Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

PrezCon 2013 - Saturday

Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery
On Friday, during my walk-through of the vendor area, I'd seen Spartacus (designers Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart; artist Charles Woods; publisher Gale Force 9) laid out at the Gale Force 9 booth.  In fact, it was the only game that GF9 was selling at PrezCon.  The demo at the booth had given me a mistaken first impression:  The rep behind the table started talking about the combat mechanics, which seemed good but not great as skirmish mechanics go.  He kept saying, "There's a whole lot of other stuff with influence and bribery that's really important, too," but the impression that I left with was that the combat was central and that there was some kind of wagering that went on around it.  I just wasn't impressed.  That is, until Saturday...

An enthusiastic demonstration of
Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery
by Gale Force 9
The next day, GF9 had scheduled a full blown demonstration in the open gaming lobby, and I thought I'd sit in and get a proper opportunity to assess the game.  I am very, very glad that I did.  There is so much more to this game than gladiatorial combat.  The goal of the game is to increase your personal influence, and the resources to do so are gladiators, slaves, and gold.  Gold, baby.  Money talks in this game.  Gold buys slaves, gladiators, and guards.  Cards that improve your position or undercut an opponent take influence to bring into play.  (My favorite line from the demo:  "If you have no cards, you have no teeth.")  If you don't have enough influence to play the card you want to play, you call in a little help from your friends/enemies - and that's where the money comes in.  "Give me your support, and I'll pay you gold."  "Pay me first, and I'll back your play."  And promises are made, and promises are kept, and promises are broken.  That's where the treachery comes in.  And when you've built up your position and cash reserve enough to host a fight ticket, that's where the combat and the wagering come in.  Big moves in money and influence can happen around these gladiator fights.

From what I saw in 45 minutes, Spartacus is a brilliant game of manipulation and negotiation, risk and betrayal.  I think this game has an exciting future.

Doug Bass and Tom Snyder crushing me in a five-player
heat of Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep
Last fall, the convention director, Justin Thompson, had invited ideas for some new game tournaments for PrezCon this year, and my friend Keith Ferguson offered to run Lords of Waterdeep (designers Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, numerous artists*, publisher Wizards of the Coast).  Perhaps the big story of the convention this year was the popularity of the LoW tournament - something like 41 participants by Keith's account (if I remember correctly).  This game has a recognizable fantasy role-playing theme, but in fact the mechanics are unmistakably Euro in their execution - worker placement, resource management, building purchase - and all done in an elegant and approachable way.

For me, it was only the second time I'd ever played, and I needed a five-minute rules refresher just before jumping in, but by the second round I remembered how it all worked and was completing quests in no time.  My first quest was to recruit a lieutenant, which gave me an additional "worker" to place and therefore an extra action every round.  I think I outscored everyone else in the bonus points for my "lord," who gave me four extra points for every quest I completed in the "Arcana" or "Piety" categories, but otherwise my point generation was pretty mediocre.  Our friend Tom Snyder won at our table; I think I was a distant third or fourth out of five.

Chicago Express
(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
The previous day, I'd qualified for the Chicago Express final, which I was very excited about since my fourth-place finish in a six-player final the previous year.  The four-player final this year turned out to have three of us who knew each other - Tom Snyder, Mike Selznick (whom I'd met at PrezCon the previous year), and myself.  A nice fellow named John, whose last name escapes me, was our fourth.

I tried very hard to manage the opening auction as I'd learned to do before, but I passed on the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) share when Tom bid $18 for it.  I managed to secure the opening shares of both the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) and Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) railroads, and John bought the opening share of the New York Railroad (NYRR), which left Mike without a share at the start of the game.

Tom and I predictably started our respective expansions in a race for the west, while Mike initiated an auction for the second share of PRR, which he secured for a very reasonable price.  I tried to expand the B&O fast enough to beat the PRR to Pittsburgh, but Tom built PRR southeast ahead of the B&O and cut off my most direct route through the mountains, forcing the B&O to take a less direct route.  Because I'd paid only $14 for the only outstanding share of B&O, the company ran out of capital before reaching Pittsburgh at all.

Then began a series of auctions to try to outmaneuver each other for income.  Everyone else ended up with a share of PRR but me.  I ended up with two of the four shares of the B&O.  Mike had a second share of C&O.  And John kept buying up NYRR to maintain his majority position.

And then a strange thing happened.  We were in the middle of an auction for the last share of NYRR when Tom said, "Hey, wait, isn't this going to trigger the end of the game?"  Sure enough, we'd all been buying up stock so aggressively that we didn't even notice that PRR, B&O, and now NYRR were going to be all sold out of stock.  Three sold-out companies ends the game, so Tom stopped bidding, and John ended up paying something like $13 for a share of NYRR that gave him only an additional 5% of the total NYRR final dividend payout (80% instead of 75%) - probably something like $4.  When the dust settled after the final dividend was paid, Tom won with $27, Mike was second with $24, and John and I were tied for third with $22.  None of us had even made back the $30 we each started with.  The PRR hadn't even made it to Chicago before the game was over in about 37 minutes.

I am absolutely crazy about CE.  There is a lot to this game.  Lee Sensabaugh, who ran the CE tournament, made the point that it is more of a game of negotiation and getting other players to do what you need them to do than it is about investing, and I think he's right.  I'm still learning this masterpiece.

Daniel Solis's Belle of the Ball prototype
Photo by Chris Kirkman
Belle of the Ball
After the quick CE final, I hooked up with Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games as well as Darrell Louder and T.C. Petty III.  While Ben Rosset demonstrated "Brewmasters" [subsequently picked up by DHMG and retitled "Brew Crafters"] to Keith Ferguson at the adjacent table, Chris taught me Daniel Solis's "Belle of the Ball," which I'd seen in passing at UnPub 3 and really wanted to learn.  "BotB" has a bit of a Guillotine feel to it; a line of potential party guests appears, and players try to gain social popularity by attracting the most successful guest list (as measured by the compatibility of the invitees).  Mixed among the arriving guests are "Belles," cards that give special scoring bonuses or other one-time use abilities.

I got the hang of the game pretty quickly and really enjoyed it.  I think the only comment I had was that the Belle cards seemed a little too numerous in proportion to the rest of the guests, but that was just my impression in a single play.  After I got home, I downloaded the print-and-play files so that Kathy and I can try it out as one of our cocktail hour games.  I look forward to getting some more plays in soon.

Playing Coup with Ben Rossett (l) and T.C. Petty III (r)
Photo by Chris Kirkman
I'm starting to think that small-format social identity games are a rising phenomenon.  Are You a Werewolf? and The Resistance are two examples I've mentioned before.  Citadels falls into the category (despite also having a building deck), and Love Letters is a game that really intrigues me but that I can't seem to get my hands on.  Along those lines, I learned of the game Coup (designer Rikki Tahta, artist Andrew Higgins, publisher La Mame) from the French blog Gus and Co, which ranked it among the top games of 2012.  It is available in the United States from All About Games, a tiny company in Maine.

Well, lucky for me, Chris broke it out over dinner.  Darrell, T.C., Ben, and I were joined by Clyde Wright, so we had a six-player session of this terrific little bluffing game.  Did I mention that I am terrible at bluffing games?  Nevertheless, this little gem is a brilliant work of hidden identity and deduction.

Players each start with two identity cards face down out of a deck of 15.  The deck includes three copies each of five possible identities, each of which has a special ability.  On his turn, each player takes a single action.  Some actions are universally available, some cost money, and some can only be executed by certain characters.  Some can only be opposed by certain characters as well.  So players will take actions that they may or may not be allowed to take, and other players may challenge their ability to do so.  A challenge results in one player or the other losing an identity card depending on whether the challenged player in fact had the identity that he claimed to have.  A player who loses both identity cards is out of the game; the last player to have a face-down identity wins the game.

Did I mention that I am terrible at bluffing games?  I was completely out of my league with this game in this crowd, and yet I had a terrific time playing it.  I was very entertained to watch Ben, though, who, like me, is terrible at bluffing.  But he took a very conservative approach and did very well.  Coup is tremendous fun and is sheer genius for the social interaction.  It is now on my "must have" wish list.
(c) GMT Games
Used by permission

Formula Motor Racing
I joined Keith, who was running the Lords of Waterdeep semifinal, on the tournament floor along with Brian Greer and Glenn Weeks.  I brought a copy of Formula Motor Racing (designer Reiner Knizia, artist Rodger B. MacGowan, publisher GMT) so we could kill time waiting for the LoW tournament to finish.  FMR is a light little Knizia card game that I picked up at the GMT booth at PrezCon a few years ago.  It's a little bit of a logic puzzle that has players jockeying race cars in relative position to each other in anticipation of making a big move at the end of the race to finish in first.

As it happened, our friend Grant Greffey placed second in the FMR tournament earlier that day.  He had the lead going into the final card play, but one of the kids played a "Charge," which allowed him to roll a die and attempt to advance one place in line with each successful result (1-9 on a 12-sided die) but to fall back to the end and stop rolling if he rolls a 10-12.  The kid got five consecutive good rolls - a 24% chance of succeeding - to take the lead and win the tournament.

Some people complain about FMR that nothing matters until the last few card plays of the game.  I think that's only partly true.  Your chances of winning depend in part on your position going into those last few plays, as well as on your ability to avoid a catastrophe early in the race - a fate that Glenn was unable to avoid in our session.

East India Company
I made two changes to "East India Company" since PrezCon.  The first was to adjust the prices of tea and spice so that their profit margins were not so generous.  The second was to stipulate that the "China produces spice" tile could not be on the board at initial set-up.  I introduced these measures specifically to counter-act the "Spicy Craig," a killer strategy that Stephen Craig exposed at UnPub 3 last month.  That's what I love about playtesting - when a new player breaks your game and exposes a fatal flaw.

Doug Bass of Meridae Games had expressed an interest in playing "EIC," and after he was eliminated in the LoW semifinal, the opportunity was right for us to give it a try.  Doug, Brian, and Glenn were joined by Mike Senzig (of the CE final, above) for a four-player round.  I sat out to observe and collect playtesting notes, although it wasn't long before the late hour took its toll, and Glenn had to bow out early.  I stepped into Glenn's position for the rest of the game while he caught up on some well-deserved rest.

Doug adopted a very aggressive investment strategy.  He borrowed heavily to finance early construction of a large ship, much like the "Spicy Craig" approach.  But since there was no spice market on the board yet - nor tea, for that matter - all he could load that would be profitable was ivory.  And as it happened, for the first three turns or so of the game, the only available products were ivory and silver.  So those markets got saturated early in Europe.  I think at one point the price of ivory in Europe dropped close to zero.  Doug actually left a ship full of ivory at sea for several turns hoping a colony would open a new ivory market so that he could sell at a profit rather than unload in Europe at a loss.  The problem, of course, was that he was paying interest on loans all those turns, so he had a very hard time catching up at that point.

I tested Ben Rossett's premise that the dividend track is not worthwhile.  I deliberately did not buy dividends until the last one or two turns of the game, when I really had nothing else to do with my cash.  I think Ben's observation has merit.  I might improve the marginal bonus point return on dividends above a certain point, so that people who faithfully pay dividends get a worthwhile return on their opportunity cost in the long run.

I ended up winning the game by two coins over Mike, in part because I bought a big ship when the spice tile finally came out and made a couple of runs (although I was never able to buy more than two spices at a time).  But I wasn't the only one to buy spice, and I certainly didn't make a killing at it.  I paid off part of my loans, but not all.  So I am confident that I've pretty much fixed what Chris and I called "the China problem."

Doug asked me afterward if his strategy would have worked if the markets had been different, and that question sparked an important realization for me.  Yes, very much so: with a different market environment, heavy borrowing and big shipbuilding is a very good strategy.  But it's not a good strategy for all markets, and the revelation dawned on me that that's the hallmark of a good game - that the player has to adopt the strategy to the conditions of the game.

I started thinking about how different players had approached the game over the last dozen playtests:  At UnPub, Ben Rossett had invested in multiple small ships and sent them to all different colonies to return to Europe with all different commodities.  That approach works well when there are four or five different products available within a reasonable distance of Europe.  T.C. Petty had manipulated the tariff auctions to corner the ivory market.  Darrell Louder had taken a single medium ship and targeted whatever commodity nobody else was buying.  They are all good strategies, but their success depends on the market environment.  Each is suited to certain conditions, and none is a guaranteed success.

In thinking about the answer to Doug's question, "would his strategy have worked if the market had been different," I gained a lot of confidence in the soundness of the design of "EIC."  It's still got some necessary adjustments to make.  The markets are still a little chaotic.  But really, the variability of the market environment - and the dynamics of the supply and demand mechanism - really make it work in a way that I think is fun and engaging and challenging.  I think I've got something good here.

Two Rooms and a Boom
Near the end of our game of "EIC," I got a text from Keith that said, "You have got to come down here."  After he'd finished running the LoW final, he'd gone downstairs to where a big group was playing a social identity game called Two Rooms and a Boom (designers Alan Gerding and Sean McCoy, publisher Tuesday Knight).  I had not heard of this game, but I got the impression it was a little like Are You a Werewolf? from the standpoint that people had secret identities and were running around trying to figure out who was who and what to do about it.

Clyde Wright and Emily Pace were running this game for a group of about a dozen people or so.  I walked in, and before I knew it, I was given a card and pretty much told, "You'll figure it out."  Players are randomly given cards that identify them as being on either the red team or the blue team.  The blue team includes one player that is "The President" and the red team includes "The Bomber."  Players are then divided into two rooms.  The goal of the blue team is to ensure that the President and the Bomber are in different rooms at the end of the game; the goal of the red team is to get the Bomber in the same room as the President at the end of the game.

There are four rounds, during which the players in each room elect a leader and the leader decides whom to send to the other room at the end of the round.  Two players from each room switch to the other at the end of the first and second rounds; one player from each room switch at the end of the third and fourth rounds.  After the fourth round is over, the President and Bomber reveal themselves to determine which team won.

The nuance of the game comes in deciding whether to reveal your identity to someone else, whom to trust, whom to vote for as leader, and whom to send to the other room.  The game gets more crazy as more bizarre roles are introduced.  I can't say I got the hang of it, but I certainly had a great time and look forward to playing it again some time.

*boardgamegeek.com lists the following artists for Lords of Waterdeep:

Eric Belisle, Steven Belledin, Zoltan Boros, Noah Bradley, Eric Deschamps, Wayne England, Tony Foti, Todd Harris, Ralph Horsley, Tyler Jacobson, Ron Lemen, Howard Lyon, Warren Mahy, Patrick McEvoy, Jim Nelson, William O'Connor, Adam Paquette, Lucio Parrillo, Dave Rapoza, Richard Sardinha, Mike Schley, Andrew Silver, Anne Stokes, Gábor Szikszai, Matias Tapia, Kevin Walker, Tyler Walpole, Eva Widermann, Eric Williams, Matt Wilson, Sam Wood, Ben Wootten, and James Zhang 


  1. All of your talk about Chicago Express has made me realize that I need to try this game. It sounds like just the kind of game I'd love.

    I tried Coup for the first time last Friday and loved it as well (though I'm not good at bluffing either). I'm a big fan of games that deliver far more than their package might signal.

    Thanks for these posts!

  2. I find myself thinking about Chicago Express long after I finish playing. I think there's a lot to that game, and I've only begun to scratch the surface.

    I am totally hooked on Coup. I'm with you, Farmer Lenny: Sometimes great things come in small packages.

    Thanks for following!

  3. So, "Two Rooms and a Boom" was a lot of fun...although I think the late hour and the number of adult beverages I'd had contributed to that somewhat.

    With too many different roles, it was just chaos...but fun chaos.

  4. Yes, I'm with you. I'm not sure if the beverages helped make it more fun or more confusing (or both). By the time I jumped in, I don't know how many roles were introduced. My first role was the Red Devil, which meant I was required to lie. So if someone asked me "Do you want to reveal?" I'd say, "Yes" and then not show my card. Crazy.