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Richard H. Berg
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{The following appeared in "Berg's Review of Games" (BROG) oh, about 10 years ago . . . }

THE COMPANY LOVES MISERY

AGE OF RENAISSANCE by JARED SCARBOROUGH

from THE AVALON HILL GAME CO.

One 22” 33” mounted map; 3 counter sheets; 64 cards; 1 Player record pad; 6 “Log” mats. Boxed. AH; $55.

Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG

OK, before we even start to discuss the merits - and there are many - of this rather large effort (price included), let’s get one thing clear. Forget the game title, Age of Renaissance, which is, amusingly, contradicted by the subtitle, “Civilization in the Middle Ages” and then laid to waste by the central pic of the 12th century Crusader. And forget all the historical chrome rattling around the box like loose change in an arcade. This is Goofball, Boy’s Life, TV quickie-mini-series history … to such an extant that the boxcover should have carried one of the warnings you see before those troglodytic “Women in Peril” TV movies: “Loosely Based on Actual Events”. Very loosely, it turns out.

And what makes me say such mean things about a game that could (but not probably), become quite popular? Well, aside from the fact that I’ve gotten too many complaints about going soft in recent issues, I do have some respect for History. AgeRen, is not a history game; it is a game that uses history as a background prop, one that is sometimes misleading (a polite synonym for “inaccurate”). One example: the “Marco Polo” card - Marco Polo as one of the Top 20 in a 1000 years of history? - insists that his “…journal was [the] West’s only account of [the[ Far East for centuries”. I’m sure such writers as John of Plano Carpini (Itinerarium et Historia Mongolorum) and William of Rubruck (Itinerarium et Partes Orientales), just to mention two authors from the same era, would be most upset to find out they, and their writings, did not exist.

Once you understand that “history” is not the point here, you can proceed to play with a clear conscience … and an empty wallet.

AgeRen is a big game: big in size, big in scope, and big in price. It is also a very handsome game, although much of the art would appear to be more appropriate in a Games Workshop game - cf. the “Armor” card; and someone please tell me what the back of the cards is supposed to represent, other than a poster for “Invasion of the Dragonbugs”? - There is also the spectacular-looking rules book, loaded with examples of play, and the eye-catching, but somewhat garish and overbusy board, among others. But what is going to open everyone’s eyes more than the art work is the $55 pricetag. Now, AgeRen looks and feels like a lot of bucks, on size and weight alone. However, we do note that it has virtually the same components (actually less cards) than the recent Geronimo, which sells for under $40. I’m not complaining - far from it; it means bigger royalties if this continues. I just want to let you know that this is the future. $50+ games will now be the normal; finding games under $40 “list” will be unusual. The factors that have gone into this precipitous rise are many and varied; but they are real just the same. Unfortunately, while many players look forward to Reality in their gams, they wouldn’t recognize it outside gaming if it took a bite out of their buns.

So, what do you get for half a yard? A ripping, if somewhat convoluted and overly procedural, good time, with a brief, passing nod to history, that’s what. AgeRen is one of those games where players, and consumers, are going to have to weigh some very neat pluses against some rather off-putting minuses. Where you eventually come down will say much about what you want, and expect, from a game.

AgeRen is essentially a cross-breed, a conscious and concerted effort to combine History of the World with Civilization. The underlying economic system is a second cousin of the latter, to which they’ve added the “Here’s a Touch of History” card base mechanics of the former. They’ve also added some nice new touches, additions that make AgeRen very decision-oriented, something which is sure to give it a big boost in the Repeat Play area.

The basic premise of the game is instantly recognizable, even if some of its mechanics are not. You start out as a small trading post, and you use guile, power and sagacious decision-making to gain eco-control over Europe. Initially, physical growth is relatively easy, and rapid. It only takes a few turns for all the players to have grabbed every available province. It is here that the feel of the game takes a very sharp turn, one that provides much of the play interest. Overt territorial expansion is no longer the way to go; each player has to use “Advances” to push his superiority. These Advances, which are contained in the cards, allow the player to go off in a host of interesting directions: Communications (writing, art, etc.), Exploration (heavy investment in naval technology), Religion, etc. The various playouts of these paths are manifold, and several such undertakings are two-edged swords, all providing the game with much of its allure. You can go off in all sorts of directions, and players will try different approaches each time. Throw in the ability to try and “corner the market” in certain types of goods, and you get a replay level far higher than with many games of this ilk.

The problem with this multi-layered approach is that, when you give the player a lot to do, and a wide variety of decisions to make - a design mechanism that I, personally, favor highly - you have to have some sort of system in place that allows the player to do same without constantly flipping pages, looking up rules, and asking “what do we do now?” In that area, AgeRen falls flatter than the pre-Columbian planet. This is one of the most procedural games I’ve played in a while … and that coming from a designer that minored (some say majored) in Procedures.

To digress for an instant. There is nothing (inherently) wrong with procedures; they’re there to tell you how to proceed with play. What can be bad - “bad” in the sense that it detracts from enjoyment - is when those procedures follow no logical sense or flow. They appear to be just a list of things to do that were assigned arbitrary priorities. A “move-then-fight” sequence is the most obvious, and accessible, procedure, as that’s about what you do in reality. However, when the sequence of play turns out to be nothing more than a laundry list of things you have to do, presented in an order that bears little relationship to anything other than a need to get them all done, then you have what we call Procedure Heavy. AgeRen isn’t quite that bad … but it’s close.

We played AgeRen with five players (six is max): two game designers, two BROG Crack Playtesters, and an Avaloncon pro who has been in tournament finals several years running. One of the minor drawbacks of AgeRen is that it is designed for six; play with less and you eliminate various areas of the board, thus changing the inter-player relationships. In an age when far too many gamers resort to solitaire to play anything, requiring six may be asking a bit much.

There is a lot to think about in this game, a lot of decisions for each player to make. And nowhere does the game make it easy. We all - separately and conjunctively - agreed that, at no time, did we ever fully get a grasp on what we were supposed to be doing, or what to do next. If we hadn’t had an informal Town Crier announce what was what, and what was upcoming, we all would have sat around in a trance, like in a 60’s Jack Kerouac reading. Without the medicinal benefits. In addition, the play of the cards, and the rules, use a shorthand, icon system that lends more confusion than it eliminates. We were constantly asking each other what the hell the play of a card meant; and that’s when we could figure out whether we could actually play the card. Now, eventually all of this will come clear. But it’s a constant fight, and sliding into the feel and flow of the game is somewhat of a Sysiphian task.

And finding things in the rules is no walk in the sun, either. These are not long rules (8 pages of instruction), but they’re so over-stuffed and randomly organized - organization of rules, the order in which the designer presents the game’s mechanics, is truly the Black Hole of Game Design - that finding explanations seems guaranteed to produce Misery. And I use that term specifically, because one of the game’s niftier mechanics is something called The Misery Track. Misery, it appears, represents what happens when a government spends too much money on various enterprises, to the detriment of the well-being of her people … a rather nice rule that keeps players from simply “piling it on”. We were constantly being reminded of Misery on the cards and the play sequence. Were it that easy to find what it does, and means, in the rules. (Well, we did eventually.) You would think that a mechanic that has the capability of forcing a player out of the game would, at least, have its own section of rules. No such luck. Its buried in the Purchase Phase, almost as an afterthought to “Stabilization”.

It also says a lot that we were never quite sure how much money we were supposed to get at the end of the turn, because the rules insist on using the phrase “last uncovered circle” when referring to keeping track of your controlled provinces. I’m sorry, but does that mean the last circle that you uncovered, or the circle you have yet to cover? There is a difference, because this Byzantine methodology is supposed to let you know how much money you get. Why didn’t they just simply make a chart that cross-referenced Controlled provinces with Income?

There is a lot of that in AgeRen, lots of charts and tracks whose use is not only not instantly apparent - and if it isn’t, why have it? - but, in some cases, fathomable only through discussion, page-flipping, and argumentative interpretation. None of this is conducive to getting people to play AgeRen more than once. And, despite the fact that such evidence is nothing more than anecdotal, the general feeling on the BROG topic on AoL was that AgeRen was just that: a very interesting design that was too procedural and too overtly fiddly to play again.

Which is too bad, because there is some really fine design work herein, and the actual game, when you can finally get it to reveal itself, provides some very intensive fun. The best example of this is the unique method for resolving “combat”, which the game points out is not military but economic. (Whatever, you win, he loses, and there’s no Machiavelli card to help explain the differences.) How well you are going to do is based on, amazingly, when you go during the turn! You see, one of the three dice you roll, and the first one read, is compared to your play sequence position. If it is higher than your Order of Play, you win! Thus, the player who goes first is going to win such confrontation 83% of the time. Catch is, the player who expends the least money at the start of the turn, and thus will do the least, goes first. A truly intriguing mechanic that produces some interesting player decisions and, in many ways, drives the game. Exactly what it represents, other than simply being a nice piece of game design, was beyond our ken.

I’m not sure what crowd AgeRen will appeal to. It is a much more complex and involved game than, say, History of the World, and I would estimate that it would take a far amount of playing to become comfortable with the game’s methodology.

Conversely, it is so meaty, and requires so much tough decision making on each player’s part, that there are sure to be those who will undertake whatever it takes to master the system to earn the goodies therein provided. And there are lots of goodies, because there are so many different paths for a player to take. Giving players difficult decisions, decisions that may have repercussions, is what good game design is all about. However, presenting these in a cogent, accessible format is another part of that profession that must be addressed. The failure to combine these two disciplines will surely put off those who prefer playing the situation to playing the rules/system, because the latter is what you seem to be doing most of the time. Players spend far more time trying to figure out how to use the mechanics to their benefit than they do trying to outwit their opponents.

On a chart, my enthusiasm for Age of Renaissance would be a series of sharp peaks and deep valleys. This is the type of game I really want to like … even if it gives history the back of its hand. However, it’s far too convoluted and procedural for the type of game it wants to be. It’s actually easier to play one of The Gamers’ TCS series games than it is to slog your way through a turn of AgeRen. But I could be wrong; it just might have enough sweat meat hidden deeply to make it a player favorite. I just don’t think that there are enough consumers willing to expend the effort to hack their way through the tough outer skin to ever make this anything more than an interesting relic.

CAPSULE COMMENTS

Graphic Presentation: Striking, if overheated.
Playability: Heavily procedural and somewhat grueling. Nothing comes naturally.
Replaybility: It could be the game’s strong point; lots to do, many ways to go. And it could be its Achilles heel, as the system may invite “Best Opening Move” mentality.
Wristage: Minimal.
Historicity: None
Creativity: Lots, maybe too much. This could have worked on a far less complex level.
Comparison: Meatier than its in-house competition - HotW, Civilization, et al, - but far less accessible.

Overall: Great ideas, and lots of good design work, all come together in an almost inarticulate garble of systems, icons and procedures. It’s like a date with Olga, Leather Queen: intriguing, enticing, alluring, but, ultimately, painful.
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Marc Guenette
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Richard, I think it's a pretty good review... I have played close to 30 times the game, the more I've played it, the more I appreciated the game.

I don't know about others experiences.
 
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Richard Young
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It was brave of you to dredge up a ten year old review of a game that has has stood up a lot better than you predicted it would. Some of your criticisms, shared by others, were taken to heart and the game has matured well with the living rules to reside in the "classic" category for me, along with Civ, 1830, Successors and a number of other old AH titles. Still, I'm not quite sure what your bottom line on this was: It was fun, but I hated it?
 
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Richard H. Berg
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Bubslug wrote:
It was brave of you to dredge up a ten year old review of a game that has has stood up a lot better than you predicted it would. Some of your criticisms, shared by others, were taken to heart and the game has matured well with the living rules to reside in the "classic" category for me, along with Civ, 1830, Successors and a number of other old AH titles. Still, I'm not quite sure what your bottom line on this was: It was fun, but I hated it?



I really don;t like the system, a fact brought home by the recent MANIFEST DESTINY, which is the AGE-REN system at its worst. For me, it's micromanagement - and that's not a good word here - and rather overwrought. I'm aware that others enjoy it. But some people like Adam Sandler . . .

RHB
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