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.

On Monopoly, Part 1: Home Sweet House Rules

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.

It was true for me as a child, and it is true today.

Look at this Suave motherfucker

When you’re a kid you don’t usually appreciate the subtleties of a complex board game. Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Cooties, Hi-Ho Cherry-O, these are your choices. They teach us simple things like counting, pattern recognition, colors, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit about probabilities and a lot about luck. They are designed to entertain children, and give families an activity to share. Monopoly does these things, but ask your parents if their goal in playing Monopoly was to teach you about savvy trading, auctioneering, probabilities on dice rolls, return on investment and cost analysis. Their goal was to keep their kids from chewing the house down. And the things that make that more effective are; lengthening the game, not eliminating players, not punishing kids who will throw fits, and generally keeping the “game” as an activity to share, not a cutthroat endeavor to reduce your opponents to nothing but pocket lint and a scowl.

I loved this game as a kid. I’d rope anyone willing to play into a game. I have very vivid memories of dragging my brother Ryan into a game, watching him get totally bored, and throw the game so he could do other things. I loved hitting Free Parking and raking in free cash. I loved that everyone could gather around the game and be a family. I don’t remember how most games turned out, but I remember a lot of smiles.

If I had to teach young me how the game was really played, I’d probably hate myself.

My uncle Sammy (actual uncle, not the guy with the flag suit) played games with the kids. He would’ve taught me how the game was truly played, if doing that didn’t harm his chances of defeating the kids. He played with a rule that, if you built, you didn’t “get to roll.” It’s in quotes, because rolling dice is super fun for a kid, why wouldn’t you want to do it all the time? Well, the same reason jail is super sweet late game: movement is a liability. If you can build one house a turn and stay anchored, holy shit balls, do it! He’d also fake dice rolls, fast-move pieces and grab the dice to cover his tracks, not pay you rent if you didn’t ask for it immediately after he landed (whoops, already rolled, not paying now), and do what it took to win.

What a fuckin’ shitheel.

Nobody in the family talks to him anymore. Still, I learned about shrewdness from him. I also learned about cheating. Not the cookie-cutter black-and-white “cheating is wrong kids!” stuff you get from Sesame Street and after school specials. I got the more subtle, more real-world lesson: Cheating is fine, if you have no shame. If you get away with it, you have nobody but yourself to answer to. And it’s a truly wretched endeavor.

But Monopoly is an iconic piece of Americana. It has an interesting and storied history, and has become an internationally recognizable game played by millions. It has seen dozens of iterations, and decades of play-testing, and continues to be updated. The Luxury and Income Tax costs have changed to reflect the U.K. version, and a speed die has been added to current prints that, well, make the game go faster (It was used in the 2009 National and World Championships). Nearly everyone you know has played Monopoly at some point.

And nearly every last one of them has never played the original rules.

So it wouldn’t be until years later that I would finally get the full rules, and their importance for the game. Common complaints about Monopoly are 1)It’s boring, 2) It takes too long, 3) eliminating players sucks, 4) it’s completely random. There are more, but most are variations on those ideas. So let’s address house rules, and how some of them pertain to these complaints.

Free Parking money and double salary for landing on GO are common house rules. They add money to the system, and in a game where bankruptcy is the end condition, giving more money to players prolongs the game. A more nuanced change it makes is that cheaper Monopolies lose their potency, as their rents become more inconsequential. If the game goes long enough, there could be so much money that nobody’s going to go bankrupt, and nobody has the wherewithal to just stop. It’s the main reason gripes 1 and 2 exist. But kids love luck, and parents love a lack of mayhem, so keep those dice rolling!

Another rule that you’d have to be a sado-masochist to try to teach children is that of the auction. When a deed is landed on, and that person doesn’t want to buy it, the deed goes to auction. Without this, deeds don’t get purchased as quickly, and the game drags. Some savvy players will push the deed to auction even though they want it, so they can try to snag it cheap. Or they’ll try to finagle other players into buying it at higher prices to sap their opponents’ cash. But try to get a kid to sit still for that.

Did you know that there’s a reason there aren’t enough houses and hotels for every deed? That’s on purpose. There are 32 houses and 12 hotels in a Monopoly game (plus a couple extras for when your kids lose or swallow a couple of them). When they’re gone, they’re not available until someone sells houses or builds hotels to free some up. While we’re at it, properties must be built up evenly. When you build a house on a new monopoly, the next house has to be on one of the undeveloped deeds. The third must be on the remaining slot. Then it starts over. It’s a bit lofty an idea for a kid; some adults refuse to get it. My favorite tactic in Monopoly, when I can do it, is to obtain cheap monopolies, say the light blues and pinks or oranges, and the dark purples (brown in the new set) if I can, and buy as many houses as I can. Even if an opponent gets their monopoly, they can’t improve on it, and I just have to wait it out. But try explaining to a kid the those extra houses aren’t for sale, and no, they can’t have any even though other people do. Or if they have houses, but can’t have hotels, because they can’t build the one more house to get all their deeds to four, so hotels are out of reach. Then explain even building to them. Then listen to them yell about it not being fair. Then try not to eviscerate anyone in the household before blowing your own head off. Or hell, just take the other Monopoly set you have because the first one got wet or bit or something, and use those. It’s just going to be easier.

As for gripes 3 and 4, well, yes. Eliminating players sucks. Most Euro games don’t have player elimination, because making your friend sit out while everyone else gets to play sucks, or worse, they get to have fun elsewhere while everyone else is stuck in a game they don’t like and won’t quit for some weird reason (maybe they were taught as kids that quitting is bad, and the thought of leaving a game nobody likes is somehow the same as that). The game is random, but within a set of probabilities. Dice rolling frequency is basic knowledge any gamer should have, and it’s not too difficult to teach kids. Catan teaches it far better than Monopoly, but Monopoly applies it in a different, more tactile manner. And the official rules keep the game moving, allow for more interesting choices, and make the game a more “game-y” experience than most people remember from their youth.

But Monopoly remains the same at its core; get rich, reduce your opponents to bankruptcy, feel kind of awkward about it when you’re done. That hasn’t changed, and as my recent play-through with hard-core gamers and a hard-core rules update, it’s still exquisitely bitter-sweet. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.