James To My Friends
...now there are three concepts you don't expect together in the same sentence.
Crystal Faire isn't a game that's touted around when you mention gateway games. For me it wasn't a gateway game in the traditional sense. I was already a fairly avid gamer, regularly attending gaming nights, but after I played Crystal Faire I went from a being part-timer to a full-timer. This is the first game that I played that opened my eyes to everything that a game could be, it's the first time I played a game and ordered it the moment I got home. It's the first time I played a game with non-gamers, not because it was a good game they might enjoy and pass an hour or two, but because this was something marvellous they had to experience for themselves.
It was this almost evangelical love for game that makes me wonder my I never wrote a review for it before. I've wanted to write it, but for whatever reason held off.
But the Game is Rated so Low, Why Do I Like it so Much?
It probably is the nostalgia of a first love, but there is much more to it. Crystal Faire was the first game I played that took a simple mechanic and opened up a world of complex interactions and possibilities. It revels in that whole meta-gaming thing, that game within a game where the player interaction is the overriding feeling you get from playing. It's probably got the highest rule to complexity ratio that I've come across.
Ultimately it's a straight-forward set collection/trading game, where the player is collecting crystals of seven different colours. Each turn the current player secretly draws five crystals from the bag and hides them behind the conveniently provided screen. The player makes two offers from his secret stash and makes them public. The two offers can be one of either four, five, or six crystals with as much variety in colour as the player wishes. Then each player in turn makes one single public offer. That offer can also be one of a four crystal, five crystal, or six crystals. The current player then chooses who they want to trade with, and the other player chooses one of the two offers from the current player. The deal is then done, and crystals are exchanged.
Just a quick note on the offers. Each offer has a mixture of visible crystals, and non-visible crystals. The visible crystals are committed to being included in the deal, and the non-visible crystals are added to the mix during the deal. For example, a six crystal offer may contain one or more visible crystals, let's say one purple crystal. When that offer is accepted then the one purple crystal is exchanged along with five other crystals added from the players stash. Therefore the receiving players doesn't know what he is going to get.
Offer Cards. The grey circles are for showing the committed crystals to trade
It's a simple mechanic, but has so much depth to it.
Some Tough Decisions.
The other reviewer of this game says how he didn't like that you are often forced to trade crystals you want to keep. To me this isn't a downside to the game, it's what makes the game so great. Having a few different sets and being forced to decide how to formulate a trade is what makes the tough decisions and adds the tension. Trying to work out what is best to do when you have only your best guess to go on is hard work, and frustrating, but in that really good way. I love having to make tough decisions. You have to give up something good, but does another player want it? If they do want it are they going to be able to guess what you want in return? If you offer what they don't want then are you going to forced to trade for something worthless to you?
These questions, and many many others, go round and round your head. It's not analysis paralysis. There is not an efficiency ratio, or return on investment to work out. It's all intuition and sussing out your opponents. Maybe you even want to offer something just to find out who wants it. The subtleties to this game are immense.
It's all so Visceral, for Something so Simple
Then there is the tension of being the non-current player that has to also make offers. Just how do you either tempt the current player into trading with you, or avoiding you. Again if you are forced to offer crystals you want to keep the tension is great. It's not often I pray, but praying that the player doesn't want to trade with me happens just as much as praying that they do want to trade.
The thing I like about this kind of tension is just how real it gets. I mean that in the sense that the tension is so visceral. It comes from your own action and the influence, or non-influence, you have over the other players on a single event. It's the sort of tension that means you are continually trying hard to hide those involuntary physical clues to your fears and hopes. That bead of sweat might just be what gives the game away. I love luck based dice games, the tension is fantastic as a game result falls on the roll of a dice. But this is different, it's the same tension, waiting to see the result, hoping it will be to your benefit, but that result comes from another player, and is determined by your ability to second guess or bluff them. Then again, it can also be because of some random choice someone made. It's just fantastic and so much better than hoping someone doesn't take the action or resource you wanted.
So, You've Traded Some Crystals, Now What?
Crystal Faire has an interesting variation on a market mechanism. Each crystal colour has a value which is kept on a popularity chart. Before the payouts each player has the chance to adjust the popularity (and therefore value) of the crystal colour. Crystals are drawn from the bag so that three are available to choose from. A player can adjust then value of a colour that matches zero, one, or two of the drawn crystals. This adjustment can be one row on the popularity chart, either up or down. On the surface this seems like a simple decision, push your preferred colour higher and everything else down. Do that and you may give away a little too much information to your opponents about what you have. Aaaaarrghh!!! Maybe if I act nonchalant nobody will notice.
Then onto the critical part of any set collecting game, finding out who has the most of each colour! However, it's not a straight-forward reveal, but there are rounds bidding. One at time players 'bid' how many crystals of the current colour they have. Whomever bids the most crystals gets the payout. There is a downside though. Depending on the value of a colour then a certain number of crystals must be given up and returned to the bag.
The Popularity Chart
As with the trading element of the game, the market is fast moving mechanism with so many options for bluffing, second-guessing, and forward-planning. This is because players are able to directly manipulate the market, it's not a straight-forward buy and sell mechanism where the more that is sold the cheaper something becomes. For instance, even if you have the more a certain colour than the current winning bid you may decide not to take the payout. You may decide to wait till the next round when a) you could have the chance to push the value higher, and b) are more likely to have the highest number of crystals in that colour.
It's great to take something so simple and familiar as a market and take a completely fresh angle on it.
Does the Game Move Fast?
Mostly it does. During the trading phases every player is making an offer. Sometimes there is some downtime as players decide what to put in their offer. As mentioned earlier, there can be some tough decisions. It's tempting to jump ahead and make the offer you want while someone is pondering, but it's worth applying the clockwise player turn order as seeing what other players offer can impact your decision on what offer to make.
The Cut and Thrust of Trading
For a set collecting/trading game this is by far the best I've come across. Indeed I rank it very highly, I suspect no one in Rome ranks it higher than me. The amount of player interaction and meta-gaming that goes on is what makes it stand-out from anything else. At the start of the review I mentioned the high rule to complexity ratio. It really delivers a free flowing and intuitive game that can be played by anyone. But that is also the problem.
The game is great or rubbish depending on who you play with. I've played with some competitive gamers and the whole competitive offerings, bluffing, and market manipulation tactics come to the fore. Every moment of the game is tense and full of joy or frustration.
I've also played it with my very uncompetitive family. The game just descended into a luck of the draw game. The winner was the person who drew most crystals of the same colour from the bag. Every offer was just the rubbish they didn't want. Not once would an offer go out where two or more people wanted to be traded with and just the smallest bit of competitiveness would creep in.
The game does have the potential to break, but that doesn't stop me from scoring this game very highly and loving it. Played with the right crowd this could be one of the most thoughtful, tense, and frustrating games you'll play all year.
for the very well done review of a game I'd never heard of. In particular, you've managed to capture the tension of the meta-game quite nicely. I really enjoy games that have direct, but non-confrontational interaction (too often on these boards "interaction" is a synonym for "combat"), and this sounds like a bit of a hidden gem in that regard. Keep it up!