Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Analysis of The Menorah Game

It's Boxing Day, or post-Christmas day, or Botswanian Lake Moss Harvest day, or whatever. Nobody is reading, so I'll write some analysis about my game, The Menorah Game.

Don't Forget! This is the last few days to nominate sites and posts for the Board Game Internet Awards!

2 to 4 players

Be the first to collect all eight colors of candles.

Have the highest score, where your score is the numerical value of your candles, plus your remaining coins (up to half your board value), plus 5 points if you collected all eight colors of candles.

(Technically, the advanced game suggests you to play N games, where N is equal to the number of players, each player getting an opportunity to start, and totaling scores at the end.)

44 tiles:
20 "cheap" candles in four colors, numbered 2 through 6
16 "expensive" candles in four colors, numbered 5 through 8
4 "gold" (wild) candles, 2 each numbered 9 and 10
4 Greek soldiers, 2 each numbered 4 and 6

4 menorahs (player mats on which to put candles)
4 player screens

Enough "coins" to play (around 80)

Each player starts with 12 coins. Mats and coins are kept behind the player screens.

On your turn, flip a tile from the deck. If it is a candle, you may buy the candle from the bank for its value, OR discard the candle to your personal discard pile for half its value (rounded down), OR auction the tile.

For the auction, you name a price, and each other player has a single opportunity to outbid you. You do not get a second bid! If you win the auction, pay the bank and take the tile. If an opponent wins, they pay you and take the tile.

Instead of flipping a tile, you may buy a tile out of someone's discard pile, either by paying the bank the value of the tile, or by discarding a tile of the same value or higher. This tile goes to the center of the table, as if you had flipped it. You then perform any of the above three options (so it costs effectively double to acquire a tile doing this).

If you flipped a soldier, you must pay the bank the value of the soldier or discard any tile of the same value or higher. You collect the soldier, and go again. The soldier's only use is for discarding, either on other soldiers, or to fetch tiles from discard piles. Discarded soldiers are removed from the game.

If the deck is exhausted, each player keeps the top tile of his or her discard pile, and the rest are mixed to form a new deck. That's about it, aside from a few exceptional rules (if you don't have enough to pay for a soldier, and so on).

In the basic game, the object is to fill your menorah first.

Flipping low tiles allows you to buy candles cheaply. Flipping high tiles allows you to discard and collect coins without giving candles to your opponents (too easily). The middle tiles are usually where you try to auction.

When you auction, if you buy the tile, great. If someone else buys it, they get a candle and you get the cash. The number you collect should be more than half the value of the candle, or you could just as easily have thrown it out. While the theory of auctions don't require you to net as much as your opponent (only at least 1/(n-delta) as much, where n is the number of players), you can usually gain 2 or more additional coins more than discarding this way.

The gold tiles are almost never bought at face value until the end of the game. Either they are tossed, or they are auctioned for a hefty price. However, towards the end of the game, it becomes too risky to auction them; someone is probably saving up for it and needs it to finish their menorah.

Similarly, tossing cheap tiles you don't need at the end of the game is also risky. It might be better to just buy it, rather than to leave it as an easy snatch from your discard pile.

It's at the end of the game where you realize how valuable the gold candles are, since instead of hoping for that one color of candle you need to finish your menorah (or a gold candle), you will be able to complete it with either of two colors. More gold candles means more options.

The deck is typically reshuffled a few times in a four player game, once or not at all in a three player game, and almost never in a two player game.

In general, I don't track the cash of the other players too closely, nor their candle purchases too closely. But others might be more savvy and know that you don't have cash to outbid them when the put something up for auction. Or they may know that you already have that candle color, and so aren't going to bid highly for a duplicate you don't need.

Duplicate candles won't help you win the game, but a high enough duplicate can be used to toss out on an unexpected soldier or to snatch a candle from someone else's discard pile rather than flipping.

Not considering auctions, you will be spending at least 2 x 4 + 5 x 4 = 28 coins to acquire the candles you need. Your only sources of cash are discarding or auctioning tiles. Since you start with 12 coins, you will need to make at least 16 more, and typically a lot more than that (an average board is 4 x 4 + 6.5 x 4 = 42 [cool]).

The auctions change everything. You will typically not be buying any tiles at high prices unless it is near the end of the game and you have been saving up coins waiting for the tile you need. Instead, you will toss the higher ones, or auction for them, since for another player to buy it they not only have to outbid you, but give you the cash, too. Once you know that your opponent has a particular candle, you know that he or she is not going to outbid you for that candle except to spite you.

About the soldiers: Until all the soldiers are revealed, it is wise to keep some reserve cash or duplicate tiles to deal with them. You don't want to have to throw out your expensive or gold card, just because you don't have enough coins to pay off the soldier.

As the deck dwindles through the first time, if there are still unrevealed soldiers you may consider buying cards out of someone's discard pile just to avoid the possibility of getting hit by flipping. Since discarded soldiers are not returned to play, you can relax once all four soldiers have been revealed.

The advanced game is superior to the basic game in a number of ways. First of all, getting the low candles is now of mixed benefit. They help you to finishing your menorah, but they don't give you many points.

Secondly, how much you spend on the candles is critical, because the money you're left with is victory points; unless you have so few candles that it doesn't matter how much money you have.

Spending 8 coins on an 8 cost candle is a wash as far as points are concerned. Whenever possible, you want to auction. If you win the candle, you will have netted a few points, not mention being one step closer to the 5 point bonus for finishing your menorah. If you are outbid, they gain the tile but lose their coins while you gain them, which is a full advantage to you.

Gold tiles are even more powerful here. I've won the game with only six tiles filled to my opponent's full board, simply because I had a few golds and some expensive cards.

In a two-player game, it is easy to get what you need, you simply have to find a way to get it before your opponent does. Gold cards are useful in this regard, as is keeping a careful count of your opponent's cash.

If you know your opponent is out of cash, or just about, you may be able to squeak in a few steals with low cost auctions when your opponent simply can't bid.

Perhaps the optimum number of players for the game, you can now not afford to squeak out low auctions, because one of your opponents will be able to afford the tile even when the other can't. You can put some pressure on your LHO anyway with a low auction, forcing him to bid something or risk his own LHO taking the auction for too low a price.

The deck is likely to be exhausted once, so something you pass up on will hopefully come around again. Also, there will be one or two unwanted tiles in each color, so you don't have to worry as much about passing up an early opportunity.

In a four player game, golds are especially useful, because you have less opportunities for each candle, unless you have been hoarding coins. The deck will be shuffled one or more times.

In a typical game, players who have not bought a gold candle early on in the game will be waiting for the gold ones to come up at the end, and hoping to accumulate enough cash to buy it out of someone's discard pile when it is casually tossed out for cash (auctioning a gold at the end game is typically suicide). Those with an earlier gold card purchase are more hopeful in getting one of the colors they are missing.

Four player auctions are the best, of course, and with the scarcity of candles in each color, there will typically be fierce competition in the bidding. There may even be some informal auctioning happening where players simply trade cash back and forth over candles, the involved players gaining over the other two for no cost.

In the end, it comes down to some luck, some skill, and a lot of nerve. Most games end very closely, as the mechanisms for gaining cash and candles tends to even out for all players.

You can still acquire copies of the game from me (in limited prototype format) at shadejon on gmail. You can also make your own mockup and play, in which case a small donation would be appreciated but is not required. If you would like to see this game published, send me an email and I'll send it on to the publishers considering producing it.


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