IN CYCLING BOARD GAMES
Another unfinished text by Anki Toner. Started in 2010.
The venerable "Cycling Board Games" text has not been updated since 2005 (that is, before the edition of Leader 1) Instead of updating/rewriting it I have decided to start a new text to elaborates on some ideas that appear more and more frequently on XXIst century cycling games.
What's wrong with cycling board games?
There MUST be something wrong with existing games when so many people are making new ones. Of course, it is not about money (does nomeone expect to become rich with a cycling game?) but rather out of a compulsive need to make the definitive cycling game. The one that truly represents a cycling race.
Of course, none of the existing games truly represents a real race, as none of the future games will, of course. (Want a really realistic game? Buy a bicycle in the first place). But that does not prevent some of us to keep trying.
Let's forget about buying a bike and joining a club, and let's stick to board games. What do we miss in existing games? I will just examine some of the most interesting recent games, either published or not, and I will try to point what they have in common and what direction should new games follow.
Let's make it clear from the start that I will just consider road cycling games in this essay. There are games which address track cycling, BMX races, cyclo-cross,etc., but these will be dealt with at some other moment.
Race games and racing feel
So far, almost every cycling game features a number of riders per player (from one to as many as nine, a complete team). The riders of these teams are equivalent or different (more on that later); the game might be a single day race, a stage race or even a velodrome race; the riders move by the throw of dice, by playing cards, or by other mechanisms which may involve little or no luck, but what does not change is that in almost every game, riders MOVE from one point to another.
With the major exception of L'Echappée (aka Der Aussreiser), almost every XXth century cycling game is a classic race game, defined, as I wrote elsewhere, as a game in which the winner is the first player to reach a given square on the board or to meet certain given conditions. Of course, a race game is what we expect of a game that represents an actual race, isn't it?
Well, not exactly.
On one hand, there's a whole category of games called "sports replay games", which are not race games. and among which we find cycling as well as many other races' simulations. It is thus perfectly possible to simulate racing competitions with games other than race games.
On the other hand, since a board game does not try to represent a real cycling race but rather the feel of a cycling race, there are of course many ways to try to represent this feel by a game, and not all of them make race games.
Again, what's wrong with cycling board games?
The main problem we face when we try to reproduce the feel of a cycling race in a board game is the number of riders. In a professional road cycling race we find many more riders than in any race game. The Tour de France stars with almost 200 riders! Even considering that a player does not manage a single rider but a team, real cycling races may feature more than 20 teams, while board games are usually played by 2 to 6 players (and very rarely by more than 8 players). This produces a loss of complexity. Like someone said, "a cycling race is like a novel, with lots of characters and many secondary plots". If we reduce the number of riders/teams (players), we lose a lot of what makes a cycling game interesting (like people being involved in different classifications, having different interests in the race, etc.). Game designers have to minimize the impact of this loss of complexity on the feel of the game.
One could also argue that the time-shrinking that takes place when one reduces a six-hour-long race into a much shorter game may also affect the feel of the game. However, I have never found anyone complaining about a cycling game being too short. This is due to two factors: (a) Since many real cycling races are divided in stages, if the game is too short, it will only be totally natural to play another stage. This will not affect the cycling feel of the game. (b) Unfortunately, the problem with most cycling games is that they are too long (even if they are shorter than a Tour de France stage).
Of course, not all cycling games are long, but, so far, existing cycling games are either too simple or too long (when not both). By this I mean that all non-trivial, tactically interesting cycling games are long enough not to be able to play a stage race (even a relatively short race of , say, five stages) in a single game session. This is not an opinion, it's a fact.
What do we expect in a cycling board game?
That's the million dollar question. The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask. However, I will consider an average player (like, say, myself) and try to expose some ideas about it.
Basically what one expects from a cycling game is that it is (a) playable, (b) interesting to play and (c) with the feel of a cycling race.
That a game should be playable is obvious (though sometimes forgotten). Of course, the playability of a game depends on the players. Most people will not play a game that takes more than an evening to play, but some hardcore gamers will only play such games. (Similarly, some people will never play games that need too many people to play since they are unable to find players, while other people will easily find as many gaming partners as needed). Also, the concept of playability has evolved over time, and for the modern gaming thought a game like Monopoly would be labelled as "non-playable" (too long and, what's worse, most players lose all chances of winning the game too soon).
So, concerning playability, I will just ask that a game is not too long, that it can be played in a single gaming session, that you do not have to keep checking the rules every five minutes, and I will leave other concerns as a matter of the game being interesting.
Different game mechanics appeal differently to different people depending on a number of factors, not the least their age. Again, I will have to consider the aforementioned average player and state that, in general:
Games are interesting if they offer a fair number of decisions to be taken by the player at each turn, and that these decisions affect the outcome of the game.
Moreover, the players should be able to have a general strategy or, to be more precise, a choice of strategies.
By a "fair number of decisions" I mean that games where players can't barely affect the outcome of the game (like the Game of Goose) will be considered too simple to be interesting.
On the other hand, games where the number of possible decisions or strategies is very high may be considered too complicated. Overcomplicated games tend to be unplayable (rather than uninteresting) but, in the end, for our average player, unplayable games lose interest.
Since we considering themed games, their must have a feel for the theme (that is, cycling races). I already discussed this in lenght in the "Cycling Board Games" text. Just let me add that a modern cycling game must address certais basic aspects of the cycling sport like:
- Energy management: Riders do not have unlimited energy during a race, and they must chose to spend it or to save it for later. Riders cannot expect to run at full speed all the time.
- Cooperation between riders: Isolated riders perform worse than those in a peloton. Taking advantage of being in a group contributes to the energy management. Drafting is a form of cooperation between riders.
- Specialization: Different roles for different riders: team leaders, climbers, sprinters, time trialists....
- Minimizing the use of luck: While luck takes an important part in real cycling races, there is more to cycling than luck. An modern interesting game must, at least, look for a balance between the use of randomizers (dice or cards), and the correct choice of strategies by the player. (No, hoping for a good throw of the dice will not be considered "a good strategy", even in the case it works).
- Complexity. There are many cycling races in each real race. Probably as many as riders that take part in the race. Of course a board game is a reduction of real life processes, and must of this complexity will be lost in translation, but we must expect that some of it remains. Riders' specialization adds a level of complexity. Stages races add a level (or two) of complexity. DIfferent classifications (overall, mountain, points) add a level of complexity. These levels of complexity are conceptual, and thus independent of the game mechanics.
However, though I try to make a clear distinction between strategic complexity ("good") and overcomplicated game mechanics ("bad"), it is not always easy to tell them apart. For instance, games that offer different parameters for each rider (like independent sprint, uphill and time-trial stregths, energy recovery capability, etc) certainly add an interesting level of complexity to feel of the game, but unfortunately tend to fall in the "overcomplicated game" category. More on this later.
The stage race problem
While one of the most tactically interesting parts of cycling is how, in stage races, the results of previous stages change the expectations of riders and thus affect their behaviour in subsequent stages, this is an aspect that is misrepresented in board games. While there are many games that represent stage races, most of them simply add some time-keeping rules to what, otherwise, would be a one-day race game. Most of these games feature stages which are quite long to play and thus an stage race cannot be played is a single gaming session. Some games, however, have tried to represent a stage race that can be played in a single gaming session. At the moment of writing (fall 2010), this site features 18 such games (listed in the "short stage race games" section), none of which can be said to be tactically interesting (as defined above). This fact alone seems to prove that something is wrong with existing cycling board games.
Of course, to shrink a stage race into a single gaming session game designers have to consider factors such as the number of stages, their length, the number of riders (number of riders in each team and number of teams/players taking part in the game) and hopefully reach a balance between all of them in order to reduce playing time without compromising tactical interest or cycling feel.
(A different problem, and a very important one, is that keeping the different classifications -overall, and maybe mountain, points and even team classifications- is time-consuming and proportional to the number of riders in the game. However, we will not consider this problem here).
Any race game that involves moving all the counters along a track in each game turn needs some time to do so, and this time is a factor of the number of riders, the number of turns and of the time it takes to move a rider in a turn.
Lets establish a simple formula:
T= K * N * L
- T is the TIME needed to play the game
- N is the NUMBER of riders in the race
- L is the (estimated) number of turns needed to finish the game.
- K is the average time it takes to move a rider in a given turn (which is mostly the time needed to decide which counter one should move and how far).
The factor K can be compared to a constant (that's why I called it "K") that depends on the mechanics of the game. (It also depends on the players. It is a fact that some people play excruciatingly slowly, whatever the game. Race games should, almost by definition, be played fast, but it is not always the case). Being almost a constant, the K is not so relevant in the equation above.
If you like complex formulas, N be subdivided as N = Np * Nr, where:
- Np is the number of players/teams
- Nr is the number of counters/riders per team
L can also be sundivided as L = Lt * Et, where:
- Lt is the LENGHT of the track
- Et is the average (expected) advance per turn.
The complete equation would thus be:
T= K * Np * Nr * Lt * Et
This equation, in plain English, means:
The time (T) it takes to play a cycling game depends linearly on the number of players (Np), the number of counters per player (Nr), the lenght of the track (Lt), the average advance per turn (Et) and the average time it takes to move a rider in a given turn (K).
By "linearly" I mean that an increment on any of these factors will incremet proportionally the time it takes to play the game. That is, for instance, doubling the number of riders per team -and leaving the other factors constant- will double the time it takes to play the game.
"A fair number of decisions"
The definition given above ("games are interesting if they offer a fair number of decisions to be taken by the player at each turn, and that these decisions affect the outcome of the game") is tricky, of course, since we have not explained what "a fair number" of decisions is.
We said that games where players can't barely affect the outcome of the game will be considered too simple (while games where the number of possible decisions or strategies is very high will be considered too complicated), but we have been unable to go further than that.
What's worse, there is still another factor to be considered, and that is the quality of the decision: how many variables does the decision have and how much it affects the outcome of the game.
However, even if these factors may be impossible to define, they are still included in our equation above T=K*N*L.
The complexity of the decision is included in K*N. (Simply put: the time it takes for a player to take a decision depends on the complexity of the decision, that is, on how many variables does the decision have and how much it affects the outcome of the game. Pretty obvious, in fact).
On the other hand, there is a factor I would like to consider, and this is L, the number of turns needed to finish the game (the stage). Even if the number of possible decisions in a turn is small, this number is multiplied by the number of turns in the game (assuming that these decision can be taken at any turn, of course). In principle, a game can be equally complex ("interesting") if the players take a few complex decisions (turns) or a lot of simple ones. So, we have here a first conclusion:
The length of a stage is a relevant factor for the complexity of the game.
In plain English this means that the longer the game, the more complex (thus interesting).
Equally significant game turns
Strangely enough, the considerations made in the above paragraph may seem counterintuitive to some: longer stages are more boring. This is true if what makes stages longer are non-significant (or less significant) turns. That is, unnecessary turns where players waste their time playing obvious moves.
So, even knowing that this is almost impossible in practice, we will assume that all turns in a game are equally significant. Even more, we are going to make it a prerrequisite for a well designed game:
All game turns should be equally significant
which we should phrase like this in simple understandable English: "game turns where nothing happens are a waste of time".
In this section we will consider how different modern games deal with the problems mentioned in sections 01 and 02. We will address the following issues:
Team composition (number of riders, the hiperrealism problem)
Number of players (virtual/neutral teams, solo game)
Peloton / Drafting
Energy management (movement, minimizing randomisers).
Relative movement (*)
Simultaneous action play
(*) Absolute/relative movement is I.T. jargon: By "relative movement" I mean that the riders do not race along a track but move according to the advantage/disadvantage they have with the peloton. Games that use relative movement are not "race games" as defined above.
PS: As I said, this is an unfinished text :-(
Come back in some weeks...