Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hip-pocket wargames

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
My friend Grant and I had plans to play a three-player round of The End of the Triumvirate (designers Johannes Ackva and Max Gabrian, artist Andrea Boekhoff, publisher Z-Man Games) Friday afternoon, but our third player never showed.  Having lost an hour waiting, and me having to leave less than two hours later, we were faced with having to come up with a quick two-player game on the fly.  (We eschewed the idea of playing TEotT as a two-player game, which is possible but which, in our opinion, loses the essence of the game.)  Now, Grant has quite the collection, and I was quite happy with what we ended up playing - Traders of Carthage (which is on my "must have" wishlist) and Oz Fluxx (another in the series of light-hearted Fluxx games by Looney Labs).

Filler games like ToC and Fluxx accommodate this niche perfectly.  But both of us were wishing we'd had a wargame locked and loaded as a contingency to knock out in our hour-and-a-half window of opportunity.  In retrospect, we certainly could have played my miniatures favorite De Bellis Antiquitatis or the quick and dirty card game Down in Flames: Zero!  Even a game of chess might have worked, and I think we considered it.  Grant specifically mentioned he would have liked to have played a Columbia block game, if we'd had more time.  But when you don't have your miniatures handy or can't lay your fingers on the right game on the spur of the moment, we found it hard to whip out something that's both meaty and quick.  

So the situation spurred a conversation on Tuesday among some of us about what wargames would have fit this situation - something at hand on the shelf that can fill a contingency window of an hour and a half or so. "For short wargame, break glass."  Paul R. reminded me that Scenario 3, "Stuart's Raid," from Stonewall Jackson's Way is very quick.  He also told me that just the previous Thursday, he and Frank H. had completed a scenario of the Avalon Hill classic Caesar's Legions in two hours - including set-up, rules review, play, and clean-up.  PanzerBlitz also came up in our conversation. 

So I thought I'd review my own collection and see what candidates I have as "hot standbys" for spur-of-the-moment wargame options.  Here's what I come up with as good options from games I have on hand:

Image courtesy of
GMT Games
  • Down in Flames III: Zero! (designer Dan Verssen):  GMT's clever card game of World War II dogfighting can be knocked out in less than an hour pitting a flight of four American aircraft against four Japanese.  Always fun.
  • Memoir '44 (publisher Days of Wonder):  Richard Borg's fun, approachable World War II game that starts in northern Europe but whose expansions extend to all theaters
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men (designer S. Craig Taylor):  One of my very favorite games, an Avalon Hill classic handling of tactical naval combat in the age of sail, from single frigate engagements to large fleet actions
  • Panzer Leader (designers Dave Clark, Randall C. Reed, Nick Smith) and
    (designer Jim Dunnigan):  Two more Avalon Hill classics, timeless treatments of battalion-level armor and infantry combat on the western and eastern World War II fronts, respectively
  • Battle Cry  (Avalon Hill / Hasbro):  Richard Borg's American Civil War predecessor to Memoir '44
  • De Bellis Antiquitatis (designers Phil and Sue Barker and Richard Bodley Scott):  The only miniatures game on this list, appealing for its small scale and rapid play time.  Our collections are 15mm scale, which means each army fits in a cigar box and the battle can be played on a two-foot-square board with a half-dozen pieces of terrain.  Simple, quick, and still tactically challenging.
  • Richtofen's War (designer Randall C. Reed):  A favorite of mine way back in high school, I haven't touched this Avalon Hill World War I dogfight classic in a long time, but I remember it was a quick play with a lot of tactical maneuver.
  • Saipan (designer Kip Allen):  The only folio game I have from the SPI "Island War" quadrigame, this is a nice treatment of the US Marines' invasion of the very toughly defended island.  Play balance issues need some treatment, though.
  • Ace of Aces (designers Doug Kaufman and Alfred Leonardi):  A true "filler" wargame.  This was a fun diversion when I was on a submarine in the Navy.  My department head and I had a decent campaign going during one deployment.
So I think the lesson learned here is that I ought to have two or three of these "at the ready" for any spontaneous opportunity for a wargame encounter.  I wonder if I should carry some of them in my car?  You never know when the mood will strike ... to kill some cardboard!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Another pounding in Puerto Rico

My wife Kathy and I went back to an old favorite tonight, a two-player variant of  Puerto Rico (designer Andreas Seyfarth, artist Franz Vohwinkel, publisher Rio Grande).  Whereas I was thinking it was a pretty close game, in fact I made a major error in spending my dubloons on a Wharf instead of saving for a large bonus-point building.  Kathy bought both the Fortress and the Residence.  I ended up using my Wharf only once, to ship two corn - hardly worth the investment (not to mention the opportunity cost of a large building later).  We were very close on shipping victory points and building points, but the bonuses from her big buildings earned her a huge win, 52-36.
My wife's game-winning city - only two production buildings but beefed up with the Fortress and Residence

It was a very odd game, mostly traceable to the fact that most of the coffee plantations came out early, before either of us was ready to invest in a Coffee Roaster, and most of the indigo didn't come out until the end, when we were largely committed to other crops and neither was interested in starting something new.  So except for the very last Craftsman phase, she only produced corn and tobacco, and I only produced corn and sugar.  The Trading House never filled up, because the Office became unavailable (under the two-player variant rules).  The situation made for some very odd dynamics; I left my Small and Large Markets unoccupied for most of the game because I never had the opportunity to sell sugar or corn after the second Trader phase.  
My wife's shipping points and goods at game end (custom game pieces were a Christmas gift):  The indigo was the only one produced all game.

Discovering Le Havre

I can't remember what prompted me to look into Le Havre (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artists Klemens Franz and Uwe Rosenberg, publisher Lookout Games [website in German]), but I remember getting very interested the more I read about it.  The comment I put in my wish list was, "So highly rated, so well reviewed, by the designer of Agricola, for 1-5 players ... what's not to like?"

So I was especially excited when my beautiful, loving, game-playing wife gave me a copy of Le Havre for my birthday.  We made a point of setting aside the 5:00 cocktail hour last Friday for us to learn and play this Le Havre game that I'd heard so much about and that my wife was interested in as well, if only for the Agricola comparison (inasmuch as she has been known to farm circles around me from time to time).

We have found that the best way for the two of us to discover a new game that neither of us has played is for me to sit with the game and read the rules cover to cover to get to the point of understanding.  Then I explain  to my wife how I think the game works in what I think is a reasonably organized fashion.  We have discovered that I can do this with about a 90% reliability of getting the rules right.  Invariably I will get at least one rule wrong in the first play, sometimes more, but since we treat the first run-through as a "learning game," the stakes are low, and the consequences of screwing up a rule are usually minor.  (Well, that's my story, anyway.)

Sample resources - image posted to
boardgamegeek by Jason  Begy
Now, I will say that as I read the description on the back of the box, I was afraid I was in for a warmed-over Agricola in a different theme.  But when 5:00 arrived, I made a drink for my lovely wife, and then cracked open the box to see what I was in for.  And I found that Le Havre seems to have a very different flavor indeed.    Certainly there is still the general Euro process of taking actions, accumulating resources, using those resources to acquire things to build victory-point-generation-engines.  But the mechanisms seem very different in this game, the methodologies quite original (to me at least).

As it happens, it took me so long to learn the game, and my explanation was so confusing, that we only completed two out of the eight rounds that a two-player shortened-version game is supposed to take (which the rules claim should run about 45 minutes).  So Friday evening we pretty much got as far as figuring out the processes of the turn sequence but really didn't understand the "why" behind the different actions.  (And the rule I got wrong that first time is that I missed the wooden ship that each player gets at the start of the shortened two-player game.)

Fortunately, my lovely wife was not discouraged but inspired to suggest that we try the game again on Sunday.  And we started at 4:00 rather than 5:00, and needed only the most cursory review of rules before we were able to jump into the game with both feet.  We definitely learned a lot more in today's session about how the game seems to work.

Construction and building firms allow
players to build new buildings - image
posted to boardgamegeek by Raiko Puust
Without going into detail on the rules themselves, suffice it to say that players may on each turn essentially choose either to take raw materials of one type (as many as happen to be available at that point), or to take advantage of the action of one of the buildings that has been built in the city.  The most common such action early in the game is to use raw materials to build new buildings, which are worth points and which expand the available actions in future turns.  Some buildings yield a guaranteed number of raw materials of a certain type.  Some allow conversion of raw materials to refined materials.  The Wharf allows construction of ships.  The Shipping Line allows the shipment of raw or refined materials on ships for money (which is both currency and victory points).  Other buildings allow a variety of other actions.

There is also a decidedly Agricolesque feeding concern at the end of each round of seven turns, which motivates players to convert fish to smoked fish, grain to bread, and cattle to meat for food.  Grain and cattle can also be "multiplied" (albeit slowly).  In Le Havre, unlike Agricola, the "feeding curve" grows very quickly from one round to the next.  Ships become important, because each ship provides free food every round to offset the feeding requirement.

Shipping Line - image
posted to
by "amp (beatrix)"
But my wife discovered - faster than I did - the real value in ships:  using them with the Shipping Line to sell refined goods.  In her case, she used the Abattoir to convert cattle to meat and hides, the Tannery to convert the hides to leather, and then the Shipping Line to deliver the leather to market.  I tried to outdo her success by using the Iron Works to acquire iron, the Collier to acquire coal, the Cokery to convert coal to coke, which in turn I used in the Steel Mill to convert iron to steel.  Steel sells for a great deal more than leather (twice as much, in fact), but because I needed extra steps to make it all work, I was too late to make it come together in time before the end of our shortened game.

So my beautiful wife beat me in our first complete game of Le Havre by the convincing score of 147 to 91.  Now we both understand the game better, and I expect we'll bring Le Havre to the cocktail-hour game table many more times.