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Empire Builder and the Modern Train Game

Nate Straight

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Around the World in 80s Days

The year is 1980 and our hobby [at least on the continent I am writing from] consists largely of the sprawling wargames of SPI and The Avalon Hill Game Co, the mostly abstract and parlor style bookshelf line from 3M, a healthy smattering of negotiation classics like Junta or Machiavelli or Dune or Cosmic Encounter, and the first big wave of fantasy titles such as Magic Realm or Titan or of course Dungeons & Dragons. A faint rumbling of a "chugga chugga" or a "wheeeesh" can be heard from such titles as Railway Rivals, Boxcars / Rail Baron, 1829, or even Dispatcher. It wouldn't be until later into the 80s with the reimplementation of Railway Rivals as Dampfross and development of 1829 into 1830 that these titles would really gain popularity and influence.

Beyond that, none of these early train-themed games bear much resemblance to what we think of today as a "train game" [not even the seminal 1829, although 1830 does; the difference, I think, is in the very restrictive way in which 1829 introduces both new companies and new track into play]. Railway Rivals / Dampfross is more akin to Streetcar: A connection game followed by a race game. Rail Baron / Boxcars is more akin to Merchant of Venus: A roll-and-move game of buying infrastructure and making deliveries; sounds about right, and MoV is this close to being a train game, but Rail Baron not only has pre-set tracks but limited delivery contract / route options. Dispatcher is a minutia-laden game more akin to the logistics in a wargame.

From gallery of NateStraight

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo

So if all of those games aren't exactly "train games", what exactly is a "train game"? And why does anyone care? Similar questions are currently being fielded by Jason Begy in his dissertation on train games for Concordia University. I'm not going to attempt to go into nearly as much detail in my research as what Jason is likely to end up with, but I want to share a bit of the story of Empire Builder and its important place in hobby gaming. Along the way, I hope to place it as a transition point from these earliest train games to something recognizable as "the modern train game", and obviously to describe a fair bit of what that term means. So let's begin at the beginning: What is a train game? Well, we'll get to that later. First, let's answer something easier:

What is a train?

The train is one of the more revolutionary inventions in history, and was a critical part of the various industrial revolutions that took place throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Being able to produce widgets more effectively and efficiently [through the use of steam power, better machinery, increased understanding of materials and their properties, etc] is one thing, but to make widgets you need "stuff". You need lots of fuel to burn to power the machines. You need lots of raw materials to put into the machines. You need a way to transport the widgets to people who want to buy them. The efficiency of your economic engine is limited and defined by the amount of "stuff" you can move in and out, and the speed at which you can do it.

Trains had [have] a number of obvious advantages over other methods of moving "stuff" between producers, suppliers, and consumers: They were [for the time] faster than any other method of transport, and dramatically so [the Transcontinental Railroad in the US cut the travel time from the East to the West Coast from a matter of months down to 4-5 days]. They were [and still are] able to carry dramatically more payload than any other method of land transport. They require relatively little manpower and are relatively fuel efficient [especially when considering the tonnage of freight it is able to move]. Add it all up, and a train can carry more goods at distances further removed for a cost much lower than nearly any other mode of transport.

There is, of course, one piece of the equation which we are missing. Trains only run on track. Even though trains are fast and both fuel and cost efficient, train tracks are much less so. It took about 6-7 years to build the Transcontinental Railroad, and that was after decades of debate over where exactly it should go and who exactly should build it. The construction employed well into the tens of thousands of laborers. The total cost for the project was something around $100M in 1870 USD. That's just the main route. Every spur to stretch anywhere else in California but the Bay area, in the West but central Nevada and central Utah, and in the East but the Great Plains was yet another very expensive and time-consuming prospect.

This is the primary limitation on the effectiveness of trains. The infrastructure to support rail transport is expensive and slow to build, and increasingly so as it becomes less geographically centralized. For this reason, rail transport is most well suited to bulk transport between large centers of economic activity. Short runs and small loads are best left to other modes of transport. In the early history of rail transport [when UPS trucks and 18-wheelers were not a "thing"], much of this break-out traffic was handled by private local and regional railroads which connected smaller towns back to the major public transportation hubs. This was not generally very profitable, and inevitably these companies [and their track] were bought out by the larger railroads.

From gallery of NateStraight

* A train moves "stuff" for the purpose of facilitating economic activity, and is an incredibly efficient and rapid means of economic transport.

* A railroad is an incredibly expensive and difficult bit of infrastructure, and is a limiting factor on the effectiveness of transport by train.

These, to me, are the defining elements of "trains" and the defining tensions involved in their deployment which a "train game" must capture.

There must be economic activity or growth which is furthered by the use of the trains or railroads in the game. There must be a tension between the "easy money" efficiency of running a train and the "hard labor" difficulty of building [or running] a railroad. There must be significant topological or geographic tradeoffs involved in the planning of rail connections or delivery routes. Niceties such as technological progression and industrial activity are welcome, but not essential. Side issues such as stock ownership and financial chicanery are an integral part of what "train game" means to many gamers, but this is mostly because these mechanisms in their full force just happen to have been applied to "train games" proper nearly to the exclusion of any other genre.

Enter Empire Builder.

Board Game: Empire Builder

First edition copy, photo credit Donald Dimitroff

The Little Engine that Could

Industry stalwart Mayfair Games has been around much longer than has its signature title CATAN. The company was founded in the early 80s for the purpose of publishing Empire Builder, an unassuming looking game co-designed by company founder Darwin Bromley [the other designer was Bill Fawcett]. Since then, the game has seen five revised editions, and over a dozen spin-offs in the "crayon rail" series. Its basic mechanisms for network expansion were copied directly in Funkenschlag [Power Grid's predecessor]. As a standard-bearer for network-building games in general and for Mayfair Games' entrepreneurial adventures as one of both the early "German game" importers and the early "train game" publishers, Empire Builder is a linchpin in the hobby.

If you have never played or researched Empire Builder, a brief overview is probably in order. The essence of the game is pretty simple: Take a natural resource map [with the cute little icons all over] for a country, overlay it with a hex grid made up of dots [the hex centers], then have players connect the dots [literally] with a grease pencil to indicate where they have built their tracks. The players use these tracks to run a train token back and forth between connected cities delivering various natural resources and industrial goods between their origin city and a randomly determined [through a contract card draw deck] destination, with payouts based on the distance between the cities involved. Repeat 'til someone has a sufficiently large network and sufficiently high cash assets.

From gallery of NateStraight

This has a kind of intuitive common sense to it which I've written about before. The maps make sense. The kind of economic activity makes sense. The method of building track by drawing out the way you want to connect various cities makes sense. The means in which you make money by delivering goods from a fixed supply to a larger and variable set of demanders makes sense. Because of this, and best of all, even though it is simple it still feels like a real live red blooded train game [I'm looking at you, Ticket to Ride] and it captures the essential elements of the genre: Building track is expensive and takes a long time, but your train can zip back and forth across what track you've built pretty quickly; and there are real opportunity costs in how you plan both your network and deliveries.

The game also has one of the best early examples of what is now a pretty bog standard trope in train gaming [though 18xx largely eschews it]: Your income derived from economic activity during the game is for the large part of the game plowed right back into continuing the cycle of economic growth through more and more infrastructure [track]. It accomplishes this by forcing you to connect a certain number of larger cities, but more importantly by limiting how efficiently your wealth can grow if your network is not large enough to handle the vagaries of the random contract draw or to leverage the longer more valuable payouts. You simply will never reach the required total cash-on-hand victory condition without expending about as much [or more] cash over the course of the game to expand your network.

Like many modern economic engine games, there is a fairly well-defined tipping point when the focus of your game will shift from building the infrastructure / engine to churning out points with it. Along with Crude: The Oil Game, Outpost and Civilization, it's one of the earlier and more important examples of this basic game structure. Additionally, while it is not the first pickup and deliver game with players "carrying" goods on some kind of transport across the board to earn points [for one other easy example, see Alaska from a year earlier], it is definitely the earliest of any real impact and is pretty damn close to the archetype for that mechanism, what with movement points and carrying capacity and demand cards to fulfill. Merchant of Venus, Roads & Boats, Serenissima, and all of the other pu&d progenitors owe a large debt to Empire Builder.

More specifically, Empire Builder solidified a central element of pickup and deliver gameplay that has become part of the vast majority of games [especially train-themed games] which use the mechanism and which [importantly] is absent from all of the previous train-themed games mentioned in the intro: The idea that any given demand can be sourced from multiple supply locations, and [conversely] that any given supply can potentially be used to fulfill demands in multiple different locations. In prior games that had inklings of pu&d, delivery contracts were of the sort "go to that place, then come back to this other place". In Empire Builder, it is "Newcastle needs coal", but there are multiple places to get coal, and if you're not connected to any you'll have to decide which one works best with other potential deliveries.

That idea comes back in full force, of course, in Age of Steam and its family tree [parents and children]. While there are no trains which move around the board and demand is determined by the board topology itself and not a random contract draw, the essential tension remains of linking up a network various potential supply sources to various possible matching demands in such a way as to efficiently take advantage of as many as possible of the produced goods when they present themselves to be supplied to fulfill demands. If there is any other game series which is quintessentially the "modern train game", it is the AoS family, and while the supply/demand system is not a direct port in any sense, it is hard to imagine its having developed in the way it did without the earlier [possibly mediated] influence of Empire Builder.

I am less convinced / certain of it [i.e., would love counter-examples], but I am fairly sure that Empire Builder also represents one of the earliest instances of the concept [divorced from any physical pick-up-and-deliver action] of collecting a good[s] and using it to match up to a randomly drawn "contract" in order to gain a payout. This, of course, has developed through a little bit of mechanical accretion [turning in more than one good at a time in order to receive the payouts for the contracts in question] into a building block as basic to modern gaming as is worker placement or shifting turn order: set collection [esp. toward "contracts"]. Despite being abused and having become one of the most obvious design choices when you need to convert "doing stuff" into points, it is a fundamental design tool.

Board Game Publisher: Mayfair Games

Mayfair booth at Origins 2007, photo credit Todd Eaton

It's Hard to Stop a Train

Empire Builder paved the way for Mayfair to become one of the most successful hobby publishers ["publisher marks" at least, as it hasn't been continuously owned/operated as the self-same company]. Importantly for the topic of this post, it also cemented them as one of the foremost publishers of train games. In addition to all of the Empire Builder spin-offs, Mayfair was responsible for the importing from Hartland Trefoil of two of the earlier 18xx titles [1835 and 1853], for the sprawling economic epic that is Silverton, for two independently / in-house developed 18xx games [1856: Railroading in Upper Canada from 1856 and 1870: Railroading across the Trans Mississippi from 1870], for a number of train-themed card games [Express, Freight Train, Station Master], and eventually [after a few corporate reorganizations] the functional [if not perfect] long-awaited reprint of the classic 1830: Railways & Robber Barons.

Add to that a number of Martin Wallace economic titles [Automobile, Aeroplanes, and of course Steam] and dozens of games licensed from KOSMOS [Catan, duh], and they are for all of their price-fixing and generally uninspired art and production direction a force for good in the hobby. In large part, no doubt, because of the head start which Empire Builder serendipitously gave them. What would Mayfair have been like without Empire Builder's success? What would your gaming life have been like without Mayfair's landing of Catan? They're not a Lookout Games [well, actually...] or an alea or a Hans im Glück that dominate the BGG hotness with new flashy releases every year from the most popular designers, but they remain a hobby standby seemingly in large part on the backs of tried and true designs like Empire Builder and Catan.

From gallery of NateStraight

There's Room for Many a' More

I'll wrap up by trying to connect the breadcrumbs I've scattered throughout, primarily as it pertains to this thing I've called the "modern train game". It's a theme and a setting that seems to fascinate gamers regardless of their general gaming preferences. Titles like Rolling Freight, Snowdonia, Russian Railroads pop up every Essen and score high on the buzz lists / hotness tracker. Are these train games? Does it matter? Well, in all likelihood, no... but that would make this a waste of a blog post. I think it does matter that we define "train game" to mean something more than just "it has pictures of trains on the box", because there are implicit and conditioned things that are expected of something purporting to be a "train game". I'm going to toss in my two cents on what these are, without answering silly "Is ____ a train game?" questions.

Does a train game require a map? Surprisingly perhaps, I don't think so, but I do think it requires some kind of implied distance structure or other topology [which does not have to be geographical / physical; it could well be an abstract "network"]. I can imagine a free-form action-cost-as-distance game structure such as Container's being used in a game that is otherwise a train game. I can imagine some kind of "card adjacency" [not physical, but card-power / -value related] mechanism utilizing ranks and suits to denote distances traveled. And I can imagine a way to build an infrastructure that interacts with these systems without having "physical presence".

Does a train game require trains? Again, maybe a little less surprising, my answer is no. The basic concepts of very expensive or time-consuming infrastructure leading to very efficient growth all in the framework of a production / supply-and-demand economy are manifest clearly in actual trains and railroads, but also in various other settings. I consider the board play of Guatemala Café and Hacienda to be in many ways like (I wouldn't go so far as to say either is) a train game. Nearer to the Platonic ideal, Medieval Merchant and Power Grid seem very nearly to be train games. Then there's Samarkand which is also close. Merchant of Venus has at least one foot in the door.

Does a train game require network-building? Yes, or at the very least network modification [MoV's factories and spaceports, for instance, though again it's an edge-case example]. This is why at least some kind of distance structure or implied topology is necessary. Connectivity [and the building thereof] is central to what it means to have a "train" or a railroad. It is not merely a source of income [as in, say, Railroad Barons], but a source of mobility. That concept of mobility and connectedness and its impact on economic activity and growth is a sine qua non of train gaming, and a differentiating factor from mere economic engine games or mere financial simulations.

Does a train game require goods / pickup-and-deliver? No, although it does require some kind of implicit "from here to there" economic activity that is dependent on the connectivity just mentioned [for example, 18xx's counting of train routes which must pass through a station and then can "reach" to a number of connected cities of various economic value]. So, Martin Wallace's quip in the rulebook to First Train to Nuremberg that "with all good train games, there comes a time when you actually have to move things" is I think a little unfair [*wink*]. There are many ways to simulate economic activity and the "movement" of goods back and forth which do not require any movement.

Does a train game require stock-holding? No. Just no.

So, there you have it. For me, the modern train game is something at the intersection of network-building and economic-engine [to put it simply]. More than that, it is about the tension between hard-to-put-together and iteratively-expanded infrastructure [of uniform materials, so no combo-building super-power card-games here; rails and ties, there's your winning combo] and the rapid growth which it can facilitate. Because the infrastructure is expensive, it cannot reach everywhere in the game and significant opportunity-cost style decisions must be considered in the making of connections. The game pace needs to be long enough for the durability of the infrastructure to be felt [we are not merely blazing trails; a railroad is a permanent landscape fixture] and its use should be a large part of the game.

It also helps if the graphic design was done in MS Paint.
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Tue Feb 11, 2014 10:22 am
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My Commentary on the Meta-Commentary that is The Emperor's New Clothes

Nate Straight

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I actually will have something substantive to say about the project, but will withhold such commentary--to be updated here--until it ends, since the way the project's end is handled will likely greatly impact my impression of it. So far, I remain hopeful.
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Wed Mar 13, 2013 4:18 pm
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What is / are Roads & Boats?--An attempt at ludomorphology

Nate Straight

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Caveat: This review was written over two years' time. Everything up to the "Topology + Logistics" section was written a long time ago. I have left it mostly as is, with only minor revisions.

Additionally, the modern section was written mostly at 3:00-4:00 in the morning after feeding a 6-week old baby, and the very last bit was written this morning with him in my arms screaming in my ears.

Vouchsafe me any inconsistencies or ambiguities due to either of these causes.

Errors, syntactical and rhetorical, have surely been made as well; point them out.

A recent Ludology episode had Ryan Sturm making the claim that "Caylus is the most important game of the last 10 years". I'm not prepared to debate that, but I want to argue this:

Thesis [strong form]: Roads & Boats is the most important, most pivotal, and most interesting game in the entire history of modern resource-management Euro games.


Roads & Boats is the “missing link” in the evolutionary chain that runs from old-style topological, route-planning games like 18XX, Empire Builder, or Merchant of Venus, through heavily positional, directly interactive border-fighting games like La Città, Settlers of Catan, or Löwenherz, through the pseudo-spatial, indirectly interactive claim-jumping games like Age of Steam, Keythedral, Power Grid, or Neuland until we reach today's mostly non-spatial, nearly non-interactive resource-churning games like Caylus, Agricola, Le Havre, and all the rest. One cannot easily trace a line of ideas or mechanisms through this chain without encountering Roads & Boats.

In fact, it is hard to find a more traceable lineage of games except in instances where a clear series is identifiable [e.g. the 18xx series, __-oretto games]. While those of us who like to talk about games a lot throw around terms and phrases like “innovative mechanisms,” “mixes old ideas together in new and interesting ways,” or “creates a new genre,” these terms and phrases rarely stick. In the case of Roads & Boats, they are all true. I will argue, perhaps unprovably or even demonstrably false, that the existence of the genres of “Worker Placement”, “Cube Pushing”, and “Resource Management” as we know them now is due to the genius of Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga's seminal creation.


Roads & Boats is a large and a long game. It is also among the most mechanically pure and designedly succinct games I have encountered. There is essentially only one mechanism in the game, and the game title gives it away: Move things, by road or by boat, from Point A to Point B, where they will change into something else that you can move from Point B to Point C, and so on. The more astute among you might catch a hint in that description of the underlying, unifying theme of the game: Movement and exchange. In short, logistics: What to produce and where, what to process and where, how and when to best move raw materials to processing centers--these are the puzzles the game provides.

In the game, this takes the form of three unique elements: producers, goods, and transporters. Each producer, all 20 or so different types of them, will provide output each turn of the game in the form of goods. Goods, in turn, take almost as many different forms, from raw materials [clay, wood, fuel, gold, iron, &cetera] to processed or semi-processed materials [stone, lumber, paper, coins, &cetera] to finished goods [stock certificates, new trucks and ships and other transporters, bricks toward construction of the wonder, &cetera]. [I have written out “&cetera” in each category, because the expansion, by that name, adds about 50% more stuff in each category.]

Raw-material producers simply provide their output for free; other producers require an input good, in the form of a raw or semi-processed material from a different producer, before providing a processed or finished good. So, you may have the woodcutter or the clay pit piling up fallen trees and lumps of misshapen clay over in one area of the map, and the sawmill and brick factory sitting idle waiting for tree limbs and clay to come in to be transformed into something more usable. You also have those anxious folks at the paper mill, the mint, or the wagon factory waiting for their respective inputs. Stuff in one place needs to get to somewhere else, and here's where you, the player, come in!

In Roads & Boats, you as a player neither own goods nor the means to produce or refine those goods. All you have to your name is a transporter fleet. Your various transporters are how you will pick up output goods from one producer and deliver them as inputs to another, then turn around and take those outputs to yet another producer, and so on. Any goods not held on one of your transporters are fair game for other players to swoop in and pick up, and any surfeit input goods to one of the secondary producers in the game [due to two or more players bringing raw materials in for refining] will just have to sit on the truck 'til next turn while the factory services that no good lout that got there first.


Surprisingly, for such a long and involved game, there are extraordinarily few rules and even fewer rules exceptions or ambiguities. Every turn, all the factories and producers will supply output goods if they have the requisite inputs [some require no input]. After that, you will be able to load up goods on your transporters if you have them positioned on the tiles with the goods [each transporter can hold a certain amount of goods]. Then, you will move your transporters along the roads and rivers [each can move a certain number of spaces]. Finally, you will use the goods on your transporters to construct new buildings so that in future turns you can refine even further your finished goods [eventually for points!].

It is incredibly intuitive, and hearkens back to something simple like playing with Tonka trucks as a kid. If the game had pieces sufficiently elaborate enough, it would almost literally require no rules. There are a few wrinkles to learn, such as the process for moving goods on water [you've got to dock and load the boats!], the ability to build walls and additional roads, and the last big element of the game... the construction of the wonder, which serves as both a time-keeper and a way to earn points. All of the real meat of the game is contained on the player aid card, which lays out all of the production functions [inputs -> outputs] and carrying capacities / distances of your various types of transporters.

So, what is the meat of the game? Simply put, it is finding the quickest way to navigate the twisty, turny production functions to get from a few measly sticks and bricks to a hoard of gleaming coins and a monument that celebrates your excellent logistical skills. Of the dozen or so goods in the game, only 3 earn you any points. These 3 “wealth” goods are related, and can be progressively refined into each other, such that you double your score by reaching the 2nd level and triple it by reaching the 3rd. 2 gold is worth 20pts alone [10pts each], but you can convert 2 gold -> 1 coin = 40pts, or, in turn, 2 coins -> 1 stock = 120 pts. 4 gold [= 40pts] -> 2 coins [= 80pts—doubled] -> 1 stock [= 120 pts—tripled].

The only other way to get points [outside of &cetera] is to build in the wonder, which is kind of an upside-down pyramid shape of layered rows of bricks. Each brick you build in a row costs you 1 of any good [2 later], and the most points you can get per row is 10pts [you typically have to share these 10pts with other players]. So, if you're keeping score as you follow along, you'll note that a row in the wonder is worth as much as one piece of gold, but there's no way to “double” a wonder row. These two point sources [wealth and wonder points] are in conflict with one another, both in terms of resource needs [you can't put resources into refining gold if you're making bricks out of them!] and game timing.

Suffice to say that a player who is throwing a bunch of bricks into the wonder is going to really make life difficult for a player [maybe themselves!] who is hoping to convert a bunch of gold into coins and eventually into stock certificates. I will speak in much greater detail about the wonder later, but it's important to know now [before we start comparing games] that there are two ways to earn points in the game—refine resources [gold -> coins -> stock] and consume resources [throw it all into the wonder]—and that the two ways of earning points are in conflict both in terms of individual player resource use and in terms of inter-player relationships through game timing and majority scoring.

In the game, your crucial victory-related decisions come down to whether to focus your infrastructure and logistical network on amassing wealth or on accomplishing wonders of architecture. Any winning strategy will consist of elements of both, but the two goals are in tension, and require significantly different types of infrastructure which are also in tension should you try to build both simultaneously. The key to winning is creating an infrastructure that supports one of these goals very well and has the amicable by-product of creating ancillary pathways and back-alleys for the other. Lest you think there are “only two” strategies [wealth or wonder], let's start to talk about strategy in the game.


To get to stock certificates, you have to bring raw materials through a grand total of 6 transformations. First, you need lumber and stones to build the mines that provide raw gold. To get lumber, you first must get tree trunks, from the Woodcutter producer. You bring the trunks to the Sawmill and get your sticks. To get stones to build, you either need a Quarry, or some raw clay to put into the Stone Factory. After you've got the Mine, you'll start pulling out gold. To get coins, you need gold and fuel. Fuel can come from an Oil Rig, but you have to research that [takes geese and paper; paper takes wood], or from a Coal Burner [put in wood, any kind, take out fuel]. Finally, to get stock, you need coins and paper.

So, trunks to sticks and clay to bricks [two transformations, four buildings], then you can build a Mine and get some gold. Then, you need either geese+paper for the Oil Rig [just to get the right to build it; you still need more sticks and bricks to actually make the thing] or a Coal Burner to throw wood into; either way, this is one more building and transformation [wood->paper, or wood->fuel]. Take the gold and the fuel, throw them in the Mint, and you get some shiny coins [yet another building and transformation]. Finally, you take some leftover paper [transformation] and write out a promissory note against your wealth [coins] to get your first stock certificate [final transformation and building].

To sum it up, that's 7 or 8 buildings [Woodcutter, Sawmill, Clay Pit + Stone Factory or just Quarry, Oil Rig or Coal Burner, Mint, Stock Exchange, and a Paper Mill—needed for the stock certificate transformation, at least, and also possibly for the Oil Rig research if you go that route] at a bare minimum [usually you'll have multiples of some, or both of one step—Oil Rig AND Coal Burner, for instance—to maximize output of a crucial resource]. Each building has a construction cost in addition to its turn-by-turn resource input demands for its production function. This is also a minimum of 6 or 7 transformations / productions to get from sticks and stones to stocks, the ultimate status symbol.

“So what?”, you may be asking. The “so what” is that the game time is limited to a set number of turns, and can be shortened [but never lengthened]. Each turn only provides you with one transformation as you follow each embodied resource through the supply chain. That is, you can't transform a bunch of gold to coins and those same coins to stock on one turn, though you can further transform previously transformed gold—in the form of coins, presently—to stock while you're in the middle of transforming different pieces of gold into new coins, to be transformed themselves, in turn, into stocks later. Your goal is to shove embodied resources through subsequent refinement steps as fast as you can manage.

To do this effectively, you need to stack the different stages of production on top of each other as efficiently as possible. Once you've got some coins and are shipping them off to the Stock Exchange, you can't just forget about your Mint; you need to immediately gear up production for additional coins. This requires you to work all the way back through the supply chain on every turn to maximize the mobility of your goods to get everything to where it needs to be on time. And, you need to do this simultaneously at all levels of the supply chain. You will have, at any given time, goods in every phase of production on your transporters, and the puzzle is to get all of them where they need to go ASAP.

Strategy-wise, the game space positively explodes as the game progresses. You start with maybe two or three producers, a simple little network of donkeys and roads, casually bringing trunks from the forest to the Sawmill for refining. About a third of the way through, you're to the point where you begin to wonder if your feeble brain can even handle the amount of information you are supposed to be processing. By the end, you will have a dozen or so producers, each with goods piling up that need to go to at least two different places each, and half a dozen or more transporters with which to attempt the job. Leaving aside the actual logistics, the sheer math is scary. “Snowball” is an understatement.

To make it all work, you have to plan out a leverageable spatial layout for the producer network you'll be using and then make efficient use of—surprise!—roads and boats to get the goods physically from one producer to the next in their chain. There are a number of ways to do this, but it goes back to the basic wealth vs. wonder dilemma: you can only contribute to the wonder in one hex [we haven't even talked about the board yet!], whereas a wealth production chain requires at least 6. A heavy wonder builder will create networks that can rapidly push goods back to that one home hex; a heavy wealth builder will create networks that can efficiently move goods through a mostly linear chain. Clump vs chain.

Somewhere along the way, you'll find out that you need to do everything if you want to stay competitive. The key is to leverage your network so that one transporter can do the work of two, or more, picking up goods from one place and simultaneously delivering them to two separate refining facilities in one turn [drop one off, move again, drop the other off]—or the reverse, taking goods from two places to the one place they need to go [pick up, move, pick up, move], or even some combination of the two. You have a second, auxiliary choice to make here; you can build similar producers close together, or you can upgrade your transporters to move further and carry more, or some combination.


Wealth or wonder? The answer is “Both”, but to what extent? Here's where things get interesting. You should already have some idea that the process of getting the big point-scoring wealth goods in the game [stocks] is lengthy and difficult. I'll tell you now, because it's beginning to be relevant and meaningful, but there are at most 33 turns in the game. I don't know what the theoretical minimum is, but common knowledge [and personal experience] seems to be that you'll be making your first stock [if you're lucky] somewhere around turn 25-28. It would not be uncommon for a beginner to not make a single stock. Even one is an accomplishment. Multiple stocks is probably a game-winning blow.

“What about the wonder?” Here's what: It shortens the game and requires no transformation of goods through the supply chain. Why is this important [and genius, I think]? As an example, in the 2p game, if one player builds to the wonder uncontested [the other player does not build at all], they can rack up a total of 120pts [in games of higher player counts, there are slightly more wonder points to go around]—exactly as much as a stock—before the game ends. The wonder can shorten the game if the players build it very quickly, perhaps by as much as 4 or 5 turns or more. This can be the difference, easily, in the wonder-builder's opponent getting to convert their coins to that stock, or even their gold to coins.

What did I say earlier, that the wonder is both a source of points and a time-keeper? Not to get into too much detail, but the way this works is that there are 33 “neutral” bricks for the wonder; one goes on each turn, in addition to any player bricks. There are spaces on the wonder marked with a player count [like the turn track in Genoa, Age of Steam, et al] that will not be reached before the neutral bricks run out if no players build to the wonder, but might be reached if the players contribute heavily. Depending on exactly how many bricks the players between them build, the game can go the full 33 turns, or can be shortened considerably [if 2p each build just 1 brick per turn, the game will last only 21 turns].

Wonder construction requires no special care in daisy chaining production centers together aside from getting as many resources as possible to your home hex [where the wonder may be built] each turn. This can be intentional or unintentional, but is [as most things in the game] usually a sort of mix. If your network starts to look ugly, you might want to consider switching gears and try to end the game early before your more efficient opponent gets his engine running and can start churning out stock certificates. If you have excess resources for your beautifully planned supply chain, and plenty of time to run it through a few cycles, you can drop them off at the wonder for additional points.

Winning the game depends heavily on controlling and predicting exactly how long the game will last and making sure that your production goals and capabilities are aligned accordingly. If you get in a tight spot, and are on the high-end of the turn 25-28 range for getting your first stock [it's certainly possible not to get a stock until turn 30 or higher], you either need to have a backup plan in place to churn out points from the wonder or be watching to make sure your opponent isn't going to bum-rush you into an end-game that comes out of the blue when you weren't expecting it, long before your sloppy supply chain job can materialize into anything even remotely resembling wealth or the pursuit of happiness.

Why the wonder is genius is that it provides a substantive way for a player falling behind in the stock race to put pressure on the leaders of that race, without resorting to awkward catch-up or slow-down mechanisms that are so often used in newer games to prevent “runaway leaders”. The wonder is not a “gimme”; a player who ignores wealth cannot win with the wonder alone. What the wonder serves as is instead a sort of antitrust / regulatory compliance board. If everyone is in the competitive hunt, it can be ignored; if a clear leader begins to emerge, the less efficient player can start pushing the wonder and the leader will have to respond, cutting into their efficiency, or risk an early game end and no wonder points.

Topology + Logistics

One of the most interesting features of Roads & Boats is the difficulty of planning your network of roads, which you physically draw on the board in the manner of something like Crayon Rails or Dampfross, so as to make the most logistical success from your limited transport fleet. Every tile on the board can only hold one production building, so to navigate your way through the extraordinarily long production chains previously described, you'll have to literally navigate your transport fleet through a system of interconnected stops. Traditionally, in gaming, we'd call this “route-planning” or “network-building”; in the larger world, we call this topology, the mathematical study of the shape of systems.

Fair warning: I am not a topologist. I do know, at least, that the discipline began with Euler's exposition of the famous “Seven Bridges of Konigsberg” problem. There are seven bridges in the city that connect two large islands and the two banks of the mainland on either side of a widely forked river in which the islands sit. The task, as defined by Euler, is to define a path through the city such that every bridge is crossed once and only once. It turns out, due to the specific configuration of islands and bridges, that this feat is both practically and [this was Euler's spark that birthed the field] mathematically provably impossible. Go ahead and prove it to yourself by attempting to trace such a path on the map below.

From gallery of NateStraight

From Euler's inspiration, a massively important mathematic discipline was built up that presently is applied in things as diverse as protein folding, cosmological physics, and computer network design. In no small part, the reason the Internet works as well as it does is traceable to Euler. For our purposes, the aspects of topology that are most interesting are the simplest, and the ones closest to Euler's original problem [thank God, since I don't understand competing space-time structures]. In basic topologies like this, there are “nodes” [islands] and “links” [bridges], and various paths that can be traced. “Nodes” and “links” are also called “vertices” and “edges” because a topological graph may be conceived of as a polygon.

One can imagine an infinite number of different, and increasingly complex, possible configurations of nodes and links [islands and bridge]. What if there were a bunch of islands in a row and we built bridges between each successive pair? What if we also made a massive bridge at the end of the row that went back to the very first island? What if we built a single long bridge alongside the row of islands, like a highway, and had “exits” so we could stop off at whatever destination we liked? What if we worked for the government and had the bright idea to “create jobs” by contracting bridges to be built between every possible pair of islands, adjacent or not? These questions represent different topological graphs.

From gallery of NateStraight

Each possible system of bridges we might build between our imagined islands has its own unique topological structure, and its own unique efficiencies for path-tracing. Take a look at the “ring” and the “star” shapes. If the goal is to be able to move quickly [as few “bridge crossings” as possible] through every one of the nodes, the “ring” is the clear winner; we can start at any node and travel through all of the others in only 5 crossings. To accomplish the same task under the “star” structure, we'd need at least 8 crossings [if we started at any of the outer nodes], and maybe as many as 9 [if we started at the central node]. This doesn't mean, of course, that there is no benefit or comparative advantage to the star.

What the star does well, comparatively, is to minimize the distance between any given pair of nodes [and particularly pairs that involve the central node]. Start at the bottom-left corner of the “ring” and “star” and label each node, going clockwise, with a letter [bottom-left = A, left = B, etc; the central node in the star is F]. Now count up the number of crossings needed to get from, say, A to D in either structure. In the ring, it takes 3 crossings [as it would for B to E or C to F]. In the star, however, it only takes you 2 crossings to get from A to D. More importantly, the distance between any of A, B, C, D, or E and the central node F is only 1 crossing under the star, whereas it is anywhere from 1-3 with the ring.

Even more efficient at connecting nodes is the “fully connected” structure. Any given pair is only 1 crossing apart! This added efficiency might be redundant, though, and so this structure isn't always preferable [especially if there is a cost or even a negative value to building the extra “bridges”]. Let's put all this in some real-world terms now, to see if we can make sense of these competing structures. One good example of a real-world “ring” is a traffic circle / roundabout. From any starting point, the distance to your desired ending point is relatively low [the fact you have to travel in a particular direction is an important consideration in topology, but some “magic” roundabouts even remove this restriction].

Why not just connect every pair of entrances and exits directly in a traffic situation where we might otherwise use a roundabout? The answer should be obvious. Does this mean the roundabout / ring structure is always desired? Of course not. A real-world example of a competing structure, the “star”, is in the design of hospital nursing wings. Typically, the patient rooms are distributed in roughly a star-like shape around the central “node” that is the nurses' station. The reason for this is clear, and is the chief benefit of the star: it minimizes the distance between the outer nodes [patients] and the central node [nurses]. We don't need to “fully connect” this graph, because patients don't interact with other patients.

Board Game: Eurorails

Empire Builder and Dampfross challenged players to build a hugely interconnected network of cities [nodes] such that they could trace a path, and continue tracing it, between successive randomly selected pairs of cities in as little distance as possible. The networks ended up extremely bushy and complicated, looking like some combination of the “bus” with the “tree” or “mesh” shapes. The “bus” baseline serves the purpose in-game of providing the option to begin tracing a path not knowing where it will end, and still end up with a minimal overall travel distance. The “tree” or “mesh” secondary shapes allow a wide variety of overlapping paths, which helps since the game gives players three pairs of nodes to work on at a time.

What the “bus”, or “bus / tree” and “bus / mesh” hybrids, do not do well is prevent back-tracking, which is a necessary evil [and time-waster] often encountered in Empire Builder, where the “holy grail” of card draws are ones that let you string pick-up and delivery locations back-to-back so that your inevitable back-tracking [retracing the same path in the opposite direction, East Coast to West Coast, then West to East] allows you to actually make progress in the game [picking up something from the nurses' station on the way from Patient 1 to Patient 2, since you have to stop off there anyway]. The game is won, race-style, purely by minimizing back-tracking and maximizing efficiency when you do have to reverse direction.

18XX games present a more restrictive path-tracing challenge. The goal is to connect as many as of the most valuable cities as possible, and then trace as many paths as possible between them, but the game prevents you from back-tracking or even re-using any link [like Euler's islands]; points are scored every time an “island” is visited. The way to maximize path-tracing points, then, is to start and end as many paths as possible at the higher valued cities, using every possible path into or out of them that is available. Networks tend to look something like a “star” or multiple “stars” with a “tree” or “mesh” connecting them. The benefit is that players can trace many non-overlapping paths using high-valued cities as starting and ending points.

Where the 18XX games demonstrate their notorious meanness in the path-tracing portion of the game is in allowing players to interrupt the connecting “tree” or “mesh” between an opponents' high-value “stars”. This forces players to use the “star” centers in the middle of their paths rather than as end-points, which reduces points dramatically if the center is a high-value city, since players can count a city every time it serves as a starting or ending point of differently traced paths, but only once for being in the middle of a path. It also prevents players from tracing a path from one high-value “star” center to another elsewhere on the board, and especially [in the most extreme cases] from being able to do this twice with two paths.

From gallery of clearclaw

One of the earliest influences on Roads & Boats were surely these heavily network-focused games of efficient path-tracing. Roads & Boats even carries over the literal “drawing paths on the board” mechanism from Empire Builder and Dampfross. The goals and efficiencies particular to Roads & Boats are more akin to Empire Builder as well, but the Splotter design team have repeatedly declared and demonstrated that 18XX are among the games that most inspire and influence them so there is at least a subconscious influence from that source, too. The thing that sets Roads & Boats apart, and is its chief mechanical innovation, is that path-tracing along the network doesn't have an immediate impact on scoring.

From the idea of route-building / path-tracing as an end in itself [rewarded immediately with VP gains], Roads & Boats developed a richer experience that used topological efficiency to power a resource management game. This particular combination, resulting in a type of supply chain management feel, hasn't really been replicated since [there's one exception I know of I'll mention briefly in a later section], but certain characteristics and niceties necessary to pull it off have been used and reused in umpteen-thousand resource management games that followed. We'll look at the resource management aspect in detail later, but let's focus now on the purely topological concerns in Roads & Boats. A typical late-game board might look like this:

Board Game: Roads & Boats

Board Game: Roads & Boats

From the pictures, a number of topological patterns for path-tracing are apparent. Much of these players' networks are “fully connected”, with the outskirts following primarily a branching design around the connected central core, like a sort of “super-star”. These patterns aren't accidental, but as in Empire Builder and 18XX are the players' attempt to tackle the particular path-tracing problems presented by the game. There is a relatively high cost, in resources and especially action efficiency, to correcting poor network design at a later point in time, and the game's central challenge is making the right decisions in designing your production network. This entails two elements: 1) Where to build production buildings in relation to each other; 2) How best to connect those buildings.

One of the things that makes Roads & Boats' topological game tick is that there are two contrasting resource models at play in the game, which each require different network shapes to function efficiently. The primary model, the long conversion chain running from mines to gold to coins to stock certificates, requires a lot of back-and-forth path-tracing between all the different producers. This would usually be best accomplished by a network where nodes are connected sequentially / serially, like a bus or a ring, but the game doesn't simply move resources through the chain assembly line style. Instead, there are frequent required injections of supporting resources [fuel to smelt gold into coins, paper to print stock certificates on] that necessitate something more like a mesh or a tree.

The other resource utilization model in the game is concerned with infrastructure, building the factories and refineries needed to make the production chain happen. This model is also tasked with building the actual paths to be traced along that production chain. Under this second model, there are just two primary resources to contend with: wood and stone. Every production building in the game costs some combination of wood and stone to build, most secondary producers require wood as an input, and every road built costs stone. There are only so many places where a player can pick up wood or stone, and the challenge is to get the resources to increasingly far-reaching destinations efficiently. This is best accomplished by positioning your wood / stone producers centrally, as in the star network shape.

Once you start trying to play these two resource games simultaneously [and you have to], the demands on your network-building and path-tracing efficiency increase tenfold. This is further complicated by the many sub-games you need to play: Getting the raw materials of timber and clay to the woodcutter and stone factory, increasing the size and capacity of your transport fleet, staying up-to-date in the research game so you have access to the advanced producers you need, and making sure you don't fall behind in wonder construction. All of these mini-games have their own topological efficiencies to concern yourself with. Getting all your ducks geese in a row and making sure the trains ferries run on time are extraordinarily puzzling challenges unmatched in difficulty in the path-tracing genre.

Terrain + Territory

When Settlers of Catan appeared on the scene in 1995, the primary impact it had on the terrain of the hobby was to popularize the idea that terrain on a map could provide resources that could be used elsewhere in the game to do things. There had been games before where terrain and your position on the map interacted directly, of course, in the form of wargames where terrain affects movement or defense or whatnot, or in the form of things like Kings & Things or Titan where terrain affects what creatures you're able to summon in an area. There had also been resource management games before, like the old AH Civilization, but in Civ your resource collection is only based on your overall presence on the board and not on your position relative to any particular terrain. Settlers did something different.

Nearer to the Settlers model of resource collection is the progenitor of its die-rolling mechanism, McMulti / Crude, but your resource collection is only determined by what you have built and not where you have built it relative to terrain. A few obscure titles from the old AH are variously near to Settlers' resource system: In Outdoor Survival you gain resources necessary for the eponymous survival by moving over different terrain; in New World there is a blind-hex variant where the type of terrain determines the general productivity of a region; in Source Of The Nile your discoveries may depend on the terrain you're in. Faidutti's Valley Of The Mammoths is sort of a cross between Kings & Things and Outdoor Survival; there's only one resource, food, but terrain affects how you collect it and whether it spoils. The old SPI title, After The Holocaust, has hexes which provide various resources if controlled.

Where we find the nearest analogue to Settlers, however, and probably a joint inspiration of both Settlers and Roads & Boats [which it shares other mechanisms with] is in the forgotten Eon [maker of Cosmic Encounter and Dune] game, Borderlands. At the start of a game of Borderlands, which is essentially a Diplomacy-style game of world-domination, resource production chits are distributed pseudo-randomly across the board and determine what resources [timber, coal, iron, gold, horses], if any, are available in each territory. Every turn, as in Roads & Boats, a resource chit is generated by these producers, and players controlling the territories can use those resources to build weapons, boats, or cities [which are needed to win the game]. They can also use horses, Roads & Boats style, to move goods.

Nearly as far [1982] behind Settlers as we are beyond it, Borderlands implemented the idea of positional control on a map as a determinant of what resources were available to players in a resource management game. Borderlands was more focused on territorial control than on resource management, but its resource concept is something that was developed in Settlers and many future games, all using different methods of on-board positional play to determine who would get what resources. The heart of Settlers is choosing the correct locations on the board to build your settlements so as to get the best resource production, and then making the best positional attacks to expand your own territory and block off everyone else's. It may have had the first incarnation of the blocking interaction that Euros are known for.

Worth talking about here is La Città, which, though published later than Roads & Boats, has a history which pegs its development as taking place concurrently with Settlers in the early 1990s. The first prototype was created in 1992, while later prototype images show a Settlers like hex grid with play on the vertices [and Settlers roads on the hex sides!]. In its final incarnation, La Citta gives players resources based on what their budding cities are next to [either gold or wheat], and then allows players to expand their territory and eventually take over population from neighboring cities. Once again, the interaction is about highly aggressive positional play and siphoning off opportunities from your opponents. This interaction isn't necessarily central to Roads & Boats, but is included for those who want it.

You never “own” territory in Roads & Boats [you don't even own the roads your transport fleet moves on], but you are able to carve out a tenuous amount of control over territory by building walls and developing “your” road network in such a way that it is difficult for other players to link up with it. You can also use walls aggressively by linking up with an opponent's network and building literal roadblocks in their way. Managing walls, knocking down barriers, and pushing forward into your opponents' space are key tactical maneuvers in more aggressively played games of Roads & Boats. This element of the game is reminiscent of Teuber's other, more confrontational, positional game, Löwenherz. An extremely aggressive game of Roads & Boats can end with long stretches of wall marking off clumps of territory as if you scored for controlling it!

Board Game: Roads & Boats

What is more central to Roads & Boats than this kind of territorial expansion is the underlying idea of terrain as a resource. It is not as direct a resource as it is in Settlers or Borderlands, where you just control a territory and get its product; instead, players are required to build up the infrastructure that can harvest resources from each type of terrain and have some level of freedom in determining exactly what the output of the terrain will be. In building the production buildings, players choose between primary and secondary producers. Primary producers are restricted to certain types of terrain and produce the appropriate type of resource for that terrain [lumber from woods, clay from quarries, etc]. The catch is that only one producer may be on each tile, so to build a secondary producer [unrestricted by terrain] you must give up a tile's primary product.

The first step in the long logistical planning process of getting raw goods turned into wealth or wonder points is to decide where you will get each type of raw resource [what terrain tiles you will choose to turn into primary producers] and where you will give up production of primary goods in order to build the more complex elements of your supply chain. Because you will have to physically move goods across the map, the layout of terrain tiles in each game has similar importance and strategic impact as it does in a game of Settlers. The most influential decisions you will make in the game come in this initial planning stage where you decide how your network will lay out on the map and how you will make the best use of the terrain before you. There are two primary elements predetermined by the map that help you make these decisions: mountains and rivers.

Where you get the raw gold necessary to make any headway along the game's primary goods conversion path is in the mountain terrain hexes, and nowhere else. These are easily the most important terrain tiles on any Roads & Boats setup, and in well-designed scenarios, they are centrally located or otherwise positioned so as to create a competitive race to connect to and control these figurative and literal “gold mines”. They are often the terrain tiles on which players' independent networks make “first contact”, allowing transports to “invade” into opposing territory, and in less aggressive games might be the only place where such connections are made. As you plan your road layout and the position of secondary producers, especially coal and coin factories, you will need to take into account the distance from the mines where gold [and iron] is produced.

The second strategic terrain consideration is the layout of the river and sea terrain hexes on the map. Rivers are preset paths that can be used by water transports and are equivalent in every way to roads, except that you don't get to decide where they go. Seas may only be traversed by water transports, obviously, but require transports to make extra moves to “dock” with adjoining land in order to pick up goods. The tradeoff for the restricted positional flexibility is that water transports can carry more and move faster than their equivalent land transports. It is not strictly necessary to use water transports in a game, but a player who includes them in their plans and develops their supply chain such that producers are positioned along rivers and coastlines whereever possible will be able to be more efficient and do “double duty” by transporting goods by land and by sea.

Water transports and terrain are probably the most difficult entities in the game to use effectively. You don't have the freedom to build new paths if you find you've screwed up in the positioning of some production facility, so there is no Plan B to fall back on. When used well, however, they are a deciding factor in the game, and allow you to move more goods with greater efficiency than a player stuck being a landlubber. Additionally, water hexes can support one of the more important primary producers in the game, the oil rig, which gives you fuel directly without having to burn wood [and transport it in]. Fuel is needed both to smelt gold into coins at the mint and to create the biggest and fastest transports, in both the land and water categories. Late in the game, a steady supply of free fuel releases transporters from having to support a coal burner so they can do more important things.

The terrain in Roads & Boats is of significant strategic importance, not only in terms of what each territory produces [as in Settlers or Borderlands] but in terms of the distance between terrain features and in terms of secondary features like rivers and seas. More than in just about any terrain-dependent resource game preceding or following [Antiquity is a notable exception], the terrain in Roads & Boats provides a “landscape” on which the game plays out differently every time. Many resource or path-tracing games that followed that have modular [Keythedral, Attika] or alternate boards [Age of Steam, Power Grid] don't have nearly this variability. The modular terrain is either only locally relevant rather than of strategic import, or else the new map plays nearly the same as the old one aside from the added expansion mechanisms. Different maps in Roads & Boats truly present new puzzles to players.

Claim Jumps + Cube Churning

If anything comes to mind when you think of a modern Euro game, it is worker placement and cube pushing. I would argue that Splotter essentially created both genres when it released Roads & Boats [and Bus] in 1999. At the very least, these games are perhaps the earliest examples of these two mechanisms, if not the actual impetus for their development and current popularity. The central ideas from Roads & Boats that you do not own a resource until you have claimed it from a commons and that a resource has no value until converted into something better are at the mechanical and ludological heart of the present resource management sub-genre that dominates Euro games. They are foundational to the way modern Euro designers approach the process of game design, and they came from Roads & Boats.

Two games released in 2004, one year before the firestorm that was Caylus [which we'll get to soon], took key mechanisms from Roads & Boats and focused them in a way that portended a change to come in the prevailing ludographic landscape: Keythedral and Neuland. In both games, there is a map of terrain tiles that produce [or refine] resources which are commonly available for any / all players to lay claim to [just as in Roads & Boats]. The shift from Roads & Boats' focus is that these games are highly compacted, and players don't have even tenuous control over an identifiable production network / supply chain. Rather, players' competing access to resources overlaps from the very beginning of the game, and the focus is not on development of a production system to optimize output / throughput but on claim-jumping.

In Keythedral and Neuland, players will position their workers on the map each turn [through various mechanisms that look a lot like worker placement] so as to lay claim to particular resources for the turn. These claims are exclusive but transitory; in Keythedral, players get to store up resources between turns so there is at least that level of permanence, but in Neuland a resource claimed on a turn must be used immediately for something else [there are not even any resource tokens or cards]. In Keythedral, since worker placement is iterative / additive [happens one-at-a-time around the table], access and precedence are the important concerns; Keythedral “borrows” the wall-building mechanism from Roads & Boats that allows players to block off certain producers for their exclusive use. In Neuland, “worker placement” is a little more nuanced.

The placement of workers in Neuland happens all at once on a player's turn; each player has a certain number of worker tokens to assign to claims on their turn, and they position them in a sort of chain across the board [through a rather awkward “movement” mechanism] and then “fire up” the chosen production engine by “collecting” virtual resources and “converting” them through claimed secondary producers in order to build more production buildings to the shared map and eventually [the goal of the game] lay permanent claim to certain prestige buildings [which offer no productive use]. The game has a bit more of the “this is my supply chain” feel of Roads & Boats [despite neither game offering true “ownership” of production facilities] because you can maneuver your workers in such a way as to block of resource / production buildings for multiple turns.


Immediately after Keythedral and Neuland were released, another game that incorporated and built on similar claim-jumping mechanism took the gaming world by storm: Caylus. Caylus' worker placement mechanism has been hailed as the first of its kind by some, and is certainly among the clearest interpretations of the concept, but it was preceded by at least three games [Keydom, Bus, and Way Out West] and I think owes a bit to Roads & Boats, too [especially as mediated by the likes of Keythedral and Neuland]. In a recent interview, William Attia describes the generative spark for Caylus' design as being that of a “line” of “effects” that players chose from in an action draft and then activated in order, with the pool of available effects growing over time. I don't think he was directly influenced by Roads & Boats, but it and Neuland have very similar game structures.

This sequential stringing together of actions / effects related to resource gathering, refinement, and eventual use toward victory is a page right out of Roads & Boats. Perhaps not Attia himself but a playtester who had played Roads & Boats or its derivatives offered up some of the early changes to the game, like players adding buildings to the board, based on that experience. In style, at least, if not in actual derivation, Caylus follows much of the trail blazed by Roads & Boats. These similarities are admittedly not extreme, and were Caylus [or even the much less appreciated Keythedral or Neuland] the only game to show the influence of Roads & Boats, I wouldn't have much of a case here to argue its importance. But, I think there are quite a few other games as seminal as Caylus that show the influence of Splotter's original cube churner.

In particular, I think the influence is also evident in Rosenberg's “landmark game”, Le Havre, and to a lesser extent in Agricola [which Rosenberg has acknowledged was influenced heavily by Splotter's other giant, Antiquity; Rosenberg rates both Antiquity and Roads & Boats as 9s, by the way]. There are two evidences of Roads & Boats' influence on Le Havre: 1) The accumulation of goods mechanism [also seen in Agricola]; 2) The resource conversion chain game structure. The accumulation of goods is a key feature of Roads & Boats, where every primary producer just piles up goods every turn until they are taken [sound familiar?]. I don't think Rosenberg has ever identified where the idea for this mechanism [as he has for the harvest mechanism], but I don't think I've ever seen it tied to resources [and not, say, currency like in Puerto Rico] except in Roads & Boats and Rosenberg's games.

The resource conversion chains in Le Havre also bear similarity to Roads & Boats. There are a lot of “cube churning” games where you gather resources and turn them directly into points, but there surprisingly aren't many where you have to convert primary resources to secondary or tertiary resources before they're worth anything or can be converted to points. Most of these games that I've identified are Splotter designs or ones I've already argued were influenced by them [Keythedral and Neuland, for instance].... or Rosenberg titles. The size and scope of Le Havre's “goods cycle” is similar to that in Roads & Boats, and considerably more involved than any other non-Splotter game until Ora & Labora last year. Get some cows, then get wood and bricks to build a butchery, then kill the cows for meat and hides, then turn the hides into leather, then sell the leather [and meat] for gold. Etc.

From gallery of Ponton
From gallery of Ponton
From gallery of Ponton
From gallery of Ponton
From gallery of Ponton

Board Game: &Cetera


I hope I have shown how Roads & Boats winds it way through the morass of modern Euro resource management designs while it picks up and delivers the best mechanisms from prior genres of the same. It is truly a seminal work of design with an influence that can be seen in nearly all of the most successful resource management and logistics games that followed. Indirectly, through its co-creative effect [with Bus] on the two largest worker placement titles, Caylus and Agricola, it has roots that run even deeper than the heavy cube pushers that it exemplifies, to games as diverse as Stone Age, Troyes, and Dominant Species. Additionally, as a logistical / engine building game par excellence, it has a similar indirect role in shaping designs like Homesteaders, Through The Ages, and 51st State.

Roads & Boats stands, I think, at the intersection of two eras of design, the 90s era of singularly focused games that develop one simple mechanism out into a full game, and the current era that began sometime around the release of Puerto Rico in 2001 and continues to produce multifaceted games with many interlocking and overlapping mechanisms that give rise to multiple paths to victory. With one foot on each side of this divide, Roads & Boats not only rocketed a new publisher and design team toward still increasing levels of innovation, but inspired a multitude of designs by dozens of other designers, many of whom don't even know that the ideas and mechanisms they use so often were previously tested, developed, and exemplified in this wonderful design. It is truly a game of great importance to the hobby.
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Sat May 19, 2012 3:57 pm
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Ten Exciting Designers Doing Exciting Things--On innovation in indie design / development

Nate Straight

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n.b. I have not played games from all of these designers, but I've been watching all of their output. I can't recommend a particular game from all or even most, but I think [from reading comments from others and seeing growth from the designers] that I can recommend them in general.

I had this idea for a post quite some time ago, but never got around to putting it together. Mostly, I wasn't sure I'd quite be able to come up with enough content to make it happen. I think it's a valuable idea, however, especially with the meteoric rise of Kickstarter / indie popularity. I'll give it a shot.

What I'd like to do is introduce you to ten [actually, twelve] game designers / developers who I think are going places and are worth watching.

None of these designers [that I know of] have been seeking major publication [though some are published], instead choosing the independent route.

From gallery of NateStraight
1. P. D. Magnus
Major designs: Decktet, The Blue Sea Deck, Colour Bazaar, and Goblin Market.

No surprises here for anyone that's been following me. I still consider the Decktet, P.D.'s magnum opus, to be a wonderfully compelling game system, and it's clear that it hasn't finished showing its potential yet.

This past month, the Decktet was reviewed in Games! magazine, Goblin Market was released for Android devices, and I myself playtested a Decktet stocks-and-trains pick-up-and-deliver board game.

P.D. is a professional philosopher in "real life", but a brilliant artist and imaginative designer in his gaming pursuits. The Decktet, if you haven't heard, is a deck of cards in traditional 52-card style based on the idea that most of the cards have more than one suit, with the suit-pairings all mixed up throughout the asymmetric deck. It's illustrated beautifully, in the style of an other-worldly Tarot deck, and is available freely as a print-and-play project or for purchase.

Another recent project along similar lines is the Blue Sea deck, which is P.D.'s artistic interpretation of an Empire Deck [six-suited Bridge deck]. In terms of games designed, P.D. has crafted what I consider to be two of the Decktet's best games, Colour Bazaar and Goblin Market. Both are economic filler games, Colour Bazaar being a more complex version of Knizia's Wildlife Safari and Goblin Market being a mash-up of Schacht's Serengeti and Coloretto.

Why you should be watching: I don't think the Decktet is done growing yet. We've already seen two editions of the Decktet book, compiling some of the best games for the system, with the latter including nearly double the number of games in the original edition.

The Decktet doesn't just play traditional-style card-games, either. There are auction games, tableau-filling / tile-laying games, resource management games, and "pawns moving on a track" games, not to mention the excellent pick-up-and-deliver board game still under playtesting.

2. John Clowdus
Major designs: Omen: A Reign of War, Irondale, Bhazum, and the company Small Box Games.

Here's a guy who I have not played any games from, but still think you should be aware of and watching. John's company, Small Box Games, was founded to bring his mostly card-based designs to market and to combat [as the name suggests] the wasteful over-packaged, over-published ways of the hobby at large.

For a guy who nobody knows and a company that is still a start-up, he's been remarkably productive; in the past 4 years, Small Box has published nearly 40 different titles. The games are nearly all card games, with the majority being 2-player exercises. The themes and mechanisms are varied, but are usually a mix of historic and esoteric.

Bhazum and Omen are card-drafting games played in two phases, a draft first and then a head-to-head combat, following in the style of Magic: The Gathering or Campaign Manager 2008. They are each quite well regarded, with average ratings well over 7.0; Omen has even managed to reach rank #13 in the [admittedly sparse] Customizable Games subdomain.

Irondale is a city-building game for 2-4 that looks to have some similarities to Cambridge Games' Barons which was published 1 year after Irondale. It's not as well-regarded overall, but it seems to have quite a few fans, and has generated a number of expansions. If Agnes likes it, it can't be that bad [whistle]. At the very least, invoking its name gives you instant gaming hipster cred.

Why you should be watching: John's company is designed to meet the oft-requested criteria of portable, fun, 2+ player games. He seems to be putting out a much wider variety of styles for that audience than, say, the Series: Two-player games (Kosmos) has [how many "Compare sums across 3-5 columns" games do we really need?]. That, and his design chops seem to be improving, with his most recent titles much better received than his older ones.

I don't think he's done designing yet, and the basic concept behind his company is compelling. I think once he hits upon a real winner, a "killer app" for his company, that his catalogue and renown will really take off. There is a huge market for the types of games he's designing, and the only real missing piece to the puzzle is for him to pin down a publisher's dream game with the quality, replayability, and expandability of something like Dominion or Race.

Board Game Publisher: Double-O Games
3. Helmut Ohley & Leonhard "Lonny" Orgler
Major designs: Poseidon; and 1844: Schweiz, 1848: Australia, and 1880: China under their company Double-O Games.

Helmut and Lonny are among the more ambitious and more well-regarded designers working in the Series: 18xx series of train games that Francis Tresham invented. 1844 and 1880, in particular, [neither of which I've played] seem to be all but universally loved by 18XX diehards, while 1848 is no slouch either. Among 18XX games with a substantial pool of raters [50+], these would rank #1, #2, and #4 in the series [1860 is #3], with average ratings astoundingly high at 8.52, 8.44, and 7.95.

Their entry-level game, Poseidon, was an adventurous attempt to do what had been attempted many times before: Provide a playable, accessible introductory game to the 18XX series. In large part, it was successful [certainly much more successful than prior attempts like 18EZ]. It is rather far removed from the family, but is decidedly recognizable as a member. The chief differences are the use of the strange "discovery" track-laying mechanism from the original 1829, the hard limit on number of rounds, and the relatively stable stock market.

Still, Poseidon is [I think, and I have played it] an interesting game and definitely a reasonable introduction to the mechanisms and general feel of the series. Unlike some of the other commonly suggested introductory games [the many print-and-plays built around US states, for instance], it is available in an easily found, professionally produced edition from Mayfair / Lookout Games and finishes in an amount of time that suits most evening / weekend game groups used to playing 1.5 - 2 hour economic Euros like Age Of Steam, Brass, Container, etc.

Poseidon isn't going to set the 18XX world on fire, nor likely even the general economic gaming world on fire, but it serves its purpose well while maintaining reasonable replay value, and it does it in style with nice art and great components [something that can't be said for most 18XX titles]. At #597 in the rankings, it's outpaced only by the other Mayfair-produced titles, 1830, 1856, and 1870. I could see Helmut and Lonny producing a follow-up to this game, set in some other non-rail historical period, and offering more 18XX newbies a relatively easy start.

Why you should be watching: Helmut and Lonny have been releasing large, well-received 18XX titles on a regular basis for over a decade now and don't seem poised to stop anytime soon. Poseidon was an exciting new direction [for some fans of the series, myself included] that was well-conceived and reasonably well-executed.

A follow-up that fixes some of the complaints from 18XX fans [complaints from newbies to the series are much different in substance] could be really exciting. Seems like they've been on a 2-3 year development cycle for awhile now, and Poseidon was a 2010 title... so keep your eyes pealed for late 2012 or 2013?

Board Game Designer: Patrick Stevens
4. Patrick Stevens
Major designs: The Last of the Independents, Popular Front, Blockade Runner, Bullfrog Goldfield, and the company Numbskull Games [publisher of Divided Republic].

Patrick makes mostly risk management games with pseudo-simulative historic themes, kind of like a doppelganger of Martin Wallace. He seems to do very small print runs [or at least attract a very small number of customers], so the number of ratings [115 at most] for his games keeps them relatively unrecognized in the rankings / hotness, despite very good ratings overall. He's the first designer on this list that I'm pretty sure most of my readers will not have heard of.

The games have had marginal success within their target niches, but none have really even approached "cult classic" territory yet. Bullfrog Goldfield gets a mixed response, some seeing it as a decent alternative to 18XX in the stocks-and-trains genre, while others pan it for being too random. Blockade Runner is the game that brought the designer to my attention, when I saw it described as one of the best economic simulation games available, whereas I'd written it off as a wargame from the cover.

In general, his games are hailed as being highly thematic, historically accurate hybrid games, mixing elements from Eurogames, wargames, and economic games like Brass: Lancashire, Container, or 18XX. It seems a territory ripe for exploitation, as the only major designers really following this trinitarian tack are Wallace and perhaps Chad Jensen [remains to be seen if he'll do another economic game, or a true hybrid] or Mac Gerdts [whose games aren't quite wargamey enough to rival Wallace].

Patrick's company, Numbskull Games, might actually have the most success with a game that isn't his own creation, the upcoming Divided Republic designed by Alex Bagosy. It's a card-driven election / political game set in a time period [1860 in US history] that allows 4 players / parties rather than the usual 2 [as in 1960: The Making of the President and Twilight Struggle]. The game was successfully Kickstarted back in October, which indicates it has some requisite level of hotness to build on.

Why you should be watching: Patrick really seems to have a handle on how to design, develop, and produce a richly thematic game that remains highly playable [something that can't always be said for other designers I'll introduce on this list]. And by "thematic", I don't mean nuking the shit out of zombie trolls.

If you're a fan of Wallace or thematic economic games, I suspect that Patrick and his company should be on your watchlist. I'd seen and written off Bullfrog Goldfield on account of the mildly cartoony art and name [admittedly a poor filter], thinking it to be a Dark Horse clone / cousin, but I suspect I was quite wrong.

Family: Game: Aether Captains
5. Todd Sanders
Major designs: The Game: Aether Captains, the Game: Shadows Upon Lassadar, Bibliogamo, and Ragnarök: Aesir and Jötunn [soon to be published, probably under a different name]

If you follow print-and-play design trends at all on BGG, you'll have encountered Todd's work. His graphic design style is unmistakable and permeates all of his 30+ designs. The thread documenting his current design projects is 43 pages long as of this blog, consisting of over 1,000 replies, and that's in only 1 year's time since it was posted.

He has a rather unique design oeuvre, with his works consisting primarily of 1-player or 1-2 player designs, all print-and-play, nearly all card-based, mostly set in a hybrid steampunk / medieval / mad scientist world, and illustrated in his instantly recognizable minimalist style. The games are mostly light Euro designs, but run the gamut of mechanisms within that genre.

The two that I own and have played, Steam Lords and Capek Golems, are respectively a worker placement / "building shit" game in its essentials and a rather bizarrely themed light economic set collection card game. Both have some issues, but are compelling enough that I feel comfortable recommending his designs in general. He's constantly tweaking and revising his games based on continual playtests, which means that no flaw goes undiscovered or unresolved for long.

If I wanted to get into solitaire gaming, his Shadows Upon Lassadar series [and the solo Aether Captains titles] are probably how I would do it. Lassadar is a quest-based fantasy game that mixes in a number of hex-and-counter mini-wargames. Most of his games seem to have this kind of mechanical hybridization, being a sum of their parts and having multiple different styles of play going on simultaneously. He's decidedly not locked into following any dime-a-dozen design tropes.

Why you should be watching: Todd's artwork, at the very least, is worth investigating his games on account of, if only to peruse the galleries. His games don't seem to have any particular target market in mind [unlike the last three designers on this list], instead just being what they are and hoping to find demand somewhere. There are appeals to both Ameritrashers and Eurogamers.

More than anything, I find his design approach compelling. All of his games are print-and-play [for now], and most he makes available for easy purchase on-demand from ArtsCow. The games don't require specialized components to play, only a few cubes and the decks of cards or printed boards. The consistent theming links otherwise unrelated games, which is neat.

Board Game Designer: Néstor Romeral Andrés
6. Néstor Romeral Andrés
Major designs: Nestortiles, OMEGA, Adaptoid, Coffee, Hippos & Crocodiles, and the company nestorgames.

Not only does Néstor have over 30 game designs to his own credit, his company nestorgames has published well over 100 different traditional and modern titles in the abstract strategy genre. The games [nearly] all share the signature nestor quirk of being stored in canvas pencil cases, using floppy / rollable mousepad-like boards, and pieces made of laser-cut acrylic. Néstor's self-proclaimed goal for the company is "to publish every game that can be produced with this method" and he's well underway in that pursuit, with no signs of slowing down.

The games are increasingly popular with the abstract crowd, but the relatively high price [for abstracts] of $25-35 or more has, I suspect, kept outsiders of the genre away. When you can buy stuff like Hey, That's My Fish!, Hive, or even Through the Desert for under $25 from most online merchants, the unproven nature of nestorgames' products isn't a compelling value to most buyers. I myself have quite a few of them on my wish-/watch-list, but haven't pulled the trigger yet because I'm not a huge abstract player but also partly because of the price.

Néstor's own designs range from the very traditional OMEGA, Coffee, Pentactic, and TAIJI to the rather more imaginative Adaptoid, Hippos & Crocodiles [& Hippos & Crocodiles: Buffalos], Gardens of Mars, and Feed the ducks. He's also designed quite a few games for his own nestortiles game system as well as the Series: Shibumi game system, which is among the smallest and most concise game systems, consisting of nothing but a 4 x 4 board [with recessed spaces] and 3 colors of stackable marbles / balls. Many of his games are well-rated, so he seems to have some chops to go with his obvious knack at publishing.

Obviously, you'd have to be a fan of abstracts to get into most of these games. They're nearly all 2-player, perfect information affairs, but the production and theming [at least in Néstor's own titles] is quirky enough that it might be sufficient to draw some folks in who like the "strategy" portion of "abstract strategy" gaming, but not the "abstract" part so much. On my own personal wish-list from Néstor and/or his company are Hop It!, Jin Li, Feed the ducks, Sugar Gliders, Hello, Dolly!, and Adaptoid. I suspect most gamers could find something of interest in the nestorgames catalogue, too.

Why you should be watching: Néstor is single-handedly, though slowly, changing the face of modern abstract game publication and design. Bizarrely, he doesn't have a single game original to his company in the top 100 abstracts as ranked / categorized by BGG, but that just shows the oddity of BGG's subdomains more than anything having to do with nestorgames' output.

Folks like self-proclaimed "abstract rat" reviewer Bruce Murphy have an almost fanatical obsession with the nestorgames' lineup. Other GeekBuddies whose opinion on abstracts I trust unquestionably also praise many of the games. Abstract fans who are in the know almost universally appreciate these games and the simple beauty they provide in design and packaging befitting a modern abstract.

Board Game Publisher: Splotter Spellen
7. Jeroen Doumen & Joris Wiersinga
Major designs: Bus, Roads & Boats, Antiquity, Indonesia, and the company Splotter Spellen.

Around 1999, Splotter launched with an initial catalogue of about 6 or 7 games, championed by Bus and Roads & Boats. Together, these two probably created the genre we now recognize as the resource management / worker placement Eurogame. Bus, with Keydom, is among the earliest games to make explicit use of the exclusive action-drafting mechanism we now know as "worker placement". Roads & Boats is perhaps the earliest example of a "resource conversion" Euro [i.e. cube-churner]. These are the two halves that together created Caylus [by conscious design choice on William Attia's part or not].

Later Splotter designs like Antiquity directly influenced the creation of the other huge worker placement resource game, Agricola, as described by Uwe Rosenberg in his "advent calendar" design diary. And the dynamic design duo of Jeroen and Joris hasn't stopped innovating and creating exciting games, with the brilliantly nasty Indonesia following Antiquity by a year, and the Merchant of Venus reboot Duck Dealer and satirical [and timely] Greed Incorporated following shortly after. The Splotter team seem to have left behind the smaller titles that spotted their catalogue early in their history, and this has been a really good thing.

Jeroen and Joris are currently playtesting a new heavy civilization-building game [to complete the trilogy with R&B and Antiquity?] that looks exceptionally promising. Of special note is that the title / theme, The Great Zimbabwe, is remarkably refreshing in its focus on an area of the world other than Medieval Europe or Ancient Mesopotamia / Near East, where nearly all other [historic] civilization games are set. Inca Empire is the only comparably themed civ game I can think of, but the actual civ-building in the game is very light. Great Zimbabwe promises to be a really good economic / tech-tree style development game.

A huge plus is that Great Zimbabwe looks to be considerably more directly interactive than either of their prior two civ games, Roads & Boats or Antiquity, which were largely multiplayer-solitaire optimization exercises, or at least tended that way with non-aggressive players. Reports that players are forced to interact in Great Zimbabwe through the pricing / market system are promising. The monetary / production system almost sounds like Container's. "Civ lite" is a dead genre [in fact, except for length, the original Civilization is a remarkably light / simple / clean game]; what we need are more heavy civ games, and this looks to be one.

Why you should be watching: It remains my contention that much of what we recognize as modern Euro design [resource management, production chains, worker placement, etc] is due in large part to Splotter's early and continued influence on the hobby. Jeroen and Joris are silently shaping these genres, and don't seem intent on stopping. Their games are uber-, proto-Euros that stretch the limit of what the genre can do.

There aren't many designers or companies out there that are putting out the kind of games that Splotter makes [much less as reliably as Splotter does]. These are huge, all-afternoon affairs that present extraordinarily complicated puzzles to players unlike those they face in most other games. Things like Ora et Labora / Le Havre or the games of the next designer on this list are close, but Splotter's output still maintains a charm all its own.

Board Game Designer: Phil Eklund
8. Phil Eklund
Major designs: High Frontier, Origins: How We Became Human, American Megafauna / Bios: Megafauna, and the company Sierra Madre Games.

Not many people's résumés begin "____ is a game designer and rocket scientist" as Phil Eklund's does. [Then again, not many people wear funny hats and handlebar moustaches, but Phil is the second designer on this list to fit that description.] Phil produces games that are quite literally unlike those of any other designer. Whereas the Splotter duo's differences are of scope and size, the difference between one of Phil Eklund's games and any other designer's is one of dimensional planes of existence.

The following is an excerpt from one of his rulebooks:

"Examples: 1. A comet impact has the extinction calculus " >3 AaBGHMS ". An immigrant with BBBa would be killed, because it has more than three of the fatal DNA. A genotype with AAPPS is spared. 2. A solar flare has the extinction calculus "size > 4". A size five sea cow is doomed; a size four tyrannosaur is safe. It also has the calculus " >2 Aa ". This will kill off triple-armored turtles." I defy you to find the term "extinction calculus" [or "triple-armored turtle", for that matter] used by another designer.

Phil's rules have actual, academic bibliographies attached to them, and excerpts explaining the geological timescale [often given in millions of years] of a turn. In Origins, your player mat represents the brain development of your tribe. In High Frontier, the rather busy map is based on the actual science behind traveling between orbiting celestial bodies. As if to make Randall Munroe even more paranoid, the logo for Phil's company, Sierra Madre Games, is a velociraptor hunting with a bow and arrow.

Suffice to say that he is no ordinary game designer.

But the games seem to be meeting with gradually increasing critical acclaim. They've always been interesting for their educational / simulation value [and sheer oddity], but recent entries like High Frontier and Bios: Megafauna actually appear to be playable games. On a recent episode of Ludology, Phil described his playtesting process, which he basically described as putting together the simulation and then asking playtesters to tell him how to score it as a game. Strangely enough... this works?

Why you should be watching: Phil is a sort of Renaissance man among game designers, with all the eccentricity you would expect from a true polymath. There is quite literally nobody [that I'm aware of] doing what he is doing in hobby game design [i.e. outside of academia, where I suspect there might be a few "serious game" designers doing similar work]. In fact, there's not even anyone trying.

His vision for game design is completely unique; his themes stretch time scales unbelievably large and incorporate vastly detailed simulations; his games are [I hear] somehow actually playable despite their inscrutability. His is the type of work that makes you believe this is a legitimate hobby for "serious" minded people, and not just something you do for fun in your mother's basement.

From gallery of NateStraight
9. Daniel Solis
Major designs: Happy Birthday, Robot!, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, Velociraptor! Cannibalism! [speaking of; coincidence?], and creator of the Thousand Year Game Design Challenge.

Daniel is primarily an artist [the t-shirt / logo I used here is one of his designs] and RPG designer, but he does have a scattering of completely unknown, mostly abstract, board games to his credit. He also has a game design blog that is very nice and has more than a few interesting insights. I've chosen Daniel for this list because of his ad hoc, brainstorm, catch-as-catch-can approach to game design. His blog is littered with games and game ideas made up on the spot for no reason other than to try something.

I don't think he tries [or even intends to try] to develop most of the ideas and game skeletons he puts up at his blog. It's more an exercise in game design processes and inspiration. And he has some incredible flashes of inspiration, like the recent Minoquar, a solitaire maze game playable using any arbitrary QR code the player has handy. His "wabi sabi" method for "designing" an asymmetric deck of cards is another flash of elegant genius. Then there's the Thousand Year Game Design Challenge.

The concept behind the challenge was to design a game that could potentially have the longevity of something like Chess or Tic-Tac-Toe or even Hide-and-Seek or Tag. The only restrictions were that it had to be able to be explained [cutely] in 1,000 words / 1,000 seconds or less, and that it had to have broad-ranging accessibility and appeal. A couple of BGGers sent in entries, but the winner was Take-Back-Toe designed by James Ernest of Cheapass Games fame [a choice apropos to this blog topic, given James' approach to design and publication].

Whether Take-Back-Toe is a "great game" isn't really the point; the design challenge wasn't about making great games. Tic-Tac-Toe isn't a great game. It's broken. It's still played millennia after it was first devised. The idea of the challenge was to try to identify and embody those qualities that give a game or pastime [social activities / parlour games were also entered to the contest] truly lasting appeal. Daniel explains in the final announcement of the challenge winner what appealed to him about the game. The game itself is sort of a Pachisi / Kalah hybrid.

These types of abstracts--Pachisi, Mancala, Checkers, Tic-Tac-Toe, Nine Men's Morris, etc--are clearly in a different style than things with comparatively more complicated rulesets like Chess, Shogi, or even Go, much less the "modern" abstracts like those produced by nestorgames or in Series: GIPF Project. They have a sort of banal simplicity and smallness that nevertheless leads to [often] interesting play value. Daniel's own board game designs seem to come down more aligned with this "folk game" trajectory than with the "serious" trajectory other abstract designers follow.

Finding / making games in the stupidest / simplest of places [QR codes] is something that appeals to me. I'm one who will sit and stare at a tiled floor attempting to discern a pattern in the color choices of the tiles, or trace / walk a particularly interesting path through the tiles. This is considerably more enjoyable when the pattern isn't symmetric. In redoing the flooring in our house recently, we were laying down laminate that came in about a half dozen different stickered "veneers". I made a game [which my in-laws made fun of] out of making sure there weren't discernible patterns on our floor.

Why you should be watching: I'm not entirely sure, honestly. His two biggest successes are RPGs, which I'll likely never play and know absolutely nothing about. More than anything, I think Daniel's approach to and thoughts on game design are compelling. His "big" card game under development, Belle of the Ball, looks vaguely interesting, but isn't really my style [from what I can tell].

But, I think we need more game designers willing to take the organic, human, asymmetric, serendipitous approach to game design that Daniel seems to be taking. Sometimes, the best art is found [see also], not made. The unexpected rhyme in a natural speech pattern. A pun you didn't intend. A shadow or cloud that takes a sudden unmistakable form. Surely there can be games made like this.

Board Game: Maria
10. Richard Sivél
Major designs: Friedrich and Maria, and the company Histogame [publisher notably of König von Siam].

[This is where I really start to feel I'm running out of content I can speak knowledgeably on, but I'll just barrel through.] Richard is the designer of two of the most successful wargame-Eurogame hybrids in recent memory, Friedrich and Maria. His company, Histogame, is the publisher of record for both, as well as the extraordinarily difficult King of Siam from Peer Sylvester and the German co-publisher of the gargantuan Napoleon's Triumph from Bowen Simmons [whose company Simmons Games is another indie outfit of note, serving as the distributor state-side, as I understand it, of all of Histogame's titles in a sort of partnership].

Friedrich and Maria both use the same "tactic card" mechanism that Richard developed for Friedrich, the earlier of the two games. It bears a resemblance to the card mechanism in Condottiere and even to some extent the conflict resolution in Tigris & Euphrates. Each battle is fought in a particular "suit(s)" [yes, the traditional French ones] and players play cards from their hand in the matching suit looking to lay down the highest total whenever one or the other player drops out. The remainder of the game is a very elegant, nearly austere [only a few dozen "armies" are ever on the board], system of maneuver and positioning.

What makes Richard's designs compelling and interesting is the way he's managed to bring together three completely diverse influences: the random "make do" hand management aspect of traditional card games [the cards in Friedrich / Maria are simple poker decks], the elegant mechanistic positioning of early Eurogames [like Tigris, Torres, Carolus Magnus, or Kardinal & König], and the historic simulation value of grand scale wargames. Other games, like Twilight Struggle, have pulled off similar feats, but Friedrich / Maria are much more divergent from the typical design tropes of the genre. They are radically revisionist interpretations of what a "wargame" is.

It's also worth nothing that Richard has seemingly teamed up with another radical wargame designer in Bowen Simmons and his own company Simmons Games. Simmons' similarly highly maneuver-focused games Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph are also similarly innovative in their radical departure from typical wargame design [both form and function]. I struggled through a game of NT once after borrowing it from a friend who wanted to learn to play; it is not the same kind of elegance as Friedrich / Maria, to be sure, but it was quite interesting to me how so many variables were handled without the need for a bunch of charts or unit statistics.

Why you should be watching: There will probably always be heavy-handed, rule-intensive wargames out there for the die-hard grognards. If you're like me, that doesn't appeal to you. It's just not my thing. What is my thing, however, is the positioning / maneuver / deployment-of-force decisions integral to wargaming. Richard's [and Bowen's, it seemed] games capture this without the high overhead.

I just picked up Friedrich, so haven't had a chance to play through it yet, but it's been recommended to me quite a number of times, and I see why after perusing the reviews and rulebook. It's a refreshingly different take on how to structure a game about war. It makes a huge number of abstractions, but that appeals to me as a card gamer and Euro-abstract / Knizia fan. Maybe it would appeal to you, too, if you like these genres.

[Dis]honorable mention: David Sirlin. Major designs: Yomi, Puzzle Strike, Flash Duel, and the company Sirlin Games. It's clear Sirlin has a unique vision. It doesn't really appeal to me, and I'm not knowledgeable enough to speak on it. I think it's interesting enough that you should read up on it. CS Hearns' recent blog entry on Sirlin should provide good reading material.

Hopefully this entry has introduced you to at least one new designer who I think is providing a fresh voice in the hobby.

More than anything, I hope it's convinced you that there is real diversity in the hobby if you bother to look outside "The Hotness".
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Tue May 1, 2012 8:38 pm
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Hidden Gemlets--Remarkable mechanisms in otherwise [mostly] unremarkable games

Nate Straight

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Some people on this site [most touting "Game Designer" GeekBadges] appear to believe that a good idea for a mechanism or game is sufficient foundation for the creation of a good game around that idea. C.f. the endless threads in the design forum about whether you should try to trademark or copyright your "innovative mechanics" that you "can't remember ever seeing before" so that a rival "designer" or game publisher "doesn't steal them". C.f. the default review copy "it puts a new twist on __________ mechanic" or "it pulls together lots of old mechanics and makes them feel fresh". C.f. the quite common recommendation request format that lists a litany of mechanical requirements or preferences. C.f. the overall fascination with "mechanics" rather than dynamics.

Still, genius isn't entirely perspiration, hard work, and play-testing. It seems worthwhile to take the time occasionally to point out where that "1% inspiration" seedling manages to surface through the weight of a game that is otherwise mundane. Sometimes, that flash of genius is interesting in its own right, even when not borne out in a truly interesting game by equally inspired development. I'll use this blog post to point out some really great mechanical ideas in mostly humdrum games, ideas worthy of being shamelessly stolen and recommended purely for the sake of their novelty. I enjoy some of these games, but I don't consider any of them "great" and certainly not as good as their mechanics deserve. I'll try to point out where I think development failed.


Board Game: Homesteaders

Homesteaders is a very straightforward efficiency engine game. It's fraught with "multiple paths to victory", very little luck, lots of lean resource management, and all of the other stuff you'd expect from the genre. It also features an Amun Re / Evo / Vegas Showdown auction mechanism to distribute the buildings [above] that make up your efficiency engine. This could have been a non-starter, except for the very clever way the designer hacked player interaction / competition into a genre built around "doing what everyone else isn't doing". The things that you're bidding on every round aren't the buildings themselves [which might in a similar game have just been turned up randomly in biddable lots at the start of each turn], but the rights to build a particular type of building [of which there are really only 3].

Board Game: Homesteaders

Each round, players bid on cards like these. The winner pays their bid, then selects a building of the matching type, pays its cost, and puts it into play in their tableau. This makes the bidding phase worthwhile. Not everyone might need the Bank [above] for their chosen "path to victory"--someone else might want the Depot and yet another the Stables--but everyone is going to need "Commercial" buildings eventually to succeed. The auction is the only real source of player interaction and serves to put common scarcity into a system where resource and development needs between players are almost completely non-intersecting. It's a very clever mechanism, and one that similar auction-driven games like Vegas Showdown, The Scepter of Zavandor, and even Power Grid could benefit from.

Scepter of Zavandor, for instance, is a similarly straight-forward efficiency game [based on the progenitor, perhaps, of the genre: Outpost] with a bunch of different "paths to victory". There are "artifact" cards that do much what Homesteaders' buildings do, except they're made available directly through an auction. The end-game bonuses and in-game monetary system highly reward extreme specialization, so when these cards come up for auction they usually only benefit at most two, maybe three, of the five or six players in the game. A player who needs one puts it up for bid, gets passes from half the table, and maybe settles into a tit-for-tat bidding war for a turn or two with the one other player who's interested, and we all move on. The only reason it works at all is because of the high player count. [This is why Outpost can support, and is often preferred with, up to 9 players.]

Ideally, this keeps even the 2-4 players in Homesteaders highly invested in every auction and makes bidding wars a frequent occurrence. A couple of things keep this from really happening, unfortunately. First, the resource management part of the game is probably a few notches too tight. Because you need both money and resources at the time you win a card at auction, you have to be doubly prepared to seize any opportunities that arise [loans can assist with financial trouble, at least]. This often makes it simply impossible for a player to enter an auction, even if they have the cash. Second, the game offers an "out" for players who run into this pitfall, in the form of the much-lauded Railroad Development Track. This is akin to a favor track in Caylus, except you move up by not doing anything in a bidding round [i.e. dropping out of all auctions]. It is clearly intended to keep players "in the game", but it cannibalizes the very interesting auction by being too strong an option.

Board Game: Homesteaders

Admittedly, experienced players of the game consider taking loans and bidding very high to be a winning strategy [c.f. Le Havre loans, Stone Age starvation, etc], and passing to be sub-optimal in most situations. This is probably lost on new players, which keeps early plays from being interesting. You can bet when you design a game with "penalties" or "loans" that most players are instinctively not going to want to take any, whereas word on the street around BGG is that 5-8 loans is normal for a game of Homesteaders. Players who know all the buildings can probably also prepare better for auctions. Even so, the very interesting auction / building allocation mechanism here isn't really enough to get around the fact that this is as straightforward a cube-churner as they come. There's nothing extraordinarily compelling or interesting in the combo-building part of the game; the auction is the entire game, for better or [and?] for worse.


Board Game: London

London is Martin Wallace's take on the efficiency engine card game genre dominated by greats like Race for the Galaxy, Through the Ages, Glory to Rome, and the relatively unknown 51st State / The New Era and now forgotten Saint Petersburg. It's relatively straightforward as a member of this genre, being built mostly around the income / VP tradeoff central to these sorts of games and around Martin Wallace's trademarked focus on loans. It reuses bits and pieces of the pay-to-play mechanism and consumption phase [even the same "goods" icon!] from Race. Some cards give you infrastructure, others give you weird special powers, still others let you start burning the midnight oil in your engine to crank out the points. Lather, rinse, repeat and you're all done.

What it does very interestingly is place a limits-to-growth system on your engine-building in an organic way. The system is kind of like the Happiness mechanism in Through The Ages, but is much more explicitly linked to the engine-building. The central idea is that every time you "turn the crank", you effectively incur a cost / penalty based on how many cards make up your engine. To allow you to manage this, you're able to "stack" cards on top of each other; so, as you gain access to more efficient cube-churners, you can replace your old technology, etc. Thematically, the cost is dubbed "poverty" and the more you accumulate during the game, the more penalty points you will have to pay at the end of the game based on an increasing scale.

Board Game: London

There are, of course, cards that give you the ability to reduce your recurring penalty or eliminate previously earned poverty. Effectively, the entire poverty system is one of managing administrative / overhead / fixed expenses, and it works quite well without the clunkiness of something like Through The Ages' maintenance phase or the tacked-on feeling of the more usual "feed your workers" phase in most larger efficiency engine board games. The penalty is directly tied to your efficiency, allowing you to make interesting opportunity cost decisions; you can clearly see what adding a new stack will do to your costs, and judge that against the expected gain to see if you'll net a profit or a loss. It's a decision type that is usually absent from games like this; in Race, if you have a good card and can pay the start-up fee, you just play it.

Where the game kind of falls short, and feels most strange, is that most of the cards you play down only activate one time and then effectively leave your tableau [they get flipped over, in reverse-Brass fashion]. You're left with the overhead, but not the output. This means you have to keep struggling to piece together new parts of the engine to manage the cost structure you've set up. It feels very weird, and is almost wholly unlike any other game in this genre I can think of. 51st State / New Era comes closest in that there is a hard 3-use limit on VP-producing cards, but that is nowhere near as game-defining. Martin Wallace seems to enjoy this thematic representation of growth by removing from play the source of the economic gain once used [see the new income structure in Age of Industry or the oft-confusing thematic interpretation of deliveries in Age of Steam], but it makes his games feel herky-jerky and this is no exception.


Board Game: Kingdom Builder

Kingdom Builder is probably not unfamiliar to any Cultist [of the New] on BGG. It's swept a lot of gamers away with the promise of similar replayability [or at least similar "interplay variability"] as the designer's smash-hit Dominion [which I find even duller than Kingdom Builder]. It's a relatively straightforward "tile placement" / connection game akin to Through the Desert, but using terrain cards to determine where players are able to place their pieces as in Hacienda or Attika. The gimmick of the game, and source of promised replay value, is that each game will have a randomly chosen set of 3 [out of 10 so far] cards that determine what will score points in the game at hand. Most of these are straightforward and uninteresting: "Score points for your largest group of connected tiles", "Score points for tiles placed next to the _______ terrain", "Score points for connecting certain locations", etc. Here's a summary:

Board Game: Kingdom Builder

One of the scoring cards, however, is quite remarkable and is very interesting: the Hermits. The Hermits card gives you 1 point for every separate group of connected tiles you have on the board. "Big deal", you say. Here's the big deal: The rule for playing new tiles is that you get dealt a terrain card and have to put new tiles only on that terrain and, additionally, adjacent if possible to your previously placed tiles. If your previous plays are touching the terrain you drew anywhere on the board, you are required to play there, obviously extending a group rather than making a new one. This interaction between the placement rules and the scoring objective of the Hermits card is exactly the kind of thing that can make a game interesting; it's non-linear [i.e. you don't just get points for doing what the game causes you to do anyway] and it's truly difficult to capitalize on.

Unfortunately, the Hermits card is the most interesting of the set, and really the only one that has this kind of counterintuitive / counterproductive tension at its core. I can't see ever wanting to play the game without this particular scoring card, which makes me wonder why the designer didn't just make up a bigger preset scoring system that rewards this kind of interesting gameplay tension. Hacienda's market scoring, for instance, rewards similar diversity in position on the board, but the game makes it relatively easy to break up your groups of tiles so there isn't this tension [tension in Hacienda arises elsewhere]. Such a system could easily have been wrapped into a more consistently interesting game rather than left as a quirk that only shows up in about 50% of games [90% * 80% * 70% = 50.4% 30% of games [9/10 * 8/9 * 7/8 = 70% failure to find Hermits among your 3 scoring cards].

This is the same kind of complaint I have against Dominion... it's just not consistently interesting, and the basic game structure itself simply isn't compelling enough to make up for a "bad" setup. In fact, this is also the chief complaint I have against another famously "infinitely replayable" game, Cosmic Encounter. Games need structural interest to work, and I don't see Kingdom Builder reliably providing that. I'd rather just pull something off the shelf that I know already has interesting tensions and difficulties built right in by the designer. I guess one could just always pre-select Hermits as one of the 3 scoring cards, but that seems contrary to the purpose of the game and doesn't make a lot of sense. The game still would need at least one other tension-producing objective that both opposed the normal, linear flow of gameplay and the preset "most separate groups" goal of Hermits. This is work that designers, not players, are supposed to do.


Board Game: Mississippi Queen

Mississippi Queen is an older race game that probably shows its age in being relatively simplistic. Still, it's pretty interesting overall and is completely deterministic except in one crucial respect, and that's the neatest aspect of the game. The biggest differential factor between this and most other race games is that the topological course of the race is unknown at the start of the game and is only discovered as players progress through the course. The way that the next part of the map is discovered is that the first player to attempt to move off of the last revealed map tile in the course rolls a die, and then places a new tile in the direction indicated by the result. This is supposed to simulate the sometimes surprisingly winding Mississippi River [right around New Orleans, where I live, the river is famously bent such that you drive 100% due east from downtown to get to the part of town known as the "westbank"].

Board Game: Mississippi Queen

What the mechanism does is provide a very natural limiting factor against runaway leaders, a problem in race games if in any genre. You are free to take the lead any time you like, but that means you also must navigate the riskiest parts of the course, those unknown and unexpected turns. The game's movement mechanism is set up to model the slowness of river paddleboats, and it's entirely possible to run aground [and be eliminated from the game] if you head off the last known map tile in the course at too high a speed and get a bad die roll. This causes players in the lead to be a little more cautious about trying to extend that lead, which keeps everyone in the hunt. The players trailing behind get the benefit of knowing everything that's coming, and can take the turns at a higher speed so as to catch up. Despite this, there's still quite a significant runaway leader effect; a few lucky tile draws, and it's all over.


Board Game: California

California is a harmless Euro with the silly theme of tricking out your mansion with expensive carpeting and expensive things to put on said carpeting. Once you get enough expensive carpeting and expensive things to put on it, you can claim one of various set-collection goals that earn you points. As soon as you've furnished [and floored] your study, billiard room, conservatory, or ballroom with a new fancy thing to show off, a Prof. Plum-ian snob will come visiting and if a Mrs. Peacock or a Miss Scarlett are already there, he'll know and bring a gift that can earn you points later. The starlets' tastes are rather fickle, however, so getting them to be there to receive a gift when Col. Mustard comes knocking to check out your new moose head plaque is a bit of a balancing act. The more interesting balancing act, however, is in the economic system Schacht chose for the game. Schacht has a lot of clever, tight monetary systems, and this is probably the best of the lot that I've played.

Board Game: California

Every round a new set of carpeting and carpet-dwelling items are made available for purchase. The price is determined by a cute little give-and-take mechanism. A "bank" board holds four gold coins at the start of each round; on a player's turn, they either take one gold coin from the bank or pay a number of silver coins [1 gold = 5 silver] equal to the number of coins left on the bank to purchase a carpet or item tile. That is to say, choosing to take money [because you can't afford or don't want to buy anything] makes buying stuff cheaper for everyone else after you. In typical Schachtian fashion, money is extraordinarily tight, so there is a careful balancing act between surviving on slim margins and hoping the other players don't buy out the stuff you want from under you when you're forced to take money because you have none, or stockpiling up money so that you can afford to pay higher prices for better tiles before cash-poor players can get more capital. A loan system allows players to switch between these two play modes. It's a pretty tactical system, admittedly, but the tactics are interesting; it feels like a bigger Elephant In A China Shop. A shame the rest of the game is quite bland.


Board Game: Hunting Party

Hunting Party is a rather bizarre little game. Think Munchkin meets Cluedo meets Medici with a hint of Glory to Rome maybe? The goal is to assemble the eponymous "hunting party" to locate, track, and defeat the "Shadow" terrorizing the land. You do this by piecing together bands of RPG style characters who each have 2 skills out of 3 categories, with 1 of 4 possible abilities within each category. Thematically, one is the location [4 possible] of the Shadow [so the Druid knows how to search the Darkwoods, for instance, as one of his skills], one is the seeking / tracking skill [4 possible] required to find him, and the last is the kind of weapon [4 possible] needed to defeat him.

You figure out what exact combination the Shadow has in each particular game through a deduction mechanism reminiscent of Cluedo; you propose ["accuse"] a particular hunting party from your band of merry men, and anyone who can "thwart" ["disprove"] your proposition shows you a card from their hand that effectively says "No, that's not where the Shadow is / how you find the Shadow / how you kill the Shadow". First to put together a party that can find and kill the Shadow gets a huge bounty of gold and ends the game, but doesn't necessarily win as it's gold rather than defeating the Shadow that is the victory condition and there are a number of other ways to earn gold.

The deduction part is extremely simple and is not the heart of the game, despite thematic importance. Rather, what really drives the game are the unique powers available to every hunter in the game [in addition to the 2 skills each has] and the bidding mechanism for hiring new hunters into your party. The hunter powers are relatively well chosen and have a very wide range of effects, despite there being only 36 different hunters in the game. The powers interact together in sometimes unexpectedly powerful ways, and many different combinations and strategies are possible, I'm sure, once you know what's in the deck. The combo play in general reminds me of Glory To Rome in that a small number of very powerful effects combine in all sorts of ways to create even bigger effects.

Unlike games like Munchkin, however, where you can just luck into an uber-combo, you have to work to piece it together here by bidding against other players for any hunter you want to add to your party. This is easily the most interesting part of the game, and it's actually a really clever and very thematic auction system. You essentially bid against future earnings rather than with current assets. You have 8 "shares" available to bid with; what these represent is how much of the bounty for successful quests [there are small sidequests in addition to the main "defeat the Shadow" quest] you're willing to give up in order to have a particular hunter in your party to help you complete the quest. Thematically, it represents the "piece of the pie" [the "shares" are even shaped like pie wedges] that you promise to the mercenary hunters you hire in return for their help in tracking down the Shadow.

Board Game: Hunting Party

How it works is that you flip over a hunter from one of a number of different hiring pools [you have some information on the back of the cards telling you what fighting skills, at least, they're likely to possess] and then engage in a once-around auction for the right to hire that hunter. The player willing to give up the largest "share" of the bounty from future quests [who bids the most "share" pieces] gets the hunter and places an appropriate number of "shares" on top of the card. Whenever you complete a quest in the future and earn a gold bounty, the amount you actually receive is a fraction of the whole based on how many "shares" you kept for yourself [instead of promising to the hunters you hired]. It's some rather awkward math, with each "share" representing 1/8 of the bounty, but it works; multiply the total bounty by X/8 where X is the number of unassigned "shares" you still possess, and that's how much you as the player receive [remember, gold is how you win]. The remaining gold [which you never see] is thematically distributed to your hired hands according to their promised "shares".

The trick is to get a great hunting party assembled with as few "shares" [as low a bid at auction] as possible distributed to them. There are a number of cool tricks built into the game to help with this. First, your hunters die if you take them on a quest and fail; this is sometimes desirable, as it's the easiest way to get rid of someone who has outlived their usefulness, so that you can reclaim their share of the bounty. Second, you can pay your hunters off to "disband" them from your party; it costs a gold coin for each share on the hunter's card in order to disband them [note: death of a hunter doesn't cost you any coins]. Third, there are a number of character powers that play around with the number of shares required to bid on hunters or allow you to remove or add shares after you [or someone else] has already obtained a hunter. This all amounts to a rather clever, and tight, economic management system which is extraordinarily thematic to boot. Well done. A little bit longer game length, and a little bigger "pie" to split up would have done well here.


Board Game: Macao

"Macao, the mysterious harbor city on the south coast of China, is the Portuguese trading center in the far east at the end of the 17th century. The players take on the roles of the energetic adventurers who sought their fortunes in Macao. Whether as captain or governor, as craftsman or scholar, numerous exciting functions are offered the players. Who will use his various possible actions the wisest? Who will have the best plan and can acquire the most prestige by the end of the game?"

Yes, that really is the game description. Yes, the game really comes with 300 cubes. No, they don't even bother to paste a theme on the different colors, referring to them instead with such exciting names as "Blue Action Cube" or the catchier "Blue AC" for short. Yes, the entire game is pushing ACs around in order to earn more GCs [that's "Gold coins"... duh] with your B/P cards ["Building/person"... yes, the "Midwife" has the same scruffy Euro sailor icon] so you can score more PPs ["Prestige points"... victory wha?]. Yes, the game uses all of those abbreviations.

Board Game: Macao

Despite all this, the game has one redeeming feature [no, it's not that it includes a regular heptagon as a game component] in the form of the action cube allocation system. Every round one die is rolled in each of the six AC colors [damn, I'm doing the abbreviation thing now... as if "action cube" wasn't abstract enough]. The number on the die indicates not only how many cubes you get in that color, but how many turns you must wait before you get them. The greedier you are, and the more actions you want to take using that color cube, the longer you will have to wait. It's kind of a reverse J. Wellington Wimpy offer: "I'll give you a cheeseburger Tuesday, unless you want grilled chicken... then you have to wait 'til Wednesday."

The game penalizes you every turn you're not able to do something, so you often have to sacrifice and satisfice. It's no use taking the promise of 6 beautiful BACs [Black Action Cubes... or was it Blue?] 6 turns from now if you don't have a single AC, much less a GC, to your name to burn this turn for PP [?]. Playing the odds and building a diverse enough economic engine so that you always have the right colors in the right quantities at the right time is a Euro-optimizer's wet dream. I mean, seriously. OMG STFU 2 BAC + 3 VAC W/ THE B/P & 6 GC 4 12 PP FTW! OMG OMG OMG! UWE! UWE! WOWWWEEEE!! [Oops, sorry... got a little carried away]. The entirety of the remainder of the game is all but worthless, however. Stefan Feld is the master of clever unremarkable games, and this is probably the cleverest and... unremarkablest? This would make a great filler; as a full game, it rings hollow.


Well, having filled up my mini-review heptagon [oh, sorry.... windrose; there's the theme... I knew I put it somewhere; never mind the fact that a 7-pointed compass makes no sense] with a full 7 games, I'll call it a day for now [I suspect this post could grow; it probably demands a sequel, or at least expansion]. I've also come full circle back to a completely unremarkably straight-forward optimization exercise that is nearly saved by a very clever mechanism [just like I started with], so that seems a good stopping point.

I don't want to make a GeekList out of this topic [I feel there probably already is one, but I also don't want to go searching for it] because GeekLists get filled rather quickly with things that don't belong, essentially being random catalogues of games with only the vaguest of connections. However, if you'd like to share some of your favorite mechanisms in games that otherwise are pretty silly, please do!
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Thu Apr 19, 2012 12:42 pm
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In praise of "our games"--Or, "What makes you so special?" [With a bonus components / unboxing mini-review of Space Bastards]

Nate Straight

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Raiko's heroism in coming through with a copy of Space Bastards for me after my strong interest in the game from the Essen stream materialized just a week or so after the conclusion of the fair with my receiving my copy in the mail! Awesome!

The unboxing of the game was surprisingly delightful, as the quality of components and packaging was exemplary despite the game being only a 300-copy run from an an unknown publisher [mostly a self-publisher, too].

It reminded me of a number of the things we take for granted in opening up one of "our games". What we're used to seeing is all but unknown in the board game mass market, and inconsistently produced even by hobby publishers.

So, I figured I would use this unboxing experience as a case study in what excellent game publishing means, and give some praise to Space Bastards in particular [with a mini components review] and to "our games" in general.

Board Game: Space Bastards

In Praise of Bits

One of the first things most people unfamiliar to our games would notice is the sheer variety of cool "stuff" in our games. When your typical board game comes with a board, a few tokens, a pair of dice, and maybe some cash or cards, seeing a game that has player boards, game boards, map tiles, tokens, cubes, meeples, cards, tiles, and various other bits of all shapes and sizes probably comes as quite the shock.

Space Bastards comes with no less than 68 playing cards, 5 spaceship player boards, 3 rules booklets in various languages, a quad-fold game board, and 274 cardboard tokens of various shapes, sizes, and uses. Where a player in a mass-market board game might get a pawn and a stack of cash, each player in Space Bastards gets a spaceship board and token, a set of 8 action cards, 32 individual alien tokens, some alien eggs, and a handful of coins.

It's sufficient to toss your Clue pawns, weapons, dice, and cards back into the well in the box insert after you're done playing, but the sheer number of and variety of uses for bits in one of our games demands that most relaxing of pastimes: component bagging. Of course, the classiest of game publishers have caught on and have started including zip-loc bags in their boxes. Jira's Games does the same; there were nearly a dozen good quality zip-loc baggies included in my box.

One really surprising feature here was how well the bits punched out of their sprues. Even huge publishers like Fantasy Flight, Z-Man, etc struggle to get this right [c.f. Drakon (Third Edition), Earth Reborn, etc] and unknown / small publishers rarely do [c.f. Homesteaders, etc]. The bits themselves are standard Euro quality; the tiles are a bit thinner than your typical token, but well within expected limits [and they've paid careful attention to the direction of the die-cut so that fronts are fronts and backs are backs].

Board Game: Space Bastards

In Praise of Art

Another thing that distinguishes our games from the mass-market is the careful attention to providing high-quality, distinctive, creative, memorable artwork. There is a focus on making the game an interesting thing to look at and manipulate while you are playing that really isn't matched in mass-market titles. You'll never notice a fun little detail you hadn't seen before on a Monopoly board or be impressed by the creative layout of a Trivial Pursuit wheel.

Martin Málek, the artist for Space Bastards, has gone one step further than most, and taken a page from Juliet Breese in providing unique illustrations for nearly every individual bit in the game, even when they have the same functional use. As you can see above, all of a player's individual aliens within each species look subtly different, with funny and unexpected variations illustrated for each. Martin carries the theme of variation on one step further, in fact:

Board Game: Space Bastards
Board Game: Space Bastards

Each player's spaceship board, while functionally identical, has a different design, hearkening back to various famous spaceships in film and art, or creating something entirely new. Additionally, each of the money and VP token denominations has subtly different artwork: the 1 coin shows... 1 coin; the 2 coin tokens show 2; the 5 coin tokens show a whole stack of gold. The 1 VP token shows a hand with a bronze ring / bracelet; the 2 VP tokens have silver adornments; the 5 VP tokens have gold.

These kind of niceties are by no means necessary, but they serve to demonstrate the attention to detail and enjoyment that characterizes the production of our games. This kind of variation in artwork helps you always have something new to discover in the game, even apart from new strategic directions to explore. It helps the game always feel fresh and inviting. It's just a minor thing that probably didn't take the graphic designer very long at all, but the overall impact is quite strong.

Board Game: Space Bastards

In Praise of Inclusiveness

Another thing that most of us are familiar with that would strike a mass-market gamer as extraordinary is the availability / publication of games in multiple native languages. Board gaming is truly an international hobby, with genres and products crossing national borders continuously. Smart publishers strive for language independence [to the extent the game's complexity can allow], provide multiple rule-book translations, co-publish with partners in other countries, and promote their games multi-lingually [see the box back above].

Space Bastards includes rules written in the author's native language, for his domestic market, as well as rules translations to both German and English [both for obvious reasons]. Some complaints were levied in the Space Bastards fora about the English translation's clarity, but I didn't see any glaring problems with it at all. It struck me as well-translated [for the most part] and well-presented. Translation is not a task to be taken lightly [see any of the old threads about dealing with the English version of Agricola], but board game publishers do it every day!

Board Game: Space Bastards

That quest for international inclusiveness leads publishers to come up with creative iconographic languages of their own, which are variously well accepted [c.f. Race For The Galaxy's infamous system]. Regardless of the final success or failure of an attempt to convert every action in-game to an iconic / symbolic depiction, the attempt itself is praiseworthy. Sure, it usually leads to some "What does this do again?" rulebook references at first [regardless of the quality of iconography], but the benefits are worth it. Space Bastards' iconography seems pretty well done to me.

Good iconography helps us recall complex concepts more easily and quickly than words can. We interpret the redness and octagonalness of a stop sign long before we are close enough to read the words. Once learned, a game's iconography can allow players to quickly recall the function of quite complicated actions, and to readily interpret any new situations [expansions, for instance]. It also can help people with visual impairments or poor reading skills [or lack of reading skills: young children] to enjoy and understand the game.

Board Game: Space Bastards

In Praise of Creativity

Despite the multitudinous lamentations over "trading in the Mediterranean" or "ancient Egyptian auction" games, it has to be admitted that our games, by and large, are hugely creative in thematic setting, art direction, functional mechanisms, and final objectives. "Get rich by buying and selling property" or "Get rich by having a good job" or "Kill everyone else in the world" or "Answer questions about pop culture" or "Race to the end of a track" just aren't seen a lot.

Like them or not [and for whatever reason], you have to admit that "Run a Puerto Rican plantation", "Maintain your family farm", "Win the Cold War", "Build a dynastic civilization from scratch", "Supply the mid-west with power", "Thrive in the Industrial Revolution", "Build a castle and please the king", "Manage a successful harbor", and... well, whatever Dominion's theme is [to fill out the top-ten list here] are relatively unique in the grand scheme of things.

The artwork in these games ranges from spartan [Puerto Rico and Through The Ages] to realistic / historic [Twilight Struggle and Brass] to stylized [Power Grid] to cartoony / light-hearted [Agricola and Le Havre] to ugly [Caylus and Dominion ]. The mechanical underpinnings of the games are relatively widely varied, too. We take for granted just how many different stories are told by our games, in how many different "genres", and by how many different methods.

Space Bastards' setting is umm... unique.

"Far, far away in deep, deep outer space, out of the reach of prying telescopes, where black holes are so old that they have already devoured themselves, there spins a tiny planetary system. Although only a few creatures inhabit the pocket-sized planets, there is never enough space for all of them. But, for such a tiny solar system, the political system is extremely complicated. The worn out dictator is going off to find peace and quiet on a planet of never-ending egoism and self-centeredness so now he is trying to decide who should take over control of his government.

And here you are - five candidates, all quite unsurprisingly the dictator's offspring. You each have plenty of acolytes spread across all the races - wee Toadlings, savage Cactusoids, cute Toucanosaurs, brainsick Sluggies and dangerous Spuds. The old tyrant has given you a free hand. For twelve months he is going to examine your ruling prowess with his superscope of responsibility. Whoever proves to be the most competent will rule the planetary system forever; or at least until they get sick of it and hand the government over to someone else…"

The first page of the rulebook is a full description of the background story of each of the five races. This serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever except to make the game more fun. Does Monopoly even have an introductory flavor text blurb any more? Is there any theme to it at all? Life? Risk? Sorry? Sorry, but I don't think I can recall any, certainly not any this creative or fully fleshed-out. Not everyone likes theme, of course, but the existence of it is a central feature of what distinguishes one of our games.

Board Game: Space Bastards

In Praise of Designers [and Boxes]

First of all, I want to make a note about the Space Bastards box. It's wonderfully small, somewhere in between TransAmerica / Clans and Mayfair's edition of Shear Panic [don't know anything else that size to provide as a second example, sorry]. This means that the bits and board are probably a little smaller than some might like [the grid on the planets has about the same scale as largish graph paper, which has led some to complain that it's too easy to bump things about], but it's a nice feature of the game.

Most of us appreciate a small game box, but I don't think we appreciate how small even our normal game box sizes [Ticket To Ride square-box and Agricola rectangle-box, to a lesser extent Power Grid's large-rectangle] compared to the boxes that mass-market games get published in, especially when we recall my first praise, the number and variety of bits that we get in our games. It's common practice, still, in mass-market games to have a huge chunk of the box taken up by a fold-up piece-of-cardboard space-filler.

Our quad-fold and six-fold boards help shrink our boxes, as do our well-designed inserts. We fit at least twice as much stuff into boxes that are probably about half as large as your standard mass-market game box that would house a Monopoly, Life, or Risk set. Our boxes are typically designed to hold games, not just to sell them, and that's a pretty critical difference that we overlook a lot. Space Bastards' box is small, with only a simple box insert, but it's still more than big enough and perfectly functional to hold the game's bits.

Last, but not in any way the least, of the things I'd like to praise is our hobby's focus on game designers. We all know who designed each one of the games we play, primarily because publishers put such great emphasis on featuring those people's names on the game boxes I just described. This makes the hobby more personal, and it almost feels like players get to "know" the designer through her/his work. Before Raiko agreed to find me a copy, I had emailed Jiri Mikolas [designer] directly about ordering Space Bastards, and he responded quickly.

Where else in the world of gaming are you going to find such a close connection between players and creators except in our little niche?

Agnes [pictured above holding the game box as lovely as always!] even had the idea to have him sign the copy Raiko picked up for me!

We take a lot of these things for granted, forgetting just how much personal thoughtfulness and "sweat equity" goes into our games.

Hopefully this little mini-unboxing has rekindled a bit of your appreciation for all of the things that make the production of "our games" special.
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Thu Nov 3, 2011 7:19 pm
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In the mood for a binge? Here's my top-shelf selection.

Nate Straight

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I thought this might be a fun idea, so here goes.

I'm fortunate enough to have a large game closet.

I'm going to take that closet and review my collection [in summary fashion] one shelf at a time.

Here are my "top-shelf" games, literally. Not up there for reasons of excellence necessarily.

From gallery of NateStraight

You can tell a couple things about the way I store my collection from this shot, if that interests you.

I group things by publisher when I can [looks like I need a copy of "Pfeffersacke", though], and also by size.

For various reasons, I store my games mostly vertically. I do tend to reinforce flimsy inserts [like Goldsieber's; I have cut-to-fit styrofoam blocks supporting the folded cardboard wells] and shove things together so the tops don't fall off.

I don't pay an awful lot of attention to such trivialities [some would consider size and publisher a triviality, I know] as color or theme, but sometimes if I'm feeling especially silly I'll rearrange things to be extra pretty. And, that's about it.

The games up here are only coincidentally mostly games that I really really like [the entire Goldsieber big box line].

Mostly, they're up there because there's a lot of space and they're the largest boxes I have that can be stored upright.

So what's up there?

From left to right:

Colorado County
Aladdin's Dragons
Iglu Iglu
Medieval Merchant
Big City
Mississippi Queen
Merchant of Venus [2 boxes]

I'm going to give a brief run-down of each.

So, without any further ado, off we go!

Board Game: Colorado County
Colorado County is an old auctioning-off-land game where you're trying to put together particular patterns of claimed land, with some scoring mechanisms kind of reminiscent [at least thematically] of Hacienda. It's a game I got cheap in a trade for a copy of Marrakech I picked up at B&N's clearance sale; I still haven't had a chance to play it, but I'm hoping to.

Board Game: Aladdin's Dragons
Aladdin's Dragons is an early-ish blind-bidding / worker-placement [sort of] game by Richard Breese [designer of the "Key" series, which this game was originally published in: Keydom]. It's chief interest is the weird set collection restrictions on the conversion from resources-to-points after the action-drafting round. I also picked this game up cheap [this time from eBay]; I also haven't played this, but I'm actually looking to trade it.

Board Game: Medina
Medina is a multi-player version [of sorts] of my favorite game, Alien City. It's a huge game of chicken, much moreso even than Alien City because there can only be 4 potential claims available on the board at any given time [you can't make any new constructions until the ones being built in the same color have been claimed]. I'd like to play this one, but I don't really have the group for it [it's very abstract and dry as the desert]. It's not going anywhere, though; I looked for it for a long time.

Board Game: Samurai
Samurai is one of my earliest acquisitions after getting into the hobby, and one of my earliest used game / trade acquisitions [can't remember which it was, actually, but I know I didn't get it new]. This remains one of my favorite Knizias, and one of my favorite games too. It's a great gateway game into "mechanism"-driven games [rather than social/party or "family fun" games], but it's a hard sell to an experienced crowd as it's not very "exciting".

Board Game: Iglu Iglu
Iglu Iglu is another early used game purchase [I think I might even still have tagged in my user comments the person I bought it from; at one time, I thought it would be fun to track who I got used games or trades from--I don't know why--but I never really kept up with it]. It's a fun tile-unlaying game with really nice components, but some unfriendly / unsettled rules.

Board Game: Löwenherz
Lowenherz is the first game on the shelf in the Goldsieber Spiele "big box" line [and they are "big"; about 25% larger than the standard Agricola box, in all 3 directions], which is a line of mostly early Euros, usually involving a pretty heavy spatial element [tile-laying, network-building, etc]. This is among my favorite "series" of games from any publisher. Classics like Torres or San Marco would be right at home here, being short interactive well-produced Euros.

Lowenherz itself is a pretty nasty little game of carving out territory on a grid, by building fences along the edges and putting knights and castles in the squares to protect and control the territories. It's a zero-sum / closed game in that the territory boundaries will by default mark off the size of territories on both sides. Every square in your realm is one that could just as well [and probably will] end up in your opponent's, which directly reduces your score while it adds to theirs [yes, scores go backwards in this game]. A real classic.

Board Game: Entdecker
Entdecker is the third [with Lowenherz] in what has always been rumoured / reported to be Klaus Teuber's original design for CATAN. Apparently, the original idea had players playing additional phases in the Settlers game corresponding to the territory-wrangling of Lowenherz [as a type of Settlers sequel] and the exploration / territory-finding of Entdecker [as a type of Settlers prequel]. You can kind of see how this would work, but it would have been a massive game.

Entdecker is a pretty simple tile-laying game with an awful lot of luck. It's nicely relaxing to play, has some Carcassone-like claiming of areas built up by the tiles, and definitely feels like it could have been part of a much bigger / more ambitious project [in fact, Teuber has subsequently revised both Entdecker and Lowenherz with newer, more stand-alone versions, neither of which I own / want].

Board Game: Doge
Doge is a ballot-stuffing blind-bidding game built around an area-majority scoring system. It's the "other" area-majority / area-control game set in Venice [San Marco is the more popular / well-known choice]. I've only played this one once, but it was fun. The goal is to commit your resources in each round to 3 or 4 different provinces [out of like 8 total] such that you can get control of a set number of places on the board faster than your opponents.

Board Game: Medieval Merchant
Medieval Merchant is one of my all-time favorite games. It looks a lot like Power Grid when you first pull it out, with a bunch of round cities connected by spaghetti-like tubes with connection costs printed on them. It's a lot more subtle and interesting, I think, than Power Grid. The central tension in the game is that you want to have the majority of houses in each city when it is scored [so you'll win the points associated with it], the only problem being that the more houses you put in a city the less income you'll get there.

So the game essentially is a timing / incentives game that pits your short-term needs [income so you'll be able to expand your growing network] and long-term goals [city control so you'll be able to convert your network into points] squarely against each other. Every turn, you're forced with a very direct choice of whether to maintain short-term liquidity or to sacrifice it for long-term position. This is one of very few games, as an aside, that plays faster [and better] with more players.

Board Game: Big City
Big City is a game that [apparently] will never see the light of day again, and honestly it's probably for the better. It's a really fun game, but it's awfully luck-driven and doesn't scale well at all. With new entries like Urban Sprawl, Sunrise City, City Tycoon, etc in the genre coming out more regularly, I don't see this ever succeeding again [despite the fact it still commands a huge OOP price].

The game is kind of a rummy game at its heart. You draw cards matching tiles on the board, and you need to occasionally play some cards [any number that all line up, from 1 to 3 city blocks "long"] to put buildings on the board, then and only then you'll refresh your hand [draw-play/discard, or vice-versa, is the central rummy mechanic, and it exists here as discard/play-draw]. The catch is that you get a whole lot more points waiting to either set up neat stuff around the blocks you plan to play on or set up long chains of blocks to support bigger buildings.

The real killer in the game is the shopping mall building which provides most of the tension. The rest of the game, played well, is about trying to set yourself up to build this whopper of a building [worth potentially 1/3 or so of your final score] without letting others take advantage of it. To build the shopping mall, you need to basically have one of every other building type "nearby" [adjacent], so whenever anyone builds anything else that placement will always affect the likelihood of a shopping mall coming out.

The game can be won and lost quite handily if you're not paying attention / your opponents aren't paying attention, but it can also be won and lost just by not drawing the right cards. There's a relatively large amount of things to think about, and a relatively small amount of control, which really would sour the game on most players [I'm a card gamer, so I'm used to that]. I don't see it ever coming back in vogue.

Linie 1 [or Streetcar] is a neat little route-building game combo'd with a racing game to determine the eventual winner. You get a secret set of destinations and a secret starting / ending location, then you need to build up the shared network of streetcar tracks such that it connects your destinations along a route running to / from your start and end points. Then, you have to play a simple roll-and-move race game to determine if you win.

The roll-and-move is rather luck-driven, but you decide [by the tile-laying part of the game] beforehand how long and how difficult [number of intermediary stops, which end your movement regardless of the roll] your personal race will be. It's quite easy to luck out and get an early start on the race only to be overtaken by a few bad rolls and a player who took some extra time to build an easier race. It kind of has the feel of a Survivor challenge, in that regard, actually.

Board Game: Mississippi Queen
Mississippi Queen is another race game, but this time one that's almost entirely luck-free. The only impact of luck is the order in which the river tiles defining the race course come out, and only the person who's currently leading the race [and has less time to prepare for the shifting currents] really gets hurt if the tiles don't turn out favorably. This puts a neat little hare-and-tortoise sub-game of asking "do I rush out to an early lead and try to hang on, or do I hold back and make sure I know what's ahead?"

Board Game: Vino
Vino is a neat little economic / majority game from the same designer as Medieval Merchant, and it has a lot of the same traits. Your final goal is to have the most vineyards, but to get more vineyards you need money and the only way to get money is to... give up vineyards [a side-effect in-game of selling wine produced by your vineyards]. Additionally, you want to have majority-control of regions you're operating in since it gives you preference in buying new vineyards there [which get increasingly expensive, in a nice tribute to my last blog post], but if you remain only in second place you get a chance to get a bigger windfall [i.e. free vineyards] when the "government" takes over a region.

Sternenhimmel is a weird blind-bidding sort of area-majority game where your bids are not only associated with your intended support for a given area, but also associated with actions that can block, kick out, or otherwise affect other players' bids in the final revelation-of-bids phase. There's a bit of hand management, as you only bid on 3 or 4 areas at once [and deploy / allocate your bid markers there 'til they're full], but there are 12 in the game and you don't get your bid markers back from areas until they close [so if you leave them on things that aren't getting played into by other players, you'll be hamstrung to pursue new opportunities]. All this sounds pretty good, but I've only played it once and it wasn't terribly exciting. Still, I'm hoping to get more plays in.

Board Game: Merchant of Venus
Merchant of Venus is the last game on the shelf [I didn't really have anywhere better to put it] and is a monster of a game [if you didn't already know]. I have a PnP-Productions copy by BGG's own Andrew Tullsen that I traded for, and then subsequently commissioned 4-5 fan-made expansions [also produced by Andrew] for. This works out to like 500 wooden bits, 40-50 player boards / aids, and a crap ton of play money and dice. All in all, it provides probably the single biggest Pick-up and Deliver experience [aside from perhaps Roads & Boats] you'll ever find. I play full-on with the combat rules [with the pirates / Rastur slightly modified so as to be beatable] and all the expansions I've got in the box.

I haven't played it a lot, as I only got it earlier this year--I think--and it's hard to schedule into a group, not to mention not being to the taste of many players--found that out the hard way. That said, it's in the collection to stay and I could pretty much care less which of Fantasy Flight or Stronghold get the rights to the reprint [though I'm still on the look-out for an old Avalon Hill copy on the cheap]. It is truly a "top-shelf"-worthy game, with play that is simultaneously luck-based and strategic, unpredictable and familiar. It, along with Magic Realm by the same designer, has one of the first modular boards that I can think of, helping to spawn this new era of games with built-in replayability coming from the system's variability.

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Sun Oct 30, 2011 6:46 am
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Belle of the Ball--Increasing action cost mechanisms in the Essen releases

Nate Straight

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Don't you hate it when you show up all decked out in a fancy outfit but someone else shows up wearing the exact same thing? [Well, ok... this never happens to me, but it's a common enough social faux pas that it should relate well.]

Something stood out to me as I've been reading the rules to some of the bigger Essen releases and listening to others review them: there are an abundance of games that use similar mechanisms of increasing action costs.

The basic mechanism is that the more the players take certain actions, the more expensive they become. It's been found in a number of games before, of course, including the farmer costs in Amun-Re, the actions in Kaivai, the market mechanisms in something like Cuba or The Pillars of the Earth, and the increasing cost of new capacity in Container. It is the opposite of, say, the deck-building action mechanism in Eminent Domain where actions get more efficient / effective over time because you have more cards to play matching the chosen action type, or of the upgrade cards in Civilization, Outpost, or The Scepter of Zavandor where previous purchases make future purchases less expensive.

I don't have any hard data, of course, but it strikes me that the "increasing cost" model is far less common than the "constant cost" or even the "decreasing cost" model, so it was interesting to see so many new games using it.

Doesn't seem like it's quite as much a faux pas to show up to the fair with the same mechanism as another game as showing up to a ball with the same dress as another debutante, but let's see if these games are all worth taking home.

Board Game: Upon a Salty Ocean

Upon a Salty Ocean has probably the most direct use of this sort of mechanism. Those little black cubes on the four tracks in the bottom-left of this picture are tracking the increasing costs of the four types of actions in the game.

Each round continues with players taking turns choosing from among those four actions, paying the current price, then moving the cube up one square making that action more expensive for everyone else--including themselves--next time it's taken.

The rest of the game consists of collecting resources to sell in a shifting marketplace, upgrading your ability to profit from those resources, avoiding random events, getting special powers to leech off of other players actions or provide bonus VP, etc.

There seem to be some interesting choices to make in the rest of the game, but the heart of the competition is obviously the timing / phasing / sequencing of your path through the increasing action cost muck each round. It's what will determine your profitability.

At a certain point, the profit you expect to earn from taking an action won't be worth the cost you'd have to pay for having to wait so long to take that action, probably because you had too long of a setup time to get to where the action you want to take is viable.

Seems like the key to winning the game will be in getting into a position where you're one step ahead of everyone else in the sequencing of your actions [most of which will overlap with the other players'], getting "out of phase" with the rest of the players.

This sounds like a pretty interesting model of competition to me. It's related to the "path of least resistance" model which I usually don't like, but with only four actions ["paths"] to choose from it's unlikely you'll be able to avoid interference / conflict.


Vanuatu is a big multiple-paths-to-victory Euro that was released at the fair with all the mechanisms you could ever want out of such a game: character / role cards, tile-laying, action-drafting, contract fulfillment, shifting markets, and turn-order tweaking.

It also has a pretty nifty little increasing-cost mechanism [or something much like it] latched onto its action drafting. Each round, players will sequentially "program" ["draft"] their intended actions for the round in typical worker placement fashion.

The big difference here is that you can put your workers on any place, even if it's already occupied, and that you can put as many workers as you like on a given action. The reason why you'd want to do this is that the actions will be taken [once drafted] in the action round only by the player who currently has the most workers on a space. Once you take an action, you'll remove those workers [giving another player control of the action], but if you don't have any pluralities to activate on your turn you'll have to start removing workers without activating their effects.

This means that the actions chosen by the most players in a given round will be increasingly expensive for those players. The more players wanting to use the action to sell fish, the more workers they'll have to allocate to ensure that they're first [and can get the highest price].

This is a bit more flexible than Salty Ocean, since you can usually still eventually take an action even if you don't have the majority, but if you absolutely have to be first to an action or if you don't want to risk having to forfeit actions, you'll have to be willing to pay for it.

Board Game: Vintage

Vintage is a game that the designer probably either is really really thankful didn't come out last year [and get lost in the sea of wine games that came out at Essen 2010] or is really really upset wasn't "first to market" [a lot of people are looking over it because they already have "a big wine-producing game"]. Personally, I think it looks more interesting than either Vinhos [an overwrought monstrosity, it's seemed to me] or Grand Cru [a clumsy economic euro, it's seemed], but I haven't played either of those. I'm interested, however, in playing Vintage, not the least because of its increasing-cost action-selection mechanism.

Down in the bottom of the picture you can see the worker-placement / action-drafting portion of the board [where all the discs and meeples are]. What you can't see is that within each column [action] there are spots for workers with increasing costs printed on them.

The first player to select a particular action only has to put one action disc there. The next player has to put two discs, and so on. The meeples are used to avoid this increasing cost as you can use them in place of any number of action discs in payment [as I understand it].

This is kind of in between Vanuatu's majorities-based worker placement and Salty Ocean's straight-line increasing cost. It's probably a little less interesting than either of those two, but probably a little more approachable / familiar as it looks a lot more like normal action-drafting.

This one recently jumped onto my radar after Doug and Shelley of Garrett's Games & Geekiness tore it a new one [well, kinda] on their podcast, mostly [it seemed] because it wasn't Vinhos [their favorite game of late]. I'll admit that the art here really appeals to me, too. There are also some other nifty mechanisms like an aging / spoilage mechanism and a short-term / long-term trade-off [making better wines that take longer to get to market / port, or worse wines that are easier and quicker to unload], which is one of the things that always interests me in games. This could be the "wine game" for me, but I want to try it before I commit.

Board Game: Power Grid: The First Sparks

Power Grid: The First Sparks is essentially the original game of Power Grid with a number of minor changes to the system. Unlike, say, Power Grid: Factory Manager which was an entirely different game altogether, the branding here makes perfect sense.

The changes have been billed as "streamlining" the original, which has led a lot of people to [I believe mistakenly] write off this as "Power Grid Lite" or a Power Grid "filler" version. I don't think the changes here will really create all that much lighter of a game at all, in fact.

The changes include all auctions being fixed-price [what is printed on the card], with turn-order being a tie-breaker; first player will select an item to auction, everyone else can buy it at cost with reverse turn-order determining preference in buying. Also, the resource market only has shifting quantity of supply, not shifting price. Finally, the game has been taken off of the nodular map of the old game in preference to a modular map with geographic adjacency determining connectivity. In making these changes, a number of changes to the underlying economic system of payment for actions / buildings have also been made.

The most significant change [in my mind] is to the placement of new houses [cave men!] in new cities [fertile land!]. Rather than being fixed costs, the cost now varies with how much expansion you want to do on a turn [also with distance and the presence of other players, but that was already part of the old system]. The cost of your first expansion is free [if I remember correctly; the PDF is too much for this old computer to handle apparently]. The cost of your second placement in a single turn is 1, the third is 2, and so on [kind of like Amun-Re's farmers I mentioned earlier]. Costs are further increased if other players are present [2, 3, etc for 1, 2, etc other players].

The limiting factor [besides working capital, obviously] on network expansion in the old Power Grid was how much money you wanted to hold back for the next turn's bidding and resource market. As long as no one moved in [and it was usually pretty obvious whether they would / could] to where you had planned to go, it would cost the same to get there next turn. The limiting factor on tribe [network] expansion in this new Power Grid is time. If you wait until next round to make that second expansion you were eyeing, it would be free instead of costing you extra food. The risk, of course, is that it someone else will move in in the meantime [which will be much more common much more quickly, it seems, due to the much smaller board] and make it actually turn out to be more expensive next turn.

This "buy it now and pay more" vs "wait a turn and pay less" trade-off is inherently more interesting to me than the "buy it now and have less for bidding" vs "wait a turn and hope no one moves in" trade-off in the first game. It's the kind of short-term / long-term tension I love.

It's also yet another increasing action cost mechanism, this time within the more typical "resource buying" application rather than within the more novel worker-placement application. [True, the first had the same thing in the actual resource market, but I have always had other problems with that market mechanism.]

Board Game: Eclipse

Eclipse is a game I'm becoming more and more interested in the more I read and see about it. It sounds almost like Through The Ages... in space... with a map... and tons of die rolling for combat. What else could you want in a civ game?

The central mechanism that would remind you of Through The Ages is the player board with a row of tokens [the cubes and discs above]. As you remove them, you'll get more resources [of three types] based on the last-revealed space when you produce.

You'll also, as in Through The Ages, have an increasing upkeep penalty, which is based here on the last-revealed space under your discs, or action markers. Every time you want to take an action or colonize a system, you'll need to use a disc. Trouble is, of course, that doing so will make you pay a higher upkeep cost at the end of the turn. This is sort of a delayed increased-cost mechanism. You just have to pay the immediate costs associated with taking the disc [I don't know what they are, but I assume there are some], but then by the end of the round you also need to be in position to pay the maintenance on all those actions you took, and each additional one you take increases that upkeep cost.

This game really does look quite successful on paper. I hope to get a chance to play it to see whether it works in practice. It has player powers, exploration, resource-generation, ship-customization [a la Master Of Orion], and a smorgasbord of bits.

I thought at first this was going to be a mechanical monster [and not of the compelling kind, like Antiquity or Magic Realm or 1830 or Merchant Of Venus], but it seems to have everything you'd want, and no extra-complicated card-combat systems or tacked-on sub-mechanisms.

Board Game: Space Bastards

Space Bastards is the game that's most impressed me so far from the Essen crop [see my last Essen-related blog post], and it has a bit of an increasing-cost mechanism that's much less integrated than these last five.

After a sort of Dungeon Lords-style simultaneous action-card selection / reveal phase, players will execute their chosen actions in the order defined by the relationship cards [the really interesting part of the game lives there].

The little tweak that makes this game relevant in this post / list is kind of stolen from / inspired by / related to Race for the Galaxy: The Brink of War's super-powered once-per-game prestige/search card. In BoW, you can turn in some of your prestige tokens [a type of currency added to the game in this last expansion] to activate a more powerful version of the regular game actions, even more powerful than the "leader bonus" associated with your selected phase each turn. In Space Bastards, you kind of get the ability to do this every turn. Each action has an associated "enhanced action" that you can activate if you're willing to pay; so you can do the regular action for free, but if you want to do it again / do it better it costs you more. It's a related mechanism to all these others in that there is some flexibility in the amount of "stuff" you can do on your turn, but that flexibility is constrained by an added cost.

These last three games I've listed are more abstracted from the central idea than the first three [which really seem to be cut from the same cloth], but all six seem to me to be pretty different from the norm. It seems most games give you a set amount of actions or keep action costs constant throughout the game [such that they actually decrease as you get more income], or else focus on bonuses / combos that reduce costs.

It's kind of interesting to see these games that systematically ask you to pay more and more for accomplishing the same thing, or [less interestingly] give you the option of doing more and better things for an increased cost. It's a clever twist that puts players into a bind and makes their lives difficult, and that's always a good thing for a game to do. I'm looking forward to trying these out and seeing more like them.
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Sat Oct 29, 2011 3:25 pm
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Nate Straight

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I've said before that Agricola is one of the truly "economic" games out there, and never [fully] explained what I meant... so here I go.


Board Game: Agricola

Maybe you've been living under a rock for the past 4 years and "Agricola" sounds like a new organic soft drink offering flavored like menthol.

Board Game: Puerto Rico

Or maybe you think Agricola is just another Euro number-cruncher with yet another pasted-on theme, like Puerto Rico's many tropical island clones.

Board Game: Agricola

Maybe you've even been led to believe that Agricola is a code-word that washed-out liberal-arts students use to conceal their miniatures gaming hobby.

Board Game: Agricola

Or maybe you've come to the conclusion that Agricola is a complicated cube-pusher requiring a lot of foresight that will probably make grown men cry.

Well... the bad news is you're wrong regardless of which answer you picked.

The good news is that Agricola is a board game, after all, and one like few others, a game that takes one central concept and milks it [that's a pun] for all it's worth.

Board Game: Agricola

These cows have figured it out... have you? Put simply, Agricola is about the concepts of "enough" and "not enough", some of the most basic elements of economics.

ECON 101

Economics is the study of human decision-making in the face of scarcity. The name of the discipline comes from a Greek word that refers to the management of a household.

If you've ever run your own household, you might have some idea why this term was chosen as the title for the study of choice within the context of scarcity: There's never enough time, money, toilet paper, food in the fridge, or "things" in general to make you feel at ease, even in your own home. Sure, there are moments of peace and quiet, but the central truth of household "economy" is that there are always more things that you want done than you have time to do, more things that you want bought than you have money to spend, and more stuff that you want now than what you actually have available to use.

This isn't a trite observation, but an inescapable fact of [human?] existence. If it isn't obvious from the war over oil, the wide spread of poverty and disease, the world-wide economic disarray, and the wonderfully enduring human drive to create a better world, people don't have all of the things that they want. This is the definition of scarcity: More [felt] wants than [felt] haves. In a world of finite proportions and in a life limited by death, scarcity is assured for all but ascetics. If this is not unquestionably true to you upon observation, I question whether you are human [perhaps this is one way to enact a Turing test?].

If, however, you are human and you've ever felt the sting of scarcity, we can move on. This is what economics does. From this one central assumption [our wants and needs outweigh our haves and means], a bevy of other assumptions and subsequent analysis follows. If you don't internalize what scarcity means, you can't understand economics. [This is why I'm making such a big deal and such a long account out of it here.] Wants are a powerful thing; unsatisfied wants more powerful still; unsatisfiable wants the most powerful of all. Economics says that because of scarcity we all have such wants.

Before moving on, it is important to note quickly some of the secondary assumptions / conditions that the discipline of economics builds out of the concept of scarcity:

- People act to satisfy [felt] wants. In some ways, this is prior to the assumption of scarcity, but it is so intertwined in the concept that it's contemporaneous; if you think about it, a world without scarcity is in essence a world without want. This assumption simply clarifies what we mean by "want": That thing which drives an "agent" [or "actor"] to induce change in a system in which they are involved in an attempt to bring about some condition which will make them feel more at ease. Perfect ease is an unreachable state [for reasons discussed earlier], but relative ease ["I am happier now and in this regard than I was before"] is very real.

- Given a mutually exclusive choice [use for one unit of a scarce resource], people will make the choice that [they feel] maximizes the satisfaction of their [felt] wants. If there were no scarcity, we might start off [for whatever reason] with some initial wants, and perhaps encounter others later, but the felt dis-ease would be easily and quickly remedied--we'd just go out and scoop up as much of the want-filling "stuff" we needed from the universe's inexhaustible supply and be "happy", in fact "stuffed" as it were. But, because "stuff" is scarce, we can't meet all our wants, so we pick the most important ones [the ones we think are most important, at least].

- People allocate scarce resources based on marginal valuations. The classic example is the water-diamond paradox: If I offer to sell you a diamond or a glass of water for $1, you will select the diamond; surely it can satisfy more of your wants [directly or by sale] than a glass of water. How if I were to ask you daily over the course of a week and I were your only source of water, or if you were stranded in the desert? How thirsty would you have to be to choose the water over the diamond? The choice is typically phrased as being between "one more" diamond and "one more" glass of water; when you are not thirsty "one more" glass of water has very little value, but when you are dying of thirst "one more" is inestimably valuable.

These are obviously intermingled, and more subtle analysis is obviously warranted, but this is an essay on Agriconomics, not Economics. This is just some basic context.


In what way is Agricola an "economic" game, then? The answer is that the game uses scarcity, exclusive choice, and marginal valuation as design elements.

Board Game: Agricola

Scarcity is introduced into the game through the resource-growth / resource-collection mechanism. Many games allow player(s) to grab [effectively] as much of any resource as they like providing they're willing to spend the time / money / actions to do so; this is a type of scarcity to be sure [unless you have unlimited money or actions], but it's often "soft". There isn't an obvious limit [since usually money or action points / efficiency can grow during a game] to the number of resources you can get. In Agricola, the scarcity is "hard". There are 14 rounds in the game, and thus [with most goods growing at a rate of 1 per round] a maximum of at most 14 of a good available for use. [Note that I'm going to use the 2-player non-expanded game for all of my examples, as it displays Agricola's microeconomy most clearly.]

It breaks down in a bit more complicated manner than that, but that's the gist of it. There's a "3 wood" space available from the start of the game, so there are really 42 wood available between the players. The "1 stone" space exists twice and shows up in Stage 2 [Rounds 5-7] and Stage 4 [Rounds 10-11], so there could be as many as 15 or as few as 12 stone available. Cows show up in Stage 4, so there will either be 5 or 4 available to be taken. These counts are dramatically low for all that the game asks you to do with your resources. If both players decide to build 1 new wood hut room [5 wood cost] and all 15 of their fences [1 wood each], for instance[not uncommon at all], that's 40 wood taken between them, leaving only 2 wood for the rest of their combined actions [yes, I know... I'm getting to the cards and such later].

This is, truth be told, not terribly different from something like Le Havre, which is also a time-limited game with very restricted goods growth. It is different from something like CATAN or Stone Age where a) the game's length is indeterminate [so players could communally decide to just keep collecting resources forever, making scarcity a relatively moot point] and b) resource quantities available are indeterminate [the amount available will depend on chance / the dice; whereas the maximum possible is easily calculable based on an assumed number of turns, it's nowhere near the amount you actually will expect to see in the game]. It is also different, and importantly so, from something like Through The Ages or Antike where my choice to take resources does not directly affect the quantity available to you. Agricola revels instead in scarcity of and limited availability of resources.

Board Game: Agricola

I mentioned availability of resources in Agricola, so that probably could use an explanation. In economics, the availability of scarce goods or resources is defined in two ways: "rivalry" and "excludability". The property of "rivalry" means that my use of the good or resource affects your ability to use or enjoy the same good or resource [a rock concert is an example of a good that is not rivalrous, if you don't believe such things can exist]. The property of "excludability" means that I [as the owner or seller or maker of the good or resource] can prevent you from even having access to the good in the first place [a rock concert, for instance, is excludable--you need to buy a ticket--despite being non-rivalrous--once you have a ticket, you can enjoy it as much as the bloke sitting next to you]. An example of a good that is rivalrous but is not excludable [since I've used the opposite example] is a lake full of fish, a public forest, etc. If I fish there, you won't be able to catch as many fish, but I can't prevent you [since I don't own the lake] from fishing.

Most scarce raw resources [the things that economic producers use to make "consumer goods" to satisfy wants] are of this category: rivalrous but non-excludable. And thus are the resources in Agricola. If I take the accumulated wood, you are prevented from taking it until next round, but I can't say at the start of the round "Hey, you can't take that wood". The goods are available until used [non-excludability], but in being used become unavailable [rivalry]. One of the central problems of economics is solving how non-excludable goods or resources can be transformed into excludable goods [which are easily profited from] or can be profited from without such a transformation, or whether they should just be left alone as non-excludable and trusted to our common use. When we get into political debates about capitalism, socialism, or communism as competing economic structures, this is essentially what we are talking about. This is also one of the chief reasons we pay taxes.

The most truly and purely economic answer [maximizing satisfied wants; the goal of economics] to the question of what to do with non-excludable resources can be shown [or at least argued; I'd argue it, at least] in general to be "leave them as non-excludable" [phrased in political language, "let the market decide"]. An "economic" game in which every resource is essentially excludable [most auction games, for instance; things like Goa and Genoa are close examples built mostly on excludability-based models of resource distribution] misses one of the central distinctions in economics and misses the chance to model one of its central problems. Games that toy with excludability [Keythedral, Le Havre] are more interesting than this last group, but I do not find them to present as compelling of an economic problem as games like Agricola. Agricola's wide-open non-excludability is why the title "multi-player solitaire" often levied against it is particularly stupid. The game is about one of the central interactions in human existence.

Board Game: Agricola

The concepts of scarcity and rivalry / excludability lead into the concepts of choice and cost. In economics, choice is analyzed in a very particular way. Because we are faced with infinite wants we cannot satisfy all of them simultaneously. Because our wants are disparate [food, shelter, love, happiness, pride, acceptance, fun, refrigerators, etc], they are not easily comparable. If all you want is a banana, you can easily walk to the grocery store, look at the selection, and choose one based on the relative / comparable qualities of the bananas available for sale. How if you want a banana and a blender and didn't have the resources to purchase each? You would not take the best looking bunch of bananas, the most feature-laden blender, hold them side-by-side and say "Yep, that bunch of bananas looks better than this blender", after all. Neither would you say "Well, that's five bananas to one blender, so I guess the bananas are better." These wants are incomparable [even moreso than "apples and oranges"], it seems.

On the other hand, if your resources were infinitely available to satisfy your wants, you wouldn't make the choice at all. If you're dying of starvation, walk into an all-you-can-eat buffet, and see chicken and fish on the line, you're not going to ask yourself "Hmmmm... would I rather have the chicken or the fish?" No, you will take one piece of chicken and one piece of fish [well, ok... two pieces of fish, you really like fish] and be done with it. Unfortunately, life is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. Most of the choices we're forced to make look a lot more like the banana-v-blender billing above, where our resources are not only limited but the want-satisfying power of the possible uses of those resources are quite different [let's say, sustenance vs convenience in our bananas vs blender example]. How do we make these choices? Better still, since we're taking the role of a third-party observer / academician, how do we understand and analyze these choices when they are eventually made? The answer is a concept called "opportunity cost".

"Opportunity cost" is, put simply, the value of the option you didn't take, or perhaps the opportunities that you might have met with had you taken the road more traveled. It is the value of what you give up [explicitly and implicitly] in making a choice between two or more exclusive options. Note that I said "value of" not just "it is what you give up". The economic cost of the bananas in the above example is a) their price [the explicit value given up in terms of personal resources; ""], but also b) the want-satisfaction you would have derived from picking up the blender instead [the implicit value of the alternative use of your resources; ""]. The cost of the bananas is not "the blender" per se, although that's a good proxy for ease of discussion. To put it in simpler terms and ignoring the monetary cost, you are choosing "sustenance" over "convenience" [the two different want-satisfactions in question] in choosing the bananas. The "cost" of the bananas is the added convenience the blender would have given you. In making the choice, you've declared that sustenance is "worth more" to you than is convenience [if you're questioning this summary distinction, just wait... we haven't got to marginal analysis yet].

This concept is best applied to situations where the choices represent widely disparate types of want-satisfaction. If, for instance, you were instead choosing between an investment that provided 10% return for a $100 principal and one that provided 11% return for the same investment, you could say [stupidly] that the "opportunity cost" of the second investment [which you'd obviously choose] included the $10 you would have gained by choosing the first investment instead and that, by implication, $11 is "worth more" to you than that $10 you "would have" had... but this is pretty irrelevant and meaningless. That you prefer more to less of a single want-satisfying thing is obvious, even if we imagine a world without scarcity. That you prefer one type of want-satisfaction over another and would choose it rather than the other is not obvious, not easily explained, and is a condition that only exists in a world of scarcity. Deciding how best to get "more" of a single type of want-satisfying thing [wealth, for instance] is not, in essence, an economic decision, it seems to me. Deciding how best to get the most overall want-satisfaction when the two choices are not denominated using the same type of want-satisfaction is an economic decision.

Agricola asks you [at least directly; we'll see the indirect effect when we move on to marginal analysis] to make decisions between disparate things. So called "economic" games like Age of Steam or Brass: Lancashire or Container [I include this last one because I do consider it "economic" in nature, though of a different sort than Agricola, whereas the others I do not] ask you to maximize a single variable and make choices based on expected valuations along one dimension only. Agricola, on the other hand, asks you to choose between "4 wood" which are used for moving toward greater action availability [rooms], action efficiency [improvements], and animal capacity [fences] and "2 sheep" which are used for moving toward greater food efficiency [cooking] and victory points [as sheep]. [Yes, I realize rooms, improvements, and fences also grant points; again, more on that later, as we're talking about direct effects only for now.] How do you value the capacity to hold 2 sheep [a possible use of 4 wood] over and against the 2 sheep themselves? This is an economic question, and I guess to answer it we'll move on to marginal analysis at last.

Board Game: Agricola

So I've been kind of pulling the wool over your eyes. Obviously you can't model an individual's competing wants for sustenance and convenience very well in a game without giving them some kind of overlap / common denominator. That is, eventually all of the various "wants" you're role-playing as having in the game must be denominated in either points or "wins" in order to have meaning. Otherwise, you're not playing a game and are instead just "playing house" or otherwise just role-playing. Agricola is a VP-driven game [that is, it's not a win-condition game like Risk or Chess], and so everything in Agricola [wood and sheep alike] are eventually denominated in victory points. One of the more clever things, however, that Agricola does is give nearly everything VP values. Many resource games [let's say Roads & Boats, for instance] only give you VPs for a few uses of resources, all the rest [buildings, workers, infrastructure, etc] being merely "means to an end". In Agricola, almost everything you do gives you points; everything is its own end.

Many people complain about this feature of the game, saying it makes every game "feel the same" since your finished farm basically always "looks the same". They have a point, but their point misses the point. That Agricola awards you for literally everything you do is what gives its opportunity-cost decisions meaning. To meaningfully make an economic-style choice [between widely disparate resource uses], you have to be able to make a reasonable estimation of the expected satisfaction you'll derive from either choice. If, for instance, someone asked you whether you'd rather have bananas or a GarbleGargleator 5000, you'd be hard-pressed to make a reasonable choice not knowing what the GG5000 offers you. In many games with only limited scoring outlets, the very early items in the VP-production chain are quite difficult to value economically because their eventual contribution to your score is unknown or practically unknowable. This makes for some interesting games, to be sure, but it doesn't make for interesting economics.

In Agricola, on the other hand, you know that 4 wood can give you one pasture which is worth a certain amount of points and can hold a certain number of sheep which are themselves worth a certain number of points, and that 2 sheep [your next best choice, let's say] are worth a different amount of points. It's all summarized quite neatly on the player aid. So, you can see what you're going to use the wood for, what you're going to use the sheep for, and make a decision based on the immediate [and potential, if you're planning to use the wood to house more sheep or count on using some of the sheep to feed yourself to avoid begging cards] VPs you will get from them. You can compare the two incomparable "satisfactions" in terms of their expected point value, and the conversion is done easily enough to be meaningful. In economics, the conversion to a common denominator is commonly done in terms of fictitious / imagined "units of happiness" [often colloquially dubbed "utils"--for "utility", a fancy economic term meaning "happiness"--or even "happies"] and/or money. You'll choose based on which option will give you the most VPs, utils, or money, whatever the denominator best suited to your situation turns out to be.

But wait... the choice of denominator isn't the only situational concern. No, the valuation itself is situational. Look back at the player aid card [or just recall how Agricola works]. If you have no pastures at all, 1 pasture isn't worth 1 point, but 2 [since you avoid the -1 loss and switch out instead to a 1 point gain, a net of 2 points]. Contrarily, if you have 4 pastures already, 1 pasture isn't worth 1 point, but 0 [since you can't gain any more points in that category]. If you have no sheep at all, 2 sheep are worth 2 points, If you have 1 sheep or 8 sheep already, they're worth 0 points. If you have anything in between, they're worth 1 point. 2 sheep aren't always 2 sheep, in other words, but their value changes based on the situation. This changing of the value of potential resource uses based on your current situation is called "marginal" gain / benefit. It's opposed to the "absolute" or "total" gain / benefit. When we talk in these terms, the typical phrasing isn't absolute terms like "2 sheep" but relative / marginal terms like "2 more sheep". Economic decisions aren't based on whether we'd like "2 bananas" or "2 blenders", but whether we'd like "2 more bananas" or "2 more blenders". This is the diamond/water paradox from before: "1 diamond" is nearly always worth more than "1 glass of water", but "1 more diamond" when you have 10 million of them already or are dying of thirst might be worth considerably less than "1 more glass of water".

And so economic analysis is done "at the margin", comparing the relative value of adding something or other to our current situation rather than the absolute value of things divorced from our need of them. In Agricola, this is felt starkly due to the shifting VP conversion of resources / resource uses. If you don't have anything in a scoring category, "1 more" is worth quite a bit. If you've already maxed out the category, "1 more" is worthless except for the potential indirect use in avoiding loss in some other category [filling up an empty space on your farm board--for "1 more" pasture past your 4th--or providing additional food needs--for "1 more" sheep past your 8th]. When faced with a decision between "4 wood" and "2 sheep", what you're really doing is judging between "4 more wood" and "2 more sheep" and what those added quantities mean to your current situation, and as your situation continues to improve the value of more of the same thing declines to you. This is known as the "law of diminishing marginal returns" in economics and it is only eclipsed in importance by the concept of scarcity itself. Contrast Agricola's smoothly-declining-value model to something like Series: 18xx where "1 more" share is always worth exactly the same in terms of eventual sale price and expected dividends [risk of a company dump and value toward majority control are the only shifting values]; players would nearly always buy as many shares as possible in 18xx and so the game forces them to choose carefully by limiting the number they can hold.

Board Game: Agricola

Marginal returns are the reason economies [buyers and sellers; more generally, traders and barterers] exist. If "1 blender" was always worth the same amount and, let's say, always worth the same as "5 bananas" [and so on for every other good pairing in the world, each with an absolute trade price], then "the economy" would boil down to nothing more than who could go out and claim as many raw materials as possible as fast as possible and then make them as efficiently as possible into as many goods as possible. The planet would quickly go into a tailspin as there would be nothing but butting heads and a vague sense of responsibility to posterity keeping people back from cutting down every single tree on the planet to make into whatever wood-based commodity offered the best tree-to-good conversion rate. This doesn't happen, however, and it's not because of government interference or the goodwill of humanity, but because of [diminishing] marginal return.

At a certain point, the trees-to-goods conversion stops looking so good for tree-cutters. At first, the cost of cutting down trees and converting them to, let's say, animeeples is less than the price the market will offer in return for said animeeples. If this was absolute, tree-cutters would cut down every tree they could find and sell them as animeeples and rake in massive profits. But, it isn't the case that the conversion is absolute. Eventually, there are so many animeeples [it doesn't matter how many that is] that there is no money to be had by converting trees to animeeples [the marginal return--profit earned in the market--from "1 more" batch of animeeples is lower than the marginal cost--expense of cutting down and milling--of making that batch]. Trees stop getting cut down for animeeples and either stop getting cut down altogether or get cut down for some other use until that too becomes unprofitable. In this way, in a world of infinite needs / wants we still choose to make less than the maximum possible use of our resources [what we might expect]. Rather, we choose to make the optimal use of our resources given our marginal rates of return and marginal cost structures.

And, this is how an economy is born, because we're not really talking about "wood-cutters" and "animeeple buyers" as massive conglomerates [they don't all cooperate and act / decide together], but as individual producers and buyers. And, there's no reason to expect that these individuals, with their individual situations, face the same marginal return / cost structures. "1 more" batch of animeeples might not sell to game-producer X for higher than its production cost, but it might sell to game-producer Y at a high enough price to make it worth tree-cutter Z's production of that batch. But why would game-producers X and Y choose to associate with tree-cutter Z at all? Why not just cut down their own trees and make their own animeeples? The reason, again, is marginal return / cost. Just as the first sheep is worth more than any of the others in a game of Agricola, the first sheeple made probably costs more than any of the others in an animeeple-producing situation. You have to buy all the equipment, hire all the people, figure out the logistics, etc before you can cut even one lousy sheeple.

That is to say, the marginal cost to game-producer X of making "1 more" [than the zero they are currently making] batch of animeeples is staggeringly high compared to the marginal cost of wood-cutter Z's marginal cost of making it, and probably both X and Z's costs are higher still than meeple-maker M's marginal cost of an added batch. For this reason, game-producer X, who doesn't have the overhead / infrastructure in place to make animeeples [even though, and this is important, they could go out and get said infrastructure], will not make any animeeples and will instead focus on making things they do have infrastructure in place for, namely games. They will consider how much they can sell the games for, make estimates of how cheaply they need to get animeeples for them, suggest a fair price to tree-cutter Z or meeple-maker M for a batch of animeeples, and hope that Z or M are able to make that "1 more" batch of animeeples at a marginal cost to Z or M that is lower than the price that X offered. All of this sounds ridiculously complicated, but it happens every second of every day and is the central reason people engage in economic activity rather than live out their lives as "rugged individualists".

Let's imagine some rugged individualists anyway. Say we have Farmer Able and Farmer Bob. Let's say each of them have 10 fields available for use. Let's imagine Farmer Able is true to her name and has exceptional farming ability, such that she can grow 50 bushels of wheat or 40 barrels' worth of wine grapes in any of her 10 fields. Let's say that Farmer Bob is a country bumpkin with no especial farming proclivities at all and can only grow 10 bushels of wheat or 20 barrels' worth of wine grapes in any of his 10 fields. These two farmers have never met, and in fact don't even know that anyone else in the world exists. They grow wheat to feed their family and wine to keep them happy. They "live off the land", do the best they can, and hope not to have to take too many begging cards. What will their life situation look like? How well, exactly, can their families live? Will they starve? Will they enjoy any wine? Let's find out.

Below is a table of the possible field usage for Farmer Able, and the mixtures of goods she can provide for her family to enjoy:

10 wheat, 0 wine = 500 bushels, 0 barrels
9 wheat, 1 wine = 450 bushels, 40 barrels
8 wheat, 2 wine = 400 bushels, 80 barrels
7 wheat, 3 wine = 350 bushels, 120 barrels
6 wheat, 4 wine = 300 bushels, 160 barrels
5 wheat, 5 wine = 250 bushels, 200 barrels
4 wheat, 6 wine = 200 bushels, 240 barrels
3 wheat, 7 wine = 150 bushels, 280 barrels
2 wheat, 8 wine = 100 bushels, 320 barrels
1 wheat, 9 wine = 50 bushels, 360 barrels
0 wheat, 10 wine = 0 bushels, 400 barrels

And here's what Farmer Bob can provide his household:

10 wheat, 0 wine = 100 bushels, 0 barrels
9 wheat, 1 wine = 90 bushels, 20 barrels
8 wheat, 2 wine = 80 bushels, 40 barrels
7 wheat, 3 wine = 70 bushels, 60 barrels
6 wheat, 4 wine = 60 bushels, 80 barrels
5 wheat, 5 wine = 50 bushels, 100 barrels
4 wheat, 6 wine = 40 bushels, 120 barrels
3 wheat, 7 wine = 30 bushels, 140 barrels
2 wheat, 8 wine = 20 bushels, 160 barrels
1 wheat, 9 wine = 10 bushels, 180 barrels
0 wheat, 10 wine = 0 bushels, 200 barrels

Wow. Sucks to be Farmer Bob, doesn't it? Able can make those 200 barrels of wine and still be able to make 250 bushels of wheat on the side!

Let's imagine these two suddenly meet for the first time [remember, they don't even know anyone else exists in the entire world]. What will Able say to Bob and vice-versa? Will she point and laugh and make fun of his inferior farming technique? Well, possibly, but there's an alternative. Let's say that Able and Bob's families both ascribe to the "man shall not live by bread alone" doctrine [so they're not going to produce all wine and no bread if left to their own devices], and that they obviously can't survive on just wine [so they're not going to produce all bread either], but that they don't make too much of a big deal over whether they have a lot of bread and a little wine or a lot of wine and a little bread. That is, let's imagine Able is pretty much equally happy if her family has 450 bushels of wheat and 40 barrels of wine, 50 bushels of wheat and 360 barrels of wine, or really anything in between. As long as her family has a bite to eat and a tipper or two to relax with in the evenings, she's pretty happy; in fact, she's indifferent [the technical and colloquial term align nicely here] to any of the exact combinations in between the extremes [this is a simplification of preferences, but it represents most of our experience fairly well; regardless, it's just a nicety and not integral to the analysis].

So whether Able has exactly 250 bushels of wheat to 200 barrels of wine or 200 bushels of wheat to 240 barrels of wine isn't of great concern. Let's imagine a similar situation for Farmer Bob. Now let's imagine that Able is currently making 250 bushels of wheat and 200 barrels of wine [5 of each type of field] and Bob is making only 50 bushels of wheat and a meager 100 barrels of wine [also 5 of each field, but he's just plain inefficient]. Now, let's imagine that Able's family wants to throw a party to introduce the family to their newfound friend Farmer Bob and wants a bit of extra wine for the celebration. She arranges to have Farmer Bob bring over some of his wine, and [being the friendly sort she is] offers to give him wheat in return. Let's say she asks for 40 barrels of wine [ok, so maybe she's a bit pushy] and agrees to give up as many bushels of wheat [an even exchange! what could be more fair!]. What happens? Able now has 250 - 40 = 210 bushels of wheat and 200 + 40 = 240 barrels of wine and Bob has 50 + 40 = 90 bushels of wheat and 100 - 40 = 60 barrels of wine. Look very carefully at these numbers and then back at the tables above. Able has as much wine as she would have had if she had split her fields up 4/6 instead of 5/5, but she has an extra 10 bushels of wheat that she wouldn't have had in the 4/6 scenario; Bob has as much wine left over as he would have had had he split his fields up 7/3 instead of 5/5, but he also has an extra 20 bushels of wheat that he wouldn't have had in the 7/3 scenario.

Between the two of them, there are 30 extra bushels of wheat! Where did the extra bushels come from? The fact of the matter is that this isn't magic, a misjudgment, or statistical malfeasance, but the inescapable result of trade when marginal costs differ between traders. Looking back on the data, what is the marginal cost to Able of the 40 extra barrels of wine she wants [that is, what would she have to give up to get them on her own]? She'd move from 250 bushels of wheat to 200 bushels of wheat to get from 200 barrels of wine to 240 barrels of wine, so the marginal cost of 40 more barrels of wine is the 50 bushels of wheat she has to give up producing [in the field that will now be producing wine instead]. In fact, the tradeoff is 50 bushels of wheat per 40 barrels of wine regardless of where her initial production mix. Let's look at Bob's situation from the same perspective: What is he giving up to satisfy the 40 barrel request from Able? Think of it this way: If he really didn't need those 40 barrels of wine, and he adjusted his production accordingly, how much extra wheat could he get on his own by not producing the 40 barrels of wine he's going to trade away anyway? In moving his production from 100 barrels of wine to 60 barrels of wine, he goes from 50 bushels of wheat to 70 bushels of wheat. That is, his marginal cost of continuing to produce the 40 barrels of wine instead of wheat on those fields is 20 bushels of wheat per 40 barrels of wine.

To summarize: Without trading [that is, only changing the production mix in their fields] Able would have to give up 50 bushels of wheat to get the 40 barrels of wine she wants, and Bob could get 20 bushels of wheat on his own by giving up the 40 barrels of wine he's considering trading. Let's go back and look at the trade terms which had seemed so demanding. Able offered Bob 40 bushels of wheat for the wine, which is 10 less than what she'd have to give up to get the wine herself, so she's happy with the deal. Bob in fact is quite happy, too, because the 40 bushels of wheat he'll be receiving from Able is twice what he'd be able to get for the wine on his own. Both parties are better off trading than they would have been trying to reach this new mix of wheat / wine on their own. In fact, Able can offer anything from 49 to 21 bushels of wheat for those 40 barrels and both parties will still be happy. This is called "gains from trade", is one of the central truths of economics, and only and inevitably occurs because the marginal cost structures differ between economic actors [our farmers].

A very important thing to note is that both parties can benefit from trade even though Bob is absolutely [and demonstrably] a "worse" farmer than Able. He is simply unable to produce as much wine or as much wheat as Able. If he goes whole hog into wine and makes 200 barrels, Able is looking on and can match his wine production with 250 bushels of wheat to spare. But Able doesn't point and laugh as we had anticipated, but instead says "Hey Farmer Bob, how about I give you some of my wheat for your wine?" She does this not [exclusively] out of the kindness of her heart or a desire to see Farmer Bob better off, but simply because it makes her better off than she ever could have been otherwise. This is because Able's marginal cost of wine with respect to wheat given up is much higher than Bob's. Bob is not "better" at making wine, in the absolute sense, but he is better at making wine than he is at making wheat if we consider the ratio of Able's two production efficiencies as the standard. Compared to her ability to make wine, he has the advantage. [In fact, economists call this "comparative advantage".]

Board Game: Agricola

Now we get to the meat of this essay [!] at last. Agricola throws a woefully misunderstood monkey wrench into the works when it comes to marginal costs, the much maligned occupations and minor improvements. Most of the complaints against the game come of the form "The cards are too random", "The cards are unbalanced", "Some cards are just better than others", "Some cards are overpowered", and so on. If we were to phrase this in the language we've been using, these complaints are analogous to saying "Farming ability is so unfairly distributed", "Farming doesn't provide equal opportunity", "Some farmers are just better than others", "Some farmers have all the luck", and so on. While all of these criticisms are more or less true [the "less" is that I don't think "unfair" is itself a fair criticism of unequal opportunities], they miss the point dramatically. The point of the cards in Agricola isn't to provide players with absolute advantages, but to change their comparative advantages. The proper scope of analysis, like in our farming example, is at the margin rather than in absolute quantities.

Now, one might argue "but absolute ability is all that matters; after all, we're being judged on our overall output [score]." The latter is true enough, but I don't think the system is set up to favor absolute advantage as much as one might be led to think. Here's why: The game's scarcity provides an implied / pseudo gains from trade effect when the cards are added to the mix. There are, as we noted, only 42 wood to go around in an entire 2-player game. Without the cards, each player will face the same marginal cost of taking some of this wood, namely whatever the "next best" thing available is at each turn. Because each player faces the same game state throughout, whenever the marginal cost of wood is less than its marginal gain the first player who can take it will take it. Each player "needs" the wood as much as the other. There will be occasions where, because the marginal cost of wood is too high, the "first player who can" will take something else that just so happens to tweak the marginal cost of the wood to Player 2 such that it's now to their benefit [and would also be, if it came around to them, to Player 1] to take the wood. That's fine. Let's just guess the wood splits up 50-50, or 21 each. Each player "needs" [at least] 21 wood, let's say.

Now, what happens when we introduce some cards into the mix? Say we have some simple buff cards like the ones above, that just give you more of the same when you take something. Let's pick a stupid example [it may not exist, probably doesn't] of a card that gives you "+3 wood" whenever you take wood. All of a sudden, what was equal footing becomes unequal and the taking of wood will depend on something other than "first come first served" [which is all it depends on if each player faces the same marginal cost / return of wood]. If Player 1 has the "+3 wood" card, suddenly their marginal return for taking wood has increased; put another way, the marginal cost of taking something else has increased [if they take "2 sheep" instead of "3 wood", they're now giving up "6 wood" instead, making it a more costly choice]. Player 1 now has a greater incentive to take wood than player 2 has, because they gain a greater return and face a greater cost if they choose something else. Does this mean Player 1 will now take wood disproportionately more often, leaving Player 2 in the dust in the race for wood because they're facing an uphill battle against the superior wood-gathering ability of Player 1? I'm going to argue the answer is "no, not necessarily".

Now, you must remember that Agricola is a game about choices at the margin and about diminishing margins. Put simply, there's only so much you can do in the game with wood. While it's true you'd probably like more than "your fair share" of 21 wood, that's limited... once you have a new wood room, all your fences, a couple stables, and an improvement or two, wood stops looking so good [its marginal return--the value of "1 more" wood--decreases]. That is, you're not just going to act exactly as before [taking your "21 wood" however you can get and then stacking all the rest on top, for some insane 40+ wood-collected total]; eventually, it's just not worth it to keep up that action scheme. Let's say you wanted 1 room, all your fences, 2 stables, and 2 improvements that cost 1 and 2 wood; this is a total of 27 wood. If you're Player 1 with the "+3 wood" card, how might you get to this amount when "your fair share" is only 21 wood? The mechanics of it don't really matter much, but let's assume [for the sake of argument] that you take 3 wood the first turn [always a good choice], play out the power card on the next [let's say for the sake of argument it's a free minor improvement and you played it on "Starting Player" after Player 2 played an occupation; again, the specifics don't matter], and then take 3 wood in every second round until round 9 [say you had better things to do and let Player 2 sneak in and take some "3 wood" spots in the meantime].

Now what do you have? You've taken "3 wood" in Round 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, and earned an additional "+3 wood" in rounds 3, 5, 7, and 9, for a total of (5 + 4) * 3 = 27 wood. Bingo. You've collected all the wood you planned on getting [let's say you planned correctly, too]. You've sure been hogging the wood, though; how does this leave Player 2? They've gotten "3 wood" in rounds 2, 4, 6, and 8, for a total of 12 wood to this point... but they still need to get to at least 21 to be as well off as they would have been in the game before you got the added incentive to start hogging wood early. Oh look, there are still 5 more rounds to play, meaning they could potentially pick up 5 * 3 = 15 more wood in the game, giving them a grand total of 27 as well [their 12 from < Round 9 and their 15 from > Round 9]. Because your card allowed you to reach your wood-gathering goals sooner / easier / better than you otherwise would have, it left more of the scarce wood on the table for them! This is not an exact instantiation of the "gains from trade" effect we examined with Farmers Able and Bob, but it is a very very close analogue. The same thing has happened: A comparative difference in marginal costs / returns has led to mutual gains. What happens in the Farmer example is that an absolute scarcity [defined wheat / wine yields per field] is handled by the pair with greater efficiency when they trade; what happens in the Agricola example is that a shift has occurred to the previously-assumed-to-be-absolute level of scarcity.

Board Game: Agricola

A few parting words remain to be said, probably because you realize a few more places where I'm pulling a bit more of the wool over your eyes [yes, more farming puns]. For one thing, you might argue that Player 1 above still has a great advantage in that it takes them only 5 actions to get to 27 wood while it takes Player 2 potentially 9 actions [if, say, they need some in the mid-range rounds between 9-14 after spending 4 actions picking up wood piece-meal in rounds 1-9]. This is true enough. If Player 2 defers taking all the newfound "extra" wood that Player 1's card has "introduced" into the game for too long to save actions, it will build up due to the goods growth mechanism and suddenly start to look appealing to Player 1 again [for God only knows what reason] even though they've already used 27 in the game. Not only that, but they might need the wood earlier than Round 14 [which would put them at the same action and resource efficiency as Player 1: 27 wood for 5 actions], but the key distinction is time preference.

This is another economic assumption that Agricola toys with: Given the choice, people prefer to have "x" now rather than later. "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" might be the common knowledge phrasing of the effect. If I want a hamburger, I want it now, and I'd rather have it now than Tuesday. If I know I'm going to want 27 wood in the game, I want them as soon as possible, and I'd rather have them sooner than later. In economics, we find that people will pay more for the privilege of having something now rather than later [convenience store soft drinks, a house or car, etc]; whether it's "more" paid all at once [convenience store] or paid over time [house or car], it's way more than it would cost if you were willing to wait "awhile". Same in Agricola; if you have immediate need for some of that wood you were otherwise going to take in Round 14, it will cost you: namely, it will cost you an extra action. This is a much more typical type of scarcity in games, so it didn't seem worth going into much, but it's here in spades [ah! another pun?!], as it were.

So, yes... Player 1 is still "at an advantage". Is it "unfair" or "unbalanced", though? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's among the more clever systems for balancing widely disparate advantages in all of gaming. There is an immediate and explicit benefit to the holder of the advantage [Farmer Able can simply produce more and enjoy more on her own than can Bob], but there is also an implicit [though subtle and often overlooked] benefit to others that interact [even "indirectly" through the worker placement mechanism] with them. Few games affect the scarcity of my resource availability when you get a bonus giving you more of them. But, this is exactly what happens in real economics, and exactly why I think Agricola is the front-runner in the world of economic-themed boardgames. There is a functional "microeconomy" [both "micro" literally--the game's small world!--and "micro" in the technical economic sense of an economy of individual economic agents--farmers!] inside of Agricola's multitude of clever mechanisms.

Board Game: Agricola

Hey... so that's it! I've been promising this post since I started this blog, so I hope it lived up to expectations.

Go off into the sunset and enjoy this great game, maybe with a fresh new take on what it has to offer the economic gamer.

And remember that economics isn't essentially about money but about margins, and isn't about stocks but about scarcity.
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Mon Aug 22, 2011 6:52 am
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On Originality -- Is there nothing new under the sun?

Nate Straight

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Had a chance this week to play two new-to-me [and new in general] games in similar styles. One struck me as almost entirely derivative, while the other was fresh and interesting and had some actual spark of newness about it. I figured it might make a nice blog.

Board Game: Eminent Domain
Eminent Domain isn't released to the public yet [as far as I know] but my FLGS managed to snag one of the preview copies in Tasty Minstrel Games' "Preview Nights" event. At the shop's Thursday night open boardgaming event, Cat and I had a chance to try it out. I played it once and Cat played it twice. We both left feeling that it was fun enough, but nothing we'd ever choose over Race for the Galaxy.

If you haven't read any of the early reports, the game is essentially a hybrid of mechanisms from Glory to Rome, Dominion, and Race for the Galaxy. Essentially, Tasty Minstrel has taken the action cards from Race and duplicated them many times over. This set of cards forms your starting deck for a Dominion-style deck-builder, so that when you draw your initial hand you'll see, instead of Coppers and Estates, things like Develops, Settles, Produces [the names are only vaguely changed in Eminent Domain, but the functions are almost entirely a direct port from Race]. From this hand of cards, you'll be able to carry out game actions [exploring for new worlds, colonizing new worlds, producing goods, etc]. As in Glory To Rome, you can boost the strength of the action if you have matching cards, except they come from this Dominion-hand rather than your GTR-clientele. As in Glory To Rome, other players can "dissent" [read: "think"] to draw new cards or follow along to carry out the same action, again taking cards from their hand rather than a clientele of previously-played cards. After you're done, you "clean up", except unlike Dominion you can choose to keep a few cards until your next draw. The game ends when the VP tokens are gone [a la Race] or a number of role stacks are gone [a la Dominion].

The things you're doing in the game are colonizing planets [which give you points and the potential to produce and consume goods] and developing technology [which instead of going into your tableau go into your hand action-card-style as in Dominion]. You can "Survey" which lets you draw planets from the separate planet deck. Then you can engage in "Warfare" or "Colonization" which let you gain the benefits of the planets you've Surveyed [essentially, these two roles are just two ways of "paying for" your planets, akin to the two ways in Race]. Once you've got some planets, you can "Produce" or "Trade", which work exactly as they do in Race except each good is always worth 1 point and you're limited to producing/consuming a number of goods equal to the number of phase power cards you have in your hand. Finally, you can "Research" which lets you pick up the special action cards ["technologies"]; you're limited by the number of research phase cards you hold and the number and type of planets you've settled. These cards go into your hand and then get shuffled through your deck eventually, so that you can re-use them every time they come up. They do all the fancy stuff you might expect: "Settle a planet then settle again", "Produce 2 resources for 1 card", "Gain x points for each y", etc. Your standard powers.

The most original thing here is, I guess, the way the role cards are handled: When you "lead" a role on your turn, you take a card from the role stacks rather than from your hand, with the option of boosting the strength from the cards already in your hand. The little tagline the publisher's been using is that "As you take actions more often, you become better at them" because the role cards you've taken go into your deck to eventually pile up in your hand and give you even bigger boosts next time you take the role. This is cute, but it's not quite the revolution they've made it out to be. After all, the more you buy money cards in Dominion the better you get at buying money cards in the future; the more you buy cards that support a deck-thinning strategy the better you get at deck-thinning. Essentially, taking the free role card for "leading" in Eminent Domain is just a zero-cost mandatory buy. So, you'll be picking up cards that support your over-arching strategy ["Do I want to settle a bunch of planets or go for technology?" with the answer being "Take a bunch of colonize cards" or "Take a bunch of research cards", respectively] and then shuffling through your deck doing those actions. One of the bigger problems seems to be that some of the roles [Colonize] are just way too useful so everyone takes them, removing the specialization aspect and forcing everyone down similar paths.

The technology cards are cute, but are rather limited in scope [there are very few duplicated cards, so they're more analogous to GTR or Puerto Rico buildings in this respect than to Dominion action card stacks] and effect [by the time you've got enough "Research" cards to buy the "big ones", you'll probably only get to use them once or twice each]. Other aspects of the game are limited, as well; you'll probably only end up settling 5 or 6 planets, at most, during the game. Most of your action / progress will be taking new role cards into your deck, but [again] the variety here is limited by there only being 5 roles to choose from. The game ends up not having the heavy super-combo-building aspect of Race or GTR because of the limited amount and expected use of powers, not having the deck-tweaking / diversity-of-approach of Dominion because of the limited set of roles / actions and the need to have Colonize and at least a few Surveys before you can make any use of the Produce/Trade or Research powers that might let you specialize / distinguish yourself a bit. There are certainly some different strategies to pursue, but I have a feeling after you've done the two or three big strategies [Research, Colonize->Consume, maybe Survey-Colony spamming] in the game you'll have "seen it all". This would be fine if it had the depth / scope of Puerto Rico [which has only a few strategies], but it doesn't.

The main problem with the game isn't its scope, though [after all, I like Magnate quite a bit, which has a very limited scope / arc], but the complete lack of anything novel aside from the cute combination of mechanisms from the three heavy-hitters in the genre. Magnate has the funky probability distributions to deal with that drive easy-build-low-yield vs tough-build-high-yield decisions [a subset perhaps of "short term gain" vs "long term gain" tradeoffs, some of my favorite decisions / problems in all of gaming], which aren't really present in Battle Line, Lost Cities, Balloon Cup, the Catan Card Game, or anything else that it pretty blatantly rips from; this gives Magnate an entirely new problem to solve, and gives players a reason to choose it over similar titles. Eminent Domain doesn't really seem to present any new problems; it's a game entirely based on mechanics rather than meta-mechanics [the things you're using mechanics to do: optimize marginal gains, seek out game-winning combos, maintain competitive growth rates, etc]. Or maybe it's just that the central meta-mechanic ["select a specialized path of actions and pursue it more faithfully than your opponents pursue theirs"; see Puerto Rico, Navegador, etc] doesn't interest me much. It felt like Eminent Domain embodied the "nothing new under the sun" dilemma. "This does this, but that does that; pick one and do it more times than your opponent" isn't very interesting or innovative.

Board Game: 51st State
51st State was a game I picked up recently as a birthday purchase, despite no recommendations or real hype to commend it. Its tagline is [in Engrish] "One card, three possibilities, tens of decisions" [yes, really]. It is in the same overall genre as Eminent Domain, Race For The Galaxy, Dominion, Glory To Rome, etc: tableau-building, power-combo card games. Unlike Eminent Domain, 51st State seems to bring something new to the genre.

At its core, 51st State is a resource allocation game kind of like Through The Ages. Every turn you get some resources, and you use them to play more cards that will give you more resources or spend them using your set of special powers to gain victory points. It's "economic snowball" and "efficiency engine" through and through; keys to winning are making the best use of your scarce resources and making them as "less scarce" as you can as fast as you can. The catch is that there is an added dilemma that produces the "tens of decisions" promised; namely, when choosing to increase your resources [build your "engine"], you must choose between "more right now", "less but more often", or "more potential and more points but more work". What if the "Mineral Deposits" card in TTA was also the "Iron" card and was also the "Transcontinental Railroad" card? How would you choose which power to use if they were mutually exclusive and could never be combined? This is the central problem that 51st State offers. TTA offers a bit of these "now or later" / "time value of money" trade-offs, but much less directly because you can always "do both". 51st State asks you to actively choose whether you want a boom-and-bust economy, a lean consistent production model, or a fully integrated supply chain with very high overhead.

The way it works is that there are three ways to "pay for" a card, three "powers" on each card, and three ways to use a card. There is a "red" power which takes red currency to put into play; if you choose this option, you will be able to use the card to get a one-time influx of a lot of resources. There is a "blue" power which takes blue currency to put into play; if you choose this option, you will get much lower resource output, but you will get it every turn instead of as a one-shot deal. There is a "white" power which takes white currency to put into play; if you choose this option, the card will be worth a point [red and blue aren't] and might generate some each-turn income, but usually will require you to commit extra resources in a "x for y" conversion function scenario to gain the benefits [points or further resources] of the card. Individually, these functions are present in nearly all resource-type games [influx vs income; cash vs points; etc], but it is the combination of all three on each card that makes this game tick, and makes it feel original. Because you need three different currencies [essentially a refined resource, in most cases] to use each of the three different card options, the way you set up your "engine" will determine to a pretty large extent the way your income model and cash/resource-to-points model will work. Rather than just casually building up along a different specialization track at approximately the same pace, you might be moving in bumps and spurts while another player is gradually ramping up efficiency.

A recent review of 51st State [see, I'm linking to a negative review of each game; I'm trying to be fair!] describes the game as "actually a fairly stock-standard {resource}--->{engine}--->{VPs & more resources} style tableau game where the focus is very production-oriented and very solitaire in nature." This is accurate, but it kind of misses the point. "{engine}" is a fill-in-the-blank here, and it could theoretically be the engine of anything from a lawnmower to a diesel truck to a coal-fired steam engine. No one's going to intentionally play TTA relying on "Mineral Deposits" and "Rich Land" to make up for poor resource productivity [though they might be forced to do so as a result of poor planning]; I could see someone playing 51st State with the intention of looting and pillaging as many high-value one-time gains as possible instead of focusing on marginal gains to each-turn income. In fact, this is probably the ideal strategy for some of the game's asymmetric starting positions. Maybe it's just that short-term-vs-long-term is one of my favorite quandaries in gaming, but this strikes me as a much more interesting and multi-faceted game system than "See who can stay ahead on the marginal growth curve". If nothing else, it doesn't seem to really have been tried before in this particular manner. I've certainly never seen a mechanism very much like it. Race has "cards as resources" vs "cards as engine", but not in the overlapping "cards as quick firecracker engine," "cards as slow consistent engine," "cards as powerful resource-hungry engine" tradeoff trifecta used here.

I have to point to the mind of Ignacy Trzewiczek to find the impetus for this three-uses model, whereas I can't really point to Seth Jaffee but to Carl Chudyk or Donald X. Vaccarino or Thomas Lehmann to find the source for the interesting ideas in Eminent Domain.
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Mon Aug 1, 2011 5:06 pm
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