Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Knizia)

There has been a recent avalanche of Hobbit games, for some reason. When Knizia designed his classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000 it didn't have to worry much about collisions in the namespace. Now, everyone is on the Hobbit bandwagon and nobody knows what I'm talking about when I mention I'd like to play The Hobbit. Knizia himself has done three different Hobbit games. Recently. Plus another in the back catalog. Anyway, this one is published by Cryptozoic and is a cooperative game hearkening back to Lord of the Rings – but this time with dice instead of cards, and working from a different set of thematic ideas as befits the differences in tone between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Knizia wrote a book called Dice Games Properly Explained in which he described the history and workings of different types of dice games. The Hobbit is identifiably a category dice game, in the same family as Yahtzee. Each turn you roll four custom dice with running, diplomacy, and fighting symbols, trying to match different challenges on the board (Keep the Troll William Talking, for example, requires 5 diplomacy). A set of running challenges make up the throughline of an episode and must be scored in order, while the rest can be done at any time. If you want to save any dice from your first roll, you must assign them to challenges, and then re-roll the rest. Fail to complete at least one challenge on your turn and you pay a penalty.

As usual for Knizia, the nuance of the game is then built on top of this clean and straightforward engine. Tasks range in difficulty from easy (3 symbol matches) to formidable (8 symbol matches), the hardest requiring outrageous good fortune to complete without the many special powers the game gives you. The 14 members of the Company (13 Dwarves plus Bilbo) all have cards with one-use powers which will be dealt out to the players (re-rolls, access to the bonus gold die, extra symbols). These abilities can be used to your personal benefit, but also usually to benefit another player, albeit a slightly weaker version. Bifur for example, in addition to playing the clarinet, allows you an additional re-roll, or a re-roll of 2 white dice for someone else. Once used these powers are spent, although the game gives you quite a few opportunities to bring back used Company members for another spotlight moment.

These Company powers are useful, but you will often find yourself in need of a bigger hammer. These are available in the form of resources like Gandalf (who doubles all your dice), The Contract (which allows you to recycle many Company members), The Map to Erebor (two extra diplomacy symbols), and, inevitably, Radagast's "Beasts" (4 extra running). These are powerful one-shots that will fittingly bail you out of trouble when your backs are against the wall, but cost you points to use. Your score at the end will be the sum of all your unused resources.

That's about it. Each turn you face a board full of challenges, and draw an event card which can add additional challenges, make existing challenges harder, or give you an additional obstacle to deal with this turn. You then roll, choose one or more dice to allocate to one or more challenges, and re-roll any unallocated dice. If you haven't then met at least one challenge, you lose points and a future resource – a fairly harsh penalty, so you have to keep moving.

As is typical for a Knizia design, the game gives you a great deal of flexibility (unlike the superficially similar Elder Sign which offers a much smaller decision space) and then tugs you in many different directions. You want to solve the challenges as quickly as possible, but if you sweep up all the easy ones while leaving all the hard ones on the table, it greatly increases your risk of failed turns. You need to keep your options open, picking off difficult challenges when the dice line up properly and keeping some easy ones in reserve for when you roll poorly – ideally even keeping a balance of fighting, running, and diplomacy challenges open. The big decisions revolve around how much risk to assume with the toughest challenges, when to make the big spend of a resource to finish those off, and when to take the hit or be satisfied with a lesser challenge for the turn – all as modified by turn-to-turn incidental events and the need to complete certain challenges in order.

The acid test of mechanical quality for cooperative games is whether there is enough on the table to engage several different minds in problem solving. Are four players on average going to do better than the one "best" player? The two classics in the genre attack this a little differently. In the case of Pandemic, the role cards give each player a different prism to look at the game through, which leads them to think in different ways which can then be debated and recombined. Knizia's Lord of the Rings also gives players identities with special powers, but they are less crucial. Lord of the Rings just makes the calculus of risk and reward so resistant to mathematical analysis that it deprives the players of straightforward answers even after many games. Patterns will emerge, but most decisions in the game are judgement calls and so players will often naturally come to different conclusion.

The Hobbit embraces both, although not to the same degree as either. Your role identification is not as strong as it is in Pandemic, and neither is the math as intractable as in Lord of the Rings. However, both still work, and the combination is effective. You'll usually have a few Dwarves (and maybe a Hobbit) in front of you that only you can use, and that will give you a perspective the other players lack. These powers tend to be moderately strong, and the fact that they are stronger on your turn than they are on other players turns is a nice way to encourage you to try to set yourself up to deal with challenges you are going to have the best shot at, while still giving you tools to help the other players out.

Dice games often fall afoul of relatively easy odds calculation – probably one reason why there are relatively few good ones. Monopoly Express is a classic example of a game where the unambiguously best choice is only some fairly easy math away. Even in Roll Through the Ages, the cost-benefit math of a re-roll is reasonably straightforward. In Elder Sign the math is harder, but the available choices are too few for it to help. The Hobbit does better, and offers players a rich and interesting set of die-rolling choices for a fairly straight-ahead category dice game. Once you've committed to a given challenge, the odds of finishing it (without using powers) are usually not too complex, but that is not where the game is – the game is in deciding what tasks to attempt in the first place and when to use those powers, and those decisions are much more resistant to straightforward mathematical analysis given the number of challenges, special powers, and resources usually available. The need to commit dice in order to save them is the key element that drives game tension. By giving you a great deal of flexibility on where to commit after seeing your first roll, but then needing to lock in at least partially before seeing your final roll, the game nicely balances control against the tension of rolling dice for stakes. Sometimes you'll roll well and the choices will be easy, but usually – especially on higher difficulty levels – you'll be somewhere in-between and the choices are not obvious.

The difficulty levels were a great and crucial feature of the original Lord of the Rings, and later cooperative games have not always managed this well despite the fact that appropriate difficulty is so key to this genre. The Hobbit does a good job here. If you start at level 0, you'll get a game that is easy to learn and while it won't be particularly challenging for cooperative game veterans, it's a good way to get into the game. Knizia then gives you point thresholds for when you should advance to the next level. Level 2 is still moderately easy, but level 4 starts turning the screws, and level 6 is tough. Level 8 is advertised as exceptionally difficult, and while I haven't made it there yet, I have no doubt that is true. Anyway, although I started at level 0, hardened gamers should probably consider starting at least at level 2. It should be mentioned though that unlike the life-or-death stakes of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit has a much more action-adventure feel and the game appropriately is more about scoring than about whether or not the Company is going to survive, at least until you hit the top difficulty tiers.

The narrative elements of The Hobbit are driven similarly to Lord of the Rings. Each episode or act of the story is represented by a board and a set of events, which the players must work through against a ticking clock. After completing the board, the players get a refresh, collect resources earned, and press on. The multi-act structure is great and avoids death-spiral games – if you're going to lose (which is pretty unlikely outside of the high difficulty levels), game tension is still maintained almost all of the way. In The Lord of the Rings, the narrative element was somewhat railroaded, which had the downside of predictability but the upside of keeping the narrative "beats" of tension going and avoiding the worst narrative lulls and crushes. The Hobbit is more free-form. The events are unique to each board but come in a random order. While they serve to mix up the game and keep you on your toes, they aren't as interestingly varied as allowed for by the scripted events in Lord of the Rings and so don't have as much texture and are not as evocative of the narrative of the movie. A lot of the drama and ebb and flow of the game is in coping with the vagaries of the dice themselves – not a bad way to go, but not as explicit.

While my general impressions of The Hobbit have been very positive, there is also no question that it took a hit when Peter Jackson made his fateful decision to split two movies into 3 late in the game. Players travel through two episodes of adventures, The Shire & Lonelands and Misty Mountains ... Gollum, Goblins, and Wargs, after which they are carried off by eagles and the game ends (if they make it). The second board offers nicely increased stakes and tougher challenges, and then an abrupt finish. There obviously should be a third act. There isn't. This is the game's biggest problem – one more board would clearly be more satisfying. Since the game is based on the movies rather than the books, we then have to dive into the morass of whether or not Peter Jackson knows what the heck he is doing in turning a nice, tightly-plotted 200-ish-page classic of children's literature into a bloated, 9 hour cinematic monstrosity. Obviously, my guess would be not, and the boardgame is sadly stuck having to work with the narrative mess of the movies. Knizia is legendary for his design economy, and economical is one descriptor I would not apply to Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. Thankfully Knizia's design elegance has done a better job at getting to the essence of film than Peter Jackson did.

Interestingly, though, The Hobbit does channel some of the flavor of the book. The story of the book is basically one of a bunch of not particularly competent dwarves going from adventure to adventure and repeatedly getting into more trouble than they can handle and requiring Gandalf or Bilbo to come along and bail them out. The game has a similar ebb and flow to it. While the Company will be able to handle the mundane tasks of getting from point A to point B, tackling the most difficult challenges will often require calling in bigger guns. The movie dwarves are rather more competent than their cousins in the book, and the game seems to split the difference. The little bits of personality the dwarves in the game have, with their individual special powers, is just about right. Balin and Gloin, the more senior dwarves, have extra die symbols. Fili and Kili, the youngest, have good powers that can't be shared. Thorin has the unique ability to give anyone a gold die – more leadership than he showed in the book, maybe, but it feels right.

I'll just say a couple words on the physical design of the game, since in this sort of game art and presentation can make a big difference to the game's ambiance and ability to evoke its source material. In many cases Cryptozoic has done a good job. The Dwarf cards are well designed, use clear and large iconography  and have a nice heft to them. The resources are similarly clear, although they could benefit from some art. The boards have nice scenic landscape shots on them. Although they compare unfavorably to the much more active Lord of the Rings boards, which show people or creatures doing things, on the other hand much of the board space is going to be covered with challenge cards most of the time so this is arguably better. But – oh dear. The font sizes. The names of the challenges on the board and cards are difficult to read at 2mm high, leaving the overall design with lots of dead space and looking boring. This doesn't cause a gameplay problem, but it does make it a bit harder to get into the spirit of the game when you can't really tell whether you are trying to finish "Split the Rock to Let the Light Through" or "Follow Bilbo Baggins to Rescue Him".

I liked The Hobbit. It's a classic Knizia design, elegant in gameplay but with subtlety to the strategies. The characterizations and narrative elements are economical but very effective. Decision are fraught with ambiguity and risk. It doesn't ask the player to make unimportant or uninteresting decisions and doesn't waste their time. The mechanics of playing the game are kept to a minimum (just two rolls of the dice each turn) so the players can get on with the interesting discussion and decision making. The game has a narrative momentum and pulse, although like Lord of the Rings you'll need to move up through the difficulty levels to get the full experience. Unfortunately, while it's reasonably satisfying on its own, it won't feel complete until the Desolation of Smaug (at least) can be linked up to it. With only two boards, it still works, is short, and has all the elements I want from a medium-weight Knizia. But it feels truncated. I'm really looking forward to getting the full experience.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica was the last of the hot Essen '12 release I tried. And the first time out, I wasn't very impressed.

Especially if you're being taught by someone else and haven't personally absorbed the rulebook, Terra Mystica is a rather complex game – more complex than Tigris & Euprates, I think, the game that in my mind sets the bar for about as complicated a game as I want to have to explain from scratch. Terra Mystica has a lot of moving parts – cult tracks, magic bowls, buildings, towns, fortresses, favors, priests, terraforming, and so on. If someone is sitting there explaining the game to you, it is not immediately apparent why this sucker needs to be as complicated as it is. Plus, then, everyone gets their own race with their own properties and customized player mat, and at this point your head possibly explodes. Good luck if your game explainer is not particularly deft.

On an absolute scale, of course, Terra Mystica isn't that bad. I play ASL, after all. But Terra Mystica is an abstract eurogame. When you look at it from the perspective of sitting down to play one session, as a design it seems to really only have two thematic elements: managing a diverse economy (the 5 different building types do different things and have different building/upgrade costs and produce different combinations of resources), and managing the cooperative/competitive tension of wanting to have neighbors (because it helps you generate magic, useful for a wide variety of purposes) and yet not be constrained or cut off by them (because you are managing an expanding settlement). Really, that's about it. There are of course intricate details to all this, but in most cases they look like VP-optimizing puzzles rather than expressive game systems.

Anyway, that was my impression on first playing it, and the net effect wasn't particularly positive. It just felt overwrought. However, my opinion of the game improved when I understood Terra Mystica isn't really a game best judged on one playing. As I mentioned, Terra Mystica has many – 14 – different playable factions. These are not slightly different player positions. They are very different, more divergent even than the alien species in Eclipse, and this is why the game is as complex as it it is. Without that level of inherent system complexity, it's hard to imagine how you could cleanly support such a wide array of different factions. In fact, Terra Mystica accomplishes its impressive diversity generally by efficiently parameterizing the game's various systems, not through special rules. As a way to go, this is a pretty good one.

For me, this is where Terra Mystica succeeds: in providing a rich exploration experience. Every time you sit down to play a new faction, it's a different game and a different set of challenges. The Swarm and the Witches and the Engineers all play very differently and exploring these different points of view can be powerfully engaging. Eclipse and Terra Mystica are similar designs in many ways (even if the end effects of those design techniques are quite different), and this is one area in which I think Terra Mystica does better. 

However, embracing this extremely high degree of asymmetry implies trade-offs. Terra Mystica tries for replayability and variety solely through the different factions and their interactions. Otherwise, there is no luck too the game, no hidden information, nothing that is not on the table before turn 1. Even your faction is not assigned randomly, but chosen in player order (although random allocation house rules seem not uncommon). While some will see this lack of any variability or uncertainty as a feature, it can make it very hard for a game to retain interest in even the medium-term as gameplay can very quickly stereotype absent countervailing forces. As great a game as it is, 1830 is dead to me now because the game space has been mined out.

One question then becomes, how much player interaction is there in Terra Mystica, really? Can the very different factions produce variability through their complex interactions? Unfortunately, I think the answer is: not to the degree it needs to. The board is a field of hexagons in 7 different colors, each corresponding to two factions, only one of which can be in play. As players' empires expand on the board, they are limited to developing on hexes of their color. Developing on other color hexes requires a process of terraforming, initially quite expensive although probably getting cheaper as the game goes on. So during the vital first half of the game, there really isn't much competition for space. Competition could theoretically get tighter as the game goes on, but in practice factions seem to develop enough tools to go around and real resource or space competition seems fairly infrequent.

So player interaction seems fairly light (and if you think about it, that makes sense – to properly ensure some sort of balance between 14 very different factions and all their potential interactions might require a vast investment in development).  So you're left with a faction with a specific set of parameters set in an environment locked down before turn 1 and limited player interaction. That means there is an ideal way to play that faction, more or less. You just have to figure out what it is. In a game lacking any randomness and not inordinately complex, at least the broad outlines of that perfect plan should not be too elusive.

This is not necessarily a problem in the short term, when finding those plans amongst the intricacy of the game systems can be engaging, but at the end of the day it means that Terra Mystica can only be a game of learning the right general techniques for each faction and then squeezing out fairly small efficiencies in the margins. It reminds me of the things I didn't like about War of the Ring or Through the Ages: for various different reasons, there is really only one viable way to approach both games, and you win or lose not on strategy or tactics or evaluation, but on ruthlessly going after every small advantage you can find on the way to that strategy. Fortunately for Terra Mystica, instead of one way to go, there are 14 different ones, which will take a while to figure out and significantly extend the period of discovery.

It should also be mentioned that because learning the game's tricks is so important, and because it's pretty complicated, Terra Mystica is extremely punishing of experiences differences. People who have played only a few times will have no chance against more experienced players, to an unfortunate degree. Race for the Galaxy and 1830 are other examples of this sort of game, but my feeling is Terra Mystica is much more punishing and less fun for new players to play with veterans even than those games.

People who have played Terra Mystica will note that I've glossed over a few things in this analysis which might appear to be mitigating. For example, on each of the 6 turns, there are point bonuses available for different game actions (building dwellings, trading posts, terraforming, founding towns, and so on). These are randomly assigned before play, making the game's initial state somewhat variable, and so could theoretically encourage different game rhythms. If the bonus for building fortresses is on turn 2, you might want to change your plan to put off building it until then and build your dwellings on turn 1. In practice, it seems different factions have different imperatives. The Giants, for example, are in a hard spot until they build their fortress and they probably need to slap it down as quickly as possible regardless. So rather than giving the game variability, the different bonuses seem instead just to give bonuses or penalties to different factions, which complicates the evaluation of which faction to pick. Once the play gets started, the factions have to do what they have to do and having to bend to accommodate different turn-to-turn bonuses just makes their job harder.

All this may sound like I don't like Terra Mystica, but that's not true. I think it's more accurate to say I do enjoy it for what it does well, but even now, after only a handful of plays, the obvious limitations of the design are closing in. I enjoy the game when sitting down to play a new faction that I haven't played before, and building the right economic base and evolving it as the game goes on is an engaging little challenge. In the short term, while the experience of the game is biased towards system exploration, there is a lot for me to like. As the balance tips away from exploration towards rote execution, I know it's going to be far less appealing. I'm still a ways away from the point where the game becomes tedious, but I can see it pretty clearly from where I am.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Keyflower is a game, that much I can say for sure. I think the idea of it – not that you will see it explained anywhere – is that we are leaving the Europe-ish environs of previous installments in the Key-games to found colonies in a New England-ish place. Immigrant workers arrive at our colonies to build buildings, harvest resources, and generally earn victory points. Or something. The advertising copy doesn't do a lot to explain what's going on.

Like previous games in the brand, the game is found not in the setting, but in the mechanical details. Keyflower is worker placement game, but with enough variation on this well-worn theme to be novel. Workers come in four colors or suits. You are given 8 random (hidden) workers at start, and will earn more (probably many more) over the course of the game in various ways. Each turn, you allocate small groups of workers (usually 1-3) to either bid to acquire new buildings, or to do work in existing buildings. Buildings in all the players' colonies can be used by everyone, but workers used to activate a building are kept by the building's owner. The key detail of worker allocation is that once a certain color of worker is committed to a building, either for activation or bidding, all following workers (used to either overbid or activate again) must be of the same color.

As a worker placement game, the major trade-off in Keyflower is usually the traditional one: how "hot" various available actions are and therefore what needs to be done now vs. what can be put off. The color rule adds a neat twist though. Instead of "hotness" being evaluated strictly by looking at a given action from the point of view of every other player at the table, shortages or surpluses of colors in the players' hidden inventories can make a very significant difference. For example: if there is action I really need to take that is only available on only one spot – say spending a skill tile to get some gold – and I have no red workers, I can get totally locked out if another player goes there first and uses red. Since a building can be activated up to three times, it may be a lot less hot if I only need to activate it once and have a good range of colors and can jump in even if someone gets there ahead of me, freeing me up to take something else I need that will be more competitive. Similar complications are added to the bidding for acquiring buildings, as you likely have different capabilities to bid in different colors and at different times during the game you may have different needs for long suits of workers (to activate crucial buildings multiple times) vs. worker color variety (to give you flexibility).

Additionally, the fourth color of workers, green, is comparatively rare and can be acquired only through buildings. They are powerful due to their scarcity and therefore their ability to lock out other players. Unlike the standard three colors (yellow, red, and blue), which players will have quite a few of and will be cycling all the time, the comings and goings of green workers are rare and easier to track, which can be a powerful deterrent – everyone's a bit worried about where you're going to drop them until they finally hit the table.

The game goes through 4 scripted "seasons", with new buildings becoming available for bid each turn. Spring is heavy on infrastructure buildings, with point-bearing buildings mixing in with greater frequency as winter comes on. For the final winter turn, we get a selection of "6-buildings", buildings that give you big point bonuses for stuff you've done the rest of the game. You'll be dealt some number of these at the beginning of the game, and before the last turn you throw some or all of them into the mix. So you may have some idea what will be worth points in the end, but you still have to win the auction to actually get the building, and as only a random subset of the buildings will be available each game (at least with fewer than 6 players), not all strategic paths may be viable. Like Puerto Rico, I think Keyflower is a tactical game that taunts you with strategies.

From a technical standpoint, probably the most daunting thing about Keyflower is easily accessing the large amount of game-state information you need to make decisions. With 2-3 buildings per player coming into the game each turn, all of which can be activated by anyone, and some of which are going to end pretty far away from you on the table, there are a lot of options and not all of them are going to be easy to see. The graphic design on Keyflower is actually very nice, with game-relevant information clearly and cleanly presented. The problem is just that a lot of it is too far away.

When I first played Keyflower, I liked it. The different colors of workers, with each player playing from a hidden supply, neatly mixes up the worker placement genre in a way which I liked. It makes the evaluation process a little more about what is crucial to me, and less about what is crucial to everyone else, which I think is a good thing – it makes the game more intuitive and more personal. It also adds an element of risk analysis which I personally find more entertaining than scenario analysis. It's also got a nice empire-building flavor, gathering resources to build and upgrade things.

The more I played it, though, the more its grip on me faded. It's undeniably mechanically tight. It just doesn't seem to be in service of anything. I mean, what's the game about? The copy text offers no background information, only a mechanical summary, and the traditional introductory setting text in the rules is absent.

This is fine, but these little "fluff" bits can offer a glimpse into the designer's mind, what he or she is trying to do with the game, and can assist the player in understanding and appreciating it – especially when there is a lot of system complexity, as there is here. If you read the copy text on the back of Agricola or GIPF, it gives you some idea of the central idea or theme of the game (food management in the case of Agricola; creating sets of 4 in a row in the case of GIPF).

If Keyflower has a central idea or theme, I could not find it. As I played more I was trying to figure out why the game was moving from season to season or what the these little wooden pieces wanted out of their imaginary existence, or what the game systems wanted me to be doing with them. Basically, why I should care whether an action gave me slightly fewer or slightly more VPs. I couldn't do it. There was no feeling of direction, motivation, or consequence to anything in the game.

I still think Keyflower is OK, just because it is undeniably clever, and will certainly find a niche for players for whom the mechanical details of a game are enough. That just isn't me anymore.