Earlier this month, [Witty SciFi Pun] talked about a board game called Mansions of Madness. As much as many of my friends seem to enjoy it, I've never played this game and have no desire to try it. Maybe I should, since making judgments like that is generally a bad idea. But the familiar design elements, the relatively long play time, and the prevalence of tiny hard-to-read cards reminded me of three other games, all relying on similar game mechanics and all published by a company called Fantasy Flight Games. Throughout my years playing board games during college, I've made it a personal goal to understand what makes these games fun enough that other people would want to play them more than once. I have utterly failed.
Of the trio, I first came across Talisman, which bills itself as 'The Magical Quest Game.' This is the only one that is structured as most board games are, where each player plays for themself and there is only one winner. Since it was first released the 1980's, this game has been revised three times, which is amazing considering how unbalanced it still is. There are 14 playable 'heroes,' each based on a medieval fantasy archetype (wizards, sorcerers, and the like), one of which each player is supposed to select at random. However, since some of these heroes are much, much more powerful than others, we pitied whoever would be left with the weaker characters enough to let the players pick who they wanted to be. Each player's turn then proceeds by rolling a die and moving that many spaces to the left or the right (usually one of these choices is much, much better than the other) around whichever of the three concentric rings of the board they happen to be in. Most spaces require you to draw at least one, and probably several, tiny cards from one of numerous tiny decks, which contain items, monsters, random events, and the like. The monster battles are also based on dice rolls, and if a particularly strong monster that a given player can't defeat appears, it stays on the board to give migraines to all of the fellow journeymen. The positive consequences of defeating a monster and the negative consequences of losing to one lead to negative feedback loops for most players, and so the game often results in a Monopoly-like scenario where one or two players undergo a drawn-out victory scenario while the others keep drawing the same terrible cards and wait to be put out of their misery. All the while, the players' turns have very little relevance to each other - the leave-items-on-the-board mechanic is interesting, but the board is large enough where that rarely becomes a factor - that there's nothing really there to keep a player engaged until it comes back around to their turn, so most players pick up the discouraging habit of doing something else while playing this game. Even the people I normally play board games with at school leave this one alone, but apparently it's popular enough to go through four editions and quite a few expansions.
Arkham Horror is probably the most famous of the Fantasy Flight games, and is the one that I've played the most. Another remake of something out of the 80's, this is a purely cooperative game, where all players either win or lose together. The game's win conditions are so complicated that the owner of the game printed out flow charts to keep in the game's box. Like Mansions of Madness, it's set in a Lovecraftian world, and a random Elder God serves as a final boss which the players may or may not get a chance to fight. Each player plays as an 'investigator,' one of a somewhat large number of random denizens of the town of Arkham, Massachusetts who somehow got roped into trying to save the world. These investigators are given unevenly distributed abilities (sound familiar?) as well as two different types of health markers, stamina and sanity, which disappear easily and are far too difficult to recover. Each of the investigators then wanders around Arkham, either killing or sneaking past monsters in the streets (unsurprisingly, success in both cases is determined by a die roll) or visiting various buildings in the town, upon which the player draws a tiny card from one of a plethora of decks and preforms the action written on it (which also usually involves a die roll). The towns have icons by them that supposedly inform the player about what sort of events normally happen there, but their real purpose seems to be to taunt the player as they draw a card that tells them to lose their two remaining sanity. It's usually one player's job to go around 'sealing gates,' which involves being sucked into one of the 'other worlds' for a couple turns and letting random things that are slightly worse than normal happen to you. This game, more than the others, has a tendency to drag on and on and on - I was once witness to part of a game (thankfully not as a character) that lasted for six hours, seemingly because one new player made one dumb move. And the game depends on random luck enough that if the game resulted in victory, I didn't really do anything to help it get there - I just made the most obvious decision at each turn and hoped for the best.
Finally, there's Battlestar Galactica, ranked at an astoundingly high 18th place by the discriminating users of boardgamegeek.com. Unlike the other two games, this one doesn't have the excuse of being a remake of an earlier board game made by a different company. Each player plays as one of ten characters from the show that all have different abilities and weaknesses (sigh), and there are two teams: most play as 'humans,' but there are at least one or two 'cylons' (super-humanoid robots, for those who haven't seen the show) which are kept secret from the rest of the players (even some of the cylons don't know that they're cylons until halfway through the game). The goal of the humans is to prevent one of about five or six Bad Things from happening, some of which are difficult enough to counter without the cylons helping things along. Each turn, characters draw tiny cards (ugh) from two or three of five colored decks; each card performs one of two actions specific to that deck and a point value from one to five. The characters then travel around repairing their ship or dogfighting enemies or doing whatever their specific character is best suited to do. In order to accomplish almost anything of note, a 'check' happens, where all players discard as many cards as they choose. These cards are added to two cards of random color, mixed together, and have their point values added, where cards of some colors count positive and others count negative. Between the random cards and restrictions on what information individual players are allowed to reveal, any reasonably clever cylon can play his cards in such a way that it's impossible to figure out who the saboteurs are through reason alone. Maybe this game would be a lot of fun for people who really enjoy poker, but unfortunately, I don't.
To be fair, there are some other games published by Fantasy Flight which are much more enjoyable. Cosmic Encounter (or, as we like to call it, 'Dicks in Space') keeps the 'everyone gets uneven powers' mechanic, but affixes it to a pretty simple game that doesn't lean nearly as heavily on luck. Citadels, which [Witty SciFi Pun] also reviewed, is extraordinarily fun and completely different, though Fantasy Flight's relationship to the game seems to be limited to translating it and plastering ads all over the sides of the box. Overall, the fatal combination for Fantasy Flight games seems to be the long play time and the degree of the games' reliance on luck. While a little bit of luck can be a very good thing when it forces players to adapt their plans to new situations throughout the game, Fantasy Flight games rely so much on luck that any long-term strategic planning ceases to be valuable, so there is nothing to keep a player invested throughout the game's three-hour-plus duration. At the end of these games, whether I win or lose, I always feel like I didn't really do anything to deserve the outcome, and just kind of wish I spent the time playing something that's a little bit more interesting.