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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Interesting analysis again, Shannon. As the aforementioned player who despised Marco Polo Expedition, I must say I think you may have hit the nail on the head on most counts.

I do prefer games with some significant flavor (hence my many-years obsession with Magic the Gathering). I don't mind hidden VPs (though I'm ok with visible ones as long as I'm not way behind as I was in MPE, heh).

Most importantly, I like games where I feel like I can accomplish something even if one move is blocked for some reason.

BMC had that in the center space, where you could - if you hated your cards or had gotten beaten to one completed building - simply get your tower build done and trade-in cards. In fact, that was an essential part of the game.

If MPE had had some similar mechanism (something like: instead of drawing your 1 card for the turn, discard your entire hand, draw 3 cards from the draw pile), I'm fairly sure I'd have found it a bit more enjoyable.

Incidentally, another observation I made: The scoring in MPE is really really low. The winner had something like 15 VPs. In last place, I had something like 8, and half way through the game, I only had 3 (with the 4th place person at
6). And I'm fairly sure we started with 2 each.

It may be that aspect of MPE that annoyed me most of all, actually. I mean, playing a game where the goal is to earn VPs, I have no problem with discovering halfway through the game that I'm in last place.

Realizing that I'm in last place with nearly no improvement of my score from the beginning of the game, though, and that I have 1/2 the score of the person nearest to me in score - I'm pretty sure most competitive gamers would agree that is enough to make them wish the game would end quickly (most just wouldn't express it quite the way I did - sorry for that).