Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Teaching In the Year of the Dragon

One of the things that sets board gaming apart from a lot of hobbies is teaching games. If you are into football (soccar) then you don't need to explain on-side rules to other fans. I was one of 3 people trying to teach In the Year of the Dragon (great game by the way), but the learner eventually gave up and just watched.

The rules are fairly simple. Pick one of seven actions (or pass) then hire one of nine people. You then have two "bookkeeping phases". Almost no thought required there. You resolve an event (which has and outcome almost purely determined by the actions taken earlier in this or another turn). And then score points (again based on things you've already gained).

Multiple victory paths was the tricky bit to teach. There are at least 2 viable ways to win In the Year of the Dragon. Going first allows you to a greater selection of actions (you have to pay to take an action from the same group as someone who goes before you), but the only way to go first is to ignore the best immediate point sources. There is also a scoring at the end of the game which highly favors players who went earlier in turn order (that's been the case in every game I've played so far).

So do you go for points now or do you hope that your points at the end of the game will beat the people scoring heavily now? If I knew the answer to this question then the game would lose a lot of its appeal. I don't think there is an answer to it. The order of events is randomly determined at the start of each game (which would make any memorized "opening" less than ideal.

So how do you teach a game without a simple ideal strategy? The learner grasped the rules quickly, but was just as quickly frustrated because the ideal move wasn't clear to them. Maybe the simple answer is that the learner doesn't like this type of game and no teaching approach would work.

Games without a simple ideal strategy are ones which I tend to enjoy more than mono-strategy games. The appeal of trying something new (even if I end up in last place) keeps me coming back to these games. Games which I'm thinking about for days afterward.

So after all that "analysis", I'm back at square one with no insight on how to teach multiple-path-to-victory games. I am sure this will happen again because of the type of game I tend to enjoy. If you have any suggestions feel free to drop me a line or mention it in the comment section.

Friday, 25 April 2008

So Many Games, So Little Time

I'd like to talk about 3 more upcoming games.

Middle-Earth Quest is a licensed Lord of the Rings game set between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings", where you play a generic hero (examples are Hobbit, Gondarian Captain, Rider from Westfall, and so on). The bad news is that you aren't playing any famous characters. The good news is that you are freed from any continuity about your character.

It sounds a bit like World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game (due to be released this summer from the same company). And WoW: TAG sounds like a re-tooling of Runebound (I happen to like Runebound so this new Middle-Earth game is intriguing).

Battlestar Galactica seems like an intriguing concept for a game. One with the possibility of hidden sides (and the possibility that there is more then one Cylon in your midst). Sounds like a more thematic version of Shadows Over Camelot, but there is very little information at present.

Speaking of Shadows Over Camelot, the expansion is finally coming out. Merlin's company adds more of everything (plus one new mechanic) except quests (probably saving new quests for a second expansion). You can have more traitors (up to 2 in a 7 or 8 player game), more knights (yes, you can play 8 player now), more pain (7 extra black cards added to the "deck of pain"), and more help (a few more white cards).

The new mechanic is travel. There's a deck of travel cards that you draw from whenever you move. Some cards are good some are bad. Looks like another interesting challange to keep experienced members of the round table on their toes.

With all these interesting games coming out. My main problem is going to be finding time to play them all.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Formidable Foes: The Worst of Both Worlds?

Formidable Foes is a Euro/Dungeon crawl. It feels like Power Grid's resource market mixed with a dungeon crawl. My favorite part of Power Grid is the resource market, and I'm partial to fantasy/dungeon games.

The game is about freeing a faerie from a dungeon. You must defeat 2 boss monsters to free her, but she'll marry the player with the most money (and that player wins).

The only negative that I care about is that the game has downtime problems when played with 6 players (might also be applicable to 5 player games). The one time I played with 6 players 4 of them had never played the game before so downtime might have been exaggerated.

There are 4 resources in the game: wisdom, spells, power stones, and money.
You gain wisdom, gold, and spells from defeating monsters (there are other ways to get wisdom and gold, but they are minor compared to defeating monsters). Power stones are gained by waiting out your turn (I like to think of this as resting and healing).

Wisdom determines the monsters you can fight. You need more wisdom to fight harder monsters. Monsters who are too easy just die of fright (and you get less gold from them). Generally the harder the monster, the more Wisdom you get from it, but if it is too hard for you to defeat it then you only get 1 Wisdom (and no gold since you can't defeat it).

Monsters get harder in a linear progression. There are organized stacks of monsters. Easier ones on top. When new rooms are encountered, an equal number of monsters are taken off the top of the stacks and shuffled. This keeps the monsters challenging and the shuffle keeps the layout of the dungeon fresh. The are also intersections which randomly connect different chambers each game so even the paths between monsters changes from game to game.

Power stones are kind of like your health. You roll dice when fighting monsters. The numbers rolled determine how many power stones you lose in the fight. If you don't have enough power stones to pay then you lose the fight. Every time someone fights one of the power stones lost in the fight goes on a track. Every time more of the dungeon is explored more stones are added. You can forgo your usual move/fight options on your turn to take some of the power stones.

There is only one way to gain power stones. Wisdom can be gained by following players who are wiser than you, from chests, and by defeating monsters. Power stones are only gained by taking a whole turn to take some off the track.
If you find yourself at the end of the game without enough power stones then you are in trouble.

Money is gained from lucky rolls (1 in 36 chance), by defeating monsters, and opening chests. Chests appear randomly at the end game (once every monster except the 2 boss monsters have appeared). Chests give gold and wisdom, but you don't need to fight to gain them. Money is only useful at the end of the game in determining who won.

I'm neutral on games which help "last place". The game does give a special power to the "dumbest player". Dumbest player has the lowest wisdom. If you are defeating lots of monsters then you have lots of special powers already from spells. It should be noted that the "dumbest player" power is more directly confrontational then the spells. If you like "take that" mechanics then the "dumbest player" shouldn't disturb you.

Monsters are seen before you fight them so you always know what your odds are (most of the time you will enter fights where you know you'll win, but don't know how well you'll do). If you are scared of luck or dice then you might want to avoid.

I've enjoyed every fantasy game I've played to date, and Formidable Foes is no exception. Euro gamers might be put off by the luck and the grind of leveling, and the "take that" elements connected to "dumbest player". Straight fantasy gamers might be put off by the resource management of the power stones, but both elements work wonderfully for me.

Friday, 4 April 2008

The Princes of Florence

My feelings about this game should be obvious. It has very little direct player interaction. I seem to always lose 5 player games of it. It is full of calculations (too do well, it feels like you need to do lots of arithmetic in your head). It is part of the same Alea line that produced Puerto Rico.

But I like this game a lot.

What is it about 7 auctions and 14 actions that means 90 minutes of fun? I think part of the enjoyment is maximizing limited resources (in money, actions, and so on). The punishment (in lost VP) for over estimating or under estimating your money needs forces you to plan ahead. The unpredictable result of auctions frequently breaks plans and you need to construct alternative plans.

There is limited player interaction on the surface, but underneath there is a ton. Stealing artists and scholars from other players, the competition of auction, competition for scarce resources (like profession cards and freedoms), and so on.

Seating order does matter, but I don't feel there's seat binding, as in games like Puerto Rico. Due to the limited resources there is a chance that people in "bad seats" will have less chances for more profession cards, freedoms, and so on. Also the odd nature of the auction (must start at 200 and you must either increase by 100 or pass) means that some seats can be disadvantaged (value of a good could increase 500 florin by the time you get to bid on it again).

It is also one of the few games I've played that has any modeling of inflationary factors: each turn the minimum threshold for a work increases. There is also a great incentive to hold on to works without playing them for as long as possible (each turn you can get stuff to increase the work value).

Balancing this increasing value is a 3 victory point advantage given to the player who completes the best work (which is equivalent to an increase by 6 in its work value). This does give people sitting last more information (they can calculate if they will have the best work of a round).

Money seems tight. There are only 2 ways to get money in the game and both involve giving up points for florins. When you play a work you can take the work value in points or cash (200 florin to 1 point). If you don't think ahead, then you can convert points back into cash (1 point to 100 florin).

The only luck in the game comes from decks of cards, but you draw more than you can keep which allows skill to mitigate the luck of the draw. There is also a side game of placing your buildings and landscapes on your board. Each one is a weird Blockus-like shape. Once placed you can't reposition it. Also builders can change the rules for building placement (adjacent buildings aren't allowed until you have 2 builders).

Tough decisions. Long term planning. Never enough time to do everything you want to. These are the elements that keep me coming back to Princes of Florence. It is also a very different game depending on number of players (officially it plays 3-5, but , Wolfgang Kramer has written a 2 player variant that works surprisingly well).

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Marvel Heroes Scenarios and Scaling

I just played a game of Marvel Heroes that seemed to go on forever. We had 4 players (2 had never played before), and the scenario was drawn randomly (it was Acts of Vengeance). I don't think that Acts of Vengeance is well suited to this play environment. The game lasts for 5 full game rounds unless someone gives the game to the person sitting to their left.

Our game dragged. 5 action rounds per game round and 5 game rounds in this scenario and 4 players. That's 100 player actions (not counting planning). The game doesn't seem to be able to support that much play time. Repetitive nature of headlines becomes more clear. Also limited ability to hinder leader is clear (couldn't play my Dormammu or Ultron on game leader).

In my opinion, Acts of Vengeance is best suited for 2 players. Then the negatives cited disappear. You have complete control of villains (and can win with your super-villain's master plan). Instead of 100 actions there are only 50 (makes the game a lot quicker).

This highlights the "scaling" issues with Marvel Heroes. There are ten different scenarios in Marvel Heroes, and each scenario seems "best" with a certain number of players.

I group Galactus is Coming, Inferno, and Maximum Carnage together. They do have differences, but victory conditions are the same (after 15 points a special headline appears). They seem to play well with 4 players. 15 victory points seems like a good ending for a 4 player game. The game doesn't drag on too long. Repetition doesn't set in. There is even the Special Headline to keep the game interesting (5 or 6 points can be a huge swing).

Other "15 point" scenarios are Born Again and The Brood. Born again doesn't have any flavour, I'd prefer a special headline. I haven't played the Brood in a 4 player game so I can't really comment. However, the possibility that everyone can lose in The Brood should add a co-op element to the game.

The last quick scenario is The Evolutionary War. It is a race against the clock, and only plays for 3 turns (that's 48 player turns quite close to Acts of Vengeance with 2 players). There is a lot of competition for good headlines because you need to average 5 VP per game round to be one of the winners.

The other timed scenario is Onslaught. This plays for 4 game rounds and winners need 20 points. It seems like it would play too long with 4 players, but with 3 players it has 48 player turns just like Evolutionary war with 4. Another 4 game round scenario is House of M and that is explicitly not for 4 players (X-Men aren't available as a team).

So Onslaught and House of M seem better suited to 3 players. What about the last 4 game round scenario: Marvel Heroes. I haven't played it with 3 players. Marvel Heroes seems to encourage defeating the team's Nemesis. Which would lead to cautious play by the villains (losing a mater plan fight gives the heroes 1/3 of victory).

So by my count there are 5 scenarios suited for 4 players. 1 scenario which is especially good for 2 players (Acts of Vengeance). 1 scenario which I'd never play again (Born Again), and 3 scenarios which seem geared towards 2 or 3 players (depending on taste). I suppose the 5 "4 player" scenarios could be played with 3 players, but then the game seems too short for me. Your mileage may vary. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on scenario scalability in the comments sections.