Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fowl Play, Pillars of the Earth

Fowl Play: This is another limited release from Richard Breese and his R&D label, available for prices we'll generously call a little high.

The basic idea is that the players are foxes loose in the chicken coop, trying to catch various fowl (turkeys, ducks, chickens, and geese). The basic driver here is that you score points for catching a diversity of prey (a balanced diet, you see), but the different quarry set up in different corners of the map, so once you committed to bagging turkeys, say, it takes time to switch to head over to a different corner and start hunting geese.

At the same time as you are playing your primary role of a fox, you are also moving the fowl to try to evade capture. At the beginning of the game you'll be dealt a single target animal (fowl have three properties: type, color, and shape, for a total of 36 unique pieces – if this all seems a bit confusing, perhaps this picture will be worth a few words) which you are trying to keep alive, and you'll get big points if it survives, and slightly fewer points for animals that share one or more traits. Fowl actually move a little faster than foxes, but you are restricted in what you can move: each turn you play one card that both dictates turn order (via a number) and which fowl you can move (it's got a picture of one unique fowl, and you can move anything that shares at least one trait with it). You can move these fowl a combined total of 3 hexes; your fox only moves two hexes, so while you can't outrun an individual bird, you can outrun a flock.

So, foxes run around, herds of turkeys try desperately to evade, and a lot of fowl don't make it. The game it actually reminds me of, in a rather oblique way, is Titan: The Arena. In both games you have a hidden piece of information identifying someone you're trying to keep alive. But, in both games the tools you have to preserve that creature are quite indirect – you'll mostly be trying to make sure creatures you don't have any stake in don't make it, rather than trying to pump up your own guy, in general. The difference is, Fowl Play is played out as an interesting tactical game of chasing down quarry, while Titan: The Arena is much more of a management/strategic game.

Which brings us to the thing which will probably cause people the most grief about Fowl Play: the final scoring. If you found the indirect final scoring of some of Knizia's earlier games like Samurai a bit opaque, these are as nothing next to Fowl Play. Figuring out who won involves filling in a spreadsheet. You have to figure out who has the most of each the 6 individual different attributes of bird (circle, square, black, white, etc), then score for diversity within each category, then add up all the escapees ... it's a bit involved, and the most complicated part of the game. In general, having the most complicated bit be right at the end is probably not a good plan, from a design perspective.

But the truth is, even though Fowl Play's scoring is complicated, I think it can be boiled down to fairly simple heuristics. Capturing stuff is always good, unless it shares a property with your target. You always need species diversity, and this will be a major driver of your play. Don't worry about the individual categories too much and just go for the easy pickings early, and then build up those holdings later, if you can.

I imagine the design goal here was actually to make the game flow a little bit more easily by making the scoring involved enough that it can't be easily mini-maxed; but I think the same could have been accomplished with a more straightforward system by adding random or more important hidden elements. But, that might have ended up feeling arbitrary, so who knows. At the end of the day, Fowl Play is definitely a light-hearted, fun game with scoring so baroque that that it's going to be a potential issue for many gamers (many of Richard Breese's games share variations on this issue in some aspect of the game or another).

Far be it from me to make excuses for a game which has scoring that is probably too involved and which is a possible show-stopper for many, but still, I liked Fowl Play. I think it's nicely thematic (the birds move around in flocks as they try to avoid the foxes, the foxes hunt better in packs, and the artwork is charming and appropriately cartoony), I like the tactical details of actually moving the pieces around to corner and catch birds (or slip through the foxes' net). It's definitely a medium-weight game that can look like a brain-burner at times (and will probably wither on the vine if played too much that way), but played as a medium-weight with some depth, I definitely think it's fun.

Is it worth what it's currently going for, price-wise? If you don't already own it, probably not (and given that Boulder now has it marked down, perhaps even Breesophiles may have hit their limit on what they're willing to pay). But if someone in your group has sprung for it, it's definitely worth a go.

Pillars of the Earth (Die Säulen Der Erde): If Aladdin's Dragons was a simplified and streamlined version of Keydom, it might be said that Pillars of the Earth does the same for Caylus. Sort of. The situation is a little more complicated in this case, however: unlike Keydom, Caylus needed more than just stuff taken out. Caylus also needed another idea.

So that's sort of what we get. We're still building bits of a cathedral using resources we've gathered. We're still placing workers in areas where they gain special powers. The favors are gone, and the range of building powers is greatly reduced (which is good; too many buildings in Caylus were worthless). Resource generation has been completely changed though, and is now it's own sub-game: players have two different types of pawns, and place worker pawns first to claim available resources, and once that's done, they then place a much smaller number of overseer pawns to gain special powers. This is nice, because compared to Caylus, it forces you to play properly.

The big departure from Caylus, and the part this is going to cause the most grief for some folks, is the overseer placement. Instead of placing in strict player order, pieces are drawn at random (horror!) from a bag. If you're drawn first, you get good placement, but you also need to pay a high price – 8 gold I think it was -– or go to the back of the queue. Each subsequent pawn drawn from the bag pays 1 gold less, until the placements are free.

I'm somewhat undecided on how much I like this. It creates a sort-of auction, in that if there is a good spot on the board, it'll cost about as much to take it as it's worth. Unlike a true auction game, in Pillars of the Earth players aren't usually going to come to hugely different conclusions about the value of each placement. Who actually gets it at that price is obviously somewhat random, but at least they'll most likely pay a fair price, and it rewards good evaluation skills. It's always nice for a game to reward a variety of skills rather than being purely tactical, so that's good, and it's nice to get some of the interest of evaluation without the potentially quite time-consuming process of actually doing quite a few full-fledged auctions.

On the other hand, there definitely are a few times in the game when draw order will matter a lot. Players accumulate resources at a fairly constant rate, as more or less the same mix and quantity of resources are available each turn. You then need to acquire craftspeople – potters, sculptors, carpenters, and so on – to convert those resources into VPs. That rate of resource conversion accelerates rapidly as the game goes on, with early Stonemasons converting 3 or 4 stone into a VP, while later sculptors can turn 1 stone into a VP. Obviously, getting the key craftspeople, especially late in the game when the very few who can use metal become available, can be a big deal. And that can depend on getting picked from the bag at the right time, which can be ultimately unsatisfying, especially in a long-ish game.

Still, overall I enjoyed playing Pillars of the Earth. I think it engages on enough different levels (strategy, tactics, evaluation) for a big-box game, and it's thematically solid (and very well-presented). But I also got the same feeling playing the game as I did playing Space Dealer: it felt like I was being asked to make interesting judgments about the relative values of different options, and do interesting planning, but by the end it didn't feel like the game had a whole lot of depth. It felt like a couple run-throughs were going to give you about all you were likely to get out of it. The strict progression in the availability of craftspeople (and the lack of real variety), the limited variability in the resources cubes available each turn, and the samy-ness of each turn's feel all conspired to convince me that there wasn't a lot of replayability in the package.

The bottom line for me was that I enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, but it's not a game I'd queue up to buy. When it comes out from Mayfair, it'll likely be at the $50 price point, and for me, that's too high. I'm not sure what I would pay; I'm not sure I'd buy even if it were $30. I enjoyed it well enough, but it's one of those games I'd prefer to play on someone else's copy.

2011 Update on Pillars of the Earth: Pillars took a while to grow on me – over 5 plays – but it finally won me over, and I did add it to my collection. I think the random draw of workers from the bag is quite effective in both introducing some unpredictability and in generally fairly-pricing worker spots, giving the game a somewhat more nuanced evaluation process than similar games. And the process of building the Cathedral is legitimately evocative, unlike the pasted-on throw-a-few-bricks-together ting we get in similar games. In general, worker-placement is a genre which holds little appeal for me; Pillars is one of the few entries that I like (along with Agricola, Le Havre, Breese's Aladdin's Dragons that pioneered the genre, and probably at least one more I'm forgetting). It's not a game I'm ever going to play a ton, but it's kept its spot in my collection over the years. I like the expansion for its added craftspeople, but more than 4 players is not better.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tile-Laying Extravaganza: Gheos, Taluva, Bison

Gheos: This is a new tile-laying game from Z-Man, with a Civilization building theme and triangular tiles. You build up continents with different Civilizations, claim stakes in those Civilizations, and score points for the resources the Civilizations you have stakes in control.

Gheos struck me as just being incredibly bland. The tiles are triangular, and the format for all of them is that all three corners have water and all three edges have land, so the range of different tile configurations is very small; usually, it's just a question of what resources they have, a question which really is not that interesting. Because you can always stack tiles on top of each other, so you can play any tile anywhere at any time (which can break up or join continents, which allows civilizations to migrate or merge), the flow of the game has very little coherence.

And of course a tile-laying game can always cover any issues by looking impressive once laid out; but Gheos' look is pretty bland and it just isn't visually interesting.

Nice try, but for me, not there.

Taluva: Well, one complaint that certainly can't be leveled at Taluva is that it's not visually interesting. From the rich tropical colors (including nicely-chosen player colors) to the well-illustrated volcanoes and beaches, nice graphics are certainly one thing Taluva can deliver.

Players are colonizing the island of Taluva, which, sadly, is wracked by volcanoes. You've got three different types of buildings (Temples, Towers, and Huts), which are played under different conditions (huts anywhere, Towers only on high ground, and Temples only in larger settlements). You can win either by placing all of two types of your pieces, or by having the most Temples in play at the end. But, if you ever cannot place a building, you immediately lose!

Taluva is more or less what you would expect from a Carcassonne-like tile-laying game. Expand the island, slap down your pieces, and carve out your areas. It's got the twist that volcanic eruptions can allow you to build up as well as out, and also can wipe out other people's pieces (giving it a touch of overt competition), but I still think of it as being a pretty close cousin to Carcassonne. I think where it scores is the relatively open play (you can put down buildings almost anywhere, and there are only a few restrictions on where you can place tiles), the somewhat more strategic play in building up your little villages, and of course in the very attractive appearance once you've got everything laid out on the table.

For me, it's another solid game from Hans im Glück, a game that is sufficiently straightforward and attractive to be easy to get on the table yet gamerly enough to be engaging for the more discriminating player. More gamerly than Carcassonne, I think, maybe on par with Thurn and Taxis. Not an obvious pick for my year-end top 10, but fun, and one I'm glad to own.

Bison: After Hey! That's My Fish! and Revolution, I was back on board with Phalanx, at least partially. Bison is their new game from Kramer and Kiesling, and it's not a game you would mistake for something by any other designer.

Although the two games are quite different in actual play, the game that Bison fundamentally reminded me of is El Cabellero. It's got the Kramer trademark of pieces split between your active area and a reserve which you have to pay to activate. You've got the expanding world divided up into regions that you want to control with your pieces for points.

Players are Native American hunters rounding up fish (from streams), turkeys (from mountains), and buffalo (from the plains). A feature of Kramer/Kiesling designs is actions points, and Bison has them, kind of. A round is each player taking one action in turn – expanding the world and placing new guys from your supply onto the new tile, moving guys around on the board, or building settlements. There are a total of 6 variations on these actions, and four rounds in a turn, so you aren't going to do all of them every turn, but you have to expand the world at some point. As your guys control terrain on the board, they will score animals in the hunt, and then those animals are the currency you have to use to further expand. The player with the most income at the end – not the most animals in stock – wins. In a further twist, the 3 different types of animals you can score are fairly interchangeable during the game when paying to take actions, but at game end, it's the player with the Ingenious-style "most of the least" that wins.

I liked Bison. Again, it's basically a tile-laying game, but it's got enough clever elements to make it different. It's definitely similar in feel to Kramer(/Kiesling)'s previous action-point and area-control games to be recognizable, but it mixes it up enough and contains enough new to have a rather different feel to it. The visual design of the game is a little more abstract, and I think it will not be as universally appealing as the artful Taluva or the lighthearted Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, but I liked the look of the world unfolding.

There is an enormous caveat to this, however. Tikal, Torres, Java, and El Cabellero could all bog down because all information is open and players have enough options that some people are going to want to analyze them all, perhaps a couple times. Far be it from me to criticize other people's style of play, but there are people who always seem to need concrete answers and are impervious to the fact that they are taking far longer than everyone else to find them. It would be ideal if a game like Bison, that I think really wants to be about 45-60 minutes long, would have more hidden information or more uncertainty so as to not encourage this sort of thing. But, sadly, it does not, and so in the wrong set of circumstances the game can screech to a halt. In fairness, Phalanx is strikingly honest about the playing time on the box – it says 90 minutes – but Bison is really not that deep, in my opinion. So don't play it with anyone you wouldn't play Tikal, Torres, or any other game prone to excess analysis. The failing of Bison is that while Tikal has enough depth to reward a fair amount of thought, I'm not sure Bison really does.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Space Dealer, Factory Fun: games where you have to think fast

Space Dealer is a new real-time boardgame from Eggert-Spiele which I almost didn't buy. Honestly, I haven't played anything from them that I thought was any good (no, not even Antike). But when I heard the gimmick – using a whole mess of timers to moderate a real-time game – I had to give it a try.*

The basic idea is that each player is a space-going trading empire. You need to develop your infrastructure (more power, more production, more special powers), produce goods, and then ship those goods off to your neighboring planets. Getting the right goods to your neighbors before anyone else does gets you points (it also gets the recipient points, although usually quite a bit fewer).

Everything in the game is done with 30-second timers, of which each player initially has two. Want to build a new mine? Slap a 30-second timer on the card and wait for it to finish. Want to dig some green cubes out of your just-built mine? Ditto. Want to fly your ship to a neighboring star system (the players are laid out around the table in a circle, with each player two hops from the adjacent player)? Put a timer on it. You can see the pattern.

The nice thing about Space Dealer is that while 30 seconds or so isn't a lot of time, it's also not crushingly fast. You'll feel time pressures to make decisions, especially early as players ramp up and you're feeling pressure to get your production engine going. And once you've set yourself on a course of action for a few minutes, you want to take actions quickly so your timers aren't idle. And as timers are exhausting every 15 seconds or so, keeping up with everything without making a bone-headed maneuver can get to be challenging at times.

I liked Space Dealer. It seemed to be in a very nice spot. The pace is quick but not frantic, the decisions about what to do (upgrade technology, build, produce) are interesting but easy enough to grasp that they can be played in realtime, and ultimately good play is about making good choices under time pressure and not just about playing fast. I've played it half a dozen times now and I've always enjoyed it, and I suspect it'll keep a spot in my collection for a good while.

Ah, but there is (of course) a caveat. Space Dealer is a gimmick game. I think the gimmick, the time pressure and the real-time activity, is well-executed and so it's fun to play for just that reason. And in a terrific move, Space Dealer includes a CD with music that goes on for exactly 30 minutes and both counts down the time remaining at intervals, as well as ratchets up the tension as the game goes on. I can't imagine playing this game without the CD. But sadly, I doubt that there is serious replayability in the package. The range of production and special power cards you can build to expand your empire is somewhat limited, and I think that for most people, after a handful of games you will have seen about all that the game has to offer. Also, I've mentioned before that I think good games of this sort should, in general, end while player still have things left to do and real choices remaining. Space Dealer seems to end about when everyone is done: all the worthwhile cards in the game have been built, virtually all the demands are fulfilled, and there is little left to do but run out the clock on the last few remaining actions and see whose ship is going to arrive in the last 20 seconds and whose isn't. It leaves you with a sense of a game that was fun, but not one waiting to be explored.

But I still like it. I imagine Space Dealer will end up being one of those games that we play a bunch now, because it's new and cool, and then will go onto the shelf to be brought out once or twice a year because it's so unique and because it's fun. Maybe Eggert can do an expansion or two with more cards, more activities, and more development options to give the game more range.

Postscript: Space Dealer has a slightly awkward basic/advanced game breakdown, which I don't think quite works. Here is the combination of rules that I have settled on: use advanced rules, but drop the neutral planets and the four technology cards that sabotage other players. Also, play that the Fusion mines produce two cubes in the color of you choice (as the graphics would seem to indicate), not four cubes (as the rules say). The "basic" game doesn't quite work; if you're reading this blog, you should go direct to this configuration. If you want an intro, do what we did, play a 5-minute training game, then reset and play the whole thing.

2011 Update on Space Dealer: Space Dealer is a game that has kept its spot in my collection for its great, unique gameplay, but just doesn't come off the shelf very often. The All-Zeit expansion helped a great deal by filling in some gaps and allowing the game to end with options still on the table, which is great, but like the base game it added a number of suspect elements (the points for reaching level 3 last are a terrible idea). Plus it made problematically  complicated a game that relies on its real-time aspect to be fun. Space Dealer has always been a game that felt like it succeeded despite its underdevelopment. There is still a better game to be designed out of these ideas.

Factory Fun: It's clearly a factory, but it it fun? Short answer: Yes.

Factory Fun reminds me vaguely of the old Parker Brothers' game WaterWorks which I played as a kid, in that it involves a lot of pipes. You're building a factory. Over the game, you acquire machinery that needs to be hooked up. Those machines have inputs and outputs; the inputs have to be hooked up to either your supply, or to other machines that produce the right output. Space is limited, so you end up routing your pipes out the side, around an intervening machine, taking a left at the column in the middle of your factory floor, and then to its destination.

Machines are acquired by means of a "speed auction". Each player designates one hand as their "flipping hand" and one hand as their "grabbing hand". Everyone flips a machine. Then you grab the one you want. Or not, if someone else gets to it first. I've seen and heard some moaning about this technique, and how you should just do a money auction, but I like the grabbing. Factory Fun is a light game. It should be played quickly. You can't beat everyone scrambling for their machine of choice in terms of resolution time.

Once you've grabbed your machine, you're faced with an interesting mini-puzzle of how to connect it up without breaking the bank (each bit of piping costs a monetary unit); and at the end of the day that's what Factory Fun really is, basically 10 clever and fun little mini-puzzles where you try to fit your factory together while still hedging your bets to keep your options open for the next machine you acquire (much like Take it Easy). I enjoy these little puzzles, and so I enjoyed the game.

If Factory Fun has a flaw, it's in the scoring. Each machine gets a flat point pay-out when you hook it into your factory. At the end of the game, you get a bonus for hooking the output of one machine into the input of another (better value-add, you see). This bonus is huge, and is the tail that wags the dog here, I think. Getting your machines hooked up in serial is far more important than anything else, to the point that I think it drives the game unduly.

Because of this, after about 5 or 6 games, I'm starting to tire of Factory Fun a little. I think the puzzles are clever, and the game is not too long, but once I realized that hooking up machines in sequence trumped all else, it lost a bit of its edge for me. The other pressures (space in the factory, wiring things up efficiently) just don't seem quite strong enough to really give the game tension in the long run.

2011 Update on Factory Fun: Z-Man now has a new edition of this out which is much nicer than the original, supporting up to 5 players with variant maps, some new pipe configurations, and an overall higher-quality production. This is a game I don't play very often but always enjoy when I do.


* One kind of game I will always buy is one which echoes one of my small stock of my own game design ideas. About 5 years ago, after Knizia's Lord of the Rings came out, I was briefly working on a real-time game idea using timers. It was a cooperative game based on the US Space Program in the 60s, where players each had responsibility for finishing one component of the program. It involved completing projects by allocating timers to them. I never really developed the idea to the point where I thought it would actually work. But when Space Dealer came along with a similar concept, I had to give it a try.

I got a similar sense of deja vu recently when reading about Face 2 Face's new game Moai. I had almost exactly the same idea for a game after reading Collapse.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Augsburg 1520, Gloria Mundi

Augsburg 1520: alea has been taking some hits for some of their recent games (Rum & Pirates, Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters), but even though they haven't maintained their "every release a classic" run from Ra to Puerto Rico, I've still always found something to like in their games (it's helped that their line shows great range; their first 6 big-box games included bidding, bluffing, tactical, and negotiation games). Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters, and Die Sieben Weisen are all games I liked for their solid execution of interesting ideas, even if they aren't all tremendously replayable. And Rum & Pirates was just fun (I've played a number of times since, and no, I haven't changed my mind on that). Only the so-so Wyatt Earp is out in the cold, but even that had an interesting twist on Rummy, with more incremental instead of all-or-nothing scoring. And of course the relatively recent San Juan is amongst the best games in their line.

Which leaves Augsburg 1520 as the first alea game to leave me more or less flat, with my desire to play again largely driven by confidence in the brand rather than any specific desire to see if it'll work out in the end.

Augsburg 1520 is a bidding game. It's of the traditional empire-building variety, where you have to acquire either stuff that generates more money, or actual victory points (Saint Petersburg is an exemplar of this sort of game). That choice between cash and VPs is OK, and has a few interesting twists – there are two choke-points, for example, where you have to buy a very expensive Church or Cathedral to proceed, but players who buy early pay a lot more than players who buy late – but it isn't anything we fundamentally haven't seen before. The bidding part is also OK. Each turn has 5 rewards on offer and 5 auctions. Players bid a quantity of money cards, which are color-coded to a specific auction (the last auction is wild; you can bid anything). The bidding is poker-style, with each player "calling" or "raising" the number of bid cards in turn, and after everyone drops or "calls" without raising we reveal our bids and the largest number of cards bid (the one with the single highest valued card in case of multiple high bids, which will usually be the case) wins. This has the great virtue of being comparatively quick (no endlessly circling the table), since there are a lot of auctions in each game.

The feedback between the bidding and the economic game is also interesting: each turn you're dealt a number of bidding cards. You then have to pay for the ones you want. Low-valued ones are cheap, while high-valued cards are expensive. The cards have cleverly printed their costs on the back, so you can verify everything without needing to see what exactly everyone is buying. This is interesting in that you have some choice of going for breadth or depth, or saving to buy a Church, but in practice it seems that most of the time you're going to buy almost all the cards you are dealt, so it doesn't seem to be as interesting as one might hope.

There are two major downsides.

The first is a bit of an endgame problem. Because some of the auctions are for victory point producing tiles that only a few players can have, and if you win it you get to steal it from somebody, you can see an endgame situation where a player in a distant third has to make a choice about who to steal victory points from that determines who wins, and that choice is ultimately arbitrary. It's not going to happen all the time, but it's always deflating when it does.

Secondly, don't even try to explain the theme of this game to people. It involves purchasing debt from German nobility and then canceling that debt in return for favors. When I bought the game from my local game shop, the clerk (who was unfamiliar with it) was reading the copy text on the back about various debt transactions and remarked "wow! the game almost sells itself!", albeit with a suspicious lack of enthusiasm. I muttered something about perhaps it being more meaningful if you're German. I notice that they haven't restocked since I bought their last copy. Let's just say, the theme is not terribly compelling, and neither does it make much sense in terms of the game-play.

Ultimately, I don't know. The initial impression is that the endgame has potential issues, and the game has interesting bits that don't quite seem to cohere or add up to more than the sum of the parts. And the theme is weak. On the other hand, this is an alea game, it is unusual for a bidding game, and some of those bits are interesting and clearly have some depth, it's not too long, and so I'll play it again for those reasons. But it's definitely not a game that grabbed me. Who knows; maybe in a few more plays I'll be raving about it, but it seems unlikely, and that endgame issue will likely remain a sore point.

2011 Update: I actually played Augsburg 1520 recently, at BGG.con 2011, and it seems to come out once a year. I'm not going to say the game is underrated. But it's a clever and unusual bidding game, and good bidding games not by Reiner Knizia are rare. This writeup probably doesn't do it full justice. The endgame isn't as problematic as I worried. There is nuance to the acquisition of things on the various tracks, and timing is everything. The back-and-forth as people take titles from each other makes the game dynamic in a good way. Also, it helps to play the rule for the Master Builder correctly (it's confusing). The game is probably best with 4. Augsburg 1520 has been on the block a couple times for selling off – space for our game collection is tight – but we always play it first and it goes back on the shelf, even though my complete set of alea games has finally been broken up (Macao and Mammoth Hunters hit the road).

Gloria Mundi: Let's just say, my expectations for Gloria Mundi were low. Really low. Sometimes that's no bad thing.

This is another infrastructure vs. victory points game, this time in Rome. The Visigoths are coming, ripping up the landscape as they go, and you are trying to get to Carthage (where I guess the Vandals, despite their name, aren't as bad) before they get you. But you need to pay for your ticket out of town with gold, agricultural products, and, um, small rectangular white things.

Gloria Mundi's main selling point is the well-realized theme. Gloria Mundi is chaotic, but with the Visigoths closing in and everyone running away as fast as they can, what else would it be? The players are constantly fighting the frustration of seeing their good work destroyed by pillaging Visigoths, but hey, Rome is collapsing here, what do you expect? Low inflation and a buoyant stock market? I don't think so.

Obviously, the theme only goes so far, but it does help a lot. Underneath the theme, Gloria Mundi is a mixed bag. To start with the bad, the most obvious problem is that the iconography on the cards is really hideous: the same symbol can mean different things at different times, rules are not interpreted consistently across similar symbols, and in many cases the symbols themselves are not illuminating. The special powers on the cards are not complicated, but the way they are presented is often so completely opaque that you'll need a play-through just to figure everything out. This is really bad. I've always said that if you are only going to get a few plays out of a game, it's really important that the first one not be wasted. Also, the pillaging mechanic, where the Visigoths destroy players' holdings, is a bit arbitrary and is bound to leave people feeling gratuitously hosed at some point or another. And the mechanism for acquiring new cards is such that planning is almost impossible and if you are able to buy a card with a special power that gives you some good synergies, you should thank your lucky stars. Since Gloria Mundi is very much about the special powers of cards you acquire rather than raw production (unlike, say, Saint Petersburg), this can be an issue.

As for the good stuff, I like how the economic model works. Cards are divided up into farms, legions, and cities. Each turn you play a card from your hand and add it to your holdings, and that also indicated which types of holdings pay for everyone. So if I play a city card, I not only get a new city (which pays a gold), everyone activates all their cities. Each of these cards can then be augmented with power cards bought from the deck. This is kind of neat, and the frequent destruction makes things interesting and prevents any sort of runaway leader issue. And it's interesting that your supply of Farm cards, say, is fixed, so if you invest heavily in one area early you get a good payoff, but it can leave you badly constrained later on when all you have are City or Legion cards which benefit your opponents more than you.

So what does all this mean? I like the theme, I like the card-play, and the art is fantastic; that might be enough to get the game on the table for a bit. What ultimately kills Gloria Mundi for me, though, is the length. Our game was pushing two hours, although I'm not sure how much of that was spent bickering over what the heck the symbols were supposed to mean. At 45 minutes, an hour at the outside, I think Gloria Mundi would have been a neat, if rather chaotic and ultimately disposable, game experience. At the kind of length we saw, though, forget it. I'm sure more play would bring it down, but I just can't see it coming down enough.

I should mention too that while the box says the game goes up to 6 players, I expect four is the sweet spot. Chaos and downtime go up with each added player, and your ability to plan will asymptotically approach zero (although the game length won't go up too much). I might play Gloria Mundi again, but I would be leery of adding a fifth player and would play something else with 6.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Shifting Sands

I've been putting off doing this write-up, because I feel like my track record on these card games is sketchy. I'll play one of them a couple or a few times, the game will be fun, I'll do the write-up, and then the game promptly crashes and burns the very next time I play it. Such was the case for The Napoleonic Wars, Triumph of Chaos, and Sword of Rome, all of which hit the wall pretty hard (some harder than others, though). I'd probably be tougher on Twilight Struggle if I wrote my review today. Here I Stand, a game I do still like, nonetheless couldn't hold the enthusiasm generated by the first few games and it overall must be judged to have some significant issues.

So, I was not sure what to do with Shifting Sands. But, having now played three times, I've cracked and you get this.

Shifting Sands is a direct descendant of GMT and Ted Raicer's classic games Barbarossa to Berlin and Paths of Glory. The core game system is virtually identical. On your turn, you play a card from your hand, and choose between operations (movement and combat), replacements, strategic moves, or the military or political event. If you choose operations, you spend the number the card gives you to activate units around the board. While your infantry holds the line and provides mass, armor units form the critical core of your army, and drive a lot of the tactical interest by having the ability to shift the weight of an attack easily and rapidly, as well as to add the possibility of overrunning defending units.

From a historical perspective, the war in the Western Desert was not so much blitzkrieg in miniature as it was a series of set-piece battles interspersed with cavalry-style raids and flanking maneuvers, and the tactics of Shifting Sands capture elements of this. Because of the maneuverability of armored units, the overrun results, and possible armor attack bonuses, the offensive is very powerful when things are taking place in the open with insecure flanks. But once you hit a choke-point where flanks can be secured, or once the defender gets some terrain to take advantage of, things turn into a slugging match.

But, the tactical game – while certainly interesting – is not really Shifting Sands' major focus. As it was for Paths of Glory, Shifting Sands is about resource management. Limited cards and limited action points have to be split wisely between operations, replacements, and events. And operations have to be prioritized wisely amongst the game's several theaters.

Each player gets their own deck of cards, divided into three piles. The 1940 deck, like Paths of Glory's Mobilization deck, is small, and the players will go through it in a couple turns. 1941 gets a bit thicker, and then 1942 adds quite a few cards. The thing that makes Shifting Sands feel different, though, is the rapidly-escalating hand sizes. Your hand starts with the Paths of Glory-standard 7 cards, but grows to 10 cards by the end (although it can be temporarily suppressed by Malta-related activities). These large hand sizes make a big difference: the most noticeable is the enhancement in the value of combat cards, since playing them will vary rarely cost you an activation as they often do in Paths of Glory (playing a card's event to influence combat means that card can't be used in one of your 6 impulses to actually do stuff. So if there's a card you need to save for next turn for an important event, and a card you play as a combat card, with a 7 card hand that leaves you one short for your actual impulses). This, combined with combat cards that seem on average somewhat more powerful than the ones in Paths of Glory or Barbarossa to Berlin, is a very nice feature that makes combat a lot more uncertain and interesting, and the availability of combat cards can affect your planning in a way that the much more incidental cards in Barbarossa to Berlin usually don't.

Apart from the Western Desert, Shifting Sands also features two peripheral theaters, the Near East and East Africa. These are separate gameplay areas in which the Axis ultimately have little to no hope of accomplishing anything constructive, but which can be a drain on British resources. Juggling them ultimately feels like juggling the fronts in Paths of Glory – how can the Serbians be finished off most efficiently? – but the advantage Shifting Sands has is that these resource management tradeoffs make some actual thematic sense. In Paths of Glory, Germany is slowing down Schlieffen's right wing in order to allow Austria-Hungary to spend operations to battle Serbia, which makes absolutely no sense. In Shifting Sands, having the British choose between spending resources in East Africa or the Western Desert is at least not intuitively jarring.

The other thing is that the game contains many powerful and important event cards, and has a number of sequencing issues – the biggest being a whole series of cards revolving around the reinforcement, siege and possible Axis seizure of Malta. The larger hand sizes makes the management and cycling of cards and events more manageable (compare to the incredibly unwieldy and accident-prone Russian Capitulation Sequence in Paths of Glory).

As for my impressions? Shifting Sands initially get about the same reception as Michael Rinella's previous game, Monty's Gamble: Market Garden. I liked both games right away. But on the other hand, both games are so similar in feel to their predecessors (Paths of Glory and Breakout: Normandy), that they didn't get an initial "wow" the way the originals did when I first played them. But as I came to grips with the new games, I realized that the situations and feel and details are quite different, and interesting in their own right. I really like that both of his games have not just introduced added complexity and playing time, as is unfortunately traditional with spinoff games, but have been able to cleanly port the underlying system to new situations while arguably reducing the complexity and slimming down the playing time. Breakout: Normandy is a 6-hour game, which is just a bit uncomfortable, while Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin are both 10+ hours. On the other hand, Monty's Gamble is a great and very compact and comfortable 3 to 4 hour game, and Shifting Sands can be finished in 5. Monty's Gamble's length is perfect; Shifting Sands is probably a touch long – like in Barbarossa to Berlin, the endgame of mopping up the outnumbered, outgunned, and outclassed Axis is not the most compelling gaming experience ever devised – but on the scale of these things Shifting Sands is a dense game with lots of activity and I have no complaints. Unlike Here I Stand, which can feature significant periods of minimal activity and accomplishment, things are always happening in Shifting Sands.

I can no longer seriously talk about any of these games as "simulations", but from what I'll call a "thematic" standpoint, Shifting Sands does pretty well, better I think than many others in this category. The core card mechanism it uses was brilliant when it was originally perfected in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage because it both introduced gameplay tension (having to balance military and political actions) and successfully conveyed a sense of the fog of war of the period. Later games have successfully used cards to achieve game tension, but in my opinion they haven't always modeled or evoked anything in particular thematically. Paths of Glory was a notable offender in this regard. Why am I trading off Russian vs. French activity? Weren't these two different nations, with two totally separate supply and command chains? Sure, coordination of offensives between the two nations was hard, but the game model is not coordination problems; the model is that there was a fixed amount of military activity that has to be divvied up amongst the French, British, and Russians, which was clearly just not how things worked. Similarly, presumably the drafting and training areas of the military-industrial complex were going to churn out soldiers regardless of whether or not higher-ups took a break to play a card as Replacement Points instead of happening to notice that someone seems to have sunk the Lusitania. The real limit on replacements was the available manpower pool, from everything I've read, something which Paths of Glory pays no attention to.

For me anyway, Shifting Sands is on sounder thematic footing, even though it uses the same system. The antagonists are each drawing from one resource pool, so the decisions about the Western Desert vs. East Africa vs. the Near East make more sense (at least until right at the very end, with the Torch landings, which has the Allies starting to make the same strange trade-offs – who will be active today, the Americans or British? – that you make in Paths of Glory). Supplies in the desert were notoriously variable, so the randomness of the cards feels more plausible. Even the replacement point system, while not great, can be rationalized much more easily here.

On the other hand, any time you repurpose an existing game system to the degree that is the case here, there is bound to be a limit on how much you can do thematically. For example, I think Rommel in the Desert does more with less – Rommel really seems to capture a fundamental tactical and operational feel for the desert campaign, while Shifting Sands takes more of a "storybook" approach, similar (obviously) to that of Paths of Glory: the story of the campaign is told through the event cards, and the players follow along. In Rommel in the Desert, players are making fundamentally authentic-feeling decisions; in Shifting Sands, the campaigns unfold before you. That makes it sound, bad, I know, which doesn't seem right; but for me personally, I prefer a game which can grasp a couple things fundamentally rather than doing a lot of things superficially. Thus, I think I find Rommel in the Desert the more convincing game, all the more so for having good scenarios playable in a couple of hours. But, by the same token, Shifting Sands does capture the sweep of the entire theatre while Rommel focusses solely on the Western Desert.

Does Shifting Sands succeed as a game? On that count, for me the answer is much more clear – I definitely enjoyed it all three times I played. The game isn't completely clean; there is some complexity to the interrelated nature of a bunch of the events in the deck that it'll be difficult to really understand until you've played a couple of times, and that complexity is probably a little overdone. The game is probably a touch too long, and the graphic designers over at MMP could have done significantly better in conveying information in the physical design. But these are my only complaints, and they are minor. The game plays more cleanly and with fewer special cases than either predecessor (Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin), it plays in reasonable time, presents the players with lots of interesting decisions, does it constantly with little slack time, maintains its interest almost right to the end, and appears to have well-designed and interesting cards and decks which tell the story of the desert campaign. I look forward to playing it more.

2011 Update: I wasn't logging my plays on BoardGameGeek back when Shifting Sands was in more in regular circulation, but I'm guessing I got about 10 plays out of it. My most recent play was just a few months ago, PBeM via VASSAL. Given the fond memories I have of the game, playing again was oddly unsatisfying, and I think it boils down to the Torch invasion. The inevitability of Torch tends to constrain the game – if the Germans are hanging on with prospects in Egypt, the impact of Torch will be disastrous since it seems like they can't hold off the Allies in the west without the DAK. It means that at a certain point, the Germans simply have to abandon everything to form defensive lines in Tunisia and Libya, or they lose. The game then becomes a siege. It's a somewhat unsatisfying end to what is otherwise a quite riveting game. I still count myself as a fan of Shifting Sands, and the more moderate playing time is a big deal. But it never quite exerted the same hold on me that WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin did.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Silk Road, Leonardo Da Vinci, Buccaneer/Seeräuber

Silk Road: This is a new game from the always unpredictable Z-Man, designed by Ted Cheatam and Bruno Faidutti. A friend, when describing the game, said that "I know what a Bruno game feels like, and this doesn't feel like that, so it must be mostly Ted's game". With which I would generally agree.

Players take the roles of traders, using money to buy and sell goods at places along the Silk Road. What opportunities are available for the taking are distributed by the game's cornerstone idea. When we arrive at, say, Tyre, there will be (N-1) – where N is the number of players – actions available, which can include buying, selling, or trading specific goods, or taking some small special actions. We do once around bidding to see who gets first choice. The winner takes his pick, then - and this is the different bit - chooses who gets to go second from amongst the remaining players. The second player then takes his choice, passing along the next action to a player of his choice, and so on, until only one player who hasn't taken an action is left. That person gets no action, but gets to preside over the next round of bidding: he bids last, and gets the option to either collect the high bid, or pay the high bidder his bid for the right to go first. Since running the auction generally doesn't outweigh the penalty of not getting to take an action, the last player is generally, although not always, screwed.

This whole thing is one of those game mechanics that sounds clever on paper, and is sort of interesting while you are grappling with it for the first time, but ultimately I really don't think it quite works at a rather fundamental level. Everything in the game is hidden, so with so much hidden state involved in the decision of who to pass an action to and who to hose by not giving an action, most players are just guessing. Which would be OK, but getting knocked down in the order, or not getting a choice at all, can be a big deal, and in the middle game, when people are cash-poor, the compensation of running the auction for turn order is just not helping a lot.

So, it's interesting in spots, but overall not really my sort of game, and not one I'm likely to play again. Ultimately, though, I think my biggest beef with Silk Road is the price. Silk Road is $50 retail, which quite frankly is insane. I think as a $25-$30 retail small- or medium-box filler, it might be justifiable. The conversion engine, the process of moving goods and money and whatnot around, works pretty well, even if it isn't exactly mind-blowing. The auction is a little dodgy in spots but is also unusual and different. But fifty bucks for this? Given what else is out there, that just seems nuts.

Leonardo Da Vinci: After last year's Essen, I have tried to completely detach myself from the internet "buzz". Caylus, Antike, and Siena were all games that were getting great "buzz", and all of them, for me anyway, turned out to be varying levels of awful, while games getting little to no "buzz" (Beowulf, Elasund, Hacienda) were big winners.

So I approached Leonardo Da Vinci, a game apparently getting good internet "buzz" made by a company that produced one of my all-time most-hated games (BANG!), with a healthy degree of skepticism.

And hey, what do you know, it didn't suck! Players are inventors in an Italian city of some kind (Florence, perhaps?), trying to churn out inventions. The city elders want a fancy crossbow? You're on it. You'll need to round up raw materials (some wood and some rope, in this case), workers, a lab for the workers to work in, and perhaps a robotic assistant or two (Yes, really. These actually turn out to be better workers than the humans). You acquire these goods in a sort of vaguely Aladdin's Dragons-esque way, placing your workers in various areas of town, with the players who commit more effort to each activity getting better prices, while the less industrious get gouged. Of course, workers gathering materials aren't actually working on inventions. What results is a game with lots of interesting choices, almost all of which seem real (unlike some of those nasty, fake choices in Caylus) and well-balanced. And, critically, it plays in a reasonable amount of time and without excessive downtime; in this way it even scores over the classic Princes of Florence. I'm pretty certain Leonardo Da Vinci is nowhere near as well-honed a design as that classic, but it has definitely corrected that one flaw.

The theme of Leonardo Da Vinci for me has an interesting meta-relationship to the feel of the game itself. The players in the game aren't really playing the role of inventors, having interesting proprietary ideas and working out their inspiration in secrecy. No, the players are really producing made-to-order "inventions". The game tells you what to invent and how to invent it; you go off and do it. A better theme might have been war production in America in WWII: "We need a tank that'll be reliable, fast, and that will be suitable for mass production. Why don't you get on that, and sign us up for 50,000 of them. And don't go over budget." By the same token, the game itself does not feel like it was designed from any true inspiration, any interesting core idea. It's like the designer perhaps enjoyed the game systems in Princes of Florence and Aladdin's Dragons, and decided to make a new game by piecing together the bits he liked from those games and adding some money management and removing the uncertainty.

So what does this mean, if anything? Possibly not much. Certainly not that Leonardo Da Vinci is a bad game. It just means it lacks that hook, the coherence of vision or creative spark of the top-tier games that really pulls you in. To say it another way, it lacks theme integration. It's a collection of fun mechanisms that are streamlined, well-presented, and engaging to play, and I liked it, and I'll play again; but most likely, this is ultimately just another in a long list of disposable euros.

Buccaneer is a game that fell between the cracks this year because a) it's rated as an "8 and up" game, b) it's from Queen, and c) it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahre. All of these things have become negative indicators for me, to various degrees. But, after reading up on the game a bit, I decided to give it a try.

And really liked it.

Players are Pirate captains, trying to take over and loot merchant ships (how did this ever become one of the acceptable, family-friendly game themes?). To do this, you form crews. Everyone has 5 pirates, rated 2-5 plus a "wild" pirate that I'm not going to go into detail on, where their value indicates their pay. On your turn, you can have one of your pirates "take over" another player's crew (not your own!) by putting your piece on top of the stack. Or, if you are leading a large enough stack, you can take over a ship.

When a ship is taken over, it provides a payoff in ducats, which goes to the captain (the piece on top). The captain then has to pay off everyone else in the crew, giving them money equal to their value (which might mean going into the player's reserves, if he hired an excessive crew, perhaps by accident – you can't look at stacks once formed). If there are then any choice goodies aboard the target ship – rum, say, or a nice candelabra – the captain gets first pick, while the "mate" (the second piece in the stack) gets the leftovers, if any.

Buccaneer is basically a twisted auction game. If someone has a big enough crew to take over a ship, you have to either let him do it, or effectively agree to pay more for the right to the plunder by taking over the ownership of the crew. But what really makes the game fly is that there is also a fair dose of interesting tactical decisions: when to let someone else board a ship in the hopes that it will open up better options for you, when to be happy with being second mate because you'll get a goodie you are interested in, and when to use your cheap pirates and when to use your expensive pirates. The inability to inspect stacks also adds a good, non-threatening memory element that really cuts down on the analysis opportunities.

I thought Buccaneer was a great little filler game, on par with Dorra's previous For Sale, and I was really happy I gave it a try.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Canal Mania

Canal Mania is a new game from the reliable, if somewhat less-than-prolific, Ragnar Brothers. Thinking about that for a second, one might reasonably ask: what exactly do they reliably deliver? Well, games ... like the ones they make.

As such, Canal Mania is a bit of a departure for them, because I can tell you right here that Canal Mania is basically a favorable combination of mechanisms from Age of Steam and Ticket to Ride, with a lot of the problems and rough edges of those two previous games smoothed over.

To write any more than that about the specific game-play of Canal Mania is really to go past the point of diminishing returns (and if you play the game you'll know what I mean), but because I'm expected to write a little bit more than that on the details of the game in this business, I'll keep going. Canal Mania presents you with a board with different-colored cities on it, and those cities have good cubes. You score points by delivering these goods cubes over your canals; the rule is, any delivery route can be as long as you want, but it can never contain two cities of the same color (all good cubes are generic). Like in Age of Steam, you can use other players' canals, and when you do, they get part of the payoff. Building between cities is controlled by drafted cards, a la Ticket to Ride, although with a different mix of restrictions. You can draft contract cards, and these contracts (analogous to Ticket to Ride's tickets) specify which two cities you may connect and the maximum number of tiles you may use to do it. You then lay those tiles by drafting locks, stretches, aqueducts, and tunnel cards, which you can then parley into actual bits of canal.

As I say, it's striking the degree to which Canal Mania can be easily and simply described as a cross between the better halves of Ticket to Ride and Age of Steam. Where Canal Mania scores over its two antecedents is in the smoothness of play. Canal Mania glides along, without many frustrating bumps or detours. Compare to the unevenness of the tickets in Ticket to Ride or the auctions in Age of Steam, both of which feel inelegant. Canal Mania constrains you with the contracts – unlike Steam or Ticket, you can't just build anywhere – but the constraints seem less painful overall. You still almost always get to draft tickets from a set on offer, and unlike in Ticket to Ride, most lots seem to include something useful. Also, the contracts are set up to circumvent the arbitrariness that both Age of Steam and Ticket to Ride can sometimes have. In Ticket to Ride, sometimes you're hosed because you and the player on your right really need the same route, but he just happened to see all the cards he needed first. In Canal Mania, the real competition is over delivering goods cubes, not over routes. When you get a contract, that route is yours, it's just a question of how to trade off speed vs. efficiency in getting it built. Speed, because maybe you want to deliver that generic good in Liverpool before anyone else gets there; efficiency, because at the end of the game the person who has built the most routes gets points.

So, Canal Mania rolls along pretty well; it's a friendlier game than either Steam or Ticket, while still managing to be a serious game without the sharp edges.

At least, until you get to the endgame. While I was generally pleased with Canal Mania, the endgame troubled me. Once a player crosses a certain point threshold, or a certain number of routes get built, you enter the endgame during which all that happens is that all the remaining goods on the board get delivered. As in Age of Steam, you will sometimes have to use other players' connections, and thus give them some points, in order to deliver a goods cube yourself. In Age of Steam, because your network is usually pretty coherent, it's rare that this is more than a small handful of points. In Canal Mania, though, due to the unpredictable flow of contracts, it seems much more likely that your "network" is really just going to be a collection of canals in various places. So as the endgame approaches, you will almost always have to give other players money to make a delivery.

The effects of this are predictable: endless calculation about who is "really" ahead based on their score plus their apparent deliveries remaining, multiple calculations of whether it's better to give 3 pounds to player A or player B, situations in which a player gets to pick who wins, and (maybe) whining by the aggrieved. It's potentially not pretty, both in terms of the unreasonable level of calculation required to play well and in terms of possible hurt feelings.

Honestly, I don't have any idea of how you would do the endgame to Canal Mania better. It all seems part and parcel of what makes the earlier game successful, and so I don't mind it that much. By the standards of games with kingmaking problems, it's certainly not in the same league as the notorious Kill Dr. Lucky or multi-player Attika; but the problem does exist, and some people will be turned off by it. Likewise, Shannon Applecline complains about games that force you to do too much math, and Canal Mania has some trouble with this. I would think Canal Mania actually has a potentially more severe problem than Santiago, a poster child for this sort of thing for me, although it depends on how the game pans out (Santiago has calculation problems by default; Canal Mania might not).

The other downside is the game length and downtime. Canal Mania is in the neighborhood of 2 hours, and given a system that is less interactive than Steam and turns that are definitely longer than in Ticket, length and downtime seem just slightly on the wrong side of where things should be.

So what does all this mean? Do I recommend Canal Mania? As a US buyer, I'm on the fence (it's expensive here). I think Canal Mania very nicely fills a niche between Ticket and Steam. I think that the game has smoothed over the unevenness in both of those games, as well as put the theming on more solid foundations. But at the end of the day, it is still a game that has a few issues (the two significant ones being the endgame calculation and the game length) and is fairly derivative, and is going to set you back no less than $50 (US). Which makes it a tough sell. We played on a loaner copy from a friend, and my ultimate decision was that it was not a buy. But it's certainly worth playing on someone else's copy.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Republic of Rome

The last year or so I've been trying to get more classic games back on the table. These older games are never going to be regulars, but they're fun to play again: Dune, Civilization, Gangsters, Britannia ... and now one of my most highly regarded old games, #11 on my all-time favorite list, Republic of Rome.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the game, Republic of Rome is in my opinion the classic political game, and not just that, but in an whole different league from the others. Players take the roles of factions in the Roman Senate and cope with the issues of various Republican periods: the many wars in the timeframe of the 1st and 2nd Punic Wars, the growth of the empire and the internal discord of the era of the Gracchi brothers, and then the full-blooded internecine struggles of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey. You marshal cash, influence, and popularity to compete politically for the offices of the Consuls (who run the Senate and fight the wars), Censor (who prosecutes Senators for Corruption, the appearance thereof, or hairstyle), Governors (good for some personal graft), Pontifex Maximus (a mixed blessing), as well as a few other various and sundry items. The players must also manage the affairs of state to cope with wars, drought, popular unrest, revolution, the Cataline Conspiracy, death, and taxes. Most things are run in a democratic process of voting, although the players elected to office will retain important controls over what is debated and how the voting proceeds. The thing that makes Republic of Rome so unique and compelling is that it is a truly cooperative-competitive game. The players have to deal with the random external threats, Knizia's Lord of the Rings style, or Rome will fall. But there can be only one winner, and you can win in a variety of ways which involve amassing influence or overthrowing the Senate with your personal army.

The big complaint about Republic of Rome has always been the complexity; to be more specific, the difficulty of learning to play the game (like several Avalon Hill games of this time period, it's far, far easier to be taught the game than to learn it from the rulebook). Interestingly, with the more recent onslaught of German games, I have become somewhatless sympathetic to this complaint than I used to be. I think the reason is just that the complexity of Republic of Rome is both a) not terribly burdensome compared to modern multi-player wargames like Here I Stand or The Napoleonic Wars, and b) all good. No, it is not an easy game to learn or play. But while there is a lot in Republic of Rome, and a lot of it could on first inspection be dismissed as chrome, almost everything in the game is interconnected and serves a purpose. Try to touch something, and in general it's clear that something else is going to break. The core resources of the game (money, influence, and popularity for the players, money and unrest for the state) are used in many divergent but interconnected ways. Take popularity, for example, in some sense the most limited of the basic resources: it is used to protect yourself from prosecution, to make the yearly "state of the union" address to keep the people quiet, as protection from Assassination, and can be spent to do some price-gouging on a grain concession during a drought. Popularity can be won by winning wars, sponsoring public games, and sponsoring farm bills in the Senate. But on the other hand, nothing is simple: money and influence are intertwined in all these things. Games covert personal cash into popularity, winning wars requires the cash and votes to get elected in the first place, farm bills are free to the players but cost the state money (sometimes a lot of money) while keeping unrest down ... and so on. The network of connections is very dense.

I think this interconnectedness is what makes the game so successful at what it does. Like so many wonderfully thematic games, when you drill down on the details, a lot of things are badly off: the Consuls didn't really wield power in anything like the way they do here, the Censor is an abstraction that bears little relation to any historical office, and the rules for the Dictator are a fudge. The lawmaking powers of the Tribal Assembly, such a critical focus of conflict in the period of the Gracchi brothers, are totally ignored. A conflict similar to the 1st Civil War (Marius vs. Sulla) will never happen, while one of the more common victory conditions in practice – becoming Consul for Life – is grossly ahistorical outside of the Late Republic. And the rapidly shifting alliances of a 5 or 6 player game simply doesn't reflect the factional politics of the Roman Senate, which never had more than 2-3 major competing factions.

But despite being so far off on so many of the details, I don't think anyone would seriously argue that Republic of Rome has anything but terrific, evocative historical theming that gives a real sense of Roman Republican politics. In part this is because the game has, where necessary, ignored history and done what is required for the game itself to work, and a deep, interesting, working game will do far more to immerse the players in the game-world than any slavish devotion to historical accuracy.

To bring this back to the issue of complexity, I'm not convinced that Republic of Rome would even function at all with a lower complexity level. Republic of Rome is unique because it combines both cooperative and competitive elements: the survival of the state and the desire of one faction to come out on top. The immersion of the players in the game-world is in my opinion a good chunk of what allows these elements to exist in uneasy balance. A much more abstract game like Terra (or even the competitive play option for Lord of the Rings) is too easy for gamers to heartlessly mini-max. But by enabling the players to become emotionally invested in the game, Republic of Rome makes it work.

So how was it, ultimately, playing Republic of Rome again? I've played it three times in the last 6 months, after a break of about 7 years.

For a game I still regard quite highly, it's not as easy a question to answer as one might hope. As a game design, I still hugely respect it and consider it one of the most unique and compelling games ever made. But there are also a few pointy edges to the game mechanisms that bug me more than they used to. I think the main area that bugs me today that I considered just "part of the game" in the past are the Persuasion rules, where players can steal each others' Senators, Illuminati-style. It's a minor part of the game because the amount of influence required to successfully Persuade anyone is huge, and they are easy to defend against, but when Persuasion becomes relevant it's ridiculously high-stakes and rather chaotic. I'd rather a fairer and less arbitrary way of making sure each faction gets repopulated as Senators die off.*

Also, I don't think the Middle and Late Republic scenarios work as they should, as I think they have too much potential for serious pacing issues, as I talk about in this BoardGameGeek thread. And the Late Republic, despite the appeal of the most household names (Caesar, Cicero, Pompey), is much too long; the Early Republic is playable in 4-6 hours, while the Late Republic can take 10-12. The Early Republic is a very fun game in and of itself, but it's definitely not endlessly replayable, and the game does need those later two scenarios to work properly.

This is all comparatively minor stuff. The creakiness of the Persuasion situation doesn't have a profound impact on the game. And there is a lot of play value in the Early Republic. But still.

At the end of the day, though, I don't think these reflect the real reason that Republic of Rome has lost some of its sharpness for me personally, even though I still enjoyed playing it. I think the real reasons are probably two-fold, and more meta-reasons than any real issue with the game itself.

Firstly is the much more troubling state of the real American politics. With things as bitter, divisive, and negative as they are today, it's harder to get excited about what is probably the greatest political game ever made.

Secondly, and I'm not sure how closely this is related to the first item, I seem to have lost my killer instinct for this sort of game. This point might be a little more subtle than it first appears. One of the reasons that I was originally drawn to Republic of Rome, and the reason that I've rated it highly over the years, is that while it's true that it is a highly-competitive political game, it's still a constructive one with more similarities to the win-win deal-making of Traders of Genoa than the free-form hoseage of I'm the Boss. The deals you make with the other players are overwhelmingly about angling to gain offices or otherwise build up your own position rather than taking down your opponents. There is certainly scope for screwing Senators – the most blatant is through Prosecution, which is the only really overtly hostile element of the game, but you can also send them off to war with insufficient force in the hopes they'll be killed or banish them to a long Governership in the provinces – but this sort of overt personal confrontation is a lesser part of the game. The vast majority of the time, you're setting yourself up rather than specifically taking your opponents down.

I guess what I'm saying here is that from the game perspective (i.e., leaving aside the historical interest, which is considerable), I was drawn to Republic of Rome because it was a political game that lacked the overt nastiness of Diplomacy. But the game can still be a bit nasty. While what I say above about being constructive is literally true, it's also true that the benefits of office are considerable and somebody has to get frozen out, and the dynamics of the game can sometimes be seen as personal and can be frustrating. It's no Diplomacy; it's not even I'm the Boss or Intrige (I do love Intrige, but only because it's so brazenly ostentatious about its nastiness that it's hard to take it too seriously). But the nastiness is there, off in the corner smirking, and I don't like it when he looks at me. This is a hard point to make without overstating it, but as I've gotten older, I find I don't have the stomach for some of these things like I used to.

So I've lowered my BoardGameGeek rating on Republic of Rome. From a 10 to a 9. I still consider it a unique, wonderful, classic game, which I will still enjoy playing and will likely continue to break out every few years for a long time hence. The historical flavor is terrific, and the game succeeds at transporting you to a world that is immersive and interesting and compelling, as well as being a remarkably good game. But, it couldn't quite live up to the "all-time classic" label it had in my mind. And I really wish the later scenarios worked better.


* This may strike some players familiar with Republic of Rome as odd. After all, at the beginning of each turn, you play "death bingo". You pick a number out of a cup. The player who controls the Senator that matches that number then howls in agony. Geez, how much more random and arbitrary do you get then that? But even random death has its role in the game, forcing you not to invest too heavily in one Senator, and putting at least a theoretical cap on how long a hugely popular or influential Senator can make trouble. Persuasion attempts do not appear to ultimately serve such a useful purpose.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thurn & Taxis, Palazzo, To Crown a King, Curse of the Dark Pharaoh

Thurn & Taxis has fallen into the niche for me that I expect Ticket to Ride falls into for other gamers: it's short, it's very easy to teach the rules and for players to grok, and it's not frustrating. When you lose, it's often as much about card distribution as tactical errors, so once you've gotten your head wrapped around that, it's pretty non-threatening (and I should say, this is not necessarily a bad thing). It's a nice compromise game, everyone seems to enjoy it at least a bit, you never have to worry seriously about the rules, and there are definitely tactics and trade-offs to play which makes it an engaging game.

I think where Thurn & Taxis scores for me over Ticket to Ride is in the sense of overall game balance. I realized last time I played Ticket to Ride: Europe that each ticket had a scoring value that was simply equal to the number of trains you needed to play to complete it. So a ticket that required two six-lengthed segments and a ticket that required six two-lengthed tunnel segments would score exactly the same endgame points - 12. Obviously, the route with two six-length segments is vastly preferable; it requires many fewer turns to play, playing the routes themselves scores substantially more points, and is at less risk of being cut off. Accumulating two lots of 6 cards of a given type is somewhat more difficult than acquiring 6 lots of 2, but not nearly more difficult enough to cover the spread. Ultimately, the total number of cards required to complete a route is almost the least-useful indicator of the difficulty of building it. This significant imbalance in the worth of the ticket cards is what leads me to the greatest irritation with Ticket to Ride.

Thurn & Taxis has a fair amount of luck as well, but it doesn't feel so debilitating to me. In Ticket to Ride, if you get a lousy draw of tickets you know you're hosed in a pre-determined sort of way. In Thurn & Taxis, all the points are on the table, everyone has the same options, and it just feels a lot less constricting to me, and so more fun.

All of this doesn't add up to anything that exactly takes my breath away, however. It's familiar, it's comfortable, its fun, but it's also still a very moment-to-moment game, a game of taking advantage of opportunities which present themselves while trying to do a touch of short-term planning, albeit short-term planning that could be immediately invalidated by the flow of the cards. The contrast with Blue Moon City in this respect is sharp. I think the reason I find Blue Moon City to be the far more engaging game is because the world of Blue Moon seems more tractable. It's still a short, straightforward game, but with Blue Moon City I get a much greater sense of trying to bend the game to my will rather than just sitting around waiting for the Pilsen or Lodz card to show up. I feel like I have a large range of options, and I'm trying to figure out what's best, as opposed to what works at all. Clearly, this is not an absolute thing; sometimes Blue Moon's cards can be constraining as well, when you just really can't build that brick that you desperately need because you don't have that color, or any white, or any green, or a pair of brown - but in general, Blue Moon City gives a much greater sense of interacting with the world and with the other players, instead of just making judgments about the immediate tactical situation the game presents you with.

I'm actually not as strident a critic of the Spiel des Jahre as you might think, given that I have a general (but far from absolute) preference for more substantial games. There have been a few anomalous picks in recent years that leave you scratching your head, including Niagra and Torres, but in general I think they do a pretty good job. Recent choices that gamers have disliked but I was comfortable with were Mississippi Queen and Via Paletti, and while I'm not enamored of Carcassonne or Alhambra, those choices made some sense. And the advantage of being the Spiel des Jahre is that you have a 20+ year history and a track record of good choices to fall back on. But this year's choice of the extremely well-executed by not exactly inspiring Thurn and Taxis over the much more imaginative Blue Moon City pains me. In past years, you could always fall back on "well, they're going for the family niche, so what do you expect", but this year Blue Moon City and Thurn and Taxis are so close together in so many ways (game length, complexity, general accessibility) except that Blue Moon City is so much more interesting, the choice is particularly aggravating. Personally, I find this year's selection virtually indefensible. This is not to say that Thurn und Taxis is a bad game; far from it. It's rather good. It's just that Blue Moon City is a genuinely remarkable game.

Palazzo: This game has been coming out more of late, I think in large part due to the fact that it's good with 3 or 4 and it's reasonably short, and it's really been growing on me. Of course I've always thought it was good, but when it was new I was more drawn to the somewhat more unusual Tower of Babel, which came out at about the same time. While I like Tower of Babel quite a bit, I think Palazzo will ultimately be the game with more staying power.

I think the reason Palazzo has done so well is that it's found a good spot in terms of randomness. Buildings come out quickly, and the game provides a pretty good range of tactical challenges and evaluation problems, but the phasing of the deck means that the overall flow and pacing of the game remains familiar. The game never breaks down because stuff came out in a wacky order, a la the Power Plants in Power Grid. Certainly one of the reasons Knizia is such a great designer is because he can reliably and expertly perform this balancing act: enough randomness to provide variability and replayability, but not so much that the game loses coherence.

Um Krone und Kragen: While I don't have anything terribly insightful to say about this game, I wanted to mention it because it's become a virtual staple of the gaming diet around here. It's short, it's simple, it's fun, and it has that addictive quality of "just one more game". There is a little awkwardness at first as you get a feel for the cards, but once you get past the initial hurdle (and it'll only take one game, probably), it plays very smoothly.

Arkham Horror: Curse of the Dark Pharaoh: Ah, what to say on this most conflicted of games, Arkham Horror. For now, let me just bemoan the proliferation of house rules. Now, I know Arkham Horror is like a house rules vacuum, sucking ideas into itself - especially since out of the box, the game didn't seem to work at all outside of a sweet spot of maybe 3 or 4 players. But now you've got some people playing house rules, some people playing with the official errata, and things get confusing. Normally house rules don't bug me, because I can think about them and understand what's going on and fairly judge whether it's a reasonable idea or not. But Arkham Horror is a big, complex game which I don't own, so when I sit down to play, I can't fairly judge whether the house rule being proposed is sensible. And then when the game is over, and if that particular instance had serious problems, it's a hard call to figure out if the house rule was the culprit, or if the game just sucks.

I am reasonably certain that Arkham Horror does not suck, at least. I want to like it a lot more than I actually can though - once again I got to spend the first 45 minutes of the game being able to accomplish precisely nothing because I got cursed, and any game where you reliably lose turns feels about 20 years behind the power curve. But there is a lot of good stuff in here too. Although Mike Siggins complained about it, I think the cooperative game does work, and a team of investigators that pools their assets, pays attention to their fellow team-members activities, and works together troubleshooting problems will do a lot better than investigators who just do their own thing. A lot of the flavor is respectable, if not top-tier, and while the game is probably ultimately more random than flavorful, it is still flavorful. The errata seems to have taken care of the scaling problems, although the fix is pretty blunt and I would still really not recommend the game for more than 5 players.

If you're going to play the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion, it seems like the way to go would be to use it in the "visiting exhibit" format where you use primarily the new expansion cards, which seems like it would give the ambiance a more focussed feel, which would be welcome. We played the "permanent exhibit" format where you just mix everything together, and that seemed to dilute everything unreasonably.

Last thing ... I've seen the question, "so what has ancient Egypt got to do with Lovecraft?" A fair question. First off, ancient Egyptian themes sell games, apparently. However, Lovecraft also wrote a short story for Weird Tales magazine called "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs". It was originally ghostwritten for Harry Houdini, who is the narrator of the story. Houdini was of course not his given name; before he legally changed his name to Harry Houdini, he was Ehrich Weiss ... a name which shows up several times in the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion, including as an Ally of the players. This was all rather nicely done, I felt.