Saturday, October 27, 2007

Looking forward, Looking back

So, Essen is over for another year. The pilgrimages have been made, the booty unshrinked, sprues discarded to save luggage space and weight. The first batch of verdicts are in from the Chosen Few - while we, the Unwashed Masses, scoured the Internet with only one mostly industrial medium-sized German town in mind. And occasionally checked airfares and hotel availability.

My loot is still in transit - a couple of consignment numbers my only link to unimaginable greatness. Or, at the least, to hours of gaming fun. (Frustratingly, the consignment numbers only reveal that the package "is in transit to the destination country" - sometimes no information is better than partial)

Meanwhile, there's still time for the older games in our collection. Last night, we had six for games night, including two players who are new to gaming. We kept it light but fun - two games of Diamant, followed by at least ten of Bamboleo. For fun factor, especially with new gamers, it's hard to beat a really good dexterity game.

The game that is getting the most play, though, is Ingenious. This is Otto's favourite game, and she insists on playing it (usually on BSW or on the PC) before bed every night. She's improving, although she does need to be reminded that we are looking to improve our lowest score and not necessarily our highest.

In the past week, we've managed to get two new (to us/me) games to the table. Both are, I think, destined to be family favourites. On the Underground was one Fraser had played before and managed to pick up at 20% off. I enjoyed it a lot - and will put it on a shelf with The London Game. A friend - and regular member of our gaming group - is in hospital at the moment. She and her husband introduced us to The London Game - when she gets out, I look forward to returning the favour.

I have been waiting to find Thebes in Australia for some time, and finally got my chance last week when Fraser's "spies" told him that there were 2 copies available in the city. Ah, the joys of being easily led. We really enjoyed playing this with one another, and hope to get it to the table with more players soon.

We're still trying to work through some more unplayed games before the loot arrives - mostly because I may need some gaming credits to inspire Fraser to try some of my purchases. Australian Rails is on the dining table at the moment, but a combination of factors involving a bicycle, a car battery and a school trip to Hong Kong for older students means that it may not make it to full play today.

Fraser hopes so, though - he knows that once Agricola arrives there will be no chance to get other new games to the table for a while.

Happy gaming! And if you were lucky enough to be in Essen, remember to share the love. Or at least to tell us about the games.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Short Happy Look At 1960

CharCon, the gaming con of Charleston, West Virginia, was last weekend, and for me the big event of the con was the appearance of Jason Matthews, the co-designer of 1960: the Making of the President (co-designed with Christian Leonhard). Mr. Matthews taught me the game, and I played two games of it, and I would have gladly played two more.

1960 is a card-driven, area majority, presidential-election game in the same vein as Twilight Stuggle, the game of Cold War conflict designed by Mr. Matthews and Ananda Gupta. In 1960 players play cards for their events or campaign points as they try to increase their support in the most important states of the U.S. Players can also use cards to advertise in each of the four regions, and thus handicap the opposing players. Or they can use their cards to dominate three important issues in the election (defense, the economy, and civil rights) with the most successful player gaining endorsements and momentum points.

As in Twilight Struggle, a lot of the game is damage control. Some of the events on the cards only help one of the two political parties, and each player is likely to have one or more cards in his hand each turn with events that only benefit his opponent. Players can activate events favorable to them on cards played by their opponent by spending momentum points. Players can also stop opposing players from activating events by preemptively spending two momentum points when playing a card. Naturally, there never seems to be enough momentum points, and players often face the agony of letting an opponent activate one event in order to save momentum points to neutralize a worse event to be played later.

In the first game I played, I seemed to get cards every turn that allowed me to pummel my Republican opponent, but Richard Nixon (cleverly played by Charlie Davis) still managed to steal New York state from me on the last turn, and win the election. While I wasn’t happy about losing, I was glad to see that every turn counted, and that the election can be unpredictable right up to the end of the game.

1960 can be played in ninety minutes or less, and it may be one of those fine games that are meaty enough for gamers, but that can be enjoyed by non-gamers as well. For me, 1960 is one of the year’s best games. If I don’t get it for Christmas, I’ll have to buy a copy.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Knizia-thon, Part One: Marco Polo Expedition v. Blue Moon City

As I've played an increasing number of German games, I've increasingly grown fond of those by Reiner Knizia. Sure, he's the big grand poobah of German gaming, and he designs more games than most small countries, but I've discovered that I like his games because they're just more fun for me than a lot of what I play.

To some extent this surprises me, because they're pretty analytical and pretty mathematical, neither of which matches my definition of fun, but of everything I play they're the ones I come back to the most.

I came to this realization late last year, so this year I've set out to play as much Knizia as a I can. I'd hope to have a pile of Knizian nickles by year's end, and though that hasn't come about, I've still managed quite a few plays.

To date my 2007 play list looks like this: Ingenious x5, Blue Moon City x4, Quo Vadis? x3, Through the Desert x3, Amun-Re x2, Colossal Arena x2, Dead Man's Treasure x2, Dragon Parade x2, Escalation! x2, Genesis x2, Great Wall of China x2, Hollywood Blockbuster x2, Marco Polo Expedition x2, Ra x2, Taj Mahal x2, Buy Low Sell High x1, Ivanhoe x1, Kingdoms x1, Knights of Charlemagne x1, Loot x1, Lord of the Rings x1, Palazzo x1, Relationship Tightrope x1, Rheinlander x1, Stephenson's Rocket x1, T&E Card Game x1, Too Many Cooks x1, Tutankhamen x1, Winner's Circle x1.

Which I suppose one really can't complain about, since I've been playing at least one Knizia game a week.

All this play of Knizian games has gotten me thinking a bit about his design, and thus I offer up the first of what will eventually be several articles on his games.

Marco Polo Expedition v. Blue Moon City

This week I want to talk about two of Knizia's games, Blue Moon City and Marco Polo Expedition.

Blue Moon City
is one of his top-tier games, and even moreso one of his best rated games in recent years. It's currently #76 at BGG, with a rating of 7.46. Pretty much everyone I teach it to loves it.

Marco Polo Expedition is contrariwise one of his biggest disappointments according to the general public. It's currently #1270 at BGG, with a rating of 6.17. Most people I teach it to are pretty indifferent, and just last week I had someone who absolutely despised it on his first play. Personally, I think it's a fine game.

I offer up a comparison of these games not just because their ratings vary so widely--and not just because I've played them each in the last week--but also because I'm struck by their similarities.

Blue Moon City and Marco Polo Expedition are both ultimately card-collection games. I tend to call Blue Moon City resource-management and Marco Polo Expedition set-collection, but they tend to come down to the same thing. You decide to work toward the completion of certain spaces and thus you collect the cards that will allow for that.

Let me explain that a bit more for those not familiar with the games:

Marco Polo Expedition is a game of moving your camel along a set track, while trying to stay tight with the rest of your caravan. To move onto a space you must play cards which depict either caravan leaders (in five colors) or four types of goods (in those same five colors). Individual spaces require either matched goods, matched colors, sets of caravan leaders, a group of each of the four good types, or a group of each of the five colors. You get to jump over other camels, and thus you have to carefully track what other players are doing, to try and plan for spaces past where they end up--or else maintain a group of cards that will be viable for advancing onto multiple spaces.

Blue Moon City is a game of moving your pawn around a wide-open city, while trying to stay tight enough with other players to take advantage of synergy. Upon arriving at individual spaces you reconstruct the buildings there. To reconstruct a building you must play cards in six different colors, but cards can also be used orthogonally to generate special powers. Individual buildings require a grouped set of cards in the same color. Each building space can only be accomplished once, and thus you have to carefully track what other players are doing, to try and plan to build spaces which they won't complete before you--or else maintain a group of cards that will be viable for complete multiple spaces (which may largely be done by making good use of those special powers on the cards).

At the base level, there's really a lot of similarities between the two games. In both you manage cards, trying to stay a step ahead of opponents the whole time, but still in sync with them. So, why do their ratings vary so much? I can offer a few suggestions.

It's All About the Complexity

First, there's a dramatic difference in complexity between the two games. Fundamentally, Marco Polo Expedition is a pretty simple game: you have a single path to victory which you must assess. Conversely, while maintaining the same core ideals of gameplay, Blue Moon City adds a lot of complexity. This comes out in a few different ways.

One of them is openness. You really have a lot more choices in Blue Moon City, and if one opportunity closes up, you can always try another one: going to a different building site, collecting different cards, or even deciding to just grab victory points rather than building up your resources.

Another is color. Here again Blue Moon City offers a lot more than Marco Polo Expedition. In MPE the theming is very weak, borne out mainly by the mechanics of camels moving in a caravan, while in Blue Moon City it's very strong, with the cards all having different powers, and even the building spaces feeling very different--again, as opposed to Marco Polo Expedition where there's no real differentiation between the different spaces you can land on.

In their own way, each of Blue Moon City and Marco Polo Expedition are each quite different from what Knizia regularly designs, but in different directions.

In general Knizia games are pretty simple. He uses the bare minimum of mechanics necessary to pull off his design. If you look at most of his top-rated games, such as Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates, Samurai, and Ingenious, there's very little color there: the theming is mostly abstract and the mechanics mostly bare (though Blue Moon City is by no means the only game that offers some serious theming).

On the other hand, it's pretty rare for a Knizia game to offer as little openness as Marco Polo Expedition does. In all of those top games that I mentioned, you tend to have a whole board to play on, as opposed to Marco Polo Expedition where you're just looking forward a space or two.

Though not ever game can have the color of Blue Moon City, you can see part of the reason that Marco Polo Expedition might pale even against the Knizia norm when you consider the dearth of possible decisions.

Forgiving Games

However, I think there's a second way in which Marco Polo Expedition really differs itself from Blue Moon City: in its forgivingness.

In Blue Moon City you have a pretty powerful ability to cycle cards. Every turn you can toss out up to two cards, replacing them. Further, you can play cards for their powers if you don't need to use them to build, or you could move over to a different building if you can't get what you need for the building you really want. Still, through all this, you can sometimes get stuck and have to make non-optimal decisions.

Conversely Marco Polo Expedition can make it a lot harder to get rid of "wasted" cards, which tend to be generated when you build up for a space that someone else claims. The dual nature of all the cards--leader/good and color--helps prevent this somewhat, but you can still be set back multiple turns if you misjudge what your opponents are doing.

Further, there's a big difference in scoring visibility between these games.

In Marco Polo Expedition its really obvious when you're behind, because the most important measure--whether you're with the caravan or not--is clearly visible on the board. Further, when you get behind you usually have to sacrifice victory points to catch up (by dumping VP chests rather than playing extra cards).

Blue Moon City actually has a very similar catch-up mechanism, again underlying the similarity between the games: if you get behind in building the central monument, you have to pay more VPs to do so, which in the end is the same thing as sacrificing victory points in Marco Polo Expedition.

However, this sacrifice ends up behind much less obvious in Blue Moon City. Everyone's points are face-down, so you never know definitively until the last minute when someone will claim victory. I think the usefulness of hiding VPs in order to keep everyone interested until the last minute can't be underestimated, no matter how much grognards argue about open VPs becoming secret.

Also, I think there's a serious psychological difference between sacrificing VPs (as you do in Marco Polo Expedition) and paying extra (as you do in Blue Moon City), and that generally the former will make players unhappier than the latter.

Final Thoughts

Generally, I like Marco Polo Expedition, and I'm sad that it hasn't gotten better attention. However after writing through this I can better understand why.

Most directly, I think Marco Polo Expedition walks a hard line. On the one hand, it looks like a serious gamer's game, because of its release in a big, fairly expensive box. On the other hand, it looks like a family game because of its tightly constrained decision tree. On the third hand, it plays like a gamer's game because of its unforgiving nature and harsh-looking punishments.

With a game uncomfortably between all those extremes, it becomes a bit more clear why some are turned off the game after a first play.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

GoneGaming features in Wall Street Journal "BlogWatch"

Welcome to new readers of Gone Gaming who have followed the link from the Wall Street Journal.

We are a team of around 10-12 games enthusiasts who enjoy sharing our passion with others. New posts appear every 2 days or so and feature a wide range of games-related topics.

Here are some posts that might interest you - or explore the tags on the side to find more!

New Gamers: Don't Worry, that's normal! - the passion for trying (and buying) new games (Mary)

Gaming Saturation - "I'm finally at a point in my life where I can honestly say I don't feel like I have time I'd rather trade in for more boardgaming." (Matt)

Tie Breakers - ways to break scoring ties at the end of a game - what makes the most sense? (Shannon)

When the goal is to participate - including younger children in family boardgames (Melissa)

A real gaming controversy - where gaming and the real world collide (Kris)

School Games Night the Second - a community-building family boardgames night at a primary (elementary) school (Fraser)

You might be a gamer if ... - if you recognise yourself in any of these sayings (Mary)

Hated Questions - questions that game store owners secretly dread being asked (Aaron)

Games in the Classroom - a report on a classroom games day for 9-11 year olds (Melissa)

Ted Cheatham and the Road to Silk Road - an interview with a game designer (Kris)

The Backwards Brain Teaser Game - something to play at home (Smatt)

Arthur, Arthur! - Arthurian legend in games (Shannon)

Tournament Games - a discussion of how games can be used in tournaments (Fraser)

Lightweight and Feeling good - some lighter weight (simpler) games (Matt)

Gardner and the Multiple Intelligences of Boardgames - applying Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences to boardgames (Melissa)

A Cribbage Tale - playing a master (Smatt)

Collectibles on your game table - games that don't end with one purchase (Aaron)

Board Game => Card Game - when boardgames are adapted (Mary)

Five Game Design Dont's - what NOT to do (Shannon)

Beyond Nickels and Dimes - a different way to look at "games played" (Matt)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Signs that you might be thinking of Essen just a little too much

o Prior to the media day you are constantly checking boardgamegeek, boardgamenews, Frank's site and other places for the first snippets of information and complaining when there isn't any there

o Planning to SMS "Ready, Set, Go!" to people who are at Essen at the exact time the doors open to the public.

o Posting to blogs, BGG and mailing lists about Essen envy

o Knowing the airfare to Essen

o Knowing which hotels at Essen still have vacancies

o Know that if you take the child who has a passport that your luggage allowance will be doubled

o Searching out German rules for new games on the internet, emailing your partner/spouse/friend with access to a printer to print them out so you can determine whether or not to place an order with your Essen "personal shopper"

o Wanting to go to the airport and ask for a ticket "on the next flight to Germany"

o Being prepared to ditch a local community event that you have put at least 100 hours work into to go to Essen instead

o Knowing what time the doors at Essen close, factoring in time for the Essen correspondents to type up their reports and then you start checking

o Having Aldie say "You are jonesin' for some Essen"

o When ringing your spouse on the phone you say "I'm not at home, but I am not at the airport"

If many of the above apply to you then, to quote Aldie, "You are jonesin' for some Essen"


Friday, October 19, 2007

A Short Rules Comparison of Cuba and Hamburgum

As usual Essen will be showing gamers some resource-churning games that will come our way in the next month or two. Two of the more promising ones are Cuba from designers Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, and Hamburgum from designer Mac Gerdts. In Cuba players try to earn the most victory points by shipping goods, constructing buildings, and paying taxes. In Hamburgum players produce and sell beer, sugar and cloth to gain the money needed to build the citiy’s churches. The player who makes the biggest contributions to the churches will win.

I’m not going to examine the rules of the games in minute detail here, but instead I will show how they handle some of the same basic game mechanisms.


In Cuba players each have a set of five cards that they use each turn to take actions. The cards are the Worker (who produces resources), the Tradeswoman (who buys and sells resources), the Architect (who constructs buildings), the Foreman (who activates buildings), and the Mayor (who sends merchandise to ships in the harbor and thus generates victory points). Each round, each player will use four of these five cards, and save one card for the Parliament Phase. Each card is worth a certain amount of votes in the Parliament Phase, and the player who has the most votes (votes can also be purchased for cash) will be able to enact certain laws that apply to all players. Note: each of the five action cards has a secondary ability that only one or two players can use each round.

In Hamburgum, Mac Gerdts once again uses his favorite mechanism, the rondel. On their turns, players can move their marker on the rondel from one to three spaces for free. Players can move their marker further by paying prestige points. Three of the spaces on the rondel are labeled Beer, Cloth, or Sugar. Landing on these spaces causes a player to produce the named product. The Trade space allows a player to buy or sell his goods on the market. The Guildhall space allows players to construct buildings. The Dockyard space allows players to build ships in the harbor. The Church space allows players to make those all-important donations to the churches of Hamburg and thus earn prestige points.


Cuba resembles Caylus and Puerto Rico in the wide variety of buildings available to players. There is only a single tile available for most buildings, and so only one person in the game will usually own each particular building. The cement factory, the saw mill, and the golf course turn certain resources into victory points. The hotels and the inns create victory points directly. The small bank and the large bank generate cash every time they are activated. The cigar factory and the distillery turn tobacco into cigars and sugar cane into rum, and certain cafes turn cigars and rum into victory points. Other buildings are helpful getting goods onto ships in the harbor, generating extra votes for the Parliament Phase, or have other special abilities.

In Hamburgum players can construct buildings for a variety of purposes. Constructed buildings are placed in front of each player, and a citizen marker of the constructing player is placed on the board. Production buildings increase beer, cloth, and sugar production. Merchant buildings generate a one-time cash payment. Councilman buildings generate cash for every citizen marker on the board. Vicar markers generate cash for every donation made to the churches. The Lord Mayor building generates cash for every church that has been completed. In Hamburgum, players may build more than one building at a time (and the strategy tips in the rules encourage this). This could lead to dramatic shifts in the kinds of buildings available as players build three or four buildings at a time.


Both games have special rules that constrain players or offer them special opportunities. In Cuba, each player has a plantation board with a grid of spaces that produce various resources. When a player uses his Worker card, he places a worker marker on his plantation board. He can then activate only those spaces that are in the same row or column as his worker. As the game progresses, players will construct buildings on spaces on their plantation board, and will thus cover up and eliminate certain resource spaces. Because the Foreman can only activate buildings in the same row and column as the playing piece, careful placement of buildings is important.

In Hamburgum, players making donations to churches get a bonus tile. The first bonus tile for players contributing to a particular church is always worth five prestige points. But the remaining four tiles generate contingent prestige points: one tile generates 1 point for every donation tile that the player already has; one tile generates 2 points for every ship a player has in the harbor; one tile generates points for every citizen that the player has in the church’s district, and one tile generates points for every building that the player has in the church’s district. Players will constantly wonder if they should place a few extra citizens or ships before making the big church donation, but by waiting they risk having another player snag the desired tile first.

Both Cuba and Hamburgum seem like intelligent variations of the resource-churning genre of games that have been so popular the last few years. I look forward to trying both of them. Rules for these games are available online if you want to check them out.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Gaming Saturation

If you had asked me a few years ago if it were possible, I would have denied it but I now think I'm reaching a saturation level for my boardgaming habits. Sure, I'd love large chunks of time to devote to some more plays of a few longer games (Die Macher, Here I Stand, Twilight Imperium 3 or Revised Axis and Allies anyone?) but I'm finally at a point in my life where I can honestly say I don't feel like I have time I'd rather trade in for more boardgaming.

This is a combination of several factors, the major factor being the formation of a local biweekly boardgame club. It's been running for over a year now and every other Monday evening I get a good three hours of gaming in with a group of 8 to 12 regulars. Keeping my schedule clear on that one night a week has done wonders to satisfy my boardgaming needs. (On the off Mondays a smaller group has been playing an ongoing role-playing game, which also helps to satisfy my gaming needs.) In addition to biweekly play, I have a quarterly full day of gaming at a friend's house about an hour away. This is great for getting in games that just don't make it to the table in the biweekly gatherings. Finally, now that school is back in session I have a weekly boardgaming club that I sponsor. On the one hand, this is great as I get to play even more games, but we're somewhat limited on time - our meetings only last about 90 minutes or so. This means most 60-90 minute games only get played halfway through the first time before its time to pack them up. Future plays can sometimes squeek in an entire game in time alloted.

Will all this scheduled game playing, going back to work full time, and a happy little 1 year old running around to watch out for, I find myself pretty darn busy. Sure, boardgaming is darn fun, but I'm running out of things that I'd give up in order to get more gaming in.

Now, life isn't exactly all rose-colored glasses, there are a few things I'd change, if possible. First, it is all the shorter games I've been playing. Due to limited time constraints, I don't get in as many long-term, deep-thought games as I'd sometimes like. I've played a lot of medium-weight (some would call lightweight) games lately, To Court the King, Ca$h n Gun$, and Owner's Choice being some of my favorites at the moment. While I haven't yet tired of To Court the King, Owner's Choice may need to rest for a few weeks before I pick it up again (I've now got the most games played of Owner's Choice over on the BGG...) The preponderance of lighterweight games comes from needing to grow new players at the high school game club as well as my desire to make sure all the gamers at our biweekly meetings are getting in games they enjoy. Thus, I've been making a bit more of an effort lately to accomodate people by playing lighter games that are more effective at drawing in less hardcore players.

However, on the whole, playing "too many" lightweight games is a happy problem to have. I'd take too many games over too few any day of the week (or month or year). Meanwhile, most of the players I play with are slowly getting the feel of more and more complexity and I can start bringing out the bigger guns at our weekly school boardgame club.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Game design challenge

Let's be brutally honest here. It's four days till the Essen game fair opens. Three, by the time I post this. And you, gentle Reader, are champing at the bit waiting for reports - or hints - or photos - or ANYTHING really - that give you any information about what is going on with all those New Games.

I know this, because by Tuesday night I too will be compulsively hitting the Refresh key in case anyone has somehow stumbled across a hidden cache of games and managed to play one of them before the Messe actually opened. (Brief pause to gloat: We did manage to play the new Amigo cardgame Ziegen kriegen on Friday night.)

So this week, something different.

I was struck, this week, as I wandered the supermarket listening to Michael Flanders and Donald Swann's classic "Bedstead Men," by how much it sounded like a game.

Oh, when you're walking in the country, Far from villages and towns,
When you're seven miles from nowhere and beyond,
In some dark deserted forest, or a hollow of the downs,
You may come across a lonely pool or pond.

And you'll always find a big, brass broken bedstead by the bank,
There's one in every loch or mere or fen.
Don't think it's there by accident, It's us you have to thank,
The society of British bedstead men.

Oh, the hammer ponds of Sussex, And the dewponds of the west,
Are part of Britain's heritage, The part we love the best.
Every eel and fish and millpond Has a beauty all can share,
But not unless it's got a big brass broken bedstead there.

So, we filch them out of attics, We beg them from our friends,
We buy them up in auction lots with other odds and ends,
Then we drag them 'cross the meadows, When the moon is in the sky,
So watch the wall my darling, While the bedstead men go by.

The league of British bedstead men is marching though the night,
A desperate and dedicated crew,
Under cover of the hedges, Always keeping out of sight,
For the precious load of bedsteads must get through.

The society for putting broken bedsteads into ponds
Has another solemn purpose to fulfil.
For our coastal sands and beaches, All where waving willow wands,
Mark the borders of a river, stream or rill.

You will always find a single laceless, left-hand leather boot.
A bootless British river bank's a shock.
We leave them there at midnight, you can track a member's route,
By the alternating prints of boot and sock.

Oh, the lily ponds of Suffolk, And the millponds of the west,
Are part of Britain's heritage, The part we love the best.
Our riverbanks and seashores Have a beauty all can share,
Provided there's a boot... Provided there's a boot...
Provided there's at least one boot... Three treadless tyres, a half-eaten pork pie, some oildrums, an old felt hat, a lorryload of tar blocks...
And a broken bedstead there.

Can you see it? It's clearly a pick-up and deliver game, possibly with some sort of relative position - each player plays both a British Bedstead Man and an Insomniac Nature-Lover, whose mission is to stop the other players' Bedstead Men from placing their Bedsteads.

Each player starts the game with (or has to collect along the way) a boot, three treadless tyres, a half-eaten pork pie, some oildrums, and old felt hat, a lorryload of tar blocks and of course a broken bedstead. Players must move around the board, leaving them in strategic positions near lily ponds, millponds, rivers, streams and rills.

There could even be an auction component - because you have to collect some of those things (at the least, the tyres, tar blocks and broken bedstead) before you can abandon them in some otherwise picturesque place.

And the board, of course, would show one of those old-fashioned ordnance survey-style maps of part of Britain - with the occasional set of matching sock/boot footprints.

Do you see it?

What obscure and - if we are honest - rather ludicrous - inspiration would you like to one day see as a game?

To those who are lucky enough to be in Germany next weekend, have fun at Spiel. To those with business there, I wish you all the best. If you see an Australian, say hello.

And to any stray people with a company or private jet flying from Melbourne to Germany early next week? Call me!


Friday, October 12, 2007

A Short Rules Preview of King of Siam

The parade of area-majority games continues with King of Siam. In this upcoming game (to be published by Histogame and designed by Peer Sylvester), two to four players use cards as they strive to place followers from three political factions in the eight provinces of the southeast Asian nation. Players also claim followers for themselves in order to dominate one or more of these factions.

One of the more things that should make King of Siam different from the vast horde of similar games is that each player starts the game with an identical set of eight action cards, and never receives any more. Players had better be darn careful about when they play each particular card.

Each faction has a set of color-coded follower markers (presumably little wooden cubes). In the set-up phase, four random followers are placed in most of the provinces. But each of the three factions has a home province which contains two of its follower markers, and two more chosen randomly. Eight province tiles are placed at random on a track that is numbered one to eight. Then control of each province is resolved according to where the province is placed on the track.

To resolve each province, players play cards from their hand. Most the cards allow players to add followers from one faction or another, or swap followers between different provinces. Each player has one card that allows him to switch province tiles on the track, and thus change the order in which the provinces are resolved.

Please note that each player has eight cards, and there are eight provinces to be resolved. This means that if any player plays more than one card in a province, he will not have a card to play in one or more provinces still to be resolved.

After playing a card, each player takes a follower marker from some province on the board and places it in front of him. Followers gained this way are an investment in the control of the faction.

After all players have played their cards to influence a province, the faction with the most followers in the province places a control marker there.

But if two or factions are tied for control of the region, then an imperialist British control marker is placed in the province. If the British ever gain control of four provinces, they are considered to have colonized Siam, the game ends immediately, and a special set of victory conditions applies. The winning player is the person who has the most complete set of followers (a set is one blue, one red, and one yellow marker).

If the British do not gain control of Siam, then the game ends when control of the last province is resolved. The faction that controls the most provinces gains control of Siam. The player who has the most followers in front of him from the winning faction is the winning player.

One other item of note: in a four-player game, players are grouped into two teams who win or lose together.

Because of the limited number of cards to be played in the game, the playing time of King of Siam should be quite short; the rules claim that a game will last between half and hour and a full hour.

If El Grande and Liberte ever had a love-child, it might look a lot like King of Siam. This mechanics of this game aren’t very original, but it looks like it will be an area-majority game for those gamers who think Midgard takes too long.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tie Breakers

Last week, when playing Thurn & Taxis, we momentarily thought we had a tie. (Momentarily, I say, because I added up my 21 points of chips and got 19, but that's neither here nor there.) This inevitably led us back to the rulebook for the perennial question, "What breaks ties?"

In Thurn & Taxis the first answer was, "the player who earned the 'game end' bonus tile'", which makes a lot of sense, because that's a definitive goal that players should usually be going for. However, the second tie-breaker, didn't make sense, because it was, "if [the person with the tile] was not among those tied, the player closest clockwise from this player who was tied with the most is the winner!"

So Thurn & Taxis, to offer a reminder, works like this: when a player goes out, play continues until all players have had an equal number of turns, and thus ends to the right of the start player. This means that unless the last player is the one who went out, the winner is a player who was advantaged because he had more of an opportunity to react to the game ending, which seemed to me to be the opposite of what the tie-breaker should have been. I suggested that going counter-clockwise from the ending player would have worked better, because that would have been a player more likely to be disadvantaged, which led me to a general pondering about how tie breakers should be written.

A Philosophy of Tie Breaking

So what makes a good tie-breaker? I have three criteria: it should be obvious, fair, and ideally unique.

Having a tie-breaker that is obvious is the most important criteria. Inevitably, if a part of the rules doesn't get explained when you're learning a new game, it's how ties are broken. So, you want a tie-breaker that feels obvious: in other words, even if you don't know what the tie-breaker is, when you find it out you want to be able to say, "That makes sense", because the opposite case, where you suddenly find after the fact that you should have been hoarding sheep (or whatever) for the tie-breaker can put a damper on a game.

Almost as importantly, a tie-breaker should be fair. My complaint about the secondary Thurn & Taxis tie-breaker is that it didn't seem fair to me. It would have seemed fair if it in some way either rewarded a player who was truly disadvantaged or else rewarded a player who had extra resources (which especially in a resource-to-victory-point game engine are essentially fractional victory points).

Finally, if possible a tie-breaker should be unique, which is to say something that can't result in yet another tie. Having the end-game marker in Thurn & Taxis is a pretty good example of this sort of thing, because it will usually be held by one of the winners; the designer just didn't think beyond that for the rare cases in which it turns out to be held by a loser.

Looking at Some Examples

So how do different games deal with tie-breakers? I've decided to offer up a few examples, each of which I've looked at by my criteria.

Primordial Soup; Torres
: First, the Holy Grail of tie-breakers: games where you can't tie. This is a pretty rare game design element, but usually, I think, a good one. Torres and Primordial Soup are both good examples, because they're games where you literally can't have the same score as another player: instead, you skip over them.

This technique is often put to good use in any sort of game where you have some sort of absolute positional difference, offset in subsystems where ties are relevant. For example in Entdecker you place figures on jungle paths, and if there's a tie, the person who placed first wins; conversely in Patrician you place floors in towers, and if there's a tie, the person who placed last wins.

The Settlers of Catan: Settlers is a game which allows no ties, because you win by having the right number of points on your turn. This really shows the difference between games which go a set length of time, and thus allow ties, and games which just go until someone wins, and thus usually don't.

Ingenious; Tigris & Euphrates: These two Reiner Knizia games offer the next best thing to no ties: a tie-breaker that is so entirely obvious (and fair) that trying to reach it is just a standard part of your gameplay. In each game, you win based upon your worst score in multiple colors, and in case of tie you drop down to your second worst or third or fourth. Thus the entire schoring mechanism is an organic whole.

Havoc: The Hundred Years War: In this Poker-like game, the person who has won the more battles (hands) is the winner, and if there's still a tie, it goes to order of placement in the final battle, making it fair, relatively obvious, and with the second tie-breaker unique.

Ticket to Ride: This is a pretty standard game with good, but not great tie-breaker. The person with the most completed destination tickets wins ties. That strikes me as fair, but it's neither obvious or unique. I'd guessed that the tie-breaker would be the person who has the longest-route bonus, since that's usually unique, but I'm not unhappy with the actual rule.

Carcassonne; Caylus: These games have my least favorite tie-breaker. Either the game explicitly says there is no tie-breaker, or else just doesn't mention one. Besides being anticlimatic, it feels lazy on the part of the designer. I think some game designers feel like they can get away with it because you earn enough points that a tie is pretty unlikely ... but they will come up sometimes. For Carcassonne a potential tie-breaker is immediately obvious: a count of unused meeples. For Caylus a good tie-breaker is a bit more difficult because unused resources have already been valued with points. I'd be tempted to offer a tie-breaker based on total contributions to the castle, with earliest contribution being an additional tie-breaker, since building the castle is the theoretical purpose of the game. Alhambra and Coloretto were another few games that I found that had no tie breakers.

In looking through games, they generally did better than I expected ... other than those which didn't include a tie-breaker at all.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Collectibles on your game table

I am apparently one of a small group of people in this world who can play a collectible game without getting sucked in. I also have a tendency to be able to wander away from the games and then wander back. This is fine for me, but bad for getting a collectible/constructible game on the table, since my fickle nature has caused me to leave behind groups of players because I became less interested in the game (the only game) they played. I've wandered into and out of Magic: The Gathering multiple times since it's launch, and I still play it with my dad whenever I see him1.

I've played most of the good collectible games2 over the years, either when the came out, or once they were cheap. Here's some mini-reviews on some of my favorites, some of which are odd. I'd love to play these games more often, but the learning curve is high for almost all of them, so even keeping a set of playable decks around doesn't help get them on the table - you really need to commit to playing one game several times with the same group.

It should be noted that with a few exceptions collectible games require player elimination for victory, or encourage player elimination, so... if you didn't know, you've been warned.

Magic: Let's start with the original.
Good Stuff: Huge base of art and styles of play along with easy core concepts so you can get playing quickly. If you want to dabble, this is the game to do it with, since you can have a fun game after a 5-10 minute teaching session. Sadly since the game is older the newer cards require more attention to the rules, so the ease of the core concepts gets hidden by the newer complexities - but at heart it's a very easy game to play.
Bad Stuff: Two player. Multiplayer works okay, but it can bog down into the same traps that occur in multiplayer wargames - "Let's you and him fight so that I win". There's also some attitude in the greater tournament scene, but don't let that worry you. Just play with friends.

Over The Edge: Second/Third game I bought into.
Good Stuff: Quirky. Lots of fun theme3, alternate win conditions and some positional tactics. It's not just about attacking the other players (which is rare), so defensive tactics are possible. Also, dirt cheap these days.
Bad Stuff: Basically just a heavily modified Magic, it's a bit better for multiple players, but a bit more complex. The quirky art and theme isn't for everyone.

Jyhad/Vampire:Jyhad on release, so that's how I always think of it.
Good Stuff: Tied for best multi-player game. This one is all about negotiations and alliances, with a strong set of rules governing when and who you can hassle. A good feeling of running a family of characters (vampires) that then take actions on your behalf. Great costing mechanic that makes you more vulnerable to loss the more resources you put in play. Voting, attacking, etc.
Bad Stuff: Long. Lots of deals, promises and waiting for the most opportune moment (I love it, you may hate it). Very Very hard to teach, with lots of rules and sub-games within the game. I can't comment on the newer sets. At its best with four players.

Good Stuff: Other half of the multi-player tie. Theming is strong4, and winning doesn't require player elimination. As a second generation game5, it pulls mechanics from a bunch of sources, resulting in a more complex feeling than Magic. Less rules than Vampire though.
Bad Stuff: Lots of blowing stuff up. Oh wait, that's a good thing. Still fairly complex to teach, and can run a bit long. Not so great with two.

Good Stuff: Very nifty two player. Feels more unlike other CCGs than most, and has asymmetrical play. Strong fan base among boardgamers.
Bad Stuff: Good Deckbuilding is really hard. It's still not easy to teach and can be very intimidating due to the asymmetrical play. Hard to find.

Good Stuff: Funny. Tactical Board game style movement coupled with some of the best graphic design/art in the genre (That's design from a art perspective, not usability).
Bad Stuff: Light. Hard to find. Very odd.

Good Stuff: Great combat mechanics that use the playing card suit/rank that is built into each card. Good location/character based play that supports the theme (Weird West/Horror). Good for multi-player.
Bad Stuff: A bit overly complex, especially as expansions were added.

Good Stuff: Different. More storytelling than any other collectible, though you still have to send monsters to the other players. Nicely done, and works well with a wide range of number of players. I'm surprised that more eurogamers don't try this game - it's got the blend of story/game that seems to appeal to many.
Bad Stuff: Specificity on the cards is a bit much, making building decks frustrating, if not difficult. There are certainly some solitaire elements to the game that don't always mesh well with the aggressive elements. And you have to like stories and Lovecraft.

As you can see, in general the basic drawback to most collectibles as games is that they are complex. Sometimes in the basic rules, always in the infinite combinations of cards.

I've mostly listed older games. I pay attention to the new games, but none have really grabbed me (and many of the recent ones have been launched on the basis of their tournament support). There's a couple games I left out of the list that deserve some note - Legend of the Five Rings, Game of Thrones, Pokemon - but they never really grabbed me (though I played L5R with a group for over a year)



1He got my cards the first time I wandered away from the game, and proceeded to grow them into a huge collection. He started me on Avalon Hill/SPI, and D&D. I repaid him in kind by introducing him to Magic.

2 Which were of course almost all cards until the appearance of pre-painted miniatures, which I've dabbled in, but since the prepainted games were basically just applying the concept of collectibility to an existing game genre, I was less excited.

3Based on an RPG called On the Edge about tiny Mediterranean island with about 60 different world-domination conspiracies vying for control. An RPG that was light years ahead of it's time.

4 Lots of conspiracies (again) vying for control over the world (again) by using time travel. Cyber-Monkeys with guns. Kung Fu. Think Big Trouble in little China squared.

5I'm generous with my CCG generations, using them to categorize games. In general 1st gen are the games from 1993-1995, while 2nd gen are from 1995-crash 1. Third gen games are clumped around the rise of Pokemon/Yu-gi-oh and stretch into modern times. I haven't decided if the games of the past 2-3 years are sufficiently different from the poke-era games to merit calling them 4th gen. In short: 1st Gen - Magic and games that imitate it directly. 2nd Gen - More complex CCGs, with more rules and targeting a 20+ gamer demographic. 3rd Gen - Simpler CCGs, using licenses and anime art to target a younger demographic. 4th Gen - ??? Some weird blend of the prior generations - I haven't really found a common trend that differs too much from early games. Perhaps the 4th gen is the retro gen.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

To retheme or not to retheme, that is the question

It is not an uncommon practise for games to be reissued in a rethemed version. Usually with only minor differences, if any, from the original apart from the theme. Sometimes there may be quite a few changes or additions compared to the original, but does that just make it a "second edition" or does it require the retheming?

Here's a few:
Schotten Totten to Battle Line
Revolution to Atlanteon (OK only one entry)
Tycoon to El Capitan
Dune to Twilight Imperium Universe Dune?

There are some rethemings that seem sensible or reasonable. In some cases the original version is out of print, so the opportunity exists, or possibly the original artwork is no longer available so it is going to be recreated anyway.

In the case of Schotten Totten and Battle Line both versions have been in and out print, but certainly when we bought our version of Schotten Totten both games were in print. Our copy of Schotten Totten includes the tactics cards, so there is very little difference between the two games apart from Battle Line's apparent homage to This is Spinal Tap by making the cards go just that one higher than Schotten Totten. Unfortunately this is one of the games that the lovely Melissa has not done a rules translation for, so I cannot confirm the tactics cards are exactly the same in function, but I believe that they are.

Why then change it from wild Scots in the Highlands to ancient warriors?

In this case I the the answer can be found by looking at the new publisher GMT Games and their main market. They are primarily a wargame company and thus the majority of their customers will be interested in wargames. The retheming would make the game much more marketable to their customers.

In the case of Revolution to Atlanteon I am not aware of any changes other than the theme. The theme has changed from Revolutionary Paris to Undersea Kingdoms. I think this is another case of the new publisher, Fantasy Flight Games in this case, targeting the theme to their customer base. Is it an accurate assumption or are the publishers guilty of dumbing down their own customers? Since they didn't sell both versions I suppose we will never know. Interestingly enough FFG let Senator out of the door with its historical, as opposed to science fiction, theme.

A case mentioned here at Gone Gaming recently is Tycoon to El Capitan. I played Tycoon for the first time only a few weeks ago and enjoyed it. The theme worked well for me - I thought that the cost of travel being so high because you are a tycoon flying around in your own personal jet with your potentially large entourage, so it does cost a lot of money to relocate from one city to another. Corporate tycoons must be out of flavour now, because El Capitan has shifted it to Tom Vasel's most reviled theme, Mediterranean trading ports. Sure this fits in thematically with more of the games released over the last ten years, but was it really necessary to change it? Will the sales be that much better than a straight Tycoon Second Edition would have been?

Dune to Twilight Imperium Universe Dune? is an interesting case. As far as I understand it, Dune is no longer licensed. If it was relicensed it could be reprinted, or a second edition released. The retheming is the outcome that would occur if nothing changed with the licensing situation.

Now I must admit that I have never played Dune, mainly because I have not had the opportunity. My personal feeling though is that theme is very important to this game. The Dune universe through the books has quite a history and people associate with that. Sure you could retheme it and technically have the same game or possibly an even better one, but would it be as engaging without sandworms and spice (even if they are just cardboard chits)? I doubt it.

Going from Schotten Totten to Battle Line is no great loss and there was no great investment with the Highland theme, but I can see that in going from Dune to something else there definitely would be a loss of investment for people familiar with the original. For people with no knowledge of the original it probably wouldn't make much difference, but would the new be as engrossing as the original was because of the history?

It sort of reminds me a little of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film. A very nice film if you knew nothing about the books or the radio show. However if you had listened to the radio show time and time again and read the books, the first twenty minutes of the film was excellent and the rest was, to put it politely, not.

For some things you just have to ask yourself, why did they change that?

Mmm meeples taste like...

Friday, October 05, 2007

A Short Rules Preview of History of the Roman Empire

In case you’ve been wondering why I’ve been doing so many rules previews lately (and I have no indication that anyone is interested in the slightest), it’s because scheduling conflicts have cut down on my gaming lately, and I can’t count on having Thursday nights free to write these blogs. It’s sometimes necessary to write these far in advance, and checking out some newly available rules is one way to stay in the blogging game.

This week’s rules are from History of the Roman Empire, an upcoming game from the Italian game company UGG (but which can be pre-ordered through the GMT website). History of the Roman Empire was designed by Marco Broglia, but I know nothing about this designer except his name.

The downloaded rules run only six pages, and that includes an index and moderately-lengthy bibliography. This not an overly-complicated game. Grognards looking for another Pax Romana should look elsewhere. The game system reminded me more of History of the World than anything else.

The board is a map of the Roman world divided into areas. The game doesn’t have real terrain other than resources, but forts, fortresses, and cities can be built. Roman factions can travel across seas to invade other areas.

Each player will control one Roman faction and one non-Roman group known as a People. Each turn, the player with the fewest victory points will draw a random counter to determine what People he may play for that turn. If he doesn’t like the counter (various Peoples have different reinforcements and locations), he may pass it to another player and draw another counter. In a similar fashion, players will draw counters to see what Roman Emperor they will play for that turn. The military abilities of the emperors vary greatly. It is this selection mechanism that reminds me the most of History of the World.

You can guess at the rest of the game mechanics, and you probably won’t be far wrong. Players use their Roman factions and their Peoples to capture new territories and amass victory points. In combat, the attacker rolls two die and the defender rolls one. Forts and fortresses add defensive bonuses in combat. A captured city may be looted to gain victory points, but a Roman faction may not loot a captured Roman city.

Each player starts the game with a hand of event cards (this also reminds me of History of the World), and may play up to two cards per turn. Cards can provide combat bonuses, create plagues or revolts, or give the player the ability to create an additional minor Kingdom for one turn (another steal from HotW).

There is also an area majority mechanism in the victory point scoring. The board is divided into colored zones, and controlling provinces in these zones can gain players lots of points. Having a presence in a zone gets a player the lowest point bonus. Controlling three areas in a zone doubles the bonus. And controlling all areas in a zone triples the bonus.

At the end of the game, players total up the points their Roman Factions and their Peoples have earned. Highest total wins.

History of the Roman Empire seems to be a light wargame inspired by History of the World. The rules seem to be slightly more complex than the earlier game, and gamers who are looking for something slightly meatier than HotW might consider watching out for History of the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Making "Gateway" a Useful Term

We have put out a few calls now for guest bloggers. Here is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts from writers who've not posted on Gone Gaming before.

Boris Dvorkin responded to one of my posts looking for guest bloggers. Strangely, it was a post in the "Women and Gaming" forum on Boardgamegeek which has netted the most interest. More strangely, perhaps, none of the interest has been from women.

I like the new twist Boris puts on this familiar term. Please comment on his post to inspire him to write for us again!


What sucks worse than having an awesome game and no one to play it with? Lots of things. Getting hit in the nose with a mallet, for example. But most of us gamers don't even own a mallet, let alone someone who might hit us in the nose with it, so we spend most of our time bemoaning the lack of companions for our cardboard adventures. This is why some gamers are obsessed with the idea of "gateway games" — games that will turn their boozing socialite acquaintances into insatiable Puerto Rico fanatics.

Of course, most people realize by now that gateway games are a myth. Like all good myths, the "gateway" concept is built on a fleck of truth: outstanding members of a hobby can indeed generate widespread interest in that hobby. Chess participation skyrocketed in the 70's when Bobby Fischer became the first American world champion. But this burst of enthusiasm for chess was not accompanied by similar spurts in Go and backgammon. Fischer's phenomenal chess play only generated interest in chess. Thus, when you teach your friends how to play Settlers, a phenomenal board game, the best result that you can hope for is that they'll become interested in Settlers. Hence the common cry, "I taught my friends how to play Settlers and now they won't play anything else!" Well, duh. Serious gamers may accuse Princes of Florence of being multiplayer solitaire, but to the average Fred it seems more like multiplayer chess — bewildering, difficult to learn, and boring.

For most people, spending twenty minutes learning a complex set of abstract rules and then the next hour and a half perusing decision trees is torture. You have to be a very, very special kind of person to want to do this kind of thing in your spare time. I once taught Puerto Rico to a guy who had never played Settlers in his life, and he loved it. He was just that kind of person. Conversely, my Settlers campaign back home was so successful that a number of my friends bought their own copies plus expansions — yet they won't touch Puerto Rico with a twenty foot shark.

The result of all this is that the term "gateway game" is still being used in discussions but contributes nothing meaningful to them. People either cling to the phrase with dewy-eyed dreams that their sweater-knitting girlfriends will be brainwashed into adoring Caylus, or decry it as a hopeless folly and ignore all mention of it altogether. I think that's a shame, because with a bit of tweaking, "gateway game" can be made into a useful term.

Now, as an English major, I know better than to try to impose my will on the way that language is used. People are funny about language. If you ask them how important it is to them, they're likely to say "not much." And yet, if you tell someone that a word they're using is wrong, or that it shouldn't be used at all, and the person happens to disagree, you're likely to face such a brutal retaliation that a passerby will wonder if you didn't just try to shoot their dog. People are extremely attached to the way they use words, which is why attempts to regulate the language by prescriptivist linguists (aka Grammar Nazis) are usually utter failures.

But what the hell.

Here's how many people think of the term:

Gateway game: a game that can make non-gamers interested in gaming.

And here's how I prefer to see it:

Gateway game: a game that both gamers and non-gamers are willing to play.

The second definition makes down-to-earth, immediately useful discussion about gateway games possible. For example:

— Puerto Rico is a bad gateway game because the rules are hard and it requires a lot of thinking, so non-gamers won't like it.

— Cranium is a terrible gateway game because its 5.9 rating on BGG indicates that most gamers aren't thrilled with it

— Settlers of Catan is a great gateway game because many people who refuse to play any other remotely serious game, still play Settlers.

The above analysis may not seem very useful because everybody already knows intuitively which games are gateway games and which ones aren't. But the pie-in-the-sky vagueness of the first definition ("Will Ticket to Ride make my friends like other board games? Well, I don't know...") casts a pall of doubt on any game labeled as "gateway." With the second definition, there is no doubt — a game is either generally tolerable to non-gamers, or it isn't.

— Boris Dvorkin