Monday, November 21, 2005

Small Press Roundup

Jenseits von Theben: This is a small-press game with a pretty good reputation, and a high ranking on BoardGameGeek. So what could go wrong?

Jenseits von Theben is a game of digging up stuff. Artifacts, mainly. You have to trade off how much time you want to spend researching the dig (thus increasing your odds of success) vs. actually doing digging, all while hoping to be back in time to present your Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, or whatever at an exhibition which the museum curators have rather thoughtlessly scheduled without asking you if you might actually have the artifacts available at that time. Successful exhibitions mean points; you can also get points from knowing lots of stuff, and, most importantly, from blind luck (otherwise known as drawing a lot of Congress cards).

I've played Jenseits twice. The first time out, everyone found the game wholly unsatisfying. This is because there are only about 8 exhibition cards in the deck, and we saw four or five within the first half-year (a game goes two years with 4 players, or three with 2 or 3 players). This gave us no way to acquire artifacts in time for the shows other than to run off to Egypt immediately and hope to get lucky. Having then worked through the early exhibitions, virtually nothing happened for the remainder of the game, because so many exhibitions were gone. And even though one player swept all the early exhibits, the key to winning was just to draw a bunch of Congress cards. And then there was a sclerotic endgame, as all the knowledge cards up for drafting became useless, but there is no mechanism in the game to clear them out.

The game received a resounding thumbs down from all concerned.

Second time out, this time with three players, was much more satisfactory. Yes, there was still the sclerotic endgame which rendered the last 20% of the game pointless. Yes, the freebie victory points from the Congress cards still dominated over doing stuff that was actually interesting. But with more evenly spaced exhibits, the middle-game activities were at least reasonably entertaining.

I've played this with 5 different friends at this point, all of us experienced gamers, and the verdict has been universal: the game is fun in parts, but fundamentally it simply doesn't work. I wish it did, but it doesn't.

(Update: It turns out we were playing slightly incorrectly: artifacts are supposed to give VPs directly as well as through winning exhibitions. It turns out to be better when played correctly, although it's still not quite right. See my 4/7/2006 post for more details).

Siena: This I have only played once, and even though it took about 2.5 hours, I don't have a good read on it. I can say a few things: a) the rules are horrendous. I'm seriously considering adding a "best rules" and "worst rules" category to my end-of-year lists, and Siena is going to be a tough competitor for worst rulebook of the year. It'll also compete strongly in the "worst graphic design" category. b) While I think the game has potential, if it really is a 2.5 hour game, forget it. c) get the player aids from the 'Geek. d) Three players may not be the ideal number.

Underlying these issues, though, is a game that is tempting. You are living in the Italian city-state of Siena, trying to work your way up from Peasant to Merchant to Banker. The whole game is driven by cards. You are producing and selling commodities, from cheap grain through expensive spice. As you rack up more money, and decide to make the transition from one class to another, the game changes fundamentally for you. You have more options, your revenue opportunities become greater, and so do your risks. The game has a lot of chaos, especially in the later phases, but it didn't unduly bug me - the big swings in wealth as risks paid off (or not) felt appropriate to the fortunes of your historical counterparts. The three phases of the game are interesting in that they are very different, but unified enough I felt to be coherent.

Alas, I can't lose sight of the fact that with 3 players, at 2.5 hours, and with the horrible rules, the game flat-out didn't work. There were several non-trivial bits of the game that demonstrated classic small-press dysfunction, like the stacking up of Courtesans to ambush the first player to become a Banker. My fellow-players were not as convinced of the upside potential of the game as I was. But I am still reasonably optimistic that if I can play again with 5 players and a more thorough understanding of the rules, a solid B game might emerge.

But then again, it might well not.

Third World Debt: This is a fairly simple of game of production and commodities trading from JKLM games.

This is a hard game to rate because I am certain there is a rule missing in the printed rule book (either that or the game rather obviously doesn't work). Players are third world nations trying to build up their infrastructure - factories that produce gems, timber, oil, ivory, etc. - and then try to make a killing on the commodity-trading market. You do this, of course, by piling up lots of debt. Oh, and you can invade your neighboring (neutral) countries too, if you want. Trust me, you want to do that.

The problem is that while commodities are coming into the game in ever-increasing amounts, there is no way for them to leave the game in other than trivial amounts. So commodities stack up in the markets, and things get weird. Don't people actually use this oil for something?

If, as I suspect, there is a rule missing from the rulebook, I personally think this game might be pretty decent. Others at the table were not at all impressed, though. The game is pretty fiddly, with a lot of calculation and multiplication of odd sums and calculating interest through a non-trivial formula; and once you've done this math (a calculator helps a lot), you have to do a lot of passing around of the very low-quality money (use poker chips if you've got them). And, once again, the game is long; probably too long, as I can see it getting repetitive and ultimately lacking dynamism. But there are some interesting bits to gaming the commodities market. You want to time when to get in and out, and trade off specializing in one commodity vs. diversification, and there enough gradations of choice here to be interesting. So there might be something there.

Might be, I emphasize. Not until that missing rule is uncovered, though.

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