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

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Games at the Grad Pad

Board games: Stone Age, Ascension, Troyes, Factory Fun

In which I take a very quick look at the games I played on Saturday at the monthly games day at the Cambridge University Centre — that’s the Grad Pad to you and me!

All four games were new to me, and the first two always appealed, so I jumped at the chance to try them out. I won’t give you the low-down on the rules, just what my designer brain made of them, good, bad or indifferent.

Stone Age — Bernd Brunnhofer (Hans im Glück, 2008)

I really enjoyed Stone Age and would love a chance to play again. As usual from this publisher, the components and artwork are first class. Set-up isn’t fiddly, the gameplay is immediate and intuitive, and because all the choices are public, it’s easy to get going because you can openly discuss other player’s choices without genuinely prejudicing your own.

It’s clear from just one play that competing for the cards is crucial, since they can generate substantial end-game bonuses. I played a 4-player game with Pete, Ray and Robin, and Pete’s victory was crushing, partly because he’d gone after the cards aggressively at the beginning.

The dice keep things lively, and introduce a nice element of ‘push your luck’ where it’s possible to take a gamble in some turns, spreading yourself thinly in the hope that a plan might just come together. Reading the intentions of other players, and trying to pre-empt them is important, as is reacting to tactical opportunities, so the player-engagement is high. This is something else that dice add to any game, because it’s always fun to share the agony and ecstasy of another player as they roll high or low, or to speculate before a roll about exactly what’s coming. For the same reason, I really liked the cards that gifted resources to all players in turn, based on the roll of a set of dice.

Stone Age is deserving of its popularity: a solid 8/10 for look and feel, playability and fun!

Troyes — Dujardin, Georges & Orban (Pearl Games, 2010)

There are lots to like about Troyes. The style of the artwork is excellent, and a welcome break from the familiar, slightly soft-focus magic realism of games such as Stone Age. In contrast, Troyes has a schematic, hard-edged, gothic precision, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought, effort and skill has gone into rendering the complex set of actions and outcomes into a coherent and elegant set of visual cues and icons. The user interface design is really well done!

But Troyes is a much harder nut to crack than Stone Age, so requires more attention from the newcomer and a greater willingness to accept a larger number of restrictions and non-obvious interactions. The dice play creates a really nice core to the game, but there are a lot of dots to join up on the periphery and, in comparison to Stone Age, there is a much greater disconnect between the player actions and the notional narrative of the game.

The game will reward perseverance, so I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a heavier eurogame. But the rules do not easily resolve themselves into intuitive gameplay — Exhibit A: The number of rules queries on BGG! — and the designer in me wanted to see fewer “You can’t do that!” moments. I’m not saying, just to be clear, that I preternaturally know better than the game’s designers; I would not be so presumptive. But throughout our game we needed to consult the rules — often to discover our desired action forbidden! — and this suggests to me that the game’s logic is a little too difficult for the casual player to map. Players have to make sense of any game before being able to play it fluidly, and Troyes, for better or worse and for a variety of reasons, does not make this cognitive leap easy.

Troyes is definitely recommended, but with provisos: 7/10 for intrigue, potential and novelty.

Ascension — Justin Gary, et al. (Gary Games, 2010)

On twitter, and as an immediate reaction to my game, I gave Ascension a one-word review: “witless”. And I can’t say that my opinion has changed. Whatever you think about the deck-building genre, it’s clear that designing a good deck-building game that’s as good as Dominion — which remains the first, best example — is hard.

Successful game mechanisms do not, in and of themselves, make successful games. You can’t simply deconstruct a good game, reconstitute some (or even all) of its parts and hope that an emulation of its creation will lead inevitably to an emulation of its success. There’s a little bit more to it than that.

Dominion succeeds because it limits players’ actions and allows for meaningful choices and genuine strategies. Ascension, in contrast, seems random and futile. Players may have options, but they don’t have choice.

I’ll summarise by giving Ascension three words instead of one: “not for me”.

Factory Fun — CornĂ© van Moorsel (Cwali, 2006)

Last to the table was Factory Fun, which I certainly enjoyed even though I played very poorly. But there’s no getting around it: this is the epitome of multi-player solitaire. The competitive puzzle-solving genre is popular, and Z-Man’s upcoming new edition of the out-of-print and hard-to-find Factory Fun is likely to be well received (the updated tiles and graphic design look excellent), but the game is no more than a quick, light ‘filler’, and a relatively lonely one at that.

The principle of the game is clever and engaging, but there are plenty of clever and engaging fillers out there that engage more through player interaction than private intellectual activity, and I think I’d rather play those.

But Factory Fun is definitely good for the right crowd: 6/10 for being a nice idea, well executed.

This post also appears on my BoardGameGeek blog.

Jonathan Warren said...

October 03, 2011 1:20 pm

Stone Age is an excellent, relaxing game. We have introduced new gamers to it and it has always gone down well. Looking forward to the up and coming expansion due out at Essen.

Nice mini-reviews! I'll add my quick opinions:

Stone Age: I pretty much agree with you 100%. Solid game, I enjoy it a lot. Thematically the Starvation strategy seems out of place to me, but that's not a deal breaker for me. I have pondered whether the game would be as good (or better) if you scored immediately for the multiplier cards, rather than waiting until the end. I think that would be very interesting. I wonder if it was ever in the running for inclusion in the game, or if it was always the intent to score the multipliers at the end. the reason this came up is, as you said, the cards weigh heavily on the score - a single card (costing 1 resource) can be worth a ton of points, where as a single hut (costing 3 resources) might be worth less.

I'm not suggesting the other way would be better, I'm just curious how that game would feel, and whether the designers tried it (and if so, why they obviously liked the final way better)

Troyes: I agree with your comments that players shouldn't be constantly trying to do things they think they can or should be able to do, only to find that those things are illegal. If that's happening, then either the rules, or the presentation of those rules, are not optimal. Or maybe the THEME is not optimal. Anyway, I only played Troyes once, a year ago, and I had a very horrible and awkward experience - which had nothing to do with the game itself, so I really need to play it again before forming any sort of opinion.

Ascension: Donald X Vaccarino mentioned in his interview that a lot of these so-called "deck builders" are not so much "Deck Building games" as they are "Dominion games." I see what he's getting at there - many games that have come out (and perhaps Ascension is one of them) are basically just another form of playing Dominion. I think Ascension has its strong points and its weak points when compared to Dominion, but in any case one could argue that it's a "Dominion Game." I may be looking at this from a different angle since I have designed a deck building game that I specifically wanted NOT to be a Dominion game, and I feel I've succeeded in that. Copies of Eminent Domain are finally arriving for kickstarters so I guess pretty soon we'll find out whether I did a good job or not :)

Factory Fun: While solitaire, to me it feels less solitary than some other games like Quarriors for example - the interaction of the limited new tiles, and multiple players wanting the same tile is very direct, and thinking/acting quickly in order to grab the right tile is a very interactive process. Even if solitary though, Factory Fun is good fun for people who are willing to engage in that real time competition for things (many players aren't interested in that).

Seth: Many thanks for taking the time to supplement my thoughts with your own — it’s good to hear other voices!

On Stone Age: I don’t think I really minded the heavy end-game bonuses from the cards, but it’s an area where experience of the game counts. You can’t muddle along and not pay attention to this aspect of scoring and come out on top. Next time, I would be wiser! Having said that, an incremental reward for the multipliers is interesting — perhaps scoring them immediately or during intermediary scoring rounds? This would reduce their impact, and perhaps made them more tactical and less vital to a winning strategy. (In our game, the winner made over half of his final tally of 200+ pts from the bonuses and it did feel pretty brutal!)

On Troyes: I hope you get a chance to revisit the game, and don’t let your first experience put you off. And I would agree that there was something sub-optimal about either the game’s structure or, as you say, its presentation; there was something in the way of me ‘seeing’ the form of the game clearly and hence intuiting which actions should ‘obviously’ be allowed (or not). It did seem as if some of those obstacles, were ‘fixes’ necessary to stop players taking possibly game-breaking actions, even though the internal logic of the game’s design appeared to support allowing those actions. Perhaps in this way the theme (the narrative, the unwritten story of the game, the idea of the game itself) is the thing that is indeed revealed as (in some sense) suboptimal — that’s an interesting take on the problem!

On Ascension: I wasn’t saying that Ascension is bad because it’s a ‘deck building game’ or a ‘Dominion game’; it’s just a bad game (IMHO). The fact that it has borrowed from other games is not the problem, it’s the way in which this has been done to such little effect that was disappointing. (And I didn’t even mention in my review the annoying over-production of the board, nor the poor ‘interface design’ of the cards — two things I would have forgiven in a better game.) In short, I just didn’t get it; I didn’t see the point; I didn’t see why Ascension had even been made. I know that’s harsh, but the whole design simply felt rather lazy.

On Factory Fun: It’s true that there is a tiny spark of direct competition when tiles are chosen, but that is only a fraction of the game. Part of what I enjoy about games is seeing other people’s progress, witnessing their success or failure, and taking part in their experience of the game — that’s what’s fun in Stone Age, for example — but there’s little of that here. You can look up at the end of a round and see where other players are, but you can’t watch how they got there, and that’s a shame.

Jonathan Warren said...

October 03, 2011 8:39 pm

Regarding the so called starvation strategy, I agree with Seth, it does feel out of place. However, I found out this week that in the official Czech rules, unfed tribe members cost a player 4 VP each. This would mean that if you chose the 'starvation strategy' you would lose at least 20 points for not feeding your tribe. The logic here was that you are not penalised for a bad dice roll. For instance, in the RGG/HiG version if you could feed 4 out of 5 tribesmen, you must turn in all your food and lose 10 points. In the Czech version you would only lose 4 points for the tribesman missing his meal.
This seems a much fairer system to me.

Jonathan: The winner in my game both explained and then adeptly made use of the 'starvation strategy', which when I first understood the rules seems unconscionable. However, with a large tribe, the loss per person becomes small and the strategy suddenly makes sense. How much it fits the game's narrative is another matter, of course, and I like the idea of a more incremental points loss, which feels less arbitrary.

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