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Book Review: Cheapass Games in Black and White

Cheapass Games in Black and White (by James Ernest) is a book that tries to take on several different roles: part retrospective, part rules archive, part design book.  It is an ambitious attempt, but ultimately falls short in most areas.


Cheapass Games in Black and White was kickstarted and delivered in 2019.  At 628 pages it is a satisfyingly beefy book.  The book covers the company’s history from 1996 to 2019.  It also reprints rules for over 120 games.


The Bad

The aspect that appealed to me most, is also, one of the biggest disappointments in the book.  While it does reprint the game rules of over 120 games, it does not show or specify other components such as tokens and cards, in a way that allows the games to be recreated.

For some games, such as “Buttonmen” this is fine (as there are no tokens or cards), for most games, such as Kill Doctor Lucky or Lord of the Fries (both primarily driven by cards), it means the game are unplayable.  When the majority of the interaction is actually from the cards, then the rules are just a framework for how those cards can be played, but they don’t really give insight into the mechanics or play of the game.

I find the idea of preserving such games in a fairly small and concise format as the book very interesting.  Particularly as a way to reference and analyze different mechanics.  So for there to be no cards for the card driven games, means the rules are mostly pointless, as the rules or at least the mechanical interactions are not shown.

While this was addressed in a kickstarter update, I think this issue could have been solved creatively somehow.  It might have taken some time and effort though.

Another aspect of the book is to give behind-the-scenes design insights.  However, these insights are rarely given and for the most part are fairly shallow; limited to observations, vs diving into a topic and discussing it.  Most design commententary is along the lines of “this game dragged into a slugfest at the end” and without analysis.  It would have been fascinating to see a discussion of what issues were encountered during playtesting that either didn’t matter or that affected the game’s reception.  I would have loved to read a post mortem on each game.

The only exception to the lack of design insight, is limited to pages 462 and 463.  Therein lies an article about back story and game mechanics.  While it is a reprint of an article, it contains some interesting insights.  A further discussion of those insights is in the Conclusion.

The Good

This book provides an overview of the history of Cheapass Games, with a short summary of the time frame (such as the year of 1996) and then a slightly longer blurb about each game released that year.

The early years are the densest with this kind of autobiography, but as the book progresses, some games are only accompanied by a paragraph or two of history or anecdotes.

The Conclusion

This book is an interesting concept, but ultimately, is a very large binding of alot of Cheapass Games, but without enough information to play most of the games.

The most interesting aspect of the book from a design perspective is a reprint of an article “Which comes first” in which James Ernest attacks game mechanics that don’t align with the theme they are portraying.  While this is an eternal topic of board game discussion, it doesn’t really create into any meaningful discourse.

The article starts out interestingly enough, noting how changing the theme of Monopoly to a fighting game would make the concepts less intuitive.  The author then talks about a hypothetical pirate game where at certain point he find the mechanics to be non-thematic.  He states you can tell when a theme-breaking rule was introduced, as he would exclaim “Just like in real life”.

While this is an interesting point, the author claims since he always writes his story first, his games never suffer from this issue.  However, I must strongly disagree with this idea.  I want to address this idea first broadly and then specifically to a particular example.

I would argue, that all games are abstractions.  It is the nature of the activity.  Even detailed simulations fall far short of actually simulating every detail of a given process.  Without abstractions, any game would be unplayable.  Any abstraction will have a loss of precision, as concepts and details are simplified and condensed.  Sometimes this is more noticable, sometimes less.

However, these abstractions are crucial to creating a game.  The simplification naturally allows for more subjects and settings and  to be laid over the mechanics of the game.  For example, “Pandemic” could be a game about viruses or wildfires.  Or even “Descent: Journeys in the Dark” could be a medieval adventure or a sci-fi space opera.

Specifically, I would like to  address points brought by James Ernest, who uses his game “Devil Bunny Needs a Ham” as an example of how even an ‘absurd’ game starts with a story but still makes ‘thematic sense’.  However, in reading the rules, I immediately found 3 very obvious “Just like in Real Life” moments.

For example, players cannot climb this building straight up, only diagonal, just like in real life.  Also, players cannot move onto black squares, which prevent efficient movement up the building, just like in real life.  Lastly, players can only move their pawns in a straight line, just like in real life.

My point isn’t to pick on the author or “Devil Bunny Needs a Ham”, but rather to emphasize that games are in fact systems of abstractions.  The more rules to clarify and specify the abstractions, the more complex and clunky the game will become.

Sometimes a rule exists, not because of an abstraction, but rather because a thematic rule would break the game.  The book Rules of Play touches on how rules introduce arbitrary challenges or obstacles to be overcome.  Not being able to move straight upward in “Devil Bunny Needs a Ham” is an arbitrary rule, but I have no doubt it makes the game better.

Who Should Buy This Book

Someone who is a fan of Cheapass Games and wishes to support them.  While it was an interesting read, it doesn’t provide depth for a game design book or complete rules to be an archive of the games.  It really is just a few interesting stories wrapped around the Cheapass Games history.


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