Monday, February 23, 2009

Knizia vs. K.622

I'm not usually a fan of cross-genre comparisons. I remember a few years back there was a GeekList aiming to associate boardgame designers with their classical composer analogues. I'm willing to play the game, if somewhat half-heartedly, when we're talking Teuber or Knizia (I remember arguing without particular conviction for Knizia being kind of like Mozart), but when people start putting Martin Wallace and Franz Schubert into the same sentence, I rapidly lose interest.

Anyway, as some of you may be aware, I was at one point in my life - rather longer ago now than I like to admit - a clarinet player. In the last year or so, I've been practicing again, trying to get back in shape. I started out with the Concertino, by Carl Maria von Weber, primarily for nostalgic purposes; that was the piece with which I transitioned from being an average high school wind musician to being pretty good. Then the whole start-up thing kicked in, and I lost momentum. But I've recently been re-energized by Jasper Rees' wonderful book A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument (or "I Found my Horn: One Man's Struggle With The Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument" for our UK friends; I always find these sorts of subtle title changes between the US and UK fascinating). The book helped me realize that if you're really going to do this sort of thing when you're 40, you don't want to screw around with second-tier pieces. You want to go with the best. And for the clarinet, that would be Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, K.622 (Meyer) (Stoltzman) (Neidich) (Marcellus), one of the greatest concertos ever written, for clarinet or any other instrument for that matter. After all, unlike Rees, I was able to competently perform the Adagio of that concerto 20 years ago, so surely the whole thing would be a worthy, and doable, goal.

So I picked up a CD with an orchestral accompaniment of the piece. I was reading the included two-page notes when I ran across this passage that I could swear that if I haven't written, I should have:

"Here Mozart displays that most deceptive and difficult artistic feat, one that most lesser artists endlessly fail to achieve: that "less is more". A lasting work of art does not entail showing off one's talents, but rather capturing a subject's psychological essence - it's honesty - in as clear and simple a statement as possible. Mozart provides this again and again in so many of his compositions, and we are eternally surprised at his straightforwardness and lack of embellishment. And it is in this, his last concerto [the Clarinet Concerto, K.622], that Mozart's "art of simplicity" possibly finds its finest expression."

- Douglas Scharmann, notes on the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV622, for Music Minus One

You swap out Mozart and replace it with Knizia, and replace Clarinet Concerto with Beowulf or Modern Art or Lost Cities, and this could almost be re-used word for word. I make no claim that Knizia's genius is in the same league as Mozart's - I'd give up my entire game collection before I gave up Mozart's Clarinet Concerto alone - but still, that one could use almost identical language to describe their particular talents when compared to the artists that surround(ed) them, well, it's rather striking.

My amazement can perhaps be understood a little better with some context. Although the notes never mention anything specific, when Scharmann says the Clarinet Concerto "lack[s] embellishment" this was probably written with later pieces, perhaps von Weber's two very challenging clarinet concerti (Meyer), in mind. Later composers would latch on to the clarinet's agility as its most distinguishing feature, and write extremely technical pieces for it. Also, many concerti - including all of Mozart's magnificent clarinet and horn concerti - are written with a specific performer in mind, and performers like to show off their technique, and for the clarinet, that often seems to mean the ability to play the notes fast. Performances of even the very musical Weber Concertino evolved such that performers competed to play it faster and faster, past all reasonable bounds. Fortunately this is far less true today, but even so Charles Neidich, one of today's finest clarinet players, plays it at a tempo fast enough to needlessly cut into the pieces' musical virtue (in my opinion) in his recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Mozart, on the other hand, understands all the things that make the clarinet such a wonderful and versatile instrument: not only its agility, but its range, its purity of sound, its expressiveness, and its incredible dynamic range that allow it to play comfortably with any other instrument in the orchestra and has made it a staple soloist and member in virtually any musical group, including orchestras, symphonic winds, chamber music, band, jazz, folk, klezmer, film soundtracks, and even popular music until everything had to be amped ... once you start listening, you can start hearing the clarinet almost everywhere.

The topic of Mozart and his famous Clarinet Concerto is too vast to tackle in a blog. But for me, once considered, the parallels are so remarkable I feel little need to elaborate any further, and leave it up to you to explore.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chicago Express

When it comes to train games, it seems like there isn't a lot new under the sun. You've got the classic train games, Empire Builder, 1829, 1830, and Silverton, maybe Rail Baron. You've got the more modern (and far more abstract) Age of Steam, Ticket to Ride, and Union Pacific. Most things seem to start from one of these places.

Chicago Express borrows from both sides of the fence. You've got the realistic-ish stock certificates from 1825 merged with a variation of the abstract route management (without the silliness) from Railroad Tycoon or Age of Steam, and – in perhaps its most compelling selling point – a one-hour-ish playtime.

The core of the game is the stock evaluation (it's not really a market since stocks, once acquired, cannot be sold). Each of the 5 companies, the Pennsylvania, New York Central, B&O, C&O, and Wabash, have between 2 and 6 stock certificates available. One of the actions you can take on your turn, and the one that the game will turn on, is auctioning a share in a company (the other two involve improving the revenues of one of the companies you have stock in). The players then bid, trying to figure out what that share will be worth, with the winner taking the share and the company taking the cash, to use in future expansion.

The thing that makes Chicago Express different is that each share really is a share, and unsold shares don't exist yet. When the PRR earns $25, it is split evenly amongst the shareholders, with unsold shares simply not counting. So when you auction a share, you are not only acquiring a piece of a company, you are diluting other players' existing shares. This means that the number of shares available for a company to issue (3 for the PRR, 6 for the C&O) is a big deal. The first share of the PRR can't be diluted that much, while the first share of the C&O is a bit of a crap shoot.

Chicago Express is the sort of game I should like: fairly short, wide open, with an interesting auction, and decent theme. And I do, sort of. But I think it founders in a couple way.

Firstly, the valuations on the stock certificates are very hard to work out because everything is so wide open. It's impossible for a new player to make a reasonable guess as to what the first PRR share auctioned in the game is worth, and some of the valuation criteria are a little anti-intuitive (the weak companies with fewer shares available offer by far the best long-term per-share return on investment). At some level, I have a feeling that the difficulty of fairly valuing the shares is not supported by the entertainment value or repeat draw of the game as a whole, which means players are unlikely to play the game enough to get the experience required to do the valuations competently.

Secondly, the game has a cooperation dynamic that may trump all this anyway. If you and I split the B&O, and both work hard to develop it, and the other players lack similar coordinated action, one of us will win with the difference being decided around the edges by minority shareholdings. In a 4-player game, if 3 players have PRR and everyone spends a little time developing it, the fourth player is screwed. Furthermore, it seems like it is in the best interests of players to cooperate when the opportunity presents itself.

I dunno. When thinking about the game, I'm ultimately left wrestling with slippery inter-player dynamics more than with the theoretically much more interesting valuations in the stock auctions. I think in the end, who ends up owning what certificates ends up mattering more than what they paid for them, if opportunities for player cooperation develop – especially with the extremely valuable PRR. The C&O by contrast, with 6 available shares, is so easily diluted by friends and foes alike that it's an unattractive investment for either capital or expansion energy unless it can be had more cheaply than players seem to instinctively allow.

Which sort of brings me back to the valuations thing. Having played a couple times now, I sort of have a handle on what a PRR share is worth in the initial offering, probably north of $25. On the other hand, I still really don't have a good idea of what a C&O share is worth beyond not a lot.

I'm still not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. The first time I played the game I thought it was cool, I found the auctions and the wide-open nature of the play very appealing. The second time, with 4 players, the player who didn't get one of the three PRR shares was doomed basically from the get-go (and that was even with PRR shares being apparently fairly pricey, raising far more capital than the PRR could ever spend).

So while I do like the game, I'm skeptical as to whether the balance is really there. The opportunity cost of auctioning shares may be too high; the real value of shares may actually be significantly more than the cash available to players, making artificial cash management decisions a little too important; and some companies – notably the PRR, C&O, and Wabash – may be out of whack; and expanding cheap companies, like the C&O, may simply be much too expensive compared to the opportunity costs. But the redeeming virtue of the game is its relative brevity, at a little over 60 minutes. Any longer, and I think some of the suspect balance issues (whether real or perceived) would hit harder, as they do for me in Age of Steam. Even though the game itself actually seems like it might want to go a little longer, develop a little more, I think ending where it does allows Chicago Express to be a game of exploring the interesting decision space and game dynamics without overstaying its welcome.