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"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy..."
"For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." -- Wallace Stevens
Originally posted to my blog here on BGG:
This is a game that I want to like, that I feel I should like. And I do, but it's not without certain concerns that only repeat play can alleviate. So what I'm posting now is a tentative review based on about a half dozen plays across the player counts. I've seen glimpses of a game that is very interesting, but also red flags that signal the game is more of a near miss -- which makes me intrigued and sad at the same time.
The idea in Tin Goose is to make money. You make money by upgrading your fleet of planes and extending your network across a map of the U.S. There are also a handful of international destinations that award big points at the end of the game, with the trade-off being a more expensive upfront cost (which can really sting because money and actions are tight in this game). After what inevitably feels like a short seven rounds, the game ends and players earn additional dollars for a handful of things like servicing major cities and having a high income level. Most money wins.
One very clever aspect of gameplay is the penalty cards. Everyone starts the game with a set of penalty cards, which hamper your network, income, etc. These cards represent poor safety standards, inefficient business practices, and all the other ways the airlines industry was crap when it first started. When you acquire a new plane, you also discard one of these penalty cards, representing the advance of technology and your growing business acumen. The cards tell a story, and do so with minimal fuss. It's a simple system, but also elegant and thematic. It's touches like these that make me want to enjoy the game so much.
Another highlight is the auction mechanic. As the first action of each turn, players put up a card from their hand for auction. This could a disaster card (more on those in a bit), or more likely it's going to be a new plane. Everyone bids to acquire the plane. And the auctions are great! They are once-around (so think Medici). This may frighten you, but once you get a feel for the game, auctions are easy enough to manage. That's not to say they ever feel easy. Once-around auctions are rare in the boardgaming world, and it's a skill to be able to value something blindly and without the chance for revision. But once you get into the groove, it starts to feel like more than a wild guess. You start to understand the true worth of things and what your fellow players might be willing to pay. As in Medici, once you know what you're doing, other auction styles actually start to feel incredibly slow by comparison.
However, as is key in all auction games, it's the incentives to purchase certain items (in this case new airplanes) that really matter. I've yet to figure out if the incentives in Tin Goose are bland or subtly interconnected with the actions of the other players.
What I find lackluster is the race to extend your network. Players start in separate pockets, and expand quickly into their area, but it seems like the competition for overlap between these pockets is where the heart of the game on the map should be. Instead, it feels like the overlap is incidental until the last few turns -- especially with a lower player count. With less outright competition for network destinations, all the pressure is on acquiring new planes just for the sake of acquiring new planes. Acquiring new planes is absolutely necessary, but also lends a solitaire-esque feel to the game, and there is no way a game with so many opportunities for player interaction should feel like solitaire at any point.
Finally, another aspect of the game is managing disasters. These come in three flavors, and are almost entirely driven by the players. You might have to deal with fuel costs, plane crashes, or labor strikes. Each costs money, but it can often be a lot worse. The clever bit here is that disasters don't occur unless somebody purposefully plays a disaster card from their hand. In some games, you might see only one or two disasters. In others, you could be flooded with "bad luck." What remains constant is the threat of disaster, and that threat means risk. You could take risks with things like safety, and those risks could pay off -- or they could really, really hurt. Because of all this, disaster cards are better thought of as weapons. They affect everyone, but if you can time it so that a disaster hurts everyone else more than you, you're in business! It's delightfully cruel and highly enjoyable -- even if very frustrating when you're on the receiving end. Again, this is a clever aspect of the game that makes me really want to like the game.
Overall, though, Tin Goose is a bit of a mixed bag. There is so much to like, especially if you enjoy auctions and the opportunity for a bit of "take that." On the other hand, there is a certain looseness in the network-building that nags at me. Moreover, it doesn't help that the scoring is opaque for your first few games, which made me feel like I was never quite sure what I was competing for. That concern has faded with experience, but it still takes effort to remember what is most valuable in terms of end-game scoring. I know I'll play more, but for now I'm on the fence.
I think you're right to bemoan that the network-building isn't a bit more prominently featured. There certainly can be contention and interaction involved with it, and it's a well-conceived and thematic system for the game's subject matter with the way different plane sizes can expand the network.
However, I'm a little disappointed that that contention rears its head inconsistently. I've had one 3-player game that featured two of us duking it out pretty heavily with some cagey maneuvering in the Pittsburg-Atlanta-Kansas City triangle while the third player was left to sprawl pretty blithely across the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
I kind of wonder how it would go if we had a few more actions in the game (and accordingly, more planes); perhaps either via another turn in the blue era or 4 actions per turn (either with or without 3 planes per fleet; it might be less disruptive to other areas of balance to force some of the additional planes there'd be time to be place to be extensions).
I'd like a couple more games at 5 players to see if the game really just feels more hotly contested at max playercount. The demand feels like it scales well, but unfortunately the city connections don't scale outside of demand.
It seems that I'm probably a little more forgiving about this than you. I think there's a lot of meat in the auctioning (as you say, it's very different having one shot to value an item), and the events present a lot of great analysis of players' relative positions.