Sunday, March 23, 2008

Big Birthday Weekend - on the SedjCon schedule?

At 9:30 this morning the first guest arrived for my "Birthday BBQ," and at 1am the last guest left. After a round of disc golf with Rif and Michael, 13 other friends came by to eat food and play games such as:

* Race for the Galaxy
* Pandemic
* Puerto Rico
* Princes of Florence
* In the Year of the Dragon
* Louis XIV
* Railroad Tycoon
* Goa
* Leonardo Da Vinci
* Guitar Hero
* Katamari Damacy

It was a lot of fun, and maybe the best part was that a frisbee friend of mine, Anita, who never really plays games but who's come over a couple times and liked it, won both Puerto Rico and YotD - and against good, seasoned players!

I enjoyed this weekend so much that I might add it to the SedjCon schedule :)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Knights Templar, and a backwards approach to game design

I always thought that the Knights Templar could offer a strong theme for a medium/heavy eurogame about building up power and influence. There's so much legend and mystery surrounding the Knights Templar that I'm kinda surprised there's not already some game about them. Today in the BGDF chat room I was bouncing ideas off people about what a Knights Templar game might be like.

I was having some trouble with player identity and conflict... who would the players represent, and what would be the point of the game? I think I was having trouble because I was going about it sort of backwards. I started not with a main mechanic, or a problem for the players to solve, but rather with some parameters:

* 2 hour max game length,
* Medium/heavy euro-strategy style
* Knights Templar theme

And then tried to come up with a game structure that fit the parameters. One idea was a cooperative game, where players are all members of the Order of the Temple, but I couldn't figure out what they would be playing against. The inevitable decision by King Philip to send out "Order 66," disbanding the order and killing the Knights? That doesn't sound too good... Maybe a competitive game where the players each play a country and he Knights Templar are a sort of Non-Player Character in the game. Nah, too distant from the theme.

What I've come up with so far is a competitive game in which players accumulate Wealth and Influence for the Order of the Temple until the Crusades end and King Philip starts his purging of the Knights (Friday the 13, 1307). After that point, the game will either end and he with the most influence will be the one Knight that escapes (wins), or perhaps the game will start suppressing the influence of the Order, until it is gone, and at that point the player with the most influence escapes while the rest are arrested by Philip (and ultimately burned at the stake!)

My idea is that there will be a disconnect between the players, who will all be members of the Order of the Temple (or perhaps Families), and the Order itself. Since joining the Order meant turning over all your personal wealth, it wouldn't make sense for players to have individual holdings. Instead, players will be amassing wealth for the order, in a communal coffer. Players will also take actions which will earn Influence.

In the case of Influence, players will track the amount of influence they bring to the Order, and the total influence of the order will also be tracked. Upon the turning point in the game, the total influence of the order will begin to decline, setting a clock for the remainder of the game. It's possible at that point that some of the actions will change, become more potent, etc. It's also possible that there will be a geographical element to King Philip's purge... starting in France and radiating outward, buildings will be removed from the board (causing the Order to lose their Influence). Thereby a Church or Castle built in or near France is "more fragile" than one built farther away, and could therefore offer more in game terms than a distant Church/Castle.

The idea of Rank also came up, where a player could advance in rank and therefore have access to more or better actions. In the case that Rank is determined by Influence (essentially score) i don't like that idea, because it is the kind of mechanic that can make a winning player win more. However if Rank is based on the amount of Wealth the player has amassed for the Order, then it becomes interesting - there's an opportunity cost in investing in Rank (less Influence or victory points). In that respect I like the idea.

So far that's about all I've got. The game begins with players amassing wealth, influence, and power for the Order of the Temple, then when the Crusades end and King Philip issues the decree to disband the order, the Knights Templar take important relics and artifacts and go into hiding.

Maybe the Relics could be an endgame score kind of thing...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ides of March

SAGA's Ides of Gaming event occurred on March 15th this month, the Ides of March. It was also the 1st anniversary of the event, so it was 12 hours long, had scheduled stuff, and was also the official announcement of RinCon, a full gaming convention which the group will be putting on over Halloween this year.

As a side note, the convention sounds pretty cool, and it's only $20 to pre-register. Check out for more info.

I had a good time, and got a lot of games in. Here's what I played:

I'd been under the impression that Pandemic is a neat attempt at a cooperative game, but it suffers from some of the same shortcomings of all cooperative games. Namely that it's solitaire. Jim Cote wrote up a nice post on Pandemic, and my comment on that post says a lot of what I had thought of the game after 2 or 3 plays.

Until yesterday I hadn't really lost the game. Since it had seemed easy, we decided to play in "Heroic" mode, which means using 6 Epidemic cards instead of 5, making the game harder. What I didn't realize is that the game also gets harder the more people you play with. So when we played 4-player in Heroic mode, we got thoroughly squashed by the game twice in a row. Then we decided to step it back to Normal mode (5 Epidemic cards). With 4 players in Normal mode we lost twice when we would win the very next turn. Later we tried one more time, determined to win a game... we played with 3 players on Normal mode, and not only did we win, but it felt like a foregone conclusion.

My new position on this game is that the discrete difficulty levels are kinda weird. It appears that there's a significant jump in difficulty going from 3 players to 4, and of course there's a big jump going from Normal to Heroic. 4 player Heroic seems neigh impossible, while 3 player Normal seems too easy. many 4 player games on Normal appear to be lost on the last turn, which seems likely the best outcome (intense, but maybe winnable). I'd like to try 3 player Heroic to see how that goes.

I'm a little unsettled by something which I suspect is true (and which I hear has been mentioned on BGG) - that there's a certain percentage of games which, based on the order of the cards in the deck, are simply unwinnable no matter what the players do. This wouldn't be a problem if the percentage were low, but I get the impression that the number is likely pretty high with 4 players. I'd be curious to know what that value is for 4 players on Normal, and if it's "too high" (I'm not sure where I'd draw the line) I'd probably not want to play with 4 players anymore.

In the Year of the Dragon
I played another game of ItYotD, and I continue to really enjoy the game. This time I started out with a first turn Double Dragon, a play which people on the internet appear to think is the obvious first play, and is likely unbeatable. I do not agree with them, but it seemed like a good play to make anyway, so I did it. Tyler on the other hand started with a Court Lady and a Craftsman. He struggled some in the midgame while I did pretty well, so I thought I would end up beating him. In the end though I had struggled with space constraints and had to fire some people, and Tyler ended up winning by 5 points. There's some more evidence that the Double Dragon is not unbeatable!

Race for the Galaxy
I played 4 games of Race for the Galaxy yesterday, with Tyler winning most of them. They were all 3 or 4 player games, and I think I really prefer the game with 2 players. The best news was that I found out that I didn't lose a card last week at the restaurant after all :)

I had played Qwirkle once before, and I met the designerl last year at a convention. I loved the idea of the game, but playing it yesterday made me think 2 things...
1. It takes a long time for my opponent to take their turn. This means my opponent is probably thinking the same thing. Maybe it was just that opponent, as I don't recall this from the last time.
2. (and this is a much bigger deal) I'm not sure how 'fair' the game is. It seems like the luck of the draw can be very swingy. In yesterday's game I didn't have a play in the world for the first half of the game, and i was getting trounced. Then later, every tile I drew seemed to match up with the board, I scored 3 Qwirkles in a row! I just wonder if the luck of the draw doesn't play too big a role in the game. I still like it, and I might like to get it as a gift for my mom (who likes Scrabble) or my sister (who likes pattern matching stuff like Set and Tetris).

Puerto Rico
I'm pretty good at Puerto Rico. I've played a lot, and I've put some effort into studying strategies and improving my play. In this game it was me, my friend John (who's also very good), Bill who plays once in a while, and his wife... who despite playing once in a while, seems to not remember what actions do what from one turn to the next (let alone from one game to the next). We also had a new player at the table, who seemed to pick things up very quickly.

Bill went first and chose Builder. As player 3 I made an unusual play (for me) - based on the thought that player 2 (the newbie) would choose mayor to get her Indigo running I chose to build a Hospice so I could then Settle a manned quarry. I felt this would be an interesting start, and since the number of 'inexperienced' players was high, I figured anything could happen and I'd have a fun and interesting game trying to keep on my toes. I spent most of the game trying to make sure I was staying ahead of John, who I figured would be my main competition. John was doing a very extreme strategy as well, he had nothing but corn plantations, a small market, and a Wharf.

One turn the new player was going to take a Prospector with 1 gold on it so she could get 2 gold. There was also a trader with 2 gold on it, and no one had any goods at all. I recommended that she take Trader instead, and explained that it's the same 2 gold for her, but taking trader makes the trade action less good for whoever ends up doing it later. In the following round, who ended up choosing Trader? Me of course :) Way to talk yourself out of 3 gold, Seth!

In the end, when John was scoring 5-7 points per Captain phase, I looked around the board on my turn and saw that everyone had 1 or no goods (John had none) so I chose Captain. While we were loading goods, I found out that Bill's wife had 3 more gods that I couldn't see before, so she made out with even more points than I did during that captain phase. If I'd seen her other goods, I would have chosen the more obvious play at the time: Prospector. In fact, when this happened, Tyler walked up and said "Who doesn't pick Prospector?"

When final scores were tallied, I had beaten John handily, but it turns out that Bill's wife (who had built 2 large buildings) had scored the same as I had... I counted up my goods plus money and looked at her huge stash of production and they were equal! Then there were a couple coins beside her player mat, which turned out to be he final tiebreaker.

Age of Gods
I have not played Age of Gods, but I won it in the raffle. I'm not too sure about it though, I have only heard that you own one of the factions, but you don't know which - and you control any faction on your turn. Over the course of the game, faction control is revealed. So maybe in the early game you don't want to damage any faction too much or build anything up too much because it might/might not be yours. I'll probably geta chance to try it on Thursday.

Monday, March 10, 2008

In the Year of the Dragon

I don't generally do full fledged reviews of games, but once in a while there's a game which attracts a lot of my attention. I've recently played In the Year of the Dragon and it has impressed me with its strategic depth, replayability, and general quality so I thought I'd take a shot at reviewing the game to explain what I like about it.

I bought YotD at OrcCon last month, having never seen nor played it. I knew nothing about it, really... all I could say is "I've heard good things," and I'm not even sure that was 100% true! But I had a few dealer dollars, the price was pretty good, and I like Notre Dame (by the same designer) so I went ahead and bought it.

The Components: Most reviews start with an overview of what's in the box... the contents and quality of components. In YotD you get...
* a game board,
* 7 sturdy tiles for the actions,
* wooden 'scoring' and 'initiative' markers for each player,
* lots of cardboard chits for rice, money, fireworks, palace floors, privileges, and dragon shaped player markers,
* Plastic stands for the player markers,
* a set of 12 cards for each player, including the smallest player aid ever,
* Lots of square tiles for people and events (12 events and I think 10 for each person)

The board seems just like that of Taj Mahal, and like that other game, I have a hard time getting this board to lay flat once it's unfolded. Aside from that small gripe, and the super tiny text on the player aids, I have no problem at all with the components, they are on par for a nice eurogame. A friend of mine thought the art was lousy, but I guess that just doesn't bother me. There have been complaints online about the insert... it's designed alright, but the wells could be just a bit deeper so the tiles could fit in sideways. It's not unmanageable as is though.

The Rules: YotD has a fairly simple round structure. There are 12 rounds - one for each month of the year of the dragon. Each round has 4 parts... first you choose an action, then you hire a person, then you resolve the event, and finally you score points. This round structure is repeated 12 times, and then the game ends and there is a little bit of endgame scoring. The player with the most points at the end, wins.

The actions, and the action selection mechanics, aren't the most clever part of the game. When it's your turn, you simply choose the action you want. However the actions are shuffled up each round and dealt into piles, and when you take an action you put your dragon marker on the pile the action is in. It costs $3 to do an action in a pile where someone's already placed their dragon. this means going first is something of a big deal, because money is hard to come by, and if you don't go first someone might take the action you want, or even an action you don't want that happens to be paired with an action you want, and you'll have to pay. Of course if you don't have $3 then you can't pay, and therefore cannot take that action!

The turn order is dictated by an initiative track (called the "person track") in the center of the board. Each round players take their turn in order, per their position on that track. Thus if you want to go first, you'll want to find ways to advance past everyone else on the person track.

The 7 actions are...

* Get rice
* Get fireworks
* Get money
* Move ahead on the people track
* Score points
* Build Palaces
* Buy a privilege

Each of these actions do just what it sounds like, they get you some amount of one of the resources in the game, allow you to improve your standing in the turn order, score points directly, give you more palaces (which sore points and make room to hold people tiles), or buy a privilege which will score points every round for he rest of the game. The amount of resources and stuff you get, the potency of your action, depends on which people you've employed. For example if you have a farmer, then you get more rice per "Get rice" action than if you don't have a farmer.

There's a very important alternate action - instead of taking an action a player can fill up to $3. This is important because when you have less than $3 you can't take actions where other players have taken actions, and the only way to get money otherwise is one of the actions. So to make sure players don't get continually screwed, you're allowed to skip your turn to take money.

In part 2 of the turn you hire one of the 9 people in the game. Each player has exactly 1 card for each of the 9 people, and 2 wild cards. When you hire a person, you discard that card out of your hand, and it's gone for the rest of the game. Thus, over the course of the game each player will hire each person at least once - you can double up with the wild cards which let you pick any person). The question becomes, which person do you want each turn, or on a larger scale, what order do you want the different people (and, which people do you want to double up on)?

The people, their abilities, and their initiative value is one of the things that makes this game so interesting. Each person tile has 2 attributes, a number of symbols indicating how much they help a particular action, and a number indicating how far you advance on the person track when hiring that person. Most of the people come in 2 types, the "young" version has a higher number for initiative, but doesn't augment actions as much, while the "old" version generally augments actions more, but has a much smaller initiative value. Thus, when hiring a person, you not only have to consider which action they augment, but also where that puts you in turn order (as mentioned above, going first can be a really big deal).

These people are going to help you take actions and score points during the game, and the game complicates this process by limiting the number of people you can employ at one time. Players start with two 2-story palaces. You can fit 1 person per floor in a palace, so if you have as many people as you do palace floors, then you'll have to fire someone to hire a new person. This makes you really manage your people, as you may not want to get rid of anyone. Also, people tiles are worth points at the end of the game if they survive, so running into space constraints will cost you valuable VPs! Palace floors can be added to your board with the Build Palace Floor action.

Here's a list of the people tiles available, preceded by their initiative value:
* 1 Lady - 1vp per round
* 2 Craftsman - 1 extra palace floor when building
* 3 Tax collector - 3 extra money when getting money
* 1 Old Farmer - 2 extra rice when getting rice
* 4 Young Farmer - 1 extra rice when getting rice
* 2 Old Doctor - Save 2 people during Contagion event
* 4 Young Doctor - Save 1 person during Contagion event
* 2 Old Scholar - 3 extra victory points when getting points
* 4 Young Scholar - 2 extra victory points when getting points
* 3 Old Pyrotechnic guy - 2 extra fireworks when getting fireworks
* 5 Young Pyrotechnic guy - 1 extra firework when getting fireworks
* 3 Old Soldier - 2 Helmet symbols (for Mongol event and initiative action)
* 5 Young Soldier - 1 Helmet symbol (for Mongol event and initiative action)
* 2 Old Monk - 2 Buddha symbols (worth points at game end)
* 6 Young Monk - 1 Buddha symbol (worth points at game end)

Each month one of 6 different events occurs. For the most part these events force players to lose people unless they prepare properly. Sometimes they allow players to score some points. Here is a list of the 6 events, each one appears twice in the game:

* Peace - nothing happens
* Festival - Most fireworks scores 6vp, 2nd most scores 3vp.
* Mongols - Players score 1vp per Helmet symbol, then fewest symbols loses 1 person.
* Drought - For each palace, pay 1 Rice or lose 1 person from that palace.
* Contagion - Lose 3 people, less 1 per bowl symbol (doctors).
* Tribute - Pay $4. for every $1 you can't pay, lose 1 person.

These events are the real genius in the game design. The year of the Dragon always starts with Peace in the first 2 rounds, so players can get a head start preparing for the upcoming events. The other 10 events are shuffled and dealt randomly at the beginning of the game, making sure no event happens twice in a row. This sets the order of events for the game, and it is different every game. Players can plan based on this order of events - which events will I prepare for? Which will I ignore? You can really plan a strategy for the game based on which events occur early, or which occur late.

In any game the scoring is what drives players decisions - it's a measure of incremental progress toward the final goal: victory. In YotD there is scoring each round, and final scoring at the end of the game. In general, a player can concentrate on scoring more points each round, probably ending up with a low endgame score because they're spending time scoring points rather than defending against events. Alternatively, a player can aim to prevent losing people to events, in which case they won't score as much during the game, but they may have a 30+ point endgame score.

The things that are worth points each round are Palaces, Court Ladies, and Privileges. Endgame score comes from people remaining in your palaces, Buddhas on Monk tiles in your palaces, and leftover rice, fireworks, and cash. The decisions faced by players as to which events to pander to, which actions to use for points vs preparing for events, and which people to hire are all very intricate, interesting, and important.

I have quickly grown very enamored of In the Year of the Dragon, it may well be my new favorite game!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Winds of Fate, revisited

Odysseus: Winds of Fate was originally to be about "betting" on whether Odysseus and his crew would make it safely to Ithaca or not, then trying to influence his voyage to the outcome you bet on. I have been unhappy with how my first draft of the game ended up representing that, while I liked some of the ideas, it just didn't come together right. As a result, it's sat un-played and un-thought about for well over a year now.

Recently I realized that I actually had much of the game prototyped, and that I should take the upcoming Protospiel opportunities to maybe try it out again. It might be easier than trying to get together copies of Hot and Fresh or Dynasty, which require more prototyping before they can be played at all.

Today I put a little thought into making the game more directly about betting on the outcome and then influencing the outcome, and I think I like what I came up with.

Originally there were going to be 2 types of 'coins' or scoring chits, and you would win them by "winning" an adventure - you'd get White ones if the adventure outcome was favorable for Odysseus and you'd get Blue ones if it was not. White and Blue represented Athena, who hopes to help Odysseus return home, and Poseidon, who hates Odysseus and wants to see him drown. Players would collect coins in these colors, and depending on the outcome of the game - Success or Failure - only 1 of the colors would score. Or maybe 1 color would score more than the other.

I liked this mechanic so much that I also tried it for All For One briefly - King points and Cardinal points, and the ones that counted depended on which pool ran out first. One problem with the mechanic in both games was that it seemed too "all or nothing" - you could put a lot of work into collecting blue points, and if the game end is White, your efforts turn out to have been worthless. No one liked that very much. Also, it didn't correctly reflect an investment in or betting on the outcome, so it was failing the initial design goal anyway.

The latest idea modifies these White and Blue coins a bit. Instead, there could be coins with Athena on one side and Poseidon on the other. When finishing an Adventure, players would "win" some number of these coins (depending on their performance), and of their reward they could bank a certain maximum amount toward a Successful outcome and a certain maximum amount toward a Failure outcome - basically investing in the game end. They could also withhold some of the coins to be spent during the game, presumably to influence the outcome. Ideally, if you thought the outcome would be Success, you'd always invest the maximum possible into "Success," and you'd withhold some or all of the coins you could have invested in "Failure" to spend trying to influence the game toward a successful outcome.

Originally, the game had cards, and you would play these cards to try and influence which of 2 paths the boat takes each round. Then you would play these cards to influence the outcome of the adventure, which would have an effect on the overall outcome of the game. Now I think the path choice will be based on a blind bid using these coins. I think players will also buy more cards with these coins. Then the card play could work as before (similar to card play in Taj Mahal), with the rewards being coins... more for the 'winner' and fewer for 2nd/3rd place, etc.

At the game end, players will score for all banked coins, where the coins invested in the 'correct' outcome will score a return of 1 coin for every 3 invested - in other words coins in the 'right' bank will be worth 1.33 points while coins banked toward the 'wrong' outcome will only be worth 1 point each.

I think this better represents an investment into the game outcome and then influencing the outcome. I also like the decision of whether to bank the coins for points, or keep them to buy more cards or influence the path of the boat and thereby the Fate of Odysseus.

I'd like to go through the Encounter tiles I made and modify the events that occur, and maybe the powers on the cards that exist. Some will have to be changed to work with this new structure - others could stand to be more fun or interesting. Hopefully I can get this done in the next couple of weeks so I can actually play the game at Protospiel West when i go to GameStorm at the end of the month!