Monday, November 27, 2006

Augsburg 1520, Gloria Mundi

Augsburg 1520: alea has been taking some hits for some of their recent games (Rum & Pirates, Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters), but even though they haven't maintained their "every release a classic" run from Ra to Puerto Rico, I've still always found something to like in their games (it's helped that their line shows great range; their first 6 big-box games included bidding, bluffing, tactical, and negotiation games). Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters, and Die Sieben Weisen are all games I liked for their solid execution of interesting ideas, even if they aren't all tremendously replayable. And Rum & Pirates was just fun (I've played a number of times since, and no, I haven't changed my mind on that). Only the so-so Wyatt Earp is out in the cold, but even that had an interesting twist on Rummy, with more incremental instead of all-or-nothing scoring. And of course the relatively recent San Juan is amongst the best games in their line.

Which leaves Augsburg 1520 as the first alea game to leave me more or less flat, with my desire to play again largely driven by confidence in the brand rather than any specific desire to see if it'll work out in the end.

Augsburg 1520 is a bidding game. It's of the traditional empire-building variety, where you have to acquire either stuff that generates more money, or actual victory points (Saint Petersburg is an exemplar of this sort of game). That choice between cash and VPs is OK, and has a few interesting twists – there are two choke-points, for example, where you have to buy a very expensive Church or Cathedral to proceed, but players who buy early pay a lot more than players who buy late – but it isn't anything we fundamentally haven't seen before. The bidding part is also OK. Each turn has 5 rewards on offer and 5 auctions. Players bid a quantity of money cards, which are color-coded to a specific auction (the last auction is wild; you can bid anything). The bidding is poker-style, with each player "calling" or "raising" the number of bid cards in turn, and after everyone drops or "calls" without raising we reveal our bids and the largest number of cards bid (the one with the single highest valued card in case of multiple high bids, which will usually be the case) wins. This has the great virtue of being comparatively quick (no endlessly circling the table), since there are a lot of auctions in each game.

The feedback between the bidding and the economic game is also interesting: each turn you're dealt a number of bidding cards. You then have to pay for the ones you want. Low-valued ones are cheap, while high-valued cards are expensive. The cards have cleverly printed their costs on the back, so you can verify everything without needing to see what exactly everyone is buying. This is interesting in that you have some choice of going for breadth or depth, or saving to buy a Church, but in practice it seems that most of the time you're going to buy almost all the cards you are dealt, so it doesn't seem to be as interesting as one might hope.

There are two major downsides.

The first is a bit of an endgame problem. Because some of the auctions are for victory point producing tiles that only a few players can have, and if you win it you get to steal it from somebody, you can see an endgame situation where a player in a distant third has to make a choice about who to steal victory points from that determines who wins, and that choice is ultimately arbitrary. It's not going to happen all the time, but it's always deflating when it does.

Secondly, don't even try to explain the theme of this game to people. It involves purchasing debt from German nobility and then canceling that debt in return for favors. When I bought the game from my local game shop, the clerk (who was unfamiliar with it) was reading the copy text on the back about various debt transactions and remarked "wow! the game almost sells itself!", albeit with a suspicious lack of enthusiasm. I muttered something about perhaps it being more meaningful if you're German. I notice that they haven't restocked since I bought their last copy. Let's just say, the theme is not terribly compelling, and neither does it make much sense in terms of the game-play.

Ultimately, I don't know. The initial impression is that the endgame has potential issues, and the game has interesting bits that don't quite seem to cohere or add up to more than the sum of the parts. And the theme is weak. On the other hand, this is an alea game, it is unusual for a bidding game, and some of those bits are interesting and clearly have some depth, it's not too long, and so I'll play it again for those reasons. But it's definitely not a game that grabbed me. Who knows; maybe in a few more plays I'll be raving about it, but it seems unlikely, and that endgame issue will likely remain a sore point.

2011 Update: I actually played Augsburg 1520 recently, at BGG.con 2011, and it seems to come out once a year. I'm not going to say the game is underrated. But it's a clever and unusual bidding game, and good bidding games not by Reiner Knizia are rare. This writeup probably doesn't do it full justice. The endgame isn't as problematic as I worried. There is nuance to the acquisition of things on the various tracks, and timing is everything. The back-and-forth as people take titles from each other makes the game dynamic in a good way. Also, it helps to play the rule for the Master Builder correctly (it's confusing). The game is probably best with 4. Augsburg 1520 has been on the block a couple times for selling off – space for our game collection is tight – but we always play it first and it goes back on the shelf, even though my complete set of alea games has finally been broken up (Macao and Mammoth Hunters hit the road).

Gloria Mundi: Let's just say, my expectations for Gloria Mundi were low. Really low. Sometimes that's no bad thing.

This is another infrastructure vs. victory points game, this time in Rome. The Visigoths are coming, ripping up the landscape as they go, and you are trying to get to Carthage (where I guess the Vandals, despite their name, aren't as bad) before they get you. But you need to pay for your ticket out of town with gold, agricultural products, and, um, small rectangular white things.

Gloria Mundi's main selling point is the well-realized theme. Gloria Mundi is chaotic, but with the Visigoths closing in and everyone running away as fast as they can, what else would it be? The players are constantly fighting the frustration of seeing their good work destroyed by pillaging Visigoths, but hey, Rome is collapsing here, what do you expect? Low inflation and a buoyant stock market? I don't think so.

Obviously, the theme only goes so far, but it does help a lot. Underneath the theme, Gloria Mundi is a mixed bag. To start with the bad, the most obvious problem is that the iconography on the cards is really hideous: the same symbol can mean different things at different times, rules are not interpreted consistently across similar symbols, and in many cases the symbols themselves are not illuminating. The special powers on the cards are not complicated, but the way they are presented is often so completely opaque that you'll need a play-through just to figure everything out. This is really bad. I've always said that if you are only going to get a few plays out of a game, it's really important that the first one not be wasted. Also, the pillaging mechanic, where the Visigoths destroy players' holdings, is a bit arbitrary and is bound to leave people feeling gratuitously hosed at some point or another. And the mechanism for acquiring new cards is such that planning is almost impossible and if you are able to buy a card with a special power that gives you some good synergies, you should thank your lucky stars. Since Gloria Mundi is very much about the special powers of cards you acquire rather than raw production (unlike, say, Saint Petersburg), this can be an issue.

As for the good stuff, I like how the economic model works. Cards are divided up into farms, legions, and cities. Each turn you play a card from your hand and add it to your holdings, and that also indicated which types of holdings pay for everyone. So if I play a city card, I not only get a new city (which pays a gold), everyone activates all their cities. Each of these cards can then be augmented with power cards bought from the deck. This is kind of neat, and the frequent destruction makes things interesting and prevents any sort of runaway leader issue. And it's interesting that your supply of Farm cards, say, is fixed, so if you invest heavily in one area early you get a good payoff, but it can leave you badly constrained later on when all you have are City or Legion cards which benefit your opponents more than you.

So what does all this mean? I like the theme, I like the card-play, and the art is fantastic; that might be enough to get the game on the table for a bit. What ultimately kills Gloria Mundi for me, though, is the length. Our game was pushing two hours, although I'm not sure how much of that was spent bickering over what the heck the symbols were supposed to mean. At 45 minutes, an hour at the outside, I think Gloria Mundi would have been a neat, if rather chaotic and ultimately disposable, game experience. At the kind of length we saw, though, forget it. I'm sure more play would bring it down, but I just can't see it coming down enough.

I should mention too that while the box says the game goes up to 6 players, I expect four is the sweet spot. Chaos and downtime go up with each added player, and your ability to plan will asymptotically approach zero (although the game length won't go up too much). I might play Gloria Mundi again, but I would be leery of adding a fifth player and would play something else with 6.

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