Jen Krueger: The Gaming Sweet Spot
Until very recently, the thought of spending a hundred dollars on a board game would have seemed like madness to me. If it actually is madness, then I guess it’s appropriate that Betrayal at House on the Hill is what had me considering it. It’s a game in which you and your friends explore a haunted mansion by building it out room by room with tiles that reveal objects, events, and traps to test your sanity. Everything changes in the middle when a haunt is triggered to reveal one player as a traitor out to kill the others, and playing it just once at a board game cafe was more than enough fun to make me want a copy of my own. Unfortunately, it’s currently out of print and procuring a copy would mean spending around a hundred dollars for a used set through a reseller.
So what about Betrayal at House on the Hill was so fun that a single experience with it made me actually consider dropping that kind of money on a type of product for which I’ve generally paid no more than fifty dollars? The fact that the mechanics for both the layout of the house and the type of haunt that occurs mean it’s never the same game twice. Knowing that even if I happened to run through all 50 different haunts the rule book contains, the unique layout of rooms and the randomness regarding which player becomes the traitor would keep the gameplay from ever becoming rote. As much fun as it can be to play a classic like Monopoly or a modern hit like Ticket to Ride, whenever I play something of a more fixed state like these, I find myself less engaged with the game itself as well as the other people I’m playing with. There’s never really any surprise to this kind of game, and at a certain point I end up on autopilot. There may be variation in which specific spaces I land on or cards I pull, but the range of possibilities is firmly set from the start, diluting the replay value and leaving me content to play them but never dying to own them.
But as much as I want board games I play to give me a unique experience every time I sit down to them, there are of course games that go too far down that path. Risk Legacy builds on the foundation of the classic game Risk, but is meant to be played by the same group of people 15 times because each session results in the players making alterations to the game based on their specific experiences with it, like scarring a territory with a negative effect on any future combat that takes place there, or naming a territory so that only the player who named it can start in that territory during future games. These alterations are permanent, and affect every session that follows, making every Risk Legacy set that’s sold into a completely unique experience for the group that plays that set. I was pumped to try the game when my friend Art wrangled a group to play. More friends of mine, Farley and Clay, were playing with a separate group around the same time, and as each group got more sessions under our belts, we’d check in with each other about our impressions and strategies for sessions to come. The incredibly customizable nature of the game meant that both of our groups were constantly realizing we’d been doing something wrong due to not fully understanding the understandably complicated rules, but the continuing effect of each session on the ones that follow it make it very hard to rectify mistakes. And though correlation doesn’t imply causation, I can’t help but think any game with such a high level of customizability runs the same (cue groan) risk.
For me, the games that do it right are the ones right in the middle of this spectrum of uniqueness per session. Cyberpunk card game Android: Netrunner gives players a wealth of cards to pick from with multiple expansion packs on the market and new ones released every month, making the possibilities endless when putting together a deck to sit down with a friend and, depending what side of the table you’re on, either hack their servers or foil their hacker. Betrayal at House on the Hill gives a different board and set of circumstances every time, but the rules governing play are constant and basic enough to let the players get them under their belts in a few turns on a first play-through, then simply immerse themselves from that point on. And if a game can be as simple in concept yet as different every time it’s played as Betrayal at House on the Hill, a hundred dollars for a set gives you unlimited replay value. In my book, that’s actually a bargain.