Friday, May 12, 2006

Blue Moon City

Beyond question, beyond examination, beyond any demand for rationalization, our world is one of grudges. We see names on the map and know that somewhere down in the basements and caves, in the bank vaults and board rooms, secret flames are tended by silent hands, kept sheltered and waiting for the moment to ignite a blaze. Was it always this way? In the ancient times, in the mythic days back when men had not yet been seduced by the written word, before the creepy crush on Permanence and the high-maintenance, one-sided love affair with Identity, you could almost imagine the heroes and kings of the day as simple and supple as schoolchildren, raging one day and embracing the next.

It seems OK, then, that the faux mythique civil war of Blue Moon should end in the reconciliation of Blue Moon City, a game about the reconstruction of the shattered capital of that distant, fantastical world authored by Kosmos and Knizia. With the help of the eight races and their unique talents, two to four players travel through the ruined metropolis and rebuild temple and handelshaus stone by stone; in so doing they will earn shards of the world's most sacred relic, the Holy Crystal of Psi, and these fragments will be returned to the city's central monument in a race to see who will be the one to make the crystal—and the land of Blue Moon—whole once again.

The board of this not-really-a-board-game is a layout of twenty two-sided tiles surrounding a central monument tile. The twenty tiles each represent an important building of the city, with one side being a sketchy blueprint and the other a rendering of the building as completed. To begin the game the tiles are placed semi-randomly around the monument with the blueprint side face-up. The players place their pawns at the monument and each draws a hand of eight cards from the deck of eighty.

Most player turns follow a very simple pattern: move, build, redraw. To start a player may make two orthogonal moves with her pawn, and after she has finished moving she may then choose to spend her cards to rebuild some part of the structure on which her pawn currently stands. The cards are split into eight suits which correspond to the eight peoples of the Blue Moon world, namely the Vulca, Aqua, Terrah, Flit, Pillar, Mimix, Hoax and Khind (black, blue, red, grey, gold, brown, white and green, respectively). Every building is essentially "owned" by one of these eight races,* with each race having three or four buildings on the map.* Each building plan will indicate between one and four building requirements, and each of those requirements will be a number between one and five; for example, the water temple, an Aqua building, has three requirements: 5 blue, 4 blue, and 3 blue. The active player may discard from her hand cards of the same people/color/suit as the building in order to complete one or more portions of that building. All the cards have a value between one and three, and to complete any one requirement the player needs to discard cards with a total value that matches or exceeds that requirement; in the case of the example, the player could discard Aqua cards valued at 1 and 2 to complete the easiest requirement. To mark her achievement, the player places one of her "building stones" (colored wooden cubes) on the printed box showing the requirement, thus indicating that that part of the project has been finished. Players may add more than one cube on a turn, but each build is a separate event; in the example, the player could not play four blue 2s to complete both the 5 and the 3.

Once a player completes the final requirement for a building, crystal fragments are awarded. All players who had cubes on the tile when it was completed will earn a specified crystal reward, and the player who contributed the most, the "master builder," will earn some additional bonus of crystals, cards and/or dragon scales, the dragon scales being an additional game mechanism that I will explain shortly (for now suffice it to say that the three dragons familiar to Blue Moon fans make an appearance in this game as well). The players retrieve their cubes and the tile is then flipped to the side which shows the completed structure. As an additional wrinkle, the flipped, "completed" side of the buildings lists yet another combination of cards, crystals and scales, and when a building is scored all involved players will also earn the card/crystal/scale awards indicated on all adjacent completed buildings. This bonus is an interesting and important mechanism that creates moments of drama and urgency in the game, and it also tends to make the board develop in a pleasingly organic way, since when one building is completed, all the unfinished buildings surrounding suddenly become more profitable, and so the result is that players tend to stick together to work the periphery. All this serves to increase the feeling of competition and prevent a game of multiplayer solitaire where players are wandering alone through the city streets.

Not every turn will involve a build, however. If the player ends her movement on the central monument tile, she may turn in some of her crystals to place one of her cubes on the monument leader board. This monument is actually the central competition of the game: the first player to make a specified number of crystal deliveries to it will be the winner. Two things are important in this regard. First, the cube placements become gradually more expensive; the first cube placed will only cost seven crystals, but the last can require a deposit of twelve. Practically speaking, this means that one cannot just hoard crystals until the endgame, as those early-bird discounts might be the difference between victory and defeat, and so another of the tricky decisions of the game is gauging when to tear one's self away from the feeding frenzy and get on the tote board. The other important rule is that, unlike adding cubes to the building tiles, a player can only make one crystal delivery per turn.

The active player then finishes her turn by drawing two cards into her hand, after which she has the option of discarding up to two cards and re-drawing the same number she discarded. The question of whether to try to tailor one's hand in this way is actually one of the most tricky and time-consuming decisions in the whole game, since a particular opportunity might cause a player to hanker for a particular card and yet she still might be able to imagine situations where the cards she's throwing away will suddenly come in handy.

Now, the more attentive readers will be wondering "if I don't need to make exact change when building, why would I ever want to hold onto a crummy 1 card when I might draw a 3?" The answer is that all the 1- and 2-value cards have alternate, rule-bending uses, much in the way that the cards in a card-driven wargame can be used as either operations or a special event. A straightforward example is that of the airborne Flit: discarding a Flit 2 card allows the player to add two to his pawn's movement allowance, whereas the 1 card flies the pawn to any tile in the layout. These special powers all tend to be nicely thematic; for another example, the cards of the Pillar, the master traders of the world, allow players to make more than one delivery to the monument per turn for an extra crystal fee. As an aside I'll mention that on first reading the rules I thought that the Pillar cards' special power was the least useful of any in the deck, but with experience I have come to see just how critical these can be to gain a turn on the competition.

Most of these special powers simply bend the rules or provide more flexibility, but some involve an additional element in the game, namely the aforementioned dragons and their scales. The cards of the Vulca, Aqua and Terrah—the guardians of fire, water and earth—can be used to move the three elemental dragons around the map. As some might recall from the card game, the dragons are the judges and guardians of all that is cool and groovy in the Blue Moon world, and in the case of Blue Moon City they supervise the players' rebuilding efforts and will reward those who impress them with their exploits. In game terms, three colorful dragon miniatures will be moved from one building tile to the next, and when a player builds and places his cubes on a tile on which a dragon is sitting, the dragon will award that player with a dragon scale as a token of his esteem. The dragon scales serve as a kind of sub-game within the game; there is a limited pool of scales, and when the pool is emptied, the player who has collected the most scales will turn these in for six crystals while every other player with at least three scales will turn them in for three crystals. Typically there will be two or three dragon-scale scorings taking place during the course of a game, and this side contest adds a nice extra tension to the decision-making; the blue, black and red cards are valuable because there are more buildings of those colors, and moreover the Fire, Water and Earth Temples are the three most lucrative building projects, but then on the other hand snagging six crystals out of nowhere while an opponent walks away with none is a plum too sweet not to be considered.

For the most part, those are the rules of the game. Players travel across the map, spend their cards, charm some dragons, and then haul ass back to the monument to turn in their crystals. In the broad strokes it's rather simple, though in practice the small details within the rules create a lot of interesting situations. The specifics of the crystal payouts for completed buildings create an complex dynamic among the players; as said, most buildings have more than one requirement for completion, and so there's a certain tension between trying to get involved in as many projects as possible and working one project with an eye towards shutting others out of a payout; in a tight game, this latter is an important way to get ahead of the competition.** Complicating matters are the bonuses on adjacent completed buildings, which can up the stakes for a particular tile quite significantly. The other interesting aspect of the game is the puzzle of how to get the most out of one's cards, as their dual-use nature gives the players a surprisingly large scope of possibility on their turn. Sometimes one's goals are obvious and the question is merely one of efficiency, while at other times there are painful decisions to be made as to whether to use cards for rebuilding purposes or for their special abilities. The tradeoffs are balanced and fiendishly exquisite, and once a couple of these conundrums have caught you in their crosshairs there'll be no doubt in your mind who the designer of the game is. Really Blue Moon City is almost like some kind of infinite generator of puzzles and tricky situations, and that might be its main charm.

There was another broad characteristic of the game that impressed itself upon me, but whether it is a good quality or a bad quality may depend on one's taste. Blue Moon City is actually quite unique in the Reiner Knizia canon in that it is almost immediately apprehensible. My mantra for Knizia games is "if you're only planning to play it once, don't bother," because it is very rare that one is able "get" everything on the first play. There are usually levels and sub-levels, and it's not at all unusual to hear someone say "you know, I thought this was pretty dull and pointless the first three times I played, but now that I'm trying it for the fourth time, I think I can say without a doubt that this is my favorite game of all time." Blue Moon City is different, though; the very first play will be a blast, but once you're done, well, you've pretty much "gotten" it. Now, that's not to say that the game won't be fun on repeat play—not at all—but there probably won't be any big "aha" moments several playings down the road in the way that you typically find with the designer's games.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. If anything it might be an extraordinarily shrewd move by Dr. Knizia, since the gaming scene is so overcrowded that if a game of this weight doesn't blow its players away on the first try it usually gets thrown in the trade pile.*** To me the quick dismissal of the devilishly clever Tower of Babel—not to mention the not-nearly-enthusiastic-enough-in-my-opinion reaction to the Blue Moon card game—confirms this train of thought, though of course the reader will have his own opinions about that stuff.**** Moreover, one could say that such a quality is perfectly suitable for a relatively simple middleweight that only lasts an hour.

On the other hand, I kind of like those "aha" moments.

The other criticism I have heard of the game is that the turn order is overly important. It's true that the games are often very close, with players saying "I could have done it with one more turn" at the end, and of course if the start player wins the game, folks are bound to wonder whether there's a problem. I'm actually not sure about the answer to this; I can't recall whether the start player has won more than his share of our games. Looking at the rules and knowing how the game plays out I can't see why this would necessarily be an issue, since there is no reason why any one player shouldn't be able to gain a turn or two on another, either by getting a lead in crystals through clever play or by saving time through use of a Flit or Pillar card. However, if players all do somehow manage to play perfectly matched games, then, yes, I suppose the first player does have an advantage. Does this bother me? No. Or at least not yet.

The last thing I'll mention is something about the number of players, which is that it seems to me that the sweet spot may be at three. With four players there is a chance of down time and the game overstaying its welcome, whereas with only three it's pretty much guaranteed to rip along with a speed that is in perfect keeping with its weight and depth. Additionally, with four players there's a chance that the group may at times separate into two pairs which won't really interact with each other for a while, which might be fun in an "us against them" way but which I think in practice is more like losing touch with half the players in the game. I will say, though, that the one two-player game I tried worked just fine, and while Blue Moon City probably wouldn't be my first choice if I only have one opponent, the game does work, and quite nicely at that.

To sum up, Blue Moon City is a fun little middleweight, suitable for brainy casual players and for gamers who occasionally like to kick back with something short and tactical but interesting. There are lots of tricky decisions, there's good player interaction, and there's potential for competitive play for those who look for it. It may not be as deep as most Knizia middleweights, but it makes up for this with a breezy accessibility, and even if it's not something you will want to drag out for five sessions in a row, it's still a very nice every-once-in-a-whiler and change of pace. Overall, if you enjoy middleweights and tactical puzzles and are curious about or are already enamored with the Blue Moon universe, it's definitely worth giving a try.


* ...with one exception which is interesting yet not quite worth detailing here.

** Despite what others have said, Blue Moon City is not at all an area majority game, because even if there is a bonus for being "Master Builder," the reward is usually rather small, relatively speaking. In fact, what is much more important than being Master Builder is simply being involved in as many builds as possible, particularly in light of the bonuses for adjacent completed buildings; coming in first on one tile may be far less lucrative than being an also-ran on another.

*** ...though this bit of supposed foresight on Dr. Knizia's part presumes that jaded gamers are in the forefront of his mind, something which is probably not really the case.

**** Quiet, Rick.


Anonymous said...

I must not be as quick as you, Mr. Gola, 'cause I didn't feel like I had completely "gotten" it after one play. For example, in the endgame, realizing how important those movement and trading cards had become made me rethink my whole strategy up to that point. It may not be as layered as other Knizia classics, but I certainly feel like I have more to learn.

Rick said...

You know that any Joe Gola article isn't going to keep me quiet. In fact, this is going to be my first peep on the net in several days of self-imposed offline-ness. I can't pass up a chance to comment on THE MYSTERIOUS GAME OF MYSTERY though, so I'll chime in.

Being in Joe's first 3P go at the game with Gil Hova, I certainly agree with Eric that there's no way a player will be able to intuit all the combos possible with the different powers immediately. It'll take at least one game to get used to the weirdness of the "adjacent build reward" so getting the hang of putting all the powers together in an effective manner will take several. However, I do agree with Chris that unlike some of the good Doctor's more impenetrable games (Taj Mahal is a common one, and Amun-Re also seems to cause consternation - Beowulf is a good one in BMC's weight class) it's not hard to see how to improve play next time around.

I still can't shake the feeling that BMC is essentially a CCG-style game (hello Blue Moon) with some board movement tacked on, but I've only played that one time so I'm not in a great situation to delve deeper into that commentary.

Oh, and Joe? Blue Moon the Card Game is lower on the totem pole than crap in a weaving hut. :D


Joe Gola said...

Fawkes strikes again! I think he only likes bashing Blue Moon because deep down in his heart he knows the game is superior to his precious Magic: the Gathering. It's a self-esteem thing. What are ya gonna do?

By the way, Rick, that first game of ours was mentioned in early drafts of the review but I had to cut it out in the end because it disrupted the flow a little too much. Here's the bit, just for laughs:

In fact, during one game the constant agonizing dilemmas that arose caused us all to periodically ball our fists and howl "Reinnnerrrrr!!!!" to the ceiling in the style of the action hero who discovers that the suitcase that he has stolen from Mr. Big's hovercraft contains not the secret plans for the heist at the Louvre but instead a ticking time bomb and a note that says "Dear Mr. Secret Agent: Please accept this explosive device as a token of my esteem. Incidentally, I have imprisoned your wife and infant daughter in my underground tiger maze. Is that okay? Smooches, B."

Brian said...

It may be that this game is easily grasped after a play or two, but there is no doubt that when playing the game for the third time I found it relatively easy to do very well against the newcomers. So the learning curve isn't quite flat.

I'd note that in disagreement with the comment above, I think it is the board movement that makes this game. It would otherwise be a take-it or leave-it game of timing and hand management. Instead, with the combination of movement plus adjacent completion bonuses you get a really tight struggle to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right resources.

Finally, a rules note. Does the end of turn really happen in two steps? I thought you had to discard 0-2 and then draw 2-4 accordingly. It seems that drawing two and then deciding whether to discard could really slow things down.

Joe Gola said...

According to my translation, the discard and redraw takes place after the player draws his usual allotment of two.

I think the rules as written (or as translated, anyway) give the player more control over their hand and so maybe make the decisions faster and easier, since some of the guesswork is taken out. For instance, if I have an unpaired Mimix 1 in my hand after the draw, I might be inclined to chuck it. If I have to make that decision before the draw, though, I have to decided whether I'm betting for or against my drawing another Mimix 1 or 2. You see what I mean?

Joe Gola said...

By the way, I agree with everyone that the game's not really "immediately apprehensible"; you do need that first play to figure out what's going on. I think I get my point across later in the paragraph but that one sentence is not worded quite right.