Sunday, August 26, 2012

Shabbat Games: Troyes, Kingdom of Solomon, Amyitis

A week ago shabbat I played Troyes and Kingdom of Solomon with Nadine, Eitan, and Emily. This week I played Amyitis with Abraham and Sarah.

Troyes: First plays for Eitan and Emily. Eitan won in the mid-60s, about 10 points over Emily. Nadine and I were tied with one point below Emily. Nadine's favorite level three yellow card, the Sculptor (15 cost, 6/5 points, 3 yellow = 1 point), came out yet again, but she only got to use it a few times.

I managed to grab a decent red card point generator, The Joust (5 cost, 3/2 points, 3 red = 2 points if you have the most red dice). Eitan won by fighting the most events and earning the 6 point bonus for Henry 1; Emily gained the 6 point influence bonus of Hughes de Paynes. Nadine and I didn't get much in the way of bonuses.

Kingdom of Solomon: First plays for me and Nadine.This is a new game from Philip duBarry and Minion Games.

This is a worker placement, building game. As you build buildings, you gain extra placement options from your buildings. You can also build in the temple, which gives you VP or a chip, your choice: the player with the most chips at end game gets 20 points (about 3-4 times the VP value of the usual placement).

The spaces give you goods to build the buildings. Some of the spaces give big bonuses, but you have to use all of your remaining workers to claim one, so it's a chicken game of who will spend his 2 or 3 workers to take one before someone else does. Since there are three of these spaces, it's probably not as much of a deal in a game with less than four players.

Lather rinse repeat. You can't build a building in the first round, because you don't have enough resources. You really HAVE to build a building every round after that, because not only are the buildings worth 14-18 points (nearly as much as the "most chips" bonus) but the buildings also give you minor benefits on the board. Nadine missed one building round, but she got the chips benefit of 20 points, and so won the game.

When we first started playing, everything looked like it was balanced ok except for the Thief action which allows you to steal a good from another player. That nearly brought the entire game crashing down to a halt for me. I HATE that mechanic, especially when the value of a good is critical, when multiple players can effectively gang up on one, and when anything you plan is subject to ruin on the whim of another player. I took the Thief every chance I could because I hated it; I didn't even like to play it, but better to play it than be subject to it. If the space's value had continued to be as annoying during the rest of the game as it was during the first several rounds, I would have quit mid-game.

As it happens, we began collecting a sufficient amount of goods during the game that the loss of one became relatively irrelevant, and so the game was redeemed. The redemption came from not only the amount of goods we collected but from the hidden cards with goods that we held, which made targeting a specific good that you think another player needs to be harder. Nadine and I believe that the problem caused by this mechanic can be solved by giving the victim some kind of compensation: you lose a good and possibly the chance to build a building in exchange for something (that might help you this round or the next).

The second problem was the absolute necessity of building every round (or taking one round to secure the temple bonus). That made the turn order combined with which cards get flipped up during the turn an overpowering luck factor. Turn order is fine when the board information is always available; it's a crap-shoot when you spend resources to go first only to reveal four cards of equal value, or don't spend the resources to go first only to reveal 1 powerful card (available only to the first player) and some bad cards. This can be solved by turning face up the upcoming cards in the deck.

Aside from those details, the game was ok, a medium worker control game. Even Nadine seemed to come around in the end.

Amyitis: First play for Abraham and Sarah, second (in a long time) for me. I bought this game after my first play; though I recalled that there was a card availability problem (like in Kingdom of Solomon above), I didn't recall what it was, and I remembered the game being fun.

In this game, you build the gardens on Babylon. Each round you take as many actions was you want:: either a) take one of the available 9 workers in four types, or b) spend some of your goods on the camel track.

The four types of workers let you a) take a camel, b) take a good, c) place an irrigation cube for 2 points, or d) place a cube in a temple. The camel track lets you a) bump up your income or VP or b) plant a garden space.

To move on the camel track requires camels, goods, and timing. Planting nets you VPs, bumps your income or VP, and gives a few VPs to the person who most irrigated the area. Temples pay out in some kind of resource or VP at the end of each round.

The game is filled with viable options and paths, which makes it intriguing and fun (for me). VPs and money are available everywhere; money is tight, but there are mitigating mechanics. There are usually a few camels to be had here are there, and you only need one camel to move on the track. However, you need one or more resources to do anything after moving, and that's where the gridlock comes in.

When you are first player, if you have first crack at the only resource giving worker, you're in great shape. If there are three resource giving workers in a three player game, then your turn advantage has basically given you nothing. And the reverse, of course: if you're last player and there are enough workers to let you get a resource, great. If not, you're screwed. Very, very rarely will someone not take a resource giving worker as first player, and that's only if there are enough of them that it will come back to him anyway (for slightly higher cost).

Once again, I have to shake my head a this mechanic and ask: didn't they see this as a problem during playtestiung? It wasn't just this play: the same thing happened last play, and all the plays by the guy who taught me the game.

Luckily, borrowing from some other games, I can once again fix it: The workers costs range from 0 to 2. It seems simple enough to just add an infinite supply of workers available of every type that cost 3. So if you run out of one kind, you are not locked out from a resource because of a bad card draw, so long as you stock up on some reserve cash.

Have to try it.

The only other potentially unbalanced effect was the third level income card, available to only one person that gives 2 VP per round. If gained early, and that's not too difficult without much sacrifice, the card will net you upwards of 16 or more VP during the game (not to mention the extra money), which is far better than any victory point gain anywhere else. And, once again, it's availability is subject to the whims of turn order.

Abraham took it from me; he still lost the game by around 14 points, but I had to concentrate on screwing him the entire game from that point on. And he forgot about the 10 point bonus for planting six regions.

Reducing the bonus to 1 point per round still makes it a desirable card without the potential unbalancing effect; of course, if the card is gained late in the game, it won't give too many VPs.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Games Day in Jerusalem Oct 4

As a reminder, this blog is on slowdown, though I will still post from time to time. I post a little more frequently (like pictures from recent weddings) on Facebook.

I carry the games No Thanks and Parade with me as games to play with the children of families to which I am invited for a meal. I played a few rounds of each of them over the last few weekends. Game nights in Raanana continue as usual, even if the session reports are late.

We're planning a Games Day in Jerusalem for Thursday, Oct 4.

My book writing has slowed down as I'm reading more books and less articles.


Thursday, August 02, 2012

Olympics Badminton: A Study in Bad Game Design

Here's a game for you:

The game lasts eight rounds. In each of the last five rounds, if you lose against your opponents you are out of the game. In other words, you have to win each round in order to win the game.

In the first three rounds, if you lose against your opponents, the only result is that you will receive easier challenges in the last five rounds; there are no penalties for losing, because the rounds are not scored. If you win these rounds, you face harder challenges in the last five rounds, making it much harder to win the whole game.

And oh yeah: The only thing that counts is winning the whole game, for which you are massively rewarded.

Any idiot could tell you that a player's best move is to LOSE the first three rounds. These rounds don't count for anything other than to make your life more difficult in the last five rounds, which are the only ones that actually provide any payoff; and the payoff is the same whether the challenges in the last rounds are more or less difficult.

Sounds like a dumb game? That's Badminton in the London 2012 Olympics, where 4 pairs of players, including the most recent gold medal winner from the last Olympics, were tossed out of the Olympics for "match fixing". Did they toss the game because of shadowy gambling connections? No, they played the game as it was designed by losing the first games in order to face easier challenges in the last games, the last ones being the only ones that counted.

But to hear the Olympics officials, the media, the fans, and the news pundits talk about it, you would think that they cheated. A scandal! A shame on the Olympics, the game, and the world! Well, technically they violated two codes of sportsmanship that require players to play their best during all games and adhere to the spirit of the games. But some of what I've heard is just nonsense.

"The players are supposed to be providing an example to the young people of the world" (BBC). Uh, no they're not. They're supposed to win the gold medal.

People who paid money to watch the game don't expect to see lackluster performance. "Who wants to sit through something like that?" said the Olympic chief. So what? The players are there to win the gold medal, not to entertain the audience. How about we ask them to perform a tap dance while they play? That would be entertaining.

"It's not in the spirit of the games." Really? Trying to win a gold medal by conserving your resources during completely irrelevant rounds is not in the spirit of the games?

I don't know who made the decision to add these useless and silly preliminary rounds (apparently added to prolong the games so that the organizers make more money by selling more tickets), but whomever it was wasn't a game designer, or a good one at any rate. A good game designer knows that when you want players to perform a particular task, you have to offer a reward that motivates them. If the reward for throwing the game is higher than the reward for winning it, guess what is going to happen?

You can't just toss a meaningless game or fake competition or points (I'm looking at you, poorly designed gamification) into an activity and expect someone to play for them if you simultaneously punish them for doing so.

How about providing games that matter to the players, and not just the spectators and the sponsors?