Friday, June 20, 2008

El Capitán

I think it's the curse of being a game-buyer that you always end up with a few games that you like a lot but that nobody else in your game group(s) has any taste for. Some of my favorites that nobody around here likes much include Fifth Avenue, Mall World, Khronos, and perhaps to a lesser extent Candamir, Rum & Pirates, and Blue Moon. I remain a big fan of Settlers of Catan even though everyone else around here is burned out beyond return. And these days I wouldn't mind playing Monopoly a couple times a year, but after doing some arm-twisting to get in a few games last year, I don't foresee that happening again anytime soon.

For the most part, though, I'm sympathetic. I can see that Khronos and Mall World are a little weird, that Fifth Avenue is a little edgy, and I understand Catan burnout, even though I don't suffer from it. However, one recent game that I am a big fan of, and that has gone over like a lead balloon with most folks I've played it with, is El Capitán, and I'm not quite sure why. It seems like a game folks would like.

To me, El Capitán seems to have everything that a lot of popular economic games have, in a cleaner and tighter package: good cash and debt management, interesting route-building-like choices, and an interesting cooperative-competitive tension and dynamic. It's sort of a cross between Age of Steam and El Grande: you need to manage your cash and debt and plan your moves, while at the same time efficiently competing for markets which reward players both for cooperation and competition. To me, it's one of those endlessly fascinating games that manages to have fairly simple rules and systems that produce a game of some nuance and subtlety, unlike the much clunkier Age of Steam or Brass that have complex rules and systems that obscure fundamentally straightforward games.

But, it's been a more or less total bust with the folks I've played it with.

One complaint has been the graphic design. The game has a wonderful cover, but a number of the components have significant usability problems, the most serious of which is that the names of the cities on the board and on the cards are impossible to read due to the excessively florid script.

But the big thing seems to be theme, and I haven't come up with a great answer to that complaint. El Capitán does seem a little dry, and despite the significant role of cash in the game it does feel more like a compete-for-areas game than an economic game, and my sense is that compete-for-areas games aren't as gripping, in general, as economic games.

Anyway, this all comes around to an interesting interview I heard on NPR's Science Friday about eco-friendly cars. In the piece, one of the guests talked about how he welcomed competition from other car makers in the area of hybrid/fuel cell/electric cars, as they would help to grow and expand the market for everyone at this point. Which reminded me of El Capitán, and why I like it. If you think of each of the nine cities in the game as individual markets, in the early stages investors benefit from competition, as more investments mean a greater ultimate payoff: a player who comes in second in a contested market can do as well as a player who is the only investor in an uncontested market, while winning a contested market is much more lucrative than an uncontested one. But as time goes by, the dynamics change. Early investments are made obsolete by later developments, and payoffs go down as markets mature. It's actually an interesting, authentic cycle. Players who make early investments in markets are taking a risk, as returns will remain weak until there is some competition. But if you wait, you lose that first-mover advantage (in the game, the tie-breaker for figuring out payoffs). Once the early investments are made, players have to judge when and where to jump into developing markets that may be made more attractive by the aging infrastructure of the early adopters, or where cheap returns can be found for a second place because another player has already made heavy investments. And as everyone becomes flush with cash later in the game, cutthroat competition in many markets will see the return on investment drop dramatically.

To me, this is all clever and interestingly thematic. But, I guess if you didn't buy my argument for the theme in Lost Cities, this may be a tough sell also. And admittedly the mechanics of moving between the cities ("buying sea routes", in the games' unconvincing parlance – the old Tycoon’s jet-setting theme was marginally more convincing) is pretty abstract and not terribly evocative.

But taken as a whole, I rather like it.

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