Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Vegas Showdown

When I wrote about Nexus Ops a little while ago, I mentioned the mystery that is the New Avalon Hill. With the release of Vegas Showdown, let's just say that the situation hasn't exactly clarified.

To the fan of German games in general, and Knizia auction games in specific, Vegas Showdown will feel vaguely familiar. Each turn, tiles are up for bid, Amun-Re style (minor exception: in Vegas Showdown, you can re-bid, i.e., if someone overbids you on the lounge, you can up the bid, instead of being forced to go elsewhere. Also, the bid increments are smaller). These tiles represent stuff you can install in your casino – lounges, which make your operation impressive-looking (i.e., provide victory points); slot machines and other gaming attractions, which provide revenue; or restaurants, that draw in people. These pieces all have to be placed on your casino mat, in much the same way as Alhambra.

Then, this being an American game, there is the chrome. Each area of development has a "tech tree"; so, for example, you can't have a fancy lounge until you've installed a lounge. And with each new item up for bid, there comes a vaguely thematic random event such as casino workers strikes (no bidding on slots of any kind this turn) or some sort of convention that gives you revenue based on people you've drawn in this round instead of the normal formula, which is the minimum of your revenue points and people points.

Reading over the comments on BoardGameGeek, a common complaint/observation on Vegas Showdown is that it is very derivative. I feel this is true, but only up to a point. The chassis of Vegas Showdown is identifiably German, to the point of feeling a bit like somebody trying to design a Knizia game, albeit without much success. But despite this, Vegas Showdown does have a unique feel, one that you would not mistake for a game from Europe, provided by the major random element of the event cards and the timing and selection of items up for bid. It's as if it were a cross between Alhambra and, say, Munchkin. To me, it seems like these bits are in opposition: a core that rewards thoughtful play with a superstructure designed to somewhat arbitrarily reward or hose you. But I can definitely see the game finding a niche. It's a rather simple game. The theme is good, albeit not great. American casual boardgamers (the RPG or Pictionary crowd) will like the non-threatening aspect of the large chunk of randomness, while the German gamers can play with them and be thankful they at least got a game with interesting bidding. Moreso than most German games, this is something I can see maybe introducing to your non-gaming-savvy family, as long as they get the whole Vegas thing.

For me, though? On balance, not my kind of game. Take out the randomness, which is largely arbitrary, and Vegas Showdown is just a German game without the attention to detail or quality development work. Amun-Re without the depth, High Society with a lot of excess baggage, or Beowulf without the bidding tension. I can play and enjoy Vegas Showdown, more or less, but I would only play with a group that seemed to demand it. For the serious gamer it has the misfortune to be OK in a category filled with exceptional Knizia games.

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