I played Dominion, Gauntlet of Fools, and Kingdom Builder tonight. All three games are designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. It's not often that I play three of a single designer's games in the space of a month, much less a single evening. It made me realize something that's been bugging me about his designs: his designs, for all they seem to enhance replayability, actually eliminate what I'm looking for when replaying a game.
Vaccarino's first design, Dominion, made a huge splash when it came out. Not only did it introduce the new mechanic of deck building, it also came with a neat little perk -- there was a lot of replayability in the box. Besides the base cards, there were 25 different Kingdom cards, and only 10 of them got used in any given game. Dominion righfully exploded in popularity, shooting into the top 10 on Boardgamegeek and winning a well-deserved Spiel des Jahres.
Vaccarino has come out with several other games now, and he's an established name. He's even nabbed another SdJ with Kingdom Builder. His games follow a simple structure. First, establish an extremely simple framework. Then, come up with a great number of extremely small variants, variants of the type that are more frequently put in some sort of special card deck (like in Yspahan or Goa), or are packaged as micro-expansions (like Spielbox expansions or the ones from the Alea Treasure Chest) and randomize these variants so that only a small subset are used in any given game. Finally, make sure that all players have similar access to these variants, so that the game balances itself, either through an auction, a race, or simple lack of scarcity.
The end result is a boxed game that has a high perceived replayability, because it has a huge number of permutations. Dominion's choose-10-from-25 leads to an absurd number of more than 3 million different combinations, meaning that you can play just the basegame for the rest of your life and be unlikely to see the same set twice.
But, -- here's where I diverge from the "infinite replayability" hivemind -- Vaccarino's games' frameworks are too simple to support the best parts of replayability. With Vaccarino's games, the emphasis switches from the framework to the variants, and thus replaying a game is like playing a whole different game. When I replay a game, I don't want a new game. I don't want a whole new problem to solve. I want strategic fine-tuning. I want to be able to make semi-consistent valuations of actions and resources. I want to feel that there's a very good chance that something I learn this game can directly teach me something for next game.
Kingdom Builder is the ultimate expression of Vaccarino's design pattern, and resultant dying of replayability. The basic framework is so simple it's almost insulting -- take a card, then put three houses on a terrain of that card, playing next to your current houses if possible. If you settled on one scoring system with that mechanic, the resulting game is more akin to a mass-market children's game than to something you would pull out at game night.
But, like Batman, this is the board game that our hobby deserves, not the one that we need. This is the absurdist endpoint for the endless procession of new games that come out, get played, and get forgotten almost immediately. Sure the new setup with every game might make it seem like this is one game to play over and over again, but the experience is so different every time that the game has no relationship to itself from session to session. You're almost guaranteed never to see the same setup twice; the game's next session is, once again, tabula rasa. And this is why it's the ultimate expression of cult of the new -- you don't even have to go to the trouble of buying a new game to find the next experience, because this one is designed to be forgotten immediately after the session is played so that you can play a whole different game next time.
Of course, this begs the question: Why hasn't this replaced the buying habit for so many folks? The bitter Ameritrasher in me says that it's because Eurogamers have more money than sense and are particularly vulnerable to the cult-of-the-new, but that seems a bit too pat. After all, the cult-of-the-new was not invented with the Eurogame. The numerous cookie-cutter hex-and-counter wargames or dudes-on-a-map Ameritrash titles from the 70s and 80s are expressions of cult-of-the-new sameyness when other genres predominated. For every Panzer Blitz or Dune, there are hundreds of games that time has forgotten. No, it's not just a symptom of Euro fans.
The real reason is, for all that we gamers trumpet replayability, we crave the novelty of a new game more than we do replaying our favorites. Breaking the shrink on a new game is exciting, and taking a game through its traces for the first time even more so. There's never more possibility in a game than when you first buy it. You can explain that away as Western consumer instinct at work, but it's also more fundamental than that. A new game represents potential in a way that an old game, even an old favorite, never will.
Vaccarino's games never regain that newness after you play them a few times, for all their variability. Instead, they hover in this strange in-between, not quite novel, and not quite familiar. No, keep your Donald X. games, please. I'll stick to true replayability when I want it, and novelty when I don't. Vaccarino's split-the-difference approach is the worst of both worlds.