Got Vermouth?

At a recent CABS night I was looking through the game lockers for something to play and saw Hansa. I own a copy and have played it with Sophie and Noah, but being curious about how game play changes in different audiences, I asked if anyone wanted to play. The response was pretty much what I expected and tracks pretty well with the prevailing sentiment on BGG: “Hansa’s okay but a little dry”.

I use the term ‘dry’ as well but a definition is elusive:

  • What makes a game dry?
  • Are dry games always dry or do some morph into being dry in only some circumstances?
  • Is there a common thread across games considered dry?
  • Is there something fundamentally wrong or unbalanced about a dry game?

In beginning my search for a definition I came across this essay on the The Perfect Martini. Now, I’m not a Martini connoisseur but I have sampled enough different varieties to have an opinion. The essay intrigued me on many levels since Lisa and I debate what makes a good Martini. Lisa is a ‘true’ Martini aficionado; “If it doesn’t have Gin…it’s not a Martini”. I’m the new kid, preferring a Vodka Martini over the ‘cup-o-Christmas Tree’. I began reading and started seeing many similarities between the Quest for the Holy Martini and the Quest for the Holy Game.

According to the author, originally the drink was not a Martini unless it contained Gin and Italian Vermouth (also known as Sweet or Red)…no ifs, ands, or buts. It was only after the rise of French Vermouth (also known as White or Dry) that connoisseurs would indicate a preference for French Vermouth by ordering a “Dry” Martini. The author further documents the demise of the term and its unfortunate transformation into describing a Martini served with an ever decreasing amount of Vermouth. As the balance of flavors became more and more skewed towards the strong botanicals in the Gin, bartenders turned to Vodka in an attempt to rebalance the drink. The use of Vodka, essentially a colorless, odorless, and tasteless form of alcohol, removed the strong botanical flavor and retained the desired ‘bite’ in flavor. However, the transformation created, paradoxically, an almost single ingredient mixer.

Like my Martini expertise, my gaming expertise is still in its infancy. However, my gut tells me that there’s something of import in delving into the how the term ‘dry’ applies in these contexts. The flavor of a Martini is defined by the balance of the ingredients and I think this applies in my best effort at defining the term ‘dry’:

An out-of-balance game valuing mathematical calculation more than intuition

With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, my definition imparts subtle undertones of condescension while the consciously chosen term “out-of-balance” softens the more derogatory and bitey flavor of “unbalanced”. No, there was no hint of wood, earth, or a fruity aftertaste…

Silliness aside, I don’t mean to imply that dry games are bad or unbalanced overall. I own several very enjoyable games that I would classify as dry. Instead, my point is that dry games, like dry Martinis, have evolved. They both have had ingredients removed from the mixer until specific flavors and textures become exposed and relatively apparent. In dry games, it’s the mathematical flavor and texture that has become exposed. If you create a scale where the left end represents games that rely solely on mathematical skill and the right end represents games that rely solely on intuitive play, then dry games would cluster towards the left end of the spectrum. Not good…not bad…it just is.

If you’re wondering though, I also don’t mean to imply that intuitive play is not rewarded in dry games. For example, I would consider Tikal a dry game. I think the game is out-of-balance and skewed towards the end of the spectrum where players tend to ‘work out’ the optimal move through a series of calculations. I don’t discount the large amount of intuitive play that is required to be good at Tikal. Players must be able to evaluate a set of moves based on what they think their opponents will do. However, the game is primarily a mathematical puzzle of maximizing points with limited resources. In my opinion, the same holds true for Power Grid.

Classifying games is, of course, a matter of personal taste and debate is always welcome. I’ll close with a particularly apropos comment from the Martini essay:

What then is the recipe for a perfect Martini? I could simply tell you the proper ratio of gin and Vermouth to use, but all you would then be doing is following my lead. What I’d personally prefer is that you come to your own understanding of what you actually prefer, and not what somebody tells you is the right recipe.

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