Saturday, January 10, 2009

Municipium

Reiner Knizia's and Valley Games' Municipium is one of my favorite releases of 2008. It's a classic recent Knizia game, reminiscent of Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Tower of Babel, and Beowulf in its ability to cram so many interesting decisions and so much flavor into such a relatively small set of rules and a relatively short but high-intensity playing time.

When I think about the overwhelming majority of games, I think about them having a couple or a few distinct game systems that interact in interesting ways. Take Agricola: you've got game systems for growing crops and maintaining herds of animals and playing occupations, but those game systems interact only lightly, in the sense that you have limited actions to spend on one or the other, but your farm and your herds are managed separately.

In Municipium, there is a lot of stuff going on – competition for citizens, the Praefect, building special powers, and turn order – but everything interacts heavily with everything else, and it's hard to pick out individual game systems. Even thought it might look like a worker placement or area control game, it's not; it seems to me really just a single large system which has some elements of both.

Which leads me to what is my biggest problem with Municipium, and that is how to pitch it when people ask you what you want to play. Games are easier to pitch when they are like something. The classic example for me is Agricola, which to some people can be sold as "a lot like Caylus, but actually fun". When a game fits into nice categories, like tile-laying or auction or negotiation or area-control, or more recently worker-placement or role-selection, it's easy to sell. You can get 80% of the way there using a few words to describe the basic idea, and then talk about what makes the game unique or unusual (like Agricola's asymmetric player positions and diversity of cards). This doesn't work here.

Interestingly, I've decided that the best way to sell recent Knizia games like Blue Moon City, Beowulf, and Municipium is to go directly to the theme and not try to pitch mechanisms at all. After all, the large majority of gamers buy and play games for their themes, however expressed, not their mechanical workings. Even though these recent Knizias are fairly simple rules-wise, the mechanisms are too involved or ambiguous to explain in a brief pitch. Trying to sell Beowulf as an auction game is not the way to go, even though the central driver sort of looks like it might be an auction, and the same goes for selling Municipium as an area-control game. But if you describe it as influence-gathering in Imperial Rome, talk about influencing the citizens or the Praefect or going to the Baths to hobnob with the rich and powerful or the Tavern to get your opponents drunk, that's something you can get traction with. And, helpfully, it's what the game basically delivers.

7 comments:

  1. Beowulf: "a lot like Taj Mahal, but actually fun."
    I agree with you, Chris--it's hard to pitch many of Knizia's recent middleweights, precisely because they're incredibly unique.

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  2. It's funny, I took the exact same tack in describing the game, partly because it is indeed hard to pigeonhole, but partly to try to bring theme more the fore; I think there is a halfway decent theme-to-mechanism correlation, but it's a bit subtle and needs drawing out.

    As usual for Knizia, the game play is pitch-perfect—turns are short but interesting, there's a nice blend of control and chance, and there is a constant flow of novel and complex situations. Unfortunately, both of the games that I played ended with three of the four players in contention and the game being decided by who flipped up the right card for their situation. It left the other players with the feeling that the game was too luck-heavy (despite the fact that it took many good decisions to get them in the position where they were on the brink of winning). I'm going to give Municipium the benefit of the doubt for now and hope it was a fluke, but it keeps me from becoming a cheerleader for the time being.

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  3. Unfortunately, both of the games that I played ended with three of the four players in contention and the game being decided by who flipped up the right card for their situation.

    My games also tend to have been close, although admittedly not that close. Blue Moon City sometimes seems to have something similar going on, where two very tightly competitive players are going for the last stone, and who gets it can feel sometimes like getting the right card or being first in the turn order. My games of Municipium, although often close between too players, haven't seemed quite that tight, although I can see it.

    Maybe it's just my wargaming background, but you know, it's just never bugged me about either game. Sometimes everyone plays a tight and interesting game and it comes down to a last-turn close combat die roll or card flip or whatever, and that's OK. Everyone knows it was a tight game either player could have won. On the other hand, games Advanced Civilization or 1830 which give artificially exact scores sometimes do bug me; in 1830 scores are sometimes separated by less than the margin of an error in making change at some point in the game, but profess to definitively say that one player won and one player played a very close, but still inferior game.

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  4. Yes, I think it's more an issue of perception and human nature than a problem with the game itself. Really, you could take pretty much any game on your shelf that has a random element—no matter how heavy or strategic—and, if you had a god's-eye-view and perfect information, you could find *the* card flip that won and lost the game...but because the hand of fate is hidden in our limited point of view, we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and chalk it all up to our genius or lack thereof. When the hand of fate is much more evident, then we perceive the game as being "all luck."

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  5. I don't disagree with anything you've said here, but the idea of describing Knizia games primarily by theme is deliciously counter-intuitive.

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  6. I also enjoy Municipium. Most of my sessions have had the situation where several players are on the brink of winning. I think I have won every game so far. Twice I won by saving one of my family cards (usually the prefect mover) until it would be the game winning move. I get myself into the position where I can win if the prefect moves and do it. Both times the other players did everything they could to stop me and just couldn't do it.

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