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Subject: Things to consider if you’re thinking of buying this game rss

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Elijah Lau
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Why ToG is an excellent game but also why it's not for everyone

ToG is a 2-5 player trading/negotiation game that takes about 2 hours to play, more for those new to the game. For most parts, this is a typical Eurogame. There is a certain mathematical distribution of resources (everyone starts with the same and no one has any distinct advantage at the beginning) and the board is classic Rudiger Dorn – very geometric. So if you like eurogames about managing scarce resources and using them to achieve certain goals, in this case, money, then ToG would fit into that mold.

But compared to other eurogames, this game is one of the most subtle that I’ve played. This primarily stems from the hidden nature of the victory points (money is hidden in the game) and that it is not obvious whether a deal resulted in a profit or loss because there are several layers of trade before profit is seen. This is because there are many different categories of resources that can be traded. Unlike Settlers of Catan where there is only one type of resource, i.e., resource cards, albeit divided into 5 types (wool, wheat, ore, wood and brick), ToG has 5 broad types of commodities: wares, tiles, cards, money and ownership markers. Within these broad types are further subdivisions. Wares – copper, silk etc, cards – messages, orders and privileges and 5 different types of special tiles. All of these things interact in the game in their own way and have different values at different times in the game.

The variety of options in this game creates a highly uncertain environment throughout the whole game. This game certainly keeps players on their toes! The uncertain environment also makes it difficult for players to gauge how well they are doing vis-à-vis the other players unless they’ve really kept up with what everyone else is doing. Sharp analytical skill to ascertain what an opponent is doing is a premium in this game.

On top of this is the heart of ToG, the negotiating mechanism. There are only general rules to govern how players progress in the game – that’s the whole idea of the negotiating game in the first place. It’s up to the players to ‘talk’ their way to victory, while making sure that their deal doesn’t benefit their opponent more than it does themselves. Given that I said earlier about how subtle the game elements interact, it will become rapidly challenging for players to keep track of what their opponents are up to and in some cases, players may even become confused of what they themselves are up to!

ToG then is certainly a very challenging game. In terms of cerebral skill, it’s not unlike Puerto Rico. But unlike PR, where skill is merely cerebral, ToG is a negotiation game. Eloquence, charm and persuasion play just as important a role in ToG as cerebral skills. Victory in ToG requires both and that makes achieving victory in ToG all the more sweeter. Well of course, winning a challenging game is very rewarding.

There are occasions where players win but can’t figure how they did it. That is really part of the subtlety of ToG. Many times in negotiations in ToG, players may do certain things, like not paying more than they want to and foregoing an action rather than paying more, or taking actions on the cheap because no one else is doing it. On the surface, foregoing an action or doing an action which doesn’t quite fit into your plans may seem to be a bad move. But the key issue off ToG is profit margin – because players pay to do things to get money. Players who fulfill many Large Orders in the game may not win, because he may have ‘overpaid’ to get his three different wares, and then ‘overpaid’ to go to the villa. Sure, he’ll earn a profit but by how much? Whereas a player who gets 2 Messages for free and delivers them simply by biding his time and letting the others move the tower will get 60 ducats for nothing. Sometimes, players can play smart by instinct, seizing the opportunities as they come, while other players are cutting deeply into their profit margins to get things done. For the ‘instinctive’ player, victory can come as a surprise, but make no mistake, this is not luck. That player has simply tapped unconsciously into the subtlety of negotiations in ToG.

But there is a major downside to ToG. It’s just not going to be as fun with some groups than with others. First, this game is all about wheeling and dealing, so you need to cajole, convince, persuade, beg even. Not everyone likes that. Second, the uncertain environment in the game can cause people to do one of two extremes: become very cautious and slow the game down with analysis paralysis, or drive very hard bargains, which also slows the game down (and adds an undesirable level of unpleasantness to the game). Players who tend to be introverted and passive are unlikely to find this game fun and also make the game not fun for others. They could be the biggest Eurogame fans but prefer to play games like PR where there’s very little player communication. Outgoing players are great in this game, but not if their idea of negotiation is Diplomacy. Because agreements in ToG are binding, you can’t blatantly cheat, lie and backstab in ToG. Players have the option of choosing any offer given, not necessarily the best. That can be appropriate in some occasions in the game but in the wrong spirit, it’ll just come across as vindictive. Fortunately, most players fall somewhere between these two extremes, but player alignment in relation to these two extremes do need to be considered if you’re considering getting this game for your game group.

I like ToG a lot. I think it's just one heck of a challenging negotiation game, and it plays in a shorter time than Diplomacy. But unfortunately, for my gaming group, it's just not going to hit the table that often. Doesn't seem fair to ToG, but them's the breaks. The game does really require the right group to shine.
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