Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Recent Gaming: Keltis

At KublaCon in May Aldie had Keltis with him but he hadn't printed out the English rules. When he went to bed he left the game with me in case I was able to find out the rules... to no avail. So I had the game, but no rules.

Sunday Andrew and I figured out how to cheat the boarding pass printing station into letting us open a browser window, and I was able to print out the game rules... so now I had the rules, but no game!

I did not end up playing Keltis at the convention, and now it's gone and won the Spiel des Jars, so of course I thought I ought to give it a try. I was finally able to do so last weekend, as Wystan and Liz brought a copy back with them from their trip to Europe.

Keltis sounded OK, like multiplayer Lost Cities but with a little more going on than the card game. Generally speaking I like the idea of building a bigger game out of a smaller game which is basically just a mechanism by itself. I had my issues with the execution of Zooloretto, but in general I liked the idea of building a zoo using the Coloretto mechanic. I had had a similar inkling based on something Jim Cote had said, about making a bigger game out of the mechanism that is eXXtra, and I also was working on a game built on the basic mechanism of Liar's Dice with Boyan before he moved to Atlanta. So I think the idea of building a multiplayer game out of the Lost Cities card game is cool, and was anxious to see how it turned out. I like Lost Cities, but in general don't play a lot of 2 player games.

On Sunday I played 4 games of Keltis, and I must say, I'm disappointed. I will note that the rules we played by turned out to be incorrect (I found out by talking to Sebastian, who works with Knizia on a lot of stuff), but even with the correct rules I think the game is simply based too much on having to draw amenable cards.

In case you're not familiar with the game, there are 5 paths, each corresponding to one of the 5 different suits of cards in the deck. players have a hand of 8 cards, and on your turn you either play or discard one, then draw a new one. When you play a card, it goes into a 'stack' for that suit in front of you - there can be only 1 stack for each suit in front of you. When starting a stack, any card can be used, and there are 2 of each card labeled 0-10 in each suit. When adding the second card to a stack, the card added can be either higher or lower (or equal) in value to the previous card, but all subsequent cards must continue this ascending/descending trend. In other words, for each suit, once you start a stack, you must play cards in either ascending or descending order. When you add a card to a stack, you move one of your markers 1 space along the path on the board that corresponds to that suit. Along the paths there are tiles which offer small bonuses in points, extra advances, or stones. Each step along the path is worth some number of points as well - the first few steps are actually negative points, while later steps are worth more points.

Instead of playing a card and adding it to a stack in front of you, you can discard it - there is a separate discard pile for each suit. Then you draw a card, either one from the deck, or the top discard from any of the discard piles. The game ends when either the draw pile runs out, or when 5 markers advance past a certain distance on the paths.

Like Lost Cities, the idea is that you don't want to begin down a path without enough cards to get past the negative spaces, and preferably you want to advance to the further, higher scoring spaces. If you start down all 5 paths, you may not get very far in any of them, and your score will suffer. If you only start down 2 paths, you might run out of cards for them and be equally screwed. In theory the game sounds fine, but in practice it simply didn't work out.

In Lost Cities the discard mechanism is interesting, because as a 2 player game, there is a zero sum. If you don't use a card, it's possible your opponent can, therefore you want to discard only when it's "safe" (the opponent can no longer legally play the card, or it appears they wouldn't want to play it anyway) to do so. In Keltis, because (a) there are more players, and (b) you can play cards in either ascending or descending order, it is never safe to discard. Almost never anyway. Also, in Lost Cities it's good to discard because you can't afford to start new expeditions willy nilly - there's a severe penalty for not reaching a 20 point threshold. Sometimes you start a 'junk' expedition instead of discarding, when you are reasonably sure you'll hit the threshold before the game ends, but there's a risk involved there. In Keltis, the penalty for starting down a path and not getting very far is not very severe. It only takes 3 or 4 cards (and it doesn't even matter what they are) to get out of the negative point spaces, which means that instead of discarding 4 cards you could play them, and maybe come out a little ahead. Considering that any card you discard is very likely useful for at least 1 opponent, there's really very little incentive to discard instead of simply playing a card (even if it's to a 'junk' stack).

So the multiplayer game, and the distribution of points on the board (low barrier to entry on each path), effectively break the interesting mechanism of Lost Cities. The 2-player game uses that mechanism to get some back and forth play between the players - discarding and building up hands with which to go on expeditions. Holding cards you know an opponent needs, collecting a color until you feel it's safe to begin an expedition. In the multiplayer Keltis, without any discarding going on (as discussed above) there's no building up of a color in hand, you simply have to play the cards you're dealt, and the cards you draw - and there's no telling what those might be. In addition, there are rewards for getting out on the paths in the form of bonus points and stones. Admittedly this is where an incorrect rule might have made the game even worse for us - we were playing such that only the first person to get to a tile was able to use it, and then it came off the board. Incidentally, we also played witht he tiles face down, which Wystan and Liz enjoyed because it added a sort of Press Your Luck aspect to it... but in any case, there was urgency to get down the tracks first, exacerbating the "better to play cards than discard" issue. We did play one game with face up tiles (at my request), and I enjoyed that part of it better (though Wystan and Liz preferred face down). But there's still the main issue that you're simply either dealt cards in the same suit, or you're not.

So in the end, the game seems to be pretty much all luck. If you draw cards that are in the same suit, then congrats, you win. If you don't, then there's nothing you can do about it. the best thing I can say about the game is that it only takes about 15 minutes, so no matter what happens, it'll be over fast. I was unaware going in that Keltis, winner of the Spiel des Jars (Family Game of the Year), was intended to be a 'quick filler' game. Perhaps I expected more from an SdJ winner, or perhaps I expected something at least as interesting as Lost Cities. But I was let down by Keltis in these respects.

As a side note, I find it a little worrisome that the Spiel des Jars winning games are leaning more and more toward light, quick, filler type games. If the Family Game of the Year is like watching television (Sit at the table, draw some cards, and see what happens next), what does that say about families and gamers?

As an exercise, here's what I'd do to try and improve the Keltis game experience:
- Bigger penalty for beginning a track and not getting very far.
- Single discard pile, not 1 pile for each suit.
- I actually liked our incorrect rule that the tiles (for scoring and extra movement) are only for the first player to get there.
- Maybe a face up draw pool to draw cards from. Alternatively, maybe when playing a card you draw from the deck, and when discarding you draw from a face up draw pool or something like that.
- Maybe certain spaces let you draw and discard.
- Maybe force players to play a card AND discard a card (or discard 2) and then draw 2 (one must be from the deck).

Just some thoughts off the top of my head to give players some sort of say in what happens in the game.

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