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Subject: One game of ERA - hmmm. rss

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Alison Mandible
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I printed out two decks (Spanish Gold and Apollo Mission) to try out ERA last night.

Brief conclusions:

- The PnP formatting is terrible.
- The instructions are long but mostly good!
- Some iconography is confusing.
(This might be different in the finished version.)
- Some of the mechanics interlock quite well.
- Can feel kind of scripted.
- The theme is quiet, but it's there.
- Bad turns feel like a waste of time.
- The space program deck is way more fun to play than Spanish Gold.


Let me expand on these!

PnP formatting
The 50 cards of each deck required 11 and 13 sheets of paper, respectively. The cards are 'normal Magic size', so it's possible to fit 9 cards on a page. That means 50 cards should take up 6 pages. How does this game use double that?

The problem is that the PnP is formatted for easy reading, not for actual playing. Each card appears exactly once, with a note about how many copies of it to use. So if a sheet has mostly "3x" cards and one "8x" card... you have to print 8 copies of that page, and on 5 of the copies, cut out just one card and throw the rest away. Who thought this was a good idea? The high-count cards aren't even next to each other on the page, so it's not even like you can slice off all the unwanted cards in a given sheet at once.

This is ridiculous and I can't blame anybody who refuses to try the game based on that alone. That said, I'm glad I pushed through and tried it myself.

Instructions
The instructions are long; even printed 2-up, they used a ton of pages. And the margins are wide enough that those pages felt like mostly whitespace. BUT coming from a newish creator, they were also surprisingly clear and useful. We only had a few questions (all centered on a single card). A lot of the space usage was also with diagrams, which I have to admit more than pulled their weight in terms of clarifying rules and visualizing the game. Nice job!

I've seen the creator talk about trying to match Fantasy Flight's production values; I would say, this rulebook is much better than the Fantasy Flight rulebooks I've recently tried to decipher.

Iconography
We had some questions about which symbols need to appear on a pair of cards (one resource card and one built card) to be activated, and which are active immediately when played. Looking at the samples of finished cards posted on KS, this doesn't seem to be solved; key icons have the same 'look' as resource symbols.

Mechanics
I found that, at least in the Apollo deck, some of the mechanics interlocked in interesting ways. For example, using the Build ability doesn't just give you extra build stars; it lets you pick which cards you want in circulation and which ones you want to keep in your Build pile as long as possible to avoid drawing them again. The question of when to use money for building was also interesting. On the whole, it feels like the system has plenty of potential for building decks that play very differently from each other. But...

Scriptedness
Each deck seemed to have a Thing It Wants You To Do. Failure to do that thing was punished with turns where nothing happened. And the design of the game seems to reinforce this; the lock/key mechanic explicitly says "you have to play this card before that card".

Theme
The mechanics aren't tightly integrated with the theme-- unsurprising, since the theme is different depending on which deck you play! And the conflict system kind of breaks the theme if you think about it too much; was the Kennedy administration really spending US tax dollars to prop up a stream of doomed Aztec warriors attempting to slow the Spanish invasion? I hope not.

But the decks *feel different*, which is what I really want from theme. The Apollo deck involved lots of puttering around on the ground and saving resources for later trying to build a few huge accomplishments and then defend them. The Spanish deck was trying to keep waves of fragile units alive long enough to establish an indestructible colony in the new world. I liked it.

This is a mixed bag; the same facets that support that thematic feeling are also supporting the scriptedness. But I've played too many asymmetric games with indistinguishable characters. This isn't that.

Frustration
In Dominion, it's rare that I pick up my cards, look at them, and just throw them all in the discard pile because there's no good move. It happens rarely enough that it's kinda funny! Last night, playing ERA, we each had that happen three or four times, and on several more occasions just built one cheap card to make it go away.

The "pick how many cards to use as money before you see your cards" mechanic is ingenious and makes for interesting decisions... it's just that getting those decisions wrong means having less fun in addition to losing. That's troublesome.

Deck preference
Playing the Apollo deck had some interesting decisions that unfolded over the course of the first game, as mentioned above. The Spanish Gold deck... not so much. Or at least, it wasn't obvious how to reach them.

This is a thing that happens in asymmetric games! Sometimes you pick the wrong faction and you're just bored. And it happens more in heavily asymmetric games (i.e. the players have radically different capabilities, not just a different starting bonus), which tend to be my favorite. So I'm not writing ERA off entirely there. But on the other hand, when someone says "I can't even figure out what was supposed to be fun about this faction", it's hard to get excited to play more.

So am I going to back it? Amazingly, with all these criticisms, I would still have to say maybe. It is, after all, a very clever idea, and I love VPP games. The mechanics seem to have a lot of subtleties to hide clever play in. I'm also willing to suspend judgment about the scriptedness until I've tried playing the same deck against two different opponents. (I am very skeptical that they will play out differently, because I'm facing the same conflict cards no matter who I play against. But I'm willing to be surprised.)

To the designer, who I suspect will read this (he's active on the forums), I would say, thank you for the free trial version but please fix your PnP. Right now the version you've posted says to people "I don't care that much if you play my game, deal with it yourself". Posting each deck as a single 6-page document (handling the card duplication yourself, putting 9 cards per page, and combining conflict/resource/player cards into one file) would be awesome.

I also hope your design for the printed cards isn't entirely finalized; I think a few small changes (such as coloring "this must match a resource card" symbols differently from "this is active as soon as you play it" symbols) could be really good for the game. I might also humbly suggest that the 'Build' ability be called something different to distinguish it from the Build Pile.

And finally, if the game mechanics themselves aren't finalized (especially for some of the expansion decks), I think more decision points, like the ones that the Vision and Build mechanics offer the Apollo Mission deck, could really enhance the game.

To other potential players, I'd say, there's more here than meets the eye, but it has problems. I might not recommend Spanish Gold as a trial deck if you go the PnP route.

[October update: With the relaunch, I'm feeling like, yeah, I'm definitely going to give ERA a try. Even with its flaws, it's a game that stuck with me for weeks after a single play. And of the two decks I saw, the fun one is in the base game, while the other isn't. I've backed at the base game level and am thinking about getting a 3-pack of add-on decks for extra variety.]
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Steven Lykowski
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Regarding the "frustration" section , I am experimenting with a new scrap rule that allows a player to commit any 1 of their unplayed cards into their build or conflict pile if they didn't play any cards that turn. A turn without any interesting playable card choices should be extremely rare (my playtests have shown about once per player per game) unless that player is committing a heavy amount of cards into his build and conflict piles and leaving only 2 or 3 cards to play from. In that case, the lack of options is created by the player himself and is an unavoidable cost associated with that strategy. Either way, I think there is an opportunity to allow for more interesting choices with this new scrap mechanic.

Also, I am still working on a solution for the pnp files.

Thanks for the review!
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Alison Mandible
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sjlykowski wrote:
Regarding the "frustration" section , I am experimenting with a new scrap rule that allows a player to commit any 1 of their unplayed cards into their build or conflict pile if they didn't play any cards that turn.


This would give everyone access to some of the card-filtering mechanics I liked in the Apollo deck, and would take some of the luck out of military card flips. I like it!

Quote:
Also, I am still working on a solution for the pnp files.


Cool; I'm hoping to give it one more shot before the KS ends.
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Chuck Hughes
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Great review Mandible, thanks!

I've read other reviews and watched the review videos but I'm still on the fence on this one. The art and everything on the KS page looks amazing but I'm not sure about the game play. I've downloaded the PnP files but have yet to print them off, for the reasons Mandible and others have mentioned (and unless I've completely missed something, it doesn't appear that the PnPs have been fixed to make it easier to print off; I have to wonder why the designer hasn't addressed this yet since I've seen that comment multiple times on the forums and he mentioned he would fix it; I understand he may be extremely busy, but having a difficult to print and assemble PnP makes me not want to try this game). Also, I'm not exactly sure my wife is going to like this game. While we both enjoy history, I just don't know if the game play will appeal to her.

I've read the rule book (which is impressively laid out and well written; I love the examples; hats off to the designer for the work that went into that) and I feel like I would like this game, but there are certain aspects that just seem off to me. For instance, choosing face down cards at the beginning of your turn seems like a waste of resources and would add additional turns/time to the game (I guess you could easily house rule that so you can see your cards at the beginning of the turn; I wonder if that was play tested?). A few other things that concern me (both of which you mentioned in your review Mandible): "lack" of theme and the scriptedness of the individual decks (especially if your playing a deck and just don't get what that deck is supposed to be doing).

That being said, it is the weekend, I may take the time to print this off and put it together. There is enough there that peaks my interest to at least try it. We'll see.

Thanks again Mandible for the review, good thought provoking comments.

Edit: Just saw the designers comment on KS that he hopes to have the updated PnP out by this weekend. Might wait on that before printing it out.
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Alison Mandible
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Osyrn wrote:
For instance, choosing face down cards at the beginning of your turn seems like a waste of resources and would add additional turns/time to the game (I guess you could easily house rule that so you can see your cards at the beginning of the turn; I wonder if that was play tested?).


I actually liked the blind selection mechanic, at least with the Apollo deck. Yes, setting aside cards is a gamble, but it seems to be the main factor off-setting the deck's scriptedness. You have to pay attention to when reshuffles happen, and potentially spend accumulated build cards before the reshuffle to avoid a needed card being trapped in the build pile.

I don't think there would be many interesting decisions if you could look at all your cards before allocating them, especially at the beginning of the game.
 
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Chuck Hughes
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grasa_total wrote:
Osyrn wrote:
For instance, choosing face down cards at the beginning of your turn seems like a waste of resources and would add additional turns/time to the game (I guess you could easily house rule that so you can see your cards at the beginning of the turn; I wonder if that was play tested?).


I actually liked the blind selection mechanic, at least with the Apollo deck. Yes, setting aside cards is a gamble, but it seems to be the main factor off-setting the deck's scriptedness. You have to pay attention to when reshuffles happen, and potentially spend accumulated build cards before the reshuffle to avoid a needed card being trapped in the build pile.

I don't think there would be many interesting decisions if you could look at all your cards before allocating them, especially at the beginning of the game.


Okay, cool. Good feedback, thanks!
 
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Steven Lykowski
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Just wanted to let you know that the revised pnp files have been uploaded. It's all one page (for each era), and really minimizes wasted ink/paper. If you get a chance to try it again, I would be happy to hear your thoughts!

Thank you grasa_total for your feedback!

 
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Alison Mandible
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Great!

Has the Apollo deck changed at all, or can I use my previous one as is and just print the Plagues deck?
 
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Steven Lykowski
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The Apollo deck has changed a tad, especially with the number of copies of certain cards--I would use the most up to date deck, but it's up to you!
 
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