Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lost Legends

Reactions to Lost Legends, Mike Elliot's latest attempt to repurpose an existing game (7 Wonders) as a dungeon-crawler, have been all over the map around here. One player thought it was the greatest game ever. Another called it broken. I think it's clearly neither of those things, but where it lies on the spectrum isn't immediately obvious. Like many of Elliot's games, it's conceptually terrific but can also feel precarious at times. Regardless, I quite like it.

Lost Legends is doing for 7 Wonders exactly the same thing that Thunderstone did for Dominion, bringing an abstract game to life by simultaneously melding it with D&D dungeon-crawling tropes and giving the gameplay more subtlety. 7 Wonders is a game I enjoyed for being good for large numbers of players and playing quickly and smoothly, before its obvious problems ran it down: too much front-loading and railroading, a needlessly complex proliferation of scoring mechanisms, and too little opportunity for players to play creatively or do interesting things. And despite all the nice art, it's really just a color-matching game without much, if anything, to say. By contrast, Lost Legends is an actual game design and not just a well-engineered arrangement of clever mechanical bits.

As everyone who has had even a passing encounter with D&D knows, if you're going to go into a dungeon and kill creatures and take their stuff, you need the right gear. Your trusty sword and shield and and the righteousness of your cause are not going to cut it. You need healing potions, the latest and greatest magical weaponry, magic armor, a cold iron sword if you think you might run into demons, some holy water and a flask or two of oil to throw at things, a wand of fireballs, a 10 foot pole, and so on (D&D is a game that is in no small part about shopping). After preparing yourself for contingencies ranging from the plausible to the outlandish, depending on your budget and sense of paranoia, you brave the dungeon and see what's actually down there and whether or not you can kill it to raise the cash to continue to feed the shopping frenzy.

Lost Legends nicely captures this American spirit of toolsy acquisitiveness. Your character is going to need equipment to succeed in the dungeon, but you only have so much cash, and there are a lot of things to be bought. Weapons come in three flavors (melee, ranged, and magic), and many monsters are resistant to one or more of them. Your character is also fragile, so you'll want some armor and healing. Or maybe you'd prefer to go a more all-out offense route, amassing  powerful spells and a big weapon to knock out your adversaries before they have a chance to strike you and hope you don't run into anything that your spells can't handle. The key, as is so often the case in good games of this sort, is in balance and managing risk. If you're going to skimp on defense, you want to make sure your offense is really strong and robust against a variety of creatures. Stronger defense lowers your risk of getting killed, but at the end of the day the game is about killing monsters and taking their stuff, not staying alive (as in D&D, "dead" is a condition that is just slightly more costly to remove than "severely wounded").

Having the right tools is the most important thing, but having skills does help also. Each character starts with two different skills, which make matching weapons more effective and give discounts against matching classes of cards. The dwarf will both pay less for the longsword, and be able to do more damage with it. However, additional skills can be fairly easily acquired, and these initial paths serve more as suggestions than strong strategic biases. Lost Legends finds a nice spot here too, with player positions being initially differentiated  enough to give everyone an initial shove in a different direction, but not so much that players are just pursuing their own unique path.

Once you've geared up and are ready to start killing monsters, we head to the dungeon. Mechanically, the process of killing monsters and scoring points for them is a bit creakier than the elegant and powerful drafting game. Players are dealt monsters from a deck which they have to individually fight, but if members of the party (i.e., other players) are unengaged because they have vanquished their opponents you can pass your monsters off to them, primarily if you can't handle their resistances or the damage they deal. Monsters come in four different classes (dragons, undead, animals, and humanoids) and you get points for getting 2 or 3 of a kind or one of each, plus another bonus for getting the most of a given kind. You also get experience points for killing anything, which will both improve your character stats (health and mana pool) and ultimately give you points if you get enough of them. There are rules for how you get new monsters, monsters that charge, passing monsters, trophies, and so on, that aren't complicated but are also not intuitive. They get the job done – they give you some control over which monsters you face while often forcing you to deal with whatever you get, add some risk to drawing blind, and make the choices about equipment pay off – but it's hard not to believe they couldn't have been done more cleanly.

Still, the combat does work in two key ways. Firstly, of course, it justifies all the drafting you just did. Choices about specialization vs. flexibility and power vs. defense will pay off (or not). The tactical game of when to deploy the single-use items in your arsenal is not deep, but there is enough there to engage. Secondly, Lost Legends has wisely discarded the tropes of D&D adventuring. In both classic and modern D&D, you have lots of combat designed to wear the party down rather than be an actual threat to their imaginary lives. Lost Legends gives you actual dangerous adversaries. Unwise drafting will, in fact, get you killed. Since Lost Legends is – as it should be – a game of risk, even good drafting will occasionally get you killed – as it should. Getting killed is not the end of the world, but is definitely an inconvenience and while you can still do well, it'll be very hard to come back to actually win unless it was a TPK (rare, but not impossible) or you got killed on the way out the door. In line with this, the game is only about an hour.

I liked Lost Legends. It has real stakes – draft well and you'll win, draft poorly and your character will get killed. It has a sense of risk – you do the best you can during drafting, but dungeon delving has occupational hazards and you can't mitigate them all. It separates the winners from the losers – while 7 Wonders will see scores separated by a point or two, Lost Legends spreads of 50-75% are not uncommon, and while sometimes this will be genuinely bad luck, usually it's much more about risks taken and gone bad or failing to achieve a good balance with your character's equipment. It gives you lots of interesting choices and the opportunity to try creative equipment mixes. Lost Legends certainly won't be for everyone, but if you have even a passing desire to kill some monsters and take their stuff, or wanted to like 7 Wonders but wished it had been better, you should check it out.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


I've been wanting to write something about Tzolk'in for quite some time. It's a game I had to be convinced to even try – my experience with CGE has been mixed, and the gears struck me as a gimmick. When I finally got around to trying it though, I liked it a lot and it's almost cracked 10 plays.

I've still been a bit conflicted, because the game has always seemed a bit vacuous.  These days I tend to prefer games with thematic focus. Tzolk'in's physical presentation is very cool, and both the art and the gears use authentic Mayan imagery. Somebody obviously did some research. It's just not clear whether this is all just flash, or if it informs the actual game systems in any way.

The subtitle of the game is "The Mayan Calendar", and Tzolk'in appropriately does seem to revolve around time and tempo. The goal is to score lots of points, which you do by gaining the favor of the gods, installing crystal skulls in Chichen Itza, and building buildings. The resources you'll use to do these things are wood, stone, gold, and food. Acquiring those resources and then turning them into points involves making efficient use of your workers, who you will commit to various tasks for various lengths of time.

Tzolk'in looks a bit like a worker-placement game, because there are workers and you place them. But it's not, at least not in the traditional sense. Here, you have 5 different cities you can assign workers to, each of which specializes in a different task (Palenque does farming, Yaxchiclan resource gathering, Tikal building & technology, Uxmal trading, and Chichen Itza crystal skull mounting). Each turn you must either place one or more workers onto the cities' starting spots on the moving gears, or remove one or more workers and do the action for the space they have advanced to. After everyone has taken a turn the big central gear rotates, driving all the other city gears and advancing all the workers on them by one spot. Crucially, you can't pass. If all your workers are on the board, you have to activate one or more of them. If none of your workers are on the board, you have to place one or more. Placing more than one worker has an increasing cost in food, the currency of the game. You can never be blocked from placing a worker in a city, but if someone else is already there you have to pay more food to get in (although you'll start on an already-advanced spot).

So, it's a game about timing. At some of the cities (resources, food, and skull-mounting), staying on the track longer is usually better, so you'd prefer to keep your worker riding for as long as possible. There are enough exceptions to the general rule that it's not really a rule – for example, some spaces are forests that need to be cleared (for wood) before they can be farmed (for food), and some technology makes early spaces very efficient – but it holds generally. Other tracks are not as straightforward. On the building & technology track, you might want either building, or technology, and those spaces are disjoint and spread out across the dial. The trade track is a true grab brag, with a focus on the third spot which gives you another worker. It all rewards planning. When you jump on a track, you'll want to know what you plan to get out of it (say, you need at least 4 corn, or the space with two technology advances). But you also want to be able to be flexible, letting a worker ride if an opportunity arises. Fortunately, you can always take an action you've already passed by (for a cost in food), so it doesn't always require extreme precision.

Less obviously from this description, but more crucial in practice, is that the requirement to always either place or activate a worker makes it important to find a rhythm. Most of the time you want as many of your workers as possible riding the gears, moving towards better action spots. Maybe you'll want one or two workers on long-term tasks, while the rest cycle on and off of shorter-duration ones. As long as you can keep productively placing and removing workers a few at a time, your costs stay low and you're getting a good number of advances every time the gears rotate. As soon as you have to activate or place larger numbers of workers, you take a hit: 4 workers are extremely expensive to place all in one go, and even 3 aren't cheap, but workers off the board aren't working. You want to maximize the amount of time your workers are being productive. My first few games I won comfortably by simply focusing on efficiently keeping my workers working cheaply and not worrying too much about where the points were ultimately going to come from.

Tzolk'in is a no-randomness, 100% open-information game and this juggling act is obviously a bit complicated.  Also, it's a CGE game, so the rules are somewhat involved – lots of different action spaces, different buildings, technology advantages, temple tracks with different payoffs, and so on. You could easily imagine this bogging down into total analysis paralysis as Dungeon Lords or Shipyard so easily can. But while it's unquestionably a detailed and thinky game, the gears don't seem to lock up, or at least not as much as you might guess. I think it's because you operate with a lot of constraints – you'll never have enough workers or enough food to do what you really want to do. If you're short food, which you often will be, there is nothing for it but to go to Palenque. With only 5 spots to put workers, the game focusses on giving you a limited number of highly distinct, high-leverage actions and there is very little of the micromanagement that so often weighs games down.

The big scoring opportunities in the game come from 3 major sources: Monuments you can build, which provide familiar endgame bonuses for having done a range of things during the game (advanced tech tracks, built specific kinds of buildings, farmed, and so on); getting Crystal Skulls and placing them in Chichen Itza; advancing in the temples; and to lesser extent, building buildings. Temple advancement is fairly diffuse and there are opportunities to do this, usually at the cost of resources, on all three of the non-resource-gathering gears. Advances on the temple tracks also feed back and give you resource bonuses twice a game. Crystal Skulls are the most focussed: there is exactly one spot on the resource gear that gives you a Skull and only a Skull, and these are useful only for mounting in Chichen Itza, which gives you points and a bump in one of the temples (and Chichen Itza does nothing else). The rest of the resources are quite flexible, being used for buildings, monuments, buying technology (which makes action spaces more productive), sacrificing to the gods, and selling for food. The net effect feels fairly well-balanced. There aren't any strategic cul-de-sacs, it's easy to feel like you're making progress, and scores will tend to be close. Unlike a lot of 100% open-information, no-luck games, this is not a game designed to make you feel like an idiot.

Even though Tzolk'in plays smoothly and feels pretty elegant once you get into the groove, there are still a fair number of details here and it's moderately tedious to have to explain the game to new players (I haven't even mentioned a fair amount of detail). So the question inevitably arises: what is it all in service of? That's the question that nags at me.

I think the answer is, it's in service of itself. Tzolk'in is thematic in the same way that Ra is thematic. Ra is an auction game with nice art and nods to the familiar Egyptian tropes: floods, pyramids, gods with funny heads, and so on. Tzolk'in is a game about scheduling and timing with nice art and nods to less-familiar Mayan tropes: calendars, corn, step pyramids, even their (as postulated by Jared Diamond) deforestation problem. Does Tzolk'in grab on to anything fundamental about Mayans, their calendar, or their civilization? Not really, and I guess my instinct is that for a game of its complexity, it should.

Ultimately I think my instincts are wrong in this case, though. Tzolk'in is a very playable, engaging, meaty euro that gives you lots of planning and resource optimization opportunities without many of the hazards that usually come with this class of games: systemic imbalance, reliance on brute-force analysis, downtime, effective player elimination. Worker placement games can be especially problematic, since they rely on figuring out how "hot" various action spaces are which requires you figure out not only what each space is worth to you, but what it is worth to every other player. This contention for spaces is a very limited element in Tzolk'in, and you virtually never have to do this sort of analytical heavy lifting. Another nice feature is that Tzolk'in is only minimally about infrastructure development, so early choices don't weigh particularly heavily and it's about making good choices for the whole game. Tzolk'in feels tight, moves at a good pace, and while it presents you with interesting tactical and strategic choices, it doesn't require or reward excessive forward-looking analysis at the expense of strategic judgement.

Tzok'in is definitely quite different in texture from the first generation of euros – it's not as mechanically tight, has a much broader canvas of options, and is quite complicated by 1995-2005 standards. However, the core elements do feel a lot like these classics: focussed, with tight pacing, good balance, and nicely presented. Because I found the gear gimmick distracting, it took me a little bit to understand that was what Tzolk'in was. Once I figured it out, I quite enjoyed it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


On first inspection, Trains looks like a bigger Dominion rip-off than usual. It's got the basic structure we have come to know and love (draw and cycle 5 cards each turn; choose 8 random stacks of cards available to buy at the beginning of each game; copper, silver, and gold have been renamed Limited, Express, and Limited Express trains). A significant number of the action cards even are just Dominion cards rephrased and with new titles. As always, though, raw mechanics just aren't that revealing on their own. It's how mechanics are put together and calibrated to produce an effect that is interesting, and here Trains is very different from Dominion.

The idea in Trains is that you are a railway company building to connect cities and suburbs. For now they're in Japan, because that's where the designer is from; two hex grid maps for the environs of Tokyo and Osaka are on a double-sided board. You build track to connect those urban areas. Stations the players construct in those urban areas are worth points when you connect them. In order to do these things, you use two core types of cards, around which all else revolves: Rail Building and Station Expansion. There are a few other ways to get points – you can buy the equivalent of Provinces (Skyscrapers), Duchies (Towers), and Estates (Apartments), which go into your deck as deadweight – but these points are marginal in most cases. You can win with a very limited rail-building strategy with extreme card mixes, but for the most part it's about building the stations and rails.

The kicker, and the thing that makes the game hang together in interesting ways, is Waste. Anytime you do any of these things that help you win (build rails, build stations, or buy VP cards) you add one or more Waste to your deck. Waste is just a dead card – it's not worth negative points like a Curse, it doesn't have deleterious effects like a Disease, but it does cramp your style. There aren't many reasonable ways to play the game that won't involve getting rather a lot of Waste into your deck over time. How to manage your Waste is a key strategic choice, ranging from very aggressively trying to get rid of it via the action cards that allow you to recycle or landfill it to ignoring it, trying to counterbalance by purchasing lots of positive cards, and hoping it doesn't hurt you too much.

Waste is what gives Trains its unique feel. With its many expansions Dominion is pretty wide-ranging (I admit I checked out back around Prosperity), but basically it's a game about maximizing your chances of a monster hand you could use to buy expensive but high value-density Provinces. Once your deck started clicking, it accelerated rapidly to the end since the Province cards themselves weren't a significant drag. Because of the stream of Waste in Trains, instead of optimizing for the monster hand you're generally trying to make sure you can do at least something useful as often as possible. Usually that means Rail Laying or Station Expansion plus some cash. You almost always need card combinations to move forward (Rail Laying cards don't come with cash), which makes keeping your deck balanced crucial. When it comes to building rails and stations, cash is key but it's rare you'll need really large ($5+) amounts; but you will need to build a few expensive connections, so you do need to make sure your have that capability. You can do all this the with some amount of Waste in your deck, but beyond a certain point it starts to throttle you, and you need to make sure you don't drown in it. This balancing act is then further complicated and made interesting by the many action cards that allow you to do Dominion-esqe card and deck management.

The other major positive effect of Waste is that it gives the game a pulse, a push-and-pull that is absent from almost all deckbuilders. Because of the nature of card randomness, you'll usually go through bursts of activity which add a lot of Waste to your deck, and need decide whether to ignore it and press ahead, add action cards to your deck to deal with it, or spend time to remove it (you can pass your turn to remove all the Waste in your hand). As Waste is added to and removed from your deck in chunks, and as the randomness of the card flow takes its toll, each deck cycle has a different feel. Sometimes it's about improving efficiency, sometimes it's about building things, sometimes it's a balance, and sometimes it's about powering ahead in the face of declining efficiency. It's not impossible for Dominion to have this feel also with the right card mix; but in Trains, creating this ebb and flow – key to making a narrative game interesting – is an essential element of the design.

There are a number of key things that Trains wisely did not import from Dominion. There are no limits on buys and actions; buy and play as many cards as you want. Getting rid of these inorganic limits makes for more intuitive play, makes lower-cost cards more worthwhile, and gets rid of boring "+ action" and "+ buy" cards. Other than for Waste  there is no card removal, so there are no boring deck-pruning strategies and you're simply going to have to deal with eventual deck bloat.

Also gone are attack cards, replaced by the more interesting on-board competition for routes and cities. Track is owned by players but stations are neutral, so there is an incentive to leech off of other players' networks. You can never be blocked from a space, but it costs extra (both in money and Waste  to build where someone else already is. There are definitely cooperative-competitive tensions, although I think in general the high costs of building into other players' networks rewards getting there first – it's definitely not impossible to win by building up your own isolated track and station network. As always, though, the mix of cards available for purchase can change the balance between building and leeching somewhat.

Like Dominion, Trains offers you 8 random sets of cards to build your deck from as the game goes on. There are a number of game-changer cards: The Tourist Train can make winning with a small deck, minimal on-board network, and lots of VP cards viable; The Freight Train offers dramatically easier Waste disposal; Collaboration makes building into other players' networks and cities much easier. Because your deck generally has to do more fundamental things (build rails, stations, remove waste, generate cash) than other deck-builders, there seems to be a wider variety of interesting cards for any given situation, and games rarely revolve entirely around one or two big power-cards. Like all of these games, it seems likely that Trains will need expansions to maintain long-term interest once players mine out the balance implications of many cards. That having been said, I think Trains gets great mileage out of it's 30 or so different cards, and is much less susceptible to boring or degenerate mixes. I'm a hardened veteran of deck-building games, and Trains has yet to feel repetitive after 15 plays (Trains is very easy to teach and relatively short at about 45 minutes).

Trains looks like a Dominion ripoff – especially if you just read some card texts – but it most certainly is not. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into how to create a game with a very different texture. Instead of a pure race based on one powerful combo or a couple key cards at the outset, you have to make turn-to-turn and deck cycle-to-cycle decisions based on evolving game state. Instead of a relatively themeless game of interacting card powers, you have a clearly realized theme of building up infrastructure and capabilities in order to expand a physical network. I tend to like deck-building games generally, but Trains really hits a sweet spot for me, and it shows how powerfully a coherent design focus can work to breathe life into a game.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Guns of Gettysburg

Gettysburg is a battle which has spawned a ton of wargames. Which, just from a gaming standpoint, seems odd. It was a battle where the Confederates had very little chance of achieving any meaningful military victory. It mostly featured them impaling themselves on extremely strong Union defensive positions. The Union on the other hand is usually completely reactive, as they entrench on the historical lines and throw the dice to resist Confederate frontal assaults. Most games which study the historical battle as it developed degenerate into marginally interesting slugfests.

Guns of Gettysburg brings a refreshing new perspective. Instead of trying to simulate the historical events, the design instead asks: what is the one big thing about Gettysburg – not individual elements like the fighting at Little Round Top, but an overarching thing – that was interesting? And let's do that instead. The answer Bowen Simmons has is that Gettysburg was an accidental battle. Nobody really wanted to fight there, but that's where the armies ran into each other and as reinforcements came pouring in the battle escalated. The importance of Cemetery Ridge was not inherent, it was just that's where the Union line ended up and Confederates couldn't walk away. Although the game deploys an impressive density of interesting design elements, this is the core idea that makes Guns of Gettysburg not just work, but be one of the most fascinating game designs to come along in years.

Starting from the premise that Gettysburg was a confused meeting engagement, not a set-piece, Guns of Gettysburg does three key things.

The first is to make unit arrival random, and combine this with victory conditions that move as the battle progresses. Divisions and corps from both sides show up at random times and in random order, although within a broadly historical structure. As a player, you'll know which units are arriving next on each incoming road, but not when they're going to show up. Obviously, this means that it's possible the Confederates (or Union) could have almost their entire army show up before noon on the first day, while their opponent get only token reinforcements until late in the evening. Obviously, this changes the entire face of the battle and would be a recipe for dire play balance if we were fighting for a fixed set of objectives. So, Guns of Gettysburg deploys a simple but very clever objective system. The Union line is initially defined by three objective areas which starts out near McPherson's ridge in the center, Warfield's Ridge on the left, and Culp's Hill on the right. They have to hold all three to win. Each hour on the first day that the Confederates have the preponderance of force on the map, the Union can move one of these objectives back one area, generally to more defensible terrain that is closer to the Union reinforcement areas and further from the Confederates. This is evaluated turn-by-turn, and because the exact contours of future reinforcements are unknown, you're never quite sure where the line is going to end up. This is a big source of tension for the Union player. You'll need to deploy your initial forces pretty far forward to hold the line, but you'll probably also have to withdraw as the Confederates do enjoy better reinforcement odds on the first day. Timing and executing that withdrawal is the key to surviving the initial contact as the Union.

Second is that the design recognizes the fact that Gettysburg was a battle of sharp engagements and long pauses to reorganize, extend lines, and gather strength. This causes problems for games with fixed time scales – a lot of the time not a lot is happening. Guns of Gettysburg gives us variable length turns. If one side is attacking, turns are an hour each. If both sides are holding, though, turns telescope out to as many as 5 or 6 hours. These long turns allow the player with the initiative to execute longer line-extension marches that the defender has to try to anticipate. Bundling these long turns really speeds up these periods of maneuver and focuses the game on important decisions.

Lastly is the way that the game takes a lot of complexity and designs it into the physical components – in this case the mapboard – instead of writing a lot of rules. I've always said that one of the things that made Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage so powerful is that it took a lot of what would traditionally have been special "chrome" rules that you would have to keep in your mind all the time (Sicilian grain, Syracuse's mixed loyalties, Rome's manpower advantages) and puts them into the card deck, with dramatic improvements in the game's playability and flavor. Guns of Gettysburg does something similar, elegantly offloading complicated terrain, line of sight, and fire zone rules onto the design of the game board itself. This is not to say that the rules for ridges and fire zones are simple, or that the map is visually easy to parse; they are not, and it can definitely be confusing until you get the hang of what it's trying to do (it doesn't help that the rules are not written as clearly as one might hope). However, once you've figured out the design, it packs a ton of interesting terrain detail into a very clean system. No more stringing line-of-site threads, calculating height differentials and slopes and blind zones, counting ranges, or arguing about exactly how many tree symbols are in a hex. The map itself takes care of everything.

These are the three big things that make Guns of Gettysburg a fascinating game. What makes it a great game is that everything surrounding these big ideas is also carefully crafted. The abstract system for artillery is simple yet captures a lot (when you withdraw you give up artillery positions, for example, and it takes time to reestablish them). The rules for command posture (attack, hold, or withdraw) are simple but make for tough, authentic choices. Going into detail on all the little things the game does right would involve writing more than you likely want to read, so I'll leave them for you discover as you learn the game.

This is both the games greatest strength, and – to the extent it has one – its greatest weakness. Because Guns of Gettysburg resembles the best eurogames, designed from the ground up for a specific purpose and to create a specific effect, and not particularly beholden to any prior wargame design conventions, it can be hard to come to grips with. With 13 fairly dense pages of rules it's considerably more complicated than any eurogame, and you really need to understand all the rules and their implications to understand the whole game. Usually when I learn a new wargame like France '40 or FAB: Sicily or Crown of Roses (just to pick a few at random), I can just glance at big sections of the rules since I know how ZOC bonds or step reductions or ops cards work in general and I just need to learn the particular game's quirks. Even if you've played Napoleon's Triumph, Guns of Gettysburg is a largely unique game that has to be understood in its entirety. The game is quite intuitive in a lot of ways because of how effectively it models many things, and once you understand the premise and motivation of the design it all follows quite logically from them. Nonetheless, there are tricky details to nail down and it'll probably take you a game or two to feel like you're playing it correctly, understanding it, and bending it to your will.

It's totally worth it though. Guns of Gettysburg for me stands alongside top-of-the-line games of any genre and shows the potential of the game not just as as an interesting and engaging hobby but as a truly expressive form. For me it joins games like Modern Art, Beowulf, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Sekigahara, Rommel in the Desert, and Ashen Stars – skillfully-executed games that have great and compelling game systems that serve narrative purpose and are fully melded to the presentation of interesting, relevant, and enlightening ideas. Games like this are the reason I'm in this hobby, and a joy to discover.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

In Praise of the Adequate

I was pointed to this fun NYT article about personal satisfaction by Sarah Vowell's Facebook feed:

"Not everything has to be great. Maybe it’s a thrill to watch things become great. Maybe it’s healthy to feel that a meal is reasonable, that a performance had its moments, that a trip was fun in parts, that a person is engaging and you look forward to finding out what they’re really like, that last night’s sex was nice. In my slow but persistent bid for the reader’s sanity, I hereby prescribe a period of allowing things to be adequate."

I agree. So, to wit, a few pleasingly adequate games I've played in the recent or not-so-recent past and that otherwise I might not bother to write about:

Arctic Scavengers: While deck-building is an inherently engaging design pattern, that doesn't mean it's easy to do something interesting and different. I like Arctic Scavengers for its chaos and uncertainty, because it's designed on a standard deck-building core and yet goes in a completely different direction, and because of its effective communication design. Players are trying to build a tribe in a post-apocolyptic, nuclear-winter scenario, and the tropes of the genre – scavenging for equipment, skirmishes over scarce resources, bringing together scattered specialists – are all authentically there. I also like the new idea it brings to the game genre, that of building buildings which provide a permanent effect that helps you manage the chaos of the card flow. Is it a classic? No. But it pleasingly and effectively does what it sets out to do.

DC Comics Deckbuilding: Another deckbuilder, this is essentially Cryptozoic ripping off and re-theming Ascension (these comments apply more or less equally to the Lord of the Rings Deckbuilders, just choose which franchise you like best). The artistry here is not in the mechanics of the design, but in the application of new paint. It nicely hits all the touchstones of the genre, and all your favorite characters are here in more or less plausible versions of themselves. Also, all the games include many more attack cards (thematically keyed to defeated enemies) and fewer "permanents" (Ascension constructs) which gives them a bit more feeling of fluidity.  It's certainly not thematically rich, being closer to the Monopoly re-themes than to Lord of the Rings or even Cryptozoic's own The Hobbit, but when the underlying game is excellent and reasonably appropriate to the genre you could do a lot worse.

Indigo: Classic Knizian elegance, this ones sees us building paths for stones that start on a central tile, trying to guide them to our scoring gates which are spaced out around the outside edge of the hexagonal playing board. The twist is that many gates are controlled by two players, both of whom will score when a stone exits. Natural alliances grow in various areas of the board as turn order and shared gates work for or against different player pairings. Abstract and not that deep, there is still a lot more here than a cursory glance might reveal, and the physical design of the game is very attractive. This is a prototypical nice game.

Infiltration: This brings with it the usual hazards of Fantasy Flight Games: tiny fonts and questionable presentation decisions make it physically hard to play for older gamers. Still, this is a nice, short push-your-luck game with Vaccarinio's trademark of lots of interacting cards (rooms that you infiltrate through, in this incarnation) with special rules. What makes Infiltration for me is how nicely it pulls in the elements of the heist story: a ticking clock working relentlessly against you while you dodge internal security and deploy your fancy, high-tech equipment. The Android universe is also colorful and nicely-drawn.

Smash-Up: The central idea of this game is to get at the good stuff from deck-building games, while minimizing the risks of degenerate card offerings, runaway leaders, small early misjudgments dooming you, and other hazards of the genre. You "build" your deck out of two halves of flavored cards (Zombies bring cards back out of the discard pile, Dinosaurs have raw combat power, Leprechauns move cards around and change rules in combat, Ninjas sneakily show up right before scoring, and so on) to create Zombie Ninjas, Alien Dinosaurs, and other inherently entertaining combinations. It's a nice mix of the zany with an interesting tactical/resource management game that gets much of the fun of deckbuilders without some of the downsides. Plus, it has really good art and even uses adequate font sizes! It maybe runs just a touch long and is a little thinky for what it is, but is still a nicely-put-together game.

Star Trek Catan: It's more or less straight Catan, but the one mechanical addition – crew cards with special powers that you can keep for a short time – accelerate the game slightly, add some nice flexibility with things like relocating ships (roads), flexible bank trading, and add some more ways to help players catch up. The Federation Space expansion map is a nice touch and even includes episode references. The little plastic Enterprises and general presentation is also quite nice, although the fonts on the crew cards are ludicrously small. Catan is almost 20 years old at this point, but it's still a classic game and fun to play a spruced-up version.

Uchronia: Glory to Rome was a game I think I always wanted to like more than I actually did. Despite the hugely appealing interplay of quirky special powers, it had a problem with punishing luck (you can be out of it in 15 minutes if you fail to draw a decent bootstrap combo early) and very little tolerance for players' mistakes, with apparently minor errors easily throwing the game. This can lead to a lot of irritation for non-experts. Uchronia files off many of these rough edges and makes for a more streamlined, pleasing experience. It's lost the quirky insanity of the original, which admittedly was a significant element of the draw; it's also got a wretched rulebook that seems to uses terminology designed to be obtuse, and the fonts are (again) too small for how they are used in the real world. But get past this, and there is a solid game underneath that takes the well-conceived construction metaphor from Glory to Rome and turns it into a game more people will find engaging.

After a few dry years for new hobby boardgames, for me the last year or so has been great – in no small part due to plenty of solid, decent new games like this. Here's looking forward to more of them.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is Fantasy Flight's attempt to bring the Star Wars universe to tabletop roleplaying, and by my count this is the third or fourth crack at this general problem. Wizards of the Coast had two iterations using a d20-based system and while they produced some great sourcebooks, the feel of the gameplay was, to me, never right. West End Games' Star Wars game was old school, and while it had its moments and makes a virtue of elegance, it feels dated today.

Star Wars presents significant obstacle to being adapted as a roleplaying game. I wrote a piece on GUMSHOE a couple years ago, about how classic RPGs built on simple task resolution systems have a hard time evoking the feel of many popular genres, including mysteries, thrillers, and epics. It can be done, but's down to the players to do all the heavy lifting without any support from the game system itself. GUMSHOE attacks these problems by baking the tropes and conventions of the procedural mystery genre into the game system, giving the players the support they need.

Star Wars is not a mystery, though. It isn't even obviously procedural, although there are procedural threads in the prequels. For me, Star Wars defies easy categorization. It's  a romance, it's an epic, it's fantasy, it's drama. In some ways it's a fairy story, in other ways it's a nuanced allegory. It resembles a hero's quest, but like Lord of the Rings it veers off-course in the final act. The narratives are built on timeless structures, yet are also tightly bound to the eras that spawned them (the 60s and 70s for the originals, the 90s and 00s for the prequels).

Adding further complexity, there is the question of what people consider canon. For me, it's the 6 movies plus the Clone Wars TV show, and I want nothing to do with tie-in books or video games and the Extended Universe in general. But, some people disavow the prequel trilogies, others like the much more pulpy, super-heroic books, and now there are books that run the gamut of genre mash-ups. Some players grew up playing Dark Forces or Knights of the Old Republic or X-Wing and it will please them to see elements of those stories recognized..

These are the core questions that a Star Wars RPG has to wrestle with and find answers to in 2013: what, exactly, is Star Wars? And can we get everyone at the table to more or less agree on an answer?


Edge of the Empire reminds me of The One Ring, which I reviewed last year. Task resolution involves a set of customized dice built into a pool: add positive 8 and 12-siders  for your level of skill, negative 8 and 12-siders for the level of difficulty, throw in some d6s for situational modifiers, gather up all the dice, roll them, and try to keep them all on the table (difficulty level: average, modified by your table's elasticity). Net out the success and failure symbols to see if you succeeded. The twist, and why rolling all these dice is interesting, is that in addition to success or failure symbols there are also threat and advantage symbols along with their more powerful cousins despair and triumph. They are netted out similarly to successes and failures, and can serve both mechanical and narrative purposes. In combat, threat and advantage tends to be spent in well-specified, crunchy ways to score critical hits, use weapon or character special powers, or create a temporary situational advantage. Outside of combat, they are used as narrative hooks to allow you to succeed at tasks with complications, or to fail but gain some advantage, or some other mix.

A typical test will involve rolling maybe 6 dice. The character will get 3 for a skill he or she is reasonably good at (say two ability dice plus one proficiency die), while a moderately difficult task will add 3 difficulty dice. Perhaps one more will be added as a boost or setback for external circumstances. These are all information-rich dice. The ability (and difficulty) dice have only one blank face, with the rest having 5 distinct mixes of one or two success (failure) and/or advantage (threat) symbols. The proficiency and challenge dice are similarly dense and add triumph and despair symbols. Assembling and rolling a dice pool and figuring out the results is not entirely trivial, much more involved than adding up numbers and looking for Tengwars in The One Ring, or netting out successes on FUDGE dice.

I like this. Because there is weight associated with die rolls – both mechanically and creatively because you have to be prepared to figure out what to do with threats and advantages – it encourages you to make rolls only when the results are going to be interesting. If after rolling the dice, you're routinely drawing a blank on what to do with the resulting threats or advantages, you're doing it wrong and rolling for too many routine tasks. At the same time, building the pool is fairly intuitive, and adding a setback die to a check for, say, being under time pressure is more interesting and generates more tension than just giving you a -2 to your d20 or increasing your success threshold by 1.

This dice pool compares interestingly to Fate, a game system that seems to have influenced Edge of the Empire significantly. In that game, fate point give the players interesting narrative control over a skill check by allowing them to tag their own aspects or things in the environment for bonuses. In combat in Fate, I might spend a Fate point to tag a "venting gas leak" for a +2 bonus to my shot as my character uses it for cover to get into a better firing position. Most of your creative energy goes into the setup of the challenge and ends after the dice are rolled. By contrast, in Edge of the Empire (as in The One Ring), you say what you're trying to do, roll the dice, look at the pool, and create the outcome out of the mixture of success, advantage, and threat. So if I get a couple of Advantage symbols, maybe a stray shot creates a venting gas leak that another player can use as cover in the future (giving a setback die to shots aimed at her). The rules are mealy-mouthed on how much control players get over their advantage results, especially outside of combat, but I'd suggest that by default if the player has a good idea you should go with it. This has the nice feature that creativity always feels like it's rewarded. If you spend energy coming up with some creative tagging in Fate you can still blow the check, in which case it's easy to feel like it was all for naught. Advantage and threat in Edge of the Empire are the result of an interesting die roll.

A vital ancillary system is Destiny points. These are analogous to Fate's Fate points. At the start of the game, you randomly assemble a pool of Destiny points on their light or dark side, one or two per player. The light points are spent by the players to upgrade characters' dice for a skill check, the dark points by the GM to improve difficulty dice. Once spent, they flip. Crucially, the can also be used by the players in a free-form way to introduce a true fact about the galaxy in a the same way as making a declaration with a Fate point (and with a similar narrative affect to making a GUMSHOE investigative spend). This covers a lot of ground, from simply declaring you have available the equipment you need even if it's not on your character sheet, to allowing you to use your skills in unexpected ways or creating NPC relationships. Like Fate, the rule is just that it has to be interesting and meet with the GM's approval.

The final piece of the puzzle is a character's Obligation. Recent RPGs have taken to building some sort of genre-appropriate motivation descriptor into character generation, a descriptor that has significant mechanical implications. Whether it's GUMSHOE's drives or Fate's Aspects, they can work as a hammer to make characters do something risky and interesting when a more reasonable response might be to turtle or not act. In a GUMSHOE game, the Drives provided for the setting tell you a lot about what it's like. The drives in Night's Black Agents are quite different from the ones in Ashen Stars. A Fate character's Aspects, although tricky to get right, can provide a useful tool for the GM to propel action.

Obligation is the analog in Edge of the Empire, and here we finally get to the nub of what kind of Star Wars story we're doing. Each character starts with one, with a rating of maybe between 5 and 20 (starting rating varies with the number of players, and you can add more to get more stuff). The off-the-shelf Obligations are things like Criminal, Debt, Bounty, Blackmail, and Betrayal, although they also include Dutybound, Family, Oath, and Obsession. The rating indicates the likelihood that the Obligation will intrude on whatever the players are doing. The GM makes a percentile roll before each session (not unlike the Icon relationship roll in 13th Age) and if it comes in below the group's total obligation level, one of the obligations kicks in, adding a complication to the story.

This should tell you who's stories we're looking at here: those of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian. They're the only main characters in the movies that have clear obligations (Debt to Jabba the Hutt, an Oath to protect Han, and Responsibility for Cloud City). None of the other characters in the classic trilogy have anything resembling an Obligation. Some of the prequel characters seem like they might – maybe Obsession for Anakin, or Duty for Padmé – but the Obligation mechanics don't work for their stories. Obligations represent some external force that can benefit the character, but can also have external consequences – again, very similar to 13th Age Icon relationships or a Source of Stability in a pulp Trail of Cthulhu game. Anakin's Obsession in the prequels is clearly a GUMSHOE Drive, a personal imperative that you violate only at a personal psychological cost, and not the external Edge of the Empire Obligation.

So, we're telling Han Solo's story. More specifically, we're telling Han Solo's story before he links up with Luke and Ben. Although this might sound limiting, creativity requires boundaries, and it's actually empowering for both players and GMs as long as they take the hint and are not distracted by the fact that the game has unwisely included lightsabers in the equipment list (despite the fact that the game offers no way to gain access to the skill for using them). Star Wars is a big universe, exponentially more so once you throw in the EU, and players can come to the table with a wide range of understandings and expectations. So picking one clear aspect of the universe and developing it is a good way to both make your game robust, set expectations, and get all the players on the same page.

I know Fantasy Flight primarily through their boardgames (I've never played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition, which Edge of the Empire apparently has some similarities to), and I think of their design sensibilities as fairly retro. By contrast, Edge of the Empire is a contemporary design clearly much more influenced by Fate and GUMSHOE than d20 or GURPS. Still, the dice pool task resolution system is much more concrete, more nuanced, and finicky than anything in a rules-light game, and things like weapon lists and capabilities (different weapons have different powers that can be activated through spending advantage symbols), character abilities, and space combat actions are spelled out in crunchy detail. The game is trying to give at least something to all of Robin's Laws Power Gamers, Butt-Kickers, Method Actors, and Storytellers.

I really like the total package here. The game that I've played that is closest in feel to Edge of the Empire is The One Ring, but I feel like Edge of the Empire's dice pool is more nuanced which allows it to have a crunchier, more flavorful and interesting combat system, although as a result it has to be used somewhat sparingly. The wide range of dice results combined with character powers and explicit combat options give players who enjoy those elements something to get their teeth into, and the point-purchase system of advancement lets players grow their character sheets. Outside of combat, the Destiny Pool imports some useful ideas from Fate and gives the system a touch of epic-ness while still remaining grounded. The Obligations carve off a nice, constrained element of the Star Wars space and lets you develop ideas there and avoid many of the pitfalls of generic Star Wars gaming.

The key to enjoying Edge of the Empire is embracing these constraints. I played once with a GM who wanted to run a Jedi-centric (of course) post-Order 66 story arc, so home-brewed some force rules and introduced dramatic emotional complications between the pre-generated player characters and generally tried to force the game to be something it isn't. This is a recipe for pain. While there is no reason why an adventure like this couldn't work in theory, when confronted with it in practice the players likely won't have a common touchstone to use to respond to it, and harnessing player creativity is so key to making these games work. The single biggest challenge to roleplaying in the universes of Lucas or Tolkien or Lovecraft – universes that have taken on lives of their own as they have became embedded in the popular culture – is often simply getting everyone at the table to understand and agree on the tone and theme of the game before you start. Edge of the Empire is not a game about dramatic conflict, or epic confrontations, or the hero's journey, even though those may be elements of Star Wars. It's about making a living in the grey areas of the galaxy while perhaps brushing up against the epic conflict. Take advantage of this clear direction, and embrace what the game does well.

After having said good things about the Edge of the Empire game system, I have to mention the massive complication that is the actual Edge of the Empire core rulebook. It is dire. While it has a nice layout and the art ranges from passable to excellent, the font sizes – especially on the tables – are small and hard to read. The text is dense and poorly organized. The prose is leaden and the rules are poorly explained. Never, for example, are the actual mechanics of a skill check properly spelled out! The core mechanic of the dice pool – which is straightforward and which I can explain to a player in a couple minutes – takes 10 pages of dense, wordy description with liberal use of copy and paste combined with search and replace. The bane of Fantasy Flight's boardgame rules is badly-ordered or unstructured  explanations which rarely give you the context to actually understand what you're reading (I talked about how to do this properly in an old piece on rules), and this is on full display here also. You really get the sense that the writers must have been paid by the pound, given how the rules seem to have been structured to maximize the amount of repetition required and how often they feel the need to brutally over-explain simple concepts.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not a complicated game. It's not rules-light, but it compares favorably with Fate-based games or The One Ring in terms of how difficult it is to play. It's just that the book makes it seem three to four times as complicated as it actually is. Having been spoiled recently by fantastic Pelgrane products, just reading Edge of the Empire was an epic struggle.

The section on GMing the game is also frustratingly useless for anyone reading this blog, as it deals with many peripheral issues (maybe you can find players online! or at your local game store!) without ever seriously tackling anything important: things like adventure themes, structure, and tone. Interestingly, a number of excellent, concrete, and useful tips that are included in the Beginner's Game box set (fail forward; say "yes, but"; don't roll the dice if success and failure aren't both interesting; don't let forward momentum stop just because of a failed check) are nowhere to be found in the core book.

The rest of the supporting material is OK. The adversaries list is solid. The list of ships is a bit thin, but OK. The Galactic Guide is a nice if somewhat meandering overview of the Star Wars universe which unfortunately does not focus on the actual premise of the game, the Obligated character.

Again, though, the whole thing is compromised by a prose style that I consider basically unreadable. If you're like me, you'll read it just enough to figure out the core systems and design intent, get some stats for stormtroopers, and probably never go back to it again except for some tables. You've watched the movies. You really don't need any more background than that – more information may in fact be unhelpful – and adversaries and starships don't have that many stats to generate.


I liked Edge of the Empire. With the huge caveat of the quality of the writing, I think it's the best take on Star Wars by far. The dice pool is versatile and provides useful hooks when used efficiently, and helps to narratively empower the players if the GM so desires. Other supporting elements are borrowed from proven systems. Obligations may not seem like a lot, but they are vital in setting the tone and character of the game. While the book doesn't provide the support that one might hope, the game system itself provides enough structure for an experienced GM to run with and gives players opportunities to both play creatively and trick out their characters with cool powers and gear. While it certainly lacks the elegance and professionalism of a Robin Laws or Kenneth Hite game, there is still a lot to like here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Knizia)

There has been a recent avalanche of Hobbit games, for some reason. When Knizia designed his classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000 it didn't have to worry much about collisions in the namespace. Now, everyone is on the Hobbit bandwagon and nobody knows what I'm talking about when I mention I'd like to play The Hobbit. Knizia himself has done three different Hobbit games. Recently. Plus another in the back catalog. Anyway, this one is published by Cryptozoic and is a cooperative game hearkening back to Lord of the Rings – but this time with dice instead of cards, and working from a different set of thematic ideas as befits the differences in tone between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Knizia wrote a book called Dice Games Properly Explained in which he described the history and workings of different types of dice games. The Hobbit is identifiably a category dice game, in the same family as Yahtzee. Each turn you roll four custom dice with running, diplomacy, and fighting symbols, trying to match different challenges on the board (Keep the Troll William Talking, for example, requires 5 diplomacy). A set of running challenges make up the throughline of an episode and must be scored in order, while the rest can be done at any time. If you want to save any dice from your first roll, you must assign them to challenges, and then re-roll the rest. Fail to complete at least one challenge on your turn and you pay a penalty.

As usual for Knizia, the nuance of the game is then built on top of this clean and straightforward engine. Tasks range in difficulty from easy (3 symbol matches) to formidable (8 symbol matches), the hardest requiring outrageous good fortune to complete without the many special powers the game gives you. The 14 members of the Company (13 Dwarves plus Bilbo) all have cards with one-use powers which will be dealt out to the players (re-rolls, access to the bonus gold die, extra symbols). These abilities can be used to your personal benefit, but also usually to benefit another player, albeit a slightly weaker version. Bifur for example, in addition to playing the clarinet, allows you an additional re-roll, or a re-roll of 2 white dice for someone else. Once used these powers are spent, although the game gives you quite a few opportunities to bring back used Company members for another spotlight moment.

These Company powers are useful, but you will often find yourself in need of a bigger hammer. These are available in the form of resources like Gandalf (who doubles all your dice), The Contract (which allows you to recycle many Company members), The Map to Erebor (two extra diplomacy symbols), and, inevitably, Radagast's "Beasts" (4 extra running). These are powerful one-shots that will fittingly bail you out of trouble when your backs are against the wall, but cost you points to use. Your score at the end will be the sum of all your unused resources.

That's about it. Each turn you face a board full of challenges, and draw an event card which can add additional challenges, make existing challenges harder, or give you an additional obstacle to deal with this turn. You then roll, choose one or more dice to allocate to one or more challenges, and re-roll any unallocated dice. If you haven't then met at least one challenge, you lose points and a future resource – a fairly harsh penalty, so you have to keep moving.

As is typical for a Knizia design, the game gives you a great deal of flexibility (unlike the superficially similar Elder Sign which offers a much smaller decision space) and then tugs you in many different directions. You want to solve the challenges as quickly as possible, but if you sweep up all the easy ones while leaving all the hard ones on the table, it greatly increases your risk of failed turns. You need to keep your options open, picking off difficult challenges when the dice line up properly and keeping some easy ones in reserve for when you roll poorly – ideally even keeping a balance of fighting, running, and diplomacy challenges open. The big decisions revolve around how much risk to assume with the toughest challenges, when to make the big spend of a resource to finish those off, and when to take the hit or be satisfied with a lesser challenge for the turn – all as modified by turn-to-turn incidental events and the need to complete certain challenges in order.

The acid test of mechanical quality for cooperative games is whether there is enough on the table to engage several different minds in problem solving. Are four players on average going to do better than the one "best" player? The two classics in the genre attack this a little differently. In the case of Pandemic, the role cards give each player a different prism to look at the game through, which leads them to think in different ways which can then be debated and recombined. Knizia's Lord of the Rings also gives players identities with special powers, but they are less crucial. Lord of the Rings just makes the calculus of risk and reward so resistant to mathematical analysis that it deprives the players of straightforward answers even after many games. Patterns will emerge, but most decisions in the game are judgement calls and so players will often naturally come to different conclusion.

The Hobbit embraces both, although not to the same degree as either. Your role identification is not as strong as it is in Pandemic, and neither is the math as intractable as in Lord of the Rings. However, both still work, and the combination is effective. You'll usually have a few Dwarves (and maybe a Hobbit) in front of you that only you can use, and that will give you a perspective the other players lack. These powers tend to be moderately strong, and the fact that they are stronger on your turn than they are on other players turns is a nice way to encourage you to try to set yourself up to deal with challenges you are going to have the best shot at, while still giving you tools to help the other players out.

Dice games often fall afoul of relatively easy odds calculation – probably one reason why there are relatively few good ones. Monopoly Express is a classic example of a game where the unambiguously best choice is only some fairly easy math away. Even in Roll Through the Ages, the cost-benefit math of a re-roll is reasonably straightforward. In Elder Sign the math is harder, but the available choices are too few for it to help. The Hobbit does better, and offers players a rich and interesting set of die-rolling choices for a fairly straight-ahead category dice game. Once you've committed to a given challenge, the odds of finishing it (without using powers) are usually not too complex, but that is not where the game is – the game is in deciding what tasks to attempt in the first place and when to use those powers, and those decisions are much more resistant to straightforward mathematical analysis given the number of challenges, special powers, and resources usually available. The need to commit dice in order to save them is the key element that drives game tension. By giving you a great deal of flexibility on where to commit after seeing your first roll, but then needing to lock in at least partially before seeing your final roll, the game nicely balances control against the tension of rolling dice for stakes. Sometimes you'll roll well and the choices will be easy, but usually – especially on higher difficulty levels – you'll be somewhere in-between and the choices are not obvious.

The difficulty levels were a great and crucial feature of the original Lord of the Rings, and later cooperative games have not always managed this well despite the fact that appropriate difficulty is so key to this genre. The Hobbit does a good job here. If you start at level 0, you'll get a game that is easy to learn and while it won't be particularly challenging for cooperative game veterans, it's a good way to get into the game. Knizia then gives you point thresholds for when you should advance to the next level. Level 2 is still moderately easy, but level 4 starts turning the screws, and level 6 is tough. Level 8 is advertised as exceptionally difficult, and while I haven't made it there yet, I have no doubt that is true. Anyway, although I started at level 0, hardened gamers should probably consider starting at least at level 2. It should be mentioned though that unlike the life-or-death stakes of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit has a much more action-adventure feel and the game appropriately is more about scoring than about whether or not the Company is going to survive, at least until you hit the top difficulty tiers.

The narrative elements of The Hobbit are driven similarly to Lord of the Rings. Each episode or act of the story is represented by a board and a set of events, which the players must work through against a ticking clock. After completing the board, the players get a refresh, collect resources earned, and press on. The multi-act structure is great and avoids death-spiral games – if you're going to lose (which is pretty unlikely outside of the high difficulty levels), game tension is still maintained almost all of the way. In The Lord of the Rings, the narrative element was somewhat railroaded, which had the downside of predictability but the upside of keeping the narrative "beats" of tension going and avoiding the worst narrative lulls and crushes. The Hobbit is more free-form. The events are unique to each board but come in a random order. While they serve to mix up the game and keep you on your toes, they aren't as interestingly varied as allowed for by the scripted events in Lord of the Rings and so don't have as much texture and are not as evocative of the narrative of the movie. A lot of the drama and ebb and flow of the game is in coping with the vagaries of the dice themselves – not a bad way to go, but not as explicit.

While my general impressions of The Hobbit have been very positive, there is also no question that it took a hit when Peter Jackson made his fateful decision to split two movies into 3 late in the game. Players travel through two episodes of adventures, The Shire & Lonelands and Misty Mountains ... Gollum, Goblins, and Wargs, after which they are carried off by eagles and the game ends (if they make it). The second board offers nicely increased stakes and tougher challenges, and then an abrupt finish. There obviously should be a third act. There isn't. This is the game's biggest problem – one more board would clearly be more satisfying. Since the game is based on the movies rather than the books, we then have to dive into the morass of whether or not Peter Jackson knows what the heck he is doing in turning a nice, tightly-plotted 200-ish-page classic of children's literature into a bloated, 9 hour cinematic monstrosity. Obviously, my guess would be not, and the boardgame is sadly stuck having to work with the narrative mess of the movies. Knizia is legendary for his design economy, and economical is one descriptor I would not apply to Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. Thankfully Knizia's design elegance has done a better job at getting to the essence of film than Peter Jackson did.

Interestingly, though, The Hobbit does channel some of the flavor of the book. The story of the book is basically one of a bunch of not particularly competent dwarves going from adventure to adventure and repeatedly getting into more trouble than they can handle and requiring Gandalf or Bilbo to come along and bail them out. The game has a similar ebb and flow to it. While the Company will be able to handle the mundane tasks of getting from point A to point B, tackling the most difficult challenges will often require calling in bigger guns. The movie dwarves are rather more competent than their cousins in the book, and the game seems to split the difference. The little bits of personality the dwarves in the game have, with their individual special powers, is just about right. Balin and Gloin, the more senior dwarves, have extra die symbols. Fili and Kili, the youngest, have good powers that can't be shared. Thorin has the unique ability to give anyone a gold die – more leadership than he showed in the book, maybe, but it feels right.

I'll just say a couple words on the physical design of the game, since in this sort of game art and presentation can make a big difference to the game's ambiance and ability to evoke its source material. In many cases Cryptozoic has done a good job. The Dwarf cards are well designed, use clear and large iconography  and have a nice heft to them. The resources are similarly clear, although they could benefit from some art. The boards have nice scenic landscape shots on them. Although they compare unfavorably to the much more active Lord of the Rings boards, which show people or creatures doing things, on the other hand much of the board space is going to be covered with challenge cards most of the time so this is arguably better. But – oh dear. The font sizes. The names of the challenges on the board and cards are difficult to read at 2mm high, leaving the overall design with lots of dead space and looking boring. This doesn't cause a gameplay problem, but it does make it a bit harder to get into the spirit of the game when you can't really tell whether you are trying to finish "Split the Rock to Let the Light Through" or "Follow Bilbo Baggins to Rescue Him".

I liked The Hobbit. It's a classic Knizia design, elegant in gameplay but with subtlety to the strategies. The characterizations and narrative elements are economical but very effective. Decision are fraught with ambiguity and risk. It doesn't ask the player to make unimportant or uninteresting decisions and doesn't waste their time. The mechanics of playing the game are kept to a minimum (just two rolls of the dice each turn) so the players can get on with the interesting discussion and decision making. The game has a narrative momentum and pulse, although like Lord of the Rings you'll need to move up through the difficulty levels to get the full experience. Unfortunately, while it's reasonably satisfying on its own, it won't feel complete until the Desolation of Smaug (at least) can be linked up to it. With only two boards, it still works, is short, and has all the elements I want from a medium-weight Knizia. But it feels truncated. I'm really looking forward to getting the full experience.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica was the last of the hot Essen '12 release I tried. And the first time out, I wasn't very impressed.

Especially if you're being taught by someone else and haven't personally absorbed the rulebook, Terra Mystica is a rather complex game – more complex than Tigris & Euprates, I think, the game that in my mind sets the bar for about as complicated a game as I want to have to explain from scratch. Terra Mystica has a lot of moving parts – cult tracks, magic bowls, buildings, towns, fortresses, favors, priests, terraforming, and so on. If someone is sitting there explaining the game to you, it is not immediately apparent why this sucker needs to be as complicated as it is. Plus, then, everyone gets their own race with their own properties and customized player mat, and at this point your head possibly explodes. Good luck if your game explainer is not particularly deft.

On an absolute scale, of course, Terra Mystica isn't that bad. I play ASL, after all. But Terra Mystica is an abstract eurogame. When you look at it from the perspective of sitting down to play one session, as a design it seems to really only have two thematic elements: managing a diverse economy (the 5 different building types do different things and have different building/upgrade costs and produce different combinations of resources), and managing the cooperative/competitive tension of wanting to have neighbors (because it helps you generate magic, useful for a wide variety of purposes) and yet not be constrained or cut off by them (because you are managing an expanding settlement). Really, that's about it. There are of course intricate details to all this, but in most cases they look like VP-optimizing puzzles rather than expressive game systems.

Anyway, that was my impression on first playing it, and the net effect wasn't particularly positive. It just felt overwrought. However, my opinion of the game improved when I understood Terra Mystica isn't really a game best judged on one playing. As I mentioned, Terra Mystica has many – 14 – different playable factions. These are not slightly different player positions. They are very different, more divergent even than the alien species in Eclipse, and this is why the game is as complex as it it is. Without that level of inherent system complexity, it's hard to imagine how you could cleanly support such a wide array of different factions. In fact, Terra Mystica accomplishes its impressive diversity generally by efficiently parameterizing the game's various systems, not through special rules. As a way to go, this is a pretty good one.

For me, this is where Terra Mystica succeeds: in providing a rich exploration experience. Every time you sit down to play a new faction, it's a different game and a different set of challenges. The Swarm and the Witches and the Engineers all play very differently and exploring these different points of view can be powerfully engaging. Eclipse and Terra Mystica are similar designs in many ways (even if the end effects of those design techniques are quite different), and this is one area in which I think Terra Mystica does better. 

However, embracing this extremely high degree of asymmetry implies trade-offs. Terra Mystica tries for replayability and variety solely through the different factions and their interactions. Otherwise, there is no luck too the game, no hidden information, nothing that is not on the table before turn 1. Even your faction is not assigned randomly, but chosen in player order (although random allocation house rules seem not uncommon). While some will see this lack of any variability or uncertainty as a feature, it can make it very hard for a game to retain interest in even the medium-term as gameplay can very quickly stereotype absent countervailing forces. As great a game as it is, 1830 is dead to me now because the game space has been mined out.

One question then becomes, how much player interaction is there in Terra Mystica, really? Can the very different factions produce variability through their complex interactions? Unfortunately, I think the answer is: not to the degree it needs to. The board is a field of hexagons in 7 different colors, each corresponding to two factions, only one of which can be in play. As players' empires expand on the board, they are limited to developing on hexes of their color. Developing on other color hexes requires a process of terraforming, initially quite expensive although probably getting cheaper as the game goes on. So during the vital first half of the game, there really isn't much competition for space. Competition could theoretically get tighter as the game goes on, but in practice factions seem to develop enough tools to go around and real resource or space competition seems fairly infrequent.

So player interaction seems fairly light (and if you think about it, that makes sense – to properly ensure some sort of balance between 14 very different factions and all their potential interactions might require a vast investment in development).  So you're left with a faction with a specific set of parameters set in an environment locked down before turn 1 and limited player interaction. That means there is an ideal way to play that faction, more or less. You just have to figure out what it is. In a game lacking any randomness and not inordinately complex, at least the broad outlines of that perfect plan should not be too elusive.

This is not necessarily a problem in the short term, when finding those plans amongst the intricacy of the game systems can be engaging, but at the end of the day it means that Terra Mystica can only be a game of learning the right general techniques for each faction and then squeezing out fairly small efficiencies in the margins. It reminds me of the things I didn't like about War of the Ring or Through the Ages: for various different reasons, there is really only one viable way to approach both games, and you win or lose not on strategy or tactics or evaluation, but on ruthlessly going after every small advantage you can find on the way to that strategy. Fortunately for Terra Mystica, instead of one way to go, there are 14 different ones, which will take a while to figure out and significantly extend the period of discovery.

It should also be mentioned that because learning the game's tricks is so important, and because it's pretty complicated, Terra Mystica is extremely punishing of experiences differences. People who have played only a few times will have no chance against more experienced players, to an unfortunate degree. Race for the Galaxy and 1830 are other examples of this sort of game, but my feeling is Terra Mystica is much more punishing and less fun for new players to play with veterans even than those games.

People who have played Terra Mystica will note that I've glossed over a few things in this analysis which might appear to be mitigating. For example, on each of the 6 turns, there are point bonuses available for different game actions (building dwellings, trading posts, terraforming, founding towns, and so on). These are randomly assigned before play, making the game's initial state somewhat variable, and so could theoretically encourage different game rhythms. If the bonus for building fortresses is on turn 2, you might want to change your plan to put off building it until then and build your dwellings on turn 1. In practice, it seems different factions have different imperatives. The Giants, for example, are in a hard spot until they build their fortress and they probably need to slap it down as quickly as possible regardless. So rather than giving the game variability, the different bonuses seem instead just to give bonuses or penalties to different factions, which complicates the evaluation of which faction to pick. Once the play gets started, the factions have to do what they have to do and having to bend to accommodate different turn-to-turn bonuses just makes their job harder.

All this may sound like I don't like Terra Mystica, but that's not true. I think it's more accurate to say I do enjoy it for what it does well, but even now, after only a handful of plays, the obvious limitations of the design are closing in. I enjoy the game when sitting down to play a new faction that I haven't played before, and building the right economic base and evolving it as the game goes on is an engaging little challenge. In the short term, while the experience of the game is biased towards system exploration, there is a lot for me to like. As the balance tips away from exploration towards rote execution, I know it's going to be far less appealing. I'm still a ways away from the point where the game becomes tedious, but I can see it pretty clearly from where I am.