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.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tile-Laying Extravaganza: Gheos, Taluva, Bison

Gheos: This is a new tile-laying game from Z-Man, with a Civilization building theme and triangular tiles. You build up continents with different Civilizations, claim stakes in those Civilizations, and score points for the resources the Civilizations you have stakes in control.

Gheos struck me as just being incredibly bland. The tiles are triangular, and the format for all of them is that all three corners have water and all three edges have land, so the range of different tile configurations is very small; usually, it's just a question of what resources they have, a question which really is not that interesting. Because you can always stack tiles on top of each other, so you can play any tile anywhere at any time (which can break up or join continents, which allows civilizations to migrate or merge), the flow of the game has very little coherence.

And of course a tile-laying game can always cover any issues by looking impressive once laid out; but Gheos' look is pretty bland and it just isn't visually interesting.

Nice try, but for me, not there.

Taluva: Well, one complaint that certainly can't be leveled at Taluva is that it's not visually interesting. From the rich tropical colors (including nicely-chosen player colors) to the well-illustrated volcanoes and beaches, nice graphics are certainly one thing Taluva can deliver.

Players are colonizing the island of Taluva, which, sadly, is wracked by volcanoes. You've got three different types of buildings (Temples, Towers, and Huts), which are played under different conditions (huts anywhere, Towers only on high ground, and Temples only in larger settlements). You can win either by placing all of two types of your pieces, or by having the most Temples in play at the end. But, if you ever cannot place a building, you immediately lose!

Taluva is more or less what you would expect from a Carcassonne-like tile-laying game. Expand the island, slap down your pieces, and carve out your areas. It's got the twist that volcanic eruptions can allow you to build up as well as out, and also can wipe out other people's pieces (giving it a touch of overt competition), but I still think of it as being a pretty close cousin to Carcassonne. I think where it scores is the relatively open play (you can put down buildings almost anywhere, and there are only a few restrictions on where you can place tiles), the somewhat more strategic play in building up your little villages, and of course in the very attractive appearance once you've got everything laid out on the table.

For me, it's another solid game from Hans im Glück, a game that is sufficiently straightforward and attractive to be easy to get on the table yet gamerly enough to be engaging for the more discriminating player. More gamerly than Carcassonne, I think, maybe on par with Thurn and Taxis. Not an obvious pick for my year-end top 10, but fun, and one I'm glad to own.

Bison: After Hey! That's My Fish! and Revolution, I was back on board with Phalanx, at least partially. Bison is their new game from Kramer and Kiesling, and it's not a game you would mistake for something by any other designer.

Although the two games are quite different in actual play, the game that Bison fundamentally reminded me of is El Cabellero. It's got the Kramer trademark of pieces split between your active area and a reserve which you have to pay to activate. You've got the expanding world divided up into regions that you want to control with your pieces for points.

Players are Native American hunters rounding up fish (from streams), turkeys (from mountains), and buffalo (from the plains). A feature of Kramer/Kiesling designs is actions points, and Bison has them, kind of. A round is each player taking one action in turn – expanding the world and placing new guys from your supply onto the new tile, moving guys around on the board, or building settlements. There are a total of 6 variations on these actions, and four rounds in a turn, so you aren't going to do all of them every turn, but you have to expand the world at some point. As your guys control terrain on the board, they will score animals in the hunt, and then those animals are the currency you have to use to further expand. The player with the most income at the end – not the most animals in stock – wins. In a further twist, the 3 different types of animals you can score are fairly interchangeable during the game when paying to take actions, but at game end, it's the player with the Ingenious-style "most of the least" that wins.

I liked Bison. Again, it's basically a tile-laying game, but it's got enough clever elements to make it different. It's definitely similar in feel to Kramer(/Kiesling)'s previous action-point and area-control games to be recognizable, but it mixes it up enough and contains enough new to have a rather different feel to it. The visual design of the game is a little more abstract, and I think it will not be as universally appealing as the artful Taluva or the lighthearted Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, but I liked the look of the world unfolding.

There is an enormous caveat to this, however. Tikal, Torres, Java, and El Cabellero could all bog down because all information is open and players have enough options that some people are going to want to analyze them all, perhaps a couple times. Far be it from me to criticize other people's style of play, but there are people who always seem to need concrete answers and are impervious to the fact that they are taking far longer than everyone else to find them. It would be ideal if a game like Bison, that I think really wants to be about 45-60 minutes long, would have more hidden information or more uncertainty so as to not encourage this sort of thing. But, sadly, it does not, and so in the wrong set of circumstances the game can screech to a halt. In fairness, Phalanx is strikingly honest about the playing time on the box – it says 90 minutes – but Bison is really not that deep, in my opinion. So don't play it with anyone you wouldn't play Tikal, Torres, or any other game prone to excess analysis. The failing of Bison is that while Tikal has enough depth to reward a fair amount of thought, I'm not sure Bison really does.

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.