sloop of war or flute, and work your way up to larger ships that can carry more cargo and guns. You may be able to acquire a letter of marque, making you an authorized privateer (loosely) attached to a navy. You may chase intriguing rumors or accept special missions that add color to events. And then there’s the odd hurricane to contend with.
The whole is quite well thought out, with the depth of a middle-weight wargame. The integration of mechanics and theme is, as previously noted, very good; the irregular-region map of the Caribbean and coasts keeps you thoroughly anchored in time and place, and the game’s incentives reward you for crossing from trading to raiding and back. If you find yourself role-playing your captain, nobody around the table will be even a bit surprised.
The game is not completely without flaws. I found the actual die-rolling mechanics for ship fiddly and difficult to retain, though I was able to make good tactical decisions despite this. And the thing struck me as a wee bit overproduced, visually speaking; big colorful game map and nifty little ship models good, but did we really need the rather cheesy-looking cardboard pirate’s chests? I’d trade away some of the fancy game furniture for a less expensive unit price, if it were my choice.
Still. It’s great good fun, especially with the game’s maximum of four players. It’s reasonably crunchy, and sets a high mark for future pirate-themes games to beat.
Next: The even better Yggdrasil. This is a pure cooperative game in which the players, each one of the gods of Norse mythology (Odin, Thor, Tyr, Heimdall, Frey, and Freya), face the final battle of Ragnarok. Together they must defeat an invasion of Asgard by their enemies: Loki, Fenrir, Surt, Hel, Niddhog and Jormungand.
The board is a gorgeous map of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology. Each turn, each player must use a limited number of actions to journey among the Nine Worlds. The mechanics of fighting the monsters as they press inexorably inwards towards the high seat at Valhalla is carefully tuned so no opponent can be defeated and thrown backward by a god fighting unaided. The gods must journey among the Nine Worlds to recruit help and gather magic and weapons. But they are fast running out of time…
If the theme/mechanics integration in Merchants and Marauders is good, here it is superb to a degree I’ve seldom seen matched in any other game. Right from the beginning the mechanics and theme cooperate to produce the sense of tragedy and doom so characteristic of the Ragnarok myth, and if your band of players actually defeats the invasion it will be difficult and really will feel like heroic poetry. The various races of the Nine Worlds (aesir, vanir, men, dwarves, elves, frost and fire giants) all find thematically appropriate places in the game mechanics. Magic weapons do what magic weapons should.
There’s an extremely clever bit of mechanics for simulating how the Valkyries ride to recruit the Viking dead from Midgard, with the supply becoming depleted in unpredictable ways as the gods draw on it, and some tricky ways to refresh that supply and manipulate the odds. This bit of business is quite unique, and organically connected to the mythic theme of the game in multiple ways. It is the most interesting feature of an excellent game engine.
To top it all off, the designers did their homework. I think somebody was reading the Poetic and Prose Eddas when this thing was designed, and probably some good secondary scholarship as well. This is not some Marvel Comics version of Asgard, it’s the real thing – well, at least for mythological values of “real”.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mythological-themed game done better than this. In the co-op subgenre, it beats the stuffings out of most previous efforts (Shadows Over Camelot, Pandemic); only Arkham Horror and Betrayal at the House on the Hill can be as interesting, and the latter is rather hit-or-miss depending on the scenario and your group of players.
I played Yggdrasil at a demo; three of the other five players who weren’t the Z-Man rep bought copies immediately afterwards, and I was seriously tempted. I think Z-Man is going to have a major hit with this game, and completely deserve it. It stretches the boundaries of the Eurogame in a way I hope other designers will emulate, not by slavishly copying its theme or mechanics but by seeking similar originality and thematic resonance.