zwischenzug (ZVI-shen-tsoog) — noun

A chess tactic in which a player, instead of playing the expected move, first interpolates another move, changing the situation to the player's advantage (such as gaining material or avoiding what would otherwise be a strong continuation for the opponent).

Showing posts with label publishers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label publishers. Show all posts

Friday, November 11, 2011

Publisher Profile: Hasbro Part III – Wizards of the Coast

This will be our third installment on Hasbro, and we will take a look at Wizards of the Coast.  This is where some of my recent posts come together, since Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is the publisher of both Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon.  These games are  arguably the most successful of all collectible card games (CCGs), which we discussed last week.

WotC found its first real success with Magic: The Gathering.  This allowed the company to expand the number of employees and office space, and allowed the financing of additional projects including RoboRally and The Great Dalmuti, both of which are well known and well loved games.  In 1997, WotC acquired TSR, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of all role-playing games.  A couple years later, in 1999, the company produce Pokémon, which sold 400,000 copies in six weeks!  With such success, WotC started showing up on Hasbro’s acquisition radar, resulting in Hasbro purchasing the company later that year.

Promotional Image
Technically, Avalon Hill falls under WotC in the Hasbro hierarchy, so all of the Avalon Hill games are also WotC games.  Setting that aside for the moment, WotC games have a tendency to feature fantasy and sci-fi themes.  The exceptions to this rule are the games developed while still an independent company, such as The Great Dalmuti and Guillotine.  (RoboRally is under the Avalon Hill brand.)  Having the patent on CCGs allowed them to develop more of those games, but none were nearly as popular or long-lived.  Both Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons are still strong product lines.  New developments tend to be tied to those products, including the highly acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons board games, which attempt to capture the role-playing game feel in a board game setting.

As for myself, I have not played very many WotC games, and only currently own one:  Star Wars: Trading Card Game.  I haven’t played it.  We bought it after the second movie trilogy came out.  At that time, I had not started playing games again, and several copies of the game were purchased in mass market outlets as birthday gifts.  One of them ended up in my collection. 

Since all of the recently developed games are receiving a huge amount of acclaim, I would say that WotC is doing a great job publishing great games.  Are they family games?  Right now, I would say let the outlet be your guide.  Games such as Heroscape were found in mass market outlets, and would work well in a family or casual setting.  If the game is only found in hobby game stores, it is probably more complex than most families would find fun. 

How does all of this fit together?  Well, first of all let me make clear that I haven’t talked to anyone at Hasbro or its subsidiaries, so this is just speculation.  It would appear that the Hasbro brand is for those games marketed as “family” or “children’s” games, WotC tends to publish specific product lines, with Avalon Hill picking up the rest of the hobby game market.  As a result, Avalon Hill games are probably not family or casual games (with the glaring exception of Acquire).  WotC labeled games will be good, and may or may not be family games.  Hasbro games will be family games, but may or may not be good.  Sorry I can’t be more help!

In the end, it’s going to require some research, including playing someone else’s copy of a game if possible.  In the end, that’s always the best research.  If you want me to look at a specific game, I am always will to serve as your guide.  Just let me know!

It’s Your Move!

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Publisher Profile: Hasbro Part II – Avalon Hill

Avalon Hill is a venerated name in the boardgaming hobby, particularly amongst wargamers.  Started in 1954 by Charles S. Roberts, the father of modern recreational wargaming, the company is alive today as a brand owned by Hasbro.  Current titles tend to be traditional Avalon Hill games and games within the Axis and Allies family.  These are produced for the hobby industry as opposed to the typical Hasbro mass-market game.

There are several memorable games from the Avalon Hill line that many remember seeing as teenagers.  Tactics is the first published game, written by Roberts himself.  Many of these games still have a following: Squad Leader (and Advanced Squad Leader), Panzer Leader, Kingmaker, Dune,  Civilization and Wooden Ships & Iron Men.  (None of which have I ever played, though I own a few!)  The purchase of 3M’s gaming line brought several non-wargame titles to the company including Facts in Five, Twixt and Sleuth.

An earlier version of Diplomacy (Bradley Eng-Kohn)
Some of these games are still in print, and are almost legendary.  Diplomacy, one the earliest titles, is still in print after over fifty years.  Acquire, one of my all-time favorite games, will be fifty years old next year.  Several are being printed by other companies who have acquired the license, including Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Britannia and The Republic of Rome.  Fantasy Flight is putting together a reprint of Dune, though under a slightly theme due to licensing issues.  Several companies have simultaneously announced a reprint of Merchant of Venus, and while it’s not a wargame, it appears to be setting up quite a legal battle. 

The current version of A&A (Promotional Image)
In the last ten years, Avalon Hill has still represented a line of games that are geared toward the hobbyist.  In addition to Diplomacy and Acquire, best selling games include Battle Cry, Betrayal at House on the Hill and Nexus Ops.  The largest publication efforts have been in marketing the Axis and Allies brand of lighter wargames.  The original Axis and Allies was a Milton Bradley game published in 1983, however revised editions were released as Avalon Hill titles.  The Axis and Allies rule set was then adapted to other WWII games, including Axis & Allies: Pacific, Axis & Allies: D-Day, Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge and Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal.  Naval and land miniature systems were also created.

One of Hasbro’s latest offerings, Battleship Galaxies: The Saturn Offensive, was released under the Hasbro line despite the fact that it really is a hobby game.  Given the fact that Hasbro has another game line, Wizards of the Coast (which actually operates the Avalon Hill line), it could be the Avalon Hill brand will not see new titles, but only continue to publish the titles it already has.

Are Avalon Hill games family games?  Generally, I don’t believe so.  Acquire could certainly be played and enjoyed by a family with older children, but often an Avalon Hill game is either too complex or simply too long for casual gaming.  Many of the older wargames are strictly two-player affairs.  If you are looking for family games, this brand is one where a little extra research on the game is necessary. 

It’s Your Move

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Publisher Profile: Hasbro, Part I -- Mass Market Brands

My father used to tell a joke, “Where does the 800 lb. gorilla sit?  Anywhere he wants!”  This is Hasbro, who could have such a positive influence on the boardgaming hobby with all of their size and money.  We all know their games, since we grew up with them as kids: Monopoly, Clue, Risk, Ants in the Pants – the list goes on and on.  Some of these had, and may still have, Parker Brothers logos, but that label is owned by Hasbro.  So are Milton Bradley, Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill.  Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill have always had their niche, so I will specifically talk about the mass market divisions in this post.

First, I have to say that Hasbro has singlehandedly given boardgaming the reputation in the United States as a children’s activity.  In that way, the company has caused a lot of harm: maybe more than can be undone in my lifetime.  This is primarily due to the large number of sub-par kid’s games they have produced.  There have also been a lot of cheesy movie tie-ins, which tend to bring down the reputation of boardgaming.

Image by Bruce LeCompte
Prior to 1998, Hasbro had a few truly great games, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (based on the TV show), Survive! and the immortal game Scrabble.  They were lost in a sea of drivel, however.  In 1998, Hasbro purchased the Avalon Hill brand, and bought the company Wizards of the Coast a year later.  This seems to mark the beginning of Hasbro taking a more serious approach to games.  Several of the Star Wars games are excellent (just try to find a copy of Star Wars: Queen’s Gambit for under $150.00 USD).  Furthermore, Hasbro has taken Risk and turned into several very successful, first-rate games (including Star Wars editions and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition), some of which were published under the Avalon Hill brand.  The revised version of Risk is an excellent game.  Plus, while I haven’t played it, I have heard great things about Sorry! Sliders.

Much of this is due to two specific designers, Rob Daviau and Craig Van Ness.  Many of these better titles are due to the efforts of one of these two gentlemen, sometimes working in concert.  A list of currently in-print, superb games which carries one or both of their names would include:
  • Heroscape – arguably their all-time biggest hit.  There are four different master sets, and lots of expansions.  Each set or expansion can be played interchangeably with the others.  (Okay, technically this is now out-of-print, but you can still find sets in stores, so I am counting it!)
  • Battleship Galaxies – This game has an extremely high Awesomeness Factor index.  Awesomeness just oozes out of the box.  Seriously, I might have to buy this game just because of how cool it is.  I don’t need to know how it plays (which reputedly is equally awesomely).  I just want the miniature space ships!
  • Sorry! Sliders – Again, I don’t know much about this one, since my son would probably look down on it, and so we haven’t played it. 
  • Risk (Revised Edition) – This is a must-own game for me.  Risk with all of the fun in less than half the time.
  • Clue: Discover the Secrets – I have never played it, and only know that it has a good reputation.

Promotional Image from Amazon
From a practical perspective, knowing how good a mass-market Hasbro game is (including Parker Brothers or Milton Bradley) will not be easy to determine.  I still get teased by my wife for passing up on Star Wars: Queen’s Gambit and Star Wars: Epic Duels back in the day.  These are both Daviau/Van Ness designs also.  However, since Hasbro doesn’t list designers on their games, it will take a little research to determine who worked on the design of any given game.  In the end, that’s going to be the answer for any Hasbro game: research.  That is, unless it has a movie tie in and isn’t too expensive.  If that’s the case, buy one to try – odds are good you will eventually be able to sell it on eBay for $150.00 if nothing else.

It’s Your Move


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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Publisher Profile: Z-man Games

Some of the other publishers I have highlighted have distinct characteristics such as producing games with sky-high Awesomeness, or concentrating on family games.  Then we have Z-man games, who are the buffet line of games.  When I say this, I am not suggesting they produce lower quality games for the masses (Hasbro can keep that crown), but rather that they produce a variety of games for different tastes.  Perhaps there's a better analogy, but the makers of games like Wasabi! and Wok Star need a restaurant reference.

Z-man got it's start publishing card games, particularly those related to B-movie horror themes.  They still continue to produce many card games, and some of their most highly rated games feature a lot of card play tied to a board.  1960: The Making of a President and Campaign Manager 2008 come to mind.  Both are games based in American politics and are also share game designers. 

One of the most popular and highly rated family games, Pandemic, is a Z-man publication.  This game also features a lot of card play, but is a cooperative game rather than a competitive one.  Since I have previously reviewed it, I won't go into a lot of detail here.  Suffice it to say that it is a good representative game for the company, with strong game play, reasonable play times, and quality European style pieces, all packed in a very sturdy box.  That sounds blasé, but the level of game play is the key.  Pandemic is within my top five games of all time, and I have played it 19 times so far this year -- exactly half the number of times I have played it. Nearly all of my plays have been in our gaming group, so it isn't just me.

Image by Benjamin Pachner
There are other great games produced by Z-man also:  Tales of the Arabian Nights, Fairy Tale and more.  The most notable is Agricola, which spent quite a while as the Number 1 ranked game on BoardGameGeek.  This is where the cautionary word to the casual gamer comes in; Agricola is not a casual or family game.  This is particularly true for families with pre-teeanage children.  This leads us back to one of the defining characteristics of Z-man -- their lack of defining characteristics.  Z-man produces good games, and the man behind it all, Zev Shlasinger, is less concerned about the genre.  To finish my cautionary thought: the Z-man label is a harbinger of an excellent game, but not necessarily of a good family or casual game.  Many of their games are targeted at the hobby gamer.  Ask at your local game store to make sure the game you are considering is a good match.

Image by Tim Fowers
As for Wasabi! and Wok Star, I don't own them but really want to play them.  Both are about preparing Asian food, but one is competitive and one is cooperative.  I think they might appeal to my wife, who loves to cook.  (I love to eat; it's a good match!)  I can't personally say how good these two games are for families, but that seems to be the consensus on BoardGameGeek.  Wok Star is currently out of print, and is supposed to be reprinted.  I hope so, since the asking price for a used copy seems to be around $100.00 USD!

It's Your Move!

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Publisher Profile: Rio Grande Games

Our third stop for publishers is Rio Grande Games (RGG).  A look at this company in comparison to the other publishers profiled reveals that RGG is the most prolific of the three.  RGG takes a different strategy when it comes to publishing games; they primarily bring established games from Europe to the United States rather than bring a new game to market.  This approach has shown itself in the number of Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) winners that RGG has published, including Dominion, Carcassonne, Zooloretto, Thurn and Taxis and Niagara to name a few.  Of BoardGameGeek’s (BGG) Top 100, Rio Grande Games has 25 titles!

The number of (SdJ) winners makes sense when you think about RGG’s focus on family games.  The first few sentences on their website say it all:

Rio Grande Games is dedicated to bringing you the best in family entertainment. We offer the best family strategy games available! We have games for younger children to play with their older siblings and parents, games for their older siblings to play with their friends, and games for teens and parents to play with each other or when they get together for social occasions.

PR was #1 on BGG for years! (Promo image)
With this focus and with the focus of this blog being so similar, it would be easy to think that RGG is the publisher most commonly found in our family’s game collection.  We do have nine of their games.  Even if we throw out Hasbro, who makes a lot of the kid’s games we own, there are a couple of other companies that are represented more on our shelves.  Fantasy Flight Games, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, is one of them.  Z-man Games is the other.  Fantasy Flight has more theme, which my boy and I love, and Z-man produces a lot of inexpensive card games, which skews things in their direction.  However, I enjoy every Rio Grande Game that we own and have played; I can’t say that about every company!

As one thinks about it, this all makes sense.  RGG has focused on publishing European (largely German) boardgames for the US market, which makes the games very family friendly.  This style of game, often called a Eurogame within hobby circles, tends to be a little less thematic, with a focus on keeping everyone in the game until the end, and with both mid-game and end of game scoring.  Great stuff for casual gaming as we discuss here at Zwischenzug.

The games are all made with excellent components.  The artwork is pleasing to the eye, if not eye popping.  RGG publishes very few games that last more than 90 minutes and most play in an hour or less.  All of these are great games for a casual night of play.

In fact, buying a Rio Grande game is nearly guaranteed to give you a game that is designed around a family.  However, it is not a guarantee of a great game.  It’s true that buying an SdJ winner will give you a great game.  Nonetheless, with as prolific as RGG is, they have published a few stinkers too.  It’s just the law of averages; no one “bats a thousand” as they say in baseball.

This is a MUST HAVE game!
What does this mean to the casual and family game player?  Beyond the SdJ winners, which are all excellent, the key issue to buying a good Rio Grande game is where you buy your games from.  If you buy from a brick and mortar game store, just ask.  As much as I find many store employees lacking in knowledge, they will probably be able to help here.  If you buy at a store like Barnes and Noble, they will only have the better Rio Grande games physically in the store.  If you buy online, things are a little more dicey, but you will be fine if you buy the most popular RGG games at Amazon or the like.  This is a publisher that has enough sales for those to be meaningful statistics. 

Personally, I would have to recommend Carcassonne.  Everyone I have ever introduced the game to has loved it.  It is one of my personal favorites.  After chess, it is the game which I have played the most.  It’s probably due for a full review, so I will stop at that.  Ah, the list of games for me grows longer.  For you, well…

It’s Your Move!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Publisher Profile: Days of Wonder

Days of Wonder is a board game publisher based out of both the United States and France.  They focus on family friendly games that vary from easy to moderately complex, have high quality components, and excellent art work.  Of the BoardGameGeek Top 100 games, there are six published by Days of Wonder.  Three of them are Ticket to Ride games, one is Small World, and the other two are BattleLore and Memior ’44.  These last two games are light wargames (light being a relative term for wargames) that use a common rule structure, based in fantasy and World War II respectively.  Small World is a fantasy themed, world conquering game that loosely has the same feel as Risk.

I actually have all of these games except for BattleLore, and while I haven’t played them all, I have been extremely happy with what I have.

Days of Wonder games generally are ones where the rules do not take a lot of gaming experience to understand.  Rules are actually one of their strong points.  Days of Wonder stays away from “gamer jargon”, uses a lot of illustrations to explain the rules, and the rules are well laid out overall.  The games do have either small figurines or illustrated tokens, and depending on the game the Awesomeness Factor is at least better than average.  These games will generally appeal to young and old alike, with nearly everyone being able to play – including the wargames.

Memoir '44 in play (image by Rollo Tommasi)
I would love to come back and say that there is some big issue, but there really isn’t.  Days of Wonder produces excellent games that are enjoyed by many people.  The only caution that might be offered is dependent on what type of games you prefer.  With the exception of the wargames and a few games such as Small World, Days of Wonder tends to produce what would be referred to as Eurogames: games that have a fairly tight rules structure, with abstractions to ease game flow, less direct confrontation, and points awarded both during game play and again after the end of the game.  Eurogames are very appealing to some, and less to others, and some people are game junkies and will play it all (that would be me).

For the family or casual gamer, I would say that the odds of getting a good game for your family and friends is pretty high when purchasing a Days of Wonder game.  Of course, it is always better to try before  you buy, but in a pinch I personally would take the risk. 

It’s Your Move

Friday, August 5, 2011

Publisher Profile: Fantasy Flight Games

Wednesday I posted a link to Fantasy Flight’s announcement of some new Star Wars games.  It started me thinking about the personalities of the different game publishers, and what it means for the family and casual gamer.  While it’s not a sure fire way to tell whether or not the game will suit your tastes, it might help.  I thought I might dedicate a few posts to looking some of the game publishers and the common characteristics of their games.

The mere mention of Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) immediately brings one thing to my mind: Awesomeness Factor.  FFG spends a lot of effort on the artwork and production of their games, which is particularly important because FFG publishes a lot of heavily thematic games: games that tell a story as they play out.  A look at the top 100 (out of 53,000) games on BoardGameGeek will show fifteen are FFG titles.  Only Rio Grande Games has more.  Of those fifteen, eleven are fantasy themed and three are science fiction themed.  Many times these games have specific tie-ins (Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica) or are set in a common fictional universe such as Terrinoth, a world that sets the backdrop for the games Runebound, Runewars, Decent and others.

This attention to production plays out in several different ways.  First of all, the artwork is top notch.  Secondly, all of the game components are well made.  Cards, typically a good indicator of the production quality, are always of the highest quality.  Many FFG titles come with miniatures, and though they are a monochrome plastic, many people take the time to paint their minis in keeping with the other artwork.  (I haven’t done this – yet!  I have bought some paints and brushes though.)  The attention to detail and thematic art helps the players feel as though they are in the story.  If that’s an important part of your fun, this company is hard to beat.

Painted Fury of Dracula minis by Kevin Duffy

The downside to FFG titles is that they are often complicated.  The simple reason for this is that stories are complicated.  If you are trying to create a game that feels like you are in the middle of the fight against Sauron, it’s not going to be simple.  After all, Tolkien told the story of the Lord of the Rings in three volumes.  This certainly isn’t true of every single game, but the more thematic (and in FFG’s case, the more popular) games are all pretty involved.  FFG takes a lot of flak about their rule books, and the fact that they aren’t particularly well written.  Personally, I think the level of clarity isn’t as good as some other companies' games, but I do think they are in line given the level of game complexity.   Fortunately, FFG is very good about publishing FAQs and other clarifying material on their website.

Excellent artwork and card construction are an FFG hallmark (Photo by Matti Luostarinen)

A couple of months ago, I would have said the second thing to come to mind about FFG was customer service, which was so far above “top notch” that it redefined the term.  However, their customer service department, which consisted of one person, recently resigned to pursue other opportunities in life.  (Thaad, you will be missed.)  We will see how well they do with her gone.

For the family or casual gamer, I am sorry to say that FFG productions are probably not what you are looking for in gaming.  They do publish games that are more casual, but generally the level of complexity might well be higher than is fun.  The rules take some getting used to.  We recently purchased Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and I read the rules three times before I started to understand what was going on.  Even then, I went to BoardGameGeek and looked at the FAQ's to finish my education.  It’s a game designed to include solitaire play, so Saturday morning I hope to actually play the game.  I am sure I will end up reading the rules again afterwards, and seeing all of the things I did wrong. 

The practical upshot for the family or casual gamer is this:  make sure you do your homework before buying a Fantasy Flight game.  While the kids will probably get into the story line, think twice.  Read reviews, including comments made on BoardGameGeek.  Feel free to drop me a line and I will answer as best I can.  If you do purchase it, and it is more than you are “game” for, let me know.  Who knows, maybe your close enough that I can come teach it.  Or, you could send it to me to decipher…

It’s Your Move!

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Feel the Force"

I am not sure these will be family/casual games, but this is just too cool NOT to report.  Fantasy Flight games has just obtained the license for Star Wars products, and has announced two games are in the works:

While the second is cool, the first sounds awesome!