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W. Eric Martin
When we think about minimalist game design, we often point to Seiji Kanai's Love Letter as the source from which a thousand envelope-sized games were delivered. While to some degree that's true, if we want to honor the grandfather of game design minimalism, we need to look to the works of Alex Randolph.
I've played only two handfuls of Randolph's games, but each of those games can be described by at most four words:
• Big Shot — use ties to attack
• Mahé, a.k.a. Die heisse Schlacht am kalten Buffet — hop on opponents
• Die Osterinsel — count the rocks
• Raj — bid without tieing
• Ricochet Robots — move efficiently
• Schachjagd — race with chess moves
• Square Off — build a path
• Twixt — build paths with horses
• Worm Up! — block other worms
• Xe Queo!, a.k.a. Museum Heist — dupe or be duped
The secret to Randolph's design principles is no secret at all, as he explained to Bruce Whitehill in a 1999 interview:
I asked him what a game needs to have in order to be good. "It must be easy to enter into the game immediately…(it must) offer surprises…(it must have) a clear objective, (clear enough so there is) no arguing or questioning…(it must be) endlessly repeatable, always different."
For some of the games above, the action described is both how to play and what will win you the game: If you move robots most efficiently, you will win. If you hop on opponents, you will win. If you build a path first, you will win. Whereas some designers take the skeleton of an idea, then dress it up before presenting it to players, Randolph offers the skeleton directly.
My latest experience with one of these atomic Randolph designs — Venice Connection — mimicked my earlier experiences with his games. Venice Connection was released in an earlier edition in 1996 by Drei Magier Spiele, winning a special Spiel des Jahres award for being a beautiful game, and now new Korean publisher OPEN'N PLAY has brought this two-player game back to market while keeping the graphic design of that Drei Magier edition.
As with the other titles mentioned above, Venice Connection has a short description: Make a loop. The first player to do this wins. If you make a move such that a loop is impossible, you lose.
Venice Connection consists of only 16 tiles, each of which features a straight canal on one side and a canal with a 90º turn on the other. On a turn, a player takes 1-3 tiles, places them in a straight line with canals not intersecting buildings, then places this line of tiles adjacent to at least one tile already in play (again, with the canals not intersecting buildings). On the first turn, you simply place the tiles on the table since you have nothing else to place next to. Possible starting positions include the following:
Some of these positions are better than others. The position second from the left is terrible since the opposing player can win instantly by mirroring these tiles and completing a canal loop:
So let's not start with a C-shape; start with something else:
If your opponent were to make the following move, you could then respond in a way that would guarantee your victory. Can you see it?
Your opponent is no fool, however, so they have actually made this move:
So what do you do now?
In case you haven't recognized it, Venice Connection uses the same style of play as Nim: You want to make moves that force the opponent to respond in a particular way. You want your hand up their back so that you control what they do and force them to make moves that are advantageous to you. Nim is an interesting game to learn because it presents this system in so skeletal a style: Have three or more heaps of objects, and take turns removing any number of objects from one heap; whoever removes the last object wins.
Unfortunately, once you learn more about Nim, the game becomes less interesting. Based on the number of heaps and objects in those heaps, a winning strategy exists for one of the two players, and it's (relatively) easy to see how if you start from the winning condition and work backwards. If only one heap exists, the active player wins, so don't make a move that leads to only one heap. If two heaps exist, the second player can mirror my moves to force me to remove one heap before they have to, which means that I want to be the second player when the third heap is removed. And so on. All the moves in Nim lead to an empty table, so the goal is fixed, and everything else is working backwards from that goal to see whether you have a winning strategy or not.
Venice Connection lacks this fixed endpoint because any closed loop wins the game for the player who made it, whether it's made from four tiles, six tiles, eight, etc. on up to sixteen tiles. If an opponent makes a move that would require more than sixteen tiles to close that loop, then you say "Impossible!" and wait for them to fail to make the loop to claim your victory.
I've played Venice Connection seven times so far on a review copy from OPEN'N PLAY, and that probably constitutes no more than twenty minutes of playing time. The game isn't something you'll do for an evening, but it does fit on an airplane tray or fill time while waiting at a restaurant. Even with its more flexible endzone, I would imagine that if you apply yourself, you can work out all the possible tile configurations and find Venice Connection as dead as Nim. Randolph did aspire for designs to be "endlessly repeatable", but with only sixteen tiles, clearly you have limits in what you can place where.
I have no idea where I might be on the scale of full knowledge of Venice Connection, but if I ever get there, I can just ship the game to someone else....
I am used to being involved in time-consuming and exhausting projects (and even to finishing them): I did 504, for example, and I had a five-year project called "Freitag", but...
After finishing Fabled Fruit, which already was more work than expected (because it is "only" a 25-minute game, but needed 59 different card actions to be designed), I was ready for the three games I had in the pipeline for SPIEL '17. But Fabled Fruit became a big success and the fable concept cried for more, so I moved the planned projects to 2018 and had the idea for the "Fast Forward" line: Fable games without a rulebook that can be learned while playing.
But this concept needed to be started as a series with at least three games at once. (IMO)
The main problem with fable games: Testing is more difficult. You have to play the same game several times in a row with the same group, and you cannot recreate the effect of a surprising change with the same group. You need a lot more different gaming groups.
Classical games you can test a few times, make some changes, test again, and so on. With fable games, it is difficult to see how a small change in the first game might influence the game five games later. You have to test this change a lot more — and I do not want to lose all my testing players (a.k.a. friends).
But "Fast Forward" is awesome!!!
The inspiration came to me one evening while playing Dead Man's Draw. I was a bit exhausted from the day and just wanted to start to play. I said to my gaming group, "Just start this one, it is easy enough to be learned while playing. Starting player, please turn the top card face up." Without realizing it, we were suddenly in the middle of a game. Afterwards I was thinking that games should be designed that way — and having the fable concept, I could start with a very simplistic idea and from game to game add more "game" to that idea.
Starting was kind of easy. I designed a mixture of Dead Man's Draw and Diamant. The first test was amazing: My gamers played the game nine times in a row and did not want to stop playing (but had to because of some minor changes I needed to do). But I needed to promise them that they could continue to play it during the next game session exactly where they stopped.
So after that start, I needed two more "Fast Forward" games to have the series of three titles I wanted to release. The first of these two new games became FEAR, and the other did not progress any further than being an idea in my computer; it was never tested. But I already had two games in the pipeline! I then had an inspiration to make a game about "capturing the flag" and this turned out to become FORTRESS, which is not about capturing a flag anymore, but if you know where it came from, you can still see that connection.
Thus, three "Fast Forward" games were developed. I was happy.
But there was a problem with the three games: One of them was weak. The first one and FEAR were creating very similar experiences of the three, but FEAR was better. I managed to look at it as objectively as possible and accepted that I needed to not publish the first one. There are too many press-your-luck games, and the game was not better than Dead Man's Draw, so it was removed from the line. It was early in 2017 and once more I had only two "Fast Forward" games. I was about to accept releasing only two games when I got the idea for FLEE, which is completely different from the other two and very appealing. It had to be done.
Now, I am happy to have three very different "Fast Forward" games, all three connected by one great concept. The easy game FEAR is very good to learn the "Fast Forward" concept, and a great game to play with the complete family and casual gamers. And FORTRESS is the next step, more complex without being complicated, a game with a lot of great surprises. And finally FLEE, a game in which you really have to focus to solve the cooperative puzzle. This game feels a bit like an escape room — a really difficult escape room!
But I said five fable games, not only three...
The series of three fable "Fast Forward" games seemed not to be enough, three games to be tested hundreds of times in ever-changing game groups. But the game starting it all was still successful, so I needed to expand Fabled Fruit. One gamer in our group played it a lot with his daughter and after finishing, they demanded more. Why not? Let‘s make an expansion!
In theory, Fabled Fruit is easy to expand; you need only to add more locations, but I already designed 59 different locations and I ran a bit out of ideas — and the end game of Fabled Fruit was designed to be a real end game, with no chance to "open" that again to continue with more locations. That said, giving gamers only twenty new locations to play a separate set of games of Fabled Fruit was boring.
Adding limes to the game was the central idea. Green fruits, very good. Now every fabled juice card must be paid for with at least one lime. At the start of each game, limes are not shuffled with the other fruit cards and must be acquired differently. Adding these new location cards after the second half of the normal Fabled Fruit locations was the connection to the base game.
Twenty new locations meant that you could play 8-10 consecutive games to finish this new campaign. Thus, this has the same problem as with all fable games: A single game itself is short, about half an hour, but the campaign is loooong. You need about three hours to play it once.
Keep smiling, it could be worse!
I smiled and it got worse. The annual question came up: How to expand Power Grid this year. Easy, just make a fable campaign for Power Grid, a campaign with only three consecutive games (with fifteen cards to be revealed during the three games) could not be too difficult, right?
But the Power Grid base games each have two maps (classic or deluxe both use similar regions of the world: Europe (or Germany) or North America (or USA)), so why not develop three games per map with two separate sets of fifteen cards? Let's see: 3 games per map and 2 maps = 6 games to play. A single game of Power Grid in this campaign is played in two hours (a bit longer than normal because you're changing the rules while playing), so I needed to test two new prototypes with six hours of playing time each...
At least I was happy that our sixth release for 2017, the solitaire game Finished!, was already finished as of April 2016. No further testing of that game!
Finished! is a game in the vein of a classic "patience" game like Klondike, just a game about sorting a deck of 48 cards with a twist, played with a cycling deck. Discarded cards are placed under the deck to be drawn again later. After seven cycles, you need to have sorted the complete deck. The name of the prototype was "Bubblesort: The Game". It is not an implementation of the well-known bubblesort algorithm, but you sort cards in bubbles of at least three cards.
Now, all six titles are in print, so new topics on my schedule include work on the new games for 2018 and some plans to be realized for the 25th anniversary of my company, 2F-Spiele.
The most important thing for now: I like the resulting games and expansions, and whoever wants to play them all needs only 25 hours net playing time.
-> It's your turn now.
W. Eric Martin
I haven't posted a crowdfunding round-up in weeks, perhaps even months although I'm not going to check.
Let's press forward! Time to dump the inbox filled with hopeful messages from designers and publishers who wanted to tell me about something that might or might not have succeeded — messages that I shooed aside in the run-up to Gen Con 50 and the subsequent frantic buzzing of SPIEL '17 that's been expanding to fill every centimeter between my ears. Sorry, folks! You missed out on hearing about the "Lycans vs Vampires" fantasy backgammon collection, but perhaps you'll have another chance to back this game of the future in the future.
At least you can still back Fog Monster, a miniature fog machine that makes "continuous real fog that creeps and crawls across your game terrain". Every playing of Kingdomino can benefit from that!
• In any case, let's kick this off with Tim Fowers' Now Boarding, which features the damn coolest logo I've seen in recent days. Beyond that, the graphic design of the box itself is a winner, copping a movie poster look that's selling an aesthetic and not merely a game. I've seen more than my share of game covers over the years, and at this point I'm most excited by game covers that don't look like game covers. Graphic designers should take a wider variety of approaches to their work. After all, we know that something is a book because it has pages that you can flip through; you don't need every book to adopt the same style of graphic design so that you know at a glance that it's a book. Game publishers should take a similar approach. (KS link)
As for the game itself, here's an overview:
Now Boarding is a real-time cooperative game in which you work together to fly a fleet of airplanes. You must to deliver all the passengers to their destinations before they get too angry — and new passengers are constantly arriving! Upgrade your plane to fly faster and carry more passengers to handle the load. The twist: All players take all their turns at the same time! This allows for clever hand-offs of passengers. It's a whole new level of pick-up-and-deliver game.
• And even should you not care about Now Boarding, you might want to check out that project since Fowers is also funding a third edition of Wok Star, another real-time cooperative game that he first released on his own in 2010 and is now bringing back to print through his Fowers Games brand.
• Chuck Stover's Vasty Wilds from his own Made by Wombat has one of the gentler post-apocalyptic settings out there. Humans have faded away from Earth, and now tiny woodland creatures compete for space with their neighbors, apparently having learned nothing from the misfortune of man. So it goes. (KS link)
• And why might humanity disappear? You might find that subject discussed in Steve Jackson's Conspiracy Theory from his own Steve Jackson Games. This game mimics the black card/white card format of Cards Against Humanity and its endless sludgepump of copycats, but with a PG-friendly approach so that kids can also suggest reasons that Bigfoot has never been captured. (Answer: Ninja training.) (KS link)
• Our obligatory miniatures game in this round-up is Champions of Hara from Walter Barber, Ian VanNest, Andrew Zimmermann, and Greenbrier Games, with this game having both competitive (arena-style combat) and cooperative modes of play, with the latter challenging you to defeat monsters to contain destructive energy so that the world doesn't die. (KS link)
• Another competitive/cooperative creation on Kickstarter is Ragnar Brothers' Darien Apocalypse, with this being the second "Quantum" game from Dicken, Kendall, and Kendall, a Quantum game being one in which you're meant to relive multiple versions of actual history events, affecting them along the way with your actions. The history in this case is the Kingdom of Scotland's ill-conceived efforts to found a colony on the Isthmus of Panama. (KS link)
• I wrote about Flatlined Games' new edition of Mark Gerrits' SteamRollers in July 2017, noting that Flatlined is adopting a unique approach to its crowdfunding efforts. If a project succeeds, that game will not be available to retail outlets — other than those that back the KS campaign — for at least one year after the end of the campaign. Flatlined's Eric Hanuise is essentially saying that you can get it now or you can lament your reluctance to do so, although the game will be available from Flatlined directly or at conventions. Will this matter to backers? Is this a negative approach meant to spur a supporter's FOMO? A positive approach to reward those who do support the game's existence with something unavailable on the general market?
As for the game, SteamRollers is a dice-based, network-building, pick-up-and-deliver game that originated from Gerritts' attempt to make something that would resemble a dice version of Age of Steam. (KS link)
• Babis Giannios' Alexandria from LudiCreations has a great premise: The Great Library in Alexandria has been set ablaze, and you must try to save as many works as possible. (KS link) BGG shot an overview video of the game at SPIEL '16, at which time it looked far different than it does today:
• Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games is funding The Networks: Executives, an expansion for his well-received game The Networks in which you attempt to land new programming for your television network. Now, in addition to two other modules, you'll get to have a unique executive on your team with advantages and disadvantages specific to this individual. (KS link)
• Grail Games has released several titles new and old from Reiner Knizia, most notably a fabulous looking version of Medici, and currently the publisher is funding a new version of Knizia's excellent rail-and-stock game Stephenson's Rocket, a game that will likely be new to 95% of the people reading this post. It's amazing sometimes to think of how many people have entered the hobby since this game first debuted in 1999. Heck, I didn't enter it with gusto until 2003! What's old is new again... (KS link)
• I've written to designer Naomi Clark several times to ask whether Consentacle, a two-player game "that represents consensual sexual encounter between a curious human and a tentacled alien", will ever be available again and have yet to receive a response. Imagine my surprise when I discover that Consentacle is on Kickstarter now, and if you pledge high enough, you can receive two tentacles from the game's debut exhibition in 2014. Few games offer such treats. (KS link)
Editor's note: Please don't post links to other Kickstarter projects in the comments section. Write to me via the email address in the header, and I'll consider them for inclusion in a future crowdfunding round-up. Thanks! —WEM
Editor's note: This story serves as an addendum to or parallel retelling of the events in TauCeti Deichmann's Sidereal Confluence designer diary on BGG News. —WEM
I walked over to see what game Kristin Matherly was playing at the Gathering of Friends. She said, "Sit down, you need to play this." She introduced me to TauCeti and Doug, and TauCeti taught me this negotiation game called "Trade Empires". Wait, did you say "negotiation game"?
Like many gamers, my first non-kid board game was Monopoly. Monopoly is a terrible game in which the first thirty minutes are spent rolling the dice and buying every property you land on. Then you have five minutes of negotiating to get color sets that you can build on, and then two hours of rolling the dice to see who wins. I loved the five minutes of negotiating, and if I could get a game which was all negotiating, I was there. Kristin knew this.
Kristin wisely gave me the bankers (Eni Et) on my first game. I took to it immediately and saw the essence of the game, even if it wasn't perfectly presented. In that first game, I noted two rules I didn't like and I subverted them immediately. TauCeti had this rule that you could not negotiate with a player you were not "connected" to, and sometimes I was the connection between two players. I could have demanded tribute on each deal they made through me, but I didn't like the connection rule and suspected I'd want to avoid a tariff on myself in this game or others, so I imposed no tariff at all.
TauCeti also had combat in the game, and when Doug decided to attack me to steal a colony, I told him I'd not make any deals at all with him for the rest of the game if he did attack.
"You're just saying that. You'll make deals with me later", hoped Doug.
"No, he's not bluffing", said Kristin.
Thus, no combat. Even in this first game, I was focused on what I wanted from "Trade Empires": constant negotiation with all players.
I think I won that game. It was awesomely fun.
Kristin and Doug and TauCeti had just finished playing "Trade Empires" when I spotted them. I was disappointed that I had missed it, but they were willing to play again. I think we started at 11:00 p.m. and finished at 3:00 a.m. Nobody was tired.
This time I asked for a race completely different from the bankers and was given the mob (Zeth Anocracy). I didn't need to be told that I was to bully and intimidate the players into giving me free stuff to avoid my attacks. I think I won that game, by a lot.
The next day, TauCeti was headed home, and I went over to talk to him. I was prepared to ask for files so that I could print my own copy of his game, but secretly hoped he'd give me his prototype. He did the latter, and I was very pleased.
Playing in Maryland
After lots of emails with TauCeti about rules questions, I finally put together a group of people to play this game. I'm well aware that negotiating games are not everyone's favorite, but people were willing to humor me. They were fun games, which led to more rules questions and suggestions, but I was worried that the nine races you could play were not balanced. I mean, I lost my third game — to a 14-year-old. Can you imagine me losing?
What quickly became apparent to me was that TauCeti was a game designer willing to try out my outlandish suggestions. That is startling. Most game designers don't want to mess with their baby and are not really interested in suggestions from playtesters, and many game designers realize that playtester suggestions usually point to a problem, but the suggestion itself is terrible. But TauCeti was open-minded and enjoyed talking game design as much as I did, so hundreds of emails went back and forth between us about "Trade Empires".
I decided to figure out whether the races were actually balanced, but with nine races and so many combinations of three to seven players, it would not be possible to play enough games to know. Thus, I wrote a computer program to play the game for me. To simulate trades, my program would randomly generate thousands of possible trades, and each race would evaluate whether it liked the trade or not. If both sides agreed, the trade happened. This well simulated human players. Simulating combat was important, and decisions about which research to go after or which colonies to take were easier. My program could play a complete game in about one-tenth of a second.
For several weeks, I'd set the computer to simulate all possible games a hundred times. It would take all day, and when I got home from work, I'd load the results into a spreadsheet to see which race was doing too well and which was getting crushed. Sometimes I'd just change my program to play better, and often I'd make a tiny change to a race to bring it back in line, then I'd set the program to run overnight and I'd wake up in the morning to check it again. Checking twice each day to see how the simulations went, I had all the data I needed.
Every time TauCeti updated his rules, I updated my program and ran it over and over. I sent him many spreadsheets with long discussions about the tiny tweaks I made.
After a six-player game with some friends, all of whom are good game designers, we made some radical suggestions.
We officially came out against combat. Players did not use it to go after the winner; they just went for targets of opportunity. That was officially No Fun™ and we wanted it out. We suggested instead that some ships be for colonizing, others for research.
We suggested that each race not have a board, but instead a small deck of factories, and that factories can be flipped over to the improved side with some inventions. We suggested those factories can be traded, but must be returned after each turn.
And TauCeti listened to us and seriously considered all our changes. Unheard of! He essentially accepted all those changes, and adjusted the rest of the game to fit. This man is open-minded in a way I can only hope to be.
These changes required rewriting my simulation software from scratch. Every few days I'd send TauCeti a new spreadsheet and lengthy commentary about how to change the cards to work. It's amazing that I managed to squeeze in work, sleep, and eating with all the effort I was putting into "Trade Empires".
I even wrote a separate program that would take the set of cards and create PDF documents with them, ready to be sent to a professional printer. I had at least four full sets of the game printed, which at several hundred cards was a lot of printing.
Less is More
Time and again in game design, the best final product takes the good original idea of a game and strips out everything that gets in the way or is unnecessary. The final game: no hand limit of pieces, all players can trade with any other player from the beginning, one kind of ship, no two-way factories, no multi-choice factories, no points for colonies, only two kinds of factories at all (white for economic engine and purple for upgrades), and no damn combat. Just two hours or so of glorious negotiation.
How I Play
I have a confession. I love games because I love systems. I want to see systems work well, and while I also enjoy pitting my wits against others, in "Trade Empires" — now called Sidereal Confluence — I have a different goal. I want all the systems to work brilliantly. I don't want any resources to sit idle; I want them to be used as efficiently as possible, including those resources owned by opponents. My scores are regularly over 60 points, but I feel great if I can get everyone else's scores just as high. As Doug says, "Trade Empires" rewards the player who cooperates the most. If I play poker with you, I'm going to con you out of your money. If I play Sidereal Confluence with you, I'm going to offer you a fair deal, and I'm going to work with a third player to get just a bit more out of that cool factory that a fourth player has, giving us all a tiny bit more resources to work with.
Unless I'm playing the Zeth Anocracy. Then you are screwed.
W. Eric Martin
In a post earlier today, I mentioned the second edition of Kingsburg coming from Z-Man Games before the end of 2017. Turns out that's only one of many new releases on their schedule for the next three months.
• The highlight of the Z-Man Games release calendar might be Pandemic: Rising Tide, a new standalone Pandemic game from original designer Matt Leacock and Splotter Spellen's Jeroen Doumen. Let's learn something about the setting and gameplay:
It is the dawn of the Industrial Age in the Netherlands. For centuries, the country has relied upon a series of dikes and wind-powered pumps to keep it safe from the constant threat of flooding from the North Sea, but this system is no longer enough.
In Pandemic: Rising Tide, it is your goal to avert tragedy by constructing four modern hydraulic structures in strategic locations that will help you defend the country from being reclaimed by the ocean. Storms are brewing and the seas are restless. It will take all your guile to control the flow of water long enough to usher in the future of the Netherlands. It's time to get to work.
Containing the water that threatens to consume the countryside is your greatest challenge. Water levels in a region are represented by cubes, and as the water containment systems currently in place begin to fail, more water cubes are added to the board. With water levels constantly on the rise, failure to maintain the containment system could quickly lead to water spilling across the board.
To successfully build the four hydraulic structures needed to win a game of Pandemic: Rising Tide, you must first learn to predict and manipulate the flow of water. Failing to maintain safe water levels throughout the country can bring you perilously close to failing your mission. Fortunately, water can be corralled by a strategically placed dike or slowed by pumping water out of a region. Correctly identifying and intervening in at-risk areas can get you one step closer to victory.
Why this game and this co-designer in this country? In 2016, Leacock partnered with Spanish designer Jesús Torres Castro for Pandemic: Iberia, a limited edition release set on the Iberian peninsula to coincide with the location and timing of the Pandemic Survival: World Championship in Barcelona. For 2017, the tournament has moved to the Netherlands, so Leacock and Doumen have created a "pandemic" that's more thematically appropriate for that country.
• The other big news from Z-Man HQ is the impending release of a new edition of History of the World from designers Gary Dicken, Steve Kendall, and Phil Kendall. These designers first published History of the World under their own Ragnar Brothers brand in 1991, with Avalon Hill subsequently picking up the game for editions in 1993 and 2001. Here's the summarized description of this new edition from Z-Man Games:
Take a ride through humankind's history with History of the World, a game of conquest and cunning for three to six players. Expand your empire as you command mighty empires at the height of their power from the dawn of civilization to the twentieth century. Each game offers an epic experience as great minds work toward technological advances, ambitious leaders inspire their citizens, and unpredictable calamities occur while empires rise and fall.
This remastered edition of History of the World contains a beautifully illustrated board, revised rules to streamline the experience, and everything you need to etch your name in the annals of history.
Given the mention of "revised rules" in this "remastered edition", I've created a separate listing for this new release, figuring that we can merge them later should history turn out to be 98.3% the same no matter you look at it.
This cover art is glorious:
• Z-Man Games also announced a late 2017 release for Marco Teubner's My First Stone Age: The Card Game, an English language version of what originating publisher Hans im Glück will release at SPIEL '17 in October as Stone Age Junior: Das Kartenspiel. This is a standalone expansion for the 2016 Kinderspiel des Jahres winner My First Stone Age — standalone expansions being the rage these days — and here's a barebones description of how it works:
My First Stone Age: The Card Game is a card game version of My First Stone Age. The players try to fix their houses with three different resources. These resources are hidden in grass, and the players try to find them with Martin the mammoth. The first player who builds three houses wins.
Fri Sep 15, 2017 11:00 pm
W. Eric Martin
Now that SPIEL '17 info is
mostly somewhat vaguely under control, let's run through another batch of game announcements that might be new to you and might be something I've overlooked in the past few weeks.
• At Gen Con 50, Edge Entertainment — which is part of Asmodee — had a space cordoned off for Breaking Bad: The Board Game, a space barely occupied during the show. We didn't film an overview of the game as part of our coverage, so I can offer only this overview now of the Antoine Morfan and Thomas Rofidal design due out in December 2017:
Based on the critically-acclaimed TV series, Breaking Bad: The Board Game propels you into the treacherous underbelly of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Will you play as a member of one of the criminal factions (Heisenberg, Los Pollos Hermanos, or the Juarez Cartel), trying to amass a fortune by manufacturing the biggest stash of Blue Sky while eliminating your rivals? Or will you join the ranks of the Drug Enforcement Administration, ready to slap the cuffs on the lawbreakers who would dare peddle their poison in your city?
In more detail, when playing a criminal faction, your goal is to produce Blue Sky, then sell the quantity needed to win before your opponents can. You can also win the game by taking out all of your opponents by using cards to bomb, shoot, or otherwise eliminate them. As the DEA agent, your goal is to seize the criminal factions' labs (by playing DEA Raid cards). You can also win the game by taking out all of your opponents, either by killing them or putting them in jail.
• Fantasy Flight Games plans to make good use of its purchase of Legend of the Five Rings, announcing in late August 2017 a standalone game by Tom Jolly and Molly Glover called Battle for Rokugan, the short take of which is this:
Conquer the realm and bring honor to your clan in Battle for Rokugan! This turn-based strategy game of conquest and mayhem puts players in the role of Rokugan daimyō struggling for control over the rich land of the Emerald Empire. Leaders must balance their resources, plan their attacks, and outwit their enemies to ensure their clan's victory. The land is there for the taking. The most honorable daimyō will win the day!
For the long take, click on that FFG announcement linked to above.
• Z-Man Games will release the second edition of Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco's Kingsburg in the U.S. in late 2017. This game was first released in 2007, and the new edition includes all the modules previously released as expansions as well as a new sixth expansion module. BGG recorded an overview of this new edition with originating publisher Giochi Uniti:
• Also due out in late 2017 is Specter Ops: Broken Covenant, a standalone game by Emerson Matsuuchi and Plaid Hat Games that's set in the same universe as the original Specter Ops, but it's not clear from the publisher's offered description how this differs from the original game:
Specter Ops: Broken Covenant puts two to five players in the middle of a war that's fought in the shadows.
Corporate secrets linger within the corridors of Raxxon's abandoned headquarters and, even though the base is empty, it is not forgotten. In this tense cat-and-mouse showdown, a lone A.R.K. agent stalks the shadows of the facility, attempting to complete secret objectives while hunters from Raxxon's Experimental Security Division try to pinpoint their location and destroy them. On one side, the agent must use all their skills and equipment to succeed. On the other, the hunters rely on teamwork and superhuman skills to locate their prey. No matter who you play, you must use strategy, deduction, and stealth to win.
The inspiration for Claim started with a love of trick-taking games and a sadness that there are very, very few for two players. My family traditionally has played a lot of card games, and trick-taking games are my personal favorite of the classic card game genre. Oh Hell! is my personal favorite because I love the bidding, but Euchre is also a family staple. Sadly, neither of these are functional for two players without clumsy variants.
Thus, the quest to make Claim was born, driven by a want of a two-player trick-taking game — but there was something else underneath that. Creating a new trick-taking game is almost a rite of passage for a game designer. It is a design space that has centuries of development behind it. A trick-taking game offers a unique challenge that differs from most other designs because when you design a trick-taking game it's not only a new design, but it is also an homage to the genre and its history.
Like any modern trick-taking game, Claim was inspired in part by another trick-taking game. Classics like Wizard and Sluff Off! are rooted in Oh Hell! and other bidding games. Clubs and Diamonds were developed to fill the spiritual gaps between Spades and Hearts. Haggis and Tichu derive from climbing games like Big 2. (You may direct your arguments on whether climbing games are trick-taking games in the comments below.) Trick-taking games are designed to be a heartfelt love letter to the genre, all while trying to make your own mark in the busy design space. I wanted to do the same: Give homage to trick-takers past (and in this case, mostly forgotten) while bringing an update to the modern age.
For Claim, the mechanical inspiration was the Whist series of games, specifically German Whist, which has a unique twist in that the game is played in two phases: 1) You play "tricks" to draft a hand of cards for the second phase, then 2) you play your drafted cards, with the player who collected the most tricks winning. This is a cool mechanism, but has its flaws. The first phase can feel a bit boring. You aren't playing to win tricks, but rather cards, and you get no immediate excitement from doing so. In the second phase, it's possible to know who the winner is before the round starts based on which cards were collected in the first phase. These two problems meant the game could be very hit or miss.
I wanted more from this game. It was clever, but not robust enough for a satisfying play every time. From playing this game, and my journey through trick-taking games in general, I wanted to take what I thought was fun and build a whole new game around it.
The theme came first. The original name of the game was "King of the Kingdom", which was later switched to Claim by publisher White Goblin Games. The idea was that the King had died, so now you were trying to win the throne. I pictured two candidates vying for control and influence for the throne. The game would be played in two phases: First, you draft followers from one of the five different factions in order to fight for you. Then, in the second phase, you go head-to-head with the other player with the followers you've acquired.
That had a nice flow, giving a thematic anchor to the game on which I could build. This theme led to a unique winning condition. Most trick-taking games require you to win a certain number of tricks, or simply the most. I wanted which cards you won to matter; the game wasn't just about winning tricks, but which tricks.
From that idea, I decided that the game would have five factions. At the end of the game, each player would have a pile of cards that they'd won in tricks, but the total number of tricks wouldn't matter; what would matter are the factions themselves, specifically the number of cards you have in each faction. If you have the most, you win that faction's influence. Win the influence of three of the five factions, and you have won the quest to claim that throne.
Those parts of the game came together quickly. The theme felt right, and the win condition felt unique. One of the issues with the original game of German Whist is that the best strategy tended to be to dominate in a single suit, then run with it. That was no longer the case in Claim. You needed to do well in several suits to win. It was a lovely twist that bucked the norm of trick-takers.
The game was pretty fun at this point. The fact that you needed to have majority in three out of five factions was already cool, giving an almost "area control" feel over the game. It felt like you were doing more than just collecting cards. But I wanted these five factions to feel unique, so I decided to play around with special powers and that's when things would really get turned on their head — and the most development time came into the process.
I wanted just five powers. I didn't want a lot of card text. I didn't want cards within each faction functioning differently. I wanted each faction to play differently, but be easy to learn and play. Having fun the first game is important. I didn't want a bunch of different exceptions for each card. I wanted this to be a game that any lover of card games, whether they enjoyed modern games or not, could step into and learn quickly — but unique powers are tricky like that and are hard to master.
There was a core concept for these factions, and that was related to the end game condition. You win by gaining influence in three factions. Thus, I wanted each faction to have a unique strategy to win it, almost as if each suit had a unique mind game to collect them. This is how Claim turned into something special.
The Goblins and the Knights came first. They were fun to play off one another. Knights could instantly beat Goblins, which was simple to learn but tricky in practice. Since you have to follow suit, your opponent can pull Knights out of your hand early before you can use them to capture tons of goblins.
With the Knights having a distinct advantage over Goblins, the Goblin ability was tricky. I didn't want a circular rock-paper-scissors concept in which each faction had a priority as I find that's hard to track. In the end, I went thematic: Goblins aren't special, but there are a lot of them. This was balanced by putting in fewer Knights. So you have lots of Goblins and few Knights, but Knights instantly beat Goblins. This had a great flow and gave an extra twist to you needing to win a majority of the factions. A few Knights can win you a faction, but Goblins take a lot of work and planning.
The Undead were next. I wanted a faction that played around with the first phase of the game. The first phase is when you play tricks in order to win your cards for the second phase. Those cards are typically discarded — fodder for the drafting phase — but not the Undead. The Undead are the only ones you are able to collect for the end game scoring in the first round. This is super fun and added more meaning to the first phase. Now, if you want to win the Undead, you have to start thinking early, or else you'll start phase two already behind your opponent!
The Dwarves were a slightly evil twist since you can collect them when you lose. Thus, if your opponent is running away with a suit, you can play Dwarf cards and collect them for the endgame scoring. The winner of the hand still gets any non-Dwarf cards, and this adds a way to collect cards even when you are losing. Winning the Dwarf faction is something challenging but fun.
Last were the Doppelgangers. These are wild cards, so they match the suit played. This keeps all the other factions on their toes, and these cards are a hot commodity. You can use a Doppelganger to get a match in a faction you need during play, but they count as their own faction at the end of the game. Once again, a very tricky faction to get hold of.
With those developments, the end result was this lovely little two-player trick-taking game called Claim. It’s rooted in traditional trick-taking games, but it creates a fun little niche all its own. What I'm most proud of is how the winning condition of needing to gain majority in three of the five factions plays out. It's not as simple as trying to gain a bunch of hearts or spades in play. You have to start thinking during the drafting phase, and each faction has its own little puzzle to solve in order to win it, yet these puzzles conflict with each other. If you think you can win Dwarves, you need to lose tricks — but you need to win tricks to beat other factions. And, how many Knights can you spend to ensure you win Knights, while also holding some back to defeat Goblins? Do you want to use your Doppelgangers to boost a faction you already have, or do you want to lead with them to ensure they are on your side at the end of the game? These five abilities added to a streamlined ruleset make for a fun and quick game, and one I am proud of and still enjoy playing. I hope it's a game you'll all enjoy playing, too!
W. Eric Martin
If you bother to take a look around, you can usually find new places you've never been, even in familiar lands. Designer Philippe Keyaerts, in combination with co-designer T. Alex Davis, has done this once again with Small World: Sky Islands, which publisher Days of Wonder will debut at SPIEL '17 in late October, ahead of a likely November 2017 release in Europe and a December 2017 release in North America.
Here's an overview of this expansion for 3-6 players, which carries a MSRP of $30/€28:
Small World: Sky Islands
introduces seven new races and powers to the Small World
base game, but it also gives those races — and all the previously released races — new territory in which to fight for control.
At the start of play, place the Sky Islands game board so that it shows either two or three islands in the sky (your choice), then use the Small World
game board as if you were playing with one fewer player, i.e., use the four-player board when playing with five players. Next, place access points to the Sky Islands — the beanstalk and the stairway — on different regions on the game board. Whenever a race stands on one of these access points, they can try to conquer the space on the sky islands that shows the matching symbol.
Races can't start their conquests in the Sky Islands unless their power specifically allows them to do so. At the end of a turn, if you control all of the regions on a Sky Island, you gain one additional coin.
W. Eric Martin
I started playing modern strategy games in the early 2000s, and one saying that sticks with me from that era is that every game is an auction game. At first glance that saying seems ridiculous, but with a little translation of game terms, you realize that tons of games meet this definition:
• In Carcassonne, you use small wooden figures to bid on landscape features. In most cases, the winning bid is 1, but sometimes you outbid another player or rejoice in your shared auction victory, with the value of the lot being determined as the game progresses. Repeat this argument for every area control game, making modifications where needed.
• In Formula D, you compete against others to be first to reach a predetermined bidding amount, but the amount you bid each turn is decided somewhat randomly — and if you bid carelessly, you can damage your credit rating, which limits your bidding ability on future turns. Repeat the argument for all racing games.
• In Wizard, you each bid one card each turn, with the player who makes the highest bid winning the pot. Repeat for all trick-taking games.
• In Modern Art, you use money to bid on works of art. (Okay, this one doesn't need much translation.)
The idea of translating all games this way is somewhat silly, but if you're a fan of topology, such transformations can prove entertaining. You're peeling away the layers of the game to reveal its core, to recognize similarities and differences with other games, to see how a designer twists a familiar formula or discovers a new approach to what seems like old news.
At heart, Emanuele Ornella's Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes is an auction game, but most people won't see it that way. They'll see the tile-laying and put it in the Carcassonne box, yet the laying of tiles during play is merely a way for you to place bids on various reward tokens — and the collection of these tokens is what the game is really about. Well, that and the desire not to waste your bids by placing them on lots that never close.
Let's look at turn six of a game in progress to see how this shakes out:
You're playing white, and you plan to place the tile shown in the lower-left so that you close out the mountain area. When you do this, everyone who has bid on this area will be looking to grab a share of the reward tokens; these tokens match the images in the mountain area, and you can see that two forests and a field have already been closed.
Each time you place a tile — matching the landscape on adjacent tiles, natch — you then place one of your wooden bidding markers on that tile. The silo grants you a bid of 1 in all territories showing on that tile, the long warehouse places a bid of 2 on two such territories, and the farmhouse places a bid of 3 on a single territory. Thus, in the mountain purple currently has a bid of 3, red a bid of 2, and yellow a bid of 1. Which piece do you want to place on this tile? That is, how much do you want to bid?
Before you answer that, let's consider why you might have placed that tile in the first place. You hold in hand — secretly, mind you — these three objective cards:
Everyone received five goal cards at the start of the game, then discarded to three. These three overlapped nicely, so no fool you, you kept them. For each set of those three round tokens you collect, you score 7 points at the end of the game. For each round fish token, you score 3 points.
The game includes one public goal card as well, with you netting 4 points for each set of four differently colored reward tokens, whatever their shape.
If you place your farm in this mountain, you'll tie purple for high bid. What's more, since you placed the tile, you can break ties however you want, so you can win the auction with a bid of 3. As the top bidder with a bid of 3, you can take any three of these reward tiles. (You always take tiles equal to your bid — except if no tiles remain, which would the case here since purple would take the remaining three tiles and red and yellow would get nothing.)
If you place your silo, you'll tie yellow for low bid of 1 while claiming a stake on the two other territories on that tile. If you choose to beat yellow, then you'll get the lone tile that remains after purple and red grab stuff. If you choose to make yourself last in the bidding, well, there's a special prize for going last:
The last-placed bidder takes the bonus action of their choice from those shown at the top of the tile stacks, with the choices here being to take a nugget card, have each other player give you one token of their choice, or take two round fish. You want fish, so that might be good. Whoever collects the most nuggets gets a 10-point bonus at game's end, so that's good. Depending on which tokens opponents have already collected, that action might be best of all! (If you're the lone bidder on a lot, you can either claim tokens or take a bonus action. No doubling up!)
Finally, if you place your warehouse, you'll be second or third in the bidding since red also bid 2 and you probably won't have the best choice of tiles, so that's probably a stupid choice. Don't do that.
After the low bidder takes the special action (then moves that tile to the bottom of the stack to bury it), and players take tokens from high bid to low, you must take a tile to place on the next turn. That one on the left looks nice since you can almost complete the lake at right, but if you don't want that one or either of the other two, you can take one from the top of a stack to surprise everyone — including yourself — with an unknown arrangement of landscape and tokens next turn.
And that was turn #2. You take 10-12 turns total in a game depending on the number of players, and at the halfway point you draw two new goal cards, then again discard down to three. If those fish haven't been flopping your way, maybe it's time to gather peaches instead. At game's end, you reveal your cards, tally points for nuggets and goals, then see who's the Okanaganest.
I've played Okanagan four times on a preproduction copy from Matagot, thrice with three and once with four, and as you might expect in an auction game like this, the randomness of the cards and the tiles can drive you bonkers. In my most recent game, I had three goal cards that overlapped perfectly — then I saw my neighbor collect eight of the tokens that I wanted before I had collected anything! Ugh, time to change courses. I took a bonus action that allowed me to draw two goal cards, then discard two. Good! A new direction!
And yet the pain continued. I was last to choose on a lot or I received less than what a bid "should" bring or the lots I had bid on never closed. I managed to place tiles around a huge field in such a way that it was impossible to close, thereby costing everyone else bids on that lot, and somehow it didn't matter as I was losing more than they were. Everything went south, and I ended the game with one-third of what the winner had — the winner being the neighbor who had been snatching my tokens and lining them up for perfectly overlapping goal cards.
My lakes ran dry
Other playings have gone my way, and I'm not sure yet whether I'm playing more smartly in one game compared with another or my opponents are playing more dumbly or the bonus actions have broken my way or I've read the minute differences in the reward token/landscape layout better — or whether it's somewhat random and that's that.
The bonus actions give you lots of avenues for advancement, so you're happy to let a silo net you something from those stacks, whether a hexagonal (round, square) tile of your choice, or the ability to swap two tiles for tiles of the same shape but different color (or same color and different shape), or a token swap with an opponent for tokens of your choice. The ability to flush the tiles on display seems like a useless ability so far, but maybe I just don't know the tiles well enough to realize that I should dig for the perfect tile for my situation. After all, sometimes the best way to win an auction is to put up for bid only the goods that you really want.
A tile-laying game on a tiled table? Next time, I'll bring a tablecloth...
W. Eric Martin
Having worn my SPIEL '17 blinders for several weeks now, I'm not sure what's new to people and what isn't any more, so let me run through a handful of game announcements and you can make use of what's useful:
• Doctor Who Fluxx will be the next standalone version of Andy Looney's Fluxx, with this item appearing in retail outlets on November 23, 2017, the 54th anniversary of the first episode being aired. Publisher Looney Labs hasn't officially announced the game yet, but the D&D Online website DDO Players somehow picked up the news early and a Looney Labs representative has confirmed the details for me.
• In other semi-BBC-related game news, six days after Doctor Who Fluxx appears — time not being relative for most of us — IDW Games will release Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: Everything Is Connected, based on the BBC series of the same name. (Mr. Pedantic below points out that the show will actually run on BBC America, not BBC itself. Good to know about this distinction!) Here's an overview of this 3-8 player design from Matt Fantastic and Arvind Ethan David:
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: Everything is Connected is the first in a series of "Everything is Connected" storytelling games in which the mysteries are only as looney as the players.
In this game, a detective and a holistic detective put together the clues, accuse a person of interest, and tell their assistants the story of the crime. The assistants then process the two versions of the case and simultaneously select which version of the truth is more believable. To solve the case, you have to think on your feet and remember that "everything is connected".
• Fantasy Flight Games has announced the impending release of a "revised core set" for Android: Netrunner, with this item containing cards from the original Core Set released in 2012 as well as cards from the Genesis Cycle and Spin Cycle series of Data Packs. For details on which card have been removed from the original Core Set and why, head to this BGG thread.
• With Conspiracy Theory, which hits Kickstarter on Sept. 13, 2017, Steve Jackson Games takes a crack at the black card/white card party game format originated by Cards Against Humanity and continued by everyone and their grandmother. At least SJG is staying true to its roots as in this Steve Jackson design, the judge presents a conspiracy-related question, then everyone else answers it in the way they think will best please the judge. (Hint: Every white card reads "It's the Illuminati".)
• Portal Games has announced a new army pack by Michał Oracz for Neuroshima Hex!, with both the HQ and some units in the Iron Gang having a new "chain" ability that allows two chained tiles to target and hit any opponent that lies on the straight line that connects these two.
• To celebrate 7 Wonders' seventh anniversary, Antoine Bauza and Repos Production are releasing two small expansion packs to add more variety to the game: Leaders Anniversary Pack and Cities Anniversary Pack, with each containing fifteen new cards for use with the base game and the expansion included in its name.
Distributor Asmodee North America has listed a November 2017 release date for these two packs, which each carry a $9 MSRP.
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