Thursday, December 7, 2006

Space Dealer, Factory Fun: games where you have to think fast

Space Dealer is a new real-time boardgame from Eggert-Spiele which I almost didn't buy. Honestly, I haven't played anything from them that I thought was any good (no, not even Antike). But when I heard the gimmick – using a whole mess of timers to moderate a real-time game – I had to give it a try.*

The basic idea is that each player is a space-going trading empire. You need to develop your infrastructure (more power, more production, more special powers), produce goods, and then ship those goods off to your neighboring planets. Getting the right goods to your neighbors before anyone else does gets you points (it also gets the recipient points, although usually quite a bit fewer).

Everything in the game is done with 30-second timers, of which each player initially has two. Want to build a new mine? Slap a 30-second timer on the card and wait for it to finish. Want to dig some green cubes out of your just-built mine? Ditto. Want to fly your ship to a neighboring star system (the players are laid out around the table in a circle, with each player two hops from the adjacent player)? Put a timer on it. You can see the pattern.

The nice thing about Space Dealer is that while 30 seconds or so isn't a lot of time, it's also not crushingly fast. You'll feel time pressures to make decisions, especially early as players ramp up and you're feeling pressure to get your production engine going. And once you've set yourself on a course of action for a few minutes, you want to take actions quickly so your timers aren't idle. And as timers are exhausting every 15 seconds or so, keeping up with everything without making a bone-headed maneuver can get to be challenging at times.

I liked Space Dealer. It seemed to be in a very nice spot. The pace is quick but not frantic, the decisions about what to do (upgrade technology, build, produce) are interesting but easy enough to grasp that they can be played in realtime, and ultimately good play is about making good choices under time pressure and not just about playing fast. I've played it half a dozen times now and I've always enjoyed it, and I suspect it'll keep a spot in my collection for a good while.

Ah, but there is (of course) a caveat. Space Dealer is a gimmick game. I think the gimmick, the time pressure and the real-time activity, is well-executed and so it's fun to play for just that reason. And in a terrific move, Space Dealer includes a CD with music that goes on for exactly 30 minutes and both counts down the time remaining at intervals, as well as ratchets up the tension as the game goes on. I can't imagine playing this game without the CD. But sadly, I doubt that there is serious replayability in the package. The range of production and special power cards you can build to expand your empire is somewhat limited, and I think that for most people, after a handful of games you will have seen about all that the game has to offer. Also, I've mentioned before that I think good games of this sort should, in general, end while player still have things left to do and real choices remaining. Space Dealer seems to end about when everyone is done: all the worthwhile cards in the game have been built, virtually all the demands are fulfilled, and there is little left to do but run out the clock on the last few remaining actions and see whose ship is going to arrive in the last 20 seconds and whose isn't. It leaves you with a sense of a game that was fun, but not one waiting to be explored.

But I still like it. I imagine Space Dealer will end up being one of those games that we play a bunch now, because it's new and cool, and then will go onto the shelf to be brought out once or twice a year because it's so unique and because it's fun. Maybe Eggert can do an expansion or two with more cards, more activities, and more development options to give the game more range.

Postscript: Space Dealer has a slightly awkward basic/advanced game breakdown, which I don't think quite works. Here is the combination of rules that I have settled on: use advanced rules, but drop the neutral planets and the four technology cards that sabotage other players. Also, play that the Fusion mines produce two cubes in the color of you choice (as the graphics would seem to indicate), not four cubes (as the rules say). The "basic" game doesn't quite work; if you're reading this blog, you should go direct to this configuration. If you want an intro, do what we did, play a 5-minute training game, then reset and play the whole thing.

2011 Update on Space Dealer: Space Dealer is a game that has kept its spot in my collection for its great, unique gameplay, but just doesn't come off the shelf very often. The All-Zeit expansion helped a great deal by filling in some gaps and allowing the game to end with options still on the table, which is great, but like the base game it added a number of suspect elements (the points for reaching level 3 last are a terrible idea). Plus it made problematically  complicated a game that relies on its real-time aspect to be fun. Space Dealer has always been a game that felt like it succeeded despite its underdevelopment. There is still a better game to be designed out of these ideas.

Factory Fun: It's clearly a factory, but it it fun? Short answer: Yes.

Factory Fun reminds me vaguely of the old Parker Brothers' game WaterWorks which I played as a kid, in that it involves a lot of pipes. You're building a factory. Over the game, you acquire machinery that needs to be hooked up. Those machines have inputs and outputs; the inputs have to be hooked up to either your supply, or to other machines that produce the right output. Space is limited, so you end up routing your pipes out the side, around an intervening machine, taking a left at the column in the middle of your factory floor, and then to its destination.

Machines are acquired by means of a "speed auction". Each player designates one hand as their "flipping hand" and one hand as their "grabbing hand". Everyone flips a machine. Then you grab the one you want. Or not, if someone else gets to it first. I've seen and heard some moaning about this technique, and how you should just do a money auction, but I like the grabbing. Factory Fun is a light game. It should be played quickly. You can't beat everyone scrambling for their machine of choice in terms of resolution time.

Once you've grabbed your machine, you're faced with an interesting mini-puzzle of how to connect it up without breaking the bank (each bit of piping costs a monetary unit); and at the end of the day that's what Factory Fun really is, basically 10 clever and fun little mini-puzzles where you try to fit your factory together while still hedging your bets to keep your options open for the next machine you acquire (much like Take it Easy). I enjoy these little puzzles, and so I enjoyed the game.

If Factory Fun has a flaw, it's in the scoring. Each machine gets a flat point pay-out when you hook it into your factory. At the end of the game, you get a bonus for hooking the output of one machine into the input of another (better value-add, you see). This bonus is huge, and is the tail that wags the dog here, I think. Getting your machines hooked up in serial is far more important than anything else, to the point that I think it drives the game unduly.

Because of this, after about 5 or 6 games, I'm starting to tire of Factory Fun a little. I think the puzzles are clever, and the game is not too long, but once I realized that hooking up machines in sequence trumped all else, it lost a bit of its edge for me. The other pressures (space in the factory, wiring things up efficiently) just don't seem quite strong enough to really give the game tension in the long run.

2011 Update on Factory Fun: Z-Man now has a new edition of this out which is much nicer than the original, supporting up to 5 players with variant maps, some new pipe configurations, and an overall higher-quality production. This is a game I don't play very often but always enjoy when I do.


* One kind of game I will always buy is one which echoes one of my small stock of my own game design ideas. About 5 years ago, after Knizia's Lord of the Rings came out, I was briefly working on a real-time game idea using timers. It was a cooperative game based on the US Space Program in the 60s, where players each had responsibility for finishing one component of the program. It involved completing projects by allocating timers to them. I never really developed the idea to the point where I thought it would actually work. But when Space Dealer came along with a similar concept, I had to give it a try.

I got a similar sense of deja vu recently when reading about Face 2 Face's new game Moai. I had almost exactly the same idea for a game after reading Collapse.

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