The Advantages of Lifestyle Games

look out for dragons

There was a time when I could give an educated opinion on almost every new board game release. I made a point of playing them all, and ultimately writing a review. But last week I watched from afar as my friends attended BGG.Con, and I realized that I didn’t recognize most of the games. It wasn’t that I hadn’t played them. I wasn’t even aware of their existence. At no point in my “gamer” years have I ever felt so distant from the hobby that once meant so much to me.

But a couple of days later something else occurred to me. I was in a bookstore in Manila and was perusing their display of Dungeons & Dragons books. To my surprise, they already had numerous copies of Eberron: Rising From The Last War, the new 5e version of the old campaign setting. I had my eyes on this release, but I hadn’t expected it to make it to this side of the Pacific Ocean so quickly. Needless to say I nabbed that right away. That’s when it occurred to me: I’m no longer a board gamer who dabbles in D&D. I’m now a D&D player who plays board games on the side.

This is not an unusual situation. A lot of people play one game to the exclusion of others. I just didn’t think I would end up as someone with a “lifestyle game.” If I am perfectly honest, I generally looked down on people who played a single game to the exclusion of all others. They were missing out! They weren’t interested in experiencing the full breadth of the hobby! But as I’ve become one of those “lifestyle” gamers, I have seen some big advantages to focusing time and energy on a single game system.

Magic: The Gathering
I haven’t played Magic in a long time, so help me out: is this a good card?

Many of those upsides revolve around the removal of choice. This seems like a strange thing to say, but humans actually don’t care much for extensive choices. We like choosing from three things, rather than 150. There’s a reason why some of the most successful board game designs have offered players a narrow range of choices, because for the average person choice is an easy thing to overdo. At any rate I have seen this played out in my own life. We’ve all stared at our game shelves, vainly trying to decide what to play. I no longer have to worry about what games to bring to game night, because most game nights will actually just be D&D.

It also removes that little hassling voice telling me what I should and should not play. This was especially bad when I was in the thick of the review treadmill. Invariably there would be some mediocre new release that needed to get played, even though I would generally rather play Cosmic Encounter or Argent again. So the things I really enjoyed about the hobby were being deferred, which is not a way to engage with a hobby at all.

This has especially become a challenge in the last few years as the rate of board game releases has ramped up. My inability to recognize new releases says as much about the growth of board gaming as it does about my own disconnection from it. Focusing on the releases from a single product line has been a huge corrective for me. Wizards of the Coast releases 2-3 new D&D books every year, and for a game that has as huge a scope as D&D that is more than enough content to last any group. I can’t follow the tide of every new board game release, but I can offer insight into why I’m excited for the newest published D&D adventure.

As a result I think I’m actually spending less on gaming than I have for most of the past ten years, while still enjoying the things I buy much more. I want to be careful here because one pastime among gamers is to prove that our hobby really isn’t as much of a money-sink as it is. And to be perfectly fair, my ability to spend less on D&D now is predicated on larger purchases I made a few years ago, like buying all of the core rulebooks with birthday money. But we also live in a time where it’s common for board games to cost over $80 at full retail, at which point a $50 sourcebook seems less extravagant. While that’s a ridiculous amount for a hardcover book, the age of the $50 board game is rapidly fading. Once you start adding in expansions, some games can creep over the $100 price tag. It’s always expensive to be a gamer, but walking away from keeping up with new board game releases has relieved some of the financial demands for me.

D&D cover
Come on now, this dragon wasn’t bothering anyone. Just let him sleep!

Don’t misread me, lifestyle games can be expensive. Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40K are living proof of that, and because they have robust organized play scenes some people will always have the desire to stay abreast of the current meta. That says nothing of all of the side purchases that supplement your favorite game. Whether it’s sleeves for Magic, paints for Warhammer, or minis for D&D, there’s no end of stuff on which you can spend your money. And there will always be a need to stay current with releases when you follow a particular product line. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful lifestyle games come from large companies like Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop. Those companies have the money to keep their games alive with well-paced new releases and robust organized play.

But following a game from a large corporation has its advantages too. Chief among them is that it’s easy to find a way to play. If you live in a major city, your odds of being able to find a game of Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer are quite good. At the very least, you will likely be able to find the products nearby. That structure of organized play is a boon here too, because even if you aren’t an organized play person, most game stores will run some version of what you like to play. This unity extends to the online community for these games, if only because board game discussions are so much more fractured. Say what you will about edition wars, but at least you are discussing the merits of the same game.

And the built-in community is really where I’ve found the strength of a lifestyle game the most. Games of all kinds are a great source of connection, and a lifestyle game can be a little spot of common ground between people from different places. It’s not unlike two cultures that at least share a common language. Finding like-minded people with whom you can enjoy something you already love is one of life’s great pleasures. Focusing on a single game has been the best way for me to facilitate that human connection, which is why we do this hobby in the first place.

7 Wonders Duel is the best version of 7 Wonders

box cover

Recently, the website Paste published a list of the 25 best board games of the 2010s. The list was filled with reminders that my own taste in games is far afield from that of others in the hobby, but no reminder was as stark as the number one game. Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders, originally published in 2010, has become a perennial favorite, but it doesn’t do much for me at all. I like the idea of a very light civilization game, but it pulls back too many layers for my taste. In spite of some clever mechanisms, to me the actual play of the game is sorely lacking. There are numerous ways to score points, but none of the cards really do anything besides score points. The result is a civilization game that feels bloodless and neutered. When a two-player version co-designed with Bruno Cathala was published in 2015, I was understandably skeptical.

But to my surprise, 7 Wonders Duel improved on its big brother in just about every way possible. It made good on the promise of a stripped down civilization experience by tweaking the card draft and adding some new ways to win the game. The response was positive enough that it’s proven to be a hit in its own right. (Tellingly, it also placed in the Top 10 on Paste’s list.) There were always strengths to the design of 7 Wonders, but now those flourishes are in service of a much richer experience that still doesn’t feel overwhelming.

The original 7 Wonders did have a two-player variant, but that was never its niche. While it could function with groups of 3-4, my experience with it was always with groups of 6-7 players. This has no doubt contributed to my antipathy to the game, because while it plays 7 players smoothly, it’s so frictionless that it disappears completely. In the interest of creating a more robust two-player experience, Duel rethinks the original game’s card draft. Now instead of passing a hand of cards back and forth, a series of cards are set out in the beginning of every round, randomized but in a set shape. Half of the cards in every round begin the game face down, and are only revealed when the cards that cover them are drafted.

Wife playing Duel
Not a great picture, but if 7 Wonders Duel is a great game for couples. My wife kind of agrees.

This changes the draft considerably, making it a much more interesting decision than it ever was in the original game. Both players know the same information, so it’s easier to think a few moves ahead toward what your opponent might want. The face-down cards are the most interesting element here, because they make you think twice about taking a card you really need. There’s always the chance that you might uncover a card your opponent really needs, so timing those reveals becomes a consideration. While card drafting can be used well in a design, 7 Wonders Duel finds a much more interesting implementation than its predecessor.

While most games of 7 Wonders Duel amount to scoring after three rounds, this version adds a couple of new ways to win. The first is a science victory. The science cards each have an icon on them representing a different technology, and if you collect six of them you win automatically. There is a similar approach to military. Whenever a player gains military might it moves a little shield along a track. If the shield ever reaches one end of the track, that spells victory for the player who pushed it there.

No design decision has as big an impact as these new victory conditions. They provide a new decision point that wasn’t present in the original game. Now you need to monitor how close your opponent is to one of these victories. Single-minded focus on your own economic engine can easily result in an easy victory for your opponent if they push toward military. A science victory is harder to pull off, but it still shapes the decision-making process. More importantly these strategies add some much-needed thematic flavor to the 7 Wonders formula. Military in the original game was a value calculated relatively with your immediate neighbors, and only ever resulted in some extra points. Science had its own squirrely scoring system that I always found a little too convoluted for what was ostensibly an easy game. But neither felt very distinct, just another way to score points. Here they do feel distinct from each other, and up the stakes by providing a way to auto-win. Even without victory, the provide a material impact within the game. Military success will cause your opponent to lose money, and science cards can be used to gain the use of specific powers that can be a game-changer.

Pantheon cover
Those who like hard boundaries between history and mythology in their civ games may not be wild about Pantheon, but it does change up the formula quite a bit.

Duel’s success ensured expansion content, and the Pantheon expansion is worth exploring for anyone who liked the original game. It adds the ability to call upon various pantheons of gods, who will then provide powerful abilities to the players. It does gum up the smooth play of the original game a bit, and it makes the game swingier. I am not wild about the first change, but the increased variability in scoring makes this a nice change for people who have played the base game a lot. Co-designer Bruno Cathala has always had a propensity for cards with special player powers, and this is on full display here. Pantheon is hardly necessary to get the most out of the game, but it’s still a worthy addition.

Truthfully, although I much prefer 7 Wonders Duel to the original, it has softened my attitude toward a game I have disliked for years. There is a lot of clever design at the heart of 7 Wonders Duel that was there from the beginning. Perhaps the most impressive design feat is its sheer accessibility, which Duel maintains in spite of a couple of wrinkles. Like many games these days, my 9-year-old is my primary opponent for this game, and it’s generated in him an interest in civilization games of all stripes. Both games deal with resource production, trade, and wonders in a way that keeps everything clean and simple, while still generating some good decision points. Duel also maintains the high production quality and intuitive graphic design that made the original so accessible. Any successful game will generate alternate versions, and Duel is a great case to be made for this practice. Anyone who liked the original game will almost certainly like Duel, and those who were skeptics might find themselves won over by this smaller, better version.

Incan Gold, or Big Game Groups Done Right

eagle games edition

For the experienced board gamer, travelling is an opportunity to play games. Not big-box games with lots of pieces, but smaller ones without a bunch of components. I spent most of October on the road for various work functions, and in the evenings there were several opportunities to play some great games. There are plenty of great card games that work well with large groups, but as we played one of them, Incan Gold, it was a reminder that while games don’t change much, gamers are always changing. Ten years ago I would have flat out refused to play. Now it’s one of my favorite games to trot out when there’s a big group, and not much time.

(Someday I might write a piece about when it’s important to give unloved games another chance and when you can leave well enough alone. The only problem is that I haven’t ever figured out which is which.)

My original disdain for Incan Gold (which was originally published as Diamant, and has recently been republished that way again) revolved around its simplicity. Incan Gold is one of those games that revolves around a simple binary choice every turn. Well, not a turn exactly. Following in the tradition of games like Hoity Toity, Incan Gold doesn’t actually have turns. The players all decide simultaneously whether they will continue their journey into a ruined temple, or leave. Leaving becomes tempting as the game goes on, because it’s the only way to carry all of your treasure out with you. But staying allows you the opportunity to gain even more treasure, though the odds go up that you won’t get anything at all.

As push-your-luck games go, Incan Gold is pretty bare-bones. In each round another card is revealed, representing a new room in the temple. Those rooms might contain treasure, which is divided as evenly as possible between all the players still in, or some kind of hazard. You can survive several hazards, but if two of the same type are flipped everyone is forced to leave without any treasure at all. My original issue with the game was that there really isn’t any good way to gauge the likelihood of success here. You can figure the odds broadly, but there are lots of times when the hazards chase off the players before anything interesting can happen, or when the least likely card somehow comes up and makes you lose everything. It makes no attempt to soften its luck, and something about the offended me when I was starting out in the hobby. These days I am much more inclined to play a simple game, because I’m closer to 40 than I am 30, and life is too short to keep playing long complicated games all the time.

Hazard cards
The ancient temple is full of hazards. Image by user binraix on

But some other mechanical elements have become evident to me over the years. Although the decision to leave is a binary decision, it’s not always a simple one. Aside from push-your-luck mechanics, Incan Gold also forces you to outguess your opponents. Anyone who leaves has access to leftover treasure that hasn’t yet been divided, but if too many people leave at once your share is smaller. Depending on the version you’re playing, there might also be special treasures that go to people who leave the temple alone. The game rewards reading the other players and figuring out of they are the risk-taking types. The nexus of the push-your-luck and double-guessing mechanics is where Incan Gold dwells, and anyone who knows me knows that those are two of my favorite mechanics in any game.

There are a lot of practical elements that have changed my opinion on the game. Most notably, I have two kids now who are old enough to play games. Incan Gold is the rare game they can both enjoy with a table full of adults. This is partly because of the game’s structure. Since everything happens simultaneously, and in the open, the game moves quickly and provides lots of ups and downs in a short amount of time. Played over five hands, even big groups can go through a whole game in 30 minutes without breaking a sweat. Because the decision is a simple stay-or-go, the game can be played by a wide variety of ages at once. This particular quality has become important to me, because my older son especially wants to play games with adults. Incan Gold is a great candidate for that kind of job. And because the game has a fairly high level of randomness, there’s a decent chance that a young player can win, just because they were bold or cautious at the right time.

But the real secret sauce comes in the way the game does everything in the open. Because each decision is made in the open, and because everyone sees the results of every progressive step into the ancient ruins, and interesting communal atmosphere develops around the table. People who leave are cheered when they get a windfall, and people who risk it all to stay in provoke a nice “ooooo” from everyone. There are cheers and groans when every card is flipped. Even though this is a very light design, it has the ability to thrill a full table of eight players. Even those who aren’t really into this sort of game might find themselves swept up in the highs and lows of treasure-hunting, because everyone gets to experience them together. This is high-player-count gaming at its best, stripped-down, immediate, and communal.

Diamant cover
The name of this game has bounced between Diamant and Incan Gold. This is the most recent edition, published in 2016.

Not that there aren’t some complaints here and there. A round can sometimes end prematurely if two of the same hazard comes out early. If this happens in the last round it can have a sharp sense of anti-climax. It’s not a problem to shuffle up the cards and replay the hand if that happens, but the rules themselves don’t sanction that. It’s also a hard game to win on purpose. I’m not sure I’ve figured out a good strategy, other than just making a moment-to-moment decision about what must be done. Some games will reward conservative play, while others will give someone a huge pile of treasure while they ride close to danger. There’s no way to tell what kind of game you’re playing, and that can make the end result a little unsatisfying. Winning is hollow when you don’t really know how you did it.

For those reasons, Incan Gold is a game best enjoyed in the moment, not after the fact. The communal experience of seeing whether someone will get more treasure or lose it all is why you play, and the victory is more of a way to crown a winner than a reward for good play. Designers Bruno Faidutti (Mascarade) and Alan Moon (Ticket to Ride) had the good sense to not overthink this one. There aren’t a lot of corrections to keep those little imperfections away, because every extra rule is one more sentence that needs to be added to an explanation. Incan Gold draws its power from its ability to make the experience exciting. To me that will always be worth a little bit of leaky design.