Friday, May 26, 2006

Some classic games, plus Caylus

I first got into German games around 1995 with the release of Settlers of Catan – I still have my 1st Edition, pre-Spiel-des-Jahre-logo copy, although it's been replaced with the very nice recent Kosmos version with plastic bits. I had played Avalon Hill's Adel Verpflichtet (before it got renamed By Hook or By Crook) extensively even before that, but Die Sielder was the game that spurred me to the acquisition of German-langauge games from Germany, and I quickly followed up with Modern Art, El Grande, and Quo Vadis. In my current Friday night gaming group, most of the folks actually started playing these games even before that, back with games like Ave Caesar and 6-Tage Rennen.

And so there is a certain fondness for a few older Knizias, including Medici and Auf Heller und Pfennig, and so they still come out from time to time (Medici a lot more than Auf Heller, to be sure). As much as I love recent Knizia games like Beowulf and Amun-Re, it's amazing the degree to which these older games really don't work for me at all.

Medici is a game I have always played because my friends like it. It's not in my top 100 games, but it's tolerable. It's Knizia, so you can count on it being well-balanced and with interesting scoring tensions. But I just find the game completely soulless. The theme is a total paste-up, with even the pasting not being very effective. And I think the auctions are simply not reliably interesting enough. The game is all about evaluating how much to bid on each lot of goods, but it's too often that you are simply not interested in them and are either playing the spoiler by bidding purely defensively (to prevent someone else getting them too cheaply) or watching for the game to be truly engaging. And the players have too little control over the lots being auctioned, resulting in too many uninteresting lots. All this is combined with symmetrical starting positions and completely open information which means the game can degenerate into massive analysis paralysis for too little payoff given the lack of control in other areas. I think that given what it is, Medici is a skillfully executed game, it's just that what it is really isn't very interesting. I will probably play this game again because many people like it, but I will resist it more strongly in the future.

Auf Heller und Pfennig suffers from one of the same problems – again we have a theme that is weak even by the standards of paste-up jobs and a lot of open information combined with difficult scoring resulting in an excessive level of calculation for a light game. I have been known to complain about games like Carcassonne where the level of work required is too high for a minor payoff, and Auf Heller would be a poster child for this problem. Even I found myself staring at the board playing at this game, completely locked up by so many indistinct options – and at this point in my gaming career I have a strong propensity to move quickly. And the scoring! How complicated is the scoring in this game? You need a calculator. Without one everyone will need to add up the scores a few times each round until they get the same number twice in a row. All this for a game with comparatively little control, screaming out "I need to be light!".

Now, it's true that Quo Vadis and Modern Art, both great, highly-playable games with good themes that I rate amongst Knizia's best, are contemporary with Auf Heller and Medici. So it didn't take him too long to get going. But it's interesting see Medici and Auf Heller which, to me, look like missteps on the way to his later greatness (along with a few other of his early efforts, like Vegas, Res Publica, and Digging). The games are still executed with skill generally, it's just that they seem to feature an awkward mix of properties.

By contrast, breaking out Adel Verpflichtet again reminded me of what a wonderful game this is. I first played it in 1993 I think, when it first came out in the US, and we played it a ton. There was little else available at the time that could pack that much gaming value into a 45 minute package. The game is simple, playable, fast, and with no downtime to speak of. It's got interesting strategic choices (going for art accumulation vs. exhibits) combined with a few interesting tactics (stealing vs. doing something more constructive) combined with the excitement of the simultaneous card-play. It's a game that can be enjoyed by casual gamers, who can get the excitement of the bluffing game, and serious gamers, who can enjoy the tactical details, at the same time without them stepping on each other. And it has a really well-done theme. Adel Verpflichtet is as good as anything coming out today.

Except for that new name. Hoity Toity? Good grief.

I've played Caylus a few more times recently, and find that my opinion of the game has been going sharply and rapidly downwards. Like Medici and Auf Heller und Pfennig, ultimately I find the game completely soulless. OK, it's got the classic German-style game thing going on: the competition for, acquisition of and transmutation of resources, and then the cashing them out for victory points, sometimes in competition with other players.

But how many things are seriously out of whack about this game? How many buildings are being built just to get their victory points, with no serious thought of ever using them? How many people have ever advanced on the "cubes" favor track? Has anyone ever not immediately built the "production" stone buildings as soon as they got the chance? How many people have screwed themselves because they didn't work out the implications of a worker placement 12 steps down the road because they felt it was important the game not screech to a complete halt? And how often has a three-hour game been decided by king-making with the Provost or Bailiff or whoever the heck he is, or maybe a worker placement? And are you absolutely sure you've never forgotten to pay a gold to operate a building, or give someone their victory point for the same thing? I thought Auf Heller was gratuitously complicated and gratuitously hard, but Caylus is many times worse.

I can respect what Caylus is trying to do, I think there is a core of interesting stuff going on, and I think it does succeed at some of the things it attempted. I think Caylus is an early rough draft of a good game, possibly a very good game – although it's also possible that more refinement might reveal that Caylus relies on its obtuseness for its tension, and that if you boiled away all the excess, uninteresting stuff the remaining game would be boring. Regardless, Caylus is simply not the kind of game I can enjoy anymore. Maybe I would have gotten a kick out of it 15 years ago, before I played Adel Verpflichtet, Modern Art, or Settlers of Catan, but today I crave something artful, something well-crafted, and something that is actually fun. And something that provides the intellectual and psychological challenge without making me do this much gratuitous, and fairly boring, work.

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