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Co-op Case Study: Pathfinder ACG Core Set

One of the exciting new releases of 2019 is a pair of new supplements for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set and Curse of the Crimson Throne. Together, they notably renovate the original game.

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Paizo Publishing (2019)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Campaign, Deckbuilding

Overview

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is the lead product for the revamped Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). Paizo hasn’t been calling it a second edition, but it really is — albeit, a somewhat compatible second edition. As with the first edition, the Core Set mixes deckbuilding and adventure gaming with cooperative play. Each game, players explore decks and (usually) capture a villain, and over multiple games they improve their characters as part of long campaigns — now running 10 to 26 games rather than 30+.

Challenge System

The challenge system in the Core Set is identical to that in the original Pathfinder ACG. Players explore locations represented as decks of cards while racing against an “hourglass” timer. If they can close enough locations to corner the villain before the timer runs out, they win.

With that said, the challenge system in the Core Set feels a lot harder. That’s not due to any changes to the challenge system itself, but instead the resulted of new limitations placed on the game’s cooperative mechanics.

Challenge System Elements: Exploration Activation; Card Trigger; Timer; Campaign; and Combat & Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

In the original Pathfinder ACG, characters faced challenges that could be defeated by the roll of dice, with dice being added to a pool based on the play of cards. Each player could only play one of each type of card, for example one weapon, one armor, and one spell, but collectively the group could play as many cards as they wanted. Practically, this meant that the active player played the core cards for a challenge, such as weapons and most spells, but if other players thought the challenge was important, they could pile on “blessings”, each of which added one or two more dice to the pool.

In the Core Set, the entire group is now limited to just one card of each type, with the exception of some cards that can be played “freely”. This purely mechanical change creates a huge new restriction on cooperation. Previously, support was widely possible with some geographical limitations (though blessings could be played without restriction, other cards and some powers could only be used by local characters or in some cases, remote characters), now there’s a simple quantity limitation that makes a big difference in the game.

This new rule is paired with a general reduction in power in the game. Many of those blessings, which used to provide two dice of support in specific circumstances, now provide just one. In addition, some of the more overpowered characters have been toned done. Those these “nerfs” aren’t explicitly cooperative limitations, they do nonetheless limit a player’s ability to help his fellows, albeit in an almost invisible way (since it’s just the way the powers and cards work).

An inevitable question here is: does making a game more difficult make it more or less fun? The Captain is Dead: Lockdown, another recent co-op sequel, demonstrated a situation where the updated game’s limitations were so restrictive, and so limited player agency, that they reduced enjoyment in the game. The Core Set’s limitations are much less extreme, and so less likely to go down this path.

Interestingly, while restricting its cooperation for shared tasks, the Core Set also introduces a new type of serialized cooperation. A new mechanic called “avenge” allows a player to immediately face a challenge that a local character failed to overcome. This is clearly meant as a balance to the reduction in simultaneous support. And, it’s a neat balance because it can grant players extra opportunities to succeed at a challenge, even if each individual attempt is now harder.

This is pretty important for Pathfinder ACG, because under the previous system, a bunch of players all adding a lot of support to an important challenge could (and would) make it a near certainty, destroying the tension that’s so crucial to cooperative games. However, if players instead take on challenges serially, but with more limited support, the group still has a good chance of eventually overcoming the challenge, but there’s now opportunity for failure before success, which is a great model for tension in a game.

(To put it another way, by the old mechanism the players might give themselves a 95% chance of completing the challenge, while by the new mechanism, they might have a 75% chance on a first try, then another 75% chance on an avenge try. The overall odds are almost 95% either way, but the latter is a lot more exciting.)

Adventure System

Pathfinder ACG always had a strong adventure system, but the new Core Set demonstrates how to push that sort of evocative story content even further. That comes in large part through the “Storybooks” that now accompany each campaign. Previously, story had been summarized in a few tight paragraphs on a card, but now the players can read a page or so of story, including dialogue. After each game, there’s also additional text describing the dénouement.

However, the improvements to Pathfinder ACG’s adventure system go far beyond simple story text. The cards depicting characters, locations, opponents, and treasure were always evocative, but they’re now improved. Locations, for example, have traits such as Underground, Urban, and Wild that can trigger specific effects. Each adventure also has a Danger such as “Rescue” or “Collapse” that presents a potentially recurring challenge that is appropriate to the story. In both of these cases, the adventure system has been improved by using Traits and card types to tie cards together to create more evocative results. Finally, many cards have had their effects rewritten to feel more appropriate to what they are and what they should do; this last bit is sort of black magic for adventure card game design, but cards usually become more evocative the more distinct they are.

Expansions & Variants

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set is theoretically compatible with the four major sets and the many class decks that came before it. However, there are sufficient changes to balance, to graphic design, and to rules that it may be better to play it with other games from the revamped PACG line, which currently means Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019), the first full-length adventure path for the updated game system.

Final Thoughts

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set retains its innovative design, but has been cleaned up and polished. The biggest change is certainly to the challenge level. The new Core Set offers an excellent example of how to notably change the challenge level with a minor rule change; it also demonstrates how cooperation can happen in different ways, each collectively or serially.

“The major impact it has is to cut down on the situations where a group could unload nearly their entire hands at a key moment. What we were seeing is that large groups could, with a little planning and effort, reliably drop this sort of massive card play on key checks, so much so that they were frequently removing the tension from these dramatic points. With this small adjustment to the rule, plus the ability to sidestep it when we want to with the freely exception (it’s used by a LOT of cards), we were able to leave in the option for overkill while restoring much of the tension to those key dramatic moments.”

—Chad Brown, “Core Principles: Encouraging Teamwork in the Pathfinder ACG”, Paizo Blog, https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6sgl5

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New to Me: Spring 2019 — Sequels at the Top

My gaming has changed this year, due to the much-lamented demise of my old gaming community. My new groups seems to have gelled around slightly lighter play than the medium-weight games I prefer, and thus I’ve had a few more misses this time around. But I’ve also played some very enjoyable games in the last three months, most of which were sequels in one way or another. As usual, this list rates games based on my personal enjoyment as a medium-weight gamer, and they’re games I personally haven’t played before, whether they’re truly new or not.

The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

New Frontiers (2018). This is the fourth iteration of the Race for the Galaxy system, following Race for the Galaxy (2007), Roll for the Galaxy (2014), and Jump Drive (2017). This one is obviously the heftiest of the games, though it outweighs super-filler Race for the Galaxy by just a little bit.

As usual, you’re building developments, settling planets, and shipping goods to earn points. This new game goes back to the core role-selection play of Race for the Galaxy, which means that you do these things by selecting actions, and then other players get to take slightly less powerful versions of those actions. That’s a nice return, because Race for the Galaxy dramatically fell out of favor in local play as extensive expansions poisoned the game through too much complexity, then Roll for the Galaxy basically fired it. I love Roll, but its gameplay is quite different. Still, this isn’t quite the classic Race system. For example, you now have to have both settlers and money to settle a planet.

Much of New Frontiers’ expanded gameplay is reminiscent of other members of the “role civilization” family. For example the new settlement action (where you either collect the settlers you need for settlement or actually do the settlement) feels like it’s drawn from the deckbuilder Eminent Domain (2011). The biggest callbacks are to the father of this whole family of game design, Puerto Rico (2002). Many of these callbacks are mechanics that reduce randomness. For example all New Frontiers developments (Puerto Rico’s purple buildings) can be freely selected for building, while its planets (Puerto Rico’s plantations) are drafted. Even the extra-VP nine-point developments (Puerto Rico’s double purple buildings) can be freely selected.

I had thought this game would be too repetitive with the original Race for the Galaxy, but it’s got enough variance to keep it fresh. Nonetheless, it’s really amusing to see it called “the Race for the Galaxy board game” when there’s no board. Still, there are lots of tabletop components, like a player display. Maybe too many, because the whole game is somewhat overproduced and definitely too big. I’ll very likely keep this one, but the box size makes it questionable despite the great play.

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Roll for the Galaxy: Rivalry – The Orb Game (2019).Meanwhile, the older iterations of the Race system are still receiving supplements. In fact, I was thrilled when I heard there was a second expansion for Roll for the Galaxy (2014), one of my favorites of recent years. But when I learned it was a huge expansion that cost $80 and was so big that it wasn’t likely to fit in the organizer in my gamebox, it dropped off my to-buy list. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the price is fair for the components. (Basically, the designers explain that it’s three supplements in one.) I just have little interest in paying more for an expansion than the original game; I think it’s a serious misstep in marketing and sales. Sadly, my first play of the expansion didn’t change that decision.

We played “The Orb Game”, one of the two major variants in the new game. And, it’s a pretty neat and innovative expansion. Each player gets a special alien yellow “orb” die at the start of the game. They roll it each round and get special bonuses: a reassign, a scout, or an “orb improvement”. That last bit is what makes the expansion so innovative. It’s literally a dice building game, because you can improve the alien orb by popping out its faces and replacing them with better, more powerful options. There are several different paths you can take, giving you a huge variety of options, and the ability to design an orb that matches your overall strategy. This is brilliantly linked into a new phase, which is designated by “$”s, which already appear on a few of the dice: you can now spend those “$”s to improve your orb. Though I do find the huge plastic “orb” dice overly clunky, the mechanic nonetheless is a nice addition that adds a whole different level of strategy the game. Great for advanced players, and easy to incorporate or not, as should be the case for expansions of this sort.

(We also played with new tiles from the expansion, which are hard to make out in the game overall, but this type of expansion is almost always great. I wish a set of just new tiles had come out, but I often feel that for games of this sort. Expanding tiles or cards adds variety to a much-played game, which I want, while new rules tend to add complexity, which I often don’t. If fact, we didn’t play with the Deal Game, the other major variant, as the game owner thought it would drag the game down, and said that many reviewers seemed to agree.)

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Core Set (2019). Pathfinder ACG second edition is mostly like Pathfinder ACG first edition, though I wouldn’t mix them together because of variations in the card design and the game balance. The game’s a little harder this time, which is probably a benefit because first edition was usually too easy (but enjoyable despite that). I also like the new sales model for PACG because you can now get a full game for an additional $50, rather than having to buy five $20 sets. I hope that helps the game to return to a high level of success.

With that all said, I have one notable issue with the packaging of the Core Set: there aren’t enough cards. Oh, the rules cover it by putting in extra “boons” that you can’t permanently acquire during the first few adventures, but in many ways that just multiplies the problem, because now it feels like some of your turns are worthless, when you draw cards you can’t keep. And I’m pretty sure we’ll be tired of constantly seeing those same boons by the time we’re done with the Core adventure path. There is a solution for this all: mix in some class decks and then ignore the rule that says to mix in the higher levels of boons. But right now you’d have to mix in cards from first edition class decks, and though they’ll work, it definitely wouldn’t be my preference. In any case, that’s what keeps the previous Great game from being anything more than Very Good in this first outing. I’m pretty sure when I get to play the supplemental Adventure Path, Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019), I’ll be back to my Great ratings.

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Forum Trajanum (2018). Stefan Feld certainly seems to enjoy his Roman-themed games, though I’d say that having two games with Trajan in the title is just asking for trouble.

This one is a card-drafting city-building games. You randomly draw resource-generating tiles, pass one to an opponent, then choose one to play. After you collect your resources, you can then build, and the buildings have repercussions: either giving you more resources or giving you the ability to score points primarily through sending followers to the capitol. Actually, the game’s pretty hard to explain because of its intricate connections between different actions, which are quite innovative.

There’s a lot of thoughtful depth in this game, and the opportunity to make strong moves or bad moves. I think that if it played fast it’d be pretty great — and there’s good opportunity for that, since you’re just collecting one set of resources than building one thing each turn. But it’s easy to get wrapped up in the complexity, and if that happens the game drags. So, I’m rating this “Good” at the moment, but it could be “Very Good” if it played more smoothly with more experienced players.

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

The Quacks of Quedlinburg (2018). This innovative bagbuilding game focuses on drawing ingredients from a bag to make a secret brew. You’re primarily trying to increase the quantity of your brew, but many of the chips have special powers, which will improve your brew or your game position in various ways. The catch is that the gameplay is ultimately press your luck: if you draw too many of the wrong ingredients, then your potion will be ruined.

Though I like the core gameplay of Quacks, and though I think it nicely innovates the bagbuilding subgenre, I also feel like it wears out its welcome. By the end of the game, it feels like you’re pretty endlessly drawing ingredients. Still, it’s a nice light game, and the special powers of the ingredients help to give it some depth.

Tortuga 1667 (2017). A hidden teams game: some people are British and some are French, and they’re each trying to move gold into their own vaults, but the Flying Dutchman can win if he keeps things balanced. There’s some very clever design here, in that there’s a lot of room for plausible deniability: players frequently place secret cards into “auctions”, but they only have limited options, which might not include what they really want to do, and additional cards can add chaos to the mix.The problem is that at some point you have to really declare a side (and it might be on the first turn!) and that always feels like a weakness in this sort of game.

Meanwhile, there’s just not a lot of depth to the gameplay. Often, your actions are really minimal. You might look at cards .. so you can play one next turn; or you might move to a rowboat .. so that you can get to a ship on the next turn. Or, you might just randomly play a card. This is all probably great for parties and casual play, and it certainly has more depth than Bang! (2002) and The Resistance (2009), so if that’s your cup of tea, give this a shot. (It’s just not my cuppa.)

Fuji Flush (2016). A Friedemann Friese card game. It’s got quite a clever play mechanic: you play cards, and players with lower value cards that are still out have to discard and redraw. But, if you play the same value card as someone else out, those cards sum up: so a second “5” would knock out a “9” and a third “5” would knock out up to “14”. Only when a card or set survives back to the first player of that set do the players get to discard those cards without redrawing, reducing their hand size and putting them closer to winning the game. There’s probably some clever play here, but for the most part it’s really random, based on everyone’s draw and is fun mainly because you get to constantly screw all of your opponents, and revel in doing so.

The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)

The Chameleon (2017). A deductive word play game. A grid of words is laid out, which all have a common theme (like “authors” or “musical instruments”). Some dice are rolled to determine which word is selected, and everyone knows which word that is … except one player, the chameleon. Everyone then chooses a clue (another word) to represent the word, and the object is to figure out which player was the chameleon, presumably because he choose a bad clue … except if he’s found out, the chameleon can still win by figuring out what the real word is.

I feel like the first part of this puzzle is barely a game: not knowing the actual word, the chameleon has to select a clue that’s either really generic or obscure or just weird. It feels very arbitrary (and is even rougher on the chameleon than most word-guessing games of this sort). The second part of the puzzle is meanwhile very clever, because it requires all the other players to choose slightly bad clues, so that they don’t make the real answer too obvious. It’s a thoughtful balance, but not enough to make up for the non-game-ness of the chameleon’s choice.

Mind you, I’m really not the audience for this game, with its social components, and the way it really puts players on the spot. I saw some players who hated it (primarily for being put on the spot) and some who loved it (presumably for the intense social play).

The Captain is Dead: Lockdown (2017, 2018). The original Captain is Dead (2014, 2016) was an evocative science-fiction co-op that did a great job of integrating that science-fiction theming into pretty traditional cooperative mechanics. This sequel game, Lockdown, repeats those core mechanics, but sucks all of the fun out of them. The main problem (I suspect) is that the designers wanted to create a much harder co-op experience, but in doing so they created a game where the players actions are so constantly limited (and the player gains are so constantly reversed) that what the players do is often entirely pre-defined. And there’s there’s a required strategy, where you must pick up the right technology at the start of the game to make victory possible. The result is a real the-game-plays-you-experience, but even more problematic than most because the apparent randomness of the game gets subsumed into this required gameplay.

Beyond that, Lockdown is just not that fun because the difficulty makes everything seem entirely hopeless (or else the required strategies make it seem really easy, or so I’ve been told) and beyond that the core challenges are really repetitive (an alien appears; then another alien appears; then a different sort of alien appears …).

I’m not done yet. The game is further crippled by one of the worst professionally produced rulebooks I’ve ever seen. There’s no order of play, and instead you have to try and figure out how things work based on examples and inference. At least a few rules we just had to guess about based on how the previous game worked, and whenever we got to a special case, we knew there was no way the rules would cover it. (And speaking of components, the alien tokens are murky and almost impossible to distinguish from each other, which is yet another major flaw when you have a board full of them.)

Two and a half hours in we finally threw up our hands and gave up. No one had any fun.

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Co-op Case Study: Just One

The SdJ nominees for 2019 were announced last month and were full of entrants of interest to co-op fans. The traditional SdJ award, which runs pretty light nowadays, nominated Just One (a true co-op, sort of) and Werewords (a hidden traitor game). Then the heftier Kennerspiel award nominated Detective (another true co-op). It was a great year for cooperative play.

Could any of these games join the ranks of past co-op and teamplay winners like Exit Das Spiel (2017 KdJ), Codename (2016 SdJ), and Legends of Andor (2013 KdJ)? We should know next month. In the past, the SdJ hasn’t been that friendly to co-ops, with some true greats like Pandemic, both Pandemic Legacies, T.I.M.E Stories, Space Alert, Shadows over Camelot, and Lord of the Rings getting at best participation prices, but the last few years suggest that might be changing.

So here’s a like at one of this year’s nominees, Just One, and what makes it great too.

This article was originally published on Meeples Together.


Publisher: Repos Production (2018)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Word Guessing

Overview

Players write clues to a mystery word that the active player must then guess. But, they can only use one word for their clue, and if anyone duplicates their clues, the copies are all thrown out.

Cooperative System

Word-guessing games, including well-known ones such as Charades (1800s), Pictionary (1985), and Barbarossa (1988), generally differentiate themselves by how they limit player communication. In fact, the genre tends to define the “directed communication” mechanic: limited communication acts as the core of the gameplay and is directed through a specific medium such as acting, drawing, or clay modeling. Like the ever-popular Taboo (1989), Just One directs its communication through talking, but puts limits on that conversation: as the name of the game suggests, each player writes a clue that’s just one word. This is fairly typical for the genre: Codenames (2015) is another recent game with a similar single-word limitation, though its gameplay is very different.

Word-guessing games are usually team games where players use various directed means to induce their teammates to say a specific word. The first big cooperative innovation of Just One (2018) is that it’s instead a true co-op. Players run through 13 cards and then earn a score based on how well they guessed. A chart in the rules classifies the scores from 13 (“perfect score”) to 0-3 (“try again”), but as with more scoring mechanisms of this type, it’s not that evocative. However, a perfect score is a real (but tough) possibility, so most players will measure their success by how close they cleave to that ideal.

The other innovative element of Just One’s cooperative system is the amount of individual player agency it creates, totally removing any problem of Controlling Players while simultaneously eliminating the issue of Free Riders: everyone has to contribute, everyone does so on their own, and everyone’s contribution is important.

This comes in two parts.

First, each player has to individually choose a word as a clue. Then, there’s the possibility for this choice to be a success or a failure. If a player chooses the same clue as someone else, they failed, because all those identical words are eliminated. Conversely, if they were able to write a distinct, unduplicated clue, they saved the day, and if those picked a clue the nicely complements what other people wrote, even better.

Second, the active player has to guess the mystery word. There’s obvious pressure here, because the active player can be the hero or the goat, based on whether he guesses right or wrong. And, because of how the other players selected their words, there’s always going to be ambiguity — another great element for cooperative play. Just One makes this choice even tenser by giving the active player the opportunity to skip a word if they don’t feel confident: the group loses one point if the active player skips, but two points if he guesses wrong! This brings the personal responsibility up to a whole other level.

Minimal Challenge Elements: Round Activation; Card Trigger; Directed Communication; Tally Scoring

Expansions & Variants

Just One was previously published as We Are the Word (2017), in a smaller, French edition.

Final Thoughts

Most word-guessing games include cooperative systems, but they don’t tend to be that innovative. Technically, Just One’s conversion of typical team play to true co-op is innovative, but the introduction of a simple scoring system is a pretty minimalist way to enable cooperative play. Just One is much more notable for the high level of agency and responsibility it creates for both clue givers and word guessers. Every co-op game would do well to answer the two questions that Just One knocks out of the park: how can each player be empowered to make their own, individual contribution to the game? And how can those individual contributions obviously either succeed or fail at helping the group?

Ludovic Roudy & Bruno Sautter

In 2010, Roudy and Sautter founded Serious Poulp, a small-press French game company. They began publication with the two-player Steam Torpedo: First Contact (2011), but they found their biggest success more recently with the publication of the choose-your-own-adventure cooperative exploration game, The 7th Continent (2017), which raised a record-breaking seven million dollars for its upcoming What Goes Up Must Come Down (2019) expansion.


This was a game that we happily stumbled upon when it was put on the table during a local gameplay night (at the late, lamented Endgame, bastion of gaming in the Bay Area for almost two decades). We didn’t think to take a photo, so this one is courtesy the Repos Production and their Just One press kit.

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A Treatise on Icons, Part One: The Rules of Iconography

The biggest innovation of The Settlers of Catan may not have been its gameplay but instead its production. It reduced instructions that were previously available only in the rulebook into icons and glyphs that appeared on hexes, cards, and player aids.

This major benefit of this innovation was usability. As the eurogame industry replicated this concept, its games became a lot more playable: players didn’t have to remember as many rules; instead they were elegantly printed on the components (or sometimes integrated with them).

A secondary benefit of this innovation was internationalization. A single printing could be made for a game (or for some of its components) and then sold into multiple countries. However, this should at best be considered a useful side-effect. Icon design that concentrates on internationalization instead of usability can actually damage the players ability to play that game, thanks to icons that make a game harder to play because they replace elements that should have been text. If internationalization is a requirement and a game really doesn’t require text, great, but if it does, then either the game needs to be changed or the text needs to be included.

However, creating icons for usability (and perhaps internationalization) isn’t as simple as just scribbling little pictures on cards. It requires design that is as careful and precise as the design of the game itself.

Designing an Iconic Language

Well-designed icons form a language, and that language has parts of speech, just like any other. It includes objects, which are icons that represents things in the game such as resources, markers, tokens, playing pieces, and the players themselves and it includes transformations, which are icons that represent changes to those objects, such as movement, placement, drawing, and discarding.

A strong iconic language will include both of these building blocks, but they should be thought of differently, as they’re used in different ways.

  • Object icons should be created for simple objects in a game that will be transformed in some way. Generally, object icons will be pretty easy to recognize because they tend to be representative of the objects themselves.
  • Transformation icons should be created for any repetitive actions in a game, which are either frequently used or which appear infrequently but in at least a few different contexts. Transformation icons may actually violate the first rules below, the Rules of Recognition, because they depict more complex concepts than object icons … but of course it’s better if they don’t.

Though it would be very nice to have an iconic language that covers everything in a game, that goal can often be unattainable; there are just some things that can’t be iconified.

For an iconic language to be really great, it should follow seven golden rules.

The Three Rules of Recognition

The first three rules ensure that the icon is usable.

1. Icons must place substance over style. It’s certainly preferably for a game’s iconic language to be totally beautiful. However, that should never come at the cost of an icon’s usability. In other words, don’t ignore the golden rules of icon design when you’re concentrating on attractiveness.

2. Icons must be easily recognizable. There should be no thought involved when looking at an icon. A player should be able to glance at an icon and immediately recognize what it represents. Object icons should always be great representations of the actual objects, and transformations … should at least be meaningful.

3. Icons sometimes must be recognizable from afar. This isn’t an issue for a card that’s in a player’s hand, but is critical for most other cases. If a card is placed in front of a player, it’s usually important for other players to look at it. If icons are printed on a board or some other object that goes in the middle of a table, it’s typically vital for all players to be able to recognize it. The latter problem can sometimes be offset by the placement of instructive icons or two or four sides of a board. In that case, an icon just need be recognizable from a foot or two away. Otherwise, an icon might need to be recognizable from four or more feet away!

The Six Tactics of Recognizability

Several tactics can ensure an icon’s recognizability, whether from near or far:

  • A. Icons should be iconic. If there’s a relatively universal way to depict a concept, it should be used. Generally, an icon should be representational in some way, not abstract.
  • B. Icons should be simple. The less detail that an icon contains, the more likely it is to be easily recognizable. Thus, a silhouette is simpler than a line drawing and a line drawing is simpler than an attempt to represent the icon in 3-dimensions. This of course must be contrasted with the needs for both representationalism and beauty: the balance point will lie somewhere between the extremes. But remember the First Rule of Recognition.
  • C. Icons should be old-fashioned. Here’s one way to keep icons simple: don’t use fancy Photoshop effects. Bevels, semi-transparency, drop shadows, and other tricks are likely to confuse rather than clarify icons unless used very carefully.
  • D. Icons should be colorful. Multiple colors on an icon have just as much likelihood to confuse as complex drawings. However, color blocking, where unique colors are used for specific icons, can improve the readability of icons. A color-blocked icon can even have underlying complexity in its line drawing, because it’s the color that will stand out, not the mass of lines.

A few other tactics apply specifically to object icons:

  • E. Object Icons should link to the components. Ideally, an icon should look just like its linked component. However, the tactics of recognition might instead result in an abstracted view of a component. A game can also flip things around and print an icon on the actual component.
  • F. Object Icons should be granular. Icons should generally show a few of something, not a lot. In other words, just one brick or a couple of sheep, not a whole wall or an entire herd. Generally, if you try to show too big a mass of something, the viewer will just get lost in the details.

The Three Rules of Consistency

Three more rules address how icons interact with each other as you build up a complete dictionary of icons for your games.

4. Icons must be totally consistent. Inevitably, some (perhaps most) icons will only become truly recognizable through the context of the game. Take an arrow: in the context of a game about trading, players will quickly realize that an arrow represents exchanging one good for another; while in the context of a game about moving pieces around a grid, it’ll become obvious that the arrow represents movement across the grid. Because iconography is at least somewhat contextual for each game, usage within a game must be entirely consistent. That way, as soon as a player understands a game’s particular dialect of the iconic language, the rest of the game immediately opens up to them.

5. Icons must be placed consistently. Putting specific types of icons in specific places on components can greatly help with recognition of that icon. That’s because a player now has two additional bits of context — what an icon looks like and where it is — to quickly suggest to him what the icon means.

6. Icons must be entirely unique. To ensure consistency, icons must be not just be similar for like effects, but also different for unlike effects. Two different actions should not be represented by overly similar transformation icons, nor should two different objects be represented by overly similar object icons.

The Final Rule of Completeness

A final rule makes sure that an iconic language doesn’t leave out vital facts.

7. Icons need to be entirely comprehensive. Icons that explain everything about how to do something except one niggling (but important) detail are almost as bad as not having the icon at all. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that everything in a game must be iconified, it just means that if an icon is going to explain something, it must explain  it totally. You don’t want an object icon that doesn’t differentiate between two similar but critically different components (e.g., two different decks of cards) and you don’t want a transformation icon that leaves out an important part of an action.

Final Thoughts

Having read through this article on icons, you might be wondering “Where are the illustrations!?” I’ve got one or more follow-up articles that will exemplify the rules of this article using the examples of real games, good and bad, and all the icons will be on full display there.


A first draft of this treatise was written as a suggested methodology for the development of icons in Race to Adventure!

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Co-op Case Study: Bang! Dice Game

Two weeks ago, we discussed Bang!, one of the foundational teamplay games of the ’00s. Today we’re following up with a look at Bang! The Dice Game, which followed in its footsteps by offering a variant of Bang!’s teamplay with dramatically simplified game mechanics.

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: dv Giochi (2013)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Dice, Take That

Overview

The heart of Bang! is its focus on hidden roles. They’re dealt out at the start of each game: one player openly becomes the sheriff, while other players secretly become deputies, outlaws, and a renegade. These roles describe hidden teams that share victory conditions: the sheriff and his deputies are trying to kill all of the renegades and outlaws; the outlaws are trying to kill the sheriff; and the renegade is trying to be the last player standing.

Characters die over the course of the game, and when they do, their roles are revealed; eventually one of the teams meets their victory condition.

If that all sounds a lot like Bang! (2003), the original card game, that’s because the hidden teams have been directly adapted for The Dice Game. The difference is in the actual gameplay. In The Dice Game, players throw dice each turn that mix risk and reward. If they roll well, they can damage opponents and heal themselves, but if they roll badly they can take damage from dynamite or Indian attacks. What’s actually rolled can constrain a player’s choices, which has interesting results for the game’s cooperative elements.

Cooperative System

Just as in the original card game, the cooperation of The Dice Game focuses on shared combat. Characters are once more shooting (or healing) other characters, and in the process trying to figure out what team everyone is on.

The dice rolls control who you’re allowed to attack, based on their distance from you — meaning that you usually have two choices, such as the player to your left or the player to your right. This makes attacks much more common than in the card game. This is a good change that helps to drive the game: because hidden teams are revealed only by a specific action (combat), that action needs to occur as frequently as possible.

Unfortunately, The Dice Game still contains the cooperative shortfalls of the original. Most notably, there’s no mechanical support for cooperation: characters shoot each other, but they can’t explicitly figure out teams nor can they more explicitly help each other. Still, it’s enough, particularly for one of the shortest cooperative-adjacent games around.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Adventure System

Like the card game, The Dice Game includes a two-part character allocation system, where each player gets a role (which defines their victory) and a character (which gives them a special ability). However, that’s the extent of adventure gaming in The Dice Game. The rest is mostly abstract; by making the game quicker and simpler, the designers also removed most of its color.

Final Thoughts

Bang! The Dice Game offers an excellent example of how to take a cooperative mechanic (hidden teams) and present it in a simple, quick form. It’s an excellent study in minimalism that reveals what you must provide to support this sort of play. And that’s shockingly little.

Michael Palm & Lukas Zach

Palm and Zach are German designers who worked together to create a dice sequel to Italian designer Emiliano Sciarra’s original Bang! (2003). They had each produced one or two dozen earlier games in the ‘00s and had collaborated previously on another team-based co-op, The Castle of the Devil (2006, 2010). They’ve since worked on a few full co-ops, the Aventuria Adventure Card Game (2016) and Adventure Island (2018), but Bang! The Dice Game and The Castle of the Devil remain their biggest hits to date and have received the most attention outside of Europe.


Featured image courtesy of karl69 on BGG. Shannon has three plays of this game in his records, but we apparently never took pictures (and don’t have the game any more).

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The Economics of Gaming: Tariffs

This is a second article on the economics of game publishing, following up on The Economics of Gaming: Manufacturing two weeks ago. The previous article talked about the high investments required when you’re printing your game and why that can lead to accidental scarcity of a game — against the wishes of any publisher.

If I were to offer three big picture insights related to manufacturing, expanding on what I wrote in the previous article, they’d be these:

  1. Board game publication is not a hugely lucrative business (unless you’re Hasbro, or maybe Asmodee).
  2. Board game publication has very low margins, which means that a little financial mistake can set you back a lot.
  3. When a publisher charges a price for a game, that’s usually because it’s the price they have to charge in order to afford publication.

So keep those truths in mind as we dig further into the economics of game manufacture by discussing another topic that’s been in the news lately: tariffs.

The Economics of Tariffs

The first fact of the matter is this: Donald Trump has announced tariffs of 25% on many Chinese imports, including toys and games. Mind you, no one is sure when they’re going into effect. June 1 was the official date, but that recently was delayed until June 15 (as long as the goods left China before May 10). Meanwhile, the rumor mill is claiming that a deal may be near — or alternatively that even more Chinese goods will be taxed soon.

The other fact of the matter is this: most hobby board games are published in China, as are some card games and some roleplaying games, and they’re included among those toys and games that are scheduled to be taxed at a higher rate starting in June.

Here’s what that means: most board games (and perhaps card games and roleplaying games) are likely to see a 25% price increase in the near future.

These are all pretty simple economic facts, so it’s been pretty surprising to see arguments against them. I think those are arguments are one part wishful thinking, because we don’t want to see our hobby get a lot more expensive, and one part political loyalty, because Trump voters don’t want to believe that their candidate is doing something that might be costly to them personally. But neither wishes nor loyalty are going to hold these new taxes back.

Economics are inevitable.

But China Pays the Tariff, Right?

Not in the least. Unfortunately, Trump has confused matters by saying that the tariff is “paid for mostly by China, by the way, not by us.” That’s 100% a lie. It’s not how tariffs work in any economic system. Instead, a product’s importer pays a tariff to the customs service when the taxed goods are brought into the country. In other words, the game publisher is going to be paying the tax when he brings his shipment of printed games onto American soil. That money then goes into the United State’s governmental coffers. (As it happens, 115% of those monies collected are then being paid out to farmers harmed by China’s retaliatory tariffs, but that’s a whole different story.)

Afterward, the game publisher is obviously going to pass that tax on to the consumer, because the retail price of  product is ultimately a reflection of the costs that went into producing the product.

Won’t We See Smaller Increases?

Wishful thinkers realize that the tariff is actually being charged on the manufacturing cost of the goods, not the retail price, and think they’ll get to see smaller increase. In other words, for a totally hypothetical game called Pinionlength, which has a manufacturing cost of $11 a unit, the 25% tariff will add $2.75 to the manufacturing cost of the game, bringing it up to $13.75. So, the wishful thinker believes that they’ll similarly see an increase of $2.75, bringing the $55 retail price up to $57.75, not the 25% retail increase that’s being predicted (which will bring the retail price of the game from $55 to $68.75 — or more likely: $70).

Consumers seeing this dramatically smaller price increase is not just unlikely, but impossible. That’s because there’s a whole retail chain that runs from the manufacturer to the consumer, and each link in that chain needs to increase the price to meet their own costs.

A general rule of thumb for manufacturing is that a publisher has to multiply his manufacturing cost (not including production costs, such as author, designer, and artist fees) by five to get the final retail price, in order to support the whole retail chain. This is because the manufacturer sells to a distributor at a 60% discount. The distributor then sells to the retailer at a variable discount based on volume, running from 40% to 50%; Alliance Game Distributors, for example, starts new retailers at an average of 47% discount.

To put it another way, Rockmaker Games pays $11 to print a copy of Pinionlength and sells it to Alliance Games for $22 who then sells it to high-volume retailer for $27.50, who then sells it to customer for $55. Rockmaker and the retailer each double their immediate outlay of capital, which they mostly use to pay for their other costs (for Rockmaker that includes design royalties, art costs, brokerage fees, staff salaries, and warehouse fees; for the retailer that includes retail rent, staff salaries, utility bills, credit card fees, and fraud and loss costs; and for both parties that includes the risks of unsold goods).

These incremental price increases pretty much require Donald Trump’s new game tax to be multiplied across the entire chain as well, but here’s some more specific numbers to really show why:

What if the Publisher Eats the Whole Cost?

Rockmaker eating the cost means that they’re now paying $13.75 for each copy of Pinionlength, but they’re still selling it for $22. Where they used to earn $11 profit per copy, they now only earn $8.25. Over a print run of 10,000 copies, they gross $82,500 instead of $110,000. Meanwhile, their other costs have not changed. The designer is still earning his percentage of revenues, the artist still needs to be paid, and all the regular costs of a publishing house continue. Rockmaker could easily be losing money on the game at this point.

(I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Rockmaker just ignore the costs of the new tariffs, and it’s pretty obvious why not.)

What if the Publisher only Increases by the Minimum Required to Maintain Profits?

This seems to be the actual argument from the folks who think that we’ll see a lesser increase at the retail register. Their theory is that Rockmaker only needs to increase their sales price by the $2.75 they’re paying. But, this doesn’t actually work with the economics of selling a product through a retail chain. It suggests that the cost of tariffs somehow are different from all the other manufacturing costs, and they’re not: they’re just another cost in making a product.

But here’s how the numbers would work out if a publisher did this:

Rockmaker pays an extra $2.75 for each copy of Pinionlength, so to maintain their $11 profit, they increase their price to distributors from $22 to $24.75. Since this price is a 60% discount, that means the new retail price has to be $61.87 — which means that the consumer is only seeing half of that 25% tariff increase. Great, right?

Here’s why those numbers don’t actually work:

The manufacturer who previously put out $110,000 for Pinionlength is now paying $137,500. Yes, 25% more (excluding shipping). And, as you might recall from the last article, publishing is all about cash flow. So, the publisher is actually tying up an extra $27,500 for six months at a time, without seeing any more return. That might mean he doesn’t have money to pay for salary, rent, or electricity, because the extra money isn’t growing through investment in good games, like it should. But it definitely means that the publisher has less money to invest in additional print runs. To be precise: he now has to skip every fifth print or reprint, because the money is tied up. So if he used to publish five games a year, he now only can publish four. That means there’s less chance that the truly great games get to market (especially the niche great games). Meanwhile, the publisher’s money supplies are continuing to spiral downwards because now he didn’t make money on that missing print or reprint either — even though his staff, warehouse and rent costs are staying the same. It’s not quite as overt as losing money because of not increasing prices at all, but it’s still a very definite loss.

What if the Publisher Shares Out the Cost?

Which leads us to this. The publisher is putting in 25% more capital on each printing, so he increases his cost to the distributor by 25% to maintain his profits (and thus his ability to pay bills). He’s now earning as much money as he did before on his investments, and he can keep paying his ongoing costs, but sadly, that 25% increase now goes down the entire retail chain, because it’s all based on percentages. So, yes, our retail game prices see that full 25% increase.

Mind you, the entire retail chain is now worse off than it was before:

The manufacturer is still publishing only four games out of five, because he had to pay extra money to the government (or, if you prefer, because he’s now paying extra money to farmers for the privilege of printing games in China). There’s still less chance of that really great game being published. Finally, every game represents a bigger risk, because there’s more money involved. Eventually, some businesses will go out of business due to those larger risks.

Distributors and retailers can similarly buy fewer games and have bigger risks. And last, we consumers buy fewer games too — or we eat out less, buy fewer treats for our cats, and don’t send our kids to college. Everyone pays. Except the two governments involved aren’t paying anything: they’re just weighing the damage to their economies against the concessions demanded by the other party.

With all of this said, we actually may not see the full price increases immediately, at the retail counters. Oh, word is that some manufacturers are already increasing their prices to distributors, but others may be afraid that a 25% increase may stretch the elasticity of game purchases beyond what they can bear. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some manufacturers hold the increases to the 10% or 15% that represents them just passing along the straight dollar increase, rather than the percentage. There’s been some research that this is pretty standard for tariff increases. However, that smaller increase may not actually be possible in a sector with such tight margins, and the publishers certainly won’t be able to hold lower prices for long. Still, we might see the full 25% price increase appear in steps in games over the next year.

Of course the converse possibility is that Trump’s new taxes end in December 2019 or mid 2020 or January 2021, but then manufacturers decide to maintain their higher prices, since inflation would eventually cause them to rise anyway. And so we’re left with permanently higher game costs as our reminder of Trump’s trade war with China.

But Isn’t China Production Low-Quality Anyway?

Some peoples’ response to Trump’s tariff has been that’s it’s no great loss, because those Chinese books just fall apart and the games … I don’t know … are made of lead or something?

No, they’re not. It’s been a more than decade since this has been the case.

do definitely remember having lunch with the publisher of a notable, then up-and-coming board game company in the mid ’00s, and he described to me how they were getting great printing quotes from China, but at the cost of them having to regularly send one of their staff out to check quality. And, I do remember opening up some of the first Chinese gaming products around the same time. Many had a funny smell; all of them had weird linen textures; and there was a particularly memorable game that had a sticky card finish. But that was almost 15 years ago, and the world has moved on. There was an interim period when you had to hire local agents to monitor the manufacturing for you, but now you can pretty much order from China, and if you like the quality of the samples, you can trust that the game will come out that same quality — and that’s some of the best quality in the world.

Any complaints about “slave labor” also tend to be false for the printers being used by game publishers. Yes, China has dramatically lower costs of living, and thus wages look a lot smaller, and obviously there are union-created work protections that we enjoy in the US that are totally absent from China, like 40-hour workweeks and holidays and sick leave. But fundamentally, gaming publishers are requiring living wages and decent working conditions from their Chinese printers.

The old prejudices are exactly that, and not representative of modern Chinese manufacturing, particularly not for those printers used by our industry.

Why Not Print in the United States?

Tariffs tend to have two purposes. First, they can be used as an economic lever, to try and damage the economy of a country who is doing something that you don’t like. Second, they can be used as a core element of trade protectionism, to grow specific industries within a country by making it more expensive to manufacture those products outside of the country. According to Trump’s claims, he’s doing the first thing: engaging in trade wars to damage other countries and draw concessions. With Mexico, that was about making them turn back immigrants who were seeking asylum in the United States after passing through Mexico from South or Central America. With China, it appears to be about getting them to crack down on rampant intellectual property violations.

And it’s good that Trump (mostly) isn’t engaging in protectionism, because it wouldn’t work, at least not for board game manufacture.

That’s in large part because the United States has gutted its manufacturing infrastructure over the last few generations, turning our country into a service economy. If Trump were trying to drive manufacturing back into the United States, it wouldn’t work, because the manufacturing capacity isn’t here, and what’s here isn’t always up to the standards of modern manufacturing.

Take books: black and white books are often still printed in the United States, but for color books, the odds are increasingly large that they’re printed in Canada or China. Take cards: the United States has a strong card printer in Cartamundi, and they have some competition, but the bottom line is there’s not a lot of choice.

And then we come to board games. Here, there’s such a wide difference in manufacturing costs that it’d take a tariff three or four times as big as the Trump Tax to move publishers to the United States.

Two Monkey Studios did some comparison shopping a few years ago, and they laid out the problems with producing board games in the United states.

First, US printers were often demanding runs of 10,000 units. That’s doable for a large company if they have faith in a game, but totally cuts out production by anyone smaller or for any smaller products.

Second, Two Monkey found that manufacturing prices in the United States were approximately double the quotes from China. And shockingly, there wasn’t a dramatic change in shipping: moving things around on trucks in the United States ran about half the price of shipping all the way across the Pacific. So, consider Pinionlength, which was printed for $110,000 in China with $20,000 in shipping costs. With 25% tariffs it’s now $137,500 + $20,000 shipping = $157,500 total. Meanwhile, US quotes might result in $220,000 printing costs but only $10,000 in shipping, for a total of $230,000. And that’s what the tariffs aren’t going to move printing back to the US (even if there was the manufacturing capacity and comparable quality).

In any case, many publishers don’t have any interest in printing in the United States, because the board game sector has a very strong international presence. It’s hard to find apples-to-apples comparisons of hobbyist board games sold in Europe and the United States, but it seems likely that the minority of hobby board games are sold in the US. One article, on Catan, notes that it sold 400,000 copies in its first year, well before it was translated into English, but only achieved 400,000 copies yearly in the US over a decade later, in 2007. So, if games aren’t selling primarily into the US, then obviously publishers have no reason to pay higher costs to print there, because they can avoid the tariffs by selling most of their international goods outside of the US. Which is pretty much how international trade works.

(There also doesn’t really seem to be the capacity elsewhere. India was looking like an up-and-coming option for manufacture, but the last I checked they were still mostly focused on cards, not board games.)

Conclusion

So, yes, those tariffs are likely to increase the price of US board games, and yes you as a consumer are likely to see the whole 25% increase, in a few years time if not immediately. No, this isn’t likely to drive printing back to the US, because the manufacturing capacity just isn’t there. No, Chinese printing isn’t low-quality, and yes, the printers used by game manufacturers are likely to have minimum standards for their labor. So, there wouldn’t be a silver lining even if the tariffs were to reach the 75% or 100% level that would be required to get board game publishing out of China.

You can certainly argue whether the tariffs could possibly achieve their stated goal of halting China’s massive IP violations. That’s a valid opinion to have, though my reading on trade wars has suggested that they tend to be more destructive than constructive, which also seems to be the widely accepted economist opinion in the 21st century.

But the coming price increases: those are facts, not opinions, as are the increased risks for publishers, the pending decreases in games published, and the real possibility that a favorite game publisher might go out of business.

More Reading

Game designers and manufacturers are scared, not because of politics, but because they know the grave economic dangers that these tariffs pose for our industry:

Goodenough, Amy C. May 2019. “The US-China trade war, the cost of paper, and the economics behind roleplaying games”. d100 News. https://d100news.com/2019/05/23/the-us-china-trade-war-the-cost-of-paper-and-roleplaying-games/.

Hall, Charlie. May 2019. “Trump’s trade war with China is causing major concerns in the tabletop game industry”. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2019/5/17/18628486/trump-trade-tariff-china-tabletop-games-rpgs-cards-dice.

Selinker, Mike. June 2019. “Trump’s tariffs could ruin the American board game industry”. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2019/6/5/18652411/trump-china-tariff-board-games.

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Co-op Case Study: Bang!

The 21st century has seen a number of pivotal cooperative games, such as Lord of the Rings (2000), Shadows over Camelot (2005), and Pandemic (2008). However, the adjacent teamplay space has seen several games that were just as foundational. One of the earliest was Bang! (2003), which brought the idea of hidden teams into the mainsteam.

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: daVinci / Mayfair (2003)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Card Management, Take That

Overview

Hidden roles are the heart of Bang! They’re dealt out at the start of each game: one player openly becomes the sheriff, while other players secretly become deputies, outlaws, and a renegade. These roles describe hidden teams that share victory conditions: the sheriff and his deputies are trying to kill all of the renegades and outlaws; the outlaws are trying to kill the sheriff; and the renegade is trying to be the last player standing.

The actual gameplay of Bang! is fairly simple. Players draw cards and then play cards. Sometimes the cards allow for the draw of additional cards, the healing of damage, or other administrative actions. However most of the cards are “Bang!s”, which allow players to shoot each other — though in a somewhat limited fashion based on the range of their weaponry.

Characters die over the course of the game, and when they do, their roles are revealed; eventually one of the teams meets their victory condition.

Cooperative System

The cooperation in Bang! largely comes through shared combat. Players attack other players who they surmise are on different teams. The problem, of course, is figuring out the teams. Everyone can identify the sheriff, since his role is open — but beyond that players make guesses depending on what players do.

The result still works — and it can be great fun when the lack of teamwork infrastructure backfires, causing a sheriff to accidentally kill one of his deputies — but the teamwork play might have been even more intriguing if it were supported by cooperative mechanics.Unfortunately, this means that Bang! suffers the same problems that its predecessor, Werewolf (1987), did: there’s no mechanical support for the hidden teams. Thus, figuring them out is all guesswork and speculation — combined with the oratory abilities of the players. (At least in Bang!, players can explicitly figure out some roles through the attacks that are carried out; if someone is attacking the sheriff, they’re probably not a deputy.) Beyond that, there’s no additional support for cooperation: no way to explicitly share resources, aid an ally, or anything else.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Adventure System

Bang! uses a two-part character allocation system, where each player gets a role (which defines their victory) and a character (which gives them a special ability). Bang! expands its “adventure gaming” by allowing characters to play special blue/permanent cards, which give them items that they keep over the course of the game.

With that said, the adventure gaming elements of Bang! aren’t necessarily that important. The roles, of course, make the game go ‘round, but everything else is just color.

Expansions & Variants

Bang! has been heavily expanded, though the expansions have not been particularly revolutionary: they mainly add cards. More recently a variant game called Samurai Sword (2012) offered some good changes to the gaming system.

Most obviously, Samurai Sword removes Bang!’s problem of Player Elimination by instead awarding honor as characters are “defeated” — after which the defeated characters return to play. It also allows for more cleverness in its hidden roles: different players in a team can now earn different amounts of victory points for collecting honor, meaning that it might benefit one teammate to attack another in order to shift the honor points to the player who gets more reward for them.

Despite these change, Samurai Sword still doesn’t have any infrastructure for figuring out roles, nor for aiding fellows — making the hidden team aspect of play as chaotic as ever.

There is also a Dice Game (2013), which adapts these ideas to a new medium.

Final Thoughts

Bang! should rightly be congratulated for bringing the idea of hidden teams into the mainstream. Though they existed as far back as the Werewolf / Mafia party games, this was the first inclusion of those same ideas in a major release. The result is a fun game, but not necessarily an example of a great teamwork game — which would be built on both good ideas and solid mechanics.

Emilliano Sciarra

Italian game designer Emilliano Sciarra began work on Bang! in 1999 with the goal of creating a game that could be played by seven or more players. After completing his design, he found a publisher in daVinci Games (now dv Games). The initial print run of 2000 copies appeared in Italy in July 2002 and sold out in just three months. It’s since been translated into six additional languages and has been a resounding international success. Because of that, Sciarra has spent all of his game design efforts on supplements to Bang! and on complementary games like Samuari Sword.

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The Economics of Games: Manufacturing

As game consumers, we typically only see the end-point of the long process of bringing games to market. And, when there’s something we don’t like about that end-product, it’s easy to criticize, even if we don’t understand the whole process. In fact, there’s been a lot of criticism lately about a certain game that has been very scarce in the marketplace, and I can already see criticisms starting to bubble up concerning the big price increases that are going to occur in the United States if Trump’s tariffs happen as announced.

So I wanted to deviate from my more common focus on game design this week to talk about game manufacturing, particularly the very real costs and the very real risks that are implicit in publication. (This will be probably the first of two parts: tariffs will follow, assuming they’re still an issue in two weeks time.)

The Economics of Manufacturing

Stonemaier Games published Elizabeth Hargrave’s Wingspan (2019) early this year. This bird-themed game of engine-building and set-collection immediately became the year’s most sought-after release; much as with Stonemaier’s Scythe (2016) of years past, this led to huge scarcity: there just wasn’t enough to go around. The game’s already been reprinted three times, but as of this writing it’s still largely unavailable.

This unavailability of the year’s hottest game has led to entirely understandable frustration, but it’s also led to some claims that just don’t match the reality of games manufacturing, such as assertions that Stonemaier obviously should have known to publish more, or even allegations that they purposefully make their games scarce.

Here’s why these conspiratorial claims don’t match up with the actual realities of games manufacturing:

Why Not Print More?

Printing the actual game is usually the single largest upfront cost of game manufacture. (The other large upfront cost tends to be art, which was probably particularly notable for Wingspan, with 170 pieces of unique bird art, more on which momentarily). This upfront cost tends to be the main restriction on print runs.

In the case of Wingspan, Stonemaier publisher Jamey Stegmaier reached out to his distributors sometime before August 2018, and they suggested he print 10,000 copies of the game, after which Jamey made the actual decision, and settled on that 10,000 number. This is a relatively large print-run for a game, particularly for an unpublished game designer; I personally find it pretty big for an ornithologically themed game too. Perhaps it’s not as big for Jamey, who has done a phenomenal job of leveling Stonemaier up with games like ScytheViticulture (2015), Charterstone (2017), and Between Two Cities (2015), all of which have about 10,000 copies recorded on BoardGameGeek alone … but much of the gaming field (and particularly the American gaming field) would be very happy to print 10,000 copies of a game.

And, those 10,000 copies are expensive. Jamey was kind enough to share the exact numbers with me*. Wingspan had a unit cost of $11, which means that those 10,000 copies cost $110,000. There was an additional $20,000 in freight, which is always a major cost when printing in China. That totals $130,000 just in manufacturing, without even counting the art cost or the many continuing costs, such as warehousing fees and royalties to the designer. (How much would art add to the upfront cost, for 170 full color pictures, some of which appear to be watercolor and some of which were colored pencil? Maybe Jamey could have gotten them for $100 each, which would have added $17,000 to the price tag, and brought the total upfront of cost to almost $150,000, but since that’s speculative, and the numbers could easily have been two or three times as much, I’m going to leave it out of my calculations.)

Now let’s presume that Jamey has some magical instinct that his distributors were wrong. He decides to print 20,000 instead of 10,000. He actually doesn’t get a lot of advantage out of this financially, because at 10,000 units he’s already seen most of the economies of scale in play. But, he gets a slight discount down to $10.50, based on the quote he shared. So it’s $210,000 production cost, plus now $40,000 shipping: exactly a quarter of a million dollars.

A board game publisher betting that amount of money on a brand-new game from a brand-new designer would frankly be foolish. Going with the 10,000 copies that the distributors guesstimated would in fact have been foolish for many publishers, because those distributors weren’t making a commitment, they were just telling Jamey what they thought they could sell — probably based on sales of his previous games, none of which were anything like this one. Betting and losing $130,000 could knock most small-to-medium game publishers out of business. But Stonemaier, has done quite well, reporting revenues of $9.6 million last year. So could they afford a $130,000 bath if Jamey and the distributors were wrong? Maybe. How about $250,000? That’s getting a lot bigger. And revenues certainly aren’t the same thing as profits. I would not be surprised if a $250,000 would wipe out Stonemaier’s profits for a year, because board game publishers just don’t have that large of margins: they’re earning a small percentage of the retail price of every unit. Whether that amount of loss would knock a company out of business or not, it would certainly slow down the rest of their production for the year.

That’s because publishing is all cash flow. Though you might have $9.6 million in revenues flowing into a company over the course of the year, it’s flowing out just as fast. You’re paying warehousing costs and art costs. A percentage of every dollar is probably going to designers as royalties. And most importantly, you’re printing stuff. In fact, unless you’re vastly successful, you’re probably constantly waiting for enough money to show up in your bank account to pay for a print or a  reprint of whatever the public is wanting next. And whenever you print something, you’re removing that money from your cash flow up for half-a-year at a time. Take Wingspan: Stonemaier paid $55,000 when production began in August 2018, then another $55,000 in November 2018 when it shipped out. They didn’t see any return on that investment until January 2019 when Stonemaier sold direct preorders to fans, and then distributors didn’t pay them until April 2019, 30 days after they got their games. So Jamey tied up the first $55,000 for 5-8 months and the next $55,000 for 3-6 months. That’s rough. And even rougher if you’re talking about twice as much.

Generally, you might go with distributors’ guesses because they sort of know what’s going on. Still, there are no guarantees, and you could lose everything. When you start to increase that guess just based on your gut, it becomes increasingly risky. And a lot of that risk appears as a slowdown of cash flow: the more you invest, the more likelihood that you’re printing too much and actually locking up your money for years, not months, and thus the more you impact your ability to print and reprint other products — which is the cycle that ultimately keeps a game manufacturer printing. Without it: you die.

(A Personal Aside from Ye Olde M&M Author)

The idea of a bad overprinting killing a company isn’t just a fantasy: I’ve personally seen the next closest thing. Long before I wrote Mechanics & Meeples (or Designers & Dragons), in the mid ’90s, I was working for Chaosium, and we had a popular CCG called Mythos. We published it through several collectible sets, and each one sold out, leading the distributors to demand more the next time. However, we were growing concerned about how much money these Mythos print-runs were sucking up in comparison to our overall revenues: it was obvious that we were talking about company-ending costs if one of our releases didn’t sell.

So we produced the Mythos Standard Game Set, a non-collectible version of the game with brand-new cards; it was meant to keep out game in print while evening out the revenue stream to avoid those huge ebbs and flows. Good theory.

Then the distributors told us that wanted just as many of these non-collectible cards as the collectible cards they’d been previously ordering. And stupid, stupid us, we listened to them. We printed MSGS at the obscene numbers suggested by the distributors. Meanwhile, as the cards ran off the printing presses, and we awaited their delivery, the CCG market started to cool. The distributors were looking more carefully at everything, and particularly at a set-card design like our new Standard Game Set. When the actual game arrived at our warehouse, they ordered in much lower numbers.

By the next year, I was the only person at Chaosium still receiving a paycheck, and it was regularly (and illegally) coming in one to two weeks late. The owners were forced to put money into the company just to keep the lights on and the front door unlocked. There was a huge palette of unsold  MSGS cards, more than six feet tall, out in our warehouse. And, I had a pile of about a half-dozen books near my desk that were ready to go, but which we couldn’t afford to print, because our cash flow had been destroyed. It was all sitting in those unsold (and ultimately unsellable) MSGS cards.

Afterward the company stumbled along for a few decades, but only as a shadow of its former self. The decision to produce a large print run pretty much killed them. (Since then, they’ve been bought out by a new team that is running the company better than ever before, but that’s a recent phenomenon, and it took a whole new investment of both talent and money.)

The $250,000 for a more speculative run of Wingspan wouldn’t have been the same as the million or so that got stupidly dumped into MSGS, but MSGS nonetheless offers an example of why you don’t print more.

What About Retailer Preorders?

Retailers are given the opportunity to preorder games, but that happens well after the games have been printed, when the manufacturer already has the games in stock and is making preparations to ship them to distributors. At that point, the distributors tend to request preorders from their retailers, and then they try and order that much (and a bit of a cushion) from the manufacturer: but if the manufacturer’s guess from months earlier was wrong, and they didn’t print enough, then the product gets allocated — which means that the distributors (and ultimately retailers) get a fraction of what they wanted. This actually doesn’t happen very often because as a rule of thumb a manufacturer wants to print twice what they’ll initially sell; if they don’t, they’re making life harder for themselves.

So, when a retailer says (for example) that they preordered 3,000 copies, insinuating that a manufacturer lied when they said they were only advised to print 10,000 copies, that’s at best ingenuous. Stonemaier made their casual query to distributors before August 2018 and choose their print run in August 2018; distributors didn’t solicit order from retailers until January 2019. Afterward, Stonemaier toted up all the distributors’ numbers and discovered that demand had outpaced supply. Their broker allocated the print run, and meanwhile, Stonemaier was back to the printers.

Do Manufacturers Like Scarcity?

Absolutely not: it’s horrible.

There is certainly an argument that Stonemaier has gotten a lot of publicity from the scarcity of Scythe and now Wingspan, and that’s likely driven some demand. But, there’s no way that increased demand generally offsets the costs of reprinting a game.

In general, in the board game industry (and in most publishing industries), running out of product is awful. That’s because for the first print run of a game, the printing costs will usually be returned through preorders. When you’re printing in China, you’re still tying up your money for six months or so, but at least you know you’ll get it back at the end (if you were prudent in your print run!).

Contrariwise, when you do a second print, you sell a much lower quantity during the first month of new sales, because you’re not selling to a big, pent-up demand, but instead an incremental month-by-month demand. This is why great games often go out of print and don’t return for years: it’s because the publisher is waiting for enough new pent-up demand (usually measured by unfulfilled orders to distributors) to make a print run without tying up their money for years at a time.

The other reason that publishers hate scarcity is economies of scale. Though there isn’t much difference in manufacturing costs between 10,000 units and 20,000 units, there’s a huge difference between 1,000 units and 10,000 units, and you’re likely to print fewer copies when you reprint; that ultimately means less return on the money you put into a reprint, straining the already tight economics of board game publishing.

Now Wingspan certainly wasn’t hurt by either of these factors: Stonemaier has clearly been able to sell through a few additional runs of between 5,000 and 15,000 copies, maintaining their economies of scale and their cashflow. But knowing you can do that is just as unpredictable as knowing that a game would sell a high quantity from the first print run, so artificially introducing scarcity is not likely to be a winning strategy.

What About This Big Amazon Prices?

Finally, some folks think that publishers are reaping those huge and ridiculous prices that you see on Amazon — such as the $100 price currently being asked for an out of stock Wingspan. And that’s totally not the case. Those prices are being charged by third-party sellers, and they’re usually set nowadays by computer programs which are constantly jockeying with each other to maximize their sales. (Sadly, I also don’t get the $380 currently being asked for my first edition Designers & Dragons.) The real answer is that no one gets that money in most cases: the computers are sitting around waiting for suckers, but they don’t usually sell until more products come on the market, causing them to lower prices.

In fact, the actual price that a manufacturer tends to get is lower than you might guess: they usually earn money on a game at a 60% discount from retail, paid to them by distributors, which is $22 in the case of Wingspan. But that’s $22 whether the game sells for $55 at your FLGS or for $100 from an unscrupulous Amazon seller. (The one place that a manufacturer like Stonemaier does get full retail is if they sell direct to their biggest fans, and Stonemaier did direct sell 5,000 preorders of Wingspan, also a pretty extraordinary amount, and one that obviously paid for the whole print run and then some if you do the math. But selling 50% of a print run direct is all but unknown, except in the case of Kickstarters. And, it’ll be a much smaller percentage of the whole by the time Stonemaier sells through to everyone who wants Wingspan … but still an important element for keeping a publisher’s books in the black.)

Conclusion

If someone asks, “Why didn’t that publisher print more?”, the answer usually is, “Because they don’t want to go out of business.” Board game have low margins, which means that if you over print by a little, you can easily wipe out your profits for a year. If you overprint by a lot, you can easily wipe out your company. Having totally accurate preorder numbers? Creating purposeful scarcity? Reaping the rewards from Amazon overprices? These are things that don’t happen in reality, and if a publisher tries, then that’s another thing likely to knock them right out of business.


* With Jamey sharing print costs with me, you might ask, “What’s your relationship with him?” Here it is: he sent me a free copy of Scythe for review a year and a half ago. I thought it was a great game design, though personally it’s longer and more complex than I tend to play. I’m also a big fan of Stonemaier’s “Between” games, as you can probably guess from my co-op case studies of Between Two Cities and Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig. But I bought my copy of Between Two Cities from the original Kickstarter, and I got my copy of Between Two Castles as a Christmas present from my brother. Which all goes to say: I have almost no relationship with Stonemaier.

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Co-op Case Study: Police Precinct

One of the interesting results of the success of Pandemic (2008) was that a subset of co-op games came out that used Pandemic’s design as a starting place. Some were very obviously influenced, such as Richard Launius’ Defenders of the Realm (2010), but others went further afield, but still maintained a similar foundation of modern drama combined with highly tactical turns and multi-faceted problems. You could almost put together a trilogy of such games: the disease-fighting of Pandemic, the fire-fighting of Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011), and the crime-fighting of Police Precinct (2013) … though this last one is probably the furthest from Pandemic’s core gameplay.

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Common Man (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op / Traitor
Play Style: Adventure Game, Dice, Investigative

Overview

In Police Precinct, players are trying to solve a murder. Unfortunately, emergencies and street punks also require police attention, and if too much time is spent on these problems, the murderer could get away!

Challenge System

The challenge system in Police Precinct centers on a simple Event card draw that activates each turn to reveal either an emergency or an event. The emergencies typically take one game turn to resolve, which means that as long as emergencies are drawn, players can just barely keep up with the challenge system. There are only two ways to get ahead: when an event is drawn; or when the players decide to allow an urgent emergency to fail. This dilemma creates a considerable tension in the game because players can’t spend all their time resolving emergencies: they need to work on investigating the murder too, to win the game!

Police Precinct’s emergencies have an interesting cascade: each one has a colored header. If an additional emergency of the same color is drawn, then the previous one becomes urgent. If the urgent marker were already on the board, then the previously urgent emergency fails, increasing the city crime track by one. This mechanic focuses heavily on risk and reward: players can figure out the odds for whether a new urgent event will appear, but they can never know for sure whether the next card draw will bring disaster — which is exactly the sort of uncertainty that you want in a cooperative game.

The crime track is a tally threat that aggregates several challenge inputs.  It mostly increases when an urgent emergency fails, but it also goes up in response to a variety of other problems: when too many gang members appear; when too many street gangs appear; or when the Event deck is reshuffled. Having a wide variety of failure conditions can keep players on their toes, but it can sometimes be too much to remember. Police Precinct elegantly resolves this problem by funneling all the failures into a single attribute.

Though Police Precinct defaults to true co-op play, there’s also an option for a traitor in some variants of the game. Games offering multiple styles of play like this often don’t work that well, but Police Precinct is the exception. That’s because traitor support has been built into the game from the start: players are constantly picking between multiple cards that only they can see. This doesn’t matter a lot in the true co-op game, but it becomes a cornerstone of traitor gameplay.

Challenge Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Sequential Cascade; Simulation; Decay; Combat, Task & Tally Threats

Cooperative System

The main cooperation of Police Precinct occurs through asymmetrical strategic coordination, where players take care of different sorts of big-picture problems, based on their individual specializations. The gameplay demonstrates the “Power of Two” game-design pattern: there’s a proactive thing that players can do to try to win (investigating the murder); and there’s a defensive thing that you can do to try to avoid losing (resolving emergencies and breaking up gangs).

Police Precinct also pushes tactical cooperation in two different ways, one of them quite unique.

First, it gives players bonuses for dealing with problems when their fellows are nearby. This is a nice add-on to most cooperative skill test systems, as it forces players to think about coming together. It’s been done previously in Star Trek: Expeditions (2011) and elsewhere.

Second, Police Precinct rather uniquely breaks its police cards into two parts: each card has a special action that a player can use on his own turn and a small bonus that he can apply only to another player’s skill test. Resources that can only be used for cooperation turn up from time-to-time in co-ops; for example, some of the supplements for The Resistance (2009) give a player special powers that he must give away. However, no cooperative game prior to Police Precinct had ingrained the idea so deeply into the structure of its play. It works well here, keeping everyone involved and interested on every single turn.

Overall, Police Precinct offers up a hodge-podge of cooperative mechanics; together, they ensure that there’s a large amount of cooperation in the game, which is exactly what’s desired.

Adventure System

Police Precinct has surprisingly strong adventure game mechanics for something that doesn’t touch upon the fantasy, science-fiction, or horror genres. Characters are specialized through both skills and special abilities, which are in turn used for skill tests required by the emergency cards. In addition, the events and emergencies are quite evocative, and the investigation feels like it’s uncovering a story.

Police Precinct’s biggest flaw as an adventure game is that there’s no variation in the investigation from game to game: there’s just one set of clues to find, and players will find them each time. This can be a real drag on the “story” of the game.

Final Thoughts

Police Precinct has good mechanics for its challenge system and a good combination of cooperative mechanics. Nothing is hugely innovative; in fact, Police Precinct is one of those games that feels like it leans most heavily on Pandemic’s game design patterns rather than breaking new ground. However, there’s a lot that’s done right, and that’s crucial.

The biggest problem with Police Precinct is poor editing. The rulebook is the worst, because it leaves out a few important rules, but there are a lot of elements in the game where an editor and proofreader could have made everything a lot more professional; the result is unfortunately an obvious first-time product — but that doesn’t affect the gameplay much once you’ve actually figured out the rules.

Ole Steiness

Video game designer Ole Steiness made his co-op tabletop debut when some of his ideas were incorporated into the Pandemic On the Brink (2009) expansion. His Into the Fire (2012) co-op was then web published before Police Precinct (2013) was produced by Common Man Games.  He’s since been largely focused on his popular Champions of Midgard (2015), a non-cooperative worker-placement game.

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New to Me: Winter 2019 — Knizia, Breese, Cards & More

This post got delayed a bit because of April 1st and 15th falling on Mondays, allowing me to post a few special articles. And then I got sick. (Sigh.) But this is still my “New to Me” post for the first three months of the year. As usual, these are games that I played for the first time (no matter how new or old they are) with a rating of how much I liked them (as a medium-weight eurogamer).

The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

Key Flow (2018). Take Keyflower (2012), a game that I found most brilliant for its interrelation of auction and worker placement. Keep the worker-placement and resource-management elements of the original game, but replace the auction mechanic with a different sort of action selection: card drafting. Voila! You have Key Flow.

Though I think that Key Flow cuts out some of the best parts of Keyflower, the card drafting is a perfectly acceptable alternative, and the result is a game that’s a bit shorter and more approachable. Even though I love Keyflower and will continue to play it, I think Key Flow is pretty good too, just in a slightly different category.

This one is also a bit more solitaire and really, really intensive in its end-game scoring. (There really should have been a score sheet.)

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Great Western Trail (2016). Rarely have I had a more intimidating rules teach than this, because the game encompasses multiple rules systems (the first of a few “mashups” that I played in winter) and contains a system of somewhat obtuse icons. Despite that, it worked pretty intuitively once we got into the game.

At heart, this is a resource-management game. You work hard to earn money, which you use to hire workers, build buildings, and purchase cattle. You then sell those cattle for more money. And there are a lot more bells and whistles, such as the ability to collect various tiles, improve your locomotive, and place discs. Oh, and there’s a small deckbuilding element that’s pretty clever. Whew! There’s a reason the rules were so intimidating.

Unsurprisingly, when you have all those different game elements, you also have a lot of game depth. There’s a lot of variability, a lot of different paths to victory, and generally a lot of ability to master the game (or not). So, if you’re looking for a middle-to-heavy euro with some good western theming, this is it.

Keyper (2017). Richard Breese has a genius for constantly reinventing Medieval-based worker-placement games and making them feel totally original and innovative — and Keyper does it again. Whereas most worker-placement games create tension as players strive to take critical action spaces before their opponents, Keyper instead requires players to give their opponents an opportunity to join them, and even gives them rewards if they do! The big disappointment in the game isn’t if someone takes your space (though that can still happen), but instead if you go to take a space, and no one wants to join you!

The other big innovation of the game is its country boards, which are weird folding cardboard puzzles that can be flipped back and forth to create multiple different configurations. Sadly, this is an innovation gone wrong. All they do is layout four different setups that a player can enable each turn, and it’s kind of hard for new players to find those options! So: pure style over substance, a cool component that makes it harder to play the game. (Fortunately that board manipulation just occurs at the end of the round.)

Beyond that, Keyper is about what you’d expect. There’s resource management, there’s building, and there’s upgrading. Then, there’s the opportunity to stack up a lot of different animals (and sometimes resources and meeples) to score at the end. (But the worker placement is what you’ll find most notable about the game.)

Pandemic: Iberia (2016). This is the first of the “Pandemic Survival” games, and it looked to me to be pretty similar to the original: you’re fighting diseases and eventually must cure research four of them to win the game. Some of the rules are slight variants from the original Pandemic game: sea movement is not limited to ports, and a disease has to be researched in a hospital of the appropriate color. But there are wider differences in two new game systems: water purification allows players to buffer entire regions against disease, while a railroad can be used to dramatically speed up movement.

It turns out that these new systems result in a pretty different game — which shouldn’t be a surprise, because Matt Leacock is a very clever designer. He went out of his way to make what seemed like small rules changes into major elements of the game, in large part by making sure the specializations of the characters heavily promoted the new rules systems. But, the new rules systems themselves were also deceptively simple, while simultaneously having large repercussions: the railroads can dramatically change the tactics of a player’s turn, while water purification can dramatically change how the challenge simulation works.

And even after all of that, Pandemic: Iberia is still a tight, fast game just like its predecessor.

Railroad Ink (2018). This is a very simple (perhaps even simplistic) roll-and-draw game. You roll a set of four dice for the group that show various railroads and roads, then everyone draws them on their own board. Repeat six more times, then score. Connected exits, longest roads, longest rails, and central lines all score positive points, while dead ends score negative points. Most points win.

Though there’s not a lot that’s mechanically innovative, the creativity makes this game a lot of fun, as you plot out your own routes and figure out what to do as you get one awful roll after another. Be warned, this is pretty much the definition of multiplayer solitaire, and I find it offensive that the publisher (CMON) makes you buy two copies of the game to get all the special rules.(Those special rules add rivers, lakes, lava, and meteors in the blue and red versions, respectively.)

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Arboretum (2015). Take the climbing mechanics of Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities (1999), but place your cards on a two-dimensional grid and require players to hold onto some of their best cards so that they’re actually allowed to score, and you’ll get something a little like Arboreteum.

Don’t think this slightly older game is derivative though. It’s a clever, innovative, and original card game, and it’s got quite a bit of depth. Whereas I feel like Lost Cities is a fairly simple game with some really delightful tension, Arboretum is also a really intricate puzzle. At first I wasn’t sure I’d like Arboretum because of its thinkiness and its complexity, but it won me over. (My biggest complaint turned out to be its randomness, as drawing “8”s can make or break a game.)

[Here’s why this isn’t rated higher: early on in my eurogaming years I really fell in love with filler card games like King’s Breakfast, No Thanks!, and Coloretto, but nowadays I’m looking for games with more depth, especially since super-fillers like Race for the Galaxy have replaced the old filler category with a new type of depper play. So I might have rated games like Arboreteum and the Parade that follows much higher 10-15 years ago, but now I generally decide that I’d like something with more depth. But still, Arboretum comes pretty close to these deeper games I like, since its play is practically tile-like.]

Charterstone (2017). Charterstone is a very basic worker-placement game. You place meeples, you generate resources, then you transform those resources into buildings, crates (of new components), or other sorts of victory points. There are a few different paths to victory, but the action-to-victory-point ratio is tight enough that it often feels like there’s not a lot of variation, particularly not in early games.

The catch is that Charterstone is a Legacy game. You’re going to be building up your worker-placement village over the course of an entire campaign. Despite the basicness of the game, seeing your little hamlet expand game by game is a lot of fun, particularly as you’ll see new things over time when you pull them out of crates: as is typical for Legacy games, not everything is visible at the start of the game.

Is that enough to make Charterstone a really playable and replayable game? Maybe. It really depends on the players. If you absolutely love creative construction in a game (like I do), the shallow mechanics will be overcome by the evocative and almost unprecedented ability to build over a number of games. And, if you don’t, the gameplay alone probably won’t be enough.

(Personally, it’s been a great game to play with my wife, and we’re enjoying seeing our village expand.)

Teotihuacan: City of Gold (2018). Teotihuacan says it has worker-dice, so we’ll kind of accept it’s a worker-placement game, which it kind of is. Except the workers move around a roundel. In different spaces, they gather resources, use those resources to build a ziggurat, build houses, and gather technology. In other words, it’s a pretty standard soulless euro. Mind you, there’s lots of nice strategy (as you figure out how you’re going to make your way around the roundel) and lots of nice tactics (as you figure out how to take advantage of clumps of “workers”, as they either makes actions more expensive or else give you more opportunity to collect food).

With all that said, Teotihuacan is one of the biggest mashups I’ve ever seen. It mushes together resource management, worker placement, a teeny bit of engine building, roundel play, tile laying, pattern matching, set collection, and probably a few others that I’m missing. The problem with that type of design is that it’s hard to be great at any of your disparate elements. And, I feel that’s largely the case here. Take the ziggurat, which contains the tile laying and the pattern matching. It’s very reminiscent of Dragon Castle (2017) where you’re similarly building a 3-D building with tiles and matching icons, but Dragon Castle has been much more carefully developed to minimize AP while maximizing tactics, while Teotihuacan just has too many unwieldy possibilities when you’re stacking up the tiles. (Mind you, it’s possible to make a mashup successful, as Great Western Trail show, but I think that game is both more careful in how many game systems it incorporates and frankly a better design at making those game systems unique and innovative.)

The one exception, where I think Teotihuacan did manage some great development, is in its “worker dice”, which are sorta workers that get better as they go (and are eventually turned in for a big bonus). It’s a great innovation that adds a whole secondary level of tactics. It makes me wish there was more focus on those workers and less on mashing all these other systems together.

The Quest for El Dorado: Heroes & Hexes (2018). I’d really been looking forward to this new Quest for El Dorado expansion, because I felt like the biggest limitation of the original game was its relatively small stock of different cards. But I found this expansion somewhat underwhelming.

Demons are the core system for the new game. These are new purple spaces on the board that cause you to draw demon tokens, which give you various short-term disadvantages, from the need to discard certain cards to the introduction of useless demon cards into your deck. I felt like the original El Dorado game had a little bit too much certainty, even with its card draw, so this was a nice addition (as was the introduction of several new maps using the demon tiles). Many of these demon tiles also include tunnels, which are short cuts, and I’m a little less certain about their use, because they can give players a big jump with lucky draws.

Meanwhile, there are a few things to make life easier for players. Familiars are new starting cards that can be used for a one-time bonus. I suspect the intent was to help players out when they get stuck. Heroes are great cards that you can get if you make a stop at the Hero Tavern. They’re pretty neat cards, and they do support deckbuilding since you get to choose one of three, but I wonder if they’re too good.

Of course the thing I was really looking forward to were new decks of cards and there were just four of these, but they introduced some good variety, including a card that lets you move onto mountains! Of course what the game really needs at this point is the ability to choose which cards come into play, as those rows and rows of out-of-play cards were already unwieldy.

Overall, this expansion is staying in my game, and the demons are a nice new challenge, but I was still a bit meh on the new introductions.

Parade (2007). This older release is a clever card game of the sort that I’ve seen in other Japanese releases, like R-Eco (2009). In this one there’s a line of cards in the middle of the table, and you play cards that simultaneously protect you from taking certain cards at the head of the line and that require you to take color matching and lower number cards from later in the line. You’re harshly penalized for the cards you take, earning their value in (negative) points, but if you can earn a majority in a color, the points become worth just one point each. As a result, it’s almost always bad to play cards, so you’re trying to balance out which ones are the least bad to play. Though there’s definitely a lot of luck of the draw, the deeper you get into the game, and the longer the line gets, the more strategic thinking that’s required as well.

And as you can guess from the game’s position in this list, I found it interesting, but not something I’d ask for.

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

Lost Cities: Rivals (2018). Lost Cities seems like a theme this quarter, and this is basically Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities meets Reiner Knizia’s Ra. In other words, the players are creating lots, and eventually someone starts an auction to buy the cards. The winner of the auction then gets to decide which cards he actually wants to take. He adds them to his expeditions, following the usual Lost Cities Keltis rule of never-decrementing value. He leaves what he didn’t want, and even gets to trash one.

Personally, I didn’t find this to be a worthwhile variant of Lost CitiesRa is great because of the push-your-luck aspect, where you can add detrimental things to the lot, and there’s very little of that here. Lost Cities is great because of the tightness of the play, where you have very limited options for what to add to your expeditions, and that’s also sabotaged in this design, since you get to choose what to add to your expedition. So I felt like the end result was OK, but not a masterful game like most of the other Lost Cities games I’ve played.

Admittedly, I may have played this in the worst circumstances, with just two players. (My experience is that most auctions are better with more players, and BGG agrees that three or four is ideal.) Nonetheless, I think playing with two is fair for a Lost Cities game.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples