The grinding hostility of extreme pioneering in the darkness of space, that is the draw of Outpost. It's not grinding in that an analytical gaff can cause a rocket to spectacularly "disappear" into the Great Unknown, a la High Frontier. This grind is all numbers and return-on-investment analysis. But it's in space so it's cool.
In Outpost, players start out with two Ore Mines and a Water Mine on an unnamed hunk of rock floating in hard vacuum, or perhaps enshrouded in toxic fumes. Players build increasingly efficient factories and increasingly sophisticated upgrades in order to exponentially increase the monetary output and point value of their respective outposts.
The Upgrades are special power cards. There are 13 different types and over the three eras of the game better Upgrades become available.
So here's the scenario: a two player game of outpost, me vs. the Inimitable Don Juan, neither of us having played before.
These were the upgrades available.
Era 1: Data Library x 2, Heavy Machinery x 2, Warehouse x 2, Nodule x 1.
Era 2: Scientist x 1, Orbital Labs x 2, Robots x 2, Laboratories x 2, Ecoplants x 2, Outpost x 1.
Era 3: Space Station x 1, Planetary Cruiser x 1, Moon Base x 2.
One thing I noticed while reading the rules was that New Chemical factories could only be purchased using Research Production cards. After setting up the game I noticed that there was only one Scientist available. From the outset I was shooting for dominating Research production in Era 2. So I focused on getting Data Libraries in the first Era.
The Inimitable Don Juan rejected this white collar approach and went after Heavy Machinery and an early investment in Titanium production.
The first Era ended around the same time we bought up all the upgrades available. I had both Data Libraries and a Warehouse. I had my two starting Ore Mines and four Water Mines. I was up against my Colony Support Limit so one of my Ore Mines was unmanned.
The Inimitable Don Juan had both Heavy Machinery Upgrades, a Warehouse and the Nodule. Other than one extra Water Mine he had exploited his Heavy Machinery Upgrades to pioneer Titanium production. He was winning with slightly more points, a better income, and most importantly more colonists.
The first round of the second Era brought out the one Scientist Upgrade and the one Outpost Upgrade. The Scientist would allow me to produce Research Production cards and doesn't need to be manned. But the Outpost was the last available Upgrade to increase the Colony Support Limit. The fact that I couldn't support any more than five was killing me.
I decided to stick to my guns and the Inimitable Don Juan and I got into a bidding war for the Scientists. While he had more Credits, I had a discount from my Data Libraries and was able to get the Upgrade. He settled on the Outpost.
Fortunately I was able to make my initial plan work out. It was a couple of turns before the Inimitable Don Juan was able to get one of the Laboratory Upgrades and during this time I was able to heavily invest in New Chemical Factories and the income gap turned in my favor.
With the end of the Era -- which coincidentally happened as we bought up the last of the Era 2 upgrades -- the Inimitable Don Juan was still leading in points. He had purchased a Laboratory, two Ecoplants and the afore mentioned Outpost. His production had branched out into Research and a nascent New Chemicals industry.
I managed to get the Scientist, both Orbital Labs, both Robots and the other Laboratory. If the Inimitable Don Juan had managed to deprive me of the Robots it was game over and he would have ridden victorious into the poison gas sunset. As it was I managed to significantly invest in New Chemicals, even producing Mega New Chemicals as we moved into Era Three. Despite being down on points, I was now making more money.
The first round of the third Era brought out a Planetary Cruiser and a Moon Base. I was behind the Inimitable Don Juan by a mere 4 points. I out bid him on the Moon Base and he picked up the Planetary Cruiser. Now I was ahead by one point, the score was 56 to 55. There were only two more Upgrades available, and if either of us bought the Moon base the game was over.
I started the bid for the Moon Base at the 200 Credits minimum. At this price it has an exceptional VP per Credit value. The Inimitable Don Juan upped my bid. We went back and forth one upping each other until he passed on my bid of 204 credits.
There was nothing on which he could spend his 203 credits (by the way I had 222) to make up that 21 VP deficit. Thus I became the Hard Vacuum Hero.
Some thoughts after one play ...
The game always has the same 13 Upgrades available. What is unknown is the exact order they will become available. I haven't played enough to know what upgrades have the best synergy with each other. But it seems like there's potential for the same few strategies being used over and over. Hopefully it's not too strategically static.
The auctions give the players the ability to undermine each other's strategies, which is not only enjoyable, but refreshing -- I'll take an auction over worker placement any day of the week. But the economy is so tight there are times when the only thing worse than your opponent buying a particular Upgrade is you having to buy it after making a defensive bid. As our game played out, Ecoplants were completely useless to me, so the Inimitable Don Juan was able to purchase them at his leisure when they became available.
I've heard people complain about run away leaders in Outpost. Our game came down to who had the most money on the last turn, so that situation did not occur during our game. Personally I don't consider runaway leaders in general to be a game flaw as long as the situation is born out of skillful game play rather than luck of the draw.
The other complaint directed at Outpost regards how "mathy" it is. Overall the math isn't any worse than in Power Grid. But what makes it feel worse is that your Credits don't come in nice easy denominations and you can't make change. In Power Grid it's easy to look at your stack of cash and see that two 50s, a 20, a 10, a 5 and two 1s adds up to 137 electro. In Outpost you may have a pile of production cards of values 1, 3, 5, 8, 11, 30, 17, 19, 21, and 22. Quick, how much money do you have? After adding up your money you have to be careful to remember how much you have while budgeting and spending during the turn. If, in the middle of a heated bidding round, you forget whether you have 86 or 88 credits you have to stop the game for some arithmetic.
My initial impression of outpost is: Great Game.
I like the theme, the bidding and the unforgiving economics. I'm not good at holding a bunch of numbers in my head so it's kind of frustrating at times. Let's hope there's enough complexity in the game's tactics to keep it exciting from game to game.
I'm very picky about playing new games. Almost without exception I'd rather play a game I've played before than a new game. But there are times when I make an exception. Typically these exceptions take place under one of three circumstances.
First, and this happens most often, I don't have any other options when I show up at game night. I can either sit around and wait for a game to end or jump in to a game I've never played before while waiting for a game to end. Given that choice I'll take the latter, particularly if it's a short game.
Second, someone at game night is able to sell me on playing their "new favorite game". Their passion is able to convince me the game has real merit. My two favorite games of the past half decade I discovered this way.
Finally, I'm periodically imbued by a weird random fascination with a game I know little about. I'll feel like I need to acquire the game at all costs. This process is really hit or miss and often leaves me with edgy bizarre games that I love but can't get anyone else to play, or garbage games that I can't wait to list on eBay.
After playing a game for the first time I immediately and mercilessly give it one of the following ratings:
Bad game -- I never want to play again.
Okay game -- I would be willing to play again.
Great game -- I not only like the game but want to own a copy.
The "bad game" rating probably gets applied to 90% of the new games I play. Another 9% get the "okay game" rating. A rare 1% -- percentages determined using a completely nonscientific method, of course -- fall into the "great game" category.
So why am I explaining how my first impressions work? Well, I like to review games, but I don't like to review a game after one play. For review purposes, one should at least be master enough of the game to be able to play without referring to the rule book and that's impossible for me after a single run through.
In lieu of a review, what I will do is post my first impressions on this blog. So stay tuned.
I've been playing games for a long time now, a really long time. I've played many a brilliant piece of game design. But most games end up being only a shade on the brighter side of mediocre. I've even played a few outright dogs and when a board game esthete like myself is stuck in a steaming pile of bits for an hour -- or more (shudder) -- it's like a food critic being forced to choke down a can of cold SpaghettiO's.
I love to play great games; I'll give a borderline game a chance at proving itself to me; but I absolutely hate having to endure playing a bad game. I'm harsh and judgmental about new games because I already have a closet full of boxes and I don't really need any more. The merest hint of a flaw is likely to doom a game from ever appearing on my table. For someone as opinionated as myself it's useful to have some criteria by which I can determine a good game from a bad one. But I've never been able to find a good measuring stick. (The only guaranteed way to avoid playing a bad game is to exclusively play the games I've already validated. While I'm fine with this for the most part, there are several unsatisfying side affects of this policy.)
I've tried to analyze games based on components, theme, genre, complexity, game play, uniqueness, and so forth. But in the end it all feels like determining the quality of a game comes down to a gut reaction. None of these criteria provide a consistent way for me to tell if I would like a game. VPG's Circus Train (First Edition) and FFG's StarCraft: The Board Game have wildly different production values, but I love them both. I like Caylus, but I can't stand Agricola despite the fact they are both heavy euro worker placement games.
So I'm still at square one when it comes to determining what makes a game good rather than bad: I have to play it.
I should just end this post now, but another idea has been bubbling up in my mind recently. It's not fully formed nor well reasoned yet. But for a game to be good, I'm thinking, it needs to have proper balance between tactical and strategic choices.
I hate playing a game where the players have to come up with a strategy at the outset and spend the whole game focusing on said strategy. Tactical interaction with other players should be able to undermine any strategy. Players need to be able to win after implementing secondary and tertiary strategic options in response to other players' actions.
Similarly a game without strategic depth can quickly overstay its welcome. Games of a purely tactical nature are best suited to short play times.
It's not my favorite game, but a game that expertly balances strategy and tactics is Taj Mahal. Players look at the board at the outset of the game and determine a strategy: what provinces to fight over and why, and which provinces to ignore. Yet each province must be fought over individually. The outcome of a fight in a single province can change the whole dynamic of the game and send the players scrambling for a plan B. I love it when that happens.