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Subject: Phoenicia's Shortcomings rss

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Chris Linneman
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With my copy of Stronghold's 2011 Outpost reprint on the way, I have been thinking a lot about where Phoenicia fell short for me. Phoenicia is one of those games that I loved at first, playing it to death, but slowly over time its flaws became apparent. I thought I'd voice my concerns about the game out loud, and hear from some Phoenicia fans out there why they love the game.


The Development Cards Are Too Strong For Their Printed Cost
Although one must expect in an auction game for some of the items to go above their printed cost, it seems that in Phoenicia you must not allow hardly any of the bids to go through at cost. Take, for example, Tracker. Winning Tracker for 3 is strictly better than building a farmer with your starting worker, because you can then employ him as a hunter instead, which earns the same VPs and income, but also gets you a discount on Caravan, as well as Improved Hunting and the VP. Take Ships as another example. Ships is exactly the same as a worker in Clothmaking. This means, even if you got the worker indentured for 3, you spent 14 for 4 production and 2 VPs, as well as a storehouse, just like you get with Ships. So all the investment of getting access to Clothmaking and getting the worker becomes moot as soon as Ships arrives. Granted, you get some benefit from those things earlier in the game, before Ships arrives, but it seems like the window you have for this is too short, largely due to the attractiveness of the auction items and the resultant speed at which the game progresses. Moreover, since you need to bid in the auctions to prevent others from getting the cards at their printed cost, you often don't have enough money to make use of technologies like Clothmaking before better techs arrive. And this is not even to mention discounts, which make cards like Ships even better.

I wonder if Tom ever considered only adding one card less than the number of players each turn. I'm sure he did, and the idea was rejected for some reason, but I would love to hear his thoughts on this.


The Player in the Lead is Rewarded, Rather Than Handicapped
Normally, in an economic snowball game, you need to have some mechanic to prevent the positive feedback effect of more income from allowing the leading player to run away with the game. Scepter of Zavandor does this well, simply increasing costs for that player and decreasing costs for the trailing players. This has the effect of making earning VPs actually disadvantageous in the early game. In Phoenicia, it's the opposite. The player in the lead gets to control the auction phase, putting up the items desirable to his opponents, so he can potentially get the one he wants at cost after bidding them up. I understand the reasoning for this might have been to provide some incentive to get VPs in the early game, making them a kind of investment, like production. In practice is seems to have the effect of exacerbating the runaway leader problem inherent to most economic snowball games. I'd love to hear the reasoning behind the Overlord mechanic in Phoenicia, because to me it seems ass-backwards.


Most of the "Job" Cards Remain Unused
This is more of an irksome thing than a true problem with the game. Due to the power of the development cards, and the need to bid other players up on them, players usually don't have enough money to afford to employ workers in the jobs. If there is a development card that is just as good as getting a worker at cost and employing him as a tracker (Glassmaking), why bother to use workers? If you buy a card like Fort that gives workers, you usually don't have enough money to employ them until the following turn, which sets you back in production, and makes workers even less desirable. Why save up for Clothmakers when Ships are just around the corner? I always saw the worker-heavy strategies as too slow. Even if you do need workers, you have to bid up your opponents' cards, which, if it backfires, can leave you hosed with a card you don't want.


Storage is Too Limited
Usually, you just don't have enough storage not to need to spend most of your money each turn. This means there is not much of an interesting choice between spending now for immediate benefit and saving for greater benefit next turn. There is a little bit of this. If you get Granary, you can do this in the first phase to prepare for the powerful cards in the second phase, like Dye House. But later on it doesn't seem to happen. Whoever has the highest production will dominate, and that's that. With the limits on storage, it makes every job card except for Clothmaking more or less worthless, because you won't have the storage to go with the production, meaning you won't be able to save the money you are generating. This ties in to the above point.

I am hoping a lot of these issues aren't present in Outpost, simply because it is a longer game. I expect a lot of these problems came up as a result of shortening the game to Phoenicia's length, and if that's the case, I am perfectly willing to spend the extra time needed to play Outpost. However, it's also possible I am missing some of the more nuanced tactics and strategy in the game. Any comments, especially from Phoenicia veterans, are welcomed.
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Hugh G. Rection
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You should probably check out the Dice Tower's video review of Outpost...

Miami Dice 035 - Outpost
 
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Chris Linneman
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Hugh_G_Rection wrote:
You should probably check out the Dice Tower's video review of Outpost...

Miami Dice 035 - Outpost


Already done. The issues they have with the game don't concern me. I have no problem with mathiness (I love Power Grid) and I expect runaway leader problems to be only a small issue after repeat play. The game has a pretty strong following, and has had one for over 20 years.
 
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Mark Delano
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QBert80 wrote:
The Development Cards Are Too Strong For Their Printed Cost

I disagree with this. I'd amend it to "In the right situation Development Cards can be very strong if purchased at their printed cost". Ideally the Development card's minimum bid would adjust depending on the point in the game that they came up. For instance first turn Tracker or Dyer should almost always go for at least one above their minimum bid, but it isn't a big deal if Glassmaking goes for face value. Later on the situation might be very different. Sometimes buying Glassmaking at 8 on the third or fouth turn can be key, but Dyer at 2 is barely worth it for the point.

Comparing Ships to a worker on Clothmaking is trickier than it looks. Workers start out being very expensive, but drop in price considerably during the game. Compare the Fort to Refugee Settlement. For one more dollar you get one extra trained worker but one less victory point. If you switched Refugee Settlement to stage I and Fort to stage III do you think Refugee Settlement is worth buying?

Acquiring workers serves as a form of insurance, and in that capacity they tend not to fluctuate in price nearly as much as the other Development Cards. Having a worker that I can spend money on puts a cap on the risk I face both in what development cards come up and in how much other players can try forcing up the bid for those development cards. They start driving the price too high and I can invest in the non-inflated value of the workers. A Ship at 14 is certainly worth it, at 20 the worker on Clothmaking runs away with it.
QBert80 wrote:

The Player in the Lead is Rewarded, Rather Than Handicapped

Being the overlord is generally an advantage, but it is rarely a huge advantage. In practice it should be worth roughly one point of income. In the early game compare investing in vp to get the overlord with investing in income to earn more money. Certainly if someone has an overwhelming income and vp lead the overlord will make their lead stronger, but by that point the horse is already out of the barn.
QBert80 wrote:

Most of the "Job" Cards Remain Unused

Only rarely do I buy a "Job" Card unless I have the money to immediately employ at least one of the workers or I need to spend money due to storage limits. Buying them too early is a quick way to slow yourself down to a crawl, I agree, and is probably the number one mistake that new players make when playing.

In general you shouldn't be bidding on something unless you want it for that price or you are sure that you'll be outbid. Knowing the right price for a card at the right time isn't easy, but will allow the experienced player to beat the newbie almost all of the time.
QBert80 wrote:

Storage is Too Limited

Heh, this depends on the number of players. In two player storage is very tight while three to five gradually loosens up due to additional Granaries and Merchant Quarters. In fact two player games frequently revolve around one player trying to stop the other from gaining enough storage for the end game. I'd say there's a definite storage tactic in the game though, where you save all of one turn's income for the following one, or even a card and few coins. This is particularly effective just before the stage changes from I to II or III to IV. Stealing the first Dye House away from the player with the Dyers or the City Walls from the mammoth income player can be very rewarding.


BTW if you are interested in playing online you still can at JKLM Interactive. Start up a turn based game and I'll join you.
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Chris Linneman
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Mark,

I made a game for 2 players. It's called "For frunkee." Join at your leisure.
 
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Andrew
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Please let us know if your opinions are confirmed/changed as a result of the game!
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Chris Linneman
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fateswanderer wrote:
Please let us know if your opinions are confirmed/changed as a result of the game!


They were mostly confirmed, with the exception of the storage one. I suffered from lack of storage and Mark really punished me for it, bidding me up so high on Merchant Quarter I had to pass.

I foolishly went for lots of workers and Improved Hunting, which gave me income but no storage. Because both development cards were bought each turn, the game went really quickly. Mark's superior storage allowed him to be the only one able to afford the late game developments.

Also, I had Overlord most of the game but it didn't seem to help me, since my money was too low to bid on many of the cards meaningfully.

Also I drew lots of 4s! (but I like the variable income, so bid amounts can't be precise.)
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Mark Delano
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QBert80 wrote:
fateswanderer wrote:
Please let us know if your opinions are confirmed/changed as a result of the game!


They were mostly confirmed, with the exception of the storage one. I suffered from lack of storage and Mark really punished me for it, bidding me up so high on Merchant Quarter I had to pass.

I foolishly went for lots of workers and Improved Hunting, which gave me income but no storage. Because both development cards were bought each turn, the game went really quickly. Mark's superior storage allowed him to be the only one able to afford the late game developments.

Also, I had Overlord most of the game but it didn't seem to help me, since my money was too low to bid on many of the cards meaningfully.

Also I drew lots of 4s! (but I like the variable income, so bid amounts can't be precise.)


I think the most critical mistake (other than drawing lots of fours) was taking Tracker and Indentured Worker first turn with no money left. Only having 3 income first turn with no coins left gave you a slow start.
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Quote:
The Development Cards Are Too Strong For Their Printed Cost

Quote:
Moreover, since you need to bid in the auctions to prevent others from getting the cards at their printed cost, you often don't have enough money to make use of technologies like Clothmaking before better techs arrive.

Yes, the development Cards are strong. It's a feature, not a flaw. The beuaty of the game comes from the fact that you need to balance between your needs and hurting others. Sometimes this means taking risks and bidding for cards that you don't even need or that aren't very beneficial to you. It's almost about mind games and evaluating how bad somebody wants the card and how much he is willing to pay for it. Is the other player actually fooling you? These are the kind of things that very few people realize while playing Phoenicia. I have seen multiple times that players even anounce aloud that " I don't need that card and you can take it" and actually being truthful about it. These kind of mistakes are very fatal.
Quote:

So all the investment of getting access to Clothmaking and getting the worker becomes moot as soon as Ships arrives.


Clothmaking is the most powerful card in the game. Realizing that is already a lot. Even just the printed production value is worth the purchase. Fort+clothmaking is nearly always a winning combo in the hands of an experienced player.

Quote:
I wonder if Tom ever considered only adding one card less than the number of players each turn. I'm sure he did, and the idea was rejected for some reason, but I would love to hear his thoughts on this.

Why? I see no reason for this. I would make the snowball effect even stronger since the guy the most money would grab the best card and other players would probably get some poor cards or fight themselves bankrupt over the remaining cards.

Quote:

The Player in the Lead is Rewarded, Rather Than Handicapped

Phoenicia is a very tight game. You can't do too many mistakes in this game. You should know the winner by the cards he gains, not looking at the track. Once you start to look at the track and you say "that guy is running from us", it's usually too late. Already giving the Dyer too cheap is a fatal mistake. Of course you don't want to ruin your own game but I have seen the Dyer go at 2 many times, and that is...bad. This usually means the guy can afford Fort easily and probably then gets Clothmaking, and it's usually Game Over. There are certain card combinations that just can't be given to one guy. Another thing is double Tracker. I would say that most of the time you'll win with the help of double tracker. Advanced huting is huge and the discounts for Caravans are also huge.

Quote:
If you buy a card like Fort that gives workers, you usually don't have enough money to employ them until the following turn, which sets you back in production, and makes workers even less desirable.

Fort is one the best cards in the game. Workers are a valuable resource in this game. How amazingly imbalanced this game would be if you would be able to buy the Fort and employ workers? The money is very tight in the beginning. You should be very happy just if get the Fort, not complainibg that you don't have enough money to employ.

Quote:
I always saw the worker-heavy strategies as too slow.


If you have workers, you'll have power. You'll have the power to bid high on production cards. Even if you don't get them, you'll be able to receive production with workers. The most fatal mistake players do that the look at their Dye House and workers, they calculate 11+2 = 13 for employing a worker. Then they look at the cards for auction and look for Ships, then they bid for it. Once the price would be 13 for them, they decide to quit because " I can get the same benefits cheaper with my workers". This is a huge mistake once again. One of the most important things is to negate cards from others. This means that even paying over 20 for Ships is a good deal if you are able to slow down one of your most prominent opponent's production.

Quote:
Even if you do need workers, you have to bid up your opponents' cards, which, if it backfires, can leave you hosed with a card you don't want.

Happened once: I bought a card that I really wanted. Then I had 11 money and my plan was to buy tools in clothmaking(I already had an employed worker). There was one card remaining on the table( very bad card for me) and there was one guy who still had money and hadn't bought a single card in that round. I bid all my money for that card even if I would risk my production increase that turn(I had not yet received any production that turn). The other guy bid 12 and I obviously passed. Employed my worker to Clothmaking and got my production increase. Phoenicia at its finest.

You have to take risks in order to succeed but you can only blame yourself if your plan backfires( unlike in some games you can blame the dice etc.)

Quote:

Storage is Too Limited

I think it's quite well balanced. Some card combinations are horrible if you don't have sufficent storage but others can very well be winning hands. Granary is HUGE in a 2-player game, although it's not impossible to win without it.

Quote:

Any comments, especially from Phoenicia veterans, are welcomed.

I hardly consider myself a veteran in any other game than Phoenicia. Somehow Phoenicia fits my way of thinking, a reasonable amount of plays under the belt and one of the very Euros I have explored quite thoroughly. The really small nuances and the way of thinking that is behind the game is rarely seen in other games.

My comments are mostly based 2-4 player games, the 5-player game is a bit too chaotic and really anything can happen in those games, especially with inexperienced players.
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Tom Lehmann
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Phoenicia is a very demanding auction game.

Players are forced to continually re-evaluate and balance six different things: VPs, production, savings, workers, storage, and technologies (both discounts and worker activities), both vis a vis their own positions and relative to other players. The easiest way to lose Phoenicia is to give an opponent too many "gifts", too many uncontested developments at face value.

This is in contrast to the pace of some development games where a player might acquire a "major" technology every 2-4 turns and then spend several turns exploiting it, before acquiring another "big" technology advance and so on. In Phoenicia, you have the constant lure of new, shiny things and finding the time and resources to fully exploit your current technologies is part of the challenge.

Why did I design Phoenicia this way? For two reasons.

First, I like a balance of strategy and tactics in many of my games. Having developments that offer long-term "paths" adds strategy to the game. Otherwise, if the items up for auctions only gave you immediate benefits, then the game would become strictly tactical, with players evaluating each set of benefits relative to their current positions and bidding accordingly.

However, if developments were all very expensive and strategic in nature, then players would only rarely buy them and then would go down different "paths", not interacting with each other very often nor having to re-evaluate their position very often. By having a mixture of tactical and strategic items available at a fairly wide spread of prices, players are forced to re-evaluate and interact with each other every round. Players cannot simply "force" a strategy, mapping out several rounds of future play, but instead have to constantly adapt to a changing situation.

I do something similar in RFTG, where the 6-devs provide strategic paths and suggest synergies, while the constant arrival of new cards provide new tactical (and strategic) opportunities that players must consider. And a very common bit of advice among RFTG players is to "play the cards you draw, instead of trying to pick a strategy in advance and sticking to it, no matter what happens."

Second, to some extent, Phoenicia is an exercise in compression -- it lasts about 2/3 the number of rounds of Outpost while adding ~50% more Development cards. This results in a very fast "dense" game which never lets up. I think this makes for a more interesting game. Your mileage may vary.

With regard to Development Cards being too strong for their printed cost -- of course, they are! Phoenicia is an *auction* game, not a *drafting* game. If the development costs were higher, then how would you ever get interesting auctions -- the major source of the game's player interaction? If you fundamentally don't want to play an auction game, then don't play Phoenicia, Outpost, or Scepters. Play a drafting game, such as St. Pete.

The two primary dimensions in Phoenicia are VPs and Production. If another player is ahead in both, you're usually in big trouble. Most of the game, the player ahead in VPs shouldn't be the production leader and being Overlord will therefore provide a small amount of catch-up (so will going last if you're behind, which is why there is no strict VP order of play). If this isn't happening in your games, then, frankly, there are more fundamental things going on which vastly swamp any advantage from holding the Overlord while also being the production leader.

One of my traits as a designer is that I don't "pull my punches". For example, in 2038 being President of TSI (the first company formed in the start packet) isn't a good recipe for second place (unlike being President of the B&O in 1830). It can easily contend for the win if the other players simply cash out their TSI shares and let the TSI president pick them up cheaply. Or, in the BoW expansion to RFTG, the newly introduced Prestige mechanic wasn't a "sideshow", but really forced players to adapt to it.

Similarly, my approach in Phoenicia wasn't to include a heavy-handed catch-up rule that simply increased costs for the leader (this just creates incentives for players to artificially "sand-bag" and stay in the middle of the pack until the final turns). Instead, I added a low-cost VPs strategy that can allow a player to win with an economy of roughly half the size as the leader.

This, in turn, forces the production leader to consider buying some of these VP developments (instead of increasing production) in the mid-game, thereby providing catch-up opportunities for the other players on the production front (while losing some ground on the VP front). I consider this approach superior than simply penalizing players who do well in the early and mid-game.

Most of the things you cite as bugs, I consider features, for the reasons I give above. I suspect that Phoenicia just isn't your "cup of tea".
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Asa Swain
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I was listening to Ryan Sturm's excellent "How to Play Through the Ages" podcast, and after being mindboggled by the complexity, I was thinking that I could just be playing Phoenicia, and have a similar experience in much less time. (admittedly I prefer 1-2 hour games to 3-4 hour games)

Phoenicia can be a harsh game for new players and there are some seemingly unbalanced strategies, (and I think like many auction games, it uses the auction mechanic to balance this out) but it's still a great auction civ game.

 
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