Thursday, March 01, 2007

MiniReviews: Factory Fun, Monstermaler, On the Underground

As I wrote last year in My Life in Gaming, I've had quite a few gaming interests over the years, prime among them roleplaying, board gaming, and computer gaming, in approximately that order. Roleplaying had been at a low ebb for several years, but in the last year or so I've been growing more enthusiastic for it, and as a result I've started doing something that I hadn't done seriously in about a decade: writing for the RPG industry.

Currently I've got two different major RPG projects on my plate, a book for RuneQuest and a book about the history of the RPG industry. As you might expect, this is taking up a lot of my free time. It's one of the reasons I've dropped back to biweekly here, and it's also caused me to drop back the frequency of my board game reviews to about one a week.

The downside of that is that I'm not reviewing a lot of the coolest board games that are coming out. So, I'm going to try and correct that in brief this week (and probably again in the future) by writing some mini-reviews.

Following are discussions of three of the best games that I've played over the last few months. They've just got two plays each, and so I haven't come to a final decision on them, but nonetheless after two plays enthusiasm remains high.

Factory Fun

Publisher: Cwali
Author: Corne van Moorsel

In Factory Fun you're trying to build up a factory. You do this by building machines in an interconnected web of piping. Each machine has inputs (of red, blue, yellow, and brown goo) and outputs (of those same color goos, plus "black", which is a final product). The goal in the game is to play efficiently, and you do that by building machines close together, without a bunch of piping, and by connecting the outputs of some machines to the inputs of others.

The trick is that machines are selected in real-time. A set of machines is put out, one per player, then each player grabs the one that fits his factory best. The problem is that if you select the wrong machine it can be really, really inefficienct. On one of my first draws of my first game I grabbed a machine that had a red input to the left of a brown input, thinking it was exactly what I needed, but really I needed a brown input to the left of a red input--the opposite of what I got . The result was a huge mess of snaking pipes.

The reason that I really like Factory Fun is the creativity. You can build and rebuild your factory in totally arbitrary ways, which results in some really freeform possibilities--which generally really jazzes me about a game. It's really a puzzle, but a very thoughtful one with many different answers.

The potential problem, of course, is AP. If you get players who stare at their boards for too long, it'll ruin the game. A sand timer for the final player might help, giving that player a minute after the previous player finishes up. Or it might just introduce too much stress into the game. But, with the right group of people, this can be a joy.


Publisher: Bewitched/2F/Casasola (no American distribution)
Author: Friedemman Friese, Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle, Andrea Meyer

This is one of the simplest games ever. You're handed a piece of paper with a rough sketch of a person on it. There's a list of notable people on the back. You can choose one of those, or come up with something freeform. Once you've selected a subject you write the name down, then you fold your piece of paper in half along the vertical axis. You draw half the person (using the existing sketch as a blueprint) then you hand the piece of paper to the person to you left. He looks at who you decided to draw, but not what you drew. He then fills in the other half of the person. When everyone's done, the drawings are revealed one by one and everyone but the artists tries to guess who it is. They get one guess each. If you guess a drawing you get points; if no one guess what you drew you and your partner for that piece lose points.

This is again a creative game, but here the joy is actually in the humor. The mismatched pictures can be really funny, but it can also be awe-inspiring when you and your partner draw the exact same major iconography for a figure. When I played Monstermaler I drew four times: Blackbeard, Huckleberry Finn, Rodin's the Thinker, and Madonna. They all g0t guessed except for the Rodin. The Madonna was my masterpiece. When both halves were revealed we discovered that my partner and I had both given her long eyelashes, high heels, fishnet stockings, and conical breasts. It was a beautiful match (albeit, in different styles). Apparently that woman has made an image for herself.

There are always some people who don't feel comfortable playing drawing games, but this removes some of the pressure because you aren't drawing live--and thus aren't trying to get obstinate people to figure out what you drew. You draw ahead of time, and then everyone gets one guess. There's no frantic need to keep redrawing the same thing and pointing.

On the Underground

Publisher: Rio Grande Games/JKLM
Author: Sebastian Bleasdale

This is at heart a connectivity game. Each player is given two or three colors of track and over the course of the game he uses those tracks to form two or three different rail lines. You can get points for lots of different things, including connecting together certain stations, visiting certain stations, and encircling areas (though I'm not sure the last happens very much). The unique element of the game is a passenger. Each turn he chooses to go to a different station, and runs over peoples' tracks giving them points. You can build to try and get the passenger on your lines, using either long-term or short-term strategies.

In many ways this was a game that was inevitably going to be liked by me. I like railroad/connectivity games, and I especially like the connectivity games where you get to "use" your lines, as the case here. It's also got a big element of creativity: you can build your rail lines out however you want, with a lot of different paths to victory. You never have enough turns, you're constantly worried about other players taking your routes, and you have to make tough decisions every turn. However, I think my favorite element in the game is how it's designed to look a lot like the beautiful and iconic London Underground maps. A lot of gameplay elements, from the choice to give players multiple colors to the encouragement for loops were all clearly put in to build up this visual element.

On the Underground does have some downsides. It feels like an indie game that wasn't developed enough, keeping a really good game from being a great game. One clear example of this is the aforementioned loops, which I don't think have enough value to really encourage people to fight for them. This game also can have considerable downtime depending on who you're playing, and I wouldn't suggest it with any of the high player numbers. I suspect it's ideal for 3, maybe 4 at the outside.

But, if you don't mind some sharp edges, and especially if you love connection games, this one is unique and interesting.

The April issue of Knucklebones magazine is now out. I'm continuing to write for those folks, and you'll find my overview of all the Carcassonne games in this newest issue. I'm going to try and complement that in two weeks by continuing my series on Carcasonne game design here. Time permitting, I'll see you then.


Aaron_ said...

I've actually found in repeated play that the loops in OtU are actually worthwhile - I've seen at least one game where a loop made the difference between last and first place. But the game does start to bog down with more than three. OtU was actually the genesis of my current belief in 'Hidden Info AP' - where AP happens because the players can't predict what routes the game will demand next and spend several minutes trying to figure out what the best choice is between two equal choice.

Shannon Appelcline said...

One of our players last night argued that the value of loops was increased by the fact that they tended to offer more efficient train routes and thus attracted the passenger more often.

Whether that's true or not, I dunno. The loop in question only earned 2 points of clear, direct value.