Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pay attention when you discard

A couple of weeks ago at PrezCon, I played in two heats of Ticket to Ride (designer Alan R. Moon, publisher Days of Wonder), and it was in the first of these that I came face to face with my own absent-mindedness. 

As those familiar with the game know, each player starts with three tickets, each of which identifies two cities to connect by rail for points.  Longer routes in general are harder to connect but are worth more points, and having multiple tickets with overlapping connections make it relatively easy to compile a substantial score.  Of the three tickets at the start of the game, each player must keep at least two.  The disadvantage of keeping too many tickets is that uncompleted routes lose points at the end of the game, so it is prudent to keep no more routes than one is reasonably confident of finishing.

In my first heat, the three tickets I drew were all north-south routes with virtually no opportunity for overlap.  One was to connect Vancouver and Phoenix in the west, another Sault-Sainte-Marie and Houston in central Canada-U.S., and the third New York and Miami along the eastern seaboard.  So these routes had nothing in common, and clearly the logical thing to do was to discard one and strive to complete the other two.  After some thought, I decided to keep the eastern and central routes.  I discarded the third card, laid down the two tickets that I kept, and proceeded for the first half of the game to try to complete the two routes I'd decided to keep.

In a five-player game of TtR, there can be quite a lot of overlap among the competing players for key routes, and it became necessary for me to assemble a pretty convoluted network to get Sault-Sainte-Marie, Houston, New York, and Miami all connected.  I glanced at my tickets to double-check that I'd connected the right cities, and was horrified to discover that I still had Vancouver-Phoenix in my hand.  I had discarded New York - Miami without realizing it.

There was no hope at this point of making the Vancouver-Phoenix route; my opponents had by this time completely locked up the western U.S.  So the rest of the game involved scrambling for more tickets that I could reasonably complete by making extensions of my existing route in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, in the hope of accumulating more points.  I was actually rather successful, but I couldn't quite make up for the eleven points that I lost from having held on to Vancouver-Phoenix.  In fact, I came in second, only ten points behind the winner.  A most frustrating lesson in paying attention to one's cards.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A weekend of gaming

On the occasion of our son's birthday, his good friend and his friend's mother Sue Cochran came to stay for the weekend.  The boys played computer and video games in the basement; we played boardgames in the dining room.

We started with Cities and Knights of Catan (designer Klaus Teuber, publisher Mayfair), a favorite variant on Settlers of Catan.  Although Catan usually remains close a contest throughout the game, this time my wife Kathy pretty much ran away with it by exploiting a very profitable wheat port.  She left Sue and me in the dust and won handily.

Sue had played Agricola only twice before and wanted to try it again, so we played the family version (without occupations or minor improvements).  Sue outscored both of us on major improvements with the well, the pottery, and a cooking hearth, and Kathy got her farm running strong on grain and vegetable fields, but I was the only one to renovate to a stone house, which proved to be the difference in my very close win.

Sue next introduced us to Iron Dragon (designers Darwin P. Bromley and Tom Wham, another Mayfair title), which turned out to be the big game event of the weekend.  I read up on some of the reviews ahead of time, and a few comments were less than enthusiastic.  In the interest of simplifying the game somewhat and perhaps shortening the playing time, I convinced Sue to allow us to play without the event cards, which at least one reviewer described as randomly bad and not in general an improvement to overall gameplay.  She also agreed to make the "Rainbow Bridge" connection between Bluefeld and Octomare a permanent portal, which greatly simplified access between the new and old worlds in the north.  I can see that some fans of the game might think that we deprived the game of some of its challenge and flavor, but I think as an introductory session (in the context of wanting to play other games as well), the adjustments proved reasonable.

One reviewer expressed frustration at having to discard route cards frequently in order to find profitable assignments, but we didn't find that true in our session at all.  Admittedly, there were a number of times early in the game where it was necessary to spend more money building rail lines than would be collected in the final shipment, but I considered those costs to be an investment in infrastructure.  Many of the rail lines built early in the game turned out to be useful for multiple subsequent shipments, as well as the basis for a more extensive network later in the game.  Seldom did any of us discard route cards (if at all) in our session. 

In the end, I got to the point where I had enough surplus cash to extend my network to satisfy the victory condition of being connected to seven of the eight major cities.  After that, it was just necessary to complete several major shipments to reach a cash balance of 250 gold pieces to win the game.  All in all, I would say that it is a fun game, despite being a bit idiosyncratic in its design and execution.
Image courtesy of
Outset Media

We wrapped up with a game of Word Thief (publisher Outset Media), which my wife usually trounces me in.  I had a ridiculously good string of luck and managed to use all seven cards in three consecutive turns - a total of 60 bonus points.  I did win the game, but only by 27 points, which means that I needed two of those awesome turns just to keep my wife from crushing me.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Power Grid at PrezCon

I had two tries at Power Grid (designer Friedemann Friese, publisher Rio Grande) during PrezCon this year.  This is a game that I love to play but at which I certainly have no degree of mastery.  In other words, both my games were learning experiences.  We played on the map of Germany in both games. 

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
I have a tendency to move out aggressively in terms of building power plants and connections, because I like to build up an income base early on.  The first game was no exception.  I think I led the pack in income per turn for most of Phase 1.  The disadvantage of my approach is that the more cities to which you are connected (or the bigger your biggest power plant as a tie breaker), the later you come in turn order for purchasing fuel resources and connecting to new cities.  The quickest way to build high-capacity power plants is to buy plants that are big fossil-fuel-burners.  Buying resources late in the turn means paying the highest prices for coal and oil.  So I really had a strategy that couldn't last. 

But the real problem in my first game was that Aaron Buchanan was at the table.  Aaron is a terrific game player, and in our game he had built plants up to a capacity of 13 cities.  Late in Phase 2, we were all hovering around ten cities connected and powered, when suddenly Aaron made new connections to five cities in one turn, which brought his total connected cities to 15 - the trigger for game end.  None of us was expecting that.  Although he could only power 13 of them, it was more than any of the rest of us, which won him the game.  I finished third of five, for what that was worth.

In the second heat of Power Grid, I played among a delightful group of players, all very good.  Kathy Stroh, Jake J., Leslee E. (if I remember right), and a fourth whose name escapes me.  I followed largely the same strategy (because, frankly, I couldn't think of what else to do) except that I bought a couple of nuclear plants to reduce my dependency on fossil fuels.  It's a good thing I did, because late in the game, Kathy and the player to her left colluded to deplete the coal market and made it impossible for Jake to power what could have been a game-winning 17 cities (if he had the connections).  The game ended with four of us tied powering 16 cities.  The tie-breaker is cash, and Leslee and Kathy were tied with five electros each.  The third place player had three electros, and I was dead broke, finishing fourth in what was by far my closest game ever.  Both Leslee and Kathy advanced to the semifinal.

My good friend Grant G. made it to the Power Grid final, where he faced Aaron Buchanan and Bill Crenshaw, among other top-notch players.  They decided on the central Europe map for the final round.  Grant finished in fifth, which he attributes to an unfortunate early selection of location.

I would like to get Power Grid, which is ranked 5th overall on boardgamegeek.com, but it does not come well-recommended as a two-player game, and it takes upwards of two hours to play.  I have doubts that it would work for my wife and me in our late-afternoon gaming sessions.

Next post:  Tickets, please...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An old favorite and a new discovery

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
My first victory at PrezCon last week came Wednesday afternoon in the first heat of Alhambra (designer Dirk Henn, publisher Queen Games), a favorite of mine.  It was a very friendly game, despite the propensity for Elisabeth P., a PrezCon newcomer, to continually buy the very tile I was looking for.  (How dare she?) 

Winning in the first heat qualified me for the semifinal the next day.  Somehow in the semifinal I had a hard time waiting my turn.  Three times I tried to skip Tedd Mullally on his turn.  He was a good sport about it; he didn't even break the skin when trying to bite my hand off.  ;-)  Despite what I thought was reasonably strong play, I came in second in the Alhambra semifinal.  Losing semifinals would be a recurring theme for me in PrezCon this year.

Later that afternoon, my friends Brian Greer, Keith Ferguson, Glenn Weeks, and I got together for my first full game of Stone Age (designer Michael Tummelhofer [pen name for Bernd Brunnhofer], publisher Rio Grande), a worker placement game that reminds me of both Pillars of the Earth and Agricola.  As such, the game continually poses a variety of options for limited resources, all the more challenging when only one player can grow the family, upgrade a tool, or develop agriculture in a turn.  The rest are left to claim victory point options and collect resources to pay for them - not to mention gathering food for the family.  In my case, I thought I played a relatively solid game, though not good enough to place better than third of four.  I like this game, although I'm not eager to buy my own copy, given its similarity to Pillars and Agricola.  Nevertheless, it's a very fun game in its own right.

Next, bringing power to Germany and transportation to America...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One day at PrezCon

So much happened at PrezCon that I think I'll take it a little bit at a time.  Wednesday opened with an introduction to Leaping Lemmings by one of the designers, Rick Young (the other being John Poniske, the publisher being GMT).  My good friend Glenn Weeks was already familiar with the game, so we jumped in for a heat, which was going very well - until one of my lemmings failed miserably at what would have been a five-point cliff dive if not for an ill-timed rock slide.  Despite my last-place finish, this was a great diversion, and I'd love to try it out on the kids. 

LL is a nice light-hearted title with a decent degree of strategy.  It vaguely reminds me of Lost World: Jurassic Park from the standpoint of being a fox-and-geese kind of game (outnumbered predators trying to catch prey running the length of the board), but LL is far superior to Lost World from a play balance standpoint.  Rather than having predator players vs. prey players, everyone controls one faction of prey (lemmings), and control of the predators (eagles) rotates around the board.  It would be interesting to modify LW:JP along the same lines.

Unfortunately, LL sold out pretty quickly at PrezCon.  We all found it surprising that GMT would release this kind of title.  GMT has a reputation for solid wargames and a few other represented genres, but LL is downright goofy by comparison with their usual line-up.  It's very interesting to see GMT branch out in this direction.  Regardless, LL is now at the top of my wish-list for family games.

More posts to follow over the next few days - games played and lost, games bought, and the status of a game sold.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eagerly anticipated box art

Hey, I just got a note from my publisher with a first cut on the box art for the "eagerly anticipated game."  They've got a good artist, and he's done a great job capturing the flavor of the game.  The company has also created a new trademark, apparently for their family game line, to distinguish those titles from their traditional wargaming base.  So it's all very exciting to see come together. 

It's a little intimidating to think about how important box art is to the sales of a game, but I guess that's a fact of the marketplace.  For my part, I'd like to think the outside of a game box doesn't drive my purchase decision.  To me, the most important factor in deciding whether to buy a game is whether I've played it before.  Second is whether someone has recommended it.  Third is seeing it demonstrated, as at a convention, for example.  Fourth is whether I recognize the designer or publisher and trust that I can buy something "untried" just because of their reputation.  Seldom will I buy a game based entirely on the box, but I have done it before, and with some success (as Can't Stop) as well as with some disappointment (as Clue: Secrets and Spies).  Conversely, I've seen some games I would never put money down for, just because the outside was so poorly done. 

I'm curious to know how many people there are who will buy a game just based on what's on the outside of the box, and what they look for.  I also wonder how big a company has to be to spend time, money, and effort on real research to analyze customer reactions to box art and appearances. 

A funny thing just occurred to me:  All else being equal, I think I'd be willing to pay more for a game if it felt heavy when I picked it up.  That sounds dumb, but it's important to recognize one's own human foibles, and that's one of mine.  I specifically recall a conversation at HistoriCon with the president of one wargame company in particular.  They have some excellent naval wargames, but as we discussed the latest release and why it was priced the way it was, I casually reached down and flicked the corner of the mapsheet with my thumb.  The map was essentially a glossy poster paper mapsheet, not hard-mounted.  Mind you, the graphics were terrific, and the reputation for the series of games is excellent, but to me, if I'm going to pay a lot, it has to weigh a lot.  That's dumb, but it's true. 

Something to think about if I ever get into the production end of the business.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's gold in them thar moons

I'm working in earnest on an idea I've had for a while and mentioned here once or twice.  The game will be set at a time in the future when mining expeditions to other planets and moons in the solar system become cost effective.  Precious materials like gold, uranium, and tritium are scattered all over the solar system, and earth-bound industrialists will pay top dollar for them on the commodities market.  Players are CEOs of newly-capitalized mining companies seeking wealth - that is to say, "shareholder value" - by prospecting and mining rare raw materials as close as the moon and as far as Mercury or even Titan. 

This game is going to be a step up from my previous designs in terms of complexity and, I hope, nuance of game play.  The real balance I want to strike is to make sure that there is no single run-away strategy.  I want players to be motivated to take risks, but I don't want the game to devolve into a matter of dice and card luck. 

One thing I might be in danger of doing at this stage is trying to do to much.  I want to include a corporate strategy element, in which players decide how much to borrow to fund rocket missions and how much to pay in dividends to keep stockholders happy.  I also want to include a commodities market element, so that players deal with rising and falling prices of the raw materials they sell and the aerospace products and services they need.  I'm even entertaining the idea of have a futures market, so that players can sell inventory for future delivery.  I also want to have a space mission element, in which players are faced with the problems of getting equipment and crews to distant planets and moons and then retrieving the raw materials back to earth. 

I think this is going to take some real time to work out, and a lot of playtesting to be sure I have the right balance.  I really want this one to work.  I really want it to be fun.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Know when to fold 'em

With a new printer and a new set of blank business cards, I printed my first prototype of the submarine card game for which I'd adopted the title, "Enemy Unseen" (thanks to the suggestion from my gaming friend Paul R).  Although my wife Kathy isn't much for wargames, she was willing to give this one a try, just so I could test out the mechanics and see whether the rules made sense.

Right away there were some obvious problems.  First, business cards didn't shuffle well.  (This has been a problem for all my previous prototypes as well.)  Second, the font size on the submarine cards was too small.  Third, the game depends on two distinct parameters - detection range and firing range - but to the new player, they are too easily confused.  I was careful to discuss all the parameters that affect detection range first, and that went well, but as soon as I got into the mechanics of determining firing range and combat resolution, the mechanics really seemed to fall apart.

USS Scorpion
Artist - Viktor Stepansky
http://www.subart.net/uss_skipjack.htm 
First, the submarines:  I included an assortment of NATO and Soviet 1970s-era submarines, both conventional and nuclear, including attack, guided-missile, and ballistic-missile boats.  The point value for each ranged from a one-point deisel attack boat to a six-point nuclear ballistic-missile submarine.  Each also had a "sonar quality" that could improve detection range by up to four kilometers (km) and a "noise factor" that could contribute to the opponent's detection range (i.e. increase the distance at which you would be detected) by up to four km.  The submarines would not be revealed until combat was initiated, so you would not know your actual detection range - nor your opponent's - until you had committed to combat.

I included some complicating factors:  Action cards could be used to modify the acoustic conditions by changing the strength of the thermal layer, or to change (secretly) a submarine's depth between "deep" (below layer) and "shallow" (above layer).  The strength of the layer and the relative depths of the two submarines would affect their detection ranges.  Also, combat options included firing a single shot, firing a salvo spread, or evading without firing. 


Image by Mike Stapp
http://www.kfai.org/node/12158 
 For the combat mechanics, I tried to work from a basic premise similar to the idea of a stand-off in an old Western movie.  At one end of the dusty town street stands the Bad Guy, pistol holstered, gun hand poised.  At the other end stands the Sheriff, likewise ready.  "Bart, I'm going to take you in."  "You're going to have to come get me, Sheriff."  One pace at a time, they approach each other, closing the range until one suddenly draws his weapon and fires.  The other draws and fires immediately as well, so that the shots are virtually simultaneous and the resolution immediate.  "You got me, Sheriff."

Okay, a little corny, but here's the point:  The gunmen approach each other until the distance between them is close enough that one of them believes he can hit his opponent, but the other hasn't drawn his weapon yet.  In other words, the distance at which shots are exchanged is the greatest distance that either of them believes he can hit the other - or, perhaps, the shortest distance that both of them feel secure that they have a reasonable chance of not being hit.  The idea is to initiate combat close enough to hit the opponent but distant enough to have a chance that the opponent's shot will miss. 

My thinking for combat resolution was that once a player decides to initiate combat at a certain "firing range," that range is compared to his "detection range" to determine the chance of hitting the opponent.  As long as the firing range is less than the detection range, there is a chance to sink the enemy - the greater the difference, the more likely the sinking.  But it must also be remembered that the opponent shoots from the same distance and compares that same firing range to his own detection range, so that if he has a better sonar and/or you have a noisier submarine, you are more likely to be sunk than to sink your opponent.

In my first iteration (which my wife and I playtested last week), I had the players "bid up the shooting range" until one of them "calls" by initiating combat.  That was really counter-intuitive to my wife:  Why would the shooting range go up if we're supposed to be getting closer together?  There were also some problems with how to force combat if one player has a high-value submarine and he just wants to get away without getting sunk.  What keeps a player from bidding up the range indefinitely until there's no way either submarine could sink the other?

Now, in both the gunslinger example and in submarine combat, it actually happens backwards - they bid down the firing range until one pulls the trigger.  Perhaps we ought to say that the players reduce the "too-far-to-shoot" range, or the "I-feel-pretty-sure-you-can't-hit-me-from-here" range, until one player decides they are close enough to take a shot.  So in my second iteration of the game (playtested the other day), I started with a set of range cards dealt face up between the players to represent the distance between the submarines.  Each player could elect to remove a range card to reduce the total range, i.e., to close with the opponent.  If a player felt the range to be close enough, he could elect to shoot, and the opponent would shoot or evade in response.

To solved the "difficult to shuffle" problem, I used some card protector sleeves (provided by my son) in several different colors (the kind used by Collectible Card Game [CCG] aficionados - you know, the Yu-Gi-Oh fanatics).  I put the Soviet submarines in red sleeves, NATO in blue, Action cards in black, and Range cards in grey.  That seemed to work very well physically.

But even the second playtest wasn't very satisfying.  Although my wife said the firing range mechanic made a lot more sense, I realized that players are not in general motivated to change the acoustic conditions, since acoustics affect both submarines in essentially the same way.  I had intended to create a certain "cat and mouse" effect, in which players tried to second-guess each other's vertical movements while attempting to close the range without getting too close.  Instead, though, we found ourselves continually closing range to some arbitrary point, and then shooting at each other.  Whoever had the better submarine generally won. 

So the bottom line is that I didn't really have the variety of options that I'd intended, I hadn't created any key decision points, and basically didn't have a game that was fun to play.  So I think "Enemy Unseen" is a bust, at least for now.  I think an important lesson in project management is to know when to kill a project that isn't working, and this might be one.  That's okay.  Not all game ideas are good game ideas.  I might go back to it again, but for now I think I'll just put it in mothballs.