Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Around the Horn: Tribune, Wealth of Nations, Tinners’ Trail, Im Reich der ..., Wie Verhext!

A few quick takes on euros I've been playing recently ...

Tribune: A new game from Karl-Heinz Schmiel (designer of Die Macher). This is becoming my favorite of the recent burst of stuff. Not because it's awesome, which I don’t think it is, or because there is any single design element which is an obvious magnet, but because it feels so solid and professional and well balanced. You can choose which goals you want to try to achieve to win the game; the various scenarios set goals in terms of money, a tribune, favor of the gods, faction control, military influence, or laurels, and you need to fulfill 3-5 of them, depending on the number of players. All of the goals can generally be achieved in multiple ways, so you have choices about how to get there as well. But there is also enough randomness to both add texture and opportunism and force you to reevaluate your plans from time to time, but not so much that the game feels frustrating. I think it’s landed in a really good spot which, honestly, Die Macher didn’t find despite its other virtues (for example, the polls in that game feel too random and high-stakes to me). Tribune's different flavors and game lengths imparted by the different scenarios you can play are a nice touch too. The “short” game was good but felt a touch too short for my tastes, but the “medium” game was just right for me. Another bonus: Tribune seems to scale well through its range of 3-5 players. I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the 3-player version, but it worked quite well.

Wealth of Nations: I've only played this once, so I'll just make a couple short comments. First, there has been some speculation on BGG that the loan system in the game – where the more loans you have the less money you get for the next one, but where you don't have to pay interest – doesn’t work. On reading the rules, I tended to agree. But having now played once, I think everything is OK in this respect, if not perfect. Regardless, this is another game with a punishing learning curve which, unfortunately, is coupled with a lengthy playing time (2-2.5 hours). You can make choices that are not obviously bad that will wipe you out of the game in the first 20 minutes or less with little to do for the remainder of the game other than struggle to keep your head above water. So, here are my tips, for what they are worth: industry tiles are more expensive than they look, and good returns more elusive than you think. The game needs to have a solid base of production for food, labor, and energy before higher-valued industries start to pay off. As in Container, you need to be risk-averse in the very early game while you wait to see how things are going to play out; if you're producing stuff you can't directly use, and for which there is too much supply and not enough demand, you're hosed. Everyone always needs Food, Labor, and Energy, and if you can’t sell those things, you can at least use them to grow your empire. Although Capital and Ore look tempting initially due to the high price of those goods, demand does not ramp up for a while, and if the early producers of Food and Labor are not given some competition, the prices on those commodities can become crippling for anyone not producing them. Wealth of Nations is clever, and I suspect a good and interesting game. But it may be too fragile in practice and possibly too punishing.

I will make one concrete criticism of Wealth of Nations, and that is of the game end conditions. This game does not end until you have been well and truly impaled on the fork: virtually all the industry tiles are played, the game board is used up, or one player is out of options. One of my cardinal rules, often stated (maybe I should make a page for them), is that games should end before they are over. Wealth of Nations could use a victory point or wealth target endgame trigger to go with the exhaustion of build options so that runaway winners don't have to spend resources to end the game just to put everyone else out of their misery.

Tinners’ Trail: This is Martin Wallace's first entry in his Tree Frog line. I enjoyed my one game of this, with some caveats, but I've come to distrust my initial impressions of Wallace games. Too much of his stuff has felt promising after one or two plays only to crash and burn, hard, because of out-of-whack game balance.

That having been said, Tinners’ Trail is a fairly straightforward, clean, well-paced and quick-playing game of mining for tin or copper in Cornwall. That’s all to the good. On the other hand, it's again on somewhat shaky thematic ground. The core issue here is that the cost for and opportunity to obtain infrastructure (ports, rails, adits, workers) plays out somewhat strangely – the supply of such improvements is extremely limited, and they have to be paid for with time (a là Thebes, vaguely) rather than money. The time cost is so negligible though that the decision is not whether to build an asset or not, but instead which of the starkly limited supply is the most underpriced and how to get good turn order so you can choose first and not get shut out. It is then doubly strange in that the one resource that is fairly plentiful and not likely to constrain you much – dirt in which to dig – is the one that is auctioned.

This is all a little strange, but in practice it does at least mechanically work reasonably well. But I think the thing that will ultimately undo Tinners’ Tail is the heavy-handed randomness in the market prices for tin and copper. You put a lot of thought into the game, but the uncontrolled swings on the commodity prices, which translate directly to victory points, make more difference than skilled play I think.

Regardless, I think Tinners' Trail does offer some entertainment and interesting decisions, does not outstay its welcome and is comparatively clean, and so I’ll be happy to play a couple times. But I can’t see it having any staying power. It also seems quite overpriced for what it is, which is a run-of-the-mill light-to-medium-weight German game. Oddly, the game it reminds me the most of is Guatemala Café. Both are abstract business games of development with pleasing production. I feel like I would have found both of them really clever if I had run into them 10-15 years ago. Today, not so much.

Im Reich der Jadegöttin and Im Reich der Wüstensöhne: These are two new games from Klaus Teuber, based on the old Entdecker game engine. By my count, these are something like his fourth and fifth attempts at getting it right (Entdecker, Entdecker: Discovering New Horizons, and Oceana having gone before), and in my opinion this is the first time he has nailed it and delivered the complete package. Part of this is improvements to the fundamental game engine; the ability to "store" tiles that won't fit for later play means blown exploration draws aren't as swingy, and the new movement rules, which allow you to get stuck in the middle of the wilderness if you press out too far on your own, make for interesting choices. I also think that thematically the archeology theme of Jadegöttin is more successful. Similar to what I found with El Capitan recently, Jadegöttin has an interesting cooperative-competitive dynamic: players benefit when others help them to explore areas of the map, but when push comes to shove, it's better for you to control the completed area than your opponents. The key in this sort of thing is getting the right balance of rewards for winning and for assisting, something which is not easy – Carcassonne, for example, doesn't capture as much of this as perhaps it should because its scoring rules are restrictive and punishing, making cooperation and therefore player interaction hard to justify. Jadegöttin (and Wüstensöhne) give points out much more generously to players with non-majority presences in areas, making the tension between helping others and striking out on your own much more interesting, and (in the case of Jadegöttin) more authentic for a game about archaeology. Anyway, I like both these games a lot. Jadegöttin is definitely the lighter and more chaotic of the two games, and more suitable for family or low-impact gaming, while Wüstensöhne is somewhat more sophisticated, with tighter resources and sharper decisions. Both ultimately weigh in towards the lighter end of things though.

Wie Verhext!: The latest alea game, this is a light and clever game that has grown on me. It's a vaguely role-selection based game like San Juan or Citadelles or Race for the Galaxy, but not directly analogous to any of them. The game has 12 roles, some of which allow you to gather the ingredients to make potions, some of which let you raise or spend cash, and some that let you actually make the potions. Each turn, you choose 5 of the roles you want to do. The lead player then picks one of those roles, say the Witch, and plays the card (“I am the Witch!”). Each player in turn then who has also selected that role must choose to either usurp the role (“No! I am the Witch!”), or settle for the lesser power of the role (“So be it!”). The player who ends up as the Witch gets to take the full power of that role (use the appropriate ingredients to brew a potion for victory points). Any player who was usurped gets nothing. The player who wins the role must lead. Obviously, leading isn't great, because there is a high chance of being usurped and you can't “duck” by taking the lesser power when you know it's going to end badly for you. But if you want the strong powers, you have to usurp, which means you’ll end up leading.

This is a game that’s easy to dismiss as a light, chaotic game when you first look at it, and maybe that's right. But as I got into it, I found there was more scope for bluffing, guessing, and second-guessing than you might think. While everyone starts with the same set of roles, ingredients, and money, the fairly strong role powers guarantee that holdings will rapidly and strongly diverge, and so you can get a pretty good read on what people would prefer to do, what order they might like to do it in, and therefore what roles they might be taking and how they might come out. From this comes a neat little game of planning, anticipation, and evaluation, both when choosing which roles to play, and in how to play them. It's not hugely strategic, but it is quick-playing and simple and there is more here than meets the eye.

At first I was a little annoyed with myself because I got this direct from Germany shortly before the US version was (finally) officially announced. But now that the English version has been delayed again, I'm glad to have it and have enjoyed playing it.

1 comment:

  1. For Tinners', we roll the ore prices ahead one turn. So, 2 at game start, then 1 each at the start of turns 2 and 3. This severely mitigates the randomness of the prices. Getting lucky on an un-surveyed mine can still happen.