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.

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Innovation

The digitization of board games is something Brandon and I have talked about as a topic for a post since we started this blog over the summer. I finally took on posting about some of my feelings on it a while back, but when Brandon and I were talking about what should go into the post, we kept talking about the games that suffered immensely. You’re always going to lose part of the game when you’re playing online, the question is how big a part you’re losing and what you’re gaining. Dominion plays better online than most games because it saves you all the time of shuffling, as opposed to Stone Age, which doesn’t really save you time but still makes you miss out on the social interaction that is a large part of why I play games in the first place. The game that we kept coming back to for what a good online experience could be was Innovation, which wasn’t featured in the previous post because it wasn’t online.

“Wasn’t” is past tense though, and it turns out that in the months since I first went in depth on playing board games online, the game that Brandon and I both thought would translate really well to the internet has been brought to the same place you can play Dominion (the other game that gains a lot by going digital): isotropic.org

Innovation is my current favorite game though, so I may be a bit biased. And in honor of its new e-availability, I’m giving you a full-fledged review.

The Basics

Every man's gotta have a codeEvery turn in Innovation you get two actions of the 4 possible. You can Draw a card (from the stack equal to the highest card you have currently played), Meld (play) a card from your hand (it goes on top of cards of the same color if you already have a card of that color), Achieve (if you fulfill the requirements. Achievements is how you win) or use Dogma (use a card you’ve played). First to 6 achievements (in a 2 player game) wins. The rules are slightly more detailed but that’s the gist.

We are men of action, lies do not become us

Each card in innovation has three important things: Its color (Red, Green, Purple, Blue, Yellow. And yes, there are small symbols that let you play if you’re colorblind), its icons (3 icons on each card, of six total icons: Castles, Leaves, Coins, Lightbulbs, Factories, Clocks) and its Dogma effects (what it does). Here’s some cards, see how they have these things?

Knowledge of Anatomy keeps others from wanting to score

Ok can we get to why the game is great now?

Michael Bay's favorite cardFirst off, the theme is one I always enjoy. Yes Sid Meier’s Civilization is an amazing video game, but I think even if it lacked some of its depth I still would’ve really enjoyed it. Thankfully it did have depth, as does Innovation. In the beginning your options are limited, you’re trying to get all five colors on your board, you’re trying to see if you can jump up to the higher leveled cards before your opponent, but usually there’s a “right” play. As the game gets a little further along, it becomes a lot more nebulous. Do I want to use this dogma that lets my opponent jump an age, even if it lets me jump two? Do I want to tuck these cards in my hand? Do I want to cover my strong card with a card that doesn’t do as much but will give me more icons than an opponent? The answer to each of these questions depends on everything else that is in the game. The ability to draw a bunch of cards is good, but if you also have the ability to score cards from your hand? Well, then it gets a lot stronger.

The variability of the game is excellent, and the variability is unlike, say, the cards I love in Dominion because what can be considered a strong card varies not only game to game but turn to turn. The mechanics of scoring and achieving and tucking are all such that many cards don’t get used as you climb up through Prehistory and the Renaissance towards the Postmodern Age. Some games are won with a crazy string of cards played using Mathematics, some games you don’t see Mathematics at all. This variability is a core mechanic of the game and as such it is something that can be a legitimate turn off for some people. I take Innovation less seriously than I do other games because while strong tactical decisions will help lead you to victory for often than not, there are some games where things just don’t go right. You’re stuck with cards that don’t help and your opponent jumps ahead and never looks back. If you can’t let go of losses I’m not going to make a moral judgment, I’m just going to say that sadly, you might want to skip Innovation. But for those that embrace the randomness in the game, there is some really solid and interesting gameplay.

Strategy versus Tactics

Everything in its rightful placeThe first time I teach someone Innovation, I give them one piece of advice: If you’re losing, you want to either collect more icons or get to higher levels of cards. And it really is that simple. Sometimes having a lot of cards in your hand is great, sometimes it’s a liability. The same goes for your score pile. But getting to a higher level of card or having more icons is always good. That’s all the long term planning that Innovation allows. This may seem like a flaw, but it is actually a strength for the game.

A game like Puerto Rico has good tactical decisions but all of them are based on the overall strategy of the game.  No choice stands alone, and the better your overall understanding of the paths to victory and when to take one (shipping) versus the other (buildings) the better you’ll play. The individual decisions are important, but the path can be studied in excruciating detail. Innovation has no study guide. The game changes too much move to move for much long term planning. The joy of the game can be found in finding clever moves you can do with what you have in front of you, or maybe what you think you’ll have next turn. Any planning beyond that will usually be for naught as your opponent demands you trade hands or suddenly has more icons than you of the type you wanted or takes the achievement you were going for.

The Online Experience

Innovation.isotropic.org, I play as either JoshProv or jorsh. See you there!And to bring this full circle: This is why I thought this game would work so well online. Every turn you could examine the board and take your move accordingly. You would have time to read what each of your opponent’s cards are without asking them to “reread it, out loud, just one more time?” You would have a real-time count of icons to make sure you realized that your opponent had more coins than you now or that you were one leaf away from tying it up. And most importantly, you wouldn’t have to say, “Wait, what was I doing again?” because it wouldn’t matter, whatever you can do this turn is what you’re doing.

And it delivers. Innovation isn’t as popular as Dominion on isotropic, but a game can generally be had at any hour, and all the things I could’ve hoped for in a client are there. Yes, the chat features are still rarely used and it isn’t the same experience as playing in person, but there’s no set up or clean up, and once you get the hang of it you don’t even accidentally click a card that gives you no benefit this turn. It allows for more careful counting of symbols and better splay planning. It totals your score. It gives you the automatic achievements when you might otherwise forget them. Playing Innovation online is a really enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes.

And yes, of course, the game is also really fun in person, and once you get the hang of it, plays pretty quickly. I recommend it with two or three players, and the first expansion (Echoes of the Past) makes it even more ridiculous (and I take that as a good thing). I highly recommend Innovation, and will totally teach you if you haven’t played it yet.

Menagerie, Fairgrounds and Horn of Plenty

I play a lot of Dominion. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s one of the best games of the last 5 years in that it both introduced a new mechanic to games (deck building) and is loved by, well, everyone that I’ve ever heard of playing it. My ex-girlfriend and I had Dominion as one of our favorite activities. So in sum, if you haven’t played it but are reading this: ask me to play a game, I’ll say yes, and you’ll like it. Why? Its short, it plays really well (and slightly differently, which I take as a good thing) with 2 or 3 or 4 players, its relatively quick to pick up, and with 7 expansions, each game is different than the last.

Except, well, when you end up playing a lot of games of Dominion (and with the help of the free online site http://dominion.isotropic.org/play, I have played hundreds of games), some games don’t feel that different. Some cards are bought every time they’re in the game (Chapel, Laboratory, Pirate Ship) and some cards are almost never bought (Adventurer, Chancellor, Secret Chamber all come to mind). Far more often then I’d like there are 5 or more piles that are never touched because the optimal strategy was clear and it didn’t involve half of the cards that were options.

Every new expansion in Dominion has brought about new mechanics (Seaside brought planning for next turn, Prosperity brought in the big money, Hinterlands brought cards that do something as you buy them), but Cornucopia did something different. Rather than introducing a new mechanic, it introduced a new strategy: variation.

The Cornucopia expansion doesn’t entirely fix the problem of not utilizing a larger number of piles, but it does provide three cards that encourage dabbling into piles you might otherwise ignore: Menagerie, Fairgrounds and Horn of Plenty.

Menagerie

Menagerie doesn’t reward variation as much as the other two, (in fact, the best use for it seems to be as a counter to Militia), but when you have a good Menagerie deck going, its a lot of fun. Any sort of +action card (Festival, Fishing Village) along with a card that makes you discard (Horse Traders, Vault and yes, even our old friend Secret Chamber) or trash (Develop) cards keeps the menagerie train going, often to excellent results. Two of my favorites to combo it with are Inn and Hamlet, because they give you both +actions AND discarding. Of course, playing with a Menagerie and a Horn of Plenty leads to even better results.

Horn of Plenty

Horn of Plenty is probably my favorite card at the moment because it doesn’t do anything crazy (look at the preview cards for Dominion Dark Ages if you want crazy), but can make you do things a little crazy. Suddenly you decide that maybe you don’t want another silver, but will give that Chancellor a go. I’ll admit: I have fallen victim to the siren’s song and tailored my deck towards having Horn of Plenty buying me 5 and 6 cost cards before. But even more often, I’ve used it to produce a 6 Province beat-down. It’s a five cost card that I often keep track of in the later stages of the game, as it has the ability to do things that other 5 cost cards don’t.

Unlike many 5 cost cards, it needs some help; you can’t just stock up on Horn of Plenty and hope that works out the way you can with Laboratory or Treasury. This fact shouldn’t be understated. The fact that Horn of Plenty is powerful but also can significantly slow down your deck if you try to stock up on them is a feature that I really enjoy. It requires not only seeing a good combo, but recognizing that having too much of one part of that combo can kill it. In this way, Horn of Plenty functions less like a treasure card and more like a terminal action (Festival and Library go well together, but you want more festivals than libraries). The nuance required for Horn of Plenty to work well is just as true for Fairgrounds.

Fairgrounds

Fairgrounds is again a game changer, but in a different way than Menagerie or Horn of Plenty, in that it provides a different path to Victory from the usual “race to 5 Provinces,” especially in a two player game. And part of what makes it so viable is that it can slow the game down, if you’re going Fairgrounds strategy while your opponent is going for Provinces, they suddenly need to get to 6 or 7 Provinces rather than just 5. Those extra couple of victory cards can bring some engines to a screeching halt. All you need to do is end the game with 15 different cards in your deck. This isn’t the easiest thing, seeing as there are only 17 cards in a standard game. But things can get easier with Young Witch (1 extra pile and the likelihood that you end up with a curse) or a number of Alchemy cards (Potion adds a pile and often slows the game down).

Fairgrounds isn’t an autowin by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a card with a strategy that must be respected, as getting 6 Victory Points for a cost of 6 is very strong. Playing a Fairgrounds deck will often lead to smaller unexpected combinations of cards that while they wouldn’t win a game by themselves (Hamlet and Watchtower) can make a significant impact.

These three cards aren’t the entirety of the Cornucopia expansion, but they are the reason why the Cornucopia expansion ranks highest in my mind. Any time I can go back and play with cards in prior sets that I’ve played with over and over and feel like I’m doing something new, the more I get out of the game.