Tabletop Tuesday — Better than Real Life (Or, Down with Math!)

As strange as this will sound for a lover of board games and someone who has to ration his time with a screen for migraine reasons, today I’m going to talk about some games that are so much better to play online. Now, for transparency, these are games I’ve played on, and the only reason I even tried to do so was the pandemic—my husband and I have another couple we game with every week on Tuesdays, which was originally a D&D group, then became a Gloomhaven group (I’m sure I’ll include a post on Gloomhaven at some point in this series), then two Gloomhaven follow-ups (or, rather, one follow-up and a prequel), and we’ll likely dive into Frosthaven when that appears, too. But when the Pandemic hit, one of those friends had an account on Board Game Arena, and we started exploring games that way.

I’m not a complete novice to playing games over the computer. I also run three different RPGs over Zoom, but I do “theatre of the mind” in those—roll20 is amazing, and I’m sure it’s fantastic to work with, but roll20 is just one of those online interfaces that sets off my headaches, fast. And the same can be said of quite a few of the games on Board Game Arena—Viticulture, which is a game I enjoy, didn’t just give me a headache but a full-on migraine trying to discern all the tiny writing on the cards, and a few others we’ve tried also left me aching, but over time we’ve gotten into a habit of a few games nearly every time.

So, what sorts of games aren’t just not-headache inducing but also—dare I say this—way, way more fun to play online while you’ve got a Zoom window open to chat with than they would be in person?

It mostly comes down to math, actually. And not having to do any of it.

Two Games to Have Fun With Math Without Doing Math

Can’t Stop Express

The cover of Can't Stop Express

Trying to explain Can’t Stop Express is always a little crunchy, and honestly it’s easier to just say “try it!” but here we go: every turn, five dice are rolled. All the players use this same roll, but they can do their own thing with said roll. First, each player then chooses one of those dice to be tucked aside—and marks that they’ve chosen this number as one of the three numbers they’ll be using for the game Once they’ve chosen three different numbers this way (either on the first three turns or however long it takes them), they always have to choose one of those three numbers, if it’s possible. The four dice left over are then arranged into two pairs, resulting in numbers from 2 (snake eyes) to 12 (double six), with the probabilities inherent in that spread (ie: 7 is the most common, then 6 and 8, then 5 and 9, etc.)

On a pad much like Yahtzee, those pairs are noted, and once everyone has done so, the dice are rolled again. Each number from 2 to 12 has its own row with ten boxes to tick off, and this is how you score points. First off, every number with four ticks in the box or less scores you -200. Every number with five ticks in the box is now worth zero points. After that, every tick in the box is worth a positive amount that grows the further you get from the most common result of a 7 (which is worth 30 points per tick above five ticks, 6 and 8 are worth 40 points per tick above five ticks, 5 and 9 are worth 50 points per tick above five ticks, and so on, with 2 and 12 being worth a whopping 100 per tick above five ticks). So, on your first turn, it’s likely you’ll be at -400 points (or maybe -200 if you managed to create a pair with the four dice you left behind). Once everyone has chosen their pairs, the dice are all rolled again, and you pick another dice to single out, but that’s the built-in timer: say you’ve chosen to pull aside a 1 and use the four other dice to earn ticks, and then you choose a 3 the next round, and then a 6 the round after that. From now on, every time there’s a 1 or 3 or 6, you’ll have to choose to tuck aside a 1 or a 3 or a 6—sometimes that means choosing from all three, sometimes it means your choice as one of them because the other two don’t show. Then you mark a tick in another little three-row area counting down the number of 1s, 3s, and 6s you’ve chosen. As soon as you hit eight ticks in any of those rows, your game is done and you tally up your points and wait for everyone else to finish. (Rarely, you’ll get a “Freebie” where there’s no 1 or 3 or 6, and in that case, you choose any dice to pull aside, and don’t mark down a tick. Lucky you!)

So, if you’re like me, even just looking at all that made you think, nope. I mean, just imagine you roll 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 in my example above. You have to stop and think, “Okay, if I take the 1 aside, then I can make 5 and 9, 7 and 7, or 6 and 8. If I take the 3 aside, then I can make 3 and 9, 5 and 7, or 6 and 6.” Followed, almost immediately, by, “Wait, what were my numbers if I took the 1 again?” Oh, and everyone else around the table is doing this, too, mumbling numbers, which of course makes you lose track of what you’re looking at. Basically, it’s torture. Math torture, is what I’m saying. (Or, I can hear my math-degree husband point out, it’s arithmetic homework, because math is fun, but arithmetic is boring as hell.)

But, play this game automated on Board Game Arena and suddenly you’re laughing at your own ability to be completely ruled by the laws of randomness in action, as each turn makes someone in the group say, “Oh my god, I have to open up two numbers no matter what I choose, there’s another -400 points!” and someone else says, “How can it always be a one?” and honestly? It’s a blast. It’s also super-quick, thanks to that built in timer and the fickle gods of random chance. Is there strategy? Well, yeah, from the sense of probability, and how you nudge said probability depending on which dice you choose as your three—if you pick 1, then your chances of having numbers that can only be reached by 1s drops (2s and 3s), and so on. But honestly? I’ve yet to see much in the way of strategy working out thanks to the whole random thing. And because of that, it’s just a silly, wild, ride. I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen games where someone is in the hole hundreds of points while the winner has made it to hundreds in the positive, but both are laughing.

6 nimmt!

Cover of 6 nimmt!

Speaking of wild rides, 6 nimmt! is exactly that, and I mean that thematically: this card game has a bull theme, and you don’t want to get the horns. Basically, there are 104 cards, numbered from 1 to 104, and each card is worth a certain number of horns (most are worth one, but cards ending in 5 are worth two horns, cards ending in 0 are worth three horns, cards that are multiples of 11 are worth four horns, and that makes card 55 worth seven horns, because it ends with 5 and is a multiple of 11). The cards are shuffled, four are drawn to create four starts to four rows, and then everyone gets ten cards each in their hand. Then, each player decides which card they’re going to play, and once everyone has put their card down, they’re revealed, put in numerical order from lowest to highest, and then those cards are played onto the four rows using—you guessed it—math. Cards are always placed next to the card on the board with the smallest difference between them, so if a row shows a 6 and you’ve got a 7 in your hand, you know where your 7 is going to end up. Now, as the rows get longer, they never go longer than 6 cards, and whoever’s card becomes the sixth in a particular row scoops up the five cards that came before it and now owns those bullheads (which is bad), and their card becomes the first card, leaving four safe spaces beside it. If the lowest player plays a card that’s lower than all the cards currently at the end of any given row, they have to choose any single row to pick up (even if it’s just one card), and then their card becomes the first card in that row, and play continues with the rest of the players as usual.

Each player starts with 66 points, and each bullhead picked up reduces their total by the amount of bullheads on the cards. Players keep going until their hands of cards are empty, at which point the score is checked—did anyone reach zero (or, more likely, below?)—and if not, everything is shuffled for a new start and you get your ten cards again and a new round begins. Until someone goes out, you keep going. There’s definitely some tactics to this one—especially in when you play a low card to purposefully take a row, which you can do specifically to make sure the other cards being played by the rest of players end up differently than where they might have imagined—but mostly it’s about considering the likelihood or where your card will end up, and whether or not you’ve got a way to avoid the dreaded sixth-spot in a row (or, if you’ve got an amazing memory, keeping track of which numbers have already gone by, but good luck with that). And of course, as the rounds continue, you have less options. Also? Sometimes you just get ten really, really crappy cards, and it’s funny, and you might think, “To heck with it, I’m going full chaos mode!” and just try to make the board as random as possible and hope you can screw up everyone else’s plans. I mean, so I’ve heard, anyway.

Now, in person, this means everyone revealing cards, figuring out who is lowest, then figuring out which card is the closest card less than the card in that player’s hand, and then repeating over and over without making mistakes in a slow game and also counting horns and subtracting them from your 66 total in between rounds of “how is it fun to do this much subtraction?” You know what doesn’t make mistakes and can subtract as you play for you? The computer. And while the computer is doing that, you’re hearing amazingly funny stories about our husky. Or drinking tea. Or doing anything but counting. Win-win. It’s faster, shuffles 104 cards really quickly, and—again—no math (sorry, honey, arithmetic).

One thought on “Tabletop Tuesday — Better than Real Life (Or, Down with Math!)

  1. Pingback: Tabletop Tuesday — Paint the Roses (or, “Wait, this is a logic puzzle!”) | 'Nathan Burgoine

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