Monday, October 23, 2006

Silk Road, Leonardo Da Vinci, Buccaneer/Seeräuber

Silk Road: This is a new game from the always unpredictable Z-Man, designed by Ted Cheatam and Bruno Faidutti. A friend, when describing the game, said that "I know what a Bruno game feels like, and this doesn't feel like that, so it must be mostly Ted's game". With which I would generally agree.

Players take the roles of traders, using money to buy and sell goods at places along the Silk Road. What opportunities are available for the taking are distributed by the game's cornerstone idea. When we arrive at, say, Tyre, there will be (N-1) – where N is the number of players – actions available, which can include buying, selling, or trading specific goods, or taking some small special actions. We do once around bidding to see who gets first choice. The winner takes his pick, then - and this is the different bit - chooses who gets to go second from amongst the remaining players. The second player then takes his choice, passing along the next action to a player of his choice, and so on, until only one player who hasn't taken an action is left. That person gets no action, but gets to preside over the next round of bidding: he bids last, and gets the option to either collect the high bid, or pay the high bidder his bid for the right to go first. Since running the auction generally doesn't outweigh the penalty of not getting to take an action, the last player is generally, although not always, screwed.

This whole thing is one of those game mechanics that sounds clever on paper, and is sort of interesting while you are grappling with it for the first time, but ultimately I really don't think it quite works at a rather fundamental level. Everything in the game is hidden, so with so much hidden state involved in the decision of who to pass an action to and who to hose by not giving an action, most players are just guessing. Which would be OK, but getting knocked down in the order, or not getting a choice at all, can be a big deal, and in the middle game, when people are cash-poor, the compensation of running the auction for turn order is just not helping a lot.

So, it's interesting in spots, but overall not really my sort of game, and not one I'm likely to play again. Ultimately, though, I think my biggest beef with Silk Road is the price. Silk Road is $50 retail, which quite frankly is insane. I think as a $25-$30 retail small- or medium-box filler, it might be justifiable. The conversion engine, the process of moving goods and money and whatnot around, works pretty well, even if it isn't exactly mind-blowing. The auction is a little dodgy in spots but is also unusual and different. But fifty bucks for this? Given what else is out there, that just seems nuts.

Leonardo Da Vinci: After last year's Essen, I have tried to completely detach myself from the internet "buzz". Caylus, Antike, and Siena were all games that were getting great "buzz", and all of them, for me anyway, turned out to be varying levels of awful, while games getting little to no "buzz" (Beowulf, Elasund, Hacienda) were big winners.

So I approached Leonardo Da Vinci, a game apparently getting good internet "buzz" made by a company that produced one of my all-time most-hated games (BANG!), with a healthy degree of skepticism.

And hey, what do you know, it didn't suck! Players are inventors in an Italian city of some kind (Florence, perhaps?), trying to churn out inventions. The city elders want a fancy crossbow? You're on it. You'll need to round up raw materials (some wood and some rope, in this case), workers, a lab for the workers to work in, and perhaps a robotic assistant or two (Yes, really. These actually turn out to be better workers than the humans). You acquire these goods in a sort of vaguely Aladdin's Dragons-esque way, placing your workers in various areas of town, with the players who commit more effort to each activity getting better prices, while the less industrious get gouged. Of course, workers gathering materials aren't actually working on inventions. What results is a game with lots of interesting choices, almost all of which seem real (unlike some of those nasty, fake choices in Caylus) and well-balanced. And, critically, it plays in a reasonable amount of time and without excessive downtime; in this way it even scores over the classic Princes of Florence. I'm pretty certain Leonardo Da Vinci is nowhere near as well-honed a design as that classic, but it has definitely corrected that one flaw.

The theme of Leonardo Da Vinci for me has an interesting meta-relationship to the feel of the game itself. The players in the game aren't really playing the role of inventors, having interesting proprietary ideas and working out their inspiration in secrecy. No, the players are really producing made-to-order "inventions". The game tells you what to invent and how to invent it; you go off and do it. A better theme might have been war production in America in WWII: "We need a tank that'll be reliable, fast, and that will be suitable for mass production. Why don't you get on that, and sign us up for 50,000 of them. And don't go over budget." By the same token, the game itself does not feel like it was designed from any true inspiration, any interesting core idea. It's like the designer perhaps enjoyed the game systems in Princes of Florence and Aladdin's Dragons, and decided to make a new game by piecing together the bits he liked from those games and adding some money management and removing the uncertainty.

So what does this mean, if anything? Possibly not much. Certainly not that Leonardo Da Vinci is a bad game. It just means it lacks that hook, the coherence of vision or creative spark of the top-tier games that really pulls you in. To say it another way, it lacks theme integration. It's a collection of fun mechanisms that are streamlined, well-presented, and engaging to play, and I liked it, and I'll play again; but most likely, this is ultimately just another in a long list of disposable euros.

Buccaneer is a game that fell between the cracks this year because a) it's rated as an "8 and up" game, b) it's from Queen, and c) it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahre. All of these things have become negative indicators for me, to various degrees. But, after reading up on the game a bit, I decided to give it a try.

And really liked it.

Players are Pirate captains, trying to take over and loot merchant ships (how did this ever become one of the acceptable, family-friendly game themes?). To do this, you form crews. Everyone has 5 pirates, rated 2-5 plus a "wild" pirate that I'm not going to go into detail on, where their value indicates their pay. On your turn, you can have one of your pirates "take over" another player's crew (not your own!) by putting your piece on top of the stack. Or, if you are leading a large enough stack, you can take over a ship.

When a ship is taken over, it provides a payoff in ducats, which goes to the captain (the piece on top). The captain then has to pay off everyone else in the crew, giving them money equal to their value (which might mean going into the player's reserves, if he hired an excessive crew, perhaps by accident – you can't look at stacks once formed). If there are then any choice goodies aboard the target ship – rum, say, or a nice candelabra – the captain gets first pick, while the "mate" (the second piece in the stack) gets the leftovers, if any.

Buccaneer is basically a twisted auction game. If someone has a big enough crew to take over a ship, you have to either let him do it, or effectively agree to pay more for the right to the plunder by taking over the ownership of the crew. But what really makes the game fly is that there is also a fair dose of interesting tactical decisions: when to let someone else board a ship in the hopes that it will open up better options for you, when to be happy with being second mate because you'll get a goodie you are interested in, and when to use your cheap pirates and when to use your expensive pirates. The inability to inspect stacks also adds a good, non-threatening memory element that really cuts down on the analysis opportunities.

I thought Buccaneer was a great little filler game, on par with Dorra's previous For Sale, and I was really happy I gave it a try.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Canal Mania

Canal Mania is a new game from the reliable, if somewhat less-than-prolific, Ragnar Brothers. Thinking about that for a second, one might reasonably ask: what exactly do they reliably deliver? Well, games ... like the ones they make.

As such, Canal Mania is a bit of a departure for them, because I can tell you right here that Canal Mania is basically a favorable combination of mechanisms from Age of Steam and Ticket to Ride, with a lot of the problems and rough edges of those two previous games smoothed over.

To write any more than that about the specific game-play of Canal Mania is really to go past the point of diminishing returns (and if you play the game you'll know what I mean), but because I'm expected to write a little bit more than that on the details of the game in this business, I'll keep going. Canal Mania presents you with a board with different-colored cities on it, and those cities have good cubes. You score points by delivering these goods cubes over your canals; the rule is, any delivery route can be as long as you want, but it can never contain two cities of the same color (all good cubes are generic). Like in Age of Steam, you can use other players' canals, and when you do, they get part of the payoff. Building between cities is controlled by drafted cards, a la Ticket to Ride, although with a different mix of restrictions. You can draft contract cards, and these contracts (analogous to Ticket to Ride's tickets) specify which two cities you may connect and the maximum number of tiles you may use to do it. You then lay those tiles by drafting locks, stretches, aqueducts, and tunnel cards, which you can then parley into actual bits of canal.

As I say, it's striking the degree to which Canal Mania can be easily and simply described as a cross between the better halves of Ticket to Ride and Age of Steam. Where Canal Mania scores over its two antecedents is in the smoothness of play. Canal Mania glides along, without many frustrating bumps or detours. Compare to the unevenness of the tickets in Ticket to Ride or the auctions in Age of Steam, both of which feel inelegant. Canal Mania constrains you with the contracts – unlike Steam or Ticket, you can't just build anywhere – but the constraints seem less painful overall. You still almost always get to draft tickets from a set on offer, and unlike in Ticket to Ride, most lots seem to include something useful. Also, the contracts are set up to circumvent the arbitrariness that both Age of Steam and Ticket to Ride can sometimes have. In Ticket to Ride, sometimes you're hosed because you and the player on your right really need the same route, but he just happened to see all the cards he needed first. In Canal Mania, the real competition is over delivering goods cubes, not over routes. When you get a contract, that route is yours, it's just a question of how to trade off speed vs. efficiency in getting it built. Speed, because maybe you want to deliver that generic good in Liverpool before anyone else gets there; efficiency, because at the end of the game the person who has built the most routes gets points.

So, Canal Mania rolls along pretty well; it's a friendlier game than either Steam or Ticket, while still managing to be a serious game without the sharp edges.

At least, until you get to the endgame. While I was generally pleased with Canal Mania, the endgame troubled me. Once a player crosses a certain point threshold, or a certain number of routes get built, you enter the endgame during which all that happens is that all the remaining goods on the board get delivered. As in Age of Steam, you will sometimes have to use other players' connections, and thus give them some points, in order to deliver a goods cube yourself. In Age of Steam, because your network is usually pretty coherent, it's rare that this is more than a small handful of points. In Canal Mania, though, due to the unpredictable flow of contracts, it seems much more likely that your "network" is really just going to be a collection of canals in various places. So as the endgame approaches, you will almost always have to give other players money to make a delivery.

The effects of this are predictable: endless calculation about who is "really" ahead based on their score plus their apparent deliveries remaining, multiple calculations of whether it's better to give 3 pounds to player A or player B, situations in which a player gets to pick who wins, and (maybe) whining by the aggrieved. It's potentially not pretty, both in terms of the unreasonable level of calculation required to play well and in terms of possible hurt feelings.

Honestly, I don't have any idea of how you would do the endgame to Canal Mania better. It all seems part and parcel of what makes the earlier game successful, and so I don't mind it that much. By the standards of games with kingmaking problems, it's certainly not in the same league as the notorious Kill Dr. Lucky or multi-player Attika; but the problem does exist, and some people will be turned off by it. Likewise, Shannon Applecline complains about games that force you to do too much math, and Canal Mania has some trouble with this. I would think Canal Mania actually has a potentially more severe problem than Santiago, a poster child for this sort of thing for me, although it depends on how the game pans out (Santiago has calculation problems by default; Canal Mania might not).

The other downside is the game length and downtime. Canal Mania is in the neighborhood of 2 hours, and given a system that is less interactive than Steam and turns that are definitely longer than in Ticket, length and downtime seem just slightly on the wrong side of where things should be.

So what does all this mean? Do I recommend Canal Mania? As a US buyer, I'm on the fence (it's expensive here). I think Canal Mania very nicely fills a niche between Ticket and Steam. I think that the game has smoothed over the unevenness in both of those games, as well as put the theming on more solid foundations. But at the end of the day, it is still a game that has a few issues (the two significant ones being the endgame calculation and the game length) and is fairly derivative, and is going to set you back no less than $50 (US). Which makes it a tough sell. We played on a loaner copy from a friend, and my ultimate decision was that it was not a buy. But it's certainly worth playing on someone else's copy.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Republic of Rome

The last year or so I've been trying to get more classic games back on the table. These older games are never going to be regulars, but they're fun to play again: Dune, Civilization, Gangsters, Britannia ... and now one of my most highly regarded old games, #11 on my all-time favorite list, Republic of Rome.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the game, Republic of Rome is in my opinion the classic political game, and not just that, but in an whole different league from the others. Players take the roles of factions in the Roman Senate and cope with the issues of various Republican periods: the many wars in the timeframe of the 1st and 2nd Punic Wars, the growth of the empire and the internal discord of the era of the Gracchi brothers, and then the full-blooded internecine struggles of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey. You marshal cash, influence, and popularity to compete politically for the offices of the Consuls (who run the Senate and fight the wars), Censor (who prosecutes Senators for Corruption, the appearance thereof, or hairstyle), Governors (good for some personal graft), Pontifex Maximus (a mixed blessing), as well as a few other various and sundry items. The players must also manage the affairs of state to cope with wars, drought, popular unrest, revolution, the Cataline Conspiracy, death, and taxes. Most things are run in a democratic process of voting, although the players elected to office will retain important controls over what is debated and how the voting proceeds. The thing that makes Republic of Rome so unique and compelling is that it is a truly cooperative-competitive game. The players have to deal with the random external threats, Knizia's Lord of the Rings style, or Rome will fall. But there can be only one winner, and you can win in a variety of ways which involve amassing influence or overthrowing the Senate with your personal army.

The big complaint about Republic of Rome has always been the complexity; to be more specific, the difficulty of learning to play the game (like several Avalon Hill games of this time period, it's far, far easier to be taught the game than to learn it from the rulebook). Interestingly, with the more recent onslaught of German games, I have become somewhatless sympathetic to this complaint than I used to be. I think the reason is just that the complexity of Republic of Rome is both a) not terribly burdensome compared to modern multi-player wargames like Here I Stand or The Napoleonic Wars, and b) all good. No, it is not an easy game to learn or play. But while there is a lot in Republic of Rome, and a lot of it could on first inspection be dismissed as chrome, almost everything in the game is interconnected and serves a purpose. Try to touch something, and in general it's clear that something else is going to break. The core resources of the game (money, influence, and popularity for the players, money and unrest for the state) are used in many divergent but interconnected ways. Take popularity, for example, in some sense the most limited of the basic resources: it is used to protect yourself from prosecution, to make the yearly "state of the union" address to keep the people quiet, as protection from Assassination, and can be spent to do some price-gouging on a grain concession during a drought. Popularity can be won by winning wars, sponsoring public games, and sponsoring farm bills in the Senate. But on the other hand, nothing is simple: money and influence are intertwined in all these things. Games covert personal cash into popularity, winning wars requires the cash and votes to get elected in the first place, farm bills are free to the players but cost the state money (sometimes a lot of money) while keeping unrest down ... and so on. The network of connections is very dense.

I think this interconnectedness is what makes the game so successful at what it does. Like so many wonderfully thematic games, when you drill down on the details, a lot of things are badly off: the Consuls didn't really wield power in anything like the way they do here, the Censor is an abstraction that bears little relation to any historical office, and the rules for the Dictator are a fudge. The lawmaking powers of the Tribal Assembly, such a critical focus of conflict in the period of the Gracchi brothers, are totally ignored. A conflict similar to the 1st Civil War (Marius vs. Sulla) will never happen, while one of the more common victory conditions in practice – becoming Consul for Life – is grossly ahistorical outside of the Late Republic. And the rapidly shifting alliances of a 5 or 6 player game simply doesn't reflect the factional politics of the Roman Senate, which never had more than 2-3 major competing factions.

But despite being so far off on so many of the details, I don't think anyone would seriously argue that Republic of Rome has anything but terrific, evocative historical theming that gives a real sense of Roman Republican politics. In part this is because the game has, where necessary, ignored history and done what is required for the game itself to work, and a deep, interesting, working game will do far more to immerse the players in the game-world than any slavish devotion to historical accuracy.

To bring this back to the issue of complexity, I'm not convinced that Republic of Rome would even function at all with a lower complexity level. Republic of Rome is unique because it combines both cooperative and competitive elements: the survival of the state and the desire of one faction to come out on top. The immersion of the players in the game-world is in my opinion a good chunk of what allows these elements to exist in uneasy balance. A much more abstract game like Terra (or even the competitive play option for Lord of the Rings) is too easy for gamers to heartlessly mini-max. But by enabling the players to become emotionally invested in the game, Republic of Rome makes it work.

So how was it, ultimately, playing Republic of Rome again? I've played it three times in the last 6 months, after a break of about 7 years.

For a game I still regard quite highly, it's not as easy a question to answer as one might hope. As a game design, I still hugely respect it and consider it one of the most unique and compelling games ever made. But there are also a few pointy edges to the game mechanisms that bug me more than they used to. I think the main area that bugs me today that I considered just "part of the game" in the past are the Persuasion rules, where players can steal each others' Senators, Illuminati-style. It's a minor part of the game because the amount of influence required to successfully Persuade anyone is huge, and they are easy to defend against, but when Persuasion becomes relevant it's ridiculously high-stakes and rather chaotic. I'd rather a fairer and less arbitrary way of making sure each faction gets repopulated as Senators die off.*

Also, I don't think the Middle and Late Republic scenarios work as they should, as I think they have too much potential for serious pacing issues, as I talk about in this BoardGameGeek thread. And the Late Republic, despite the appeal of the most household names (Caesar, Cicero, Pompey), is much too long; the Early Republic is playable in 4-6 hours, while the Late Republic can take 10-12. The Early Republic is a very fun game in and of itself, but it's definitely not endlessly replayable, and the game does need those later two scenarios to work properly.

This is all comparatively minor stuff. The creakiness of the Persuasion situation doesn't have a profound impact on the game. And there is a lot of play value in the Early Republic. But still.

At the end of the day, though, I don't think these reflect the real reason that Republic of Rome has lost some of its sharpness for me personally, even though I still enjoyed playing it. I think the real reasons are probably two-fold, and more meta-reasons than any real issue with the game itself.

Firstly is the much more troubling state of the real American politics. With things as bitter, divisive, and negative as they are today, it's harder to get excited about what is probably the greatest political game ever made.

Secondly, and I'm not sure how closely this is related to the first item, I seem to have lost my killer instinct for this sort of game. This point might be a little more subtle than it first appears. One of the reasons that I was originally drawn to Republic of Rome, and the reason that I've rated it highly over the years, is that while it's true that it is a highly-competitive political game, it's still a constructive one with more similarities to the win-win deal-making of Traders of Genoa than the free-form hoseage of I'm the Boss. The deals you make with the other players are overwhelmingly about angling to gain offices or otherwise build up your own position rather than taking down your opponents. There is certainly scope for screwing Senators – the most blatant is through Prosecution, which is the only really overtly hostile element of the game, but you can also send them off to war with insufficient force in the hopes they'll be killed or banish them to a long Governership in the provinces – but this sort of overt personal confrontation is a lesser part of the game. The vast majority of the time, you're setting yourself up rather than specifically taking your opponents down.

I guess what I'm saying here is that from the game perspective (i.e., leaving aside the historical interest, which is considerable), I was drawn to Republic of Rome because it was a political game that lacked the overt nastiness of Diplomacy. But the game can still be a bit nasty. While what I say above about being constructive is literally true, it's also true that the benefits of office are considerable and somebody has to get frozen out, and the dynamics of the game can sometimes be seen as personal and can be frustrating. It's no Diplomacy; it's not even I'm the Boss or Intrige (I do love Intrige, but only because it's so brazenly ostentatious about its nastiness that it's hard to take it too seriously). But the nastiness is there, off in the corner smirking, and I don't like it when he looks at me. This is a hard point to make without overstating it, but as I've gotten older, I find I don't have the stomach for some of these things like I used to.

So I've lowered my BoardGameGeek rating on Republic of Rome. From a 10 to a 9. I still consider it a unique, wonderful, classic game, which I will still enjoy playing and will likely continue to break out every few years for a long time hence. The historical flavor is terrific, and the game succeeds at transporting you to a world that is immersive and interesting and compelling, as well as being a remarkably good game. But, it couldn't quite live up to the "all-time classic" label it had in my mind. And I really wish the later scenarios worked better.


* This may strike some players familiar with Republic of Rome as odd. After all, at the beginning of each turn, you play "death bingo". You pick a number out of a cup. The player who controls the Senator that matches that number then howls in agony. Geez, how much more random and arbitrary do you get then that? But even random death has its role in the game, forcing you not to invest too heavily in one Senator, and putting at least a theoretical cap on how long a hugely popular or influential Senator can make trouble. Persuasion attempts do not appear to ultimately serve such a useful purpose.