Friday, July 13, 2007

Mechanics Trumps Theme

I am a theme guy. I once wrote a Gone Gaming essay on games as theme delivery systems. But recently I had a lesson on how mechanics can trump theme. This came about because within the span of a week I played both Age of Discovery and Before the Wind.

Both Age of Discovery (designed by Alfred Viktor Schulz and published by Phalanx Games and Mayfair Games) and Before the Wind (designed by Torsten Landsvogt and also published by Phalanx and Mayfair) are cards games that deal with the Age of Sail. Age of Discovery is about the great voyages of exploration that sent Europeans to every corner of the globe. Before the Wind is a game of warehouse management. Obviously, Age of Discovery wins the interesting-theme contest hands down.

The difference in appeal is due to the games’ mechanics. Age of Discovery is primarily about buying colored ship cards and matching them to same-color contract cards and same-color voyage of discovery cards. The primary strategic decision is about when to use your ship cards to fulfill contract cards (which generate cash) and when to use them to complete the voyages of discovery cards (which generate victory points). There is relatively little interaction between the players; they may be racing to grab certain ships, contracts, or voyages before other players can snag them, but there is little that any player can do to hinder an opponent.

In Before the Wind, players try to acquire goods cards of four different types (apples, cheese, spices, and silk) and then try to place these goods on ships in order to snag victory points. Each ship card has a specific number and type of goods that it requires in order to be captured by players. A small ship card may need one apples and one silk card to be acquired, and will generate 5 victory points. A large ship might require two spice cards and a cheese and an apple card to be acquired, but this ship will generate 18 victory points.

There are two complications to this basic game model. First, players can’t just acquire goods and stick them on ships. Goods first go into a player’s hand, and then must be transferred to a warehouse before they can be placed on a ship. Second, players must choose among a selection of action cards in order to perform any action on a turn. Players are in direct competition for action cards; it is possible that each player may get the exact card he needs on a turn, but not likely. Often, more than one player will want the same card and an auction will be required to decide who gets it.

It is this player inter-action that I believe makes Before the Wind the superior game. If Travis picks his action card first in the turn, and he picks the card that I need, then I have the option of making a cash offer for the card. This triggers an auction, and the other players get the option of making a one-time offer on the card. Travis may sell the card to whomever he chooses based on their offer. But if he wants to keep the card, Travis must pay the guy who triggered the auction the same amount of gold that he offered.

You can see the possibilities. Sometimes when no desirable card turned up in the draw line, I would make an offer on another player’s card just to blackmail them into giving me some cash. Judging when to make an offer and how much to ask is always an interesting challenge.

I am reminded of the fact that although the auction mechanism may be the most over-used mechanism in modern boardgames, it seldom fails to make a game more interesting.

And I have become increasingly fond of the competition-for-an-action mechanism that can be found in Lowenherz, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Basari as well as in Before the Wind.

And I am forced to conclude that mechanics can sometimes trump theme. In the future, if other gamers want to lure me into a game of exploring the world, I will have to reply that I would rather stay home and manage a warehouse.

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