Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Lightweight and feeling good...

After a hiatus of far too long, I’m back and pushing my thoughts out there to the blog-reading community. After enjoying a visit to GenCon and then writing profusely about it it is time to wind down and collect my boardgaming thoughts. One such thought has centered around lightweight, fast-playing games. I do enjoy stretching my gaming muscles in longer games that take an hour or more to develop and finish, but I find a significant fraction of my gaming time revolving around gaming with relatively lightweight gamers. Thus, I have turned an eye toward finding a selection of favorite lightweight games.

In my book, a lightweight game needs to play fast. If I’m going to commit a chunk of time to a game I expect to get some nice, deep thinking about it. This is my main objection to Cosmic Encounter - it is great in theory and I love the “festive” nature of the game, but far too often the game can drag on past its initial welcome. If the game is going to have shifting fortunes and a significant element of chance I prefer it to land in the 30 to 45 minute mark so that a truly poor string of luck does not drag out for extended periods. However, I often find nonrandom, pure abstracts to be a bit too dry for my taste, so there has to be some sort of balance between luck and strategy.

Two games I came across at GenCon seem to meet both of my criteria: To Court the King published by Rio Grande Games and Owners Choice by Z-Man Games. They have a fair bit of luck (they both revolve around rolling dice), are simple to explain so that the game can start right away, take about 45 minutes or less to play, but still contain a decent number of opportunities for strategic decisions.

To Court the King can best be described as Yahtzee on steroids. Players roll dice in order to match the values displayed on cards set in the middle of the table. Starting out with only three dice, players can hope to roll a pair to get the Farmer card, granting an extra die in future rolls. Rolling three of a kind gets players a different card with different powers. As the more powerful cards require players to roll dice that add up to a total of 20 or more pips or roll five of a kind, players must therefore slowly progress up the dice “technology tree” gaining more powers and/or dice at the conclusion of each turn. When someone finally rolls seven of a kind, they win the King card and triggers the final round of rolling. In a sort of roll-off, each player uses the powers of all their cards one last time to roll the most of a kind on their dice. My favorite part of the game is in the various powers granted by the cards. Some focus on giving a player additional dice to roll, while others grant special powers to manipulate the numbers on the dice. Thus, there are two extremes in strategy, a sort of gather up all the dice you can muster strategy or one where players gain a few dice but have many special powers to manipulate them as needed. The decisions tend to be entirely tactical, trying to optimize the result of each series of rolls, this is increased for players who obtain several of the special power cards, creating a kind of miniature puzzle every time a turn comes around. In my game at GenCon I was able to claim the King card using several special powers on my cards. However, in the final dice-off I just missed claiming victory and had to settle for third place right behind an opponent who had focused more on claiming as many dice as possible. (For the record I think I had seven 4’s to his seven 5’s or some such thing even though I only had eight dice to roll and he had around eleven or twelve). As mentioned, the game can be explained and quickly started without too much preparation, an important consideration when trying to coax noncommittal boardgamers into a game. At a running time of around 45 minutes it strikes a nice balance of strategy, luck, and depth.

Owner’s Choice in contrast, is a very lightweight economic game. There is a central board and a single pawn is moved around the outside track one time and then the game is over. Players invest in one or more stocks (there are four types) with the highest shareholder of each company declared president. The president holds onto a special colored die representing the fate of that company. On their turn, each player moves the pawn from one to three spaces forward (their choice). It will typically land on a space matching the color of one of the four companies. If, for example, it is placed on red, then the president of red must pay $50 to the middle of the board and then roll the red die. The red company then suffers the result, which is typically a good thing. Each company has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the distribution of results on that color die. The green company slowly increases in price or pays out frequent dividends, the yellow company has very high variability, going greatly up or down in price, the red company tends to go up in price but might force the president to increase the price of a different color stock, and the blue company can increase but can also allow the president to cause other company stocks to fall. If a president doesn’t wish to pay $50 (or can’t) he or she must roll the black die. In most cases, this drops the stock in price one or two levels and awards the president with all the cash previously paid to the center of the board. After the pawn moves once around the outside of the board, the game ends. Since the board is not that large, a game can be played in 20 minutes or less, although typical games average more like 30 minutes. Since games rely on the vagaries of the roll of the dice, Owner’s Choice plays differently every game. While the dice are set up to favor net increases in the long haul, I have also witnessed games where nearly all the stocks fell in price and if a player had not bought any stock the entire game, they would have come out in a comfortable second place. I am still not sure if the luck of the game is overpowering, it definitely can be in any single game, but there seems to be enough room for strategic decisions so that good decisions will tend to be rewarded over the long-term course of several games. One friend remarked that he enjoyed the chaos aspect of the game as players are encouraged to make strategic, long-term decisions to mitigate the luck of the dice rather than what is found in many other games - tactical decisions responding to the luck of the dice.

While I currently slightly favor To Court the King over Owner’s Choice I am willing and eager to continue to bring either one to the gaming table. They’re not my first choice when I have an hour or more to kill and dedicated gamers to play with, but for my frequent bouts of gaming with more laid-back players, a quick game or three of a lighter weight game with meaningful choices is still a good deal.


Dani in NC said...

Do you think that Owner's Choice would be a good Monopoly alternative? That is the only board game my husband and his friends are familiar with, and I am trying to ease us all into more modern games.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Possibly, but the gameplay isn't really much like Monopoly at all.

1) You take a pawn and move it around the board (although just once)
2) It is an economic game
3) You do "collect" sets of stock (although there is no bonus for "completing" a set

1) The game is more random than Monopoly, so your husband may feel like there is less control.
2) There isn't any "upgrading" like the house-buying in Monopoly.

All in all, I'd say it really isn't fair to compare it to monopoly, other than the basic idea of trying to make money through buying things, and stocks (like houses) are associated with specific squares.

If it isn't a huge investment for you (and the game isn't that expensive)I'd say go for it and give the game a try with them. The best part of Owner's Choice in this situation is that it plays so darn quick. You can finish 3 or 4 games before 1 game of Monopoly is over. The differences are enough that you could then look into easing into other types of games...