Games that change

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons - reports of demoing at Essen and a couple of things @Acacia said about Gingkopolis and Pax Pamir 2e.

What games do you think change - either as you play them, or grow/ worsen from play to play.

I was trying to think of games that would ‘fail’ the Essen test. If only the first 30 minutes of your game are going to be played at the convention, you need to make sure that the experience isn’t backloaded. The initial turns have to both sell the game and be reflective of how the full game plays. I tend to like engine builders and they often are very different in the final 3 turns than your intial 3 turns.

Then games that change as you play them. Gingkopolis is reknowned for showing itself 2/3 of the way through your first game. I think it passes my Essen Test because it is short enough that as a demo you’d play the whole game. I think Troyes is fairly impenetrable until you’re a good way through.

Finally, games that change as you play them more often. I reckon most Cole Wehrle games fit in here, but many games improve as you play them 5-10+ times. That sounds brilliant, but so many games are only played once that there has to be a hook from that first play. I knew I enjoyed Great Western Trail and Terraforming Mars after a single play, but I was rubbish at them and only repeated exposure has shown them in their full light. Gingkopolis fits here as well and things like Tigris and Euphrates.

And some stuff gets worse the more you play it. Cards Against Humanity should only be played once imo. Dexterity games often don’t hold up.


I recently played Dice Hospital: ER – Emergency Roll, and while it was a pleasant experience I felt that I had basically seen what it had to offer, and future games would be pretty much like this one, so I had no need to play it again.

Which is perhaps unfair. I mean, Onitama or Red 7 don’t spring surprises on me, but I still like them. I’m still working through my coffin box of all things Railroad Ink. But I think that all those games have a larger possibility space, that there’s more variation within a game.

I do sometimes get an impression that some designers/publishers are trying to front-load game experiences: if someone’s going to play a demo and then buy, if a reviewer’s only going to have time to play one game, there’s an incentive to put a disproportionate amount of the shinies into that subset of the experience and leave less to be discovered later. It reminds me of competitive barbecuing, which is judged by a single mouthful of each dish - so that mouthful has to contain everything, in a way that you really wouldn’t want if you were eating a full portion.

But I played the TTS prototype of Worldbreakers: Advent of the Khanate, and that was definitely back-loaded: the rulebook talks about all sorts of interesting mechanisms which just won’t show up in early games.

Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift gives you the monster movement in the first game but leaves out some of the more complex monster powers and of course any player upgrades. That seems fair; after playing and then skimming the rulebook, I felt I had a decent impression of what the rest of the game would be like. (Though it would have to be amazing to overcome my general dislike of dungeon-bashers, so arguably I didn’t need a detailed decision there.)

The group of three of us who play at Thirsty Meeples in Oxford recently got back together after three years off. We traditionally end the evening with one of the Timeline games, where we’ve found that it’s fine as long as you don’t play the same set too often – but somehow this time it wasn’t fun.


Experiences are subjective so the trend line going up or down depends on what that person is looking for. Number of plays also varies when that line goes up or down. A couple of cop-out answers, but yeah. Just want to emphasise that it’s not straight forward.

To put my own experience: most modern games are often flash in the pan nowadays. It didn’t help when reviewers emphasise “if you don’t wow me on my first game…”, leading to shallow games. But experience is a big factor. It took me 30 plays of Concordia to see what’s up and retired after that. But nowadays, Euros have a shelf life of 1 - 5 plays, if it’s a bad one (and they are most likely a bad one). Mainly because the only growth left when I reach these points is to “be more efficient”, and I’m not interested on doing that. Party/filler games like 6 Nimmt! got a much lower bar as it asks for so little from you that I will be eager to play 6 Nimmt every time.

The forum pretty much know that I’m into different stuff now. But if you remember me prior to COVID, I’m waaay into hybrids and light old-school games. I start dabbling on “shared incentivey” games like Chicago Express and Imperial, but it wasn’t until COVID that went full swing. My heavy gamer friends wanted to try Splotters and 18xx during the lockdowns. Now, I dispatched Gaia Project to its buyer. And I have 70 plays of 1846: Race to the Midwest and still learning new tricks!

Wehrle’s titles are defo on the denser side. Both Brass editions are the surprising ones to me as they went downhill. Birmingham dropped badly after 5 plays. Lancashire: yes, but only mildly. Front loaded card games like Seasons and Res Arcana reveals themselves after a play or two. Ark Nova is so pedestrian (after having experienced TFM, Everdell, etc) that it took me one play for me to be done with it.


I once heard a quote which I later came to agree with:
You don’t really understand Race for the Galaxy until you’ve held all three of these opinions:

  • Contact Specialist is a useless card
  • Contact Specialist is an overpowered card
  • Contact Specialist is a pretty balanced card

I’ve said this before but for me Dominion does a clever pivot from Deck Builder to Deck Manipulator.


I am of several minds on this.

First the „Essen Test“ or „Grokking a game in 30 minutes or less“

  • Essen Test is a thing I have been trying to get better at. One could say that I am only here because I often brought home games from Essen that we ended up playing once at home and then never again (Wiraqocha, Theseus: Dark Orbit)
  • Most of the time I spend on the hobby, that is not playing games, is figuring out what I like (and my partner likes) and how to spot games that fit the bill
  • The Essen Test sucks. Only party or other light games pass with any semblance of the actual game. And still it is the best way to try a bunch of games
  • I have accepted that I buy games—even after some research—that fail to materialize the properties that I want from a game.
  • Games that optimize that first round… meh. Good games get longer/more interesting/more complex turns in later rounds or where is the arc?

Party Games

  • to me these are games that need the group and that change with the group a lot. Every game does this to some extent but party games often have light game play and a lot of room for socialising and this obviously changes with a group. This can be very good or depending on a group that doesn‘t gel with a game terrible. I‘ve had Dixit fall totally flat with a group.
  • And some of these change if you play them repeatedly with the same group once again Dixit and also very much Codenames play quite differently with a group that has played together before because new games build on clues and cards used in previous games.

Games with Longevity

  • This is the other thing I am thinking. For me games that will be fascinating as I play them over and over need a certain depth. I do not have so many of those (at least not since starting to actually log
  • I recently talked with several different people about why we don‘t talk about Chess and Go much here and came to the conclusion the depth of gameplay requires you to play them so much that there is little room for other games. These games probably change for the players as their strategic depths reveal themselves to the true aficionados (not me) but quickly leave behind those who only dabble.
  • My examples here include Hardback of which I have logged almost 100 plays now. Weirdly, that little deckbuilder-scrabble crossover is fascinating me to (apparently) no end. We pivoted to cooperative play which is definitely giving this game a far longer shelf-live than versus-mode because it is hard. And we have played so much and we still lose a lot. There is a lot of luck in coop mode—if Penny plays red and the 9 point card comes up first the game is effectively over—but I still think we should one day be able to mitigate the luck and win consistently. There are strategies around colors, card abilities, letters, the two dimensions of this are well meshed and as there are endless words… sometimes I see a word and find myself thinking „why have I not used that for hardback“
  • Carcassonne turns from pastoral to vicious after a couple of plays (if not you are playing it wrong—I repeat myself :wink: )
  • All those complex card games that I enjoy tend to change as one learns the cards. There is a huge difference between my first solos of TM and my later ones.
  • RtfG has already been mentioned. I remember getting quite good at it at one point and when I play now… I just flop around like a Cascadia salmon in the desert (I know it is prairie, still flopping).

If I grok a game on first play, it is sure to get boring quickly. Some games remain opaque forever that is the other side of the coin and just as bad (except Castles of Burgundy which I apparently suck at but still like to play)

What I look for are games that need a couple of plays to understand, another dozen to get somewhat good at and then continue to deliver. For me, I find these games in some unlikely places and I cannot seem to zero in on one style of game, I cannot quite grasp a pattern that will easily let me decide when a game will hold up for me and make me want to play again and again and again. But change and in consequence depth are a necessity.

Hope my early morning ramblings make some sense :slight_smile:


I hadn’t even considered a gamer being bad at the ‘Essen Test’. Trying to work out if I’ll like a game, if my wife will like a game and whether the people we play with will like it is so hard.

BGA has really helped me explore games in a way I wouldn’t irl and I have found more joy in Innovation and RFTG than I ever would have thought despite owning them. Same with A Feast for Odin. That probably suggests setting a game up is a big barrier for me.

I think I find high skill ceiling games intimidating. I’m never going to be able to play something at a high level, so I will miss depth in games.

First play is so important, but I can’t think what it is about a first play that makes me want to play a game again. It’s possibly circumstance (company, mood etc) as much as anything.


Sounds like you need some good inserts!


I’ve made some expensive mistakes at Essen: looking through my BGG Previously Owned, I see Cornish Smuggler, L’Aéropostale, Lux Aeterna, Police Precinct, Tzolk’in, Secret Weapons of the Third Reich, Forest Fire… not saying any of these are necessarily bad games for the right person, but they weren’t right for me, and I had at least a brief talk-through of each of them.

For what it’s worth the people I demo for (at Essen and Expo) will generally suggest that you play a full game, though if you just want to talk through it we’ll do that too. We aren’t selling multi-hour games, which certainly helps.

Magic wants to be an only game you play – so do all the LCGs and CCGs I think, though when I talk about casual play of Ashes I always find people saying “yeah, me too” so a game can be both. I think complex no-luck games are particularly susceptible to this: if two random people play Chess or Go, chances are one or the other can be correctly predicted as the winner before the game begins, so you need ratings and handicaps and so on just to have any hope of having an enjoyable experience.


There are of course different variants.

For example: When I come to Essen and have researched a game and the demo is only needed to reinforce my impression… take Spirit Island. I knew what it was and I sat down for a teach and demo of a few turns quite excitedly and those first turns showed me all the mechanics and hinted at the rest of the gameplay and I KNEW this would be one of my favorite games. But with Spirit Island this is well done IMO as you start out with low complexity spirits to learn the basic game and then you scale up the complexity to make it a challenge. Is that change? Or is that just variability?

I have also—through reviews and podcasts and being on here—been exposed to a lot more games and game analysis in the past few years than I ever was during the years where my main exposure to new games was at Essen. So it is possible I am getting better at taking home fewer duds from Essen.

I am getting generally quicker (and better?) at judging games. But Essen itself is difficult because of the excitement, the surroundings, so many people buying so many games, everyone at the tables being usually quite excited about that particular game or at least willing to be—unlike people at home whom you have to pry lose from playing Wingspan over and over… and all the hype and discussions before the fair is not helping either. Then there is FOMO and voilà—even this year I have a candidate for „not sure how long this will hold up“ (not telling). Also: I am a bit glad I didn‘t get to buy The Wolves at the fair (it was sold out). If I had played a demo game I would probably have enjoyed it a lot (area control with a roving pack in a very pretty Pandasaurus package and fascinating action mechanisms from what I could see). But what I have read about it since, made me reconsider… downtime issues, AP issues … I hope to read more about it in the future but right now I am not willing to be the person to try it.


Spirit Island is such an interesting example because it ticked all of my boxes; then my wife and I tried it at a cafe and I hated it.

Came back to it a few years later and I loved it, even with that second play being on TTS.

Having written that and following on from above, being taught a game rather than having to learn a game makes a big difference to whether I enjoy my first play. Although that probably will give a false impression on longevity.


I think learning a game as the ears is really stressful and I’m kind of glad in my house I’m generally the explainer.

I’m not really sure what the best way to learn a game is but I appreciate the effort put in by something like wingspan which really hand holds each player through their business specifically. I don’t really know how successful it is without actually learning the rules (like is it successful as a capper once the concepts are half grokked or can it work with someone with zero knowledge of anything?)

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Fwiw I think you’re a very good game teacher

Variability helps with longevity imo. @Acacia , my wife and I just played a second game of Gingkopolis which felt so different from the first, both in gameplay and in point scoring.


I think expectations also play a huge role on our first impressions on games.

So obviously we have different categories of changes that can happen:

  1. a favorable first impression turns into a boring game
  2. a bad first impression turns into a game we enjoy
  3. a game we liked from the start that reveals depth the more we play
  4. games that develop meta-games
  5. not really but maybe relevant because this seems to be a lot about first impressions being usurped: a game we had high hopes for due to reasons like reviews and had a first impression that was then negative

I rarely get a number 2. A game that leaves a bad first impression really needs someone to champion it in the face of my adversity. I cannot think of a good example right now though there is probably one. For me it is more that I tend avoid some games and then someone says: „it‘s a good game you should try it“ and then sometimes—like Gloomhaven—it is indeed a good game. But I never had a negative impression of it in the first place, I just didn’t know a lot about it and it didn‘t seem like a game I would enjoy.

Talking of first impressions…

Rant about games „changing through campaign mode“

I heard several reviewers talk about this lately how some games try to introduce the rules via a tacked on campaign mode and how instead of leaving a good impression that way it had a negative impact on the enjoyment of the game for the reviewers. Revive was the game in one of those debates. My personal example is the Space Base expansion that we haven‘t finished playing and have half forgotten the rules of the pieces we have played. I really hope this is not a trend that continues long. I am fine with a game offering different modes of play to scale difficulty and complexity. I dislike having to look for rules all over the place because the campaign reveals them one after another… and once you played that there is no reason to ever go back. Cloud Age had this drawn out so badly and it didn‘t even have a full game after I think. It could have been a good game without a story. But right now everything needs to be a campaign. And I am sick of it. I am not talking about the sequence of The Crew scenarios. You can play those in any order you like, they are just loosely put in ascending order of difficulty and if you want to read some story text… you do you. I am not talking about the first-gen legacy games: those were innovative. Not even Sleeping Gods offends me quite like the idea that in order to learn a game I need to play a series of games with half the rules.


Thanks man :slight_smile:

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I think environment is critical and might be the saviour for a bad first go. Essentially I think if you can zone into exactly why something when wrong then it can get a second life because you can extract that problem cleanly. But if the problems feel more general and wider then the game becomes dead regardless of the underlying potential.


There are so very very many games, that even for someone picky like me the number of games I’ll enjoy is pretty huge, and the only way not to force my wife to move out to make room for more games is to be ferociously selective. If I get one negative impression of a game, that’s usually enough that I won’t plan to buy it, unless I get a real rave from someone else (and usually I want a positive play experience too).


I’d agree that you’re a very good teacher. I’m usually happier as the ears than the mouth, but I’ll say you were great at getting us into Unfathomable.


I think there is a couple of categories that I would add:

  1. games that I enjoyed, and stopped being “trendy”, so because most groups tend to seek new things, they get limited amounts of playtime against the “next new thing”
  2. games that given their length, and even though we love, finding the time and space to play gets trickier and trickier, so they get played less.

I know that those two categories, if they are very good games, they tend to become “Classics”, and if they were just good-ish, they become “remember so and so…?” games.

Little rant about gaming pickiness

If there is something I have against the “board gaming community” in general, is how picky we can be. Which sometimes led me to despair, as it could take nearly 10 or 15 minutes on our Monday group to stand in front of the hosts packed shelves (minimum 150 games to choose from, plus what people brought along) to make a decision. I can play nearly everything (I used to not include the word “nearly”, but then one day I played Killer Bunnies). We had ways to avoid this by deciding beforehand on Facebook, but you always had the doubt on the back of your mind 'what if no-one wants to play it"?

I realised I was rambling on a tangent, so I hid the above paragraph.

There is also the campaign games (specially as mentioned by @yashima, where they include a tutorial, like JotL) where the game changes as you go along, and not always in the way one expects.

I think Gloomhaven difficulty is not very well balanced, specially with some character combinations at lower player counts, so you end up feeling like cheating to get the story moving, which in a way is counter-productive, as (at least for me) as you lose interest if the story is not that good. So from “wow, look at all I can do, how much to discover” I have gone to “do I want to set all this up again to be crushed by a random ooze again?” in the space of two years…


Some games that fell from grace, to varying degrees:

  • Smallworld: Loved the first play. Bought it and played a few more times. I think when the app came out is when it got a lot of plays, and I realized the only interesting part of the game was deciding a) which race to choose and b) where to enter the map. The rest was rote and boring. And playing 45-60 minutes to hit those 2-3 interesting decisions was not a good use of game time.
  • Space Base: I liked this. And I find over time I like it less and want to play it less. I think Space Base is too long for what it is; I’d love it at half the duration. And the market is too stagnant making games unpredictable. Some games you get really interesting combos and engines. A lot of games are just rote big money because the ships aren’t there. Seems like a few houserules could vault this back into good graces.
  • Parks: Such a small, polished, and pretty game. I thought it would kill Lords of Waterdeep as my light-recipe-fulfillment-worker-placement thing. But now I think Waterdeep may kill it. All it’s polish and interlocking mechanisms come together to be a big wall of “no” and my experience of the game is bouncing off closed doors rather than threading the needle to success. I also may just have been in a bad mood the last few plays. We’ll see.
  • Memoir 44: Ahhhhh. This maybe fell from a 10 to an 8? Similar to Smallworld’s digitization, its entrance to BGA gave me a LOT more plays and I started to feel the effects of random card draw more. Dice are fine, that’s the game. Cards really shape the game. Still love it, though. And it does seem the better player wins 80% of the time.
  • Neuroshima Hex: Used to be in my top 5. I think this is just an excellent game made rotten by hard to read board state and fraught battle resolution. The first rendition of the app removed all friction and made it … perfect? Portal keeps degrading the app, confusing the board state and such. The game falls apart a lot without perfect digital enablers.
  • Railroad Ink: Roll and Writes and me have never gotten along. I just don’t like them. I did like Railroad Ink, a lot. I think it was Challenge that killed it. It was so zen and relaxing and nothing mattered. The combos and goals clog up the space and blocked out the part of the game I liked, trying to make it more interesting in an area that doesn’t interest me.
  • Man Bites Dog: Put this in as a proxy for all stupid party games that hit ONCE based on the right group at the right time, and then never really did anything again. There is no game here.
  • Innovation: Not sure this really belong here. It went from 3-4 on my top 10 list to maybe 12? It’s still brilliant and I still love it. What changed was, as I got into higher levels of play, feeling the effects of deck memorization and how punishing the game could be as skill levels diverged. I don’t like games, or rather metas, that are based on study and memorization. I’d rather play. Like I said, it’s just outside my top 10 and still an amazing game, but it did change a smidge with age.
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