I have had a strange relationship with Cheapass Games and James Ernest. To be honest, I would not include James Ernest in my list of great designers and Cheapass Games is not on my list of gaming companies that have changed the world.
That said, I did run across Cheapass years before I discovered Rio Grande or Mayfair or Fantasy Flight. And while I would say most of the games are more fun to read than to play, there are some of James Ernest's games that I have really enjoyed playing like Button Men or Light Speed or Lamarckian Poker. They have put enough games that I keep on playing that I can’t dismiss the works of James Ernest.
In other words, while I can critique all I want like the snob that I secretly am, I can't deny that Cheap Ass Games have been an ongoing part of my gaming life. Their games might not be what I look forward to on a game night but they still sneak in to fill the nooks and crannies of my gaming time. They are like the bag of potato chips in the menu of my gaming life.
In its current incarnation, Cheapass is offering PDFs. Quite a few of them are free, although they naturally are asking for donations. (The business plan of Cheapass Games is something worth a blog entry or two in and of itself) One of their newest offering is a quick-and-dirty abstract called Mapple.
Mapple both embraces the Cheapass idea of using stuff you find around your house and is an example of the most lazy extreme of print-and-play. You print off one page that includes the board and the rules and scrounge up $1.30 in change (that you can still spend afterwards) and you have the whole game.
So, the question is: is it worth even that little effort?
Well, of course I had to find out.
Mapple, at its heart, is a two-player perfect information abstract. It involves claiming and controlling territory, which makes is a very distant descendant of Go. Players take turns placing coins on the spaces on the board, one player as heads and the other as tails. If a neighboring space has an enemy piece of a lower denomination that the one you just placed, it flips over and that land becomes yours. Whoever claims the most spaces wins.
So, simple serviceable rules that aren’t broken as near as I can tell. At the same time, there’s nothing here to really excite anyone either. And, let’s be completely frank, if you have little to no interest in abstracts, Mapple isn’t going to offer you a thing. Heck, if you have just a passing interest in abstracts, skip Mapple and spend real money on a GIPF project game.
Mapple is only really of any interest to someone who enjoys abstracts and wants to look at it as a puzzle to mull over. Even if you are just looking for a quick, cheap way to play a game in the time that it takes for a waitress to bring you your food, Cheapass has much better offerings, like Lamarckian Poker.
That said, there are a couple elements in Mapple that keep me from completely forgetting about it. They both have to do with the board. First of all, the shapes and connections of the spaces are surprisingly open and connected. Almost every space has at least four connections, many much more. The natural choke points that you want are hard to form. I have a feeling the board is still easy enough to map out and analyze but it isn’t an automatic, mindless activity you can do at a glance.
Second of all and most importantly, there are more spaces on the board than pieces. You are not going to fill up the board. That might not sound interesting but that adds a lot of flexibility to play. In many abstracts where you fill the board, games can become very formulaic. I have played games where it has been an exercise in patience to see who will be forced to make the inevitable move that will cost them the game. The openness of Mapple makes the game more interesting to me.
On the one hand, I am hard pressed to recommend Mapple. It’s strongest selling point is that you just have to print out one 8/12 by 11 piece of paper to have the game. On the other hand, I do know that I want to play it a few more times so there is something there that my brain wants to pick over. You don’t always get what you pay for but Mapple costs so little that I may have gotten just a little more.