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.

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.