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.

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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.
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*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.

The Co-Op Conundrum

While I like winning, – and trust me, I do – the primary reason I play board games is not to crush my enemies into a fine dust, but to spend some time with friends in a way that I enjoy. The best games are ones where it is fun when you’re winning, but it’s also fun to lose. So in theory, Co-Op games would have an immense appeal. You have to interact with the people you’re playing with, and if things go well then everyone wins. A well designed Co-Op game can offer all the avenues for clever plays that a standard game does; you just use your ingenuity against the game itself, rather than an opponent. In fact, for all their potential, it might be in some ways surprising that I don’t play Co-Op games very often.

“I like this game because most Co-Op games feel like the smartest player in the room is playing while everyone else just watches” – Erik “Spooky” Volkert, about Sentinels of the Multiverse

Maybe I keep playing Co-Op games in the wrong setting, but Erik’s take on them rings true.  A game that requires the cooperation of all players requires a very similar level of experience and a boatload of trust to work out well, more so than any other game. When a player makes a mistake it no longer screws things up for that singular player but rather it can affect everyone’s chances of winning. The result is generally the person who formulates the overall plan of attack ends up directing all of the action.

Of course, no one is required to listen to the person trying to direct the action. A group can try to play a game based around cooperation as a bunch of separate entities, but not only does it not generally work but it also defeats the purpose of playing a Co-Op game in the first place. And when that group does eventually lose – and if the game is at all well-built, they will – there is a level of frustration that the “smarter” player will experience that is beyond most anything else in gaming. When you lose a regular board game, there can be a certain level of frustration, sometimes directed at yourself for a stupid play, sometimes because someone else played kingmaker and you weren’t king. But the frustration of someone who was supposed to be on Your Team making you lose is a level far beyond, because it’s something that is out of your control but feels like it should be. And if you win despite some poor play by one or more of the players? Then you (I) get the feeling like maybe this game wasn’t well balanced. A good Co-Op game is one where you feel like even if you play well, it’s still possible that you lose.

So, let’s step back to Sentinels of the Multiverse and all its comic book glory.

First off, the theme is strong, and the mechanics feel pretty natural. Sukrit’s character keeps discarding cards to deal damage to himself and the villain, Brandon’s Hulk-like hero Haka is a tank by drawing lots and lots of cards and then discarding them rather than taking damage. Spooky takes a versatile but weak bard-ish guy, I grab a martial artist/janitor, Roger ends up with the Batman equivalent and when Dave comes in right as we’re about to begin he finds himself with the Flash.

Each turn involves a little bit of strategizing as we decide what has to be done this turn and who can take care of it. This is where Sentinels of the Multiverse shines. Since everyone has a hand full of cards, it is difficult and would be extremely time consuming for the person who knows the game best (Spooky) to look at each player’s hand and figure out what would be optimal. There’s too much information to process and the fact that they are “hands” means that even though this is a place where information is of course both public and worth sharing, the tendency learned from games of poker and rummy and the like growing up is to hold your cards so no one else can see. This hidden information tactic and pure multiplicity of options are both really solid attempts by the designers to avoid the takeover by the smartest player in the room. That is, unless they lean over and peek at your hand because hey, you’re new and not sure what you really CAN do, and, well here, let me help you out here…

Which ended up happening, rather consistently. I’m not mad about it and there were fairly good reasons. Roger is still pretty new to the complicated board game thing, and poor Dave walked in right as we were beginning the first turn, so he had to try to pick the thing up on the fly. Both of them sat next to Spooky, who brought the game and really wants people to like it.* So what happened felt like a four player game, with the four people who are all Capital-G-type Gamers.

This brings me back to the appeal and frustration I’ve had with most Co-Op games. If we in the gaming hobby want to bring others into the hobby, and think that Co-Op is a good way to do it, we need to sit back, let people understand what they’re doing, and probably lose a few games. And if we want to be just part of the machine that defeats the game, we need to be playing with people whose moves we respect and who will in turn respect our moves.  I haven’t really sat down and played a Co-Op game with Brandon, but I bet it’d be a lot of fun, and no matter what game it was, neither one of us would sit back and let the other assume that they were the smartest player in the room.

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*As a side note, I totally caught myself helping out my girlfriend in a competitive game of Factory Fun last night, where I managed to snag her one extra point in a game she eventually won by two points (afterwards I was thankful my influence wasn’t the deciding factor). When you’re introducing someone to a game I find it natural to want to help them out so they can feel the full richness of the game, but I’m coming around to the “dammit, just let them play!” train of thought. After all, not only did she win, but for all my smarts and the fact that I bought the game, I only came in third.

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.

About Last Night: Unity Games XIX

Brandon:  Unity Games is a convention of sorts, though there aren’t really vendors or panels or stuff you’d normally associate a convention with.

Josh:  They seem to go with “event.”

Brandon:  That’s appropriate.  It is essentially a gathering of board-gamers, organized by the BoardGameGeek community, specifically the New England contingent.  It’s a sort of socialist gathering, in that everyone brings their games, and freely allows everyone attending to borrow and play them, with the implicit agreement that they will not damage or steal the contents.  It totally works.  I was introduced to Unity by a friend of mine when I first moved to Boston five years ago.  I have been attending it ever since.

This year’s event was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Danvers, MA.  Swanky place, it even has a giant indoor water park.  I got up around 8:00 and out the door by 9:00.  At 9:45 I’m playing the first of many games to come (which we’ll give quick reviews of later).

Josh:  This was my first year at Unity, and I honestly wasn’t sure to expect. All my details were, well, not details. Where, when, how much and Boardgames was about all I knew.  So I got up around 10 and left around 11. When I arrived, I put my coat down and immediately found Brandon playing Spinball outside of the main room.

Brandon: Which was a treat since it’s rare, expensive, and I will never own a copy.

Josh: A few other tables with different games were set up and a few people were milling around. The charity auction had a stack of 50 or so games and there was a table with two guys taking money and handing out nametags. I asked myself if this was really it and if maybe I’d end up at my girlfriend’s friend’s friend’s party that night after all.

And then I stepped into the grand ballroom, which was about the size of a football field and filled with about 500 people, all of whom seemed to be immersed in games. Oh. So this is what I’m here for.

Brandon:  Yup.  Unity was in Woburn the last few years, but moved here because there was more space.  IMO there still wasn’t enough.

While waiting for Josh I jumped into a game of Legendary with 4 other guys who have never played.  Quick review: it’s Ascension with Marvel heroes, and not very special.  But hey, new game!  That’s one of the 3 major things I have to do at Unity, play new games.

I’m anxious to get into a game with Josh, so he can start loving Unity as much as I do.  I think my wishes are granted immediately, as we find a 3rd person willing to teach us Eclipse, a pretty robust space exploration game.  So imagine my dismay when we find that the guy has only played it once, doesn’t know how to teach it, isn’t sure he has all the components, and the table we can find to play isn’t nearly large enough.

Josh:  Thankfully we got out of it with a switch to King Of Tokyo, a game I’ve heard as the “light” game that’s worth playing. I don’t remember how long the game took but it felt like 5 minutes and it wasn’t quite as fun as I wanted it to be considering that I had heard it was good, but at least now I know.  I suggested grabbing lunch, in part to find new gaming partners, and in part because it’s a biological necessity to eat and my body was reminding me of that. After a quick bite to eat I returned to the football field sized room and figured now was as good a time as any to figure out what I actually wanted to do here.

Brandon:  Which was a good idea, because I would have been content staying, gaming, not eating, and eventually wasting away.  As opposed to eating my sandwich and bouncing up and down in Subway while Josh wonders why he’s friends with a man-child.

See, Unity is a bit overwhelming.  It is essentially all the games, and almost certainly the people who want to play them (I never did get that Monopoly game off the ground in 2010 though).  Anyone who has tried and failed to get together a game night just once knows how great this is.  It also gives me that feeling of anxiety when I hit conventions; I can’t focus on having fun, because I’m too worried about the stuff I’m going to miss out on.  “Lunch?  Damn man, the demo of Donald Vaccarino’s mad scientist game Nefarious is demoing and we’re missing it!”  Or even better; “We gotta get more gaming in.  this closes at midnight, we’ve only got… 10 more hours!”

So maybe it’s just as well that we sort of split up when we get back.  Honestly I feel a little bad about it; Josh said at lunch that, while my priorities at Unity are to play as many games with as many people as I can, his plan was to play games with me, and also other people that would be fun to play with.  But he sees some improv friends, and I really want to try this Nefarious demo out, so we divide and conquer.

Josh: Keeping track of our afternoons and evenings in tandem is a logic puzzle that would give even expert solvers a tough time. Instead, let me tell you I had a lot of fun, and here are some of my highlights and thoughts on the evening:

  • I found my friends Nick and Casey playing Ginkopolis, which is the game that throughout the day is seemingly always being played near me. There were two games I had never seen/heard of before Unity that got a lot of buzz were definitely Ginkopolis and “that Mayan gears game” (later discovered that it was actually called Tzolk’in).

This ain’t your daddy’s Mouse Trap

  • My initial fear of going to Unity was who I was going to play games with. For me, playing a game with the right person is usually more important than what game we’re playing, so finding Nick and Casey (and their group of friends) was a godsend. I didn’t actually play a single game with either of them, but I played games with people they knew and got to avoid getting stuck in a game with someone who was too competitive or too slow or too smelly. Every game I played was with people I enjoyed who were friendly, smart and just the right amount of competitive. I’d play with any of them again.
  • Village (a worker placement game wherein part of your goal is to kill some of your workers so that they may be placed in the graveyard) may be the most in depth game I’ve played, or it might be a bunch of bullshit where it feels like you’ve got strategies but in fact you don’t. I’m not positive. That said, the guy who won is apparently “the guy who always wins” among his peers, so it might not be bullshit.
  • While we’re on Village: In most game groups there seems to be a guy who has a distinct style of play that when it leads to victory everyone says “oh man, there he goes again.” For me, it’s my friend Dan who figured out the Chapel Strategy in Dominion before the rest of us. In Village, the guy who won’s strategy involved hoarding cubes and then going to market when he could fulfill 4 orders and the rest of us couldn’t fill any. Final scores were something like 73, 51, 46 and 32. Second place isn’t much of a moral victory when first place was that far ahead.
  • Nefarious, on the other hand, I feel more confident putting in the “mostly bullshit” category. Which is too bad. The theme is cool and the gameplay is interesting, but the options felt extremely limited and I didn’t feel like I had much chance for strategy. I’d play again, but I wouldn’t buy it or advise anyone else to buy it either.
  • Factory Fun was played twice, because even in this gaming land of opportunity, where you can go find ANY game you want, this was so enjoyable that everyone agreed to take 5 and run it back. The gameplay is relatively quick, and the only major flaw I found in my two plays through is that the first two grabs seem fairly arbitrary (and if they are supposed to be, then why not just deal out two machines from the start?). By round three though, when you might want to let a part go, it really shines. And the expert maps are… challenging. If you played Pipe Dream on an old windows PC and enjoyed it, then you’ll like this game. Also, if you like yelling “it’s not a dump truck! It’s a series of Tubes!!”, then look no further.

Senator Stevens would be proud

Brandon: I had tons of fun too. Allow me to expound my earlier reviews, give my impressions, and address some of Josh’s points with a few of my own.

  • I remember distinctly a time when I went to Unity with friends and stressed about playing games with them.  We wasted time, didn’t get much in, and had to leave early.  So while I really like going and playing with friends, it’s one of those places where I usually end up throwing myself out to the crowd to find stuff to play and people to play with.  It forces me to be social, and it’s the most forgiving crowd; everyone’s there to game, without shame or hesitation.
  • Legendary.   I really want to like this, but after one play, I can’t imagine breaking out all the components when Ascension plays the same way and has less setup.  You have your starting decks, various heroes to get shuffled, the villain deck which has minions and major villains, the mastermind, the schemes and scheme twists, bystanders, and a big board. You flip villains into a center row, buy heroes, and fight villains if you have the strength, which at the start you almost certainly won’t. You’re supposed to be working together, as there is a global lose condition, but really, whoever gets the most points wins. It’s okay, but not worth the price and time, even with the old-school comic artwork that’s all over everything in the game.
  • Goblins, Inc. was another game I saw a lot of.  I don’t know how it plays, but I sat next to a game and heard, “okay, this turn you have that goblin pilot the head, then he can switch to engineering and begin repairs while we attack.”  I want to be able to utter things like that, that’s one of the great things about board gaming.  You play a goblin team and build robots to do battle with other goblins.  I don’t know about the game mechanics, but the theme sounds great.
  • Nefarious really is mostly bullshit.  I’m glad Josh and I agree here.  I can almost see the steps that led to it:  you have a game with a lot of mad science kookiness, but it’s thin on mechanics.  You have all these ideas that could make the game better.  So you throw them in as “twists” and have the players flip two over to modify the current game.  And you didn’t bother testing them, because hey, the game plays so quick, why bother?  And you end up with a half-game with a half-mechanic that ranges from boring to broken (with admittedly some good cards in the spectrum, not sure how many).  I’m just a little pissed that I was kept from gaming with friends to play it.  Donald Vaccarino made Dominion, for Christ’s sake!  He can do better.
  • The second major thing on my Unity checklist is to play games I have heard about, but won’t get a chance to play due to their high cost, scarce availability, or the knowledge that I could never get a group together to play them.  I didn’t even know Space Cadets was out, so I was super excited to play it.  It’s insanely complicated, and it wore out its welcome before we were done, around the 2 hour mark.  But there was someone to teach it, people to play it, and while it wasn’t the amazing experience I built up in my head, it was still a lot of fun, and I will definitely look to buy it. If nothing else it will be a cool exercise in teaching a complicated game to a group in a reasonable amount of time.

Everyone’s got a job to do. Not pictured: torpedo firing range, sensor kit, captain tearing his hair out.

  • Damnit I wanted to play Factory fun.  And I never did get a game of Eclipse.  Or Ascending Empires.  Or Galaxy Trucker.  I would see games of them going on, and be busy playing another game.  But I had fun.  It’s important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees here.
  • In the wee hours I played Ticket To Ride Nordic with Josh and Samuel, a guy I sort of know from curling.  I won.  It was pretty sweet.

The closing hours

After the Ticket to Ride game Josh headed out.  And for good reason, it was 11:00pm, maybe later.  I didn’t play any games after that (except one round of Loopin’ Louie.  I’m not proud of it).  But I did get to do the last and, I think, most enjoyable thing on my Unity checklist; teach new games.

There were a lot of Android: Netrunner copies floating around (at number 7 on BGG you better believe it), and a lot of people who wanted to play but didn’t know how.  It’s a difficult game to just pick up.  But I was able to help a few people through the initial stages of the game.  I also got to teach Carcassonne, and introduce my own meeple lexicon to a group.  And a few guys were playing Innovation for the first time, and I did a little Q&A for some of the more obscure rules (remember, you can’t get a regular achievement unless you have enough points and a card of that age or higher in your tableau).

Unity isn’t perfect. It’s perennially crowded, loud, and not terribly well-organized. This is what happens when you strip away the trappings of a convention. The booths, vendors, industry moguls and independent developers, the panels and stage shows, and countless advert handouts are shuffled off, and what we are left with is the mutual agreement of hundreds of people whose singular focus is to game. To play games. To teach games. To buy, sell, and trade old and new titles, ensuring that old games find new life, and new games can become old favorites. To devote as much as a full day in the pursuit of that spirit of gaming. It’s a full day of Any Game Good, and I think that says it all.

Unity Games 2011 (you know its from years ago because its so much smaller). My kind of crowd.

The Collectable Card Game: they all end the same way

A few weeks back, Brandon told me about a new game he was excited about. This is not an uncommon experience, Brandon’s exuberance for new things is one of his finer (if occasionally good naturedly mocked) qualities. He has diligently tried to get me to enjoy Disc Golf, Monday Night Combat, Dominion and plenty of other things with varying degrees of success (I prefer Ultimate, I prefer MW3, Dominion is one of my all time favorites).

This time the new game was an online card game called SolForge.

Brandon:  Oh yeah, I think this game’s gonna be sweet.  It’s designed by Gary Games, the guys who do Ascension, and Richard Garfield, the originator of Magic: The Gathering. It’s a CCG, free-to-play, and as you play cards, leveled-up versions enter your deck.  It’s a cool idea that couldn’t really be implemented physically, and I’m hoping it marks the start of a new wave of digital board games using cool new ideas that only work in the digital space.

Josh: It does look cool! And while I don’t love Ascension as much as Brandon, I would certainly try another game by the creator. But in the description of the game there was one little thing that made me pretty discouraged: “It’s a CCG”

Magic Powercards

This isn’t Magic for most people…

Brandon:  I want to get indignant for this.  But at the same time I think I know exactly what you mean. 

Josh: I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering in my teen years. I have vague memories of the first time I was in Davis Sq (where I now live) visiting the two cardshops that sold Magic cards and had places to play. At my parent’s house I still have stacks and stacks of cards, and almost collected every card in the Weatherlight set. But there came a point when I realized that as time moves forward, so must your collection, lest you be left behind with inferior cards. Cards that were once powerful were made better in the newer expansions and unless you bought more and more and more cards, you’d never be able to compete. Quitting Magic coincided with my first plays of Dungeons and Dragons and Settlers of Catan. After spending hundreds of dollars on Magic cards, the thoughts of a one time purchase for similar levels of entertainment were delightful. While the core mechanics of M:tG were a lot of fun, I found far far more enjoyment out of building decks out of “proxy” cards; index cards on which was written the stats for the card it replaced. The “power creep” is what renders every CCG unenjoyable for those who do not want to devote more and more money for a game that rapidly finds itself jumping the shark. Combine this with the random nature of buying packs of cards and you get an addiction that while healthier than gambling or cocaine, follows the same pattern.

Brandon: It’s kind of funny we’re talking about this right now.  I went to a game gathering around the street from my place this weekend.  the place was the clubhouse for the New England Sci-Fi Association (NESFA).  Among the many and varied events I experienced, one was the back store-room.  Amongst the duplicate (and sometimes triplicate) copies of every Dominion expansion published, there was a stack of plain white boxes with old Magic cards.  I was told no less than 5 times over the course of the day that I could take them, as well as a couple comments that they would be thrown out, or shunted to a free pile for an upcoming convention.  These things really do pile up.
 
I should say I actually like M:tG, except for the abrasive community and the deck-building and the cost and the tendency to random bad draws ruining a hand.  Which should imply that I hate M:tG. But I honestly think SolForge will fix these four things specifically.
Josh: See, I loved the deck building, and didn’t even mind the random bad draws part too much, but the cost is what did me in. Both in terms of time and money. I’m not sure how SolForge can fix these problems and still be “collectible” because you can make lots more money if there are more things to collect and this is the trap that every CCG falls into. I’m not saying that the want for expansions to a game you like isn’t a legitimate one or that companies shouldn’t try to get more money out of something worth playing, mind you. If Nintendo had come out with Super Mario 64 II with no new powers, just new levels? I would’ve bought it in a heartbeat. Dominion continues to come out with expansion after expansion, and while power creep is a bit of an issue, everyone’s playing from the same pool of cards and you can simply not buy the newer ones and get away with it just fine. And yes, for some CCGs, even M:tG, you’re not required to buy new cards to continue enjoying the old ones.  But it’s “Collectible,” it’s right there in the title.  More cards come out, new options, and you really do have to buy them to get that full experience, or avoid the game getting stale after multiple plays.  I’m not sure how SolForge can promise to not fall into the usual CCG moneygrab if it offers you random cards via “booster packs.” The gameplay behind the shell does indeed look cool. The concept of level upped cards in a deck is fun, but I can’t see myself spending any money on a game that requires me to keep spending or risk losing out on what makes the game great.
6000 commons and uncommons

…this is what Magic looks like

Brandon:  I see what you mean.  And that’s a big part of what makes Dominion and the dozens of games now like it so successful; everyone gets to play from the same pool of cards.  Still, you do spend money on Dominion in order to enjoy it.  And I know what you’re thinking, Dominion plays fair and balanced without the expansions, it just offers more choice.  But tell me, doesn’t playing with the base set devolve into purchasing the 3 good cards each draw, ignoring the other crummy ones?  Your favorite cards are from expansions, not because they’re more powerful, but because they offer more choice, more flexibility.
Conversely, you can “get away with” not constantly upgrading your personal CCG deck some games.  Old Magic decks still contain the same fun of the game.  I’m admittedly not arguing for tournament play, and not just because my argument doesn’t hold up there.  But with friends, Magic is still fun with old decks, or janky promotional 40-card packs they give away at conventions and game store events.
 
So, in the midst of all this CCG talk, there’s really one thing I want to know:  can I convince you to try this game out with me?  We can try it, evaluate, decide if it merits more investment.  Just like any CCG, or indeed, any game that allows us to play for free.
Josh: I still do, and still would play with the base set Dominion, but I see your point about old MtG with friends. It holds some appeal, certainly. As for SolForge, I’ll certainly try it. Any Game Good. Just don’t expect me to put any money into it.

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

Invested

Friends in the Business

Since moving to Boston I have been very fortunate to meet a number of friends. Most of them were big board game aficionados. And a few were avid game designers.

Two friends were named Rob. One was named “Fake Rob,” not because he was less corporeal than the other, but because he was one of the lead minds behind Cambridge Games Factory ,* a local company that helps board game designers develop and polish their games and sell them under the CGF label. He always brings play-test and beta versions to game gatherings, so he got the moniker “Fake Rob” for always playing “fake” games.

Here’s a logo.

There’s something special about play-testing a board game. Being a part of a developing product, contributing to what makes it work, what makes it fun, is at times a very fulfilling venture. I love playing games, but I also love the opportunity to teach them to new people, and I love being able to give a developer feedback on what I think works and doesn’t. I’ve never designed an original game, but I’ve tinkered with old ones, added rules I think make the game more interesting, or make them flow better. When they work you feel pretty good, and when they don’t you generally shrug them off and move on. But sometimes you don’t, you can’t.

When you design a game, commercially or for fun, or you help develop it in the beginning, or even if you paid a great deal for it, something happens. You become invested. You want the game to succeed, you fight to make it fun, you’re upset when it isn’t, and you’re elated when it works. Its success is your success, and its failings become yours. Such is the case for me, and the soon-to-be published card game Grimoire Shuffle from Level 99 Games.

Here’s another logo

I gave to the Kickstarter that’s funding this and several other games. I won’t write about Kickstarter itself, but I will say I gave to this company partly because it’s a worthwhile project I want to see succeed, and partly because I’m getting some cool games at discount prices. And as a backer I was given links to download a print-and-play version of Grimoire Shuffle. While I didn’t design the game, and my $50 was by no means the tipping point in a very successful KS project, I still felt kind of bad-ass printing the game, cutting the cards into the right size, placing them into sleeves, and assembling the components for a game that most people won’t get to see for several months.

The First Playthrough

My first chance to play the game was a Monday game night. Six people played; Me, Josh, Jess, Dan, Sukrit, and Katie. The game is a team relay race through an ever-shifting library. Players use magical books to move through the library in different ways. Some books allow you to blow players back, some shift rooms, others allow you to pass through walls, etc. The catch is you never get to choose your own book; the team leader, which rotates regularly, chooses his teammates’ books, and the opposing leader’s book. It’s on him to set the stage for the best strategic movement of his team. He will fail often.

And put them back when you’re done!

A first play through of any game can be difficult, and one where the rulebook isn’t totally finished can add issues. Some things we forgot; I made the board too small. Other things were misprinted; the special rooms were named differently than the cards that caused them to be played. Some rules were just frustrating; you could give the opposing leader a book, but the best books you always kept, and one team had the only books that allowed movement through walls, which was a huge factor.

If THIS guy hasn’t made it out yet how are WE supposed to?!

In the end, we called it after one point scored, which took about an hour. There was an air of frustration, and a bit of disappointment. But I wasn’t willing to give up on a game I felt invested in.

Feedback

Brad David Talton Jr. is a fairly accessible guy. His e-mail is out there, he recently did an “IAmA game designer for Reddit” post, and he’s currently asking backers for their feedback. So I wrote him. I mentioned a couple rulebook grammatical issues and oddities, and how the game itself was frustrating at times. And he responded. He suggested a rule that a book is discarded and replaced form a team each round.

It was a simple exchange, but it felt cool to play a game and give the creator direct feedback, and then have him reply and update the game based on it (the new rulebook has that rule, so the other play-testers must have been having similar issues).

The Second Playthrough

This time it was 4 people; me, Katie, Fraley and Melissa. The game played a lot more smoothly, and the act of discarding a book each turn added a very exciting element. Leaders now have this additional factor to consider. At least one book has to go to the opposing team, and if you want to save a certain book, you have to give it to a teammate, because there’s no hoarding now. You could give it to the opposing team and hope it makes its way back to you, but that’s very unlikely. It makes the decision a more interesting one, and when a game gives you that moment where you hem and haw and agonize over what decision is best, it’s doing a wonderful thing.

We played to 4 books. Both teams played well. This second game gave me a much better picture of how the game as a whole is supposed to feel. There are some good strategic moments in the game, but the majority of the game is set in madcap, back-and-forth tug-of-war antics on the board. Once everyone realized that we weren’t playing a game where you think ahead 3 to 5 moves it progressed much more quickly.

Melissa and I won, 4 to 2. Afterward I sent Talton an e-mail about the game, our thoughts, and my thanks for the opportunity to help with the game. He hasn’t replied, but I’m sure he appreciates the feedback.  He wrote back a week later, giving his thanks and actually changing a game component I suggested was too powerful.  Sweet.

I’ll save you some time; it isn’t really like this

Gaming is more fun when you’re invested.  I’m using that word very deliberately, and with many meanings.  One meaning is a person’s emotional investment in the game as an activity.  Games work best when you care deeply about the outcome, otherwise why play?  the immersion in the activity is what makes it great.  Johan Huizinga calls it the “magic circle.”  While the game happens, it’s the most important thing in the world, and when it finishes, you can walk away.  Investment also refers to one’s personal connection to the game itself, the product that makes the game possible.  Printing the sheets, cutting and shaving the cards to fit into sleeves, printing a nice rule-book, and prepping the game for play gives you a small sense of pride.  And while it’s not an “investment” per se, putting money into a project to help it succeed gives you the teeniest tiniest sense of ownership in the final product, and it’s good to see something you like enough to donate money to is coming along nicely.

Grimoire Shuffle is an amusing game. It isn’t perhaps as amazing as I was envisioning it, but it fits the bill of a game that fits in your pocket, is (fairly) easy to explain, and has a decent depth of strategy. I’m guessing that repeated plays with different people will result in varied games based on how people prefer to play. If everyone tacitly agrees that they’re playing a thought-provoking, in-depth strategy, we will play that. If everyone is set to play a fast-paced race through the swiftly shifting shelves we will play that. Either way, I’m looking forward to the final product, and the games we’ll have.

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* The first board game I played when I came to Boston was a nearly finished version of Glory To Rome, published by CGF. It’s a very cool game, and I highly recommend it. The designer, Carl Chudyk, also made Innovation, which won BGG’s Best Card Game for 2010, and will certainly come up on the site at some point.

Knowing Just Enough To Completely Screw Up

Imagine you’re visiting a city you’ve been to before, but not in many years. You recognize some streets and landmarks. You have a vague sense of where things are, but you still need directions on how to get around. You decide that for dinner you’re going to go out to a restaurant you went to once before. On the way, you realize you don’t quite remember where that restaurant was, but you have a vague sense, and you recognize some of the buildings nearby. Rather than stop and look at a map and reassess where you are and where you think you’re going, you rush in the general direction of things that look familiar. Your actions are bold! But, if we’re honest about this scenario, your actions are also likely to find you hungry and eating whatever fast food is around when you realize that you’ve been lost for the last hour and a half.

“Ok, so if we’re at downtown crossing, and we’re trying to get to the Aquarium…”

Sadly, I’ve had this experience recently in boardgame form. Let me explain:

Over the past two weeks when Brandon and I have gotten together to play board games, we expanded from the two of us to a small group of 4 or 5. And with the varying levels of skill and relative newness to board-gaming among the group (Brandon and I being huge nerds, John being an experienced player, Dan and G having played a few games but still relatively new to Euro style games) we decided to go with one of the classics: Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is one of my favorite intro games because it has a lot going on but has the relatively simple mechanic of role selection. In addition, it seats 5 and has very little in the way of directly screwing someone over for the sake of screwing someone over; these are all things that I think were beneficial knowing the personalities of all who were in attendance. And while I hadn’t played PR in years (2009 is my best guess, but it very well could have been 2008), I had a sense for the general flow of the game and only needed a quick refresher on the rules. After all, I had played a great deal of Race for the Galaxy in the interim, and Race is basically just Puerto Rico in Space… right?

Amusingly enough, what I had done was set myself up for the opposite scenario as to what I did so well in my Ticket To Ride post. Rather than re-examine the game with a fresh set of eyes, I tried to follow strategies I had floating around in the back of my head. Rather than focus on the tactics of what other people were doing, I focused on what I thought they should be doing based on my flawed strategy* based on vague recollections from years past.

Turns out, Puerto Rico is a game based on a strategy of getting money early to develop an engine that gets you victory point chips late (if you want to read waaayyyy too much on the strategy and tactics of a game of Puerto Rico, I highly recommend that link).** And while I did build an engine, it was clunky and slow and by the time it got going, I was easily outmaneuvered in the late game. My very first play of the game was builder so I could get a building that I remembered to be strong (everybody’s gonna be jealous that I got the hacienda!) was a poor one, and by the time I had gotten some goods worth trading, no one was trading anymore.

Relative newbies to the field of boardgaming had figured out the underlying pitfalls of focusing on shipping much faster than I did. I had knowledge from Race that not only did not serve me, but blinded me when it became clear to others. Knowledge is power, but having only a little bit of knowledge and making assumptions off of it is dangerous.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. – William Shakespeare

In sum: When playing a game, getting stuck in a routine rather than reexamining where you are won’t win you many games. And just like revisiting a foreign city, its best to double check the map before you go, and if you can’t find that favorite restaurant, you might be able to find a new path towards a good meal.

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*Quick note on terminology here. I’m using strategy to mean a long term philosophy that can be followed over the length of the game. Tactics are individual moves based on the current (and a few upcoming) turns. So for example, both PR and Innovation are tactical games, but Innovation does not lend itself to much strategic planning.

**In doing a little reading on Puerto Rico for this post, I ran across this and have a lot to say about it. Its coming in another post.