Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pax Porfiriana

Sierra Madre has continued on its recent roll for me. I was torn on Origins: How We Became Human, and didn't really like anything before that, but I have enjoyed High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana a great deal, all for similar reasons but all in their own quite distinct ways.

What all the games share is a deeply-researched setting. You have always had to approach Sierra Madre Games with a somewhat different aesthetic sense than other games. You can't go into it thinking primarily about game mechanisms, or how you can work the interacting game systems, or even how you are going to use the game systems to win. You need to think first about figuring out what the game is trying to say: in the case of Pax Porfiriana, it's covering and commenting on the chaotic period before the Mexican Revolution in 1910. This is not to say that the game systems are unimportant, or that you should not be trying to win. It's just to say that you will grasp the game more fundamentally and appreciate it more if you think of it as being about a power struggle between four factions in an unstable Mexico on the brink of dramatic change, change that you are trying to navigate your way through, rather than as a collection of game mechanics that you are trying to extract the most points from. As you play and come to grips with the game, the more gamerly elements will fall into place, but at the end of the day it's going to be the game's deep engagement with its subject that sells it – so build your relationship with it starting there.

The achievement of the most recent 3 Sierra Madre games (High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Profiriana) is that they've been able to mesh this subject engagement with clean, playable game systems. Previous games – American Megafauna and Lords of the Sierra Madre – took their themes too literally, cramming in representative game systems that turned out to be too many trees, not enough forest. Certainly High Frontier and the subsequent games require rather more player commitment and buy-in than a typical game to be worth the effort, but none are particularly more mechanically daunting than an average high-end euro. I found Pax Porfiriana to be much cleaner-playing and accessible than the complicated and thematically tortured Trajan, the thematic but mechanically clunky Dungeon Lords or Space Alert, or Fantasy Flight's straightforward but badly explained Android: Netrunner or Merchant of Venus, just to pick a few.

(As an aside, Origins: How We Became Human, the first of Sierra Madre's "modern" games, is an odd case. I love the idea behind the game and the systems are clean-playing and evocative. But many details of the game balance seems suspect – Acculturation is a major offender – in ways that make it not fun to play. I'm still in search of a set of tweaks that will let that game deliver on its potential. They must be pretty close at hand somewhere. Fortunately the later games seem to have gotten past this).

I think of the period covered by the game as a prequel to the great ideological wars of the 20th Century, the Spanish and Russian Civil Wars. Unlike those conflicts, which were full-on wars, Pax Porfiriana is more of a power vacuum. Ruled by a weakening Porfirio Díaz, Mexico is ready to be pushed in one of four ways.

The key to understanding Pax Porfiriana the first time out, something the rules dramatically fail to explain unless you read the historical background, is the relationship between these four competing factions: the Mexican Federal government of Díaz; the United States; the Mexican local governors, which the game views as akin to modern warlords; and the communist/anarchist rebels. Each faction is keyed by color, and is strongly linked to a "regime" (in the game, the current dominant political environment) and a type of prestige. So, for example, U.S. troops, enterprises, and politicians are blue and tend to fare well in the U.S. Intervention regime, in which the dominant political force is the U.S. actively meddling in Mexican affairs. They are likewise linked to the "Outrage" prestige, in which the U.S. is getting progressively more fed up with the anarchy on its border. Should Díaz be given a shove while the regime is U.S. Intervention, the competition to be Díaz' successor will be decided by Outrage, with a faction that has generated enough becoming governor as the U.S. annexes Mexico. On the flip side, the Communist revolutionaries are red and linked to the Anarchy regime and the Revolution prestige. Anarchy is hard on big businesses (mines and banks) but allows troop cards to move more freely. If Díaz weakens during anarchy and one player has managed to get a big enough share of the revolutionaries and their Revolution prestige points, they can take over after the elections. Díaz will have an opportunity to topple four times during the game, each of which can be under a different regime and so can be affected by different forces.

The relationships between factions, prestige, regimes, and victory are the core of the game and if you can grasp them in the context of the historical event, you will be most of the way to understanding the game. The White local warlords are the easiest: white troop and personality cards will have the Command prestige points directly on them and will themselves enable regime changes to the white Martial Law. Other factions, though, are more complicated: blue U.S. troop cards will change regime to U.S. Intervention, but the Outrage then required for victory will need to be engineered by Mexican elements. Loyalty is required to become Díaz' hand-picked successor should the regime remain in Pax Porfiriana, which can come from a variety of sources including businesses and politicians.

The rest of the game is pretty straight-ahead. Every turn you get actions to draft and play cards. You'll need to build up enterprises (banks, mines, plantations, gun stores) to generate cash. You'll want to recruit troops to protect those enterprises, extort your enemies, and provide political leverage (playing troop card frequently triggers a regime change). While you're doing that, you'll manage a wide variety of other special events, personalities, and institutions driven by action cards. There will be unrest to put down and factional strife. People will be thrown in jail. Lawsuits are filed, enterprises nationalized. The amount of historical detail here is amazing, but it is all built on top of a very clean-playing card game.

I like Pax Porfiriana for a lot of reasons. The main ones are the same reasons I like Republic of Rome: it presents a chaotic period in a chaotic way, with players struggling to navigate an unpredictable political landscape. Unlike Republic of Rome, it does it with very few actual rules and streamlined gameplay, accomplishing everything Lords of the Sierra Madre did with a fraction of the footprint. With a variety of paths to victory – Loyalty, Revolution, Outrage, and Command – players have flexibility in choosing different thematic paths. It manages to be chaotic without relying on the traditional and unsatisfying crutch of "take that" card play; events tend to mix things up more than simply hammer one player or another. The game rewards a nice balance of planning for the future and rank opportunism.

I think Pax succeeds for me because of this balance and nuance. The game comes with 210-ish cards representing enterprises, troops, personalities, and historical events (all of which are unique). In an average game you'll see maybe 60-80 of them. So each game presents only a slice of the whole environment, and will have a different texture as you have shortages or surpluses of troops or enterprises and some subset of the powerful, game-changing cards show up. On the other hand, its enough cards and a large enough percentage of the total for the game to retain thematic cohesion and present the players with calculated rather than arbitrary risk. Players are not going to be hosed for lack of opportunity – you should not have trouble building up your income and power base to be a player in the game (both of which could be problems in both Bios: Megafauna and Origins). A game which didn't generate enough enterprises or troops or cards of one faction to be interesting is certainly a remote possibility, but it's very remote and worth tolerating.

Especially in light of the game's duration, which is only about 2 hours when played correctly (the first time I played, I misunderstood a rule and we ended up inadvertently playing the Iron Hand variant which can be much longer with more players – 4 hours – and is not recommended). It's enough time to generate action, for players and factions to rise and fall and for the fate of Mexico to be decided, but it's also short enough to leave you wanting more.

So check it out. At only $35 direct from Sierra Madre, there is a lot of game in the compact box.


I'll close with some advice for teaching the game, if you're the one who gets to do that. It's my traditional advice: don't over-focus on mechanisms. Pax Porfiriana is complicated not because the game mechanisms are complicated; they are not. It's the relationships between the cards and the regimes – how the elements in the game are arranged – combined with the large number of options available to the players. So explain the factions, explain a little bit of the history. Because Pax Porfiriana has this different aesthetic, I think having an understanding of what the game is trying to say gives the players more useful context for understanding how to play it than simply running the sequence of play and explaining the individual actions.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rex: Final Days of the Empire

Back in the day, I was a huge fan of Avalon Hill's Dune. I must have played it a hundred times in the late 80s to mid 90s, enough to even have played the lousy Spice Harvest, The Duel, Landsraad, and Tleilaxu variants several times (you have to be pretty desperate for some variety to do that). Whenever someone designs some kind of stupid multi-way free-for-all euroish wargame these days (Antike, Space Empires, Sid Meier's Civilization, RuneWars, Conan, etc., etc.) I always feel like screaming “Hey! Dune did this right in 1979! Why are you still doing it wrong?” A terrific combat system, interesting deal-making diplomacy without backstabbing or force-of-personality persuasion, well-paced, with players able to come back after being out of it, and of course a colorfully drawn and faithful interpretation of Herbert's book are amongst the game's great strengths.

But it fell off out of circulation for me in the mid 90s, largely for one reason: the potentially long and unpredictable playing time. The joke was that a game could last anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 hours. It wasn't really a joke. While most games would finish in a workable 4 hours, the outliers are a problem especially since the fluid game situation can't just be called early and scored – if you've put in the 6 hours, you want to see how it ends.

When Fantasy Flight announced their Dune remake, sans Dune, I was intrigued mainly because they offered a 3-4 hour playing time. Could Rex get Dune back on the table, and would my fondness for Dune hold up in a truncated version and without the Dune theme? Or would it turn out that It was all nostalgia and my affection for Dune itself, and not so much the game?

I tore into Fantasy Flight last year for a run of truly wretched game designs, so I approached Rex with some skepticism. They seem to have done the right thing though, and kept the Dune game systems largely intact. Players fight over 5 strongholds on the map. They commit their armies, in the form of tokens, to battle, then win or lose on a combination of card-play and risk: each player decides how many tokens they are willing to lose, what leader to commit, and what weapons and defenses their leader will use. The loser loses everything, the winner loses just what he or she committed. Everything is decided secretly and simultaneously, which is cool, because the game has a lot of hidden information but also a fair amount of "information leakage" – you're likely to have some idea what cards and capabilities your opponent has, but unlikely to have a full picture. Weapons and defenses, along with a variety of special actions, are available each turn in a blind auction, and by blind, I mean around-and-around but you don't actually know what you're bidding on. What really makes the game then is that each faction has a variety of strong player powers that hugely impact the core systems: the Jol-Nar can see cards before they are bid on, the Xxcha can force you to do things you'd prefer not to in battle, the Empire has elite shock troops and collects all the money bid for cards. The game engine itself is fairly straightforward, but all the interesting, thematic, and rule-breaking special powers (mainly through faction’s powers, but also via the cards) are what brings it to life.

I ended up enjoying Rex more than I expected to. It does however suffer from 3 major problems.

Firstly is the expected Fantasy Flight horrifically bad graphic design. Compare the Dune map to the Rex map. Can you even easily see where the 5 victory strongholds are on the Rex map? Game-centric information is lost in a sea of visual clutter. The point-to-point map makes visualization of where the Sol Fleet is going next and which territories are at risk of bombardment hard to see. Again, compare to how clearly the same information (the Storm) is presented on the Dune map. As many will surely point out, it's fine when you get used to it, but graphical missteps pervade the design and introduce a non-trivial risk of game-breaking errors. Case in point: the last game I played, the Jol-Nar player played the whole game thinking she had the Emperor top leader for her traitor because the card background colors are not suitability distinct and not a strong element of the visual design, the reference sheet is unhelpful (the Emperor and Letnev both have 6s for their top leader and the sheet doesn't give names), and leader names have been completely genericized. It's not a mistake you make twice, but lousy presentation design basically ruined the game for her. This mistake would have been completely impossible to make in Dune. While this is a particularly egregious example, there are plenty of ways in which the presentation makes it more likely errors will occur.

Chani vs. General
Secondly, the Twilight Imperium backstory is almost completely generic and unconvincing and fails to provide any color for the game in a way which actively impedes gameplay. I knew the Twilight Imperium universe was pretty soulless, but I thought perhaps Dune's wonderfully evocative game systems would help bring it to life. One of the truisms about games, as with stories and photography, is that it helps a lot when there are people involved and not just factions or armies. This was one of the great things about the original Dune. When your leaders are Stilgar, Chani, Ortheym, Shadout Mapes, and Jamis, that means something. Even if you haven't read the book, these named characters with distinctive headshots on their large, round pieces build up associations over time and play and can be easily identified. It's been 15 years since I played or read Dune, and I didn't have to look up any of those names. I've payed Rex 5 times in the last 6 months and I couldn't tell you the names of the equivalent leaders; turns out they are Admiral, General, Colonel, Captain, and Commander. I can remember Chani has a 6 battle rating and can get worked up about her being a traitor. Not so much General.

While on the topic of the Twilight Imperium universe and its many shortcomings, I also must point out the troubling fact that Rex has almost completely erased women from the game. One of the great things about Dune was all the interesting and colorful female characters (even if they didn't always quite manage to escape genre stereotypes), and the boardgame captured this with 1 female faction leader (out of 6), 8 out of a total 30 leaders, and half the leaders rated 5 or higher. Amongst the book's “good guys”, Lady Jessica is a 5 (tied for the best Atriedes leader) and Chani a 6 (second to Stilgar's 7 amongst the Fremen). All of this has been excised. As near as I can tell, there is one female leader, Sol's Captain, but she just looks like one of the guys and you can't tell from the tiny picture on her leader piece, you need to go to the traitor card. The faction from Dune that was entirely women, the Bene Gesserit, has been replaced by alien turtles – all of whom look male to me, but it's of course a little hard to tell. Out of context it just seems dumb and like needlessly throwing away one of the interesting features of the original. In the context of a hobby with serious gender issues, it's especially frustrating and troubling.

Lastly, and most seriously, is Fantasy Flight's persistent trouble with game balance. Rex has been admirably tightened up and shortened from the original, which is great. In the process, though, it has made it far too easy for Hacan to win. As with the Guild in the original, Hacan and their allies win if nobody else has when time runs out. With Rex's greater unit replacement rates, easier leader revival, somewhat greater difficulty in playing traitors, and much larger influence (cash) supply, stalling for time and holding off players and alliances pushing for a win has become noticeably easier. Couple that with playing only half as many turns, and Hacan has won all of the 6-player games I've played, and it hasn't really ever been close. The situation is better with 4 or 5 players; 4 in fact may be the sweet spot. Unfortunately, without the tectonic stresses of 5 or 6 factions competing for Rex, the game just isn't as interesting. It becomes more of a tactical game and less of a power struggle.

Where does that leave Rex for me at the end of the day? I enjoyed it for a little while, and have to give Fantasy Flight their due for bringing this classic back to the table. Unfortunately it just has too many significant issues, and I still own Dune. Mainly it inspired me to break out my old copy of that game, and discover that at WBC they now play only 10 turns instead of 15, which would make for a game of roughly the same length as Rex – and Rex is in no way superior to Dune.

What about everyone who doesn't have access of the original? Rex is still pretty good by the modern standards of this sort of game – unlike Conan or Sid Meier's Civilization or Space Empires or their ilk, there is an interesting and solid game here (although play Eclipse with the alien races instead if given the choice). Dune itself is a tremendous piece of raw game design, showing how a number of chronic problems with this genre can be solved. While Fantasy Flight has made a number of missteps in adapting it, it's still a strong game, albeit one that will need a house rule to rein in the Hacan. It could have been so much better with more rigorous development and a less boring and sexist backstory, but it's still a game worth playing.