Monday, October 23, 2006

Silk Road, Leonardo Da Vinci, Buccaneer/Seeräuber

Silk Road: This is a new game from the always unpredictable Z-Man, designed by Ted Cheatam and Bruno Faidutti. A friend, when describing the game, said that "I know what a Bruno game feels like, and this doesn't feel like that, so it must be mostly Ted's game". With which I would generally agree.

Players take the roles of traders, using money to buy and sell goods at places along the Silk Road. What opportunities are available for the taking are distributed by the game's cornerstone idea. When we arrive at, say, Tyre, there will be (N-1) – where N is the number of players – actions available, which can include buying, selling, or trading specific goods, or taking some small special actions. We do once around bidding to see who gets first choice. The winner takes his pick, then - and this is the different bit - chooses who gets to go second from amongst the remaining players. The second player then takes his choice, passing along the next action to a player of his choice, and so on, until only one player who hasn't taken an action is left. That person gets no action, but gets to preside over the next round of bidding: he bids last, and gets the option to either collect the high bid, or pay the high bidder his bid for the right to go first. Since running the auction generally doesn't outweigh the penalty of not getting to take an action, the last player is generally, although not always, screwed.

This whole thing is one of those game mechanics that sounds clever on paper, and is sort of interesting while you are grappling with it for the first time, but ultimately I really don't think it quite works at a rather fundamental level. Everything in the game is hidden, so with so much hidden state involved in the decision of who to pass an action to and who to hose by not giving an action, most players are just guessing. Which would be OK, but getting knocked down in the order, or not getting a choice at all, can be a big deal, and in the middle game, when people are cash-poor, the compensation of running the auction for turn order is just not helping a lot.

So, it's interesting in spots, but overall not really my sort of game, and not one I'm likely to play again. Ultimately, though, I think my biggest beef with Silk Road is the price. Silk Road is $50 retail, which quite frankly is insane. I think as a $25-$30 retail small- or medium-box filler, it might be justifiable. The conversion engine, the process of moving goods and money and whatnot around, works pretty well, even if it isn't exactly mind-blowing. The auction is a little dodgy in spots but is also unusual and different. But fifty bucks for this? Given what else is out there, that just seems nuts.

Leonardo Da Vinci: After last year's Essen, I have tried to completely detach myself from the internet "buzz". Caylus, Antike, and Siena were all games that were getting great "buzz", and all of them, for me anyway, turned out to be varying levels of awful, while games getting little to no "buzz" (Beowulf, Elasund, Hacienda) were big winners.

So I approached Leonardo Da Vinci, a game apparently getting good internet "buzz" made by a company that produced one of my all-time most-hated games (BANG!), with a healthy degree of skepticism.

And hey, what do you know, it didn't suck! Players are inventors in an Italian city of some kind (Florence, perhaps?), trying to churn out inventions. The city elders want a fancy crossbow? You're on it. You'll need to round up raw materials (some wood and some rope, in this case), workers, a lab for the workers to work in, and perhaps a robotic assistant or two (Yes, really. These actually turn out to be better workers than the humans). You acquire these goods in a sort of vaguely Aladdin's Dragons-esque way, placing your workers in various areas of town, with the players who commit more effort to each activity getting better prices, while the less industrious get gouged. Of course, workers gathering materials aren't actually working on inventions. What results is a game with lots of interesting choices, almost all of which seem real (unlike some of those nasty, fake choices in Caylus) and well-balanced. And, critically, it plays in a reasonable amount of time and without excessive downtime; in this way it even scores over the classic Princes of Florence. I'm pretty certain Leonardo Da Vinci is nowhere near as well-honed a design as that classic, but it has definitely corrected that one flaw.

The theme of Leonardo Da Vinci for me has an interesting meta-relationship to the feel of the game itself. The players in the game aren't really playing the role of inventors, having interesting proprietary ideas and working out their inspiration in secrecy. No, the players are really producing made-to-order "inventions". The game tells you what to invent and how to invent it; you go off and do it. A better theme might have been war production in America in WWII: "We need a tank that'll be reliable, fast, and that will be suitable for mass production. Why don't you get on that, and sign us up for 50,000 of them. And don't go over budget." By the same token, the game itself does not feel like it was designed from any true inspiration, any interesting core idea. It's like the designer perhaps enjoyed the game systems in Princes of Florence and Aladdin's Dragons, and decided to make a new game by piecing together the bits he liked from those games and adding some money management and removing the uncertainty.

So what does this mean, if anything? Possibly not much. Certainly not that Leonardo Da Vinci is a bad game. It just means it lacks that hook, the coherence of vision or creative spark of the top-tier games that really pulls you in. To say it another way, it lacks theme integration. It's a collection of fun mechanisms that are streamlined, well-presented, and engaging to play, and I liked it, and I'll play again; but most likely, this is ultimately just another in a long list of disposable euros.

Buccaneer is a game that fell between the cracks this year because a) it's rated as an "8 and up" game, b) it's from Queen, and c) it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahre. All of these things have become negative indicators for me, to various degrees. But, after reading up on the game a bit, I decided to give it a try.

And really liked it.

Players are Pirate captains, trying to take over and loot merchant ships (how did this ever become one of the acceptable, family-friendly game themes?). To do this, you form crews. Everyone has 5 pirates, rated 2-5 plus a "wild" pirate that I'm not going to go into detail on, where their value indicates their pay. On your turn, you can have one of your pirates "take over" another player's crew (not your own!) by putting your piece on top of the stack. Or, if you are leading a large enough stack, you can take over a ship.

When a ship is taken over, it provides a payoff in ducats, which goes to the captain (the piece on top). The captain then has to pay off everyone else in the crew, giving them money equal to their value (which might mean going into the player's reserves, if he hired an excessive crew, perhaps by accident – you can't look at stacks once formed). If there are then any choice goodies aboard the target ship – rum, say, or a nice candelabra – the captain gets first pick, while the "mate" (the second piece in the stack) gets the leftovers, if any.

Buccaneer is basically a twisted auction game. If someone has a big enough crew to take over a ship, you have to either let him do it, or effectively agree to pay more for the right to the plunder by taking over the ownership of the crew. But what really makes the game fly is that there is also a fair dose of interesting tactical decisions: when to let someone else board a ship in the hopes that it will open up better options for you, when to be happy with being second mate because you'll get a goodie you are interested in, and when to use your cheap pirates and when to use your expensive pirates. The inability to inspect stacks also adds a good, non-threatening memory element that really cuts down on the analysis opportunities.

I thought Buccaneer was a great little filler game, on par with Dorra's previous For Sale, and I was really happy I gave it a try.

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