Sunday, October 23, 2005

Spiel '05: Antike

I went to Essen. Specifically, I went to Spiel '05, which is in Essen.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, and neither am I precisely sure what I got. It was fun. It was big. There were a lot of people there. Most of them appeared to speak a different language. There were a lot of games. For those of you who have been to Origins, it was different largely in terms of magnitude – imagine the dealers' room there multiplied by oh, say, 10 or 20, and what you get is Spiel '05. Despite the scale, the mix of stuff was not unlike the dealer's room at Origins: in addition to the boardgame producers and retailers, you also have the obligatory replica weapons booth, the (huge) Games Workshop stand, Wizards of the Coast hawking their roleplaying books, and so on. It's just the mix that was different: unlike at Origins, at Essen the boardgames dominate. Also unlike Origins, there is far more breadth. Origins caters to the serious gamer and the mainstream publishers; at Essen, you've got not only Hans-im-Gl├╝ck and Kosmos, but also Haba with their line of kids' games (including some live-action Foosball tucked away in a corner), Hasbro's family games, all the micro-press folks trying to make a name for themselves, and so on.

The main downside of Essen (other than the cigarette smoke, which was actually much less than I feared it would be) is that it is, in fact, so huge. One of the high points of going to Origins is getting to meet big-name game designers: I've had the great pleasure to meet Reiner Knizia (a couple times), Klaus Teuber, Andreas Seyfarth, Richard Garfield, and Alan R. Moon at Origins; perhaps these people were at Essen too, but if so, it was hard to tell. Maybe that language thing again.

Anyway... on to the games. Writing up everything I played will take at least a week, so let's get the weakest out of the way first: Antike.

Antike is a new empire-building game from Eggert-Spiele. You may remember them as the publishers of Global Powers, a game so bad I repressed it entirely from my memory when making up my Worst of 2004 list. Normally, when a label makes a game of such dysfunction, they're off my interest list forever. Antike was getting a little bit of buzz, however. The production values have been greatly improved over Global Powers (for example, the board fits into the box). And I noticed a number of people playing and apparently enjoying it. So my curiosity was piqued. Certainly not enough to do something so rash as to buy it, but I was happy to play a friend's copy.

It's more or less the usual thing. Everyone is an empire in the Mediterranean/Mesopotamian area. You've got Marble (for improving cities), Iron (for building armies), and Gold (for buying technology). You harvest these resources to improve your civilization and beat the snot out of your neighbors.

Let's take a minor digression here. There are three major problems that any game of this type has to deal with:

• The rich get richer problem. If your civilization makes a lot of resources, you can invest them in more growth, which leads to a cycle of compounding interest. Players who get behind early are in trouble. The classic example is Outpost: I get lots of resources early, I invest them in more factories, I make more resources than everyone else, I win. People behind at the halfway point are hosed.

• The whack-the-leader problem. Everyone goes after whoever is ahead at the time. If everyone has enough firepower to prevent someone else from winning, and can get at them, the game devolves into a late-game go-after-the-leader-fest, with the winner being decided not by skill throughout the game, but late-game positioning and diplomacy (for which you can often read "whining"). Prototypical games with a serious problem here include A Game of Thrones (some discussion here), Vinci, and Sword of Rome; in all cases, you never want to be ahead before the end of the game.

• The let-you-and-him-fight problem. This is the tendency for combat to exhaust the involved nations, leaving only the uninvolved third parties as winners. This leads to the "turtling" problem I talked about here. Think of the many games of this type in the space colonization genre, like Twilight Imperium.

For an example of how these problems can be approached, look at classic Civilization. The rich-get-richer problem is solved by not allowing you to re-invest resources: the commodities you produce can be used to buy civilization advances, but very few of these have any significant direct effect on future production. Without being able to reinvest, there isn't much of a compound interest problem. The whack the leader problem is solved by making combat expensive and your reach limited, so the tactical action tends to be border skirmishes fueled by population pressures and need for city sites rather than any full-blown conflict. The full-blown conflict is fought with trade, but since there are huge incentives to trade (and costs to not trading, if the guy in the lead has that last Bronze you need) trade embargoes are impossible to hold together for any length of time. The you-and-him fight problem is then taken care of because the game revolves primarily around trading and the race to acquire civilization cards, so the on-board combat and position can be de-emphasized. The details here are rather interesting and this analysis just scratches the surface, but those are the broad strokes.

So how does Antike cope with these problems? It has really only attacked the whack-the-leader problem, although the solution is clever. When you meet various conditions (holding enough land or sea areas, advancing on the tech chart before others do, sacking temples) you get a VP. These can then never be lost. So you're still going to hedge against giving the leader any opportunities, but there is little point in going after him.

There are three significant problems with Antike however, of varying degrees of severity.

Firstly, the other two problems mentioned above (that of compound interest and expensive conflict) haven't been addressed. Resources get plowed back into the economy and the rich get richer, although not to a huge degree. And combat is hugely expensive and attritional (armies simply exchange one-for-one in combat) so when two players fight the real winners are everyone else, except in the relatively rare case of a temple sacking.

Secondly is just that there aren't any other interesting ideas. The victory point thing is neat, but the rest of the game is by-the-numbers. There is a "roundel" that dictates what actions you can take in what order, and while it is nice in terms of forcing some planning, on balance it isn't so different from a standard sequence of play or a "choose 2 actions" technique to merit much mention.

Thirdly, and most critically, the victory conditions are broken, at least for three players (the number we played with). You need 12 VPs to win. The game is fairly "damped" for much of the game, that is to say, since combat is so horrendously expensive and attritional, the start positions are fairly balanced with respect to resources, and the number of development choices are extremely limited, nations are going to earn VPs at a roughly equivalent rate. There are 35 VPs available, and you need 12 to win, or just over a third. So far, so good... but 7 of those VPs are available only if your neighbors cooperate by building a temple you can sack. If they don't build one, or (more likely) build one in their heartland where they are inaccessible without extreme cost, things hit a wall.

In the three-player game, expansion space is readily available and there is little reason to build Temples until late, making the game interminable. You need about 3 VPs worth of temple-sacking to win, so you end up with a full-blown turtling problem, as sacking even a single modestly-defended Temple later on in the game is going lose you 8 armies, or about a quarter of the maximum possible military force available to you (ships and armies combined, so if you're a strictly land power, we're talking about half your inventory), leaving your neighbors smiling and you in trouble.

I suspect things will improve at least marginally with more players, as tighter space will result in more incentive to build temples early and perhaps more action and opportunities for a player to actually win (raising the immediate question of why they didn't borrow Civilization's partitioned board, shrinking the playing area with fewer players – but that would have meant they would have to have actually thought about the VP levels required for victory instead of apparently just plugging numbers into a formula). But given the dysfunction of the 3-player game, the lack of any really inspiring ideas otherwise, and typical problems with the genre that haven't gone away, I very much doubt I will find out for sure.

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