Tinker

Factory Fun: Blitz

In brief, Factory Fun is a game where you pick up a piece of factory equipment each turn, and construct a network of pipes to connect its in-ports to the right materials, and its output into giant waste bins, or into other machines. Points are awarded for machines, reusing materials, and minimizing building costs. It’s Pipe Dream the game, and it’s brilliant. And long. And a brain-burner. Every time I’ve played I’ve wanted to jump in and play again immediately, but didn’t have the time or mental fortitude to subject myself to the end-game again.

I see a way to scrape 5 points more out of this.

Also after every game, Josh (who is, like, super good at this game, you guys) says he likes to rearrange his board at the end to see what the most efficient setup could be. Or rather, he’ll do that to other boards, as his is usually pretty tightly designed. But aside from some minor tweaks we never really do it.

I have argued from time to time that we never mess with our games enough. It is true that we buy a game to play that game, with its rules, its pieces, its play-tested, balanced, and refined expression of the writer’s vision to provide a fun, specific experience. Plus, changing a game takes work. But in doing so we miss a great opportunity, the ability to muck around with the rules, to file the edges, re-wire the engine, strip and polish the cogs, and give the game a fresh perspective. We get to enact that most marvelous of play types, tinkering. We get to re-engage our imagination, fiddle with the box and bits like so many Lego promising infinite potential, and play a game we like! And if we fail, it’s only a game, right?

So it is with that in mind that I considered a little tweak to Factory Fun I simply call Blitz rules. You take 5 machines, flip them, start a timer, and construct your factory from whole cloth, attempting to build the highest scoring factory in the least amount of time. Then, do it again. Adjust machine numbers for difficulty, and use the clock as a score modifier. You’d get all the madcap excitement and interesting gaming bits of Factory Fun in a fraction of the time (our average hovered around 2 minutes a round). So how does it stack up?


First Impressions

One thing became readily apparent in a couple iterations; Josh is way better at this game than I am. I was hoping to get a small set of data points that would point us in the right direction for fair tweaking. Specifically, how much is a minute worth, really? Ideally a sloppy but faster built factory would be worth close to the same as a better built factory that took longer. The problem with determining this was that Josh builds factories that are routinely cheaper, better, and quicker than mine. Which is fine, really. We aren’t seeking to make the game more balanced. Or to drastically change the game, which is fun regardless.

This new mode is fun too, at least I’m getting a kick out of it. Despite getting beat by Josh in every round I’m enjoying seeing how quickly I can put something together. After 3 rounds we speculate on a few things:

  • Pieces with high output are now way better than high point/low output machines. With the luxury of having multiple machines to work with you can drive toward the bonuses quicker. In the original game they’re good, but usually more difficult to implement. Here it’s easier, and creates swingy scores depending on your draw.
  • On that note, drawing multiple “end machines” (ones with a black output at the end, usually simple machines with good points) makes for low scoring but quick rounds.
  • 5 Machines works as a starting point; enough to provide a decent amount of confinement in your factory and force interesting choices, but small enough to keep a round to ~2 minutes. Any fewer would take out most of the challenge of placing and make good machine pairing too random. More would probably work.
  • The times were very close together. If time is used as a sort of point modifier, it would need to be measured in seconds, which is very confining. In one round I took a large amount of time moving my whole configuration around the factory to find the space. It sparked the idea that there should be a point where simply stamping a crappy, inefficient factory should be preferable to taking twice as long to shave off a few points of building.
  • Physically placing pieces takes time. It occurred to me that it would be easier, and I think way more fun, if we had dry-erase mats to draw the piping on.
  • For purposes of fun I think we succeeded. For purposes of balancing this wackadoo variant we need more play-testing.

That last one was important to me. It made me appreciate how much time and effort it takes to make a game click together, all the mechanics coming together to make the experience line up with the theme and purpose of the game. I like Factory Fun, but I think turns can take too long when people hem and haw for minutes about the piece they just picked up. At the same time, I see exactly why it is designed the way it is. Adding one machine at a time gives you a new puzzle each turn. And each turn is untimed for a reason; the game is testing your spatial orientation and how you process multiple pathways, but not how fast you can do it. You could play a variant where you pick up a fresh machine each time you finish placing the previous one, but it would be a headache, and take away that rush the start of each round where people scramble to choose the right machine for them, laugh at your friends swearing at you for taking their ideal green/orange processor, only to realize you done f***ed up good, son, that piece of junk ain’t fittin’ nowhere good.

Everything in the original game is there for a reason, and the act of tinkering with it made me appreciate that more.

Oh hey, Josh is doing Christmas Magic the Gathering the Show December 21st at the Catalyst Comedy Club. So, there’s that.

Differences

The new rule set is definitely quicker, at least round-by-round. It’s also, in my opinion, more accessible in terms of time; you can play a few rounds or a whole bunch, modifying the rules as you go. As long as each round uses the same rules for everyone it should maintain an internal balance. Ooh, would that work, allowing a “start” player to change the rules each round?

The clock is a good addition. Even without knowing how points should be awarded/penalized based on time taken, having a speed element is a good pairing to having all your machines at once, which makes construction much easier.

Player interaction in the base game is low, but still allows for people to peek over at other players’ machines and discuss good moves (depending on who you are, this can be a blessing or a curse). In Blitz there was less of that, as there’s little one can do to improve on a machine being built in one turn. Maybe more machines a turn, more players, or a heavier emphasis on quickly building.

We had time for one more tweak Josh suggested, where we start with 5 but have 5 machines in the center you could add if you were feeling bold, with the stipulation that you could take no more than 3. I had a hard enough time with the pieces I had, while Josh was able to snag 2 great machines for his set. More machines is a good idea, and drawing them from a pool re-introduces that nice frantic bit the original game has, but without trying it more I couldn’t say how I liked at; as it was it served as another way for Josh to rack the points up on me.

Conclusion: Will We Play Again?

At that point Mark came in, and it was time to put the experiment away. I do hope we get a chance to play around with it again. I think it has a lot of potential as a viable alternate rule set, and even if it doesn’t, the mere act of tinkering with a game we love to see if we can make it better, or at least good in a different way, is a worthwhile experience. It is, after all, a game about tinkering with the pieces of a whole to make it better.

Talkin’ About Tzolk’in

(We talked about the title for an hour and that’s the best we came up with. We hate us too)

Last night was game night with Josh and Mark, quite literally; we played one game.  A game that started late and ended later, clocking in around 2&½ hours.  And every single moment of it was fun, from the explanation and the grousing over the density of information on the board, to the constant declarations of “I have no idea how this game works!”  From turn 1 in its almost sinister innocence to the final desperate turns of the wheel where every point feels like the shot that may finally silence your enemies.

Josh: The game is Tzolk’in: the Mayan calendar.  Brandon and I had both seen it all over Unity Games, and though we both found lots of other things to do, seeing it in Mark’s crate of games the last few times we’ve gotten together has made me more and more intrigued. Even midway through the explanation of the rules I had a big grin on my face because this was going to be strange and fun. I was right.

It was a brain-burner for us, and among other things it rekindled my recently waning love for games that are all about cubes, food, workers and the mass accumulation of points. We have so much we want to say about the game, the people, and the evening, so let’s dive in.

The One With the Gears

There are better reviews for the game than I could make out there, so here’s a brief synopsis. You’re a Mayan tribe, you have workers, you have to collect food to feed them and resources to build stuff. You can improve your harvesting or building ability, get more workers, etc. It’s very much a worker placement and resource management game, right down to the drab colored cubes for wood, stone, and gold.

The component that makes it stand out, literally and figuratively, is the giant gear in the center and the smaller gears around it where workers go. The giant gear is the Mayan calendar, and each turn has it scooting your workers forward on tracks. The longer you wait, the better that worker’s prize when you pull him.

Mark put it (mostly) well: “It’s a resource management game where time is a resource.” Very close, but not exactly. Time is how long it takes to play. Tim-ing, or more accurately, turns, are the resource. And the exchange rates of turns, points, food and resources is a delightful puzzle. And it’s fun to turn the gears.

This is your brain on Tzolk’in

(Quick aside, Space Dealer and its recent remake Time n’ Space have you flipping sand timers to conduct your moves in real time. Time is a resource here).

My Kung Fu Is Strong

Before the game Josh and I talked a bit about style of play, and how some games are better than others at giving you that feeling of control. Some games are procedural number crunchers, while some allow you to modify your tactics and apply your style. Tzolk’in does this, making you feel like your civilization lives and breathes your will.

The Competitors


Name: Brandon Rahhal

Age: 30

Blood Type: AB Pos

Fighting Style: Swift Snake, Rising Eagle

My habit in gaming is to make quick moves and jump to the lead early on. The purpose is to get quick infrastructure and exploit benefits early on. If resource production can be enhanced early, it’s best to get to that quickly and lean on that advantage in an attempt to ride the power curve to the end. Its weakness is that it makes you a quick target, and can be prone to burning out too early and leaving nothing for the end-game. Driving the pace of the game is essential.


Name: Josh Michel

Height: 10 ft pole

Political Affiliation: Socialist

Fighting Style: Iron and Mortar

Josh is all about building a strong foundation. Ramping up resource production in a steady, level manner, creating a civilization (or casino, or dominion, or what have you) with immense strength and unparalleled prowess. It’s primary weakness is found in the transition from infrastructure to point acquisition. Without good timing and a solid understanding of the game system, that shift can be delayed until it is too late and the opponent has come in for the kill. If the right timing is found, however, you will find yourself pounding at the stone and the sea, an inexorable force with no signs of slowing.


Name: Mark Yun

Games owned: Over 9000!

Is Asian: Yes

Fighting Style: Iku Kyuu Nyuu Kon (One Shot With All My Soul)

Mark is a strong gamer, and can digest systems quicker than most of us. But what he is most adept at is finding the one straight shot that will obliterate the competition. In Netrunner it’s the 8 damage swing. In Pixel Tactics it’s a swift 3 card combo that leaves you reeling. In resource games it’s finding his strategy, putting the pieces in place, and making a sudden, stunning rush on the points track. It’s why I never underestimate him in any game. If there is any weakness in his style it’s that, in seeking out the one big move, he will occasionally miss smaller more nuanced moves between the cracks, little things that would garner more points.

How it played out

I started out by jumping on the tech tree, looking to exploit food and wood bonuses. An oversight in the rules (+1 food or +1 wood, not both for a single space) worried me, but I stayed with it. Josh began in a similar way and was able to build his infrastructure later, but stronger. Mark started with an additional worker, and ran towards getting more and finding ways to feed them. This would give him the flexibility to lay the foundation for a big rush.

With a bit of early gain, I decided to leap on the Chichen Itza track, which is specifically for gaining points and little else. It was time consuming and had its risks, but nobody else followed me on it, and it allowed me an early lead. Josh managed to gain massive amounts of resources and start building rapidly. Mark acquired a number of end-game points and rushed forward in the end. It’s very difficult to determine who’s where points-wise, but we’re all feeling a mix of “I’m in good shape” and “I just f***ed myself over.”

Food Scarcity

Josh: An interesting part of many worker placement games is the decision of when to get more workers. Getting more workers is something that has to be timed, and comes with the cost not only of obtaining but maintaining that worker. It’s always a risk. Mark had a technology that started him with an extra worker, and Brandon went down that track fairly early on. About midway through the game I realized I had plenty of food, and that I probably should have grabbed an extra worker a few turns ago, but was instead nervous because the half year was about to come up. As the game progressed, I found myself throwing good money after bad by repeatedly passing up the new worker because I had thought the moment had passed and the immediate gains I was making would be more important. I was very wrong, and though the final score was close, a few minor changes could have made it disastrously bad for me.


Being overly conservative about my workers is in part due to the feeding mechanic in Tzolk’in being very unlike Stone Age, a worker placement game I know quite well. Tzolk’in’s corn does double duty, being used in feeding workers and allowing more flexible worker placement. This makes it fluctuate significantly and it’s far less predictable when you’ll have the corn cover all of your people. Tzolk’in’s version of the Stone Age field isn’t a place where everyone can always put a worker and reasonably expect it to feed itself. It has a wheel where you might have to wait a few turns, and that scared me into usually having plenty of corn left over, waiting for feeding time. That extra corn was a wasted resource, and in a game that requires you to manage a few different systems of resources, having one run inefficiently can bog down the whole system.

I become the two things I hate: Sub Optimal Redux

Two kinds of people annoy me when I’m playing a game; those who take forever to complete a turn, and those who whine about losing when they’re winning or have won. This game I became both.

There’s a lot to process in Tzolk’in. My turns took a bit of time. At least once I took time hammering out the details of a turn and its long-standing implications, and it paid off. At least once I took the time to pore over the turn and ended up shooting myself in the foot. One of those “this isn’t sub-optimal, this is terrible” kind of turns.

Josh: Brandon put a worker in the farm track, expecting to get wood, not realizing that since there were no longer any wood tiles, the only thing he could get was corn. This meant he had a series of essentially wasted moves, culminating in the loss of a crystal skull and thus some points from the blue “uses a crystal skull to get lots of points” track.

And I’m convinced it’s cost me the game.

Mark’s a sharp guy, and he’s played the game before, so I’m always wary when playing against him. The last three times I’ve played him in a game I’ve had an early lead and he has snatched victory from me. As for Josh, our recent games taught me this; when I think I’m in good shape I get beat. When I think I’m losing, I get beat horribly. So I don’t dare let myself think I’ve won.

And then I win. It’s not by a lot, but it’s enough.1

Josh: I found it very interesting that after the post about a Vegas Showdown mistake and the idea of Sub Optimal moves, we had both in this game. Mark made a few suboptimal plays at the very end. I have found that while overall strategies of mine aren’t always the best, I’m very good at finding every last point when I know the game is going to end in a turn or two. Mark was lining up for a big-point Monument for his final turn. Looking at the options available, he quickly grabbed the Monument and let the other workers do nothing, as he was now out of resources. I was looking at it and figured out a way for him to squeeze more resources out of the tech tree, giving him enough to not only get his monument, but also to use his last worker to buy another 8 point building. Those 8 plus the 2 extra from his Monument would’ve put him in the lead, and made Brandon’s mistake the one that cost him the game. Instead, the final numbers tallied up to have Brandon escape his mistake. Brandon outplayed us, and it was nice that the final score played out that way.

The term for people who take too long to play is Analysis Paralysis, or AP player. I propose that there should be a term for when one complains about losing and then wins. Maybe call it “Whining while Winning.”2 If it’s popular enough we can truncate it to “whuffing” or something.

Final Thoughts

Recently, and with increasing frequency, a game comes along that everyone in the world seems obsessed with. Tzolk’in was played constantly at Unity games this year. It’s 17 on Board Game Geek. Mark has brought it to every game gathering we’ve had since he purchased it months ago. At times it felt like the entire world wanted me to play this game. And now I finally realize why. Which means playing The Resistance is way overdue.

Tzolk’in is amazing, and the most fun I’ve had with a Euro-style game in a while. My apprehension at seeing drab cubes was lost in a wash of color and theme; The bright artwork and tribal feel, the interlocking systems, and those iconic and fiendishly clever gears, serve to make this a holistic marvel. My victory, carved out by the fervent worship at Chichen Itza, makes the victory feel less like a math problem I solved and more like a victory for my tribe through abject worship. It’s an expressive and challenging game that I’m seriously looking forward to playing again.

1Final scores: Brandon-60; Mark-53; Josh-52

2Not to be confused with “Tactical Bitching.”

Vegas Showdown and the “Suboptimal” play

The Setup

Brandon has invited us over. It’s the day after the anniversary of AnyGameGood.  His former boss Taran is in town, and they used to play games together at/after work. So we came, Taran, Mark, Nicole and I, to Brandon’s place to celebrate with a day of boardgaming.

As Brandon has pointed out, five isn’t always the best number for most games. We also have an interesting variation of experience in the room. Mark is a Gamer at a level that I’m not sure if Brandon or I match (Brandon may disagree). Taran, from what I can tell, is a gamer and has a mind that is used to walking down the paths of “If you do this then I’ll do that and you’ll do this” and Nicole is just starting to get used to thinking that way. I suggest Vegas Showdown as a game that seats five and has depth but will be generally easy to pick up for those who haven’t yet played it. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve enjoyed the few games of it I’ve played.

Midway through the game we’re all pretty close. Taran has a slight lead, Mark is behind but has two rooms that he needs the prerequisites for before he can place them, and Brandon, Nicole and I are in the middle, well within striking distance.

“Oh my god that was so stupid.”

Mistakes happen. Gamers rarely talk about mistakes though, Gamers talk about “moves that are suboptimal.“ And so when I find myself repeating over and over “Oh my god, that was so stupid” and generally beating myself up, Mark tries to console me with “No one likes making a move that’s suboptimal.” He’s not wrong. However, I’d like to argue that there’s a difference between suboptimal and downright stupid. And I just made a move that was downright stupid.

Like in most games like this, I have built a strong economy. The most population, the most revenue, but only one lounge. No Fancy Lounge, no Nightclub, no Theatre. My points are coming from filling my casino and hotel, having the highest revenue and population, and hopefully ending the game on my terms, with my competitors unable to get something they need at the end. I’m in a position with a few turns left in the game where this is looking reasonable. Taran is ahead, but not by much, and I’m going to get the most bonus points at end of game. Brandon or Nicole could certainly come in and snag it, but I’m pretty happy with where I am.

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

Things are looking good. Look at all those slots!

This fateful turn Taran and I are the only two who have enough money to buy a room, we both have 33 cash, and only two rooms are within our price range: A Fancy Lounge starting at 25 and the Dragon Room starting at 33. For those who don’t have photographic memories, here are the stats for those two rooms: Fancy Lounge is worth 4 points (and is required to build a 12-point Theatre) and the Dragon Room is worth 6 points and gives 4 revenue. I was in the first seat, meaning I could bid the minimum for the Dragon Room and take it, or I could bid on the Fancy Lounge. Looking at the population and revenue tracks, I have a population of 15 and a revenue of 12, meaning that the Dragon Room not only is worth more points but also will help my economy (which also is worth points at the end of the game).

What did I do? I bid 27 on the Fancy Lounge. Taran bid 33 on the Dragon Room and I started repeating “Oh my GOD that was so stupid of me.”

In the moment I had half thought that since I was going to get the Dragon Room it was too bad that Taran was going to get the Fancy Lounge for only 25. This half thought caused me to try to make him bid a little higher for his Fancy Lounge, which put it at the same price for him as the better Dragon Room. Needless to say that play took me from a chance at the victory to a distant 3rd place.

Technically, I still had all those slots AND a Fancy Lounge. But this is what my casino felt like.

Technically, I still had all those slots AND a Fancy Lounge. But this is what my casino felt like.

“Nobody likes to make plays that are Sub Optimal”

Mark is right. No one likes to make plays that aren’t the best possible play. But sub optimal plays happen all the time, in fact, for most games there are often numerous moves that are all valid options, with personal preference being the deciding factor. Do I pick up a lounge this turn? Do I pay 9 for slots this turn when next turn I could get it for 7? Do I save my money waiting for a high value room to get flipped? These are all questions that get asked and will have different answers depending on the gamer.

Brandon likes to talk about them as “interesting decisions” and I’m inclined to agree. There may be one play that is superior, but there is rarely a wrong answer. Often, these decisions are ones that you wouldn’t be able to figure out if they worked or not until much later, and are based on a number of factors that you can’t quantify. For example, sticking with Vegas Showdown, you might have a play that is optimal knowing what cards are left in the deck and could be quantified, but knowing what choice the other players are going to make in similar situations can’t be.

Suboptimal plays do happen and can hurt you a few points on the final score, whereas mistakes mean the difference between winning and losing. Winning is important to me, but far more important is playing my best. Some games my best isn’t good enough, either because luck isn’t on my side or because someone is a superior player. This can be frustrating as well (unfortunately Brandon had this happen to him the other day when we played Seasons online. He played well as best we could both tell, and neither of us was particularly unlucky, but when the final scores were tallied, I had surprisingly ended up on top. He didn’t take it so well. I don’t blame him), but nothing is worse than a game where you can point to the exact reason you lost an otherwise winnable game and it was because you did something completely boneheaded. That’s the kind of loss that sticks with you through the next game you play and can mess with your mojo. I like to think of myself as a smart guy, and I think that’s not an uncommon thought amongst the gaming community, and it hurts to be proven wrong, even if only for a single stupid moment.

Risk: This Is How The World Ends

Ted’s Campaign

Sam wasn’t able to make a number of the games, so we had a lot of 4-player sessions. This changes the texture of the game immensely. The map has more space, so placement order isn’t as critical. This changes draft priority, and allows for later conflicts and more time to bolster one’s armies. It also keeps one more faction out of play, which prevents them from acquiring knock-out or missile powers, which effectively removes them from the game.

It’s a long list of “if this than that” and “what ifs” in Risk: Legacy. That is, I think, one of its major strong points; our world is unique, it developed as only our could. Ours is a story nobody else has.

Unfortunately that isn’t a happy story for everyone else it seems.

Game 11

Sam is able to make this one, which is kind of exciting. He’s low on missiles, and everyone underestimates him. I hope to get a large exchange of cards late and win the game with a single push. I wait just long enough for Sam to do a smaller push and wipe me out, claiming my considerable card stack. He wins next turn. It’s two victories for the guy who didn’t have any going into game 9, so it provides a bit of hope for the campaign.

Game 12!

Sometimes hope is just a word.

I won. It was another game of someone having a lock on their turn, but somebody sneaking in a moment earlier and taking the victory. It wasn’t guaranteed for me, a lot of rolls had to go my way. But as Ted has said, “if you have a 40% chance of winning with a course of action, it’s worth trying.” So I gambled, pushed across the board, and took enough bases to win. If anything, it continues to demonstrate how important it is to protect your base.

This is my 6th win, and it gives me a plurality. Games 13-15 will have no bearing on who wins the campaign, as nobody can match my 6. Ted says a couple things, boiling down to, “Congrats, even though it’s not a game about winning, but we’ll keep playing, because it’s still fun.” Imagine my dismay when I found out he didn’t really believe that.

See, I’m usually the first person to get to Ted’s, as my work lets out earlier than everyone else’s, plus I live closer. So we have time to chat about the game before it gets underway. And again I had to hear Ted talk about how un-fun the game has become, and how it’s (mostly) my fault. I felt bad about it the first time this was thrown at me around game 8. But I’ve done my best since then to play tough but fair, and not politick or twist the game around. I don’t need this again. At some point it needs to be said. There was terrible play early on, a bunch of people made bad decisions and fought the absolute wrong opponents, and Ted didn’t try hard enough. I may have done some early prodding, but I’m not the sole architect of the game being so busted.

Game 13

I win the draft and take Mutants, the only time I’ve played them. At this point most of the people in the table are anxious to crack open the final packet, the Capital City. We start with the appropriate mission (randomly I swear), and a territory card that works for it comes out a few turns in.

This is where it becomes obvious how busted the game is. Aaron has a great chance to take the territory needed to make the mission happen. However, my stack of missiles is enough to keep it protected, even when Ted (the one who owns it) is playing missiles to help Aaron take it. He’s rebuffed, and I take it my next turn, giving me two points. I lost my base earlier, but I’m able to take it my next turn, though with only 3 armies on it. So when I’m at 3 points I see Ted checking his options. At this point I feel compelled to say, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but you should really defend your base.” He does, sort of. He ups the army count from 4 to 7, though he has more he could use. So when my turn comes around, his is the most reasonable target to go for. Even after the Capital City battle, and even after I spend missiles to defend my base, I still have 1 to use against him. I’m able to swing a double loss into a double win with it, and I have more than enough strength to take the base and the win.

I feel crappy for doing it, and I apologize to the table. The campaign is called here, as nobody wants to watch something like that again.

Aftermath

So yes, the game got busted. I took some wins I shouldn’t have, obtained a stronghold, gained an advantage too difficult to overcome (with 3 other people; it would’ve been much different if Sam could’ve made it). But After mulling it all over again, I’m pretty sure that I’m done apologizing for this sort of thing. Ted said that games aren’t about winning, they’re about competition. Yeah, I get what he means, but it’s a game, moreover it’s Risk. Says it right on the box, above the word Legacy. It’s an Ameritrash classic which has always been about random swings, massive armies, and grinding everyone else at the table into dust. The fact that it has a 15-game meta framework does not change that core stylistic design. I agree that the game is somewhat broken, but sometimes the players are too.

I hate that I have to feel crappy all over again while I type this. I hate that I’m in a position where I have to apologize for playing my best. I hate that everyone thinks it’s the game that’s screwed up and not their own stupid shitty play. It’s Beyond Boardwalk all over again; a lot of new mechanics and cool choices, but the same game at its core, with hurt feelings and sour looks when you lose.

You know what? Fuck it. I won, I’m not going to feel shitty about it. Besides, the other campaign manages to be balanced, despite having similar issues.

It’s Risk. Says so right on the box.

Greg’s Campaign, Game 8

So, that stronghold I had in Australia in Ted’s game? Jess has one in South America here. It’s not as great, as it still has two entry points and her city is surrounded by ammo shortage scars, but it’s still nice to have a guaranteed quality starting location. The faction she gets has an “ignore ammo shortages when defending” bonus to it, so her setup is pretty good.

The factions here aren’t fully loaded with powers and scars, so it’ll be interesting to see how they develop. The Saharan Republic has a sweet one-two combination of being allowed to use their redeployment in any territory they control, and being able to reinforce to one unoccupied territory per turn. I use it to get around the nuclear fallout in Australia. It’s not a great bonus, but it keeps my base protected, as the mutants are on the other side of the map.

I get a nice set of cards, but I don’t get to use them. Jess manages to take a few quick cards, and when nobody expects it (and I’m in no position to stop her), she turns in cards, marches through two bases and 9 territories, and grabs 3 points in a turn. I believe her base was a critical component, not because of the continent bonus (which I don’t believe she ever held), but the unbeatable population amount which gave her some great events.

Aftermath

This gives her two wins. At 8 games, everyone has two wins, except for Greg who hasn’t gotten on the board yet. It’s odd for me, knowing what’s in the remaining packets, and seeing how the game could play out. It’s difficult to keep that knowledge from coloring my decisions. Still, this game is progressing much differently, with a completely different set of players, so I’m excited to see how this one ends.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 2 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 3 missiles

Ted’s Campaign (Called)

Brandon: 7 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 2 Win

Packets Open: Everything

Talking It Out

I’ve said it over and over again, but the most fun part about games remains the actual human interaction you get while playing. And while any game will allow you to talk about the local sports team while you play, not every game lets you talk about the game you’re actually playing. Some games, like Settlers of Catan, force you to talk about what you’re doing; you have to talk to each other to trade. Other games aren’t as encouraging, but allow for it by giving everyone enough information to discuss moves (Stone Age, Industrial Waste), which leads me to say things like “really? I thought you’d be going for the field this turn.”

I played a game of Chess a few days ago for the first time in what has to be years and was struck by the way my playing of other games had influenced how I treated it. Chess is similar to Puerto Rico (alright, Puerto Rico is similar to Chess, it’s been around much longer) in that there is no randomness; every play can be analyzed on a “if I do X then you do Y then I do Z and you…” train of thought until the end state of the game (potentially, of course, unless you’re playing Deep Blue, then it is definitely). It’s strange how this affects table talk. You could tell your opponent when they are leaving their queen vulnerable or you could try to talk them into making a mistake, but neither is very satisfying. The latter feels mean and the former feels like you’re just playing yourself.

Talking strategy ended up costing me, as I told my opponent when they made a particularly bad play, and let them take it back (Also costing me: the hubris of thinking I was a superior player). Later when I made a play that was not obviously bad but led to me losing a rook and being out of position, my opponent’s first words were  “wow, that’s a great move” rather than what I ended up saying “Man that was over aggressive. That probably cost me the game.” (Spoiler alert: It Did). If I had shut up I would have been in a much better position, but, well, I enjoy talking too much.

A much more fun game happened a couple of weeks back, when my friend Mark, Brandon’s friend David and I took a first crack at Snowdonia.* Mark had only played it a couple of times and it was the first time for both David and I. Snowdonia was very Euro in that everything you could do would give you points (or cards that would make other moves stronger further down the road), and the game was entirely about maximizing what points you could get with your two workers each turn. I found it agonizing in the best kind of way.

My agonizing and talking about each individual move ended up making the game take longer than it should have, and David, apologizing profusely, had to leave with the game only midway through. What followed was one of the more interesting things I’ve done gaming-wise in quite some time: Mark and I decided to play David’s turns for him, as well as our own. This allowed us to discuss how the game was progressing, what moves might be optimal and why, but doing it in the third person rather than asking for our opponent’s help with our own moves. It didn’t feel like that game of chess, it felt like a co-op game where we happened to be playing against each other. “David’s” moves were never to block the other person’s or to directly get out of the way. We played “David” as we thought the real David would play. I walked out of the game with a better appreciation for the strategy than almost any other maiden voyage with a game. I got indirect advice and answers to my “why isn’t this the obvious play?” question without giving away what I wanted to do. Digging deep into the game was one of the more enjoyable experiences I’ve had boardgaming in quite some time.

From this unique experience I made a realization that bums Brandon out. His new favorite game is Android: Netrunner.** The game seems pretty well put together, and even while seeing that it has potential I didn’t find myself enjoying it. I’ve come to realize that it actively discourages table talk.*** The megacorporation plays cards face down. Everything it does is in secret, and the hacker can spend significant resources only to find that what the megacorporation has been hiding was a trap the whole time. It requires bluffing and has numerous important pieces of information that are hidden. Any discussion had about the game has to be taken with a large game of salt, as it starts to feel like the battle of wits from The Princess Bride.

"Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy"

“Listen, the never get involved in a land war in Asia line was CLEARLY about Risk strategy”

The tension built up from a game of Netrunner is probably what some people love about it. I’m not here to say that they’re wrong, just that I need that tension released. A game that should have no table talk but still felt fun was a recent game of Noir**** that I played with Brandon and Katie (Brandon’s fiancé). The game is fairly simple and not without its flaws (the game ended in a 2-2-2 tie as we all figured out who the other person was and there was no way we’d then end up next to each other without getting hit first) but it led to a beautiful moment where I moved Katie’s character out of the way of Brandon’s (I had figured out who they both were but Katie didn’t seem to have known) and whispered “I’m saving your life” which caused Brandon (and then me) to break into hysterical laughter. This tension breaking discussion about the game was probably not helpful in terms of winning. If Brandon didn’t know that I knew who he was, he may have been more reckless about his own movement and let himself end up next to me. But because the game moved quicker (and because I had had a couple of beers), I was more willing to give myself a slightly lower chance of winning to get some more enjoyment out of the game.

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent…

Watch out for Ryan, he only looks young and innocent… 

Now, obviously, not everyone gets pleasure from boardgaming the same way. Some people want their game to tell a story and hate that euro games use little wooden cubes. Some people want to wreck each other’s shit and some people want to play Dominion without any attack cards. Brandon loves the mindfuck that is ever present in Netrunner and I hate the way it makes me shut up. Before Innovation took the crown of my new favorite game, Stone Age was the reigning champ for quite some time in large part because it encouraged me to ask why someone made the choice that they made, because if I were them I would’ve gone the other way. In improv, its bad form to talk about what you’re doing, but in boardgaming? I find it delightful.
——————————————————————————————————————–

*Snowdonia is a very Euro-style worker placement game, but unlike most worker placement games I’ve played, you only get two workers per turn (eventually you can get up to 4, but it is costly).

** Netrunner is a card game set in a dystopian future wherein a Hacker tries to get into a megacorporation’s mainframe. It isn’t really a deck building game, but I don’t know how to describe it.

***To be clearer: it discourages helpful table talk. It highly encourages you to lie to your opponent and to get them to make mistakes. Given the option between antagonistic table talk and none, I find myself (personally) wishing for none.

****Noir is a game where the board is a grid of faces, and you are trying to figure out who everyone else is, and then move your card next to theirs so that you can kill them, before they do the same to you.

Legacies: Tyrant

When I started board gaming I was fanatic about the victory. From first-time plays to games I consider myself a veteran of, my every move contained in it the singular purpose of securing victory. As the years progressed I loosened up on the “play to win” mindset and embraced the heart of gaming, to have fun. I still think playing to win is important, but I try to not let it get in the way of fun. This has probably influenced my shift in taste from euro-style cubes and economies games to more thematic and colorful gaming options (the new age of games that provide both has also helped).

But you know how when you grow and change as a person, but things from the past put you in something of a regressive state? Like how high-school reunions, or meeting with old friends or family members you haven’t seen in a while, sort of makes you more of the person you were then. Risk Legacy, as we became starkly aware of in our most recent game, maintains the essence of classic Risk at its core. And in playing it, I may have become the gamer of old; the young boy hungry for victory, but equipped with the skills and tools of a gaming veteran. And I may have ruined the game for everyone.

Dear God, what have I become?

Ted game 7: On a mountain of skulls, in the castle of pain, I sat on a throne of blood.

If you read the last Legacies post, you know our situation in Australia. If you didn’t, don’t worry, I’ll recap and you can avoid the spoilers. Basically, Australia has always been a sticking point in Risk: a continent with only one way in or out, it’s easy to defend and quite useful. In our game, a combination of game-changing scars have made Australia a juggernaut, but only for the one guy who can access it in the starting placement without killing himself; me.

The game was so rapid, the post-mortem was longer than the game and was very emotionally charged. Here are some bullet points from the game to provide context:

  • Mark can’t make it, so we have 4, which spreads us out.
  • I get a great starting draft due to some bad draws by a couple people. I’m able to take the first turn, 10 armies and 2 bonus coins. Placement order and faction don’t matter for me, as I have a guaranteed starting spot and most any faction that isn’t bad for taking cities is good for me.
  • I flood into Australia and start grabbing bonus armies before anyone can respond. And nobody responds after that.
  • At one point Ted gets two cards totaling 6 coins. It’s a big early grab, so I point it out. It’s politicking, which every Risk game has, right?

Let me expand on this one. Ted is somewhat notorious for his ability to sweet-talk players at a table when he wants to. I want to point out that this isn’t an indictment; I think it’s great that he’s so brilliant at it. His advice always helps you out, so it’s good advice, and it just happens to also help him out as well. I call it the silver tongue, and ever since I figured it out I’ve been trying to learn it.

Ted doesn’t use the tongue in this game, but it’s pretty much impossible for him to convince anyone of that, except me, who still treats him as the smartest, most dangerous player in the game based on tactical ability alone. I have used table-talk to leverage players against Ted, but most times I don’t need to; even when I win, people discuss ways they need to shut down Ted when the next game comes around. So when I say he’s got 6 coins, everyone flips out. And nobody even notices or cares when I get 7. Except Ted. Whom nobody is listening to. So:

  • Everyone focuses on Ted, even after I start my attack, even after it’s (to Ted and me) readily apparent I’m poised to claim the game. For the fourth time. And I don’t say anything.
  • Ted makes a push but can’t get 4 points. My next turn strafes the board, giving me a mission point and 2 other bases, securing the victory in 3 turns.
  • Everyone gets pissed.

Wait, what? Why is everyone pissed? And why do they seem pissed at me? It’s Risk, this sort of thing happens, right? Right, guys?

Aftermath

The first thing I say after the game, highlighting that I didn’t and wouldn’t say it during the game, was “guys, it was me, you should attack me, not Ted, me.” Then Aaron said he still thinks Ted was the imminent threat. Ted was upset and more or less said I was making the game not fun for him by politicking against him each game. Which I wanted to defend myself by saying A) it’s part of the game, B) everyone always attacks him anyway, even when I sit and say nothing, and C) What am I supposed to say? “Hey guys, you gotta get me, now, I’m going to win?”

A discussion opens up on how one could break my stranglehold on the map. I give advice. When I wonder aloud, “why am I helping in the architecture of my own defeat?” Ted promptly responds, “We need your help to fix this, otherwise the game will stop being fun. Seriously.”

Recounting the whole post-mortem would be as tedious as recounting a Risk game itself. Despite many salient points, in the end let’s just say that there were some dejected players, arguments and accusations, a mixture of emotions ranging from excited to apologetic, back to indignant and all the way around to self- aversion. Oh, and an agreement to crack open the infamous DO NOT OPEN EVER packet.

Two Minds

If you took some sort of psychic hatchet and cleaved my essence roughly down the middle, you’d get two gamers. Let’s call them by my names, Brandon and Rahhal.

Brandon’s the fun-loving guy you call by his first name, maybe even shorten it, like “Sup, B?” He knows that priority one is to enjoy the game and the people you’re gaming with. He’s a big fan of co-op games, social activity stuff like Dixit and the Big Idea, and weaving beautiful stories through the narrative of a game. And he absolutely hates the idea that he’s causing the people at the table to have less fun.

Rahhal is a rougher guy, in part because everyone calls him by his surname, which was more-or-less a sign of disrespect where he grew up. Rahhal only knows how to play hard, at all times, and measures his worth in victory. He thrives on the intellectual conflict found in gaming, and would never sacrifice solid play for laughs or even hurt feelings. After all, why play a game if you’re not playing to win?

I should note that I, Brandon Rahhal, (usually) reconcile these two when I play, making for a gamer that plays strong but not mean, fun but not foolish. What I’m getting at here is the game currently has these two personas at odds. Playing on my major City is the quickest path to victory, but many at the table call foul, and while I’m not the architect of this heinous scenario, reaping the rewards is causing some bad blood at the table. Playing anywhere else might balance a game, but it’s clearly a worse play that I’m only doing to make others feel better. It’s Risk, raw feelings happen.

I could go back and forth on this all day (which Katie and Josh can attest to). As a final thought, I just hope that last game was a fluke of circumstance, and the next game will have a balance of tactics that gives everyone an equal chance of victory and an enjoyable time for all. After all, it’s not just about winning.

An important lesson I almost forgot in the other world.

Greg Games 6 & 7: Misunderestamission

This is another example of games I thoroughly enjoyed despite losing. It was also a delight because the person who made it so fun, the person who has, according to him, “never won a game of Risk in [his] life,” won both games. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first game Greg places right next to me in the opener. The way I see it I have two options. One is to run away, try to set up in South America and make that my base of operations, leaving North America to him. The other is to try to crush him immediately. The area gives him bonuses that are penalties to me, and his faction has bonuses to attack me. The longer I wait the easier it is for him to kill me. So I charge him first. With 4 missiles I figured it would be easy. But the war of attrition ended up crippling me, re-affirming the fact that attacking the first thing is fairly insane.

Erik grabs Africa, takes two bases, and the win. It’s kind of awesome to see his eyes light up.

For the next game Erik takes the Mutants. Admittedly, I’m coming back to this post a while after the game, so I don’t remember much. But I remember Erik’s play of the mutants. Each faction has a certain flavor, and mutants ostensibly crawl from the wasteland of nuclear fallout. Waste, in fact, is the milieu of their wrath, as their 3-unit figure is a militarized garbage truck.

So Erik, adept in improv comedy and appreciative of a game’s mythos, paints a vivid picture of these trash-hoarding marauders. The truces, alliances, conflicts and battles are peppered with what the mutants are doing. Some of my favorites:

“Across the border into South America is thrown a half-eaten bag of skittles. I don’t think I can be any clearer.”

“Before the battle, a dirty stuffed animal half-filled with raw meat is thrown across the border.”

“A large neon sign is erected, pointing towards Kamchatka with the phrase “My brother lost his retainer and now everybody is mad.”

“Thrown across the border is a can with no label, but a note that says ‘we want our stuffed animal back.'”

-When making an attack into Ural from Russia – “The mutants are all wearing t-shirts they say ‘No, YOU’RE AL!” (I fell out of my chair laughing at this one)

Erik won, through a combination of beneficial events, missions, and superior firepower. He named that one “Beware of mutants bearing gifts.” I said during the game, “We’re all idiots. See, we’re going back and forth, jockeying for position and territory, trying to win a war that will be erased as soon as the game is done. Erik’s writing the narrative of a faction, his contributions will endure. He’s playing the long game.”

Quick Edit: As of this post three more
games in Ted’s campaign happened, and we cracked the DO NOT OPEN EVER pack. It did not fix the board, but the ass-kicking I received from the Aaron did. He won game 8, somehow I got game 9, and Sam finally got on the board with game 10. I don’t think a whole new post is necessary for the games. If you really REALLY want to hear about them leave a message below and I’ll tell you how I got crushed, hint about the new package, and talk about Sam’s first win so far into the game.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 3 missiles

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 5 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital

P.S.

I thought I’d talk a little about gamer cred. I’m not a sociologist, but I’m fascinated by the idea of sub-groups and their idiosyncrasies and similarities. Nearly every group of people with a common activity as an identifier has its own sort of ranking based on that activity. In short: Within gamers, a societal clique historically known for being identified as outcasts or below the social level of, whatever, “normal” or “cool” or some horses**t, there’s still an element of who ranks as hardcore gamer, as elite tabletop warrior or Johnny-come-lately player who doesn’t “get it” like the old salts do.

“Casual gamer” is not a term to be bandied about.

In my first post I referred to Winston and Jess as “gamers, but of a more casual nature.” I meant no disrespect. These Legacy campaigns are my first time to meet a number of people. Aaron, Mark, and Sam launched into rules minutiae and opinions before the box was cracked. Jess and Winston did not. That, and 3 games of Risk where a couple bad plays were made. And not for nothing, Winston won 2 of them, that’s not easy.

After my first game of Mage Knight, a lengthy and dense mathematical fantasy game, I voiced my opinion that the game was overly lengthy and prone to some issues. One of the players said, “yeah, it’s really a game for gamers.” He meant no disrespect either, but I remember being very upset by the comment. So to those I offended, I apologize. And I do hope we have many chances in the future to show off our respective capital G Gamer credentials.

Legacies: S*** Just Got Real

A few more sessions have happened, and we’re up to 6 games with Ted and 5 with Greg. And I want to keep spoilers out of the post and preserve the feeling of a unique experience in both campaigns. But God help me, I have seen things. Dark things. I have seen what Man hath wrought, dark nightmarish scenarios I cannot un-know. In one campaign. And I see no way of keeping it from coloring my decisions in the other.

I can’t even keep them from coloring how I write this article. Just so you know…

*THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS!*

Check this pun out, as I SPUN OUT, NERDS! *Car peels out, narrowly missing the Fung Wah Bus. Fung Wah Bus explodes anyway.*

Spoilers

First off, how great is that, a board game with spoilers? Not developing strategies, not expansions, but honest-to-God new information that could sour a person’s experience if you informed them of it. “Luke, I am your father,” “he’s been dead the whole time,” “guess who gets beheaded at the end of this book” spoilers.

Josh and I are at odds on this.

I absolutely hate the idea of running it for you, even if you think you won’t ever play the game.

Josh, well, see if you pick up what he’s putting down:

dude, if you write another risk legacy post with the idea that you don’t want to spoiler it I don’t see how it’ll be very interesting. I think trying to prevent spoilers will make your post weaker.”

And I hate to but have to agree. “Hey, this totally awesome thing happened, but I can’t give you details or it’ll ruin something you may or may not play in the future.” That’s a dick move. So is ruining the surprise. I don’t want these updates to be boring or detrimental to anyone’s potential enjoyment of a game. I’m going to sequester spoilers as best as I can, but make sure you know when you’re about to read one.

Part I: What Man Hath Wrought

While not the most efficient structure for updates, I’m going with chronological order of games played. The excitement derived from sudden reveals, coupled with long wait periods filled with “what-ifs” and “moral quandaries vs. strategic necessity vs. pure fun” cannot, in my limited ways, be captured any other way.

Ted Game 4: I Care About Winning

I won. I should not have won. Aaron had a better-than-even-odds chance of taking my base for the victory. A string of improbable 6’s, one die at a time, kept him just short. Events and scars ruined my holdings in Australia, but my squirreling away of resource cards worth 2 coins allowed me to make a massive push across the board to take every base on the board (4 of us played, Sam couldn’t make it). My spoils are a major city in Ural that essentially makes me the only person capable of taking Australia on turn one without massive losses.

If I split my forces I would’ve had enough to take out Ted as well and open a packet. Afterward I mentioned it to him, then said “Who would do that? That’s the kind of decision that loses a game.” Ted asked me a question he no doubt thought was rhetorical; “Who cares about winning?” I do. I care very much. The games are fun, win or lose, and the Argentinean Butch-and-Sundance holdout from game 3 remains my favorite moment in this campaign. Nonetheless, when I sit down to the table I want to win. I want to sign the board. I want to name continents and forge major cities, I want to name the Earth and be its supreme leader. I can appreciate Ted’s desire to keep the game fun and interesting, and push opening packets over clearer paths to victory, but I’m playing to win, and so are everyone else at the table. People literally bleed over this game, I think I’m allowed to take the victory seriously.

Teaser: Game 5 would flip this mindset right on its f***ing head.

PACKET OPENING: SIGN A BOARD FOR THE SECOND TIME1

Yes, I’ll admit, opening this the second time was a bit underwhelming, but having new missions and material to work with is pretty great.

Greg Game 4: “On A Mission”

I’m able to win game 4, fairly swiftly. I snag Australia first turn, take a couple cities, and improbably I get 2 events back to back, that give me bonuses for having the highest population. I get extra troops, and I change the mission to something I can easily accomplish (take 4 territories over water connections). The second mission is attainable as well, and I take the game. This was a lucky win, as the vent deck and missions kept feeding me great things, and my dice were nigh unbeatable.

For my second win I stamp a major city in Australia. It’s been my base of victory each time, so I want to increase my ability to start there. I call it Helios 1, because I’m playing Die Mechaniker and I think it sounds machine-y. I’ve also been playing Fallout New Vegas, which has a Helios 1 in it. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake.

PACKET OPENING: ALL MINOR CITIES PLACED2

I’m really happy to have this one opened here. It adds a very critical component to the game, one that balances the game and adds fun. For details and my take on it, read below in the endnotes.

Greg Game 5: What Man Hath Wrought

Game 5 has Erik placing directly in Australia, preventing my using it. So, my Major City and Continent bonus get usurped. But that’s not the worst of it.

Winston makes a push against Australia, specifically from Ural into my Major City in Australia. It’s not in my best interests for him to win, as Erik is far away from me, and having him strong and able to fight other opponents is good for me. Plus, Winston has 2 wins. So, when Winston plays a missile against Erik, I play one on Erik’s behalf. That’s two missiles.

Opening packets is fun. That’s the rationale employed when the “three missiles” packet is up for grabs. Not a tactical advantage, because only in very rare circumstances would that third die change to a 6 help anyone. But hey, you kind of gotta know; what’s in that packet?

PACKET OPENING: AS SOMEONE IS PLAYING THE THIRD MISSILE IN A SINGLE COMBAT ROLL3

This section “contains” spoilers, only in that there are spoilers present. This spoiler cannot be contained. Like the consequences it unleashes and the knowledge it contains, any method of story-telling that seeks to usurp even the smallest fraction of this cataclysm will be inescapably reduced to “um, er, ah, well trust me, it was cool.” If you have any desire in playing this game in the future, please stop reading now.

Okay, now that I asked all the target audience to leave, here’s what happened, blog-bots.

When the third missile is played, it represents a nuclear device. The player who plays the third missile chooses which of the two territories gets nailed. This could be an interesting decision for an outside interloper (an inside-outerloper?). For this one, Winston slammed the territory that wasn’t his. The territory gets a large scar with the universal symbol for nuclear fallout. The land is not uninhabitable, but thoroughly toxic. The first time anyone enters they lose half their troops, rounded up. At the end of the turn you lose 1 troop still there. To put it in perspective, you must enter with at least 4 troops to ensure you hold the territory at the end of the turn. It’s a brutal price to pay for a territory. And it’s smack dab on Indonesia, on top of a smoldering pile of high-tech junk where the proud Mechaniker city of Helios 1 stood, for less than 2 turns total. It has left my city and the continent I named a nearly uninhabitable wreck.

And I helped cause it. And it was truly amazing and heart-wrenching. Because no game can offer that kind of penalty to my hubris. This is a mar on the world that will last for-f**king-EVER.

Of note, out of the bubbling pitch comes a new faction: Mutants. They have sweet powers, feed on nuclear fallout and biohazards, and have their own missions and evolution structure. They’re also sworn enemies of the faction responsible for the fallout and have bonuses against them. Way different than the d8s and d10s I thought were in that big pocket of a packet.

Jessica took the win. She basically convinced everyone I was the threat and she the savior. She negotiated a three turn truce to everyone on the freaking board, then went at me until she had the bases she needed. So yeah, this game didn’t turn out too well for me. She named the game “the Negotiator,” though I think we all know what the main event was in game 5.

Part II: Penance and Absolution

The snow is still thick on the ground, and the wind is biting. I give Mark a brief ride from the T to Ted’s house, dropping him at the door while I circle back around to the only place that has parking (without a chair or bin or something to guard it), the metered lot behind the Davis Square CVS. It’s a chilly walk, and I’m focused on moving quickly so I can get out of the cold and into the game. But there’s this thought bouncing around my head; how am I going to implement the 3 missile packet without harming the game unfairly? At this point in the game I hold 2 out of the 4 missiles (Aaron has one and I have the other), so that packet doesn’t open without me. And I know exactly what it does.

The devil and angel on my shoulder keep whispering ideas. “Wait until later games when someone else has a chance to use it.” “Aim it at that smug bastard, he deserves it.” “Only use it when it harms you as well as another.” “Wait until someone uses their missile in a foreign land, then double-drop your missiles and scorch their continent.”

I was torn. Short of microwaving my own brain I can’t keep it out of my head. I had to be fair, but not suicidal. I should be tactical, but use only the information available to everyone. The largest long-game consequence to date must be handled properly.

Game 5: F***it Ted, let’s just kill each other.

There’s one other person at the table who can understand my plight. Ted has been through a campaign before. He has seen many (but not all) of the packets in the game. He’s playing to have fun; more specifically, to facilitate an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table. And he knows what’s in that packet.

I forget who the attacker and the defender were. I do know that the countries involved were China and Southeast. And I do know that I dropped the third missile. Admittedly, after a lot of hemming and hawing on whether I should, Aaron finally said “okay, now you have to, you’ve spoiled enough of it already.” So I fired. The two people who knew exactly what the stakes were met to obliterate each other.

PACKET OPENING: AS SOMEONE IS PLAYING THE THIRD MISSILE IN A SINGLE COMBAT ROLL

I choose China as the spot of devastation, because I’m not about to nuke Arcos I or my entry into Australia. For this game it’s irrelevant; the fallout damage that was isolated in the other campaign due to Indonesia’s island status is felt full-force here. Every neighboring land gets a d6 hit. Ted is wiped off the board, and I follow shortly after. The game lasts just long enough for use to redeploy; Mark wins right after I place, right back in Southeast Asia.

I feel pretty good about this. It seems only fitting that the two people who know the big reveal be crushed by it. At this point it’s too unlikely the packet will be triggered by two other players with one missile between them, before Ted and/or I get the opportunity to press the button. And the pocket is super-awesome. I feel much better now that the burden of information is off and, even though it killed me, the reveal turned out to be as unique and epic for this campaign as it was for the other (more so, perhaps, since the fallout wiped out two factions and opened the game for the others). It is my penance. And next game was my absolution.

Game 6: And muthaf**kas act like they forgot about Rahhal

Let’s take a look at a standard Risk board:

Australia is a pretty sweet plum (which is probably why they colored it like that) because it’s a continent with only one entrance/exit. Defense is as simple as sitting on Indonesia, or better yet Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest place to gain and maintain bonus armies.

Now let’s take a look at our game:

No spot in Australia can serve as a starting point. Southeast Asia has my major city, Arcos I, meaning only I can start there. India has another minor city. And China is now a wasteland. Which means that the closest anyone can start is 3 countries away, perhaps in Afghanistan. From loss of armies in neutral cities, it would take a minimum of 7 extra troops to enter and fully occupy Australia, which is then vulnerable to counter-attack. For me it’s 4, with India and China buffering against counter-attacks. Oh, and the placement of scars means I will always* have Southeast Asia as a starting play.

This game was fraught with peril, mostly in the form of event cards. Some reward you for population, and some penalize you for under-protecting cities or just being near a nuclear wasteland. This game saw me corked in Australia with a measly 2 troop bonus which was quickly marginalized by death to fallout, city riots, and most importantly, my HQ being razed and removed from the board.

It was the best thing that could’ve happened.

With no way to threaten the other players, and nothing of value to take from me (except cards, though the chances of taking me over completely remained low), I was left to rot. Every now and then I would duck out of my hole to claim a territory, a card, and one mission, bringing my point count to 1. An early card exchange by Mark caused a cascade of card trades and brutal battles of attrition that ground down everyone’s momentum without anyone getting their critical 4th point. It’s late, fatigue has set in, Mark is clearing his troops out to allow easier access to bases. On my final turn, another fallout event wipes out everything I have except for a few troops in Australia. It’s grim for me, except I’ve been squirreling away. I have a stack of cards totaling 10 coins.

WHEN A PLAYER IS ABOUT TO PLACE 30 TROOPS AND HAS A MISSILE4

I’m skeptical that 37 troops will be enough to get me the win this turn, and I’m worried that I’ll be subject to massive counter-attack. But the turn comes with a huge boost. This is the only other packet in the game that’s a pocket containing more than just cards. Where the first one pollutes a nation on the map, this one creates new life and alters the geography of the board. The addition?

Aliens.


And Alien Island.

The opener of the packet places all his reinforcements plus 10 alien troops on alien Island. Alien Island is a scar you place in any ocean on the board, and connect two coastal countries to it, that will be connected permanently. This is a major change to the board, altering the geography and potentially re-opening Australia to the world and “fixing” what everyone sees as a broken location too good for one man to claim. So when I get it it’s an extra kick in the face to my opponents; Australia stays sealed, and I use the island to drop right into the nexus of bases in Europe and North America. 47 Troops proves to be more than enough to claim the win. For my victory, I name Australia as a fusion of Die Mechaniker and Alien Influence: Sternenbasis, German for Starbase, written in a combination of symbols and blocky text.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Jess: 1 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 30 + missiles

Ted’s Campaign

Brandon: 3 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 1 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Packets Open: Everything But The World Capital and DO NOT OPEN. EVER.

Looking Ahead

Most of the packets are opened in both games. I’m not too concerned about revealing or unfairly using the information from the 30+ troops packet in Greg’s campaign, as I have less control over who will get it, and I’m fairly certain I will spend cards earlier if I believe it will get me the win. I’m up in Ted’s game, even in Greg’s, and crazy-excited to play the next sessions this week.

1: This packet introduces the concept of homelands. Factions track where you start, so a faction with a majority of starts in a single continent has that continent as their homeland, which means when you can take a resource card you can take any one from that continent, regardless of if you or anyone else currently holds it. It also adds some missions and a new type of scar, biohazard, which is brutal.

2: This packet introduces a draft mechanic. There are 4 sets of 5 cards: Starting Turn, Starting Placement, Starting Troops, and Starting Coin Cards. The Faction cards themselves serve as Starting Factions, of course. At the start of the game, instead of rolling to determine who gets first placement and turn order and all that, you roll dice to see who gets first pick of cards. A snake draft follows, where each person gets a card, then the order reverses each round. This is a great mechanic, and I think the only reason it wasn’t included in the beginning was that the initial games of Risk were meant to be as fast and uncomplicated as possible. Drafting is fun, and with the addition of potential starting coins cards (there’s a pick for 2, a couple for 1) and varying starting troops (high as 10, low as 6, which are big differences for those first turns) the tension and strategic planning happen long before the first troop is on the board.

3: There are a number of other things in this packet. There are missions specific to the mutants, and evolution cards that will give the mutants one of four new powers based on their decisions. There may be more, but the evening was a whirlwind of packets, so I don’t recall all the contents.

*”Always” meaning “until a new rule pops up, or a scar is blanked, or a city is destroyed which may or may not have an effect on starting placement. Packets are mostly out though.

4: The packet has a ton of other stuff too. It contains the Aliens as a playable faction, the Alien Island territory card worth 3 coins, and some missions and events that tie into the alien involvement. There is also the potential for new map-changing scars; ruins, which bulldoze cities. Also of note, the faction responsible gets the “alien sympathizer” scar, giving it a bonus for trading in cards for troops, but costing 2 extra troops to take over a neutral city, which can be a huge cost, especially when our Australia is filled with cities.

Legacies: the First Volley

My initial impressions of Risk: Legacy are positive overall. The first couple games feel, well, a lot like Risk. I think Ted said it best when he suggested from comments he has heard on-line that, “as the game progresses, it becomes less like Risk and more like a boardgame.”

As of now I have played 3 games in each campaign. The two campaigns already feel very different, and while I’m leaning towards one over the other, I think they’ll both be worthwhile.

Merry Band Of Brothers: Who’s in the Game

A game can only be good as its players. Let’s meet the groups.

The Vessennes Players

This group consists of me, Ted, and three of Ted’s friends who I don’t know very well. Their names are Aaron, Sam, and a man who calls himself DoubleMark, I think because there are so many other Marks in the group at large. It’s apparent to me that these are capital G Gamers; they’re in it to win it. Before the game even begins there’s this lengthy discussion about tactics and potential rules changes in the future, balance issues and statistical models people made on optimal plays. If you know a gaming group that has massive post-mortem discussions of a game when it’s finished, imagine that, only before the game has even started.

The Reimann Players

I know this group a little better than the Vessennes campaign, but not much. It’s me, Greg, Erik (a.k.a. Spooky), Winston and Jessica. Erik I know, and Greg I feel like I’ve known for longer than I have; he’s a kindred spirit of gaming. When I suggest that factions should have theme music he’s initially reluctant, then spends the night before sending me beautifully appropriate music for each faction. I get the impression he’s crazy excited about the game, but doesn’t want to show it, for fear of being that guy. F*** that, I’ll be that guy. Winston and Jessica are gamers, but of a more casual nature. Erik loves games, enough that even though he hates Risk he’s willing to play to make it happen.

War. War never changes.

A blow-by-blow of each game may not be the most riveting thing for readers, though rest assured each of the 6 games so far had their moments. In 3 games the maps have taken some interesting turns, and some compelling stories have developed.

The Spoils of War

The game has you track what faction you played, where you started, and whether you Won, Held On, or were Eliminated. Those who survive get to name and place minor cities or adjust the game’s resources by adding coins to territory cards, which increases the number of troops you get when exchanging. The victor gets to sign their name to the board, and can choose one of a number of tasty options:

  • Place a Major City. Major Cities have 2 population, which counts as territories for troops gained at the start of the turn (minor cities have one population). They are also legal starting locations only for the one who placed it.
  • Name a continent. This gives that player +1 bonus troop when they control it.
  • Give +1 or -1 to a continent bonus for all players.
  • Fortify a city. Fortifications add +1 to each defender’s dice when rolled, for up to 10 battles.
  • Destroy a card. Rip it up. Remove it from the game.
  • Cancel a scar. Cover one of the permanent marks on the game.

Vessennes Opener: Hard-Learned Lessons

Ted said he was very much of a mind to do anything that would trigger a packet or inlay being opened, as “opening things is the fun part.” He would be focused less on winning and more on making the game thematic and fun. Knowing ted as I do, I believe strongly that he can only take this so far. He will certainly seek to wipe out an opponent, or fire missiles in a battle he’s in without truly needing to, or fight to place 30 troops at once (all packet conditions), but he won’t ruin his chances of victory by doing so.

The first game proceeds very much like a standard game of Risk. The two main differences are this; most of the territories start empty (every one but the 5 we choose to start), and everyone has “Scar Cards,” decals we can apply to the board to cause permanent bonuses or penalties to one spot. It’s a neat little mechanic, but what’s truly interesting is watching people place them for small gains without realizing the long-term impact they’ll have on the campaign. The effects were felt as soon as game 2, and continue to be a big game changer.

I play terribly. I manage to spread thin and hold North America for a turn, but squander my bonus troops and lose the continent soon after. I never really recover. Aaron wins with a swift charge to a base. With that one, his own HQ, and two red stars (one to start, one for the exchange of cards) he takes four points and the victory. This is a great end condition, as it means you don’t have to conquer the whole board. He places a major city, and the rest of us place minor cities, many in Australia to increase the difficulty of keeping and holding it (this turns out to be a rules faux-pax; hangers-on can only place minor cities or coin upgrades to territory cards in countries they controlled at the end of the game). By then it was too late to start another game. I’m a bit soured on the experience, having gotten trounced, but I’m willing to give it another go.

Vessennes Session 2

Aaron isn’t able to make this one, which is kind of a bummer, but it means the ones who haven’t won yet have a chance to get on the board. After learning a bit more about the game, and remembering how Risk is played, I feel good about this session.

Games 2&3: A Game of Numbers & a Game of Stories

There’s not much to say about game 2. I win, primarily because Sam and DMark are focused heavily on Ted, and nobody notices me slowly building up cards and troops in Australia. An exchange of cards for my 3rd point and a quick dash to a nearby base for my 4th gets the win. It was a game heavy with calculations, politicking, and very standard Risk stuff.

Game 3 I do not win, let me say that now. Let me also say that I had more fun this game than I have ever had in a Risk game ever. And it’s all because of a beautiful narrative the table helped me weave. That great AnyGameGood feeling you get when a game makes you want to tell people about “this one time when I was at war…” This was one of my favorites.

I was playing Kahn Industries. Their flavor text paints them as a faction of cheap labor and mass-manufactured machines of war. Their special ability has you placing a new unit in your HQ each turn. The way we envisioned it, the new soldier is in fact a factory-stamped clone; pale skin, steam rising from the freshly stamped tissues. Bald, sunken eyes and a cheap uniform and blaster. During one of those pushes you sometimes have to do to keep a continent bonus from a breakaway leader, I fight from central Asia across the map to West Africa and Brazil. Then I free move one of the soldiers from my base across the map.

The line is quickly cut off. One three-soldier mech in Argentina, one lone man in Brazil who’s quickly gunned down. South America is very difficult to hold in this map, as it has an ammo shortage in Brazil (-1 to the highest defense die each roll), forcing the player to try to defend from Africa or risk taking a beating in the numbers. So nobody’s keen to be the one to clear it out when it can’t be held. The troops in Argentina stay, without reinforcements, without orders, nowhere to go. I begin to wonder out loud, and everyone at the table is quick to provide their take.

Brandon: What are they doing now? I wonder if they’re writing in their journals about the hells of war. Oof, maybe they don’t have journals.

Ted: They probably don’t have literacy, man.

DMark: Yeah, why would you bother to teach them how to read and write? They’d never live long enough to use it.

Brandon: You guys are depressing me.

Ted: Hey, maybe they at least know how to not starve to death. ‘Day 30. Saw cow. Shot cow with blaster. Cow cooked, cow tasty.’

This went on for a while. Those guys probably have their own language by now, cave paintings and crude tools fashioned from the mech which has been out of gas for (based on what we thought a turn meant in game time) years.

Then the attack came. Sam had been slowly building his rail guns in Central America, pointing them at me menacingly. He has a force of around a dozen. I roll a 6-5. Two of his troops gone. 6-6. Two others drop. 6-4, he doesn’t have enough to beat the 4, two more deaths. With each roll the table gets louder and more shocked at this battle. 2 more drop. At this point Sam knows he can’t take the continent and hold it for a turn. He backs off. Soldier 47 comes through. This band of brothers with all odds stacked against them holds out without a single casualty (presumably by learning the land and using guerilla tactics developed from years of surviving the harsh environment). I don’t win, but Argentina never falls. Hell, they’re probably their own indigenous people at this point.

My father was a sleeve gunner. Not the right arm, the left. He was a man’s sleever.

Everyone seems appreciative of the narrative we’ve woven. Sam yields his right to place the last minor city to me, which is placed in Argentina and named “Ooxstahm,” the people’s word for ‘brother.’ I even use my off-hand to write it to give it that primitive scrawling look; it’s nigh illegible to those who weren’t there. Oh, Ted won.

PACKET OPENING: 9TH MINOR CITY

Ted already knows what’s in this packet, but he’s good about not spoiling the surprise. I immediately recognize some Eurogame elements in it, and agree with Ted’s declaration that “this is where Risk becomes an actual board game.” I just hope it doesn’t become a new way for me to screw myself over early on.

Reimann Session:

Next up is a trio of games at my house. The people playing the game, coupled with the fact that it’s my house and I can relax in it before, during and after the game, gives this group a more laid-back feel for me. Nonetheless, I’m still playing to win.

Side Note: the Differences

I find it very amusing, the way Ted and Greg wish their games to be handled. One stark example is the naming of cities and continents on the board. There’s something epic about stamping a name on the board, and even though naming a continent is not as strong a strategic move as other things a winner can do, it’s a rush to say that an entire continent is named for you.

Ted gave us explicit instructions in this regard: Please do not name anything stupid or jokey, like “Ted is a Bastardville” or “Bonerland” (direct quotes). He wants to frame and hang the final board, and he doesn’t want vulgarity or inappropriate stuff mounted on his wall. I can respect that.

Greg gave us explicit instructions as well: You can name any continent, any city, anything you want, including “Greg sucks balls” or “Brandon is a jerk” or “Bonerland” (again, direct quotes), as long as you write legibly and don’t smudge the ink.

Ted saves the components that are destroyed. They get tucked under the box inlay. Greg’s group shreds them, and Winston takes great delight in reducing a card to fine confetti.

Minute 1. This game has destruction at its core

Game 1: “The Deep March”

Erik’s running late, so we play the first game with 4. The initial placement for this game is nonetheless crowded, with everything placing their base on the eastern half of the board (except for me, where I choose to place in Australia and hole up). The very first turn Jessica uses her starting units to try to eliminate Greg and take his base. It doesn’t work, and the two are effectively crippled for the rest of the game. Wow. That never would’ve happened in the Vessennes campaign. Winston is close enough that swooping in and taking the fallen factions looks plausible, but he’s far enough that it’ll take him some time. Meanwhile, I’m able to sit back, gain extra troops, and get a few cards by using the special ability that allows me to take them when I grab 4 territories, even if they were empty beforehand (a power not available in Ted’s version). It’s a huge boon early game.

In a short few turns, I’m able to march across the board and claim Winston’s undefended base. A turn later I’m able to claim another for the victory. I name Australia “The Imperial Hall of Ra,” in line with the ideas of my faction (Imperial Balkania) and a play on my last name.

In Greg’s campaign the winner gets to sign the board AND give that game a name. I choose “The Deep March” for the global push I make from pole to pole and across the map. The color we infused, of the clip-clop of hundreds of Imperial soldiers marching across the globe, their rhythmic steps heard from miles away in the eerie silence of a still undeveloped world,

Game 2: “Victory…At What Cost?”

The next game I’m kept from Australia, as it’s viewed as too powerful. Erik’s finally able to make it, so the board is much more crowded. Greg mentions, in an almost casual manner, “I kind of don’t want to see Brandon win twice in a row.” It’s just enough politicking to get everyone on board with keeping me out of it. Winston takes the victory by being basically unassailable for the whole game, then exploding with a burst of units. He names a city, the rest of us take a mix of cities and card upgrades.

Game 3: An Unpredictable Table

Midway through this game it becomes very apparent to me that a couple players at the table are prone to unpredictable, often dangerous and ill-advised moves. It’s important to remember, as the areas they inhabit could be hazardous to be near, but also potentially valuable targets if the battles in that region go poorly. That’s what happens this game, as a number of crazy moves from Jessica make for a destabilized and impotent North America, with no real opposition against Winston to build his power base again and, despite starting a point down from the other players, take the second win. Don’t remember what we called it.

PACKET OPENING: SECOND SIGNING

When a player wins and signs the board for the second time a packet opens. While not as massive a change to the game, it still added interesting components that I look forward to experiencing.

WHERE WE STAND

Ted’s Campaign:

Aaron: 1 win

Brandon: 1 Win

Ted: 1 Win

Packets Open: 9 minor cities

Australia is being constantly modified with the tools we have on hand to make it more difficult to take and hold. It’s full of cities nobody can start in, all of them some form of Detroit. DMark hates Detroit, I think. I want to say it’s extreme, but my victories in both games have come from springing forth from Australia.

Greg’s Campaign:

Brandon: 1 win

Winston: 2 wins

Packets Open: Second Win

A second win so quickly is surprising. Not having that starting point is a big deal, but somehow, when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Winston was the one on top. I expect the table to retaliate in future games.

The Question remains…

After three games I can say I’m enjoying myself in both campaigns, but the two feel very different. Ted’s group is fun, but very imposing. There are efforts to get into the mythos of the game, but in the end we’re all gamers, and the games are filled with swift numbers crunching and a huge amount of lobbying to get opponents to hold off attacks on us, or hit people in the lead so we can be left to amass our own army and take over the poor sap we convinced to do the dirty work.

Greg’s game is filled with uncertainty. It’s a spread of experience and tactics, from cold and calculated to random kamikaze. It also seems better suited to thematic involvement, though the best story to arise so far has come from Ted’s campaign.

Will one campaign ruin the other? Ted’s campaign is going to go quicker I think; it’s scheduled next, and seems to have more steam than Greg’s. One packet has been opened on each side; different ones, though the one at Ted’s has more content. Ideally, though Greg’s game will meet less often, more games will be played per session, keeping us level with Ted. The packets are designed to open in swift order, so that should even out quickly, and the foreknowledge of what is in them won’t affect my decisions in-game, towards keeping them closed or forcing them open. I am cautiously optimistic that I can keep one campaign separate from the other, and not spoil them for myself or for the other players.

Too Many Ingredients Spoil the Soup

I hear about looking at the past through rose-colored glasses with movies a lot, but it happens with board games too. It’s a part of why I still love Monopoly. Solarquest, a similar game but in space (not space-themed Monopoly, the rules and board were different), held a lot of my childhood attention, but quickly faded in college when I realized how broken the system is. Some games hold up; I still like Settlers of Catan, and Risk is alright for what it is. But one game that has not held up so well, as evidenced by a recent play-through with a couple friends, is my previously loved expansion to Settlers; Cities and Knights of Catan.

This old tarnished box contains the set of Settlers, Cities & Knights, the 5-6 player expansions, strategy notes, and 13 years of memories.

Overview

Nearly everyone is familiar with SoC. Not a lot of people have played with expansions. C&K is a nice idea on paper, expanding previously nebulous concepts into larger game mechanics. Specifically, development cards and “largest army” are replaced with progress cards and knights. Cities now produce commodities for certain resources, and those commodities buy city upgrades. These upgrades provide players with a chance to earn progress cards in one of three categories; commercial, scientific, and military. This is where the previous development card powers go; monopoly, road building, year of plenty, etc., are now expanded into a number of different powers, some good, some great, some not so good. They’re earned by using a third die, the “event die,” which shows what type would be produced, and a red d6, which represents what level of that upgrade you need to earn a card.

Knights are no longer one-shot cards. You build knights, feed them, and place them on the roads you build. They can block cities, sever longest road chains, displace other knights and oust the robber baron. They also serve to protect the island of Catan; that event die has 3 spots that show a barbarian ship. After 9 total rolls of that, the barbarians show up, with strength equal to the number of total cities on the board (everyone starts with 1). All active knights become inactive, and you compare cities vs. knights. If the knights equal or beat the barbarians, the one who contributed most gets a victory point. If there’s a tie for contribution, those players get a progress card. If the knights aren’t enough, the one who contributed least loses a city, replacing it with a settlement. For ties, everyone who contributed least loses a city.

There’s a lot more “player interaction” in the game. By that I mean there are more ways to screw your opponents over. Knights can bounce the robber baron around, and a number of cards take resources, cards, or even knights from other players. The delicate balance of social interaction is negligible here, because everyone generally has what they need, and trading isn’t nearly as useful. The barbarian ship is a rough addition as well. If you’re in a position to get knights, chances are you have a lot. It’s not uncommon then to be in a position where you could activate all your knights and get the static victory point, or just contribute some and let the barbarians destroy somebody else’s city. If you’re lucky you can get multiple cities down, and everyone losing a point and a city is way better than gaining a point that doesn’t do anything.

Recap

We talked a bit about “tactical bitching” in a previous post. I’ll admit I was in a good position early on, but not so good as I thought I should be targeted. In retrospect, most of my bitching was of a calculated variety. I ran away with the game, which is what usually happens in a C&K game. There are ways to screw your opponents, but it’s generally a “rich get richer” setup to the game. Once I got one of the super-powerful commodity upgrades (produce a resource of your choice when a roll gives you nothing) I probably should have been hit with every card, baron, and trade designed to block my progress. And it would have been miserable. As it is, I got hit with every spy and many theft cards. And it wasn’t enough to stop me, not even close. And I still felt pretty put upon.

I remember the game as a super-fun addition to a game I already love. More toys, more powers, and more interactivity make for a better game, right? When it was over, I enjoyed myself, and I won, but I also felt bad, almost guilty for winning. Josh and I discussed it afterward. One thing he said stuck out:

“Nobody likes it when their stuff is torn down. In Catan you build roads, you work towards a goal, you have that feeling of progression. In C&K your stuff can get torn down, and nobody likes that.”

I think that’s a big part of it. There are a couple other little things I could point to. The Progress cards are imbalanced; some are crazy powerful, some are flat-out useless except for specific situations. The game has many avenues for points, so the game goes to 13, but it’s much more obvious who’s going to win earlier than that. In the end, the overall issue with me is that, where SoC is more often than not a slow-burning, close race throughout the game, C&K is a vicious scramble in a sand pit, with a king of the pile sussed out early, and a number of people getting bulldozed over the course of the game.

Final thoughts

I think it’s a shame that the C&K expansion isn’t out for the Xbox Live version of the game (it exists on other online sites that use the rules but eschew the licensing issues). But there’s a reason it doesn’t exist in a larger arena, and why there aren’t tournaments for it. The expansion is fairly imbalanced, not quite broken, but in the end it isn’t worth it to lash a bunch of pieces to a simple game.

I still think the expansion is neat, but yeah, it’s a lot of components that clog up an otherwise elegant game. The new stuff isn’t balanced, in game power or game pace. The game takes longer, and those extra minutes aren’t filled with a lot of joy. I think it’s going to be a while before this gets pulled out of the box again.

On Monopoly part 2: Beyond Boardwalk

I love Monopoly. This puts me in the vast minority of people in every gaming group I’ve been in since I was thirteen. And while I do enjoy the game, and defend it at every turn, I do also understand that it’s a pretty shite game. I have a lot to say about Monopoly, both good and bad.

This weekend was no exception.

Lots of people in the world love Monopoly. Some like it for its artistic merits, some appreciate the history (did you know that Monopoly games sent to POWs in World War II had hidden cash, maps, and tools to help soldiers escape?), and some crazy individuals are really excited about playing the game itself. A couple of friends named Noel Gunther and Richard Hutton got together with some friends around 1985, and realized why they stopped playing when they grew up. The game has issues; too long, too much luck, too much dead time. They set out to create a list of rules changes that would give the game more skill, more risk, more challenge and, ideally, more fun. They published a book in November 1986 called Beyond Boardwalk and Park Place (and you’ll have an easier time finding the book at your local library than that Amazon link), which codified their rules changes, added some history and a few gags, and made out to change the face of Monopoly. I’m told it didn’t sell well.

Cut to 2009. My friend and fellow games nut Toby (name changed to protect him) sends me a PDF of a book he found at the Worcester public library. I’m hooked on the idea, but I can’t get anyone to play the damn thing until years later, and that breaks bad due to a massive divergence in investment at the table. But I never lost hope, and this last weekend, in a campground it Pittsfield MA with a group of like-minded nerds, I finally got the session of Beyond Boardwalk I wanted. The results were mixed, but positive overall. I think.

Gentlemen, I’ve brought you here to discuss a proposition…

The Rules

I’ll assume you know most of the rules of Monopoly, but I’ll highlight a few overlooked ones. We didn’t use every rule Beyond boardwalk states, but we did use most of them. I’ll explain them here, as well as why I think they work so well.

1) Deeds now cost twice their list price to purchase outright. Otherwise they go into auction, starting at half the list price plus $10.

In Monopoly everyone starts with $1500. The total cost for every deed in the game is $5690. There’s enough money in the system to buy everything, and there’s very little consequence to buying everything you land on. This changes that. It Introduces a lot more auctions, yet gives an option to buy the deed with no contest. This way, every purchase you make is important. Buy too much too soon and you’re busted. The auction base price insures nobody can buy a deed for less than its mortgage value and sell it for a quick buck. On that note:

2) No mortgages. Deeds can be sold back to the bank for half price.

The way most Monopoly games work is, once you have your winning Monopoly, everything else gets mortgaged for cash. $10 and $20 rents are insignificant at that stage. So the board looks like a wasteland with a few high value locations designed to crush an opponent. With this rule, you need the cash, you have to lose the deed. And since you probably paid more for it than what you’re getting, it’s a loss some cannot afford to take.

3) $1 bills are gone; round all fees up to the nearest $5.

Everyone was all for this. Sometimes it’s fun to gripe over 2 dollars, but Monopoly has never been decided by single digit fees.

4) While in Jail, you cannot build, you cannot bid on deeds, and you only collect half the rent to which you’re entitled.

In the late game, Jail is super awesome. There’s nothing to buy, the Go money isn’t significant, and moving only increases your chances of hitting an opposing player’s monopoly. Not moving for up to 3 turns is great, usually, so this rule makes it much more of a risk.

5) Fees from Chance, Community Chest, Income and Luxury tax are paid into a Free Parking Pot. Hit the spot, get the pot.

This is in there because money exits the system so quickly, so this is a way to put some back in. Plus it’s fun to hit, honestly. Nobody landed on it, so it’s irrelevant.

6) You can only by houses immediately before you roll on your turn.

The optimal strategy in Monopoly is to build right before an opponent who could hit your spaces rolls. You minimize risk of getting hit with rent you can’t pay, and maximize the chances of that invested capital paying off immediately. Now there’s risk. It also speeds the game up, and gets around house auctions when there’s a housing shortage.

7) Uneven building

This house rule has been floating around for a while, and for a game with little disposable cash it’s a good strategic and pragmatic inclusion. Basically, once you have the monopoly, you can build freely. This means you can get a 3-house hard hitter without buying the other stuff up. It allows for another strategic element and, mini-spoiler, if one of the players used it better he would have won soundly.

8) Cash on hand is hidden information

The standard rules of Monopoly state that money is on the table, and if someone asks you are obligated to tell them how much cash you have. For a game with a lot of auctions, it’s important information, especially when you play with aggressive players who like to bluff you with up-bidding when they’re effectively broke. It’s another strategic element, and benefits those who are paying attention.

9) Trading options are expanded beyond assets.*

Officially, you can only trade deeds, cash, and that the “get out of jail free” card. This game allows house rule trades. A few quick examples are; immunity, short or long-term; forcing opponents to not trade with others; split income for Monopolies; etc. This can lengthen the game, but the wheeling and dealing is a critical component of Monopoly, and this has the chance to reward savvy players greatly. Our own addendum to this: trades and deals were fully binding. No promising free rides and reneging.

We didn’t use a rule that made the utilities part of the railroad system, because we felt it made railroads too powerful. We also updated the Income tax and Luxury Tax costs to current Monopoly standards ($200 and $100 at all times, respectively), and we were off.

The Four consulted the Codex, and did consign themselves to the Fates. The Game had begun.

Before The Storm

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

There were four of us: me, John Fraley, Auston Habershaw, and John Serpico, in that order. A prototypical game many months prior showed me that Fraley and Serpico would play with the kind of high-level competitiveness I was looking for. And based on stories of past games and what I knew of the man, Auston would be a strong fourth. He was also willing to play. Early on a small fight about starting pieces leads me to believe that I have picked the right men. Right next to us a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity was being played. The massive juxtaposition of these games, in play and in community, did not escape me, and while laughter was had, my stalwart companions and I silently agreed to solder through this gritty expanse that is a Monopoly game.

Early Play

I try not to discuss strategy too much when playing a game. If someone is new, and they ask my opinion, I’ll give it, but not otherwise, for many reasons. One is that it bogs down the explanation of the game. Another is that it’s usually un-welcome; you don’t sit at a game to have it played for you, and God Damn it if I can’t get that thought through to some of my hard-core gamer acquaintances. And unless you’re trying to sweet-talk and subtly manipulate other players into doing what you want (a somewhat dirty, but totally legal tactic; I call it Silver Tongue, and Ted Vessenes is a master of it) it hinders your chances of winning. The Beyond Boardwalk game I envision is full of cutthroat men eager to leverage every asset they can bring to bear. So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I kept mostly silent when I saw some dangerous early mistakes being made.

Everyone at the table seems to think that, now that deeds cost twice their list price, that they’re actually worth that. Auston plows through with the habit of buying everything he lands on outright, while auctions see deeds going for very close to double the list price. That’s all well and good when these are deeds you need, but nobody really needs them. If you land on a deed, send it to auction, and buy it for less than twice the list price, you saved yourself some money. But if someone else landed there, and you dropped that cash , you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. So it was that I held back, hung on to my cash, and waited for people to drain themselves. Auston was tapped fairly quickly. Serpico and Fraley lasted longer, but their purchases were too unfocused. I fought to get a couple of the light purples and little else. To be fair, they never panned out.

At one point I have one yellow, Serpico has the other. Someone lands on the third, and Fraley and Auston bow out of the bidding quickly. Up until now deeds have been going for hefty costs. So when Serpico bids around $200 for Ventnor, low by any standards, I simply let him have it, to some confused looks. Now I decided it was time to discuss a bit of strategy.

“Anyone know why I did that?” I ask, in my best educator’s voice. Silence. I’m not hiding my money that well, so they know it’s not lack of funds. “Serp and I already have the yellows. Whether he or I have the third, we still have it between us, and one is just as good as two.” Auston picks up on what I’m getting at, Fraley gets it a minute later. I hope I don’t sound condescending in my explanation; I genuinely want the people I’m playing with to learn Monopoly and play it better.

I wasn’t bragging. I swear.

Somewhere along the line Serpico gets Boardwalk. When Park Place gets hit, Fraley and Auston aren’t in any position to bid. I convince Serp to let me have it for the low price of $250, and in exchange I give it to him in exchange for the yellows. It’s good news for me and Serp, bad news for Fraley and Auston.

Mid Game

All I have for deeds are two light purples that didn’t pan out, and the yellow Monopoly. And I couldn’t be happier. In plain Monopoly, you can buy deeds crazily. Even when you don’t need them, the trading fodder is a wonderful thing to have, and the ability to simply block Monopolies is often reason enough to sit on a deed. But what many people don’t realize is, once you have a monopoly of sufficient strength, everything else is ancillary, if you have money to develop it. And all my not-buying is paying off now.

With uneven building I decide to spread a few houses between two deeds. It’s early enough that I could spend heavily on development and not worry about hitting a big rent, but also early enough that too many deeds are out there to be out of bidding power. Still, I try to take advantage of the situation; a couple of players are coming up on my area, with a 6 and 7 putting them on Atlantic and Ventnor respectively. The timing is too good to ignore. I don’t recall if it paid off the first time, but it did at least once, and in a game as cash-strapped as this, once is enough.

Fraley and Auston are suffering, but they have potential between them. I have cash to develop, but I wait. And it’s a good thing I do; the third Orange goes up to bid. Auston can’t get it, but if Fraley can they’ve already talked out some trades that give them monopolies. So I do what might be the most tactical and vicious thing I do this session; I buy it. I have the money to outbid, and I have every intention to sit on it. Without that lynchpin to make the trade, Fraley and Auston don’t have a deal to make.

My yellows begin to pay off. The writing’s on the wall for Auston. Cards Against Humanity roars on in the background providing numerous raunchy laughs to everyone, but here in Atlantic City we’re settling in for the grind.

It’s hard to determine when Serpico is feeling down, or when he’s trying to garner some sympathy through tactical bitching. What’s tactical bitching? Flashback…

BBQ’ing in Serpico’s backyard, a bunch of nerds are talking nerdy stuff. A discussion of the game Small World comes up. Erik is telling a tale of a friend who would whine and moan every time he was attacked. “Oh come on,” “Aw Jeez,” and my all-time hated one, “I’ve lost now,” all come spilling forth. Until the last turn.

“Okay, I’m going to attack [REDACTED].”

“Aww, damn, I… oh wait, I’ve taken all my turns, never mind.” His whining is that calculated kind of manipulation to throw people off his scent. I’ve known players like that. I hate players like that. Serpico hates players like that. So imagine my surprise when…

“The game’s pretty much done, I’m screwed. I just wanna build my house, just to be part of something.”

Here’s the thing; whether or not you think you’re out, you’re not out, so I don’t buy it. We know the score. You stamp three houses on either dark Blue, you’re not out. The one thing that throws me, however, is that he builds on Park Place, not Boardwalk. My guess is that, at the time, a 7 would’ve landed an opponent there, and once he committed to building there he stuck with it. But Boardwalk isn’t that much different from getting hit, probability-wise. In fact, it gets hit more, on account of the Chance card that sends you there. Hindsight is 20-20, and a couple of people did hit Boardwalk while it was still undeveloped. That would’ve been the turning point for Serpico. And while he moaned about being out, I was quick to note that he only needed one person to hit him and he was essentially the victor.

Therein lays one of the problems of Monopoly. You only feel good when other people are getting screwed. Every time someone skirts by your properties it’s a kick in the teeth. No matter how much you tweak the game, at its core you’re still at the whim of the dice.

Feels this way sometimes

End Game

Things are looking down for Fraley; he hits Serp at Boardwalk for a decent amount. But now is the perfect time to enact another one of Beyond Boardwalk’s more interesting rules

10) Voluntary Bankruptcy

The way it works is, at any time when you’re not in debt you can voluntarily declare bankruptcy. You turn in all cash and deeds to the bank. You then get Baltic, Mediterranean, and $800. If anyone owns them they get $120 per deed, plus full price for any houses and hotels on them. Auston gets $240, Fraley passes go and has $1000 to work with. He doesn’t build on the Browns (another change in the new Monopoly sets; the “dark purples” are now brown).

It’s a funny scenario. There are now a bunch of deeds in the bank that nobody but one guy can afford. He’s able to buy the same deeds that got him in trouble, but way cheaper. It’s like Freddie Mac all over again.**

Auston bankrupts on my spot. There’s a bit of argument as to what happens with his deeds. The official rule is this: when a player bankrupts on a player, all his assets go to the player who took him out. I get the deeds, but I don’t have the cash to improve on them. Not letting others have them is good enough.

Fraley can’t get a monopoly. Serpico finally hits my yellows and has to break down his dark blues. That’s effectively game end, so we call it. I win, and I thank everyone profusely for the game.

The win doesn’t feel like I thought it would. I think it’s because Monopoly is a game about crushing your opponents, and it doesn’t feel great to do that. You want everyone to have fun, and it’s hard for everyone to have fun in Monopoly; it’s usually just the one guy at any given time.

Post Mortem

One exchange Fraley and I had during the game I found very heartening:

Fraley: “Hmm. I learned something during this game.”

Me: “…Uh, are you going to tell us what that is?”

Fraley: “No.”

Me: “Hmm. Well, let me ask you this. Are you not telling me because it’s information you hope to use against me in a future play of this?”

Fraley: “Yes.”

Me: “Well that’s way better than knowing what it is you learned. I look forward to our next game.”

I still love Monopoly, from the stretches of tedium to the brief moments of triumph and defeat when that one (un)lucky roll hits. I’m becoming more acutely aware that I may be the only one, or at least one of a few, too few in my circle to get a game going. But I won’t stop fighting for it.

* Auston told us that when he used to play with friends they would sell die rolls. Like, if another player needed that 7 to hit a deed they wanted, and another player rolled it, they’d look at the dice, look at the player, and say, “for $100, that could be YOUR seven…” It never occurred to me that your roll could be a sell-able asset. I think I wouldn’t like it, but it’s a neat idea.

** It’s not like Freddie Mac