Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fowl Play, Pillars of the Earth

Fowl Play: This is another limited release from Richard Breese and his R&D label, available for prices we'll generously call a little high.

The basic idea is that the players are foxes loose in the chicken coop, trying to catch various fowl (turkeys, ducks, chickens, and geese). The basic driver here is that you score points for catching a diversity of prey (a balanced diet, you see), but the different quarry set up in different corners of the map, so once you committed to bagging turkeys, say, it takes time to switch to head over to a different corner and start hunting geese.

At the same time as you are playing your primary role of a fox, you are also moving the fowl to try to evade capture. At the beginning of the game you'll be dealt a single target animal (fowl have three properties: type, color, and shape, for a total of 36 unique pieces – if this all seems a bit confusing, perhaps this picture will be worth a few words) which you are trying to keep alive, and you'll get big points if it survives, and slightly fewer points for animals that share one or more traits. Fowl actually move a little faster than foxes, but you are restricted in what you can move: each turn you play one card that both dictates turn order (via a number) and which fowl you can move (it's got a picture of one unique fowl, and you can move anything that shares at least one trait with it). You can move these fowl a combined total of 3 hexes; your fox only moves two hexes, so while you can't outrun an individual bird, you can outrun a flock.

So, foxes run around, herds of turkeys try desperately to evade, and a lot of fowl don't make it. The game it actually reminds me of, in a rather oblique way, is Titan: The Arena. In both games you have a hidden piece of information identifying someone you're trying to keep alive. But, in both games the tools you have to preserve that creature are quite indirect – you'll mostly be trying to make sure creatures you don't have any stake in don't make it, rather than trying to pump up your own guy, in general. The difference is, Fowl Play is played out as an interesting tactical game of chasing down quarry, while Titan: The Arena is much more of a management/strategic game.

Which brings us to the thing which will probably cause people the most grief about Fowl Play: the final scoring. If you found the indirect final scoring of some of Knizia's earlier games like Samurai a bit opaque, these are as nothing next to Fowl Play. Figuring out who won involves filling in a spreadsheet. You have to figure out who has the most of each the 6 individual different attributes of bird (circle, square, black, white, etc), then score for diversity within each category, then add up all the escapees ... it's a bit involved, and the most complicated part of the game. In general, having the most complicated bit be right at the end is probably not a good plan, from a design perspective.

But the truth is, even though Fowl Play's scoring is complicated, I think it can be boiled down to fairly simple heuristics. Capturing stuff is always good, unless it shares a property with your target. You always need species diversity, and this will be a major driver of your play. Don't worry about the individual categories too much and just go for the easy pickings early, and then build up those holdings later, if you can.

I imagine the design goal here was actually to make the game flow a little bit more easily by making the scoring involved enough that it can't be easily mini-maxed; but I think the same could have been accomplished with a more straightforward system by adding random or more important hidden elements. But, that might have ended up feeling arbitrary, so who knows. At the end of the day, Fowl Play is definitely a light-hearted, fun game with scoring so baroque that that it's going to be a potential issue for many gamers (many of Richard Breese's games share variations on this issue in some aspect of the game or another).

Far be it from me to make excuses for a game which has scoring that is probably too involved and which is a possible show-stopper for many, but still, I liked Fowl Play. I think it's nicely thematic (the birds move around in flocks as they try to avoid the foxes, the foxes hunt better in packs, and the artwork is charming and appropriately cartoony), I like the tactical details of actually moving the pieces around to corner and catch birds (or slip through the foxes' net). It's definitely a medium-weight game that can look like a brain-burner at times (and will probably wither on the vine if played too much that way), but played as a medium-weight with some depth, I definitely think it's fun.

Is it worth what it's currently going for, price-wise? If you don't already own it, probably not (and given that Boulder now has it marked down, perhaps even Breesophiles may have hit their limit on what they're willing to pay). But if someone in your group has sprung for it, it's definitely worth a go.

Pillars of the Earth (Die Säulen Der Erde): If Aladdin's Dragons was a simplified and streamlined version of Keydom, it might be said that Pillars of the Earth does the same for Caylus. Sort of. The situation is a little more complicated in this case, however: unlike Keydom, Caylus needed more than just stuff taken out. Caylus also needed another idea.

So that's sort of what we get. We're still building bits of a cathedral using resources we've gathered. We're still placing workers in areas where they gain special powers. The favors are gone, and the range of building powers is greatly reduced (which is good; too many buildings in Caylus were worthless). Resource generation has been completely changed though, and is now it's own sub-game: players have two different types of pawns, and place worker pawns first to claim available resources, and once that's done, they then place a much smaller number of overseer pawns to gain special powers. This is nice, because compared to Caylus, it forces you to play properly.

The big departure from Caylus, and the part this is going to cause the most grief for some folks, is the overseer placement. Instead of placing in strict player order, pieces are drawn at random (horror!) from a bag. If you're drawn first, you get good placement, but you also need to pay a high price – 8 gold I think it was -– or go to the back of the queue. Each subsequent pawn drawn from the bag pays 1 gold less, until the placements are free.

I'm somewhat undecided on how much I like this. It creates a sort-of auction, in that if there is a good spot on the board, it'll cost about as much to take it as it's worth. Unlike a true auction game, in Pillars of the Earth players aren't usually going to come to hugely different conclusions about the value of each placement. Who actually gets it at that price is obviously somewhat random, but at least they'll most likely pay a fair price, and it rewards good evaluation skills. It's always nice for a game to reward a variety of skills rather than being purely tactical, so that's good, and it's nice to get some of the interest of evaluation without the potentially quite time-consuming process of actually doing quite a few full-fledged auctions.

On the other hand, there definitely are a few times in the game when draw order will matter a lot. Players accumulate resources at a fairly constant rate, as more or less the same mix and quantity of resources are available each turn. You then need to acquire craftspeople – potters, sculptors, carpenters, and so on – to convert those resources into VPs. That rate of resource conversion accelerates rapidly as the game goes on, with early Stonemasons converting 3 or 4 stone into a VP, while later sculptors can turn 1 stone into a VP. Obviously, getting the key craftspeople, especially late in the game when the very few who can use metal become available, can be a big deal. And that can depend on getting picked from the bag at the right time, which can be ultimately unsatisfying, especially in a long-ish game.

Still, overall I enjoyed playing Pillars of the Earth. I think it engages on enough different levels (strategy, tactics, evaluation) for a big-box game, and it's thematically solid (and very well-presented). But I also got the same feeling playing the game as I did playing Space Dealer: it felt like I was being asked to make interesting judgments about the relative values of different options, and do interesting planning, but by the end it didn't feel like the game had a whole lot of depth. It felt like a couple run-throughs were going to give you about all you were likely to get out of it. The strict progression in the availability of craftspeople (and the lack of real variety), the limited variability in the resources cubes available each turn, and the samy-ness of each turn's feel all conspired to convince me that there wasn't a lot of replayability in the package.

The bottom line for me was that I enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, but it's not a game I'd queue up to buy. When it comes out from Mayfair, it'll likely be at the $50 price point, and for me, that's too high. I'm not sure what I would pay; I'm not sure I'd buy even if it were $30. I enjoyed it well enough, but it's one of those games I'd prefer to play on someone else's copy.

2011 Update on Pillars of the Earth: Pillars took a while to grow on me – over 5 plays – but it finally won me over, and I did add it to my collection. I think the random draw of workers from the bag is quite effective in both introducing some unpredictability and in generally fairly-pricing worker spots, giving the game a somewhat more nuanced evaluation process than similar games. And the process of building the Cathedral is legitimately evocative, unlike the pasted-on throw-a-few-bricks-together ting we get in similar games. In general, worker-placement is a genre which holds little appeal for me; Pillars is one of the few entries that I like (along with Agricola, Le Havre, Breese's Aladdin's Dragons that pioneered the genre, and probably at least one more I'm forgetting). It's not a game I'm ever going to play a ton, but it's kept its spot in my collection over the years. I like the expansion for its added craftspeople, but more than 4 players is not better.

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