Cheapass Games

I am rather startled by how often I hear people express blanket condemnation of Cheapass Games: "another game foisted off on us with a lame mechanic," "like all Cheapass Games, no replay value," and so on and so forth. I have come to the conclusion that James is just too smart for his own good. He's designing games that look easy, but are much harder to play well than most people realize. When the game doesn't meet their expectations, they blame the game rather than their own poor play.

This is an astonishingly pretentious claim, I admit. But I've not only spent years playtesting (and designing) games with James, I've also worked as a "game editor" with Richard Garfield and the Wizards design team as well as on individual games with many other game designers. Analyzing games and playability, and suggesting improvements, is something at which I happen to excel.

The majority of complaints that I see about Cheapass Games, when the complainer takes the time to actually justify the complaint, indicate that the complainer simply didn't "get it;" they are complaining about a feature of the game that is an intentional and desirable part of the game, or complaining about an issue that is easy to fix/avoid if you figure out a better strategy or tactic when playing.

The game that first really drove this point home with me is Bleeding_Sherwood?. Now, there are some perfectly legitimate issues that you can have with it. In particular, there's an element of 'passing the buck' around until somebody basically has to fatally damage their own chances of winning in order to prevent somebody else from winning. If you've got players in the mix who don't understand that, then the game can end suddenly because somebody didn't realize that they were the only hope.

But most people who've claimed the game "sucks" protest because "everybody ran out of cards with which to bid, so nobody could win." But apparently it never occurs to the complainer that the problem is that everybody is clearly spending way too much, and if even one of the players would get a clue, that player would immediately start winning every game.

Bleeding Sherwood looks like a 'regular' BiddingGame, but it's actually like bidding on gumballs with hundred dollar bills. That's one of the reasons I really like the game. The normal bidding system is warped by the weight of the bids compared to the value of the items being bid on. It's the sort of twist-on-an-old-theme that's so frequently found in James' games, and yet so few people seem to notice.

Falling is another game that some people really don't get. The real-time game is rare; the classic Pit? is one of the only published games that is a real-time non-turn based game. Spoons? is another real time game. Falling's table layout is unique to my knowledge; combined with the fact it's real time, and as a comment on BoardgameGeek says, you have "a game which breaks new ground in game mechanics."

Other posters say things like "Nothing that happens in this game, except for the very end seems to make much of a difference," "I saw no actual strategy at all," and "Interestingly innovative, but unfortunately largely broken." Now, I can state with utter confidence that, although there really is very little strategy, proper tactical play, particularly in the midgame, is a major factor to doing well at the end.

I vividly remember beating James in one playtesting game with a fake-out right at the end. This particular tactic only works against a player who's actually cognizant of good tactical play, as it happens. As the dealer's deck dwindles, each player wants to have "Skip" cards sitting in front of them. If you put a Skip out too soon, somebody can use a Grab to take it from you. On the other hand, if you wait, somebody might place a Hit in front of you and block your ability to play your Skip. So a good player will keep their hand hovering over their Skip card (you can only hold one card at a time, and if you pick it up, you must play it), and only play it right before the dealer comes to them, or if some other player moves to place something else in front of them. I'd picked up a Grab when James wasn't looking, so he didn't know what I was holding. Since he hadn't placed a card in front of his pile, a Grab would not be a legitimate play. But I lunged toward him as if I were about to place a Hit; his reflexes kicked in, and he slapped the Skip down, and I promptly snatched it away with the Grab.

Renfield?, a gambling card game, is another example. As it happens, I don't think Renfield is, really, a good game. But it's extremely innovative; while looking like some kind of simple poker knock-off. What intrigues me is that I, and many people whom I've talked into trying it out, agree that it certainly seems like there are 'better' and 'worse' hands, and that it should be possible to decide when to bid and play and when to fold. But nobody's really been able to figure out how to do this. Much of the time, the card you will play is either unavoidable or obvious; you have to follow suit. But far more often than standard poker or even most other playing card games, you have to think about your next play. Especially challenging is knowing when to fold.

Ben_Hvrt? is also damned with faint praise in BoardgameGeek commentary. The big complaint is basically that the bidding's really slow, whereas the racing's really fast. I strongly suspect that these complaints are based on playing just a few short games, and that the players are grossly overthinking their bidding. Ironically, when I ran a game of Ben Hvrt at a game convention last weekend, one player felt that there needed to be a lot more bidding. If an experienced game player (in general) has played enough Ben Hvrt to have played, oh, ten laps or more total, then they ought to be able to bid very rapidly, and get right onto the race.

Another criticism offered up is that it might "have too much luck involved to make the bidding out of power cards worth the time it takes." This is true. There's a very high noise factor from the die rolling, and a few bad rolls can easily place you so far back that you don't have a chance to win. That's why a 'game' of Ben Hvrt is supposed to, nay, needs to, consist of more than one race. This random factor is exacerbated when people overbid, and most people will grossly overbid. That's the main reason I insisted that players play with real money at the convention. Using nickels for ducats, you're unlikely to be down more than a dollar or two unless you're both unlucky and a poor bidder, but the very act of throwing actual cash in for those cards tends to get people to pay a lot more attention to the price they're paying. The more they overbid, the bigger the pot, which amplifies the chaos factor by making each win even more important.

Quixotically, taking Ben Hvrt too seriously will destroy it. It needs no less than two hours, and even with just four players, you should block closer to three hours, in order to allow enough laps in enough races to provide the necessary room for good bid play, good card management skills, and good card play tactics to make a difference over being lucky. And that's too long to play this game unless you're prepared to laugh when the player in fifth place steals second place from you by flinging an Orangutan at the fourth place player, then uses her Mysterious Device to suddenly leap forward five extra spaces to cross the finish line ahead of the third place player, then plays Fresco Finish to trade win positions with the second place player. ("Oh, it might have looked like she was third, but as the fresco record clearly shows, she crossed it a nose ahead...")

While my win in the last race at the game convention wasn't quite so improbable, we still ended up laughing until we cried at the absurd sequence of events at the finale. (I used the Orangutan and the Mysterious Device, and the third place player used Fresco Finish.) I "won" in the sense that I ended the game with almost $2 more than I started with, despite the fact I came in 4th of 4 in both of the first two races due to some really pathetic die rolls. (The prize money gets split between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, so I was the only player to receive no recompense for racing in both of those first two races.)

U.S._Patent_No._1? also suffers from insufficiently insightful players blaming the game. "This game never ends. The first player to take a number gets bashed until he or she can't win. Then the next player to take number gets the same treatment, etc. In the games I've played, we just quit rather than continuing the boring, never-ending cycle. Never again." Perhaps none of the players figured out that the second player can take a number before the first one's number comes up. Or they didn't read the combat rules very well and failed to realized that if a player attacks you and misses, you get to shoot back. The rules aren't badly written, but this is another game that doesn't rely on the same tired old pile of rules that so many other games rehash and recycle. There is a cycle of fighting in the endgame much more often than not, and that's exactly what you're preparing for the rest of the time. Exactly when somebody decides to make a break for the center is one of the critical decisions. Once the fighting starts, if players are actually playing by the rules as written and are playing with some small quantity of tactics, then the frequency with which people are racing for the patent office increases to the point that they're occuring faster than players can recover, repair, and re-attack from their time machines. The most important part of the endgame is trying to make sure that your time machine is the one still in working order when that window of opportunity opens, or rather, making that window open during the time that your machine is working well enough to claim the patent.

Like many Cheapass Games, the 'luck factor' is relatively high. If you're a big fan of the typical German game's tendency to have very restricted play options and such high predictability that taking 15 minutes in order to calculate out the best possible move is not out of the question, then you'll hate U.S. Patent almost as much as you'd hate Ben Hvrt. But the player who said it "never ends" might want to chat with the one who described it as "a surprisingly detailed and tense game."

Of course, playing two or three Cheapass Games and then deciding that they all suck means you'll never find out how good some of the less well known games are. If the 'fun' factor of games like Unexploded_Cow? or Witch_Trial? put you off, try Agora, Cube_Farm?, Nexus?, Steam_Tunnel?, or ['"The Very Clever Pipe Game"]. They're all tile-laying games, but only Pipe Game and Cube Farm don't break out of the mold. Steam Tunnel give you the opportunity to pay to keep the unknown, unknown. Strategic play in Agora requires playing your tiles at angles, specifically destroying the regular grid that is a required restriction in nearly all other tile-laying games.

It looks as if his most innovative game to date, Diceland, will avoid the too-clever-to-sell trap, although that will be more due to the fact that there are a lot of fans of Steve Jackson's Ogre? out there than to the merits of the Diceland system itself. Nevertheless, I think Diceland is easily the most innovative game mechanic to hit board games since Magic:_the_Gathering?, and I suspect that many players won't even discover some of the subtleties meticulously engineered into the game until they've been playing it for months.

Every game released by anybody is there because somebody, for some reason, thought it was fun. (Ok, or it's because they have an axe to grind, but those games are usually pretty easy to spot.) I'll rarely declare a game a 'bad game' if I've only played it once, and as I mentioned, I"ve been doing game analysis and critique professionally for some years now. I had to play Lunch_Money? (not a Cheapass Game) three times before I could figure out why anybody would want to play it. I still don't like it, but I understand why other people do. I suspect there are a lot of people who are unaware that Lunch Money will collapse into a dull, dragging game if nobody's playing aggressively or follows a 'pick on the weak' strategy, because one or more of them do, and then the game does a good job of being the kind of game it's supposed to be.

But there'd be a lot more really good Cheapass Games still in print if more people realized that not liking a game isn't always the game's fault.


I disagree. If a common style of play will cause a game to be boring or unbalanced or for any other reason unenjoyable, it's the responsibility of the game designer to prevent this from happening. It seems odd to blame a customer for his dissatisfaction with a product. After all, what better metric is there but customer satisfaction for evaluating its quality?

Now, it's unfair to compare James Earnest to Reiner Knizia, since they have very different styles of game design. Nevertheless, I think it's illustrative to add here a quote from Knizia, which I've taken from Funagain's interview at

"You have to make it stable and robust for every potential player out there and for each possible approach the player can take. Some new game designers, or those who want to get into game design, say, 'I have a wonderful, brilliant game. We play it every day.' It turns out that he's been playing it with the same three or four people and it's the perfect game for them. But he's never tried it with other people who might approach it differently. All the optimization the designer put into the game for the original group might not work with other groups, and the game breaks."


.... but DH wasn't blaming people for expressing dissatisfaction with the games. He was blaming them for comments meaning this: 'I couldn't find a way to make the game non-boring, so, clearly, the game will always be boring to anyone who plays it.'

-- gamer spike

Nice summation, Spike. That was one of the points. The other one was to shake a finger at people who say (and have, to my face) that they don't like Cheapass Games, period. "Which ones have you played?" "Oh, [fill in two or three titles here.]" Not every game designer keeps releasing the same game over and over again, I do believe.

Let's see. I've played Andromeda, Das_Amulett?, and Elfenroads?. Clearly I can now state with confidence how I feel about games designed by Alan Moon. I've played Medici, Modern_Art?, Ra?, and Merchants_of_Amsterdam?. Clearly, there's no point in ever playing another Reiner Knizia game, since they're all auction games, and I don't like auction games.

Pretty preposterous, no? I'd miss out on Through_the_Desert?, Tigris_&_Euphrates?, and Scarab_Lords?, to name a few. Speaking of Scarab Lords, here's a comment from Board Game Geeks: "Finally got to play. For some reason the two games we played were both over in the second round! Need to see if we are playing ths wrongly." This guy figures if the game seems that lame, they must be doing something wrong.

Contrast that with this comment about Deadwood: "I am a bit surprised people rate this game so high. The game is almost totally based on luck. The amount of die rolling is ridiculous. The game lasts way too long for what it is. And finally, the cards aren't even as funny as they could be. The add-on packs are pretty funny and fix the latter item, its sad that they can't fix the gameplay." If your 'best metric' for rating a game is customer satisfaction, what do you make of this, where the commenter is quite puzzled that other people apparently are satisfied with the game?

"Like most Cheapass games - good fun for the money, but not something you want to play over and over." Has this guy really played more than 15 different Cheapass Games games? Or is even reasonably familiar with that many? (Fifteen is less than half of the Cheapass list, not including other games James has done, but I'm willing to fudge the numbers a bit.) Or this comment about Witch_Trial?, which came with a high 8 of 10 rating: "Maybe the most-involved Cheapass Game out there (which doesn't say a lot, however)." Witch Trial??? I can't imagine calling Witch Trial 'involved,' no matter how I think to measure it.

-- Dave_Howell?

Good points, Dave. Amusingly enough, I know someone who takes the standpoint you find so preposterous against Reiner Knizia's games. I won't embarrass him by mentioning his name here, but he is a member of our group and is in fact a professional game designer. When I introduced Traumfabrik to SC at the Fourth of July gathering in 2002, I invited him to play and he replied, "All Reiner Knizia games are the same. If you've played one, you've played them all." I could only shake my head. From a game designer yet!


I will try to comment on Cheapass Games in general, and perhaps incidentally address some of the above comments. By way of being Dave H's partner, I have had a lot contact with Cheapass Games and James Ernest, including participating in game testing and design sessions, discussing James's and Dave's thoughts and beliefs about game design. I have played a number of Cheapass Games. And I've listened to other people's doubts.

I think one of the most critical factors I'm clear about is that Chepass Games are definitely NOT all the same. There are tile laying games, bidding games, high luck/gambling games, strategic games, and even perfectly silly kid games. Some Cheapass Games I really like, some I don't. So I think anyone casting a general net over this set of games is being perfectly silly.

Another fact is that during game design, James Ernest and his game design/testing minions consider all the factors Dave H talked about above and many more. They frequently try out multiple strategies and tactics to see how they work. They consider how the games might be altered to accommodate or not accommodate various strategies and tactics. Sometimes the games do not, cannot, or they just don't plain want to make it so every possible player, strategy & tactic will work, sometimes theytry hard to do this. To me this makes a lot of sense and I can't honestly believe it is possible to make a game that would actually accommodate "every potential player" and tactic/strategy. I have played a lot of Knizia's games and they certainly do not accommodate every possible tactic--otherwise I wouldn't have lost MISERABLY playing certain strategies or tactics.

Witch Trial is probably my favorite Cheapass game, but only when it is played in the spirit I think it is intended--that of a role playing game. If the people don't ham it up and really get into the whole witch trial hilarity, the game is kind of dull (I have played it both ways). There is an element of luck in the cards drawn, and rarely in the dice rolls to decide trial outcomes, but most often I've seen the jury get so weighted one way or the other dice rolls are surprisingly unimportant. There is a lot of strategy in deciding which cases to present, which ones to prosecute, and which cards to buy. It is not super involved but there is complexity--not overwhelmingly so.

The worst Cheapass game I've played by far is Bitin' Off Hedz. This is dinosaur chutes & ladders for the most part. This would be a great game for younger kids. There is a little tactical play in trying to cut leaders off, but it is slim. I would only ever play this again with little kids. But little kids need games too--not every game can be rated in the context of adult play.

For those who like very tactical and strategic games, check out the Hip Pocket Games like Steam Tunnel and Clever Pipe Game and Nexus and Agora. These are very clever, highly replayable tile laying games. They don't last forever, but with a super careful player like John Braley could take a long time and be comparable to chess (or more like go given the limited number of pieces) in their play (that will probably make chess-hating Dave H cringe but that's how I see it).