Two Timewasters

I’ve lost enough noodling time to two casual games recently that I’m not going to say precisely how much. For similar reasons, I feel a bit of regret recommending them. As much as I believe in your autonomy to make your own choices about what games you play, they’re addictive enough that they pose a serious challenge to that self-same autonomy. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

First, there is Get Hostile, an online implementation of Sid Sackson’s classic boardgame Acquire. The game is nominally about building corporate empires by buying stock in growing companies at just the right time, but the ruleset has the beautiful mix of simplicity and abstraction that was Sackson’s hallmark. Acquire has many good properties that tend to indicate good games: * Players can’t act destructively. You may be able to thwart other players’ plans, but you can never take away anything that is theirs. (This one keeps games moving forward and makes losing more palatable.) * Some basic tactics are obvious (e.g. it’s a good idea to trade in stock if you get back something worth more than what you give up) at the same time as others are counterintuitive (e.g. owning big companies is valuable, but trying to buy stock in them directly can be ruinously expensive). * There’s enough luck to give newer players a fighting chance, but not so much that skillful play feels pointless. The online version adds to this list one great feature: bots. Having AI opponents available (and they’re none too shabby) means that you can rip through a game in four minutes. That transforms it from a fun social board game into a fun online casual game.

Second, there’s Oasis. Imagine Civilization compressed into five minutes, crossed with the tile-flipping fun of Seafarers of Catan. You have 85 turns to prepare your empire for a barbarian attack; each turn allows you to make one mouse click. Since the map is 10x10, that’s not even long enough to explore the whole thing, and the name of the game is making tough choices about where to allocate those scare clicks. Exploring to find the cities of your empire? Building roads to connect them and increase their population? Mining for advanced technologies? Searching for the barbarians so you know where to make your defense? It’s almost impossible to win without doing them all, and at the higher difficulties, the tradeoffs get brutal. Doing something now rather than five clicks from now can be the difference between success and failure.

Once again, it’s the perfect polish of the ruleset that makes for a compelling game. Even where the exact formulae are secret, the game world behaves predictably. You know the risks you’re taking when you make a given choice; you know what sorts of things you might find if you explore another square. That allows for a lot of stepping back and using logic to save a few precious clicks (e.g., if the mountains are here and that’s the oasis, the cairn must be here.)

And now back to work. I’m also not going to disclose how many times I played these games while drafting this post.