A phrase I've heard many times around the gaming community and one that I can completely understand. The tabletop gaming community is well known for its compassion and empathy and area control is synonymous with ‘mean’ game mechanisms. The kind of gameplay that has players rewarded for preying on the weak, derailing players' plans, or stealing from each other. I think designers are learning from past mistakes and area control has come a long way, but the stigma of area control remains.
It could be a hangover from the most widely known area control game, Risk. The hours, or even days long, game of world domination. Where the game's not 'officially' over until you're no longer on speaking terms. Risk can still be a good experience, don't get me wrong. But just like that sweet grandmother and her casual racism, it's sure showing its age.
Risk has a few particular issues that make it feel quite dated. The slow, random, dice combat (which can be helped with a good Risk dice app) and that generally the strongest player builds more armies and gets exponentially stronger, with no choice but to siphon territory from weaker players to progress the game.
But my biggest gripe with the game is that losing nearly always feels too bad, ragequit bad! You can spend ages building an army that can be gone in a single unlucky turn. In Risk, player elimination is fundamental to victory, so you may have to sit for hours waiting for the end of the game to come. When losing hurts too much, it doesn't just affect the loser but saps the achievement from the winner, making them feel bad about their actions or even choosing to hold back, painfully delaying the inevitable. But I am being a little unfair to Risk, this game is over 60 years old and was a trailblazer for the genre.
We've learned a lot since the 1960s and area control has come a long way with plenty of modern area control games doing much better.
Smallworld by Philippe Keyaerts is one of my all-time favourite modern area control games. It's not perfect, but it does some incredible things to mitigate the negative attributes of area control.
In Smallworld, from Days of Wonder players start by choosing from a river of randomly paired races and attribute tiles that offer dozens of potential combinations. The initial choice of who to be at the very start of the game does mean that experienced players have a big advantage, but there are very few terrible combinations meaning just picking at random is likely fine.
Once selected, the players invade a land that is just a little too small for everyone, and combat quickly becomes inevitable. Combat in Smallworld is entirely decisive with the exception of a single dice which gives you a chance to boost your very final combat that round. And adds a small and very welcome amount of randomness.
When players lose in combat they only lose a single fighter from each area conquered. All others are returned to that player to fight another day. This has a fantastic balance between losing enough to make you care but not enough to really matter.
Once you lose too many fighters or have spread so thinly over the map that even that new player who accidentally picked the Pacifist Panda-bears is starting to look threatening, you just turn your back on that race and pick another. This not only allows the player to react to the board and maybe pick a new combination to counter the leading player but also to not feel too precious about those losses.
Losing in Smallworld just doesn't feel that bad, and knowing that if you’re down you’re not out is a great feeling.
Another seemingly tiny detail that has a real impact, is that the different value Victory Point counters are the same size. The tokens are open for all players to see but quickly become too difficult to track. This gives players a rough idea of who is winning; enough to allow them to target the right competitor, but not enough information to be sure exactly. Or to know going into the final round that they could never win.
Blood Rage designed by Eric Lang and published by CMON is another great example. Players start each round by drafting cards that will be used to build a Viking clan. Players gradually play their cards and spend Action Points… sorry… “Rage”, to place fighters onto areas of the map and usually participate in battles, that if won, grow your clan stats further.
The cool part is that the game adds a mechanism that can actually reward players with Victory Points for falling in battle. This isn’t just highly thematic but creates a very unique scenario where a player might actually want to lose a battle. The winner can be happy for demolishing their opponent and gaining the various rewards but the loser can also be happy because that's exactly what they had planned. Very few games manage to pull off this level of interaction and for a theme-heavy game, it really nails the feeling of constant progression of a solid euro experience with low randomness and rewarding strategy.
When it came to creating my own Worker Placement and Area Control game, Crown of Ash, I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of area control, while retaining the many good qualities, primarily the high player interaction. Looking at the games that do area control well, my main takeaway was to mitigate the feeling of loss. Losing control of an area should feel significant, but not devastating.
Here’s a scenario: a player steals $10 from another. There is now a $20 difference between the two players. But what’s more important is how the players feel. Studies show that losing $10 feels ‘worse’ than gaining $10 feels 'good’. So not only is the fiscal impact doubled by the theft but overall feelings are at a net negative. A designer can control this loss by having the thief receive a ‘corruption token’ that if still held by the end of the game equals negative victory points for that player. The victim feels a bit better knowing the theft might aid them in the future and the thief is happy to receive the corruption token on their own terms and even happier if they manage to get rid of it before it comes back to bite them. Equally the designer could have the victim gain a ‘revenge token’ that they can use to trigger a powerful ability later in the game. The victim gains something for their loss and the thief has to consider whether this is worth the future risk.
In Crown of Ash, players play withered Necromancers, risen to rebuild a ruined Kingdom, and finish a century-old war to claim the throne.
Each player has just four minions (workers) at their disposal and players take turns placing them to do their bidding; gaining resources, building structures, or initiating combat.
At the start of the game, each Necromancer only has a few weak undead fighters and very little controlled area. Players compete to gain resources and use them to raise a mighty army of colossal undead monstrosities to aid their conquests.
Once under your control, these fighters are used to attack and defend towering structures around the board. These can be built up to offer better resources and at the end of each of the four game rounds, score Victory Points to the player that controls them. The player with the most Victory Points at the end of the game takes the crown.
Just like with many area control games, combat forms a key aspect of gameplay. And this is where balancing loss proves most important. When players participate in combat, alongside the strength of their participating raised fighters, each player must play a combat card from their hand. Combat cards represent the players’ own influence over the battle and add to the overall attack score of the fighters. They also offer a reward to each player regardless of whether a player wins or loses. The cards are designed to encourage risk-taking. Win a battle with a low-value card and you could gain a better reward than if you had won with a high-value one. Lose with a high-value card and get better compensation for the loss. This often leads to grippingly close battles, but win or lose players always gain something. Losing a structure in battle is a meaningful loss by design; it means potentially missing out on valuable Victory Points. Defeated fighters are moved to the player’s graveyard but rise again at the start of each round, ready for revenge. So while players may have lost control of a structure, the losing player is left stronger than before and is soon ready to come back swinging. With no player elimination or permanent discarding of fighters, there's a real sense of the constant growth that makes euro games great. But with a strong theme, exciting combat, and the high player interaction that American games excel in. So if you or your gaming group hates area control games, consider giving them one last chance, it might surprise you.
Crown of Ash from Card Noir launches on Kickstarter in 2022 Find out more at crownofash.com
Risk image courtesy of the WH Smith website
Small World image courtesy of Amazon
Blood Rage images courtesy of the CMON website