BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Braggart and Totemo: Two New UK Games Coming Soon!

In which I take a quick look at two new games heading your way from UK publishers. I have been fortunate to play prototypes of both games, so I can speak from experience on both. Plus, there are bonus points available if you can spot the special connection between the two designs!

First comes Braggart, a game (and I’m quoting) of heroes, liars and unfortunate fish, from first-time designer Kyle Daniel and publisher Spiral Galaxy Games. This one is a real ‘beer and pretzels’ game as our American cousin might say, but I’m not sure I can sum it up much better than the publisher:

You sit in The Heroes Return, a tavern famed for its heroic clientèle. You’ re not a hero, but you talk a good game. You and your friends are holding court, regaling the crowds with your tales of derring-do. Can you fight your way through a drunken haze to concoct the best boast? The most believable? Or at least ones that are funny? Or will you be called out as the liar you are?

The game’s conceit, then, is that in each turn the players use their cards — made up of Scenes, Deeds, Foes and Results, plus a few instant ‘Take That!’ effects (in the ‘cards that your opponents can throw at you during your turn’ sense, not in the ‘Relight My Fire’ one) — to create the best ‘boast’, a sequence of colourful and often preposterous statements with which to impress their friends. To help illustrate this I’ve used some of the example card artwork posted on BGG to create an example of a rather unlikely boast below. And I must say how exciting it is to see the game come to life through the excellent box artwork and illustrations.

Image: Bragging Rights? While travelling the frozen wastes and roaming the bitter seas I was captured and left at the mercy of a rogue magician of dubious morals and then I hid in my house crying!

After every player has boasted their best, the best boast (as determined by the sequence with the highest total cards value) is kept face-down by that player, and is completely converted into points. (The card values are at the top of the cards, point values are bottom right.) All other players with at least some sort of boast on the table get to keep only their single best card.

It’s all very light and quick — and, most importantly, fun! — and it may sound like there’s no tactics at all, but there is a little more to this one than met my eye at first, and it certainly isn’t the case that the biggest boaster or the guy with the best hand of cards always wins. The other card effects keep things lively and unpredictable, and in the right crowd — and one not necessarily under the influence of alcohol! — I think this game will be a real winner.

Next up is Totemo, a new game from designer Tony Boydell and collaborators Alan and Charlie of Surprised Stare Games. Last year the same team produced the tricky little robot-building card game Fzzzt!, which has deservedly done well, and will soon be re-released in a new edition by Gryphon Games alongside a 5- and 6-player expansion.

Designed as a family game with enough bite to keep the grown-ups happy, Totemo is delightfully colourful and smart, and I enjoyed my game enormously. The colour-wheel-inspired placement and scoring rules, and the addition of randomly distributed bonus markers on the score track (if you hit one exactly, you get another turn), are really clever and clear mechanics that give the game added intrigue and tactics without weighing it down. Plus, I rather think that the way in which the bonus markers are distributed at the start of the game is clever too.

However, the icing on the cake after the playtest was, for me, the revelation that the playing area and scoreboard were to be printed on a garden-variety tea towel! I love this idea and think it will really add charm to the play experience; cloth is, as far as I’m concerned, a grossly under-utilised board gaming material!

A little while ago Tony wrote a great Designer Diary for BoardgameNews about the development of Totemo, so feel free to go check it out for more information.

Image: I’ve not seen the final components in the flesh, but they look just as tactile and engaging as I imagined they might — indeed, they look rather gorgeous. Missing here is the handy carry-all canvas bag and the delightfully illustrated tea towel scoreboard. A tea towel. Genius!

And if you are waiting around to see if you’ve earned those elusive bonus points, then the answer could be ‘Yes!’, but only if you spotted that the fantastic artwork for both games was created by the same illustrator: the multi-talented Vicki Paull!

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The Unfinished Designs

Yesterday On Saturday I vowed to complete a list of my game design ideas, and here is that list. As stated yesterday on Saturday, they should all be considered unfinished; in the sense that even a complete, playable prototype with a complete, written ruleset should not be considered untouchable or somehow impervious to improvement. So perhaps it is enough to observe that they are indeed all unfinished, but that some are more unfinished than others.

My original list attempted to place the ideas in chronological order of their first inception, at least to the best of my recollection. My aforementioned notebooks are a help here, although it is only recently that I have started adding dates to the pages. Looking back on that first list my ordering feels right, but several games which I now know (following forensic study of my notebooks last night two nights ago) started life in amongst that initial burst of card games were missed, and I include those here. Note also that where two distinct incarnations of the same game have emerged over time, then I will list them together. In instances where only the name has changed I include the game under only the most recent one.

Sidebar: It turns out to be quite a long list — 23 designs in all — which is rather daunting now I sit down to write about each one, but I shall presevere! And I shan’t do what I am naturally tempted to do (again!) and split the list over two posts. If there is one thing I must learn then it is to learn from my mistakes!

Loop

Card game for 2–6 players

This is my oldest and ‘favouritest’ design, and one that I, rather hastily it turns out, announced in February that I would be publishing this year. What folly! That project remains not only unfinished but largely unstarted, but the game itself has been complete for a long time.

I describe it as playing like a board game, but with the speed and portability of a card game, which I think is a pretty good sell. I’ll get on to the whole publishing malarky soon. Promise.

In three words: Watch this space!

Stack

Card game for 2–5 players

Stack in it’s current form is broken, since it’s a ‘last man standing’ card game that only very inefficiently removes the players. The players play cards from their current hand to claim or manipulate cards on the table to constantly rebuild new hands so that they can stay in the game. Run out of cards and you’re out of the game. I still like the idea, but to make it work the game needs to be stripped down and rebuilt completely.

In three words: Neat but endless.

Pirate Islands

Board game for 2–6 players

This was missed last time round, and is one of those designs I keep forgetting about. It was conceived as a ‘print and play’ board game that would need the players to supply a few pawns and a handful of dice. The simple board was made up of a layout of cards that created a small network of islands where the dice were rolled and placed as ‘treasure’ of different values. The players moved around, competing for the treasure and altering the configuration of the board by overlaying new cards.

I least, I think that’s right; this is one of those forgotten games and is going to need some significant reconstructive surgery. I don’t remember ever formally writing down any rules, but hopefully there are enough details scribbled in my old notebooks or recoverable from old memories to bring this one back, since I think I was on to something.

In three words: Not bad. Probably.

Switchback

Card game for 2–4 players

This was an early design that went through many, many incarnations, but did eventually reach a point where the game had begun to properly reveal itself. In essence it was a twist on the familiar ‘empty your hand’ card game, but with some tricky scoring and a neat idea (I thought) that used both the front and back of the cards to liven things up and control how cards were discarded.

In three words: Close. No cigar.

Amongst Thieves

Card game for 3–6 players

This was one of the first designs that I felt (and still feel!) had genuine commercial potential and which, rather like Switchback, made clever use of both sides of the cards. It’s a relatively straightforward set-collecting card game, with an attractive theme, that scaled well for 3, 4, 5 or 6 players (I originally squeezed it down for 2 players, but I now recognise that as a mistake).

And, on it’s initial outing at the Premio Archimede 2008, it came a creditable 9th overall and 2nd in the poll of card games. Leo Colovini, of studiogiochi and world-wide game-design fame, was personally enthused enough to offer to become an agent for the game, and in the intervening time has shown it to a large number of European publishers. The feedback has been disappointedly cool, but that’s no reason not to think it could yet find a publisher if the circumstances were right. Perhaps it is, oddly, not quite ‘Euro’ enough?

In three words: It could sell!

The Other Hat Trick

Card game for 3 players

This one is a personal favourite, but a real curio; the circumstances that lead to its genesis are almost impossible to fathom. It’s for 3 players only, uses just 17 cards, includes a little bluff and deduction, and has scoring cards with titles like ‘The Rabbit That Didn’t Like Carrots’. Make of that what you will.

In three words: Rabbits are cute.

How Many Beans Make Five? / Run For It!

Card game for 2–4 players

This one was designed as a simple set-collecting game with the self-imposed design constraint that all cards would be laid out on the table, with none held in the players’ hands. Which was good as far it went. However, it was never simple enough to be intuitive, and at the same time was always a little too simple to be genuinely entertaining. In its second incarnation I played around with the scoring to see if I could create a little more tension, but couldn’t pull it off.

In three words: Better best forgotten?

Countdown

Card game for 2–4 players

This is another design I had completely forgotten about, although I did produce and playtest a prototype deck. There was one mechanism that in the game that I thought had potential, which was the concept of revealing cards from your hand in advance of your next turn so that the other players could see what was coming. I’m not sure that this game, which was all just a bit too procedural, is the best place for it, but it’s one I should keep in mind.

In three words: Underdeveloped. Also underwhelming.

Gods & Monsters

Card game for 2 players

Now this idea, I’m certain, has legs. It also has a cool name and a central gameplay that could be the basis for a larger system, if only I put the hours in to develop it. It’s a 2-player card game which would involve both competition and cooperation: the players (the gods) have to battle each other for the win, but if they together fail to effectively battle the game itself (the monsters) they both lose.

Looking through my notebooks, I found a lot of detail about the game system already figured out, but it would still need a lot of work to get up and running into a workable prototype. The game features a neat way to dynamically play around with the ‘power balance’ between the gods and the monsters, which essentially would allow me to fix that after the event, and for players to adjust it themselves on a game-by-game basis.

In three words: Must try harder.

The Last One

Card game for 2–4 players

This game grew from one of the ideas within Gods & Monsters, and seemed to be a good idea, for a while. The players were competing, via cardplay, to be the ‘last one’ to a take a token from the pile but the process was a little bit too obvious and repetitive to be much fun. I know I tried to add additional scoring rounds that would ratchet up the tension as the game progressed and make (at least some of) the decisions trickier, but something just wasn’t working. There is a viable seed at the core of this one, but it has so far refused to bear viable fruit.

In three words: Seedy, not fruity.

Treasure Fleets

Board game for 2–4 players

This design is one that I have continued to enthusiastically, if periodically, develop since its inception, and right now it’s looking pretty good. Through each iteration it has become more focused and less fiddly, and, following its last evolutionary jump, has lost all the chaos of the scoring phase that largely undid the value of any tactical decisions the players had made earlier.

It had always been a game of two disparate halves: that is, the good first half and the annoying second half; somehow I had settled for this compromise, but the last group of playtesters, all game designers themselves, astutely noticed how absurd this was and rightly berated me for it. Something had to be done, the obvious could be ignored no longer, and I was spurred into action to finally fix that which was broken.

The game uses what might be called a ‘half-blind’ bidding mechanism, in which the players simultaneously build the semi-public ‘pots’ being bid on, while incrementally bidding on those growing pots themselves. If that makes any sense at all. Oh yes, and there are sea monsters too!

In three words: Here be dragons!

Terraform / Mēxihco

Board game for 2–4 players

Terraform is another old favourite, and another design that definitely has commercial potential. It’s a neat, if essentially abstract, tactical tile-laying game with direct competition for territory and some card-drafting brinkmanship.

I remain very grateful to Jackson Pope of the erstwhile publisher Reiver Games for his input and feedback during the period in which he was seriously considering Terraform for publication. One of his first acts was to completely misinterpret one of my more arcane rules, and in doing so highlight how unnecessary it was! Based on his playtesting we also tweaked some of the scoring and the composition of the card deck. It was a very valuable and rewarding collaboration even if, in the final analysis, Jackson wasn’t in a position to go ahead with publication.

Terraform stands up on its own, but I have since considered a different implementation of the same basic game system in the form of Mēxihco. All of the original tile-based shenanigans remain, but I have attempted to streamline the card play and introduce a new mechanism that brings a little unpredictability to the endgame. I’m not sure that this version is better, but it is different, and might suit a different commercial niche.

In three words: Tile games FTW!

Circus Stars

Board game for 2–5 players

I really like this design, which is a simple card collecting game (albeit a card game with a small board, dice and other components) that is intended to be suitable for children. The players collect and lay out cards representing different circus acts which are claimed from the ‘circus ring’ in the middle of the table. When someone has a complete ‘troupe’ all the players’ troupes are scored and the winner revealed.

My nagging doubt is about the endgame, which lacks any sparkle, although since the game is so quick perhaps that really shouldn’t be too much of a worry. I just feel that there is that small, special something missing and that in trying to engineer it I risk over-complicating the game and losing what I like about it.

In three words: Nearly, nearly, nearly.

Angkor Thom

Board game for 2–4 players

This game is a complete departure for me, and is my shot at a large, collaborative city-building game. Angkor Thom is also one of the games for which no prototype yet exists, even though a great deal of detail, including a large part of a draft ruleset, do exist on paper. The game has a currency and a moderated form of resource collection and usage, so there are quite a few major balancing issues to tackle if its to work as intended (or, indeed, at all).

What the game is not is some sprawling engine-building, market-manipulating, cube-pushing eurogame. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against those sort of games, but I am neither inspired nor enthused to design one. I want Angkor Thom to be a city-building game that actually involves building a physical ‘city’ (or at least a model of one!), and to be a game that is as much about that practical, tactile experience as it is about the intellectual process of managing the resources required to do so.

But, there is much work to be done, not least to meet head-on one of the unavoidable demands of developing a so-called ‘big box’ game: creating a workable, complete prototype. There are quite a few (although not an overwhelming number) of ‘bits’, including player pawns, buildings, cards and the board itself. It is doable, but this one is hardly at the top of the list entitled ‘Prototypes That Don’t Really Require Very Much Effort to Actually Develop’.

In three works: Rome wasn’t built…

Stepping Stones

Board game for 2–4 players

This is another personal favourite, and one that has played very well with my family and friends. And I thought it was done until the last time it we played and I realised I could do more to streamline the way the game was timed and at the same time make everyone’s chances more balanced and less dependent on the whims of the card deck. Nothing major, but a worthwhile realisation, and a reminder to always apply genuine critical thought to every part of a design at every step, even to parts which seem somehow utterly complete and inviolate.

The game itself could work very well as a bold, colourful family game: it has simple rules and a clear, literal ‘flow’ to the gameplay that still has the ability to deliver surprising reversals of fortune. And other than the distribution of the cards, there’s no chance. In every turn players can always make a positive choice with the cards they hold, to either advance their own goals or to diminish the likely success of their opponents. After the last play I also realised a neat and fun way to make the board itself modular and hence reconfigurable to adjust the game’s complexity for younger age groups.

In three words: Definitely a winner.

None Shall Sleep

Card game for 2–4 players

I didn’t know that the title of the famous aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ meant ‘none shall sleep’ until the Lucca Games convention in Italy chose the title as the theme of it’s annual game design contest in 2008. A quick trip to Wikipedia revealed that the story of the aria follows from the demand by Princess Turandot that none of her subjects shall sleep that night until the challenge set by her unwanted suitor has been met. (If she can discover his name she can execute him. Otherwise they must marry. Nice.)

Anyway, the challenge for the annual contest is always to create a pure card game (no other components are allowed) that mirrors the theme, and in a burst of enthusiasm after reading about the contest I came up with the skeleton of what I still think is a good idea. The players would be peasants searching the imperial city for characters from the royal court, hoping to find the elusive (for the purposes of the game) Prince Calaf and, one imagines, pin him down on the whole thorny issue of his apparently unknowable name.

The game has a nice story and I think could be a fun, light filler. But with, as yet, no prototype and no rules, I can understand the reader’s healthy scepticism!

In three words: And you are?

Mosaic Romanum / Subway City

Board game for 2–4 players

This one seemed such a good idea for a long time, and did moderately well in both the 2009 Boulogne-Billancourt and Hippodice contests, but it has lost its shine for me since. My prototype for Mosaic Romanum looked the part, but the problem was that it took too long and delivered too little strategic clout; I tried earlier this year to engineer more semblance of strategy into the game, but to do so was, I realised after the fact, the reverse of what was necessary. Far better to see the game for what it was – a largely tactical and short tile game — and then condense it to concentrate the existing idea, than try to expand the game to make it into something grander; something, indeed, that it could never be.

And so the idea for Subway City was born, but I am now uncertain that I have gone far enough to reduce the game to its tactical core. Thinking about the new version has crystallised out a neat tile-selection mechanism, which I now think may be only thing to survive as the game continues to evolve. However, if that mechanism is a good one then the entire process has been worthwhile.

In three words: Rise and fall.

Jukers!

Card game for 3 or 4 players

This is a neat little puzzle of a game, which like Mosaic Romanum has performed well in a couple of European game design contests, specifically at both Hippodice and Ciutat de Granollers earlier this year. The design is a lean, simple and rather devious little bidding and set-collecting card game, but I wonder if the design in some sense flatters to deceive. I think, perhaps, that it looks rather more intriguing than it is — I am, truthfully, uncertain of whether it’s as smart as it seems!

Could it be improved? There is almost nothing to take out, which suggests it needs a small but significant extra twist to be added to become genuinely good. The question is: Do I have that ingredient on my game designer shelves? The answer: If I do, it must be behind the Corn Flakes or down the back of the sofa because I’ve not seen it!

In three words: I’ll keep looking…

Venice: City of Trade

Board game for 2–4 players

There’s a really nice idea here struggling to get out, the seed of which came to me, appropriately enough, during my trip to Venice in 2008 to attend the Premio Archimede award ceremony. Venice is a city redolent with history and with a beguiling, labyrinthine geography, so creating a game that might capture even a little of that atmosphere seemed like a good idea.

This is, however, a largely undeveloped game, less clear to me than most on this list, but I do have an intriguing picture of a tile-based game environment along with an inkling for a possible market mechanism that could drive the players’ actions. With luck, a following wind and a rising tide, the game I would like to play may yet manifest itself!

In three words: Bridge too far?

Archipelago

Board game for 2–4 players

This design is my most successful to date, given that it was one of the nine finalists in this year’s Hippodice contest, although it didn’t make it into the top three. Two of the Hippodice jurors, all from leading game publishers, expressed interest and it has been very interesting to get their feedback. And my prototype is still ‘out there’, so never say never. Not yet, anyway.

Archipelago always felt to me to be the ‘most German’ family game design I’d come up with, and the fact that it did well at Hippodice confirmed this. But I’m sure it could yet be made a little tighter and more focused, although I have not revisited the design since its submission. It certainly has all the right ingredients — and plenty of lovely meeples! — but it is perhaps just a little too small, too polite and too considered, and needs just a little more bite to truly shine.

In three words: Politic, cautious, meticulous.

Oracle

Board game for 2–4 players

This design sprung from the desire to create a tile game that was only tiles, with no other components, but for a bag to put them in. Curiously, I have the beginning and the end of the game mapped out, in the sense that I have a clear view of how the tiles might look, feel and be distributed at the start, and have a really interesting scoring mechanism ready and waiting for the endgame, but the bit in the middle — which is, after all, the real meat of any game sandwich — is elusive.

Oracle has only been brewing since last Christmas, and I have returned to it regularly in the hope that by catching sight of it out of the corner of my eye I might see something new, something I hadn’t spotted before. So far I’ve had no luck with this strategy, but I remain upbeat — confident, even — that sooner or later I’ll find the perfect go-between for my beginning and my end!

In three words: Where’s the beef?

The Royal Library of Alexandria

Board game for 2–4 players

Rather like Ankgor Thom, with this design I am deliberately attempting something out of my comfort zone. The hope is to create a game genuinely driven by a historical narrative, albeit a somewhat bastardised version of actual events. The real Library of Alexandria was the greatest in the ancient world, but hardly had a charmed life, since it was partially or (eventually) completely destroyed four times. Earlier this year, when I chanced to read about its history, a little lightbulb went on and the outline for a game started to form.

Several of the key mechanisms in the game have already developed (on paper, at least) but there is a lot of heavy lifting to do to get to the bottom of how the different parts of the game will fit together. There is, as it is currently imagined, a cunning card-drafting, set-collecting element to be tied neatly to a worker-placement, tile-laying element and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the union is an unhappy one. But if I can make it work I think The Royal Library of Alexandria could be an extremely attractive proposition.

In three words: It’s all Greek…

Oracle: Pathway

Board game for 2–4 players

And so we come to the end, and to the final and most recent design. This is a good example of how valuable my notebooks are, since the genesis for Oracle: Pathway was sketched out late at night, and I woke with no recollection of it and spent the next day blissfully unaware of the idea. But, when I reopened my notebook the next night I found the sketch and was, quite genuinely, surprised! Playtests went well, although there was a nice bit of probabilistic maths to be done to properly explore the balance and scoring regime, and the game has evolved quickly.

This design has an elegance and simplicity to it that I really like. A friend described it — and I think this was meant as a compliment — as having the same vibe as Lost Cities, although from a point of view of gameplay there are no direct parallels. Having said that, it is card-based and does require the players to try to predict the outcome of each round, hence the adoption of the Oracle moniker from my eariler concept. The two games share little in terms of mechanics, but I liked the name, and for the time being I see the two as connected ideas.

I am, as I said, really pleased with this design, perhaps more pleased than with any other I have so far devised. It is, I think, novel, engaging, simple to learn and family friendly, while still offering a real challenge for us grown-ups.

In three words: Portents are good.

Phew! That was a bit of a long haul, and felt at times rather like an unwelcome piece of homework. However, I have no-one to blame to myself and I am jolly pleased to have got to the end! The list represent the last 9 years — Loop, I recall, began life in late 2001— and charts my own voyage of discovery into the dark and murky world of card and board game design; although it must be said that I started slow, and that a sizeable majority of the designs on the list stretch back over 4 or 5 years at most.

If you’ve made it this far then all I can say is “Congratulations!” and also that I would love to hear what you made of my ideas, and my ideas about my ideas, if you see what I mean. For me, the interesting part of the game design process isn’t just the resulting game — although of course that is incredibly important to me — it is also the arcane and seemingly unknowable machinations of the design process itself. Do feel free to express yourself by leaving a comment below!

But to return to the beginning, and with thanks to Irith (all the way from sunny Australia!) for her comment on Saturday’s post, I have a sage and wholly appropriate piece of advice to offer the game designer in myself and in others struggling to get things finished:

Discipline is remembering what you want.

David Campbell

Well, it’s a start, at least; and where better to begin?

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The Unfinished Designer

I have a problem: I’m not very good at finishing things; which I suppose wouldn’t be much of a problem if I wasn’t any good at starting them. I’m a thinker not a doer; an ideas man who is little too idealistic. And if success if 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, then I’m definitely a 10% kinda guy.

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.

Mark Twain

A long time ago I posted a list of some of my game designs, a list I optimistically called ‘Part 1’. (See what I mean? I didn’t even finish that!) The hope was that by talking about them I might be more inclined to develop them, not least because I had reached the point where I’d started to forget about a few. My tendency is to flit from design to design, periodically enthused and then disinterested in each one. There are benefits to this, since returning sporadically to a design can trigger new ideas and new solutions, but it is an unstructured and unfocused process which makes it all too easy to move on to something else when things get tricky and, by definition, before they get finished.

Fortunately nothing is wasted, since I have recorded most of my rambling thought processes in notebooks, a practice I advocated previously, and which I can only forcefully and enthusiastically commend once again! Without these notebooks I would simply have lost many of my best ideas, and indeed, might never have had them in the first place. In this way the notebooks allow for an ongoing exploration and record of my (for want of a better word) design ‘journey’.

History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.

Kurt Vonnegut

Yesterday I made a new list of my game design ideas, each of which represents either an existing physical prototype or a concept captured in my notebooks. For a few of those concepts I have written descriptions of the gameplay, or even detailed prototypical written rulesets — something I know may seem ridiculous where there is no actual prototype! — but I am only including those ideas that have meaningful amounts of flesh on their bones, and of which I already have a clear picture in my head of what I would like the game to become.

To say that only some of these game designs are unfinished is to state not only the obvious, but the absurd. They are, of course, all unfinished.

And with that thought in mind, I think I shall finish this post tomorrow.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

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What Are Boardgames? Ask Google…

Yesterday and today the tech blogs have been babbling about Google’s funky homepage logo and impending press conference — which is just the sort of thing that tech blogs go crazy for! — all of which led me to go to Google this morning to see what there was to see and, quite innocently, try out the above query.

So, Google: Which is it?

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Burning Bright: The Great Fire of London 1666

This newly available artwork for The Great Fire of London 1666, the soon-to-be-published debut release from Birmingham-based UK publisher Medusa Games, is starting to make the game look rather wonderful. The game is the brain-child of first-time designer Richard Denning — GP, some-time historical novelist and one of the organisers of the UK Games Expo — and looks like a real labour of love by someone who has clearly done his research.

The Great Fire of London, in case you don’t know, raged for three days destroying much of the medieval City of London, and famously started in a bakery in (where else?) Pudding Lane. Indeed, history records that it was finally extinquished 344 years ago today, on September 5th, 1666.

The designer has posted an overview of the rules on BGG, but the gameplay goes something like this: At the start, the City is filled with multi-coloured houses, some of which will unavoidably be consumed as the fire spreads from the already engulfed Pudding Lane. Players will earn victory points by directing the flames away from their own properties, helping to put out pockets of fire for the general good of the City, and trying to specifically protect a few secret districts from firey doom.

I love the game board’s charming representation of the districts of the old City, and the cover and card artwork look fantastic too. I also love how the game sets out to tell a real story about a real historical event, but does so in a way that feels engaging and fun, and has the trappings, fit and finish of a comfortingly familiar Eurogame. It all looks and sounds like good, clean, flammable family fun to me!

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Carcassonne for iPhone: Charmingly Similar, Curiously Different

There are two things to say about the Carcassonne app:

  1. For people who have never played Carcassonne it’s a great introduction. Elegant, engaging and completely faithful to the charm of the original, with a great interface that makes learning and playing the game a real joy.
  2. For people familiar with the Spiel-des-Jahres-winning original it’s just as elegant, engaging and charming, but it can be an oddly alien experience.

I heartily recommend the app, and for people in the first group it’s one of the best implementations of a Eurogame on the platform, and has the advantage over Small World, another excellent app which I have already reviewed, that it runs equally well on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. But as a true fan of the cardboard edition of Carcassonne, I have my reservations.

Image: Brains and Beauty: The app very clearly and very smartly displays the choices for placing your follower after you place each tile. The whole interface is a great, great success.

A great feature of the app is its variety of built-in AI (articifical intelligence) players, which means that you can play against one or more opponents even when nobody else is around. Carcassonne is at its best as a two-player game, and almost all of my games on the app have been two-player.

What struck me first about the stronger AI players was how adept they were. Creating effective AIs for anything other than the simplest games is a sophisticated task, and though Carcassonne is a relatively simple game, it isn’t necessarily easy to play well, nor are all the tactics and strategies obvious or short-term.

But as good as the AIs are, they are essentially one-trick ponies. The basic AIs really are only suitable opponents for the true novice, and the more advanced AIs have, for me, become too predictable too quickly to provide genuinely satisfying opposition for the long-term.

Image: To Capture the Count: With three farmers already on the board, and three followers trapped in unfinishable features, the Count only has one follower out of seven still available to score additional features for the remainder of the game — and he has to get that follower back first!

The advanced AIs are all incredibly competitive, which is to say that no effort on my part to build a road or city goes unchallenged. Competition is good and fine and necessary, but the AIs can do it so blindly, and in a way that can, more often than not, diminish their own chances of winning more than mine. The only form of defense against this playing style is attack — to play the AIs at their own game — which only becomes an easier task the more you play each AI, since their behaviour is just too predictable.

My dissatisfaction, then, is that this dynamic creates a sort of ‘anti-Carcassonne’, where the only objective is to tear down and trap your opponent; all the while reducing their score rather than building up your own. Many 2-player games are ‘zero sum’ — where a point taken from your opponent is as good as a point in your favour — but the ‘better’ AIs know nothing else.

Image: Scoring Made Simple: The graphic breakdown of each player’s scores is an excellent feature. The differently coloured chevrons represent the relative number of points scored from different features: beige = roads, orange = cities, red = cloisters, green = farms.

And there are other factors that add to this sense that the game is unsettlingly ‘different’ in this incarnation. For one, the AIs are not terribly effective or efficient farmers, often going for the farms too early and then neither protecting nor competing for them. Farming is the trickiest bit for new players to learn, so its not surprising that the AIs have trouble; and I would expect the AIs to get better at this in future updates to the app, so this isn’t a dealbreaker.

Another thing that contributes to the altered dynamic is the fact that the number and configuration of the remaining tiles is always available information (you can tap the little ‘tile stack’ icon on the large blue banner to see the numbers). It took me a while to cotton on to this, and also to realise that the AI players were obviously using this information to their advantage.

As a Carcassonne old-timer, I have a feel for the balance of tile configurations in the game, but I’m hardly Derren Brown. Knowing — rather than just guessing and hoping — what tiles remain radically changes the game, and significantly enables the ‘anti-Carcassonne’ gameplay style by making blocking moves much more attractive and definitive.

Image: Final Analysis: The app keeps a record of the statistics for every player, including the AI players. And what’s surprising to me about my own scoresheet is how similar the average proportions are for cloisters, roads and farms.

But, to repeat what I said at the beginning, this is a top-notch implementation of a great Eurogame, and one that I can, for all its faults, still heartily recommend. The original Carcassonne is one of my all-time favourites, and so perhaps my criticism is borne more of a personal disappointment than a completely objective analysis.

For me, the app somehow manages to be, at one and the same time, both an entirely faithful and an essentially inaccurate experience, and I am reminded of that great quote by Richard Avedon, the famous American photographer:

All photographs are accurate. None of the them is the truth.

Richard Avedon

Cardboard, I’d both wager and hope, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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