Thursday, November 08, 2007

Knizia-thon, Part Two: Obscurity & Palazzo

Last week I played my second game of Palazzo for the year. I own the game, but it very rarely makes it into my game night bag, hence the low play count. I couldn't really place my finger on why until last Wednesday's game.

The game ended like this:

I'd been doing kind of moderately well throughout the game: not best and not worst. On what was likely to be my last turn I had a pristine 5-story white-marble building with tons of windows, a mixed-material 3-story building and a mixed-material 2-story building.

Now in Palazzo, for those of you unfamiliar, you score points based on how tall your building is and what it's made out of. The core score for a 3-story building is the number of windows it contains, but there are bonuses of +3 and +6 when you reach 4 or 5 stories and those bonuses are doubled if the building is made of a single material.

The result is, unfortunately, very difficult to intuit, and this really showed in last Wednesday's game.

Given the choice between making a for-sure purchase of a single, one-window floor that I could add to my 2-story building and an auction for a couple of much better pieces, I took the latter. Unfortunately I didn't have the most money, lost the auction, didn't get another turn, and thus lost the game. However, what made the defeat especially ignoble was that if I'd instead just made the purchase that looked so much less good to me, I would have won by a couple of points.

The problem was that intuitive difficulty. Sure, I suppose I could have added up the two possible scores, then made a more knowledgeable risk-reward assessment based on the exact values, but that's generally not the way I roll. Worse, I think it would be disastrous in an ultra-light game like Palazzo.

So, instead, I went with my gut, and my gut said that singular one-window story was almost worthless, because my thumbnail way to try and assess the somewhat confusing valuations of Palazzo is to go with window count. Instead I should have remembered that there was a huge drop off in score from a 3-story building (value=windows) to a 2-story building (value=0).

But even when I remember that next time, and I bet I do, especially after writing this article, I suspect I'll be tripped up by something else. And that's really my core problem with Palazzo: not that it's light (though it is), and not that it's sort of Alhambra-like (which it's really not), but rather than the scoring is sufficiently obscure that it's often pretty hard to figure out the right thing to do.

The Benefits of Obscurity

Mind you, there are often great benefits to making scoring obscure in a game.

Hidden scoring is a terrific idea, even when you can see every point earned along the way. Tigris & Euphrates is a fine example of this. Sure someone could memorize every point earned, if they wanted, and thus have some advantage, but most people don't do that. And the flipside is that if all the scores were open then a huge analysis paralysis would start to settle on the players when they began to guess or second-guess all their info in light of the revealed scores. Quo Vadis and Through the Desert both do the exact same thing, with perhaps even more benefit.

The close companion to this idea is to have unscored scoring: valuations which aren't totally scored until the end. Genesis is an example of such a Knizia game, and even offers good reason for holding the scoring up to the end: because you don't know what everything's worth until the last piece is played because the size and ownership of herds of animals can change until the last move. Dead Man's Treasure is another example of game where the scoring isn't settled to the end.

So, I see reasons for making the score itself obscure, but not the scoring, and that's ultimately why I think Palazzo doesn't live up to some of Knizia's better mid-weight games. There's just too much formula in the scoring to allow you to intuitively know what to do.

Which is a pity, because I really enjoy the other aspects of the game.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Hi Melissa,

Nice thoughts...but I also play Palazzo a few times a year,. always enjoy it, and wouldn't classify it as that light...
Didin't you get, in your edition, a card for each player summarising how thwe scoring works? I find that invaluable for the sort of situations you describe...
Nice Blog!