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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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