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Subject: Outpost review and detailed description rss

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Eric Brosius
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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The following review/session report for Outpost includes a detailed description of play. Outpost as most people seem to play it does not use the rules originally included with the game. Instead, Tom Lehmann's version 1.32 "Expert" rule modifications are used. I've incorporated the "Expert" rules into the description to give readers a better view of how the game works when they are used.


OUTPOST
(Anton, Eric, Dan, Rich)

Now that Rich had arrived, we had 4 players, and there was plenty of time for a meatier game. Eric had been bringing his copy of Outpost out to MVGA for a number of weeks, and the others agreed to give it a shot. Outpost is an out-of-print game for which reprint rights have been elusive, so it's hard to get, and Eric was delighted to be able to trade for a copy earlier in the year. He played a few games with Joe Huber's customized set and copied Joe, using pieces from old Risk and Numble games, together with some bingo chips, to make the game easier to follow.

Eric had copies of Tom Lehmann's version 1.32 "Expert" game rules set, which regular Outpost players all seem to use. These fix imbalances in the original game and increase the number of viable strategies. They create options and force you to make tough decisions.

Eric taught the rules before we began play, as none of the others had played Outpost before. Outpost is fundamentally a card game, though it has a board on which the cards are displayed. In this sense it resembles St. Petersburg; you can easily dispense with the board if you want to transport your game more easily. You begin the game with limited technological abilities, a few factories and some population units (to run your factories.) At the start of the game you know how to build water and ore factories, and you can buy more population, but that technology will only take you so far. To win you need upgrades, which you can buy via an auction process that resembles the one in Power Grid. As I describe Outpost, I'll compare it to Power Grid, but Outpost was published in 1991 and in fact it's possible that Power Grid took some ideas from Outpost. The upgrades give you special abilities that help your colony grow. Upgrades and manned factories are the source of VPs.

The sequence of play is simple:

(1) Determine turn order
(2) Restock the upgrade market
(3) Produce goods
(4) Purchase things (upgrades, factories, population)
(5) Check VPs

The purchasing phase is the heart of the game. It takes up most of the time each turn, and it is the phase during which players compete at auction for scarce assets.

First, you determine turn order. This runs in descending VP order, with the player who has the most VPs taking the '1' turn order card. If there's a tie, add up the printed costs on the upgrades you have purchased and the higher total goes first. If there's still a tie, choose at random. Turn order is the only explicit "stop the leader" mechanism in Outpost---the first player must bid for a desired upgrade against all opponents, while the last player may be able to buy one cheaply once the others have spent their money.

Next you fill the available market with upgrades for potential sale. The number of upgrades on display will equal the number of players (in contrast to Power Grid, though, there is no re-stocking during the turn as upgrades are bought.) There are 13 different types of upgrade, each a card with a serial number (#1 to #13,) a list price and a list of the benefits the purchaser will gain. In the first stage of the game, only #1 through #4 are available. As soon as one player has 10 VP, the game enters a second stage, and #5 through #10 are added to the mix. Finally, once at least one player has 30, 35, or 40 VPs, depending on the number of players (as shown in the "Expert" rules,) the game enters its third and last stage, during which all of the upgrades are available.

Three polyhedral dice are provided for determining what upgrades are available. In the first phase, a d4 is rolled and the corresponding upgrade is placed in the market. In our game, we rolled the d4 four times (once per player) and placed a #1 Data Library, a #3 Heavy Equipment, a #2 Warehouse and another #1 Data Library into the market. No more than half of the upgrades can be of a single type; if you roll a third of the same type in a 4-player game, just re-roll. There is a limited number of each upgrade type for the whole game, as described in the "Expert" rules---in our game there would be only 3 of each type---and the scarcity factor creates competition and assures that different players will follow different strategies. In the process of rolling for upgrades, if you choose one for which none are left in stock, take the next lower number (if there are none with any lower number, you re-roll.)

The third phase is production. There are nine decks of colored cards that represent the "currency" available to the players. The least valuable is ore: the brown ore cards are worth from 1 to 5, with average value 3. You get an ore card for each manned ore factory (OrF). Next is water: the blue water cards are worth from 4 to 10, with average value 7. You get a water card for each manned water factory (WaF).

You start the game with two manned OrF's and one manned WaF, so you are entitled to two ores and a water, but to get the game off to a faster start, you get double production on the first turn only: four ore and two water. This is a major luck element in the game and it happens on the first turn---your cards could total as little as 12 and as much as 40, and the existence of this luck is one of the principal complaints people have about Outpost. Later I'll describe a "mulligan" rule that ameliorates this problem, but there certainly could be room for more in this direction.

After you get your new production cards, you must discard down to a hand limit of 10 cards. The limit presents a challenge if you have a lot of factories, as you could have to discard cards before you can spend them (you will discard the small ones, but it still represents wasted resources in a game where every small advantage matters.) One luck-reducing factor is the availability of special "mega" production cards. These count as four single production cards. If you have four operating WaF's, you may take one mega-water card (worth a fixed 30) instead of four water cards (averaging 7 each.) The average is more, and luck is eliminated, but the mega-water still counts as 4 cards in your hand, and you can't get change when you spend it.

The next phase is the purchasing phase---the heart of the game. When it's your turn, you can buy factories and/or population, paying fixed prices, or you may put upgrades up for auction. This phase proceeds in player order, but you may bid during an opponent's turn, even if you have already taken your turn, as long as you still have money (e.g., production cards) to bid with. The decision-making in Outlook focuses on which upgrades to bid for, how much to bid for them, and when to eschew bidding and save your cards or buy factories and/or population. To do well, you must know what an upgrade is worth to you, and you must be able to estimate what it is worth to your opponents.

To buy factories, just pay the fixed price in production cards to the bank (put spent cards in the discard pile on the board.) OrF's cost 10, WaF's cost 20 and population (to run the factories) cost 10. The bank never pays change, so if (for example) you have two water cards worth 7 each and two ore cards worth 4 each, you might need to spend 22 to buy a WaF. If you buy several identical factories, or several population, you can pay for them all in one payment (7 + 7 + 6 for two population,) but you must pay separately for each type of item. The game includes titanium factories (TiF's), research factories (ReF's) and so forth, but you do not know how to build them at the start of the game---you must buy the right upgrades first. There is no limit to how many factories you may buy, but you can only house 5 population, and since factories are worthless unless they are manned, this also restricts your growth. With your starting technology, you can build up to five manned WaF's, generating five water cards a turn (or one regular water and one mega-water,) leaving your two original OrF's unmanned. You'd have only 5 VPs if you do this. You must buy upgrades to get ahead!

To buy an upgrade, you must have in your hand production cards worth at least the list price printed on the upgrade. During your turn, you may name an upgrade and a price you are willing to pay (you often start at list price, hoping to buy cheaply.) The auction goes around the table, with each player raising or passing. In Outpost, you may pass and then bid again later, but once all but one player has passed in turn, the high bidder wins the item and pays for it (again, no change is available.) The auctions can present an arithmetic challenge as you calculate what bids you can hit exactly with your cards---for example, if you have nothing but three '7' cards, you might bid 21 rather than 20, since you'll have to pay 21 anyway. Our group is good with arithmetic, so this wasn't a problem, but it could be an issue in some groups.

When an auction is complete, the auctioneer's turn continues. He or she may auction another item or may buy factories and/or population. Early in the game you can't afford more than one upgrade, but you can buy as much as you can afford (and you may buy more than one of a single type of upgrade.) If you see nothing you want to buy, you can save your cards for the next turn (but beware of the hand limit, which can force you to discard cards.)

Eric advised the others that it's unwise to buy upgrades until you've added at least one manned WaF to your starting assets. He also explained the "mulligan" rule, which is designed to mitigate bad luck: if you get less than 20 in starting cards, you may turn them all in for a WaF on the first turn. A player who cannot buy a WaF on the first turn is at a big disadvantage, and this rule makes sure that can't happen. There's no corresponding rule to limit good luck, and a player who can afford both a WaF and a population on the first turn has a big advantage. Eric got a total of 38 on his six initial cards, so he showed the others his hand and discarded it, drawing new cards. Experience matters a lot in Outpost, and he didn't want to have a huge advantage in luck as well.

As recommended, we each bought a WaF on the first turn, moving population from OrF's to man them (you may shift population at any time, so there's no need to plan ahead in this area.) On the second turn, we each got two water cards and an ore, and we had to think about how long we would wait to buy upgrades.

Dan bought the first upgrade, a Warehouse. This raises your hand limit by 5 cards (in Dan's case, from 10 to 15.) The ability to save cards is valuable; Brian Bankler believes the Warehouse is the best Stage 1 upgrade. Saved cards are not driving growth (the average rate of compound interest in Outpost is about 20% per turn,) but the ability save cards takes away the pressure to buy something you don't really want just to avoid throwing cards away. Even more importantly, a stash of saved cards lets you outbid others on a key upgrade when it becomes available.

Rich bought the second upgrade, a Heavy Equipment. The Heavy Equipment lets you buy TiF's for 30 each. TiF's generate titanium cards, which average 10 in value, and manned TiF's are worth 2 VP (vs. just 1 VP each for OrF's and WaF's.) A Heavy Equipment also gives a discount of 5 toward a Warehouse or Nodule and a discount of 15 toward an Outpost. Anton also bought a Heavy Equipment. Eric put off buying an upgrade, building up his inventory of WaF's instead. Rich thought it was expensive to get into the titanium business: first you pay 30 for the Heavy Equipment, and then you pay 30 more for each TiF. It's easier to bear the cost if you build up your economy first, but of course that delays the payoff from those valuable titanium cards. If you decide to buy Heavy Equipment, you must be prepared to push TiF construction hard, and Rich and Anton failed to realize the full value of their purchases because they did not do so.

Eric finally joined the upgrade race by buying a #4 Nodule. A Nodule raises your population limit by 3 (in Eric's case, from 5 to 8.) He had 4 WaF's running by now, and he bought 3 population for one mega-water on the next turn, putting two idle OrF's back in use, and paid 40 for two new WaF's on the next turn, raising his production to 6 water a turn. The new players found it hard to focus on a single strategy, buying a little of this and a little of that, and this cost them somewhat in efficiency. Eric and Rich each bought a Data Library, which gives a discount of 10 toward Scientists or Laboratories. The discount is valuable on its own, but another benefit of a Data Library is that it counts just like a card with a value of 10 when bidding for these items, but does not take up hand space. Eric's lack of either a Warehouse or titanium technology meant he would have a smaller maximum hand value than his opponents, which can be a problem when valuable upgrades become available.

Dan pushed us into Stage 2 by buying an upgrade that gave him 10 VP. At this point you replace the d4 used to select new upgrades with a d10. We rolled new upgrades and added a #7 Robots. This upgrade lets you buy robots, which are like population but do not count toward your population limit. Instead, you may buy one robot (and man a factory with it) for each population you have. You cannot buy more robots than population, lest the robots revolt, but if you buy a second Robots upgrade, you can buy two robots per population, and so forth. The Robots upgrade comes with a free sample robot, which you can put to work right away. Robots isn't the most exciting upgrade, and we ignored it for the time being, buying more of the Nodules and Data Libraries instead. Eventually Rich would buy the first Robots, as he had not purchased a Nodule and was at his population limit.

The early part of Stage 2 of Outpost often focuses on the #5 Scientists and #6 Orbital Lab upgrades. A Scientists upgrade is effectively a self-contained ReF that does not need to be manned. It produces a research card each turn with an average value of 13. An Orbital Lab is similar, but it produces a microbiology card each turn, averaging 17 in value. Microbiology and research are so tiny that the cards do not count toward your hand limit, making them especially valuable. Research cards also let you buy new chemicals factories (NCF's,) as I will explain later. Neither of these upgrade types appeared during the first few turns of Stage 2 in our game, and this diverted the game from its typical course, with purchases of the less expensive Stage 1 upgrades continuing even after we had entered Stage 2.

Eventually a #8 Laboratory became available. A Laboratory provides a free ReF and allows you to buy new ReF's for 30 each, which Scientists does not, and it is worth 5 VPs compared with 2 VPs for the Scientists. On the other hand, Scientists are much cheaper and do not require a population, so they are usually preferred during the early part of Stage 2. In this game, with no Scientists available, the Laboratory was an attractive alternative. Eric counted his cards and was pleased to see he had exactly 70. He bought the Laboratory with no opposing bids, as his opponents couldn't match the price (Dan might have used his Warehouse to save cards, but he had spent his money already.) The Laboratory was especially valuable to Eric, who had neither a Heavy Equipment nor a Warehouse, and in fact his Laboratory purchase was probably the turning point of the game.

The upgrades continued to come out in an unusual order. One or two Outpost upgrades were sold before the first Scientists or Orbital Lab. The #10 Outpost is a powerful upgrade (they named the game for it, after all!) It adds 5 to your hand limit, 5 to your maximum population, and provides a free TiF (though not the ability to build more TiF's.) The Heavy Equipment players, with their discount, were first to buy Outposts. Eric got one later, after buying a #9 Ecoplants first. Ecoplants is a cheap upgrade that lets you buy population for 5 instead of 10 and gives you a discount of 10 toward an Outpost. It is also a cheap way to gain VPs, as it is worth 5 VPs for a list price of just 30.

Because of the late appearance of Scientists and Orbital Labs, the game moved more slowly than usual. We bought some NCF's while we waited for better upgrades. To buy a NCF you must pay 60, and you must pay at least one research card for each NCF you buy (so you can't buy NCFs unless you own Scientists or a Laboratory.) The new chemicals cards pack a wallop, though, with an average value of 20, and Anton even got four NCF's, which let him take mega-new chemicals cards worth 88 each.

In a 4-player game, Stage 3 starts once one player reaches 40 VPs. Eric reached 41, with his opponents clustered around 30. We brought out the d12. There are 13 upgrades, so you add 1 to the d12 to choose upgrades during Stage 3. The #11 Space Station costs 120 and is a special factory that produces an orbital medicine card when manned, averaging 30 in value. A manned Space station is worth 10 VP (vs. only 5 VP for the best Stage 2 upgrades.) The #12 Planetary Cruiser costs 160, produces ring ore cards averaging 40 in value, and is worth 15 VP. The #13 Moon Base costs 200, produces moon ore cards averaging 50 in value and is worth 20 VP. These last three upgrades push the game rapidly to its conclusion once you hit Stage 3. They are far more valuable than any alternatives, so you play in the latter turns of Stage 2 with an eye to setting yourself up for them.

The first set of upgrades in Stage 3 included a Planetary Cruiser and two Space Stations. Eric had enough for the Planetary Cruiser and was able to buy it for list price. His opponents had to bid for the Space Stations, since there were only two for 3 players, and as a result they had to pay almost as much for less valuable upgrades. Eric bought a Moon Base on the next turn to pass 75 VP and end the game. We finished a little after 10pm, so the game took just over two hours (less than two hours not counting the rules explanation.)

Final scores:

Eric 81, Dan 55, Rich 53, Anton 52.

Eric's rating: 9. I asked the others how they would rate Outpost. Anton rated it '3' based on the breakaway leader problem. Dan thought it was interesting, but needed to be fixed. He rated it '5'. Rich rated it '1' and said he would prefer root canal surgery to playing Outpost. He had two main criticisms: (1) only one path to victory and (2) difficulty of stopping the leader.

There's no doubt that Outpost can produce a runaway leader. This can even happen as a result of lucky card draws (in this game, Rich had poor cards early.) If you object strongly to random elements, or to a game in which you may find yourself out of contention for victory part way through the game, you may not enjoy Outpost. On the other hand, you make many choices during the game, and your choices matter. You must pay attention from the start of the game, because there's no strong "catch up" mechanism. This doesn't mean there's no way to catch up; if you're leading, you're usually under pressure in some way (from the hand limit, the population limit, or a lack of advanced technology,) and your opponents can "squeeze" you by competing for the upgrades you simply must have. If you let them "overpay" for an upgrade you can't do without, you'll often suffer more then they will, so you need to keep bidding, up to all your cards. Of course, this only happens once the players know the game; it's particularly difficult for an experienced player to teach beginners without running away with it (though when I played Outpost with Bill and Bob at UG XI, they both liked it, and Bill came within 1 VP of winning.) I'll also observe that the three rookies in this game finished within 3 VP of each other, so the game was well balanced among them.

On the other hand, I disagree with Rich's first criticism. The purpose of Tom Lehmann's "Expert" rules is to generate multiple paths to victory. Your upgrade purchases during Stage 1 force you to make important choices, and those choices affect the value of the upgrades that will be available during Stage 2. For example, if you buy Data Libraries during Stage 1, you will trail the others in raw income, but you'll be prepared to jump on any Scientists that come out early in Stage 2. If you buy Heavy Equipment, you want Stage 1 to last as long as possible so you can build out your titanium production while your opponents are stuck with water. If you invest in a Warehouse, you'll save cards when the current turn's upgrade selection is unappealing so you can win the auction for a better upgrade next time. Opponents without Warehouses will be forced to buy something just so they don't have to throw cards away.

The heart of Outpost is choosing what upgrades you want, deciding when to bid for them and how much to pay, and keeping track of how the choices your opponents are making affect the values of upgrades for them. If you see that a particular upgrade is likely to be ignored by the others, you may be able to adapt your strategy so as to take advantage of the chance to buy that upgrade cheaply.

I rate Outpost a '9' because I enjoy the decision-making process, and I love the sharp nature of the competition. I admit that there can be a runaway leader (that's why I've rated it a '9' and not a '10',) but I can enjoy the game even if I'm not in contention for a victory (if my VP total is only 75% of the leader's, I try to get the ratio up to 80% next turn---who knows whether I may be able to raise it to 100%, but I enjoy any progress I can make in closing the gap.) For the first time ever, Outpost will be on my "Five and Ten" list for 2006; I've managed to play it five times already (and I'd be happy to make it six!)
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Lance McMillan
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I got this game shortly after it came out and still play it occasionally. It always struck me as one of those games that came close to being 'great' but somehow just missed the mark.

The key issue with 'Outpost,' as Eric mentions, is the "runaway leader" problem. As much as I like the game, I think Eric's assessment understates the flaw -- it's still an enjoyable game, but the player who's going to win is usually blatantly obvious well before the victory conditions are actually met.

In my experience, once a leader is established there's almost nothing the other players can do to stop him. The bidding stall tactic Eric mentions often doesn't work as the leader has more than enough resources to win the bid, and even if he overpays for the item it still normally puts him even further into the lead. And even when the stall tactic does work, it's essentially a suicidal ploy because the person employing it is usually dragged down (by overpaying for an item he doesn't really want) with the leader (who doesn't get the item he needs); this just leaves someone else in a position to surge into the lead.

The root of the problem is that there's no way to directly 'attack' the leader to reduce his lead. The game does include a set of optional rules that allow players to spend resources to sabotage opponent's factories, but the mechanism is clumsy to use and doesn't entirely fix the problem (the leader can still, usually, spend more on protecting his factories from sabotage than the 'attacker' can devote to the attempt -- again with the resultant effect of allowing some other player to take the lead while the person engaging in sabotage falls further behind).

While all the above may come across as excessively negative, it isn't meant to be. I enjoy 'Outpost' and still bring it out on occasion to play. I also find that it's a particularly good game to play with novice or non-gamers as the mechanisms are so simple to understand. Definitely worth trying out, even with its flaws.
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Eric Brosius
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My favorite 18xx game for six players is two games of 1846 with three players each.
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Eric Brosius wrote:
I rate Outpost a '9' because I enjoy the decision-making process, and I love the sharp nature of the competition. I admit that there can be a runaway leader (that's why I've rated it a '9' and not a '10'.)


I've upgraded my rating to a '10'. Despite the runaway leader problem, I've found that I'll jump at any chance to play this game, no matter when or where. I enjoy it too much to turn a game down.
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Jon Y.
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Just got here from your write up in your GoF geeklist - this game looks friggin awesome. I kinda wish it had some sort of board you could interact with other than just bidding, but I'd still jump into a game of this now with much anticipation!

Thanks a ton for the session/rules write up!
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Colin Kameoka
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At least from my own experience with Outpost, I found "expert" rules actually make the runaway leader problem worse. It reduces the paths to victory because it increases the buying of upgrade cards and restricts the levels of stockpiling needed to have any chance of preventing the buying of key upgrade cards. Our group uses two amendments.

1. No more robots than men unless you have two robots cards.
2. Research factories cost 30 each.

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Eric Brosius
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ColinK wrote:
1. No more robots than men unless you have two robots cards.
2. Research factories cost 30 each.


Colin, both of these rules are included in the "Expert" rules v1.32
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Colin Kameoka
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We don't use any of the other "expert" rules since it creates a one path victory game.
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Eric Brosius
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I've played more than 20 times using the v1.32 rules and I haven't figured out what the one path to victory is. What is it?
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Colin Kameoka
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You said it yourself. First Scientist or Orbital Lab.or the 3rd choice of Labratory to get the first research to crank out newchemicals production.

Other people will say getting 30 to buy a water factory and man early. Which often cascades into having the most dough to affording the key buy.


These days there are plenty of games to occupy my time, but I still have enough nostalgia for my groups most played game.

Just wondering have you tried The Scepter of Zavandor ?
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Eric Brosius
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ColinK wrote:
Just wondering have you tried The Scepter of Zavandor ?


Yes, but I didn't like it nearly as much.

In our games, Scientists and Orbital Labs get bid up to the extent that they are no longer obvious paths to victory.
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