Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A new dimension to Qwirkle

I was amused to see that Mensa-select game Qwirkle (designer Susan McKinley Ross, publisher MindWare) had won this year's Spiel des Jahres, the German annual award for best new game of the year.  Amused because my family (and many Americans, I expect) have been playing Qwirkle for quite some time.  But I guess if it's new in Germany, it's new, and that makes it eligible for the SdJ award.  Of course, Qwirkle is a brilliant game - easy to learn, fun to play, while aesthetically pleasing at the same time.  So the award is well-deserved, if a little overdue.

So the other day, I happened to have some rare time on my hands and wandered into Game Parlor Chantilly, my favorite local game store.  I really didn't expect to buy anything but had my eyes open - and spotted Qwirkle Cubes, a game by the same designer and publisher that I'd heard of but never thought to look for.  I snatched it up, secured my purchase, and whisked it home to try it out.

Kathy and I played it last night, and tonight our ten-year-old joined us for a game.  Qwirkle Cubes adds a nice Yahtzee-like dice rolling element in which tiles are replaced with dice, and the pattern you seek to obtain from your roll depends on the board configuration at the time.  Also important is that in Qwirkle Cubes, your "hand" of cubes is visible to your opponents (and vice versa), so that the risk of leaving an opening for an opponent to accomplish a high-scoring qwirkle is easier to evaluate.

The scoring in Qwirkle reminds me of basketball from the standpoint that the final scores are very high and usually close.  Tonight was no exception:  I won with 125 points, followed by Kathy with 122 and our son scoring a respectable 116 in his first game.

I can see Qwirkle Cubes quickly becoming a family favorite, perhaps even retiring the original SdJ-winning Qwirkle to the shelf for a while.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Trenes Aviones y Automoviles: Will TPA expand south to Latin America?

I've been very excited by the early positive response to the release of Trains Planes and Automobiles.  Most recently, my brother in Buenos Aires is trying to get a copy smuggled in a suitcase with one of the in-laws.  And the idea got me thinking:  Is it too early to work on an expansion?

The idea to expand TPA to other continents came up in conversation with Worthington/BlueSquare even before we had the deal nailed down.  We were both excited by the possibility, and I think our initial thought was that Europe would be the next venue for TPA if the North American version took off.  But for some reason, the exotic Caribbean islands and Amazon jungles have really got my creative juices flowing again, and I'm starting to lay out what the map would look like for a Latin American follow-on.

I'll tell you, though, I'm learning some serious geography in the process.  If I keep to the current map size and scale, there's no way I'll fit all of South America on a single map.  I'm thinking I'll actually do two new maps - Central America (which would also include the northern third of South America) and southern South America (which would include the major cities of Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires).  The interesting thing will be how the geography of South America affects game play.  I have to believe that large swaths of the Brazilian rainforest as well as the Andes Mountains are impassible, which makes air travel that much more important.  But there are few heavily inhabited islands south of Panama, so theoretically everyplace should be accessible by car ... true?

Anyway, it's just great to be excited about game design again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Congress of Gamers on Sat 8 Oct

Okay, everybody, I can't help but plug my favorite little game convention, Congress of Gamers.  This event is a nice opportunity for those in the D.C. and Maryland area to have an inexpensive, friendly one-day boardgaming experience.  Hope to see you there.

Here's convention director Kaarin E.'s email:

Congress of Gamers 2011 is coming soon--from 9am to midnight on Saturday, Oct. 8, in the same location as last year:
Rockville Senior Center
1150 Carnation Dr.
Rockville, MD 20850-2043. 


Go to http://www.congressofgamers.org/register.php to register and pay online. If you would like a t-shirt, get your order in this week. A few shirts will be available at the con, but they will be limited in number and size.


We'll have many great events, including the EuroCaucus, CoG Racing Series, General Services Administration (RoboRally), Embassy from China, Transportation Department (a demonstration and game of Trains, Planes, and Automobiles), Education Department (demonstration of Dystopian Wars), De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) Tutorial, the 7th Annual Washington DC-area DBA Open Tournament, and more! Take a look at the schedule at http://www.congressofgamers.org/schedule.php. We'll also have lots of open gaming, and Games Club of Maryland (GCOM) will bring a library of games that everyone can use.


The math trade will start soon. Watch the website and Boardgame Geek Convention Forum for details. 


If you are planning to sell things at the Bring and Buy, you can download item sheets at http://www.congressofgamers.org/commerce.php.


Our Game Table will be joining us as a vendor with great games and accessories. 


We look forward to seeing you this year!


Kaarin Engelmann
Convention Director, Congress of Gamers

Friday, September 16, 2011

Trading styles in Settlers of Catan

Seth Brown posted a nice essay about trading strategies in Settlers of Catan on About.com.  His strategies are very much in line with my own, and his article makes a nice summary of considerations for resource trades.

Resource cards in Settlers of Catan.
(c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved
His post got me thinking about some different styles of trading I've seen when playing among friends or in tournaments.  For my part, perhaps the most basic approach to a trade is to ask for what you need and offer what you don't.  It seems almost trivial, really - I need wood, I've got an extra wheat, so I offer one wheat for one wood.  In a friendly game, that's about as much thought as it takes.  I've even seen people approach Settlers as a co-op game, although they don't explicitly think of it that way.  They don't mind being helpful, and they enjoy building until at some point someone says, "oh, look, I've got ten points, I guess I win.  That was fun!"

A friend of mine has a son, on the other hand, who has a killer instinct for the barter economy of Catan.  His sense for which resources are going to be in demand is uncanny, and he invariably knows when to press a hard bargain on a trade that anyone else would have accepted on the first offer.  Because he is such an effective trader, he typically wins, and the people around the table look at him and ask, "how do you do that?"

I played in one tournament at PrezCon against a fellow who was a shrewd trader.  I specifically remember one interchange where another player said, "I need brick."  Shrewd Trader said, "what can you offer me?"  Brick Guy said, "Do you want a sheep or a wheat?"  Shrewd Trader immediately answered, "Both."  Neither of the other two of us had brick to trade, and Brick Guy had essentially admitted (if not in so many words) that he needed neither the sheep nor the wheat and therefore could spare both.  So Shrewd Trader held out and got the best deal.  Needless to say, Shrewd Trader advanced to the quarterfinal.

But playing hardball can backfire.  In another tournament, one guy at my table said that in his gaming group, nobody would trade straight up, one card for one card.  The active player, the one whose turn it was and therefore who would be able to build, had to offer at least two-for-one just to get people to consider a trade.  He said trading was not at all common in his group, and he was astounded at how freely the other three of us at the table would trade among ourselves.  He ended up in last place at that game.

So perhaps the lesson here is that a barter economy is still an economy.  A market equalizes when supply balances demand, so if one player is a hold-out and demands, say, three wheat for a brick, anybody else who has a brick can make a better deal than that, and the "price" of brick goes down.

Different people have different ideas about when a boycott is appropriate.  One practice I've seen is a hard-and-fast policy never to trade with anyone who has eight or nine points.  I try to be more flexible than that, but not by much.  I'll trade with someone who has eight points if I'm confident that I'm not enabling a big move (based on the number of cards my opponent has and whether a two-point turn is within striking distance) and if it gives me a sure point - and even then, I'll give it very careful consideration.  Others never trade with the leader, regardless of how early in the game it is.  A few even refuse to trade with anyone who has more points than they do, which can really shut the market down if everybody takes that position.

Sometimes its very tricky to balance the need for a trade with the potential edge it gives an opponent.  In yet another tournament game, I had six points, behind a very good player who had the lead with seven.  He made me a respectable trade offer, and after some hesitation, I accepted, over the objections of the other two people at the table.  As I handed him the card, I said, "I have a feeling I'm making a deal with the seven-point devil."  He gave a little half-smile, and sure enough, he stayed just out of reach of the rest of us until he won the game.

The infamous Monopoly card.
(c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved.
Making an offer generally requires that you have to reveal something about what you have, but that can be risky when someone could have a "Monopoly" card.  Some people like to be cagey about the way they pose deals, like, "if you had brick to trade, what would you want for it?"  I've described before the "Monopoly give-back," in which you freely trade a lot of one resource away for everything you need, then play the "monopoly" card to get it all back.  As non-confrontational as Euro games are intended to be, there are opportunities to take an opponent down at the knees.

So trading style sometimes comes down to a function of strategy, but it is also an artifact of the personality of the players.  Since boardgames are at heart a social activity, and since trading is inherently interactive, it makes sense that trading styles will vary according to the individuals playing the game.  That quality of sensitivity to the individual playing style is, I think, part of the appeal of Settlers of Catan.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Trains Planes and Automobiles available online!

The September 15 newsletter of Worthington Games announces the debut of their new family/Euro game label, BlueSquare Board Games.  And the first game in the BlueSquare lineup is Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, designed by yours truly!  And I love the retro postcard art by Sean Cooke.
As news correspondents in mid-twentieth-century North America, players race from one news story location to another to complete exclusive assignments and scoop each other to the next big story.  Players travel by air, rail, and highway to locations around the continent and the Caribbean.  The first player to complete seven assignments wins the game.   
This game is fun for parties of adults, kids, and families and was a huge hit with players at the World Boardgaming Championships.  Trains Planes and Automobiles retails for $40.00 and comes with pawns, cards, mounted board, and rules.  It is available to order from http://bluesquareboardgames.com.   
Trains Planes and Automobiles will make a great Christmas gift for the whole family!
I'm very excited about this announcement.  Other forthcoming BlueSquare games are

  • BrainDrain - cross words with your family and friends to score the most letters (available for pre-order)
  • Mazedom - create an ever-changing maze puzzle to entangle your opponents (coming soon)
  • Antarchy (I love the title of this one) - lead the ant colony in search of culinary delights that will satisfy the queen's ravenous appetite (coming soon)

Saturday evening, my good friend Jeff W. invited us over for a dinner party and insisted that I bring TPA for a spin.  The six of us - all grown-ups (according to our drivers' licenses) - had a great time, and as always, I was surprised to see how close the game turned out to be in the end.  I feel that it strikes just the right combination of luck, thoughtful play, and lead balancing mechanics that keep the game fun, even when stranded at the airport in Bermuda in bad weather ... or in Thunder Bay, Canada, with a broken-down rental car.  Everybody was in it to the end, and I love games like that.

I hope more people do, too.

Gaming in a hospital room - what works, what doesn't

I missed my customary Monday blog post because I was in the hospital with a family member.  (The details aren't important, and he's home and fully recovered now.)  He was well enough yesterday to ask to play a game.  We had brought a few games with us for the visit, and the hospital also had a recreation room with a few titles that we could borrow.  We discovered a few things about gaming in the context of a hospital room that we'll remember for next time.

What worked:  Pass the Pigs (designer David Moffatt [or Moffitt] of the original title Pig Mania, now available as Pass the Pigs from publisher Winning Moves) is great for cheering up a hospital patient for a number of reasons.  It is terrifically portable.  It requires very little space on which to play and no set-up to speak of.  It requires little mental and physical effort to take one's turn.  It's good for a laugh.  The game can be interrupted easily without consequence.  It finishes quickly.  It lends itself easily to a re-match if "the pigs are against you" in the first round.

We also brought Uno, which, if we'd played it, I think might have worked almost as well.  There's a little more difficulty in sitting up in bed and holding a hand of cards, depending on the circumstances (like an IV or an awkward bed configuration).  But again, Uno doesn't require a lot of thought or effort, it's good for a laugh, and it interrupts easily.

What didn't work:  The game we borrowed from the hospital game room was Clue: Secrets and Spies (Hasbro).  We actually got this for Christmas last year and played it once as a family, to a decidedly lukewarm reception.  I had wanted to re-visit this title in the hope that perhaps it would gain some appeal with fresh eyes.

Unfortunately, we didn't really get the chance to properly evaluate Clue:S&S as a game.  The hospital room didn't have a proper game table, so we used the over-bed table (normally used for meals in bed).  The game board overlapped the edges of the table, so it was easily knocked.  Game set-up was a little "fiddly" for the context of a hospital room.  In this case, we were particularly hamstrung by the borrowed copy of the game that we had available.  Three significant game pieces were missing.  Two could be replaced with coins representing the missing pieces, but one - a black light for revealing secret text on cards - was indispensible.  The accommodations necessary to play this game under the given circumstances were too great, and we abandoned the effort.

I should make note of one other consideration for playing games in a hospital room.  Hospital-acquired infection is an ever-present risk, mitigated by simple but important hygienic precautions.  It is wise to ensure that hands are sanitized before handling game pieces.  Normally I don't think about who's been handling the pigs, cards, or dice in the game I'm playing, but medical professionals take a number of precautions to minimize the spread of germs in a place where sick people naturally congregate.  (I was particularly mindful of this issue with the borrowed game from the recreation room.)  The hospital had a hand sanitizer mounted outside the door to every room, and antimicrobial soap was available at every sink.  We found ourselves paying a little extra attention to keeping each other healthy and to keeping our own games uncontaminated so that we wouldn't bring home an extra souvenir from the hospital.

Friday, September 9, 2011

How many dice are too many?

My good friend Grant G. hosted six of us for a Firestorm Armada battle on Labor Day weekend.  This was our first time at this science fiction space battle miniatures game for most of us.  As a fan of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, I could really get into this "space naval combat" genre.  Many tactics of the sea still hold true in space - concentrating firepower on one part of the enemy's formation while trying keep the opponent spread out and disconnected.  Other tactics have to change because of the different weapons' firing arcs:  Ships that are strongest when firing straight ahead but can't easily start up from a complete stop require a different deployment from those that are strongest firing broadsides in a line of battle.

One aspect of the game that got a lot of commentary was the dice rolling.  In combat, each ship has a certain number of six-sided attack dice (depending on range and firing arc).  Generally speaking, rolls of 4 or 5 score a  hit, while rolls of 6 each score two hits and add an extra attack die to roll.  So there is considerable potential for multiple extra rolls to score many hits even from a modestly-armed ship if the attacker's luck is good.

But what a few of us found a little unnerving and perhaps cumbersome was the sheer number of dice to roll and re-roll.  It was not uncommon for my Directorate battleship to attack with 17 dice all rolled at once.  Then I would have to sift through the results and set aside the fours and fives, count the sixes, then roll extra dice for each of the sixes.  If the extra dice also included sixes, too, then there would be more dice to roll on top of those.  Sometimes I might score in excess of 20 hits.  But the combat results might only translate into one or two points of damage to the target.  So it was hard to appreciate why so much dice-rolling was necessary for such unspectacular results.

I think some people like rolling huge handfuls of dice in their miniatures games.  As a mathematician, I can appreciate the probability distribution function that results from so many dice combinations.  But as a game player, I tend to prefer a roll-once-and-resolve combat system.

One of my favorite combat systems in a miniatures game appears in De Bellis Antiquitatis and others in the DBx series.  In those games, for each attack, the attacker and defender each roll one six-sided die.  Troop types, adjacent formations, and terrain can add or subtract modifiers to the die rolls.  The modified defender's roll is subtracted from the modified attacker's roll to determine a combat result for that attack.  The system is so elegant and the modifiers so easy to remember that with practice, it is seldom necessary ever to look up anything in a table.  "My spear attack your cavalry."  Roll, roll.  "Okay, three plus four is seven to your five plus  three is eight, I lose, my spear recoils."

There is such a thing as a Combat Results Table (CRT) that is too drastically sensitive to a single die roll.  Avalon Hill games had a tendency to have CRTs that were much more sensitive to the die roll outcome than to the size of the attacking force.  Efforts to alleviate this problem that were published in The General were themselves cumbersome, such as Steve List's "Resolving Fractional Combat Odds" in Volume 16 Number 5 ("Design Analysis").

If the shoe fits...
Something of a combat standard that has emerged is the 20-sided die, or d20.  We often play WarZone, which uses a single d20 for each attack.  A probability distribution over 20 possible die outcomes provides sufficient granularity that small tactical factors have a noticeable but not overwhelming impact on combat, yet the die is easy to handle and the combat quick to resolve.

So the question that came to mind as I reflected on our Firestorm Armada experience was, what would a d20 CRT look like that reflected the Firestorm Armada combat outcome distribution but didn't require so many d6 rolls and re-rolls?  Well, I did a little spreadsheet-cruching to find out, and here's what it looks like:

Hits resulting from one roll of a d20 for any given Attack Dice (AD) rating
d20
AD=1
AD=2
AD=3
AD=4
AD=5
1
0
0
0
0
0
2
0
0
0
1
1
3
0
0
1
1
1
4
0
0
1
1
2
5
0
0
1
1
2
6
0
1
1
2
2
7
0
1
1
2
3
8
0
1
2
2
3
9
0
1
2
2
3
10
0
1
2
3
3
11
1
1
2
3
4
12
1
1
2
3
4
13
1
2
3
4
4
14
1
2
3
4
5
15
1
2
3
4
5
16
1
2
4
5
6
17
1
3
4
5
6
18
2
3
5
6
7
19
3
4
5
7
8
20
4
6
7
8
10
Average
            0.8
            1.6
            2.5
            3.2
            4.0

Okay, so there's nothing intuitive about this CRT - nothing here you could memorize in the way of an algorithm and say, "I have three attack dice, I roll an 11, so that means I get two hits."  Maybe I need to go back to the drawing board on this idea.

Or maybe I just need to get used to rolling big handfuls of six-sided dice.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Legacy: Constructive, or destructive?

I recently read Lewis Pulsipher's reaction to the rules of Risk: Legacy.  By way of background, Risk: Legacy (designers Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis) is Hasbro's forthcoming variant on the familiar Risk line with an important distinction:  Over the course of each game, players will permanently modify board, cards, and rules with stickers and pens, so that each game modifies subsequent plays of that particular copy of the game.  I would not exaggerate to say that Dr. Pulsipher absolutely rejects this premise as merely destructive and, to some extent, commercially cynical.

I can certainly see his point.  In fact, the tone of the rules and the box art suggest that semi-random alteration and rejection of the status quo feed the theme of "making one's own legacy."  The word "Legacy" itself on the box cover is written in pseudo-graffiti fashion.  There is almost a counter-cultural, anarchical, nihilistic, "anti-rules" sub-text in the rules themselves.  Game alterations are referred to as "scars" and "marks."  The rules require that some components be "destroyed" - thrown away, permanently removed from that copy of the game, not to be used ever again.  Even from the very first game, when each faction is assigned a special power sticker, an alternative special power sticker will be disposed of, never to be used in that copy of the game.

This is a fairly jarring concept for those of us who treasure our games over a lifetime.  Why would I ever willingly deface or dispose of a game component, unless I didn't particularly care about the fate of that game (or had another copy that I intended to keep pristine)?

There is a school of thought among the boardgamegeek.com forums that suggest that Risk: Legacy provides an opportunity to customize each game copy in a semi-structured fashion.  Perhaps that's the appeal of the game - the idea that when I play the game, I leave my mark - my legacy - on its actual physical structure for future plays.  Part of the fun in playing a role-playing campaign is that players would alter not only the state of their own characters but the condition of the universe that the game-master had constructed, and those impacts would last from one stage of the campaign to the next.  One might consider each play of Risk: Legacy to be a "sequel" of the previously played game.  In that respect, this might be a boardgame that carries the "campaign" concept a little farther than other boardgames have, more literally into its own physical condition.

For all of that, however, I'm not convinced that Risk: Legacy is a game that I can embrace.  My objection comes less from Dr. Pulsipher's abhorrence at the destructive nature of the physical game - a legitimate gripe in its own right - than from my own fear for the soundness of the gameplay itself.  I have seen people tinker with rules in other games at the expense of sound game design.  All the playtesting and careful game design in the world can't prevent players from implementing a house rule that makes a game too random, too long, or too monotonic.  The latitude that the rules of Risk: Legacy provide for altering the gameboard and cards has no apparent self-correcting mechanism to preserve a game-designer's sense for balance and game flow.  How fateful might it be that permanent modifications to the board could render the game unplayable, predictable, or even boring?  Perhaps I'm too sensitive to the quality of an exquisitely crafted game that provides a rich option-space and keeps all players in the game while rewarding sound decision-making.  But my fear would be that player-imposed changes to the rules and components might inadvertently result in a degenerate strategy, or a game that depends too heavily on dice luck, or a perpetual push-and-shove war of attrition.

The aspect of physical change in Risk: Legacy got me thinking about the degree to which we alter games that we own and play for a long time.  Components like cards, counters, boxes, and folding boards can show considerable wear over many uses.  To me, this wear is a classic sign of a well-loved game.  I have a number of Avalon Hill games that show a lot of "love" from many plays.  And any game that has score sheets, record pads, damage tallies, or any similar written artifact leaves its own legacy of games for future reflection.  Games with written simultaneous movement leave a record of so much detail that the game could almost be reconstructed like a baseball box score.  So in a manner of speaking, some games have always left a trail of artifacts from past plays.  They don't necessarily alter the way future games are played, but they do constitute a legacy of an individual game copy, after a fashion.  And for a game that has been frequently enjoyed, there's a certain sentimental value to that legacy.

Wooden Ships and Iron Men "legacy":  ship's log from
World Boardgaming Championships 2011

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gameplay vs. simulation

A favorite debate among my friends and me is the question of realism vs. playability.  Last spring I touched on this topic briefly in a post following a game of Rail Baron in which I reflected on changes in game design practices since the 1970s.  My friend Paul R. is a strong advocate for realism in strategy games.  He approaches a game as a model of real-world decision-making.  If you look at the Avalon Hill marketing from its heyday, much of the appeal came from the concept of putting yourself in the place of Napoleon, Lee, or Eisenhower to see whether you would be able to match or exceed the achievements of the great leaders of the past.

Paul R. and I have played several games of Stonewall Jackson's Way, and more than any other game I've played, I think this game best accomplishes what AH set out to do.  Generals - I mean, players - must balance urgency of the battlefield against the fatigue of the troops.  Coordinated attacks are not as easy when your corps commanders are lacking in quality leadership.  And the more I think about SJW, the more clearly I understand what makes it a realistic game.  The unpredictable elements of the game correspond to the unpredictable elements of battle.  The conditions that are under a general's control in battle are under the player's control in the game.  So the bottom line in SJW, and perhaps the defining characteristic of a realistic game, is that a player can make decisions in the game based on how he would make decisions in battle.  "I'd better not march in column along this road so close to the enemy."  To the extent that this correlation works, the game models real-world decision-making and can even be considered a simulation of the battlefield decision-space.

The problem I have seen in efforts to simulate real-world problems in games is that the methods often sacrifice playability.  In my Rail Baron post, I mentioned that frequent table-lookups interrupted the game flow.  I mentioned how Tobruk was notorious for requiring continual dice-rolls and table references every time a tank fired a round.  Whereas the effects of armor-piercing rounds on various tank types were arguably well modeled in that game, the tactical flow completely broke down as tank-by-tank, turn-by-turn fire and movement bore no resemblance to an actual World War II tank skirmish in Libya.  The realism trees got in the way of the simulation forest, so to speak.

Age of Renaissance:  commodities cards
Paul R.'s principle objection to unrealistic games, though, is that their design makes little attempt to simulate real-world mechanics but instead imposes artificial behavior for the sake of constructing a game system.  The commodities cards in Age of Renaissance are played at the discretion of the people holding them, so that a player can have cornered the market in wine, for example, but it will never pay off if an opponent controls the timing of the play of the wine card.  To Paul, people buy wine every year, so it ought to pay every turn; and if I have a monopoly on wine production, they ought to pay through the nose (so to speak).  Rather, the designers of AoR introduced this "market timing" mechanism to force a different kind of market confrontation to the game, an element (in my mind) that adds a new tension to the gameplay but which frustrates Paul's sense of real-world market mechanics.

Paul R.'s specific issue with Eurogames is that they don't necessarily gain playability when they sacrifice realism.  Here is an excerpt from an email response to my post last October on approachability:

For any new rule introduced, the designer should ensure the new rule adds either realism, or playability, and be aware of the impact on the other. 
As I see it, the objective is to simulate the processes (mechanics) of the real world, as well as historical or at least realistic boundary conditions, to the extent possible without making the game unplayable. There is a balance, which will vary from game to game, as it should. Players can then seek the balance between playability and realism that best suits them, on that occasion. 
However, ... I find with some recent games -- more often with the Eurogames focusing on optimization of unrealistic mechanics dealing with construction or economics -- the designers introduce mechanics (rules) which add neither realism nor playability, but seem to subtract from both. As a result, the game is difficult to learn, and not realistic. The game ends up being a struggle between players to be the first to understand the artificial mechanics, to "solve the puzzle."  In follow-up games, victory goes to the first to optimize the unrealistic mechanics. The better examples of these games allow multiple ways "to solve the optimization puzzle." 
Why would the designer add artificial mechanics which don't increase the playability? I think it's based on a different perception of what a "game" is supposed to be. Some players see it as a puzzle to solve. Others, including myself as a wargamer -- see a game as a simulation of the mechanics of the real world.
Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
I think I see where he is coming from here.  In a game like Race for the Galaxy, there's a set of strategies that work well for winning the game.  Those strategies, however, do not necessarily emerge to the newcomer as obvious logical steps.  They bear no relevance to the theme of the game - space colonization - nor are they a straightforward logical deduction from the mechanics of the game - hand management and simultaneous role selection.  Rather, the strategies depend on familiarity with the deck and the inter-relationships among the cards.  I think Paul R. feels that he ought to be able to learn the rules of a game and then apply a certain degree of logic to fare well in playing it, without having to "know the tricks" of what cards to keep, which cards to play when, and what to look for to come up in the deck.    

I don't necessarily object to games as puzzles, but I certainly see Paul R.'s point.  Moreover, familiarity with the deck can certainly skew the "historical simulation" of a game.  In History of the World, if you know the Romans are coming, you might play the Macedonians differently from what you would do if you really were Alexander the Great with no foreknowledge of the Roman empire.   

For my part, I like a good game.  SJW is a good game, and part of what makes it good is the degree to which it seems to simulate the real-world battlefield decisions that faced generals like J.E.B. Stuart and John Pope.  At the same time, Agricola is a good game because its mechanics require planning and forethought as well as taking one's opponents into account - even if it doesn't model in any realistic sense the challenges of farming at the dawn of the Renaissance.  In an email interchange among my gaming friends, I concluded that "a game is enjoyable if it's a shared mental challenge where you can look back and see which decisions led to your result."  Whether that comes in the form of a real-world modeled decision-space or an abstract game with a pasted-on theme doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game.