Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

S. Craig Taylor

Don Greenwood included the following note in his most recent newsletter to the Boardgame Players Association:
S. CRAIG TAYLOR, Jr: I regret to inform my many friends in the hobby of the passing of our longtime friend. Craig was a prominent wargame designer who left his mark on the genre with designs for such varied concerns as Battleline, Yaquinto Publications, Avalon Hill and Lost Battalion, among others. His work was steeped in his background as a miniatures enthusiast and a keen interest in military history - an area of expertise in which few were his equal. He authored virtually dozens of games, but will probably be best remembered for his seminal work on Wooden Ships & Iron Men. I had the pleasure of working with Craig for nearly 20 years at Avalon Hill and admired him for the honesty and principles with which he lived his life as well as his obvious skills. My life is richer for having known him. He will be sorely missed.
Wooden Ships & Iron Men is perhaps my favorite wargame of all time.  I remember buying it at K*B Toys in 1976, the year after it came out.  It was billed as an "Official Bicentennial War Game."  My copy is now "well loved," heavily worn from so many sessions of tabletop sea battles.

I met Craig Taylor at HistoriCon, I think six years ago, when he was with Lost Battalion Games and I was hawking my very first real game design, Diadochi.  I bought two games from him (Enemy in Sight and Task Forces at War) and sat in on his demonstration of the western front Sergeants! Expansion, which was just coming out that year.

Sad that people like him don't last forever.
Sergeants! (designer S. Craig Roberts) demonstration at HistoriCon 2006

Midway: Pyrrhic victory in the Pacific

My colleague Frank H. and I got together after work today for a game of Midway (designers Larry Pinsky and Lindsley Schutz, publisher Avalon Hill).  This was the very first wargame I ever owned, and the box shows that it has been a well-loved game over the 40 years that I have had it in my care.

Frank played the Imperial Japanese Navy, and I had the United States Navy.  We played the Basic Game with the Tournament Game fighter rule added.  We elected not to require the Japanese to reduce Midway before the invasion (because we agreed that it was a complication that made the Japanese position too difficult) and not to have surface combat (because that's just stupid in a carrier battle).

PBY Catalina - USN photo
I played a relatively conventional (to me) American approach.  I kept the American carriers and cruisers together for most of the first day, until I'd approached the theoretical limit of the IJN's advance, at which point I split out a couple of cruisers as pickets to augment the PBY Catalina efforts to track the Japanese fleet.  I was discovered by Japanese searches a few times and so backtracked to break contact and evade being tracked.  My maneuvers slowed my westward progress, and the IJN lead task force doubled back to await the arrival of more escorts, so there was no air action on the first day (3 June 1941).  We both spent the night fueling and arming planes in anticipation of the next day's battle.

We were able to find each other immediately upon daybreak of 4 June, which turned out to be a bloody morning indeed.  He had united the entire Japanese fleet - carriers and invasion force - except for two light cruisers for reconnaissance.  Our strike pilots must have waved to one another as they passed above the Pacific, each seeking to deny the other a place to land when the fight was over.  We had each split our fighters fairly evenly between Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and fighter escort, so the fighter pilots spent this first sortie jousting with one another but playing nearly no role in defending their respective fleets.

USS Hornet - USN photo
The Japanese strike force sought to inflict the most damage by drawing antiaircraft fire away from the protection of the carriers and inflict hits on escorting cruisers as well.  U.S.S. Atlanta came under tremendous pressure but devoted her AA firepower to the torpedo bombers that targeted Yorktown.  The Japanese were able to sink both Atlanta and New Orleans and heavily damage Hornet in that initial attack, but the strike aircraft were decimated in their dispersed, piecemeal approach runs that allowed every gun in the task force to find a target.

My tactical focus for the strike focus was exactly the opposite.  I focused all airpower on sinking the Atago, which served as the flagship for the invasion fleet.  Part of my thinking was that I had already shot down a lot of Japanese planes, so the carriers were already less effective.  But mostly I had my eye drilled on the prize - the protection of Midway Island from IJN troops.  As it happened, I heavily damaged Atago and suffered minor losses among my tightly concentrated aircraft, but sank no ships.

Our planes returned, and I decided that I was going to withdraw Hornet from the front line to save her from the brunt of the second Japanese wave.  So all fighters landed on Hornet to serve as a CAP home base, and all strike aircraft were divided between Yorktown and Enterprise.  Planes were fueled and loaded up, and they went at it again four hours later.

Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero
For the second round of air operations, I held all fighters back on CAP and sent the strike force out unescorted.  The Japanese had sent a third of their fighters as escort and held back two thirds on CAP.  The fighter battle in the vicinity of the American fleet inflicted tremendous casualties on the Japanese Zeroes and still left me with a few fighters to augment ship defenses.  But because I had divided my cruisers between two carrier task forces plus one on picket duty, I had only four cruisers defending two carriers.  Despite a sound AA screen formation and residual fighters, the Japanese dispersed attack method (and some fortuitous die rolling) resulted in the sinking of both Enterprise and Yorktown in a single battle.  It was not looking good for the Americans at all.

Meanwhile, my strike force on the heavily defended Japanese fleet did not fare so well.  Although I succeeded in sinking the Atago, my efforts to divide the Japanese AA defenses and inflict damage on carriers failed remarkably.  In retrospect, my tactics were not well thought-out.  I exposed a significant portion of the attack wing to AA fire that they might otherwise have avoided in a more concentrated strike (my preferred tactic).  I lost a significant number of aircraft while scattering hits among three battleships and the Hiryu.  Having lost their racks, seabags, squadron support, and landing strips to the demise of Enterprise and Yorktown, the returning aircraft had to reach the more distant Hornet on the remaining fumes of their tanks plus a generous tail wind.  It was necessary to throw about six elements of F4F Wildcats overboard to make room for returning SBD Dauntless dive bombers.

IJN Yamato
Government of Japan photo
My third strike came at 1700, just in time to see Yamato and her "little sisters" join the Japanese fleet.  The IJN did not launch a strike against the American fleet, because her own attack wing had been so decimated that she need the arrival of Hosho to replenish her Kate torpedo bomber strike force, which was fueling but not yet ready to sortie.  All available Zeroes were waiting in CAP for the American strike force, which evaluated the Japanese deployment and eschewed attacking the damaged but heavily defended Hiryu in favor of the smaller but vulnerable Hosho with her flight deck full of readied aircraft.  This focus shift proved fruitful, as Hosho went down immediately, and her Kates with her.

The morning of 5 June, Hornet had backtracked east to get within staging range of Midway, whose aircraft deployed to the deck of the Hornet to replace all those planes lost in the Hosho strike.  Later that morning came one more exchange of air strikes, and it was at that point that we realized that the Hornet and the seven remaining cruisers defending her would never be sunk by the few surviving Val dive bombers in the Japanese strike force.  That meant that the Japanese had done all the damage they were going to do for the rest of the game.

SBD Dauntless
Public domain

The Americans, however, still had about a third of its original Dauntless dive bombers and a few Avenger torpedo bombers from Midway.  In the fourth attack, I shifted tactics completely to pick on the cruisers at the outskirts of the AA screen.  I heavily damaged Mogami with minor losses to my strike force.

It was clear at this point that the Japanese were going to get no more points for the rest of the game, whereas the Americans had enough fight left to take out at least one more cruiser.  That would suffice for me to pull ahead in victory points and win the game, so Frank graciously conceded and requested a rematch with switched sides at our next opportunity.

Final score:

Japanese (Frank H.)
10 for sinking Enterprise
10 for sinking Yorktown
 4 for sinking New Orleans
 2 for sinking Atlanta
26 total

Americans (Paul O.)
 4 for sinking Hosho
 4 for sinking Atago
 3 for (presumed) sinking of Mogami or another cruiser
16 for preventing invasion of Midway
27 total

It was a very fun game, but this was a narrow, Pyrrhic victory by any measure.  Nimitz would not be happy with Spruance if he had returned on Hornet with no other carriers and had meanwhile left the Japanese fleet largely unscathed.  But Frank believes, and I'm beginning to agree, that the protection of Atago and therefore the invasion of Midway is extremely difficult - perhaps impossible for the Japanese player.  That 16-point deficit therefore makes it necessary for the Japanese to sink at least two and probably all three American carriers to win the game.  And if the Americans sink one or two IJN carriers themselves, then the Japanese cause is daunting indeed.  As it is, I won a narrow victory despite some serious tactical errors.  I'm going to go back and brush up on some of the writing on this topic and think through how I need to attack and defend ships, as well as to revisit the Japanese position and strategy.

Submarines are so much easier to operate.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Russian Campaign - Session report from the front

To commemorate the 22 June anniversary of the beginning of Operation: Barbarossa (when Germany violated its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and attacked Russia to open the eastern front of World War II), my friends Grant Greffey and Paul Rice got together for a game of The Russian Campaign: Fourth Edition (designer John Edwards, publisher L2 Design Group).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Lambasted in Le Havre

I got home early enough from work that Kathy and I could play a substantial game today, and right away I suggested Le Havre (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artists Klemens Franz and Uwe Rosenberg, publisher Lookout Games [website in German]).  We'd played once before all the way through, and we were learning as we went along.  Kathy won last time by a rather convincing score, but this time I figured I had the major points of the game worked out and thought I'd do better.

Well, not so much, perhaps.  Today we played another shortened version of the two-player game.  (Shortened?  Really?  We still went a solid hour and a half, even though we understood the actions and got into the rhythm of the game.)  Several times I lost track of the number of turns I had left before the end of the round, or the amount of food I'd need, or the amount of energy I'd need to build a ship or take some other action crucial to my master plan.  So, much of the game for me was two steps forward, one step back.  

I jumped to a pretty substantial early lead by focusing on building the most valuable buildings I could as soon as possible, so I ended up with the Steel Mill very early in the game.  It's a great source of 22 points, but if you aren't prepared to make coke or charcoal, convert a bunch of iron, and build a steel ship or sell the steel, well, then, there's not much point to having a steel mill, now, is there?  Oh, yes, Kathy paid me to use it once ... and shipped the steel using her Shipping Line for a whopping 32 Francs in one turn.  Well, so much for my commanding lead from a 22-point building.  
Kathy's winning array of buildings.  Note her action token denying me access to the Shipping Line,
so that my hides would languish undelivered and useless on my docks.

So as you might have guessed, despite my large building construction, Kathy ended up with a huge pile of money at the end and won the game by the score of 115 to 99 - a closer margin than our first session, but still an object lesson in the fact that I still have quite a bit to learn about this wonderful game.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tale of Two Game Designs

Burton ship, image courtesy of
I've actually had two game designs in work.  I've already mentioned one, "East India Company," and today I typed up a number of rules changes based on the Father's Day playtest session that went so well.  I feel like just a few minor adjustments have really improved the initial setup (making sure that the initial commodity-colony tiles are not too far away from Europe), end game (going through two-thirds of the tiles rather than just half), dividend declaration mechanic (simplified to a table-read of dividends-to-points), cheaper ship construction, cheaper colony investment for taxes, and more appropriate physical component sizes.  I'm almost ready for another playtest.

I haven't mentioned the other work-in-progress, which I actually put together sooner and playtested a few times already.  This earlier design has the working title "Supply and Demand."  The board is a matrix with axes indicating supply (horizontal) and demand (vertical).  A cross-reference of each index yields a commodity price on the board.  A transparent marker on the board shows the current price of the commodity.  Players get partial information into cards that show positive or negative movement in supply and/or demand.  Players then buy and sell "contracts" among each other at whatever price they think will earn a profit when all the cards are played face up and the final market price resolved.  Players who bought markers have to sell them to the bank at the final market price; those who sold markers to other players have to buy them back at the final market price.  So a profit is made when a player bought lower or sold higher than the final market reconciliation price.  After two playtests (one at home, one with my local gaming group), I made some simplifications and other improvements.  I think the result is pretty smooth and ready for some serious attention.

The problem is that I just read on Seth Jaffee's blog about a very similar-sounding game called Panic by James Earnest, Greg Parsons, and Mick Sullivan.  This seems to be the story of my short game-design life.  I could dedicate an entire blog post to games I've designed just in time to discover another professionally made game that already does what I was trying to do, better than I did myself.

Oh, and now I find that there is already a computer game with the title East India Company, so I guess I will probably have to change the working title of my colonization-trade game, too.

Nature of the beast, I guess.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

East India Company: Father's Day playtest

Image courtesy of
My wife asked me what I wanted to do for Father's Day, and the answer was easy:  I wanted the whole family to playtest my game design work-in-progress, "East India Company."  So this afternoon was the first true playtest of EIC with real people.

Rules explanation took rather a long while, and the game started slow.  I was really afraid that I was going to lose the attention of my 11-year-old altogether.  But as the game started to flow and he started to get the knack of how it worked, he really started to enjoy it.

EIC involves loading money on ships, sending them to far-flung colonies to buy products, and then sailing them to another location to sell for profit.  Early on, only a few colonies produce only a few things, and the only market at which to sell them is Europe.  Generally, the more distant colonies produce the more profitable goods, so there is something of a trade-off with respect to profit vs. opportunity cost.

One fear I had in the early design stages was that the game was too linear and that a few basic strategies would dominate the game.  That didn't turn out to be the case at all in our playtest.  My youngest son took the short route to West Africa, bought tobacco there, and sold it in Europe for a modest profit.  The up-front cost was so low that he could afford a second ship, and before long he had a tobacco profit engine going as a reliable source of income.  My wife went for the long-haul big-money strategy.  She sent a ship all the way to China for a load of spices.  Unfortunately, she ended up without enough capital to send a second ship anywhere else, so she spent a good part of the game (eight turns) waiting for her China spice ship to come in.  I took the middle ground, picking up ivory in East Africa.  My 16-year-old was the big gambler; he took out a loan, invested in new colonies, and levied tariffs all over the trading world trying to make money off other traders (or else keep the best markets for himself).  So I was very gratified that the system motivated multiple approaches.

I found a number of significant (but not back-breaking) flaws and took a lot of notes.  Perhaps the biggest was my wife's down-time waiting for her slow boat from China.  All of her capital was tied up in her Chinese venture, and because it took so long to make the round trip (and no other spice markets opened up until late in the game), she didn't realize her profit until halfway through the game.  Until that happened, she was just passing in every Market Phase, unable to take any other Market actions while we were all loading and unloading ships in ports closer to home.  Now, admittedly, an option she chose not to exercise was to take out a loan from the European banks and finance a second ship to develop an income stream.  She took a conservative approach in that regard, and I wonder whether loans are too burdensome to motivate borrowing.  It's hard to tell whether the game is flawed, or whether I just need to tweak the risk-reward balance so that players may reasonably finance trade ventures if the profit margin outweighs the interest.

I also had a few physical lessons learned, just in terms of game piece sizes and how they obscure information when placed on the board with each other.  Levying a tariff involves placing a poker chip and a player marker on top of the colony commodity tile; that placement prevents reading the tile without moving the tariff marker.  Also, the ships were so small relative to the poker chips that it was hard to tell the nationality of any ship with money on it.

All of us were reluctant or unable to build any ship bigger than a brigantine (the smallest size) until very late in the game, at which point the money invested in a bigger vessel is unlikely to be made back before the game ends.  I think I need to make ships easier to build.  Part of the issue in this particular session is that so few colonies produced timber, normally the most common product of all.  And cheap timber facilitates inexpensive ship construction.  In fact, six of the seven colonies could produce timber, but only one timber production tile came out during the game.  So timber was less common in our session than it would normally be.

Nutmeg from Spice Islands,
Indonesia - image courtesy
But that uncharacteristic scarcity of timber actually evinces a strong positive feature of this game.  Tile draws determine which colonies produce or consume which goods.  I think the game gets a lot of replay value from the different trade relationships that can develop among the colonies.  In our game, it happened that China produced spices and consumed tobacco.  So we found great profitability in sending a ship to West Africa with just enough money for a load of tobacco, which it would bring to China and sell for more than enough money to buy a load of spices, which in turn brought a hefty profit back in Europe.  The net profit margin for the entire trip was therefore enormous.

I had some ideas for player's aids as well.  Some mechanics (especially declaring dividends for bonus points) seem more complicated than they need to be, so I should rework those for smoother execution.  And the early game seemed (to my family at least) to be very slow, only to end abruptly just when it seemed to be really picking up steam.  So I'll probably adjust the starting conditions and game end triggers.

But the great thing about the whole experience is that my eleven-year-old said several times afterward, "I really like that game," all the more gratifying after his early-game confusion and difficulty.  Once he got the hang of it (which really started to click for him when his tobacco route kept making money), he really enjoyed it.  I think everybody did, and I really appreciated their patience and willingness to be my Guinea pigs for an afternoon.  The bottom line is that I think the game is fundamentally sound and that I just have some adjustments to make to get it in good running order.

I'm very excited about where EIC is going.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Boardgames in the backyard: Perry Rhodan returns

The first time we tried Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League in the backyard was the first time either of us had played.  It's not a complicated game, but it does take us a little while to come up to speed, so we never finished our first game.  But today we sat down out on the rocking bench in the backyard with our chips and salsa and cocktails, and launched right into outer space for our second round of PR:TCL.

Spring weather brings out the shorts and the backyard boardgames.
Before long, we were picking up and delivering all over the Rhodan solar system.  We came to understand the importance of acquiring technologies early.  We had essentially the same technologies in play by the mid-game, except that Kathy picked up an extra Replenishment card that I never matched.  That extra card draw might have made the difference in the game in the long run.  The lead changed hands several times before Kathy came up with several strong turns and pulled away for a big win.  

As I mentioned before, the game fits snugly on the little glass top table we have out back.  No board in the conventional sense, the play area consists of a sun for a point/money track, six planets in a line, and their associated goods cards alongside them.  There are not a lot of small parts that can get lost off the table into the paver gravel.  Card play is manageable in the available space.  The game play is pretty engaging despite a fairly small set of moving parts.  In our search for games that work outside, this one is a winner.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

East India Company: First prototype playthrough

Sir James Lancaster, commander of
the first East India Company voyage
This new game design project "East India Company" really has lit a fire under me.  In two days I put together a rough prototype and conducted a solitaire run-through to see what works and what doesn't.  I took some notes for immediate rework, like adjusting the commodity market prices to make them more profitable.  (No sense in sailing all the way to east Africa and back if you can't turn a profit on a shipload of goods.)  I also need players to each have his own colored ships (rather than common ships with player markers to distinguish who owns which).

I finally learned why so many games use tile pulls rather than card draws for some randomization functions.  It's very difficult to shuffle cards that have information on both sides without inadvertently compromising the randomness and uncertainty.  So right away I know I'm going to replace the 21 colony-commodity cards with tiles in a tile bag.  (I'm not sure how I'm going to do home-made tiles for my next prototype; I'm open to ideas if any reader has some.)  Right away, that fixes the two-sided card problem, plus tiles will take up a lot less room on the board.  My first prototype map was enormous (three-quarters of the dining room table), but now I have a way to scale everything down to much more manageable dimensions.

A lot went right in this play-through, though.  The mechanic I came up with for pirates and rebellions works very well - significant enough to require some risk management, but not an outrageous random turn of fate that shifts the balance of the game.  I think I like the way I have trade routes laid out on the map.  There is a nice conundrum between shipping cheap timber in from colonies to build ships, or to pay for the timber in Europe at premium prices to save time.  Many things seem to have worked right the first go-round on the table.

I think I should type out all the rules before my next play-through.  I found that I kept changing the order of events in the market phase, which means I haven't got a clear idea of how it should really go.  Putting it down in writing should clarify my thinking on that part of the game.  I'm also happy with how the loan mechanism works.  I had one "player" go into debt to finance an expedition, but the interest payments started exceeding his cash flow, to the point where he needed a subsequent loan just to finance the first debt.  Classic money management problem.

The bottom line is that I've accomplished more in about three days with "East India Company" than I did in many months with "Gold on Mars."  I'm really excited about this project.  More to follow, I'm sure.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sometimes it takes a whole new theme

I had not been able to make my interplanetary mining game "Gold on Mars" work in a way that made sense to me.  I was frustrated with trying to model space flight in a workable yet representative way.  Things just weren't making sense on the drawing board.  And the things that did make sense ended up looking too much like High Frontier.  I shared the difficulties I was having with my game-playing historical-mystery-writing wife, and she said, "instead of setting it in the future, have you considered setting it in the past?"

Coins of the Modern East India Company of England
Image courtesy of emeritus.ancients.info
It wasn't long before I had turned the theme around completely.  My working title is "East India Company."  Instead of CEOs of aerospace mining companies, players in this new design represent 18th century investment and trade companies. Players seek exotic commodities in far-flung places of the New World and the Far East, rather than rare earths among the inner planets and the moons of the gas giants.  Ships travel by trade winds rather than rocket fuel.  The result is a much more elegant design, eminently more playable, one that retains the commodity market elements that I really wanted to keep without a lot of unnecessary complications that I had adopted in the course of trying to make space flight investment work.

I've sketched out a basic map and typed up an initial set of cards, each of which describes a marketable product from a colony somewhere around the world.  Players will seek to monopolize colonies, build ships, and find ideal trade routes to maximize profits.  One element that I have just begun to consider is the ability to corner a market and how that might improve profitability.  Trade with the most active colonies will be threatened by pirates as well.

I've pretty much got the entire concept in my head and the most crucial, numerical elements on paper.  The next step is, naturally, a playable prototype, followed by playtesting.  I'm hopeful that I've got a good concept that I can develop into a game that crosses commodities trading with pickup-and-deliver in a fun, approachable way.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Boardgames in the Backyard II: Discovering Perry Rhodan

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
As a joint birthday gift, my good friend Grant G. gave Kathy and me a copy of Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League (designer Heinrich Glumpler, artist Swen Papenbrock [webpage in German], publisher Z-man Games).  Grant knows that I play more games with Kathy in a two-player format than I do any other format with anyone else, which makes PR:TCL a particularly thoughtful gift.  As it happens, I'd read a few reviews and already tagged it as a "must have" on my wish list, so I was particularly happy to receive it.

We finally got it to the table during one of our few cocktail hours this week, in the backyard on a beautiful spring afternoon.  (She had a French 75; I had a Margarita.)  We discovered that Perry R. sets up very comfortably on our little outdoor table - a sun with a spiral scoring track, a row of six planets, and five goods cards alongside each planet.  The game is compact, visually very appealing, and relatively quick to set up.  We both picked up the rules fairly quickly.  Money and victory points are equivalent; the first player to reach 70 currency units wins the game.  (The names of the planets, the races, and even the unit of currency are ridiculous and nearly unpronounceable, so I won't bother to look them up and repeat them here.)

Agent Infiltration intervention card
Image uploaded to
by David Gerrard
Each turn consists of a move action, two planetary actions (load a container with goods, unload a container to sell the goods, or buy a permanent technology), and two interventions (single-play action cards).  Those five steps can be taken in any order, so it is not uncommon to load a container (first planetary action), move to another planet (move action), unload a container (second planetary action), and perhaps play one or two intervention cards, such as delivering a passenger to his/her/its home planet.  Unloading containers and delivering passengers gain money, i.e. victory points.

Some interventions are innocuous, but others have a "take that" flavor, such as switching locations with your opponent or switching contents of containers.  Kathy seemed to get the knack of the game first, but I found my groove and caught up to her after a few turns.  The lead traded hands a few times before we had to stop the game prematurely for dinner.  (We had a late start from having to learn the rules - not uncommon when we pick up a game for the first time).

So we came away with a very favorable impression of PR:TCL as a light, compact, fun game with quite a bit of nuance and tactics to keep it interesting.  I think card luck might turn out to be a significant factor as we play it more, but tactical decision-making still seems to count heavily on the game progress.  We look forward to trying it again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Sand-blasted in Samarkand

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
In my last post, I mentioned that I'd picked up Robber Knights as an after-thought in the FunAgain Games spring cleaning sale.  But the game that I snapped up with deliberate intent in that sale as soon as I saw it was Samarkand: Routes to Riches (designers David V.H. Peters and Harry Wu, artist Jo Hartwig, publisher Queen Games).  I had put this game high on my wish list after reading good reviews and then realizing that its designers included Harry Wu, inventor of one of my very favorite games, Chicago Express.

As I read the rules the first time, I feared that S:RtR would turn out to be a warmed-over version of CE.  Camels replace trains, merchant families replace railroad companies, ... was it just a variation on a theme?  But now that Kathy and I have a played it through a second time, I realize that S:RtR is a different game altogether, one in which a few similar mechanics are combined in some altogether new ways to make for a completely different decision space.  

Each turn a player may take one of two actions:  Pay a dowry to marry into a merchant family, or expand the trade routes of a merchant family into which he or she has already married.  Merchant families form trade relationships when their trade routes meet for the first time.  Players earn points for forming trade relationships involving families into which they are married.  Among other things, points are also scored for trade routes that reach trade locations corresponding to goods whose cards they hold - with a bonus for being married into the family of such a trade route.  

Cocktails and camel trails
The result is a game that encourages network-building among trading families, with a premium on being married into the right families and on initiating the trade relationships.  I'm reminded of an article (or podcast perhaps) I came across some weeks ago that discussed the transitional course of some games, particularly network-building games, where things seem to happen in isolation early in the game and then reach a kind of tipping point in which every move seems to create another connection.  Acquire is an example of such a game, in which hotel tiles are added in bits and pieces around the board early on, until before you know it, medium-sized hotels are taking over other hotels and forming huge hotels over the course of just a few turns.  Ticket to Ride can be the same way, as train routes suddenly start to collide.  It's almost avalanche-like in the way the game accelerates into a phase-transition from the early stages to the end-game dynamic.
Dromedaries dot the landscape of the Middle East

The significance of this network-building effect is that players need to be alert to the fact that strategy changes drastically as the tipping point is approached.  In our game this afternoon, I played very conservatively early on, not wanting to deplete the resources of the families into which I'd married by expanding the camel routes too rapidly.  I thought I had a sound, methodical approach to the game.  Kathy and I developed trade routes practically on opposite sides of the board, and I actually worried at one point that we might not interact at all, and that the game would be very boring.

Kathy's mercantile in-laws
That changed rapidly when I married into the Alan (yellow) family, where Kathy already had an interest.  Suddenly neither of us could take for granted where the camels of the Alan family would go.  She soon responded by marrying into the Hun (black) family that had been my focus area for much of the early game.  Meanwhile, she also developed a number of trade relationships among her own families and snapped up goods tokens at every opportunity.  She made the point-gathering transition much faster than I did, and before long she was moving to trigger game-end.  Suddenly I found myself scrambling to grab points that I thought I'd be able to accumulate at my leisure.

The end result was that Kathy beat me in every category of victory points with a final score of 83 to 61.  Clearly I had been out-married, out-traded, out-cameled, and out-cashed.  We both had a great time with Samarkand, and next time I will be watching out much more closely for the network avalanche.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Boardgames in the backyard: Robber Knights

Now that the weather is nice, the annual challenge for Kathy and me is to find two-player games for our cocktail hour that work on the tiny glass outdoor coffee table that we have in the backyard.  We have a number of favorites that I'll discuss in the coming weeks, but today's game, Robber Knights (designer RĂ¼diger Dorn [website in German], artist Michael Menzel [website in German], publisher Queen Games) is a recent discovery that is quick, compact, and a tight game-playing challenge.

I came by Robber Knights as an afterthought during the FunAgain Games 2012 spring cleaning sale (which at this writing is still going on).  RK was one of those checkout-window, "hey, by the way, before you go, we're selling RK at 67% off - why don't you throw that one in your shopping cart, too?" kind of links (which at this writing is apparently still available at that price).  For ten bucks, based on a cursory review of the boardgamegeek.com entry, I decided to take a chance on it.

We've played twice now, and I have to say that RK is a clever little game-playing challenge.  Players lay up to three tiles in a turn.  Tiles depict various terrain, some of which (cities, villages, castles) are worth points if controlled by a player's knight at the end of the game.  At the time a castle tile is laid, a player may deploy knights from that castle along a row or column of previously laid tiles to claim them.  Previously claimed tiles can be subsequently claimed by an opponent's knight, but only if certain movement and stacking constraints are satisfied.  Once deployed, knights do not move for the rest of the game; they simply hold claim to the tile until it is taken by another player.  So the strategy comes in laying tiles in a way that allows one's own knights to lay claim to points while leaving tiles minimally vulnerable to knights of other players in subsequent turns.

I think of this game as a cross between Carcassone (tactical tile-laying) and Othello (row/column driven shifting control of spaces on the board).  The "robber knight" theme is minimally engaging; the game is abstract to all intents and purposes, and as it happens, that suits me just fine in this case.

Kathy and I have played twice.  In the first game a week or so ago, our scores were tied by pure luck of fumbling around trying to figure out the tactics and techniques of taking and protecting points and preserving resources.  The rate at which you use up tiles and knights is discretionary - one to three tiles laid per turn, and zero to five knights deployed every time you lay a castle tile.  Once you've deployed your last knight, you can gain no more points.  Once you've laid your last tile, you're done with the game while the other player(s) continue until all tiles have been laid.  We haven't quite established whether there is an advantage in harboring tiles for the end of the game, but it certainly seems important to keep track of how many castles you've laid relative to how many knights you've deployed.

In today's game, we played much more quickly than in our first round, albeit more thoughtfully and more conservatively.  We were not eager to spend knights or lay three tiles in a turn unless sure that the point return was worth it or the points acquired would be safe from re-claiming.  I won this afternoon's game by five points, owing in part to one turn of perfect tile luck in which I drew a city, a village, and a castle and was able to deploy five knights to score eight points (including a village that was already on the board) in a protected location that Kathy could not come back and claim later.

I should point out that although tile luck is a bit of a factor, it is tightly mitigated by a semi-ordered tile stack. I'm reminded of the cards in The Speicherstadt, which are divided into four "seasons" that are each shuffled independently and then stacked to form a semi-ordered draw pile.  Here in RK, a player's tiles come in five ordered groups of five shuffled tiles each (plus four specific tiles on the first turn), so there is a semi-predictable distribution of castles, villages, and cities that become available over the course of the game.

Given the relatively quick play of this game, the compact table-space it occupies, and the tight tactical challenges that it offers, I expect we'll play RK a fair amount this summer.