Mega Civilization Early-Game Strategy Guide

It’s easy to go into a game of MegaCivilization feeling a bit overwhelmed – especially if you’re playing a full-on game of 12 or more players, or if you’re new to the game and have little experience of prior versions. There is a lot of stuff going on, and the huge array of civilization advances available for purchase makes the strategy space look huge (a lot larger than it actually is). Additionally, if you’re an Advanced Civilization veteran, that game may have taught you some bad habits you’ll have to break.

So here are some strategy tips to get you started. This is not how to win the game; this is how to avoid getting into an unrecoverable hole in the first third. For the most part I’m going to assume you’re using the Basic AST, but I’ll throw in a few comments for the Expert AST as well (in the critical early game where choices make or break you, I don’t think it makes a huge difference).

For clarity, there are three very different versions of Civilization, and I’ll refer to them in this piece by their official names:

Civilization: The 1980 Francis Tresham classic, published first by Hartland Trefoil then by Avalon Hill.

Advanced Civilization: The 1991 Avalon Hill design-by-committee total rebuild, spearheaded by Bruce Harper.

Mega Civilization: The 12-hour, 18-player, 22-kilo monstrosity you are now contemplating, designed by Flo de Haan and John Rodriguez.

Your Primary Goal

There are two things you want to bear in mind here. Firstly, the goal for the first third of the game or so is to get yourself into a position where you can build and keep 8 or possibly 9 cities from turn to turn. The high-numbered trade cards are hugely valuable, and if you can’t get reliable access to them, you not only won’t win, it’ll be hard to even feel like you’re accomplishing anything in the game. In Civilization you could compete while maintaining 6 cities most of the time; in Mega Civilization (as in Advanced Civilization), you cannot. You can maybe squeak by with 7, but really need to have 8 (or 9) to play. Secondly, when planning your civilization card acquisition strategy to achieve this goal, geography is destiny.

Although Mega Civilization has generally leveled each culture’s access to board resources compared to earlier versions of the game and so flattened things out a bit, there are still significant differences in how they play. In Civilization, Egypt has great geography but a punishing AST, while Minoa has really problematic geography but a very forgiving AST. In Mega Civ, all 18 cultures have essentially the same AST, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Generally, cultures will either have easy access to adequate farmland, or adequate city sites, but not both. If you do have have slightly better geography (like Egypt), you’ll have some sort of vulnerability to calamities. The dynamics of the game make it hard to count on taking land from your neighbors and keeping it long-term to solve the 8-city problem, so you need to figure out how to make the most of the areas in your natural sphere of influence. Acquiring the cards you need to establish and keep 8 cities is your top priority.

As a general policy, you’re going to want to focus on two colors of civilization advances and not get spread too thin – the key to ultimate victory is leveraging a lot of credits to acquire points cheaply and not so much building a tableau of synergizing special powers. Once you’ve figured out which advances form the core of your development strategy – the core abilities that really are vitally important to you – the middle game will then involve expanding on that portfolio by taking advantage of the credits you’ve acquired to get cards that give you the best VPs for the investment. Category credits tend to dwarf the credits from the various 3-card sequences, so stay focussed on categories as much as possible. However, every credit counts, and the sequences can be important early before category credits have had a chance to fully develop. So I think they’re important to look at in the early game.

If you have city sites but not enough land (Minoa, Dravidia), you simply have to have Agriculture. The other advances on that track (Pottery -> Agriculture -> Democracy) are both extremely useful, so plan on getting Pottery first. There really is no other way. Since these cultures generally tend to be short tokens on the board but have plenty of space to shift tokens from stock to treasury, Architecture and Coinage can be very valuable. Since they can also be disproportionately vulnerable to city reductions, protection against Slave Revolt, Superstition, and Civil Disorder should be a priority.

If you have land but not city sites, this is a more forgiving but also somewhat more complex situation. Part of the solution (and possibly the entire solution) will be building at least a few expensive wilderness cities. Urbanism can be helpful here for some terrain, but not always – look closely and make sure it’s going to help, because unfortunately the other advances on that track are somewhat specialized (Diplomacy, Provincial Empire). Architecture is more clearly useful. The most important key to wilderness cities though is just making sure you have to rebuild them as infrequently as possible, so look to the blues and reds for calamity insurance: Music, Drama & Poetry, Law, and potentially Monarchy. The Music track (Music -> Enlightenment -> Philosophy) is particularly attractive, Mysticism -> Monument -> Wonder of the World is broadly useful if a little pricey on a cash-per-point basis, and Mythology -> Literacy is a good early bootstrap for credits, AST requirements, and some calamity avoidance.

Warfare is generally not a great option for acquiring the land or city sites you need. At least on the West map, though, you can sometimes “snipe” city sites – opportunistically grab empty, unused ones (this is harder on the East map, which is generally tighter and also lacks the interior superhighway that is the Mediterranean Sea). If you want to take a chance on this, you’ll want to buy Astronavigation and Clothmaking to be able to get to the sites, plus Metalworking and Engineering to take and hold on to them. This is a tough way to go, but for some restricted civilizations (like Africa), civilizations that require seafaring anyway (Minoa, Saba), or civilizations with centralized locations with lots of coastal access (Minoa again, maybe Persia) this may be an option. Just remember, your exclave cities can be juicy targets for neighbors – especially when you’re holding valuable trade card from turn to turn and everyone knows it – so you need to defend them. Military is generally a somewhat dubious purchase because its advantages can be ephemeral, the calamities it makes worse are terrible, and the track it’s on isn’t super-attractive, but if you’re going to try to play the game of dodging and weaving and filling in gaps and think Military is an important piece of this, make getting it a priority (Military’s advantage of moving last is at least as important when on defense as it is on offense). For Civilization and Advanced Civilization veterans, note that map resources in Mega Civilization are much tighter than they used to be, and the east map is tighter still. In both previous games, there was often a little bit of extra space that cultures could flow into. This is just not the case anymore, especially in the early and middle game (in the late game, technology may create breathing room). So if you do start pushing on your neighbors with the various offensive tech, the opposition may be bitter because they literally have nowhere to go and any losses in territory may simply leave them without enough resources to play the game.

The other big geographic factor is your neighborhood risk. Some powers have lots of neighbors (Minoa, Hatti, Kushun, and in fact many eastern cultures). This is usually not great. They tend to get uppity from time to time. While warfare isn’t going to be a major factor in the game most likely, more and longer borders means a greater risk of low-level border conflict which results in some losses at inopportune times, and coping with that should be part of your strategy. Metalworking is an obvious purchase if you’re already investing in the crafts, although you don’t want to go further down that track (Military -> Advanced Military) than absolutely necessary because of the added calamity risk. The Deism -> Fundamentalism -> Monotheism track might be a better option. Diplomacy combined with strategically placed walls of cities can be very useful, although the Diplomacy track (Urbanism -> Diplomacy -> Provincial Empire) is otherwise not that generally attractive. Engineering is another excellent hedge.

The final factor you need to account for in your early development is calamity insurance. Calamities are brutal. You’ll need to make significant investments in avoiding them. You need to look at this in two ways, general risks and your specific risks.

The specific is making sure to protect yourself against calamities that are particularly dangerous to your civilization. The big one is Flood; if you’re one of the nations with a major flood plain presence (Egypt, Indus) you really want to get Engineering. Although Cyclone doesn’t show up until the 7 pile, some players are particularly vulnerable. Slave Revolt can be devastating to cultures which have a narrow margin of city support, typically the ones with lots of city sites but not that much agricultural support (Dravidia, Minoa). Mythology is cheap and on a good track (Literacy has tons of credits and is cheap points for early AST hurdles). Enlightenment is also good, and is on a generally useful track with Music. Nations with lots of cities on low-value sites can be particularly vulnerable to city reduction, coming via Slave Revolt and Superstition (early) and Civil Disorder (later). Agriculture might appear to help with city reduction, but since it makes Famine worse, you don’t want it for that reason alone, but if you have to have it for some other reason, it can help (just buy Pottery).

Most calamities though are of general risk to anyone. Civil War is potentially the most serious, and if it’s combined with a higher-value calamity like Epidemic or Tyranny it can be a virtual game-loser if you don’t have mitigation (if you’re facing a combo like this, it can be worth trading to try to get more calamities to avoid it). Getting Music and/or Drama and Poetry early helps a lot, also protects you against the potentially devastating Civil Disorder, and they are on good tracks. These are good investments for anyone. Epidemic is another nasty one, and Medicine and Enlightenment both help – since you’re probably buying Music anyway, look at Music -> Enlightenment. Barbarian Hordes is a pain but there isn’t a really great option; Monarchy’s downside of making Tyranny worse probably isn’t worth it unless you want Monarchy for other reasons. Tyranny is a new calamity in the 7 stack which should not be underestimated – it’s basically a Civil War that is guaranteed to be bad even if your culture is compact – and you’ll want Law. Sculpture is also helpful for some reason, and while I wouldn’t buy it early, I’d definitely sweep it up if you’ve built up a bunch of Arts credits. Regression is a direly bad non-tradeable calamity in the 9 pile, and before you go to 9 cities you’ll want Enlightenment or Library to stave it off. This sounds like a lot of stuff to keep in mind, but the good news is that the bottom line is pretty easy: reducing the impact of any of these calamities is good, and everyone is vulnerable to them. Whether you’re mitigating Epidemic or Tyranny or Civil War isn’t a huge distinction, and you can manage your risks in different ways (broad-spectrum vs. investing heavily in the mitigating the calamities that scare you the most). But you do need to manage them.

There are a number of advances that have abilities you might quite like, but make common and nasty calamities worse: Agriculture, Military, Mining, Road Building, Provincial Empire, Trade Empire. You should never buy these cards unless you have already invested in insurance against those calamities, you have credits that make them cheap, and they are crucial to what you are trying to accomplish. You never know, you might not get hit by those specific calamities, but hope doesn’t stop Epidemics when they hit. You need to set yourself up for these if you want them, not just in terms of having the money and credits but also in terms of having mitigated the calamities they aggravate. If you get lucky early and rack up a huge stack of Grain, say, it can be really tempting to jump the sequence and grab an extremely powerful advance like Trade Empire. This is quite risky. Not only are you making bad calamities a lot worse (the marginal pain of each additional unit point of loss keeps increasing), you’re not buying 2 or 3 or even 4 cards of calamity mitigation instead. In Advanced Civilization, it was a pretty good strategy to just buy expensive stuff and hope; if you got hit by a lot of calamities you weren’t going to win anyway, so you might as well just assume you were going to dodge them. Mega Civilization has changed this calculus somewhat by significantly increasing the number of severe calamities in the game and giving you more, better ways to mitigate them. Additionally, if you’re using the Expert AST, the requirements there for a broad base (lots of low-cost advances) makes jumping the sequences difficult.

This is a lot of stuff to balance. The key thing here is not so much to have all the answers going in, but to look at the board at the start of the game, have a sense of the character of the culture you’re playing, and pick a small handful of advances that are crucial to your early expansion and survivability. Early advances are crucial. You can’t afford to buy stuff early just because that’s how many points you had to spend, or for the credits, or as foundation for later advances, even though those things can be important. You have to buy things that are going to help you in practical ways towards your goal of maintaining 8 (or ideally 9) cities, be that in helping you draw more trade cards, get more units on the board, reduce the harm of calamities, or make it easier to recover afterwards, all while trying to retain a focus on one to two categories. The faster you get to a stable 8 cities, the more likely you are to win. Once you’re established, then you can focus on using credits to rack up points.

Let’s look at a couple different cultures and I’ll lay out what I see as their strengths and weaknesses, and brainstorm early card acquisition strategies. I’ll talk about what order you might look at cards, which is more about prioritization than about the actual order you might purchase them in, which is bound to be affected by the ebbs and flows of trade and calamities.


Dravidia has plenty of city sites but lousy agricultural land. They have a neighbor to the north (Maurya) who is really crunched for city sites and might have a large population looking at you greedily, but there is a fortified border with your western neighbor (Indus) that will probably be stable. Sometimes neighbors like Dravidia and Maurya with opposite problems can arrange land swaps (city site spaces for agricultural spaces), but unlike the flexible situation in Greece there just isn’t an obvious way this works here. If Saba and Nubia are in play there might be some seafaring opportunities, but this is unlikely to be a strong option. The flood plain is ignorable, but Cyclone can be a problem, as can Superstition and Slave Revolt. I’d focus on Agriculture first and calamity mitigation second. Without Agriculture, you can’t support 8 cities. Once you have that, though, you should have enough resources in your core area to manage, so concentrate on protecting them.

The top priority, well above anything else, is Pottery ->  Agriculture. The lack of arable land is quite dire.

After that, I’d go for calamity mitigation: Music -> Enlightenment, Mythology -> Literacy, with the Mysticism -> Monument -> Wonder of the World track as a possibility.

Other good targets include Masonry, Drama & Poetry, Architecture, and Law.

From looking at this core of cards, Crafts are an obvious main focus, with either Religion or Arts as a good secondary. When you get “wild” credits (Written Record, Monument) I’d prioritize Crafts. I’d probably target Wonder of the World for a first high-end purchase, just because unlike Trade Empire it doesn’t come with pain, with Trade Empire second. However, Trade Empire can be disproportionately valuable in large games (12+ players) where building large sets of trade cards becomes much, much harder. If your tolerance for calamity risk is higher than mine, this can be a very strong mid-game purchase if you’ve racked up a lot of crafts credits, especially when using the Basic AST.


You’ve got a serious flood plain problem, and now that the Flood calamity has been moved to the 4 stack you have to worry about that earlier. Your frontiers are extremely secure, although if Nubia is in you might get some pressure from them – they’re a balanced power with good but not great city site availability, good but not great agriculture, but little excess calamity exposure. You do have a vulnerable coast, but seafaring as a strategy seems to be less popular in Mega Civ than it was in the old days (the Science category credits used to be enormous). You can absorb city reductions fairly easily but Flood, Cyclone, Civil War, and Tyranny are all nasty for you. Some of the cities that guard your borders are also very hard for you to retake if you lose them.

Without the crushing need for Agriculture that Dravidia has, you have more flexibility in what you want to target early. I’d focus on the problem that your best city sites are also your most fertile areas which will force you to build a few wilderness cities despite your plethora of city sites, and the advantages of your ability to play defense and maintain a large treasury. You’ll have to get Engineering, and Coinage is great for treasury and population management, so let’s explore Sciences as a primary category.

A set of advances to focus on early might include: Urbanism (some of your good sites for wilderness cities are a bit out of the way), Coinage, Written Record, Cartography, Medicine, and Calendar; Engineering isn’t a crushing priority the way Agriculture is for Dravidia, but get it as soon as is reasonable – it also helps to defend your frontier cities.

For a secondary category, I like the Arts for its combination of calamity protection and giving you ways to use your treasury: Sculpture -> Architecture (Architecture is extremely valuable in recovering from calamities), Drama and Poetry -> Rhetoric, Music, Literacy -> Mathematics (skip Mythology since you aren’t particularly vulnerable to Slave Revolt). Since you’ll tend to have fortified borders, Diplomacy can look attractive, but in fact it is highly situational – in the Levant at least, both sides of the border will tend to be fortified, making conflict very unlikely.

Egypt has a bunch of good options though. You might choose to focus heavily on mitigating higher-end calamities like Civil War, Tyranny, Iconoclasm & Heresy, and Regression since you are both more vulnerable to those and a generally strong culture that doesn’t have that serious a difficulty maintaining 7-9 cities. Make Engineering, Architecture, and Enlightenment your first priorities (although you might need to build up to these with Sculpture and Music and first) to build up to 9 cities as fast as possible, then go all-in for calamity avoidance. I’d avoid the more expensive Crafts though (Mining, Trade Empire, Agriculture, Roadbuilding) which offer benefits you don’t really need and credits towards cards that are not vital to you in exchange for making painful calamities worse.


You’ve got a lot of problems. You’re short on almost everything. You have a lot of neighbors (the good news/bad news on this is that you don’t really have anything they want). At least you don’t have a lot of specific calamity vulnerability, and without a lot of players you probably aren’t even in the game.

Due to your sprawling expanse and low population numbers, Pottery->Agriculture probably represents your best first step to sustainability. That’ll give you a lot of tokens you can turn into wilderness cities. I probably wouldn’t bother with Urbanism; border wilderness cities just aren’t that difficult for you to build. However, wilderness cities are extremely expensive and you have only a paltry 5 city sites in your nominal sphere of influence. You could pursue a strategy of aggressive wilderness city building, aggressive calamity prevention, and fortified borders, but that’s fairly expensive, so let’s look at a strategy of going hunting for some more by focusing on Crafts and then branching into either Religion or Civics.

Start with Pottery -> Agriculture, then Metalworking and Cloth Making.

Add in Engineering and Astronavigation as feasible.

You then want to choose between a military option and running the Deism -> Fundamentalism -> Monotheism track.

If you want Military, get it by the early middle game. The problem is, Military aggravates Civil War. The cheap cards that mitigate Civil War, Music and Drama & Poetry, are both good but take focus away from your primarily goals. So, get one if you can at low opportunity cost, but Military alone isn’t going to cut it and you don’t want to delay building out the suite of powers you will need. Focus on building resiliency and making the recovery easier. Get Coinage so you can tax at 1 to give you the best shot at a large population when needed. Astronavigation and Clothmaking will allow you the most flexibility in flowing into available space. Then just keep pushing the military angle into Advanced Military and Naval Warfare so if you get into a fight, you win it. Once you have a large suite of military advantages, this is a potent (if problematic from a calamity perspective) mix. If you do get hit disproportionately by calamities, you will be in serious trouble. There are a ton of risks here, and they may not be great risks. But you’re the Celts. You don’t play it safe like the Egyptians. Once you’ve bought into the big military stuff, definitely back-fill with Music and Drama and Poetry because Civil War and Civil Disorder have become enormous risks. You can use the very large Civics credits you’ve built up to back-fill Law, Democracy, and maybe Monarchy and Theocracy to solidify your position.

The Religions offer less punch, but probably have a better risk profile. You should go Deism -> Fundamentalism -> Monotheism first to give you the leverage over your many neighbors that you need, so you can hope to get up to 8 cities. But after that, fill in Mythology and Enlightenment. Universal Doctrine can be OK since city reductions probably aren’t terrible for you with Agriculture.

The key with the Military and aggressive Religion advances is not to screw around. Get them early, use them often, build your culture around them, and make peace with the fact that you may not be that popular at the after-party. However, it’s important to remember what the goal here is: get and maintain 8 cities. Never, ever needlessly antagonize your neighbors past a certain point. Don’t go on aimless crusades just because you can. 8 cities is all that matters. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Having just expounded on how to explore an aggressive strategy, let’s also bear in mind that for the Celts to get to 8 cities, you only need to build 3 wilderness cities, that’s actually not ridiculously hard, and you have the space. Unlike some cultures that are short agricultural land, getting to 8 cities is not technically that difficult. But it is costly, and Mega Civilization is basically a race to score the most points. Winning means buying advances, buying advances requires acquiring trade cards, acquiring trade cards requires cities, and cities require population. Your population growth limits your level of urbanization, and building wilderness cities quite seriously limits your population grown. You could argue that settling for building large numbers of wilderness cities means conceding a significant head start in the game to your neighbors, and since Mega Civilization is a race of constant acceleration, a head start is not something you want to give up. Honestly, I don’t know if this argument is totally persuasive. But it’s easy to make.

TL;DR: stay focused on two sometimes contradictory goals, your need to get yourself up to 8 (or possibly 9) cities, and your need to develop a primary and a secondary category color to maximize your credits. This is where the tough trade-offs are in Mega Civilization. In Civilization, the game was mostly in the race to acquire crucial cards and in managing the difficult risks associated with the AST hurdles. In Advanced Civilization, the game was around maximizing your credits and economy and making sure you got to play Egypt or Babylon. In Mega Civilization, you have to balance the need to mitigate the on-board calamity risk of your culture with the need to maximize credits and trade values. The game is ultimately won on points, which means buying lots of high-value advances cheaply, which means focusing on leveraging credits. However, you can’t win without a stable 8-city culture that is resistant to calamities, and that means you’ll have to diversify to some degree – and the need is highest early, when resources are tight and those credits would otherwise make a bigger difference.

Moving on From the Early Game

While the main goal here is to get you through the early game with a solid foundation, here are a few things to bear in mind once you move into the middle game – once you are stable at 8-ish cities and are starting to accumulate significant numbers of credits.

Trading: Aggressiveness and flexibility is highly rewarded in trading, as long as it’s not stupid. Don’t be afraid to deal. If you’re playing in a very large game (12 or more players, and things are even more challenging with 15 or more) you’re really going to have to work just because there are so many commodities and so many of them are split between east and west. Getting anything at all done may require doing multiple intermediate trades. Try hard to focus on commodities valued 6 or higher just to reduce the number of deals you have to do, assuming the board is rich enough (this is good advice in all game configurations of Advanced and Mega Civilization). In general, you want to be able to turn in full or very close to full sets. It’s virtually always worth passing on purchasing anything for a turn in order to complete your set unless the discards are really painful.

Don’t mistake success for competence: Just because you’re killing it, racking up civilization advances, don’t automatically assume you’re doing everything right. It could just be that you’ve been really lucky in avoiding calamities. Don’t let overconfidence lead you into overextension, buying big advances that don’t help you that much and aggravate serious calamities. Eventually – well, sometimes – calamities will catch up with you and if you’re over-extended it can really, really hurt. If you get hit by a Civil War with a couple aggravators (Military, Philosophy) and no mitigation, that may well be a the end of your game right there. Always manage your calamity risk.

Building on your core portfolio: The two ASTs are different, but not as different as you might think. This is a raw points game, in that you win by having the most points at the end. You get points, primarily, by purchasing civilization advances. The way you get ahead is by getting more for less. The way you do that is by mindfully leveraging the category and sequence credits. When cards are not essential – as they often won’t be after the early game – the powers they offer will probably not be as important as getting value. So, stay focussed on one or two categories, let the credits in other categories build up from incidental credits, and roll up cheap advances as convenient. There are lots of shiny objects in the game, advances that are expensive and look cool and that you can buy. If they don’t have special powers that synergize well with your portfolio, remember: the game is won on points. A big credit base makes a huge difference in the cost-per-victory-point.

The Expert AST: The difference between the Basic and Expert AST is that the Expert AST forces you to buy a bunch of cheap advances, whether they are useful or not. This does add some additional pressures and trade-offs; the main one is that you don’t want to have to buy cards that give each other credits on the same turn if convenient (typically, this means buying just one card from each color on a turn). You’re going to have to buy all the cards with a cost less than 100, so the best way to do it is over time rather than in big spurts. Moreso than with the basic AST, you’re going to be working your way up the chart, and skipping ahead to expensive advances will add some AST risk. However, you want to always be aware that sets of trade cards increase hugely in value with the last few cards. You’re leaving a lot of relatively easy money on the table if you turn in a set short one or two cards. Holding for a turn to acquire the cards you need will probably be much more economically efficient than wasting a few credits. The 5-point hit for a space on the AST is a lot, but it’s not a game-wrecking a lot, and most people will probably lose a step at some point. So do some thumbnail math on how much you’re giving up to save that AST step.

A Final Note

Mega Civilization is a huge game that gives you a rich variety of cultures to try your hand at. To my mind, the variety that the game gives you is not in the bewildering array of civilization advances – the choices there are less than they seem for a number of reasons – but in the range of geography and cultural interactions. The mapboard setups laid out in the rules give you standard configurations for different numbers of players, but as far as I can tell there is actually nothing magical about those particular arrangements. If you have 6 players, you can play with any reasonably contiguous set of 6 cultures as shown on the master culture map. Want to play game with the western cultures? Just use the Celt, Iberia, Carthage, Rome, Hellas, and Minoa areas as indicated on the master map and mark everything else out. Want to bring the Celts into a 12 or 14 player game? Kick out Parthia, bring in the Celts, and make Hatti an eastern power. Just aim for compactness (Celt, Iberia, Carthage, Egypt, Nubia would obviously be weird). In my opinion, changing up the standard geographies is important to keeping the game lively and fresh.

Mega Civilization has a lot of strategy space to explore. Like a lot of these games, the joy is in doing that exploration and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and there is far more beyond what I’ve laid out here for you to enjoy. Hopefully these guidelines and suggestions for the early game will get you past the initial hurdles of wrestling with the system (which certainly can be frustrating) and on to the fun of exploration and calamity management.



So, I haven’t been blogging much of late. A factor is certainly that for the past few years, there just hasn’t been much going on in my traditional bailiwick of what I think of as “classical” hobbyist boardgames to inspire me to write. If you want to know my best gaming experience of recent times, that’s the Dracula Dossier, by a long shot.

504 has changed things, though. I don’t know if it’ll ultimately be one of those games that stays on the shelf and reliably comes out for 10 or 20 years, like Beowulf or Modern Art or Settlers or San Juan. It might be, but the quirky premise makes it hard to say. However, it is by far the most interesting new euro-type boardgame in many years.

A quick description of 504, as background for those who may be unfamiliar with it. The core of the game is 9 separate rules modules: Pick Up and Deliver, Race, Privileges (basically special powers), Military, Explore, Roads, Majorities, Production, and Shares. You create a game world by selecting 3 of these modules and putting them into 3 different slots. The “Top I” slot tells you how you win the game, the “Top II” slot tells you how you make money, and the “Top III” slot flavors the other two. So in world 123 (Pick up and Deliver, Race, and Privileges), you’ll win by moving goods around from city to city on your transport trolly, earn money by accomplishing various tasks before the other players do (mostly visiting different destinations in this case), and will be able to acquire cards that give you special abilities (discounts on upgrades, improvements to your trolly, and extra money or VPs, for example).

Each of these 9 modules of the 504 game design – the rules for the various familiar game mechanisms – is profoundly derivative. The Shares module is a simplified rip-off of 1825. Pick Up and Deliver is what you’d expect. Majorities is an off-the-shelf area control game. And so on down the line. If I asked a random gamer off the street to describe how each of these modules worked with no information other than the name, they’d probably come up with a general idea close to what what Friese did. None of the modules are rocket science. One of the Things I Always Say though is that mechanics don’t make a game and in fact hardly matter; the knitting together and parameterizing of mechanics is what make a game. And this is where 504 has done a couple of impressive things.

Firstly, each of these generic gaming concepts has pitfalls or weaknesses. Take the Military module, which is the most obviously fraught. When you select this module for one of the top 2 spots, you’ll get a game not unlike many 4x genre games such as Eclipse, Clash of Cultures, Twilight Imperium, and so on (albeit playable in an hour and with no tech tree). You start in a single hex on the map, expand outwards, and ultimately vanquish your neighbors. As I’ve said so many times on this blog, this is a genre of game with a lot of inherent problems: players need to be incentivized to act and not just turtle; you can often win by simply being the one player who doesn’t fight; and you can end up playing a hopeless position for hours because of bad early expansion luck or because you shared a border with a super-aggressive player. Tons of games of this sort are published every year that don’t even acknowledge that these basic problems exist, never mind try to solve them. But Friese understands them and has cleverly designed his Military module such that it not only combines generically with 8 other modules in 3 different ways, but also addresses these problems. Combat is basically attritional but significantly biased in favor of the attacker, forcing action; the economy that powers the action tends to ramp up pretty quickly, preventing early turns of fate from being too decisive; the game ends when just one other player’s capital is conquered, providing both a significant reward for action and a way to end the game before the game runs out of interest. Although the Military module is the most obvious example of Fiese really understanding how these game genres work and avoiding their pitfalls, you can see similar clever design work in the Majorities, Race, and Explore modules.

Secondly and more subtlety, the game seamlessly allows you to combine all 9 modules in the titular 504 different ways. Each module can be used as a scoring engine, a money engine, or a simpler, stripped-down flavor module. To do this you get the Book of Worlds, a flipbook that allows you set a module into each slot and then just read a comprehensive ruleset. By nature these rules are dense and terse so you need to read carefully and pay attention, and you’ll need to understand the core concepts of the game (settlements, residents, basic turn order) before this parsing becomes relatively easy. One of the cleverer bits is a priority ranking system for a number of game elements. Explore, for example, trumps the map layout you use whenever it’s in, so during setup it has the highest priority for that. When Privileges is in the III slot it adds a money sink to the game, so it boosts the players starting cash. Different modules have different turn order needs, so you have different priorities for that too (even turns, rounds with a variable start player, 1825-style operation rounds based on share price). All this glue that keeps the modules together isn’t flashy – in fact, if it were flashy it wouldn’t be doing it’s job – but it’s incredibly important to the seamless operation of the game. Piecing all these things together from the Book or Worlds isn’t straightforward, but once you get it, it’s great how cleanly all these disparate modules have been integrated.

OK, so it took a while to explain the technical accomplishments of the game. That’s all well and good, but does it add up to something that is interesting to play? A common question I’ve heard – and one I asked myself, somewhat mockingly, before I had actually understood and played the game – was why you’d want to play a pieces-parts game instead of something that someone actually designed to a specific goal. Another related question was, all 504 of these worlds can’t possibly be good. How do I figure out which ones are the best and just play those?

I think both of these questions fundamentally misunderstand what 504 lets you do (and the rulebook doesn’t help by suggesting you might select a world randomly, which I assure you is really not the way to approach the game). The goal is not to pick which world is “best”. Which world is best will depend, just like everything else in life, on what you like and what mood you’re in. 504 is an exercise in radical game personalization, so use the power it’s given you to design a game that you find intriguing and want to play tonight. Different modules will speak to different people in different ways. Some people like Exploration as a theme and the randomness that comes with it. Some people enjoy the conflict of the Military module, white others will never want to touch it, or will include it only in the III slot. The more elaborate business modeling of the Stocks module is like candy to some players, while others find it tedious as hell. So design something to your tastes – something that’s in your gaming sweet spot, something intriguing, or something whimsical. Combine them in ways unlike anything else in the boardgaming canon. Sure, some of the obvious combos will be reminiscent of other games – 453 (Military, Explore, Privileges) is going to remind you of Eclipse or many other 4x games, although you can play it in an hour. 168 (Pick Up and Deliver, Roads, Production) is going to have a Roads and Boats vibe, albeit a Roads and Boats that plays in 60-90 minutes. Despite these combinations being familiar they still feel fresh, and they add an interesting twist: after you play, you can say “hey, 453 was pretty cool, but Explore seemed a bit random, how about we de-emphasize that and bring in Production  instead, maybe try 483?”. But you can do some really interesting, off-beat stuff too: 945 (Shares, Military, Explore) is game of publicly-traded mercenary companies that explore the world and beat up on their neighbors. One of the cute things about the Book of Worlds is that it generates a bit of flavor text that describes the word; for 945, it’s “A World of Publicly Owned Generals on the Way to the Unknown”. Nobody’s going to design that game, but it sounds interesting to me and I’d give it a try. And that’s the joy of 504 – you can try something a bit offbeat and if it’s good for one play, that’s all win. There are 503 more games in the box.

The really crazy thing, for a game that seems on first blush to be a way to put together an appealing set of mechanical pieces-parts, is that most worlds of 504 I’ve played have actually been quite interestingly thematic – as good as some of the best euros. If you look at the primary vein of popular or hot euro-type games – Castles of Burgundy, Dominion, Terra Mystica, Orleans, Through the Ages, or even Caverna – those games aren’t really thematically coherent, and in fact often seem to take a perverse kind of pride in their thematic incoherence. They’re much more about the clever deployment of interesting game mechanisms. In the case of 504, if you look at (for example) the Explore module, it’s actually explicitly not mechanically subtle or flashy – it’s a simple module,  designed elegantly and efficiently with the the idea of bringing the theme of exploration into whatever mix you’re concocting. At the end of the day none of the modules are fundamentally about rules or systems, they’re really all about bringing a theme, idea, or flavor. So when you play 586 (The World of Exploring Businessmen with Connections) the real joy is not in how cleverly the mechanical systems mix, the joy is in seeing those three ideas or themes blend in this interesting way. The difference may seem subtle, but to me, it’s all the difference in the world.

504 worked hard to win me over, and it ended up fully succeeding. This is not just incredibly imaginative and original as a presentation for a game, it’s executed with a tremendous degree of skill and provides a wide variety of satisfying games that generally play quickly and are thematically interesting.

I’ll close out with some specific comments on a few of the modules:

Pick Up and Deliver (1) was the first Top I module I played, since it’s part of the recommended first world (123). I subsequently kind of avoided it because I think that style of game is hard to do well and 123 was fairly light. To me, the Race and Pick Up and Deliver modules both seem to work better in other contexts than with each other. 504 didn’t really win me over until I played the later modules.  But, I played Pick Up and Deliver again recently and it grew on me – especially in II, where its radically different money-earning mechanism can mix things up. I haven’t tried 916 yet – 504 meets 18xx – but that’s a thing that obviously needs to be done. There is a theory about creative work, put forward by Stephen R Donaldson, that you need two quite different but intersecting ideas to bring something to life. Pick Up and Deliver ultimately worked for me in 504 because you don’t get just a Pick up and Deliver game (not that interesting to me by itself), you get Pick Up and Deliver crossed with Production, or Explore, or whatever, and that intersection is far more interesting than either single idea would have been individually.

Explore (5) is a really good  module but when it’s in Top I or Top III it adds a bit of length to the game. One of the great things about most of the 504 combinations is they play in about an hour, 90 minutes tops, with several coming it at less than that. Having Explore in III will end up costing a lot of residents to do all that exploring without a commensurately increased income stream, so it adds some time. The endgame conditions when it’s in the Top I also can take a bit of time to reach (especially when playing with 3). I think the length is fine, you just need to be aware.

Shares (9) in any position, but mainly Top I or Top II, will significantly lengthen the game. The rules are pretty cool, but you’re probably looking at 2-3 hours. Don’t select this module casually; you need more buy-in from your fellow-players than usual. Start with it in III, where it isn’t as disruptive.

Production (8) is more or less exactly what you think it is, and it works well in I and II. If it’s in the III spot, it either wants Pick up and Deliver or a module that’s relatively resident-intensive – maybe Explore or Military – for the most interest.

Majorities (7) is, to me, the least inspiring of the of the modules, but it works well in Top I. In Top II, it’s a little simplistic and I think you want something useful to do with your residents in the other two slots to give the game a bit more of an edge – maybe Roads, Production, or Explore. Or Military, of course; Military and Majorities are a natural if somewhat chaotic combination.

Privileges (3) is terrific to throw into the III spot in any combination. If you put it in I or II, it adds an auction. This is great if you like auctions, but it does add noticeable length to the game. There is also a tricky rules interaction between Production and Privileges if they’re in I and II in combination; Production uses “plants” and Privileges uses “factories”, which can create confusion. I don’t think this particular combination is all that compelling, so I’d use them individually first (or put one in the III spot).

Roads (6) is another really versatile module when used in the III spot; it adds depth and interest to almost anything. It’s also very good in I and II. Plus the complexity is very low. It’s probably the most versatile module available.

Military (4) is one that you’ll know whether you want or not. For what it is, it’s great, but it’s the most totally game-changing module (Shares is a big deal in terms of changing the game’s structure, but Military dramatically changes its tenor). For my tastes, I think Military wants to be Top I or Top II. Roads in I or II has some cool possibilities with Military in III, but outside of that I think with Military you want to go big or go home.

Race (2) is the module I have the least experience with, so I’ll just point out that it has a cool interpretation in the III slot, where it amplifies what you’re already doing in I and II and adds intermediate scoring.

Droids, Midichlorians, and Orcs: Dealing with problematic canon

If you run an RPG, whether it’s a licensed property or not, there are bound to be elements of the canon that you don’t like or disagree with. In general, my recommendation is to suck it up and stick to the canon, if for no other reason than just not to confuse your players. Every so often, though, you run into a truly a gigantic issue that compels some sort of resolution.

I ran into this in my Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. I had a player who had chosen a droid PC with “Droid Rights” as her motivation. This is cool because it’s a theme the movies raise but don’t explore: droids obviously have some degree of sentience, but are treated as property, which seems wrong. As I started playing with the idea of droid sentience in my own arc, I came across the long-standing rules prohibition against Force-sensitive droids in Star Wars games and wondered why this should be, exactly. If a droid should achieve a degree of sentience comparable with humans somehow – as is generally assumed for droid player characters in these games – why couldn’t they access the Force? The Force is a spiritual energy, a reflection of the soul made manifest, and who are we to say that biological beings have souls but self-aware droids don’t? And what possible narrative purpose could it serve to do so?

The ostensible reason of course is the biggest WTF moment in Star Wars movies: midichlorians. Those symbiotic organisms that, according to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, serve as receptors for the Force. Organic beings have them. Cyborgs have them. Droids don’t. Possibly the Horta doesn’t either, I’m guessing.

I think the introduction of midichlorians broke a lot of Star Wars fans, and had them questioning George Lucas’ sanity and/or intelligence. I admit I had a similar reaction, but my bias was that I knew that Lucas was a smart guy. He had, after all, written and made the original trilogy. The difference between Lucas and J J Abrams is that when Lucas does things, he does them for reasons that make sense. There was probably a reason for the midichlorians, just not one that was apparent to me at the time.

My personal understanding of that reason didn’t come into focus until a few years after Revenge of the Sith came out, and they had become just a small weird background element in the larger trilogy. It went like this: the very first real scene of the trilogy, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the Trade Federation ship, seems quite revealing to me. It starts with a callback to the original trilogy (Obi-Wan saying he has a bad feeling about this), but then immediately stakes out some new territory. Obi-Wan talks about how Yoda has told him he should be mindful of the future, something that Episode V Yoda would probably warn against. Qui-Gon then tells Obi-Wan to be mindful not of the “Force”, but of the “Living Force”, an expression we haven’t heard before. This seems to be staking out a position: how the Jedi understand the Force was different in the past, and this is not exactly the same Yoda we see later. I remember when I watched that scene the first time, it clearly signaled to me that things are going to be different.

This then feeds into questions about the reliability of Qui-Gon and his idea of the “Living Force”. He’s often at odds with the Jedi Council and Jedi orthodoxy. We’ll learn later that he was Count Dooku’s padawan. When he talks about the prophecy that Anakin is supposed to be fulfilling, the rest of the council appears skeptical. His talk of midichlorians doesn’t sway the Jedi Council when he’s trying to get Anakin trained. Even Obi-Wan senses the danger Anakin presents which Qui-Gon seems blind to, and – given how things turn out – insisting on training Anakin may not have been the best call. It’s entirely possible that Qui-Gon is not part of the Jedi mainstream and his understanding of the Living Force and  midichlorians is not, in fact, widely shared. Midichlorians clearly exist, and can be measured – the Council seems to acknowledge this, at least – but it’s possible that not everyone agrees about their function.

Then throw in the fact that after Qui-Gon’s death, nobody brings up midichlorians again. The films tell us several times, mainly in Attack of the Clones, that the state of Jedi knowledge and scholarship is calcified. The Jedi Council, over the course of the films, reveals itself to be a terrible, ineffective organization. All this adds up, for me, to the idea that the Jedi in the timeframe of the prequels may not really have known what they were doing – the results speak for themselves on that count – and that midichlorians were simply a quirk of Qui-Gon’s philosophy of the Living Force, and one that you don’t need to worry about in your games.

The problem, of course, is that this is not actually the correct interpretation, according to George Lucas (bearing in mind that creators are surprisingly often wrong about their own works). I had read a lot of the background history of the creation of the prequels, but never remembered hearing or reading anything that explained Lucas’ thinking behind the midichlorians. In doing background for this piece, I remembered I hadn’t listened to Lucas’ commentary tracks on the prequels in a long time, so I popped in The Phantom Menace and checked out the scenes where midichlorians are mentioned. Lo and behold, there it is, behind the scene where Qui-Gon draws Anakin’s blood to test. And the answer is inextricably tied up with the original sin of the classic trilogy – the single fact that makes Star Wars so hard to game and explains why, even though I respect the classic trilogy more, I actually find it easier as a whole to engage with the people in the prequels.

In the classic trilogy, it is established there is sort of a royal family of the Force, the Skywalkers. They are far more sensitive to the Force than anyone else, to the point that Luke can use his native talent to accomplish almost miraculous feats (blocking blaster bolts with his lightsaber while blindfolded) with only the most minimal training while virtually everyone else remains Force-blind. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s established by Yoda that, amongst the trillions upon trillions of beings in the galaxy, there is literally nobody who is not a descendant of Skywalker who can be trained to defeat Darth Vader – and Vader, as a reconstructed cyborg, has only a fraction of the power he had as Anakin Skywalker.

George Lucas felt this needed some explaining – which it does – and so he introduced midichlorians in a way that he thought would work, and mesh with the themes of Episode I. Midichlorians are described only vaguely, no actual mechanism is ever proposed, and the symbiotic relationship plays into the themes of Star Wars. But midichlorians are wholly unsatisfactory as an explanation because the thing they have to explain is wholly unsatisfactory – that some people have vastly greater potential based solely on genetics. Without that fact you you can’t have big chunks of the original trilogy. Maybe you can live with the galaxy as the playground of the Skywalkers, but once you expand the story into the prequels – or onto your gaming table – you kind of need to deal with it somehow.

To the credit of the prequels, a lot less is made of Anakin’s genes than is made of Luke’s in the originals. Luke ultimately has to face Vader because it is his “destiny” – The Empire Strikes Back’s favorite word. Anakin’s path is, to me, more nuanced and interesting: he makes his own choices, but is also influenced by his situation and by the people around him. His destiny is his to make, but but also for others to influence; the fact that he may or may not be “the chosen one” is not nearly as significant as who he is and who the people around him are. Another intriguing fact that the prequels introduce is that the fact that the Sith don’t pass on their powers by heredity, apparently. They “adopt” their apprentices from the best available candidates. While the Sith are unpleasant, they do a pretty good job of passing on power from generation to generation. Did I mention that Qui-Gon Jinn was Count Dooku’s padawan, before he became Darth Tyranus?

So what is the Star Wars game master to make of all this? One answer is simply to run a campaign without the Force, which is sort of the route taken by Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is fine as far as it goes, but the Force is such a central part of the Star Wars mythology it’s hard to ignore forever. In order to get best results – even if you’re going to draw solely on material from the classic trilogy – you need to wrestle with these issues and figure out what you think of them.

The facts established by the classic trilogy – the importance of your parents to your destiny – are definitely not working for me. Neither, obviously, is the fact that your midichlorian levels dictate your Force potential, since the latter explains the former.

Even if you hate the prequels, the good news is that they provide more than enough cover to simply discard the whole lot of it. I feel there is enough to make the case that Qui-Gon, while right about many things, was wrong about midichlorians. And if that’s true, it’s only a very small step to also argue that Obi-Wan and Yoda were wrong when they believed only Anakin’s children had the Force potential to overcome him and the Emperor. In the context of the classic trilogy, we have no reason to believe that Yoda is anything other than he appears to be, the wise mentor who we have no reason to doubt. But throw in the prequels, and now Yoda was a key member of the Jedi Council that so abjectly failed the first time; a person who feels the choices he made were so wrong that in at least one important case, he strongly councils Luke to do the exact opposite of what he did under the same circumstances. Obi-Wan was a product of the last, failing generation of Jedi and as Anakin’s former master, he could easily be too emotionally involved in this case. He’s also got a track record of playing a little fast and loose with facts. The power of the Empire at this point would have made finding and training another candidate difficult in any event, so the reason Luke and Leia were their last hopes may, in truth, have owed much more to practicalities than genetics.

To be fair to Lucas, he obviously wrestles with these contradictions, which have deep roots and you could probably get a Master’s thesis out of. There are plenty of times in The Empire Strikes Back where we don’t particularly believe Luke is special, and Yoda gives the impression that more or less anyone could be a Jedi, with the right discipline and training. But the core of the drama in Empire and Jedi is the father-son dynamic (with the daughter shorted, as usual), and that drives other elements of the story. This dynamic is unlikely to be something you want to replicate in your game, and now the prequels give you enough ammunition to completely jettison the single most problematic aspect of the Star Wars canon – Force power that is innate and primarily heritable – and I think you should. Not only does it make for better gaming, it also makes the Star Wars universe more morally just. It’s Star Wars, from the vantage point of Ahsoka Tano – for me, the most relatable Jedi in the franchise.

So even though it’s apparently not what Lucas intended, I’ve become attached to my interpretation of midichlorians: that they are a wrong idea that fell out of fashion, and furthermore that the idea that receptivity to the Force is measurable and heritable is the product of the failing generations of the Jedi, which the prequels show as conflicted, reactionary, and ultimately not up to the challenge they faced.

The Force model I’ve gone with in my game, following my interpretation of the movies, is that being able to use the Force is a skill, just a very difficult one. I think of it as analogous to the skill required to play classical music at a very high level: it’s extremely difficult to master, some people clearly have an aptitude for it, but most anyone can do it if they have the concentration, discipline, and a good mentor. Being from a family of classical musicians clearly helps, but pre-eminent performers surprisingly often emerge from families with no notable musical history (Hilary Hahn, Sharon Kam). Genetics make a difference – Yuja Wang’s long fingers or Paganini’s freakishly flexible joints are clearly assets (in the case of Paganini, an asset with a high cost) – but not as much as you might think. Even for those with aptitude, it’s a lot of work. Without situational or genetic advantages you may never become the best in the world, but with commitment and the right training and barring disability you can usually become very, very good.

We run into a similar, although possibly less problematic, question when gaming Tolkien: where exactly did the orcs come from, and why are they apparently all evil? Somewhat similarly to midichlorians, orcs are creatures that the story Tolkien is telling requires, but which his philosophy cannot explain. Since in fiction the requirements of story trump the requirements of logic, orcs exist; troublesome questions remain. Within the context of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you don’t need to worry about it too much, but once you write a prequel (The Silmarillion) or design an RPG arc, the question may become more urgent. In Tolkien’s worldview, evil can only corrupt, not create; so in the version of the Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien published, Melkor capture some Elves and corrupt them into orcs (it’s not clear that Tolkien himself thought this was the answer to the conundrum). But this just doesn’t make a lot of sense and raises more questions than it answers. The problem is that, much like George Lucas, Tolkien is trying to weave modern values into a medieval story structure, and there ends up being conflicts. Those conflicts are, in fact, often what brings life to the stories and give them depth. Every so often, though, they create problems for those of us who come later.

The problems here are easier to resolve simply because The Silmarillion was published posthumously and so I’ve never considered it truly “canon” in the Tolkien universe, at least not to the same degree as the stories Tolkien actually published himself during his lifetime. So I can just discard the orc’s origin story as given in The Silmarillion (which somewhat surprisingly make it into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings adaptation), and simply choose in favor Tolkien’s dominant modern values: like Gollum, the orcs are not irredeemably evil, they are just slaves to Sauron’s will. Knowing their origin story then becomes unnecessary or a subject of speculation, and not a glaring inconsistency in the universe. Having made this decision, as storytellers themes open up to us and we can use orcs more intelligently as adversaries and not simply as mindless cannon fodder which the players are free to wantonly kill without compunction.

I think my biggest take-away from this whole run-around on the issue of droids and the Force was the importance of spending some time thinking about these things. If there are points of inconsistency or contradiction, you don’t have to tap-dance around them, you can make a philosophical call that is supportable and consistent with the setting and not worry about supporting all possible interpretations, or even supporting things that the artist said at one time which may, in fact, have been wrong! When these questions arise, coming to your own conclusions based on your own values, finding a way to make it clear to your players, and sticking with them will make your own creations better.

For the record: in my Star Wars games, intelligent droids will be able to access the Force.

Star Wars: Age of Rebellion – A Deep Dive on Dice Probabilities

A little while ago, I gave Star Wars: Edge of the Empire a reasonably positive review. After another year of playing the game, it’s time to check in again see how it’s faring, and to try to pass along some playing tips for dealing with some of the game’s quirks. If you haven’t played Star Wars: Edge of the Empire or Age of Rebellion (they’re exactly the same game system), you might want to catch up by reading that review – this will go pretty deep into the game’s probabilities and what they mean for actual play.

The dice in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, image courtesy FFG. Click for product page.

The central, most intriguing, and most opaque idea in the game is the set of customized dice that are used to form dice pools for task resolution. At their most basic, they are simple and elegant: just add positive ability (green 8-sided) and proficiency (yellow 12-sided) dice for your level of skill, negative purple 8-sided difficulty dice for the difficulty level negative red 12-siders for reasons, and then even some more dice (positive blue boosts and negative black  setbacks, both 6-siders) for situational modifiers (cover, time pressure, assistance from an ally), grab them all, and roll them. Net out success and failure icons, and advantage and threat icons. What you’ve got left is the result. If you end up with at least one success, you succeed. Remaining threat or advantage may give an additional bonus or penalty. It’s a pretty cool idea and rolling lots of dice is fun. However, as I played more, I kept noticing unexpected quirks in the results.

The big thing was that critical hits (which generally require a successful combat check with three advantages) seemed exceptionally rare, and even weapons special powers were hard to activate (they generally require successful check with two advantages). A little bit of analysis of the dice and this made sense. The dice faces never have more than two symbols and rarely show both success and advantage. Good dice only have good faces, and bad dice only have bad faces. So canceling out all the failures and all the threats while having surplus successes and advantages is obviously rare. While there are in theory four different possible “quadrants” the result of a dice roll could fall into (success or failure with advantage or threat), in practice two of them (success with threat and failure with advantage) are predominant, with critical success and critical failure seeming quite rare unless you have a big imbalance between good and bad dice in the pool.

Another odd thing was that it seemed like having high characteristics (Agility, Perception, Brawn, etc.) was a much bigger deal than actually having ranks in skills. A skilled character with a lower characteristic (so, say, a character with Piloting 2 and Agility 2) did not seem to do as well as a character with a slightly higher characteristic (so, no Piloting skill but Agility 3).

Then finally, because nobody really had any idea what the magnitude of the effects of adding various dice were, it made it hard to know what to do with the Destiny Pool, or how to rate the importance of boost and setback dice, or how to wisely spend advantages in combat. The rules seemed to imply that a boost/setback die was a lesser effect while upgrading a die (for example, turning green ability die into a yellow proficiency die) was a bigger deal. But is this really true? It didn’t feel like it.

Now, a little bit (or even a lot) of opacity in the odds is not a bad thing. In fact, a major appeal of the Star Wars system is that dice pools are so intuitive to construct but the probability curves they produce are so complicated as to be essentially incalculable.  That said, we still need to understand some basic things to play the game well. And the only way to get there seemed to be to run some Monte Carlo simulations and see what the numbers looked like. So that’s what I did. Knowing these details definitely improved my game, but they also raised some real questions about whether the designer understood how the dice pool actually works in practice, and if there are fundamental aspects of the game system that need to be re-calibrated.

The dice pool is extremely flexible and it can generate a huge range of probability curves. So I focused on a just few questions: how common are critical successes? What are the quantitative impacts on success and critical success of adding the various different dice to the pool? How big a deal are the challenge dice? To do this, I looked primarily at a few common cases:

  • A difficulty 2 check, which is a typical ranged combat check at medium range or when shooting at a similarly-sized ship
  • A check made by a moderately-skilled entry-level character, with two yellow and one green dice
  • A highly skilled character rolling one green and 3 yellow dice

For a look at a sampling of the numbers generated, you can check out this Google sheet. I’ve focussed on positive results, because they get the most attention from the system. The SUC+2 or SUC+3 columns give the percent chance of a successful check with at least that many advantages. I didn’t go deep, running stats for 2 or 3 or more boost, setback, or challenge dice, but this should give you a feel for how they work. You could really go crazy with the data, but the visualization problems get out of hand very quickly. Also, you need to run a surprisingly large number of iterations to get the results to converge. The numbers for the very large dice pools are not exact.

First a few general observations:

  • If you’re trying to activate weapon properties or score critical hits which require a success with +2 or +3 advantages, basically forget about it unless you have a very large dice advantage. The odds of a less-experienced character with good skill (a dice pool of 1g+2y) activating her twin-linked cannons on a typical shot (difficulty 2p) are only 9%. The odds of a crit are only 2%. A ridiculously skilled gunner on that same shot (5y) still only gets +2 advantages half the time, and a crit 30% of the time (remember a crit is generally not “you’re dead”, or even double damage, but something like reducing the target’s speed by 1 or removing a defense die). Also: reducing your crit rating is a really big deal. A vibrosword with a mono-molecular, serrated edge is extremely nasty (vicious 2, crit 1). Very nearly as good as a lightsaber.
  • Quantity of dice is better than quality of dice. In virtually every case, your odds of success with N green dice are better than with N-1 yellow dice. For Piloting checks, someone with Agility 3 and skill has worse odds than someone with Agility 5 and no training until the former has trained up to 5 ranks in Piloting. There are minor exceptions when a skill level is high and characteristic ratings are only different by 1, but they are quite small. A boost die has a bigger impact than a die upgrade, and it can significantly increase your chances of success and critical success.
  • In the same vein, upgrading a purple difficulty die to a red challenge dice just isn’t that big a deal. Outside of the triumph and despair symbols (see next), the effects of the yellow and red dice on your chances of success vs failure or advantage vs threat are negligible (they help; just not a lot). In most situations a challenge die is about a 5 percentage point hit on your chances of success, with minimal impact on your chances of critical successes (again, outside of despair, which I’m getting to). Adding a setback die is significantly more impactful than upgrading a check, in that it has a somewhat greater negative impact on your chances of success, and a much nastier hit to your chances of critical success (roughly halving them in the 1g+2y vs. 2p case).
  • By far the most important impact of the proficiency (yellow) and challenge (red) dice are the 1:12 chance for a triumph or despair.  The 1g+2y shot vs. 2p has only a 3% chance of a critical, but it has a 12% chance of a success + triumph. For anything that requires three or more advantages to activate,  triumphs are the way to go. Even when you are enormously skilled and the task is easy, you are still more likely to get triumphs than 3 advantages. The overall impact of the challenge dice on the game (and so the despair symbol) is less pronounced simply because there aren’t very many of them flying around. You’ll occasionally get them through the GM spending Destiny, and a Nemesis’ Adversary talent; that’s about it.
  • The bias for failure + advantage and success + threat is very noticeable when the pool is balanced (equal green and purple dice). Due to the extra threat and missing failure symbols on the purple dice (compared to the green dice), until you have a big dice imbalance success with threat tends to dominate the nontrivial results, with failure plus advantage coming next, and then failure plus threat and success plus advantage only filling up as the dice become overwhelming in one direction or the other.

Some of this makes sense, some of it is decidedly odd.

I am definitely not a fan of how it makes levels of skill relatively unimportant. You might think 3 ranks of Piloting gives you some niche protection in that area; but it does not, someone with 4 Agility is basically as good as you. High characteristics are a big deal, and spending any of your initial XP on anything other than characteristics doesn’t make a ton of sense, from a pure min-maxing perspective. This is not great from a “making characters interesting” perspective.

The flipside of the relative weakness of skills is the imbalance in the Destiny Pool. For the GM, spending a dark side Destiny Point to upgrade the difficulty of a skill check just doesn’t do a lot – it’s usually about a 5% hit, the equivalent of a -1 in a d20-based system, with a small (8%) chance of a despair symbol. Barely worth the effort. The FATE-like “Luck and Deus Ex Machina” function of the Destiny Pool is great and I like it a lot. But spending points to upgrade checks and difficulty is fiddly and low-impact.

In fact, many of the parameters of the game seem to be built on a profound misapprehension about how powerful the challenge and proficiency dice are and the frequency of surplus advantages. There are weapons with critical ratings of 4 or 5, as if the chances of that level of surplus did not round to zero. In table 7-5, which talks about how to spend advantage and triumph in starship combat, two options for spending triumph are: “Do something vital to turning the tide of the battle, such as destroying a capital ship’s shield generator or losing a pursuing ship in an asteroid field”, and “Upgrade an allied character’s next Piloting Gunnery, Computers, or Mechanics check”. Which is deeply weird. That first use of a triumph is obviously extremely powerful – much more powerful than a simple critical hit. Yet for a character with skill, getting a triumph is much more likely than rolling a critical hit! The second effect, on the other hand, is comparatively trivial. Not only that, but it’s usually weaker than adding a boost die to the same check, which you can do with a single advantage! The proficiency dice do come with triumph symbols which boosts do not, which complicates the comparison slightly, I think the general rule holds. Boosts increase you chances of success more than proficiency dice do.

One of the interesting ways in which the dice pool works that did make sense is how armor affects defense. Armor is generally modeled through setback dice, and the interesting thing as that while it’s generally a modest reduction in your to-hit chances (on the order of 8%), it really nerfs your chances of getting surplus advantages (the impact on triumphs is less noticeable).

At the end of the day I’m not sure what to make of all this. I like the dice pool mechanic quite a bit, and if you look at it as a core system, it has lots of interesting features and it’s fun to roll lots of colorful dice. For purely narrative checks it works great, as long as you have a basic grasp of the frequency of some combinations. However, a lot of the crunchy superstructure built on top of it seems deeply suspect.

In the long term, to make a more smoothly functioning game, I think we need a serious recalibration of many of the parameters of the game system. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to figure out some tweaks to make your game run better. Here is what I’ve taken away from it for my GMing:

  1. Be very generous in handing out setback and boost dice; they are the most interesting dice to add to routine checks. Use the boosts like candy; give them to players as a reward for trying something cool cinematic, in addition to their modeling function. They are fairly strong, and in order to get surplus advantage to trigger interesting game effects (primarily in combat), characters are going to need the extra punch provided by boosts. The point of diminishing returns on the chance of success is at about 85-90%, so dice beyond that point (roughly +3 dice, although obviously the system has a lot of variability) are mainly going into generating advantage. A lot of talents also remove setback dice, so in order for that to be interesting you need to be handing them out fairly routinely. As a corollary for players, all those things you can do to gain boost dice in combat (aim, spending advantage) are worth doing.
  2. Don’t overdo the triumph symbols, either narratively or in combat. When characters are skilled, triumphs are not that uncommon (12-15% for a balanced dice pool with a couple Proficiency dice). Feel free to go nuts with multiple triumphs, but a single triumph should not be allowed to dismantle a scene or conflict.
  3. Be aware of the system’s significant bias for success with threat and failure with advantage in routine checks. This is actually mostly a feature, not a bug, and allows you to make success more complicated and (more usefully) mitigate failure. But it does get repetitive, so don’t get too worked up about it; it’s OK for the benefits of rolling an advantage or two on a failed check to be small and transitory, since it’s very common. It also argues for rolling dice only when it’s genuinely interesting to do so, but that’s good advice for any game under any circumstances.
  4. The Destiny pool doesn’t really work, because the impact of a single challenge or proficiency die just isn’t big enough. I don’t really have a solution for this. The house rule I’m considering using is to have the GM spend them for Numenera-like intrusions as the flip side of the players’ “Luck and Deus Ex Machina”, but what the system seems to really want is just a much more potent die.
  5. Find ways to get more challenge dice into the game, just so you can play with despair. As written, the system favors adding setback dice to modify difficulty, which I think generally makes sense, but we’re just not rolling enough red dice and they don’t have enough impact on the game. While excess threat is generally easier to find then excess advantage, we still want to see those despair symbols occasionally! Consider giving more opponents the Adversary talent. Minion groups especially currently really suck, and giving more imposing ones (Stormtroopers, TIE wings) some kind of levels of Adversary would help mix things up.
  6. Speaking of Minion groups, they do really suck because the extra proficiency dice they get for being in larger groups just aren’t hugely significant. I think this is fine and generally the intent of the game, but just bear it in mind. Big groups of minions are far more imposing on the page than they are in actual play. The number of groups is far more important than the numbers in each group.
  7. During character generation, I like to give players an extra 40XP to spend after spending their initial allotment (I think this number could actually be even larger). The system is so heavily biased in favor of characteristics that players are going to sensibly spend as many of of their initial points as possible on those. Making sure your character has one characteristic of 4 is a huge deal. Low characteristics, 1 or 2, can limit you because they cap the number of yellow dice you can roll, and so in the long term limit your ability to generate triumphs no matter how skilled you become. Giving players some points they must  spend on skills & talents to differentiate the characters seems wise. In an unrelated point, characters need a lot more starting money – 1500 credits instead of 500 seems closer to right. Yes, there are options for spending Obligation or Duty for more equipment, but messing with this is awkward and 500 credits is just ludicrously low.

This may all sound negative, and I do think it’s true that there is too much in the game that just doesn’t make much sense as designed. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in the game – weapon ratings, talents, advantage spends – that clearly are at least somewhat misaligned. But, the cool thing about the system is that fundamentally it’s quite simple and elegant and has a lot of potential. Once you’ve gotten a handle on how things actually work, it’s not that hard to hammer things into some form of order. I still need to find a fix for the destiny pool, but I feel like as I play more and get more of an understanding of how the pieces fit together, and how to use them properly (even if that’s not exactly what the rules say), I’m happier with the game. While it’s always going to be a game in need of constant tinkering to keep working, that tinkering is not particularly onerous, Star Wars is fun, dice are fun, and the core system is good.

Player Agency in boardgames and RPGs

Last week there was an interesting interview on Slate’s The Gist with Peter Mendelsund, an ex-concert pianist and current designer of book covers. The conversation turned to how much agency the audience/reader/player has when engaging with different types of entertainment, and the interesting quote that struck me and got me thinking about boardgames was this:

… we imagine reading as being a medium in which we have no agency, we’re passive recipients of the author’s work, and video games as being the opposite, where we’re active participants. And the more you examine, say, just those two media you find out it’s actually quite the opposite in some ways, that reading is way more active and we have way more agency than we think we do and in video games it’s sort of the opposite, we’re way more put in the runnels that the programmer has made for us.

The argument is that because literary descriptions are usually fairly economical, the reader does a lot of construction out of their experience and imagination to create the scene that is in truth only sketched in the text. Mendelsund calls out The Lord of the Rings specifically as a book that relies on the agency of the reader to create the full experience, and how for him the movies ruined the experience of reading the books – because now when Gandalf appears he just conjures up Ian McKellen instead of engaging his imagination. Mendelsund is a book cover designer, and he thinks about the fact that once you concretize a character through an illustration, you take away some of the reader’s agency.

This tweaked me immediately because I had been thinking about player creativity and its vital role in boardgames and RPGs. I have been getting back into MMP’s Operational Combat Series of wargames with the fantastic Reluctant Enemies, and as I was playing it reminded me why I love these games: they generally give the players a huge amount of latitude to do creative and expressive problem-solving, to change not just their chances of winning but the entire course of the game. It struck me as similar to the effect I aim for in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game I am running, albeit using a completely different set of tools in a completely different context. The recent release of the terrific Blue Moon Legends has me playing that again also, which has always struck me as a game that particularly rewards finding creative cardplay sequences and combinations, something above and beyond pure tactical analysis.

It became clear to me that a game that gave its players real agency is what divides the good from the great for me. Immediately after thinking this, though, I realized that what exactly agency is in this context is not so easy to simply express. Intriguingly, it seems to work in exactly the same way for both RPGs and boardgames, and so at first I thought of “agency” as “rewarding player creativity”. But as I thought about it more, it became more slippery. Creativity is clearly a very big part of it, but it’s not a sufficient description. Games from across the spectrum can reward various types of player creativity in a range of different ways: High Frontier, Race for the Galaxy, Lost Legends, Blue Moon Legends, Android: Netrunner, Battle Above the Clouds, No Retreat, Ashen Stars, The One Ring. But there are other games where the players clearly have what I think of as agency but which I can’t really see as creative per se, like Modern Art and Lord of the Rings. There are games where players need to be creative but it’s not clear they have agency, like Dixit or Telestrations. There are games which seem like they might reward creativity, but system imbalances or constraints mean they probably don’t, like X-Wing or GMT’s COIN games. And there are games which support or provide outlets for creativity in different ways but where it’s not really part of the game, like Arkham Horror or Games of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue.

This last category is intriguing to me, because it’s both a very large class of games and also the closest analogy to Mendelsund’s idea of how we interact with books: although the players’ choices don’t affect the course of the game, on the other hand the experience of playing provides a sketch in which you have to (and which the game allows you to) fill in with your imagination to move forward and bring the game to life. In a game, though, I find this form of agency the least compelling, least useful, and also the most technically difficult to meld with an interesting game. Games are different from books: they are shared with multiple people and require a shared framework, and they take place in strict time where everyone has to move at the same pace, more or less. They require a quite different sort of player agency to feed engagement. It’s clear that simply engaging the players’ imaginations can turn a so-so game (Grand National Derby) into a very good one (Titan: The Arena), or a non-game (Munchkin) into something people like a lot. But this is not a particular strength of the boardgame form, and I’m always far more interested in what games can do that other forms can’t.

To loop back a bit, in the realm of RPGs I’ve spent the last few years pursuing games that strongly encourage player agency. For me, RPGs aren’t fun – either as a player or the GM – unless the players are actively involved in the creative process, unless their decisions change not just their chance of success in any given scene but the entire course of the story. Thus I have been drawn to Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, Numenera, and Hillfolk. For plenty of players, though, agency is not a feature and is in fact something they specifically don’t want. They want the GM to set up some scenes for them, and they want to interact with them. Just as in the world of boardgames, there are games that support both preferences. I think this may be part of the trap that 13th Age fell into for me personally: although it tries to give the players much more freedom to be creative, it is also clearly set in a genre where the main games (D&D and Pathfinder) are the games of choice for players who don’t particularly want agency.

I came away from all this thought without a clear definition of how agency works in boardgames, other than that it is important to me and some people like it and others don’t (the picture is obviously much clearer in RPGs). So I thought I’d close with a few capsule comments about boardgames where I feel like I have real agency and how I think it works.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is a game that is sending distinctly mixed messages, and presents a particularly difficult critical problem. On the one hand, with its fixed throughline, the players clearly have no ability to affect the overarching flow of the game. On the other hand, because the risk-reward probabilities are so complex and the thinking required frequently so long-term, the players do have a huge amount of flexibility in how they choose to attack the problems – far more meaningful flexibility than in any other cooperative game, even before you throw in the expansions. While the instances of truly creative problem-solving may be rare, they do exist; those occasional eureka moments where you realize that if I use the Miruvor, you can pass the Mithril to Frodo which allows him to use Gollum without dying and to escape from Shelob’s Lair are really cool. At the same time, the fixed throughline could be viewed as a list of checkpoints which allow all the players to stay on track together while still being able to construct their own internal narratives. I don’t think of Lord of the Rings as giving the players true narrative or creative agency; the real strength of the game is how it evokes the books in forging the players into a fellowship through the trials it sets up for them (and this is perhaps the greatest agency the players have, in how they relate to the other players in the game). On the other hand the game is also so much more than the sum of its mechanics, probabilities, and presentation, and it give the players the chance to decide what the game means to them.

Reluctant Enemies is the game that sent me down this path, because as I was playing it – even as the more reactive Vichy French who play primarily defense – I was impressed both by how much legitimate flexibility I had in deciding how to attack tactical problems, and how dramatically the choices of the players affects the flow of the game. Much of this is driven by how much information is concealed – available supply, so crucial to being able to do anything in this system – and so how much uncertainty there is. In a more traditional wargame like Roads to Moscow or France ’40 the players can see everything that matters and so it’s much harder for a game to get away from being strict tactical problem solving and allow players true flexibility and choice. Even in games like War of the Ring or Hammer of the Scots, where there is a lot of hidden information, right and wrong answers to the situation develop as players feel out the game and their flexibility and agency gets stripped away. By contrast, in Reluctant Enemies, right and wrong answers are created only out of the choices the players make and are largely unknowable in the moment.

Thinking of games where agency seems to start high but goes to zero over time, Dominion is to me a classic example. When you first play it there is this sense of endless possibility, that by creatively mixing and matching cards and ratios you can create interesting effects and control the game. As you gain even a little experience though, you find that the cards aren’t particularly well balanced, that some are worth the effort and many are not, that the game rewards simplicity to an extreme degree, and so each set tends to be an up-front tactical problem-solving search for the critical card or combination. Ascension (and similar games like Star Realms), by making you figure out how to take advantage of a constantly changing environment, is much better at tapping into player creativity and feelings of agency. It’s probabilistic – occasionally the exact cards you need are magically turned over off the deck, and everything just works out – but you earn your stripes in the game by turning what seems like a bunch of nothing into something.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is the game which is the obvious analog to the book-reading experience. As you string together these blocks of text you get to construct in your head the cinematic narrative. Because the ongoing story applies only to you, and only your choices affect it, it doesn’t matter if different players construct radically different ideas about what’s going on. Reading the paragraphs are also little bits of performance art (very little, but still). Additionally, and also cool, is that your choices of skills and how you develop them has obvious and significant effects on how the story unfolds. These elements are strengths and weakness, though. Because Tales is an analog to a book-reading experience (with each player individually developing his or her own story), and because book reading doesn’t scale that well past 1, having players beyond 2 or 3 simply degrades the experience.

Talking about Advanced Squad Leader in this context makes me sad because it’s a game I like, but at the end of the day I think ASL is much more of a game of tactical problem solving than it is about player creativity. The variety of tactical situations it puts you in is vast and it rewards being able to simplify very complex problems, but usually creative solutions are less important than correct solutions. The interesting counterpoint – which shows the huge range of the system and the difficulty of generalizing about it – is that the night rules change the texture of the game drastically. All of a sudden players have far less concrete information (and often more flexibility) and games can turn on creative bluffs and traps, which probably explains why I’ve always liked those scenarios.

Race for the Galaxy is game where I think this idea of agency is at the heart of why it is such a great game. You are always looking for creative ways to use the cards you’ve been dealt, reaching for combinations or strategies that will work, then trying them out and seeing what happens. Additionally, those choices have significant effects on how the overall game unfolds. If you go with a military strategy, that increases the number of Settle actions taken in the game in an obvious way, and so changes how the other players feel and choose in a way that simply isn’t true for the majority of purely tactical euros (Tzolk’in, Power Grid, Age of Steam). This feeling of control may age out after a long period of time as the contours of game balance become more fully explored, and the game’s expansions weren’t always handled adroitly, but introducing just the goal chits goes a long way by messing with that sense of balance and extending the creative phase of the game.

I’ve just started working with this idea in the realm of boardgames, so I’m sure my thoughts on it will evolve as I develop it. Maybe it will turn out to be a minor element of most boardgames, where it’s much harder to clearly see than it is in roleplaying, but it strikes me as an important intangible that helps separates the good from the great.

Moby Dick or, The Card Game

Moby Dick, or, The Card GameBack in 2005 Reiner Knizia and Kosmos published Beowulf: The Legend, which was a turning point for me in my appreciation of what games can aspire to do. The game represented a legitimate artistic interpretation of the source material (as did Knizia’s previous Lord of the Rings, although in a slightly less striking manner). For the most part, game adaptations of books or other media tend to be what I think of as “touchstone” games, games which serve up visual, textual, or other tidbits from the source but don’t have much of their own creative impetus behind them – Arkham Horror and The Virgin Queen are classic examples. Nothing wrong with this approach in theory, and those games can be enjoyable, but to me they’re limited and uninteresting. Beowulf managed to have it all: a terrific and engaging game which also channels the idea of one-upmanship and show-offy competition that is ever-present in the story (among other things). Likewise, in Lord of the Rings, Knizia manages to get at the themes of persistence and sacrifice. These games are unusual not only because they succeeded so well, but also just because they made a serious attempt. Moby Dick or, The Card Game intrigued me because it also seemed to be trying to make a serious, artistic attempt to adapt a classic (and out-of-copyright) work to the game format.

The first thing to understand about Moby Dick or, The Card Game is that its foundations are much more towards the “popular game” end of the game spectrum (where mechanical familiarity is key – think Munchkin or Ticket to Ride), not the classical hobby games we all love (where the game’s form is essential – in the extreme, think almost anything by Stefan Feld). So it resembles a melding, rummy-type game: you are trying to assemble a tableau of whaling crew that is capable of hanging on and dying last when confronted by the great whale.* For this we need a good mix of crew skills – harpooner, shipkeepers, forecastlepersons, and so on – most of whom have abilities that involve negating the various hazards of hunting whales (except for the few who are cursed, who add a nice little bit of drama to drawing from the deck). To build your crew, you just draw blind from the crew deck or pick up from the discard pile. From time to time you can bribe a crew away from an opponent’s tableau. The currency for doing all these things is whale oil, which you can get from successful hunts and which you never have enough of. After having tried to optimize your crew, you then draw a card from The Sea deck and deal with whatever it throws at you. If that’s a whale, you move to The Hunt deck, with a similar process – draw a card, see if it kills you or if your crew can negate it, then throw dice to try to kill the whale.

The Sea deck, with events drawn from the book, is nicely-drawn. Chapter cards are drawn directly from chapters in the novel, and have some representational and lasting effect (in chapter 113, The Forge, Ahab gets +2 strength and gains the Harpooner ability, but whales also get +1 strength). Others are one-off events, some good and many bad, all with nice drawings and text from the book. Other than sightings of the White Whale, which serve as a countdown clock to the final confrontation, there is no sequencing or flow – cards are just drawn randomly off the deck. Often this approach doesn’t work for me (see Arkham Horror, Betrayal at the House on Hill, Battlestar Galactica) because it just ends up feeling incoherent. With Moby Dick or, the Card Game I think it works though. The cards are focussed, grounded in the original story, and are strongly positive or negative in effect. Because the game doesn’t have that many levers to pull (mainly adding or killing crew, or giving or taking away whale oil) you don’t get crazy effects that just feel random, weird, and possibly irrelevant. Because the events are so focussed primarily on crew survival, for me each pull from the event deck manages to generate that anticipation and fear that you like to have to make the game work. Card pulls that don’t move the game forward in some way seem to be rare, although it is somewhat vulnerable to odd distributions like long uninterrupted runs of chapter cards.

The Whale deck, which covers the hunt and is almost a mini-game unto itself, is similarly nicely-drawn. Players lower their crew into the boats to try to hunt the whale once sighted, harpooning him and then getting close enough to kill him before he kills you with his tail, bite, charge, ancient wisdom, and so on. Crew skill allows you avoid hazards, but getting close to the whale (i.e., successfully harpooning him) makes you more vulnerable just before the kill. There is a small but clever push-your-luck element as several hazards will give you the choice between disengaging or pressing on but losing crew. Being the player who strikes the killing blow has significant bonuses, especially if you are the last one standing when the deed is done. Being on a successful hunt gives you whale oil and a significant advantage in getting more crew – and again, you win the game by being the last one to have surviving crew.

Given that Moby Dick or, the Card Game is at its core a “draw a card, read the text” game, King Post and Andy Kopas have done as much with the form as you could want or expect. The physical design of the game, from the cards to the dice and chips, is tremendous. Illustrations are authentic period and evocative, flavor text is on-point and drawn from the books, and the game effects of events are fairly reliably interesting. While some percentage of the game is to experience the setting, you do regularly make choices which do matter.

Still, if you’re a gaming hobbyist Moby Dick or, The Card Game is not going to do it for you by dint of its compelling gameplay alone. Unlike Beowulf: The Legend or Lord of the Rings, a mechanics-first approach to appreciating the game is not going to be the easy way. For example, if you look at it in isolation the game appears to be primarily about building up a competent set of crew that can handle the vagaries of the sea and killing whales. So why have players primarily draw crew blind from the deck? Why not have a drafting or bidding mechanic that might give them more of a sense of engagement? The answer, of course, is that the book isn’t about the best strategies for recruiting whaling crew. I’m far from a Moby Dick expert, but I can say with some confidence that interviewing techniques are not a theme.  What are the themes of Moby Dick, then? Given my non-expert status I asked the internet, and it turns out it’s a bit complicated. It is, after all, a rather long and ambitious book, and a game could no more capture the entirety of it than you could cram all of Les Misérables into a stage musical. But two clear themes the game focuses on are ideas of man vs. nature and fate vs. free will, which I think are good choices. Fate vs. free will is virtually built in to this particular game format, and nicely calibrating the choices the game gives you gives it life. The idea of man vs. nature is well-developed by defining the crew in terms of what characteristics of the whales they fight they can counter. The whales themselves are given a nice mix of both wild (charge, battering ram, bite) and personified (Ancient Wisdom and Unflagging Spirit) abilities. The deathmatch whale hunts can be bloody affairs. Crew members are simultaneously valuable and expendable, with crew death at the hands of the whales and the sea being frequent and often capricious. **

I quite enjoyed Moby Dick or, The Card Game. Unlike Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, or Pax Porfiriana the core game is not so compelling on its own that it can potentially succeed even if you have no interest in what the game is trying to say or what the meaning of Moby Dick is. When you look at the total package, though – as a game inspired by and trying to bring to life a classic American novel – there is quite a lot to like, and its grounding in a more traditional game format makes it accessible to non-hobbyists. While I know a fair amount about Moby Dick, I have never actually read Moby Dick in its entirety (I suspect I am in good company there). Despite the novel’s legendary pacing issues ***, the game has inspired me to try to read it. Can’t ask for more than that.

* – Wow, replace “whaling crew” with “investigators” and “great whale” with “great Cthulhu” and it sounds positively Lovecraftian.

** – Going back to the above thought, it did strike me that if you just gave Moby Dick or, the Card Game a new coat of paint (changing the theme “man vs. nature” to “humans vs. the meaninglessness of existence”, and keeping “fate vs. free will”) it would make a far better Cthulhu game than any other Lovecraftian boardgame that comes to mind. Designers, make a note of it.

*** – It can’t be worse than A Game of Thrones. Can it?

Origins: How We Became Human

I first played Origins: How We Became Human not long after it came out, back in 2008 (if you’re unfamiliar with the game, you might want to take a moment to skim that older writeup). Although I found the ideas and science behind it fascinating, I ultimately had to admit the game basically didn’t work. While the core systems were streamlined and playable, the list of grievances was long and serious: climate change die rolls that wipe you out in an instant of bad luck; development bottlenecks around increasing your energy capacity that had you rolling dice forever trying to get a 6 or endlessly digging through the card deck for the one or two cards that would unblock you; and the less said about the horror that was Acculturation, the better.

Still, recent Sierra Madre games have usually required a little tweaking, either in the form of “living rules” style updates from the publisher or home-grown house rules. Even High Frontier – a terrific game – needs to be played with slightly more sensible auction rules and tweaks for Deimos and one of the thrusters (the Salt Water Zubrin in the basic game). With Origins, there was and is clearly an interesting game in there. It just wasn’t clear what the rules tweaks needed to be to get at that game. Everyone I played Origins with disliked it enough (and the game takes long enough to play) that I never was able to get a handle on what the fixes needed to be.

Until now! Phil Eklund has done most of the heavy lifting through the optional rules now in the Origins rulebook. The absolutely critical ones are: Livestock Raids, Counterespionage, No Final Chaos, and Domestication in Uninhabitable Hexes. Without these rules the game basically doesn’t work: mainly, you can get futilely stuck in Age 1 forever spinning your wheels if you blow your domestication die rolls, or climate change can deny you the resources you need to make progress in the game. All the optional rules are definitely recommended and help the game, but these ones are critical. The original rules are clearly more faithful to the thematic ideas behind the game, but compromises have to made to the form to make it enjoyable to play.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough. The Acculturation action is still terrible and can completely ruin the fun. If your empire has an advantage in Culture advances, you’re allowed to Acculturate your neighbors: you steal one of their elders and add it to your pool. Since elders are otherwise expensive to acquire and critical to doing interesting things in the game, being acculturated to death by your neighbor is completely paralyzing and makes your game experience an exercise in frustration and futility. Fortunately, Morgan Dontanville suggested this fix: just have the Acculturation action steal a cube of the target players’ choice instead of an elder. This seems to be the answer. From the session reports I’ve read of players who made it into Era IV, the very late game – when players’ civilizations are well-established – might play better with the original rule, but in the early game when empires are small and there are few Culture cards available, being Acculturated to death without recourse is a horrible, game-ruining experience.

The last thing to worry about is how to finish the game in a reasonable amount of time, given that it’s fairly chaotic. Individual player turns are usually quick, but there is a lot of stuff to get through and until players achieve some mastery it can take 4-5 hours with 5 players, which I think is 1-2 hours longer than it wants to be. I think the answer is just to play with fewer players. Most Sierra Madre Games suffer from a downtime problem with more players – I recommend sticking to 3, maybe 4 players for High Frontier, High Frontier Colonization really wants just 3, and Pax Porfiriana is better with 4 than with 5, and better with 5 than 6. At least in High Frontier, there is plenty of planning you can do when it’s not your turn, but Origins is constantly in a state of flux and it’s hard to think that far ahead. I don’t have enough plays to know for sure, but my guess is the sweet spot is probably 3, maybe 4 players. Leave out the Cro-Magnons; they have a small but not zero chance of being totally screwed by climate change die rolls (the Hobbits can be in trouble too, but the Water Buffalo makes their situation less dire).

The final touch I’d add is to not have animals go extinct on domestication die rolls of 2 or 3 – at least not until players are familiar with the game. A bad combination of extinctions and climate change can leave a player well and truly stuck. It’s not as terrible as the other issues, and experienced players will know the risks, but it’s probably best avoided until you have better coping skills.

So in summary:

  • Use all the optional rules in the Living Rules.
  • Acculturation steals a cube of the victim’s choice, not necessarily an elder (it still goes back to the population track when lost).
  • Don’t play with 5 players; stick to 3 or 4.
  • Unless you know what you’re doing, animals never go extinct even with smaller numbers of players.
  • And, I should mention, don’t mess with Age IV.

There is also an updated poster map on Zazzle. While it’s not an essential addition to the game, there are a number of small tweaks that are helpful.

Finally, get Rick Heli’s summary of the deck compositions. Knowing how many of what types of cards are where is important to sensible play.

This still leaves plenty to not like about the game, if you are so inclined. Climate change can be frustrating. The game is unforgiving if you get your innovation track clogged. Like all Sierra Madre Games, you have to understand it has a distinctive aesthetic and you have to appreciate it by starting with figuring out what the game is trying to say (I talked about this in my Pax Porfiriana review). You don’t have to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel  or Julien Jaynes  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to appreciate Origins: How We Became Human, but hey, those are important books, you should probably read them (well, definitely the Diamond anyway), and it helps. But you should certainly read the Designer’s Notes. Just don’t be put off by Eklund’s Objectivism. Yes, there is some Ayn Rand-style crazy in the Age IV deck; Phil doesn’t think much of public education apparently. But otherwise, he talks a better Libertarian talk than he actually walks. I have absolutely zero time for true Libertarians, and I found nothing philosophically objectionable in Origins. At least, not until the Age IV deck.

Last time I wrote about the game, I offered some play tips. Here are some of my updated thoughts:

Climate Change is the number one thing I hear people complain about, and it can feel capricious. I think you just need to go into the game knowing that the board is never going to look better than it does at start. There are three climate change cards in the Era 1 deck, and you need to realize that the most likely outcome is that one or both of the Jungle and Desert spots are going to become uninhabitable. So you need to play defensively, trying to make sure you don’t get hemmed in and have access to animals and metropolises until you have enough tech to cope with difficult terrain. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially for the Hobbits and Cro-Magnon. The worst-case scenario (Jungles and Deserts, plus the icecaps melt) is quite unlikely, but not impossible. There are two more climate changes in Age II and one in Age III, which are not to be ignored, but by that time you should have the technology and mobility to avoid disaster. Anyway, climate change is one of the key elements in the game so you need to be aware of the risks which can be large, especially early. Hopefully awareness will help you cope with them.

Population Actions are hard to know what to do with for a lot of the game. For the most part, a strategy of staying small with few pieces on the board and only adding metropolises and migratory tokens as you need to expand your elder pool is a smart strategy. However, an absolutely crucial technique for coping with a low innovation number is to park one of your units outside neighbors’ cities and using the Sabine Raid action to ransack her discard pile. Just co-existing is enough to qualify as a “siege” even if you never have any intent to attack the city. In general, larger-scale military operations are rarely worth the trouble, although occasionally knocking over an opponents city (to gain a guest worker) can be worth it. Just keep your eyes on the important things: high innovation and big elder pools. Enslaving your neighbors may be gratifying in the short term, but it rarely actually helps you that much and may actually be of some benefit to your victim. Population actions can be a stopgap substitute for Innovation actions, but it’s at best a risky and short-term fix, so use them to focus on getting cards that decrease your fecundity and increase your elder pool so you can go back to relying on Innovation actions and elder expenditures.

Getting enslaved is a bummer, and never something you would voluntarily make part of your game strategy outside of some very extreme situations. You should definitely do what you can to avoid it. It’s a chaotic game though, and if it should happen to you (which is more likely with a full compliment of players) don’t fail your personal morale check. One of the things that makes Origins work for me is that it’s a very dynamic game, with lots of ups and downs, unlike other modern civ-builders which only go relentlessly forward and where getting behind early means you’re dead. The inability to build metropolises while enslaved and therefore have more than one elder is clearly quite bad, but not worse than things were just before you were enslaved. There are some upsides; you get free infrastructure advances from time to time and a bunch of free units when your masters go into chaos. Bide your time, do what you can, build your innovation up, and get back in it later.

I mentioned this is my previous pieces, but try to acquire any Public Cards that you can, and don’t worry about scoring until you’re in your final Golden Age. The strategic advantages of all the public cards are so strong that you should always bid them up and try to get them. Administration lets you expand the size of your civilization which increases survivability, gives you more population actions, and allows you to increase your number of metropolises and therefore the size of your elder pool. Information effectively allows you to multiply your available elders by making the Economic Stimulation action much more efficient and gives you a lot more control by increasing your hand size. Culture gives you a much easier way to expand your elder pool through Acculturation and guest workers. And if that wasn’t enough, many cards give you early access to important actions, particularly Trade and Urbanization. Finally, there is the Revolution action which allows you to swap your victory card with another player or the cards in the box. While this is much more limited than it might first appear, you can be vulnerable until you are in the last Golden Age of the game. At that point you can lock in your victory conditions (including possibly using the Revolution action yourself to look for a better fit if you get there first) and factor that into your bidding. The Revolution action and its ability to move the goalposts bugs a lot of players when they first read it, but it’s actually not as chaotic as it seems and is an important part of the game. Through the early ages the key is to stay flexible and acquire what you can, so don’t get attached to your scoring card. It’s only the final age (or possibly ages if you’re playing with Age IV) where you’re going to focus on scoring, and Revolution gives the game some flexibility.

Origins: How We Became Human has always been in an odd spot for me. It clearly shares a lot of DNA with the modern (i.e., post-Origins), very successful Sierra Madre Games, but it never seemed to delver on its potential. So I was quite happy to find a configuration that allowed me to finally really enjoy the game and recommend it alongside High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana.

Revisiting The Bottle Imp & Fairy Tale

One of the cool things about bringing all the archives back online here at the new site is that I get to see what I was playing on a day-to-day basis 9 years ago or so, which of them I don’t play anymore, if there is a good reason for that, and if I should try and break them out again. One of those games was The Bottle Imp/Flaschenteufel, which was going through a bout of play just as I started blogging.

Since we only had three players at games last night, and I remembered The Bottle Imp as being best with 3, it seemed an ideal time to give it a try (there aren’t a ton of games that are great with 3). To refresh your memory if you haven’t played this game in as long as I haven’t: it’s a trick-taking game that uses a 3-suited deck of cards numbered uniquely 1-37 with no 19. At start, cards lower than 19 trump cards above 19. You have to follow suit if possible, but otherwise it’s just the high card which wins (high trump beats high other). So the ranking at start is 18-1,37-20. When you take a trick with a trump card, that card becomes the new breakpoint and the layout of the deck changes – possibly changing the trump/non-trump mix if you skip numbers. You  also claim The Bottle Imp of the titular Robert Louis Stevenson short story, which will cost you your immortal soul (and incidentally a fair number of points) if you can’t get rid of it by the end of the game. So players get desperate to try to slough off low trump to avoid getting stuck with the bottle as the game goes on.

The most obviously cool thing to me about The Bottle Imp is how nicely it captures the themes of the short story. Trumps give you the power to take tricks and score points, but you’ve got to make sure you dump the bottle before the end of the game, and as the end closes in it becomes an increasingly desperate enterprise. At some level The Bottle Imp is a push your luck game; you have to decide how many of your trump to try to take tricks with, and how soon to just try to start getting rid of them and avoid taking the bottle. At the start of the round each player takes one card out of the game, so some unknown cards will be missing which adds uncertainty. It’s a nice blend, and it’s supported by text and illustrations from the story on the cards, with the story starting on the 37 card and finishing on the 1.

The obvious downside is that the game is typically decided by the distribution of a few low trump – having the yellow 1 and 2 in your hand seems like a tough place to get out from under. In the 3-player game you may be able to slough a trump, maybe two, but ditching a low yellow is hard and requires misplay or luck (at start there are only 3 non-trump yellow, so if you’re feeling lucky you could lead the 1 on the first trick and hope someone is forced to play a higher trump … but that’s awfully gutsy). As the game nears the end you run scenarios based on which cards you’ve seen and try to figure out how you escape. Often the answer is: you don’t, and there wasn’t much you could have done about it.

I used to really enjoy The Bottle Imp, but playing it again it didn’t quite recapture the magic. Doing all the heavy lifting to run the many scenarios required to figure out how to get rid of your low trump late just seemed like a lot of work, more work than I found fun. I still think it’s a really clever game, it’s just one I’ve played a lot already and I found the process of exploring and understanding the game more fun than just playing it.

IMG_2103Fairy Tale is another classic from 2004 that has just been reissued by Z-Man. It’s a drafting game in the same vein as 7 Wonders, and has always had a dedicated fan base, but it never really caught on around here – I haven’t played it since the original version came out 10 years ago. But playing it again, I really enjoyed it. It doesn’t support 7 players, but in virtually every other respect I found it a far more engaging game than 7 Wonders.

I find the colorful Japanese characters and background, complete with dragons, demons, warriors, and castles, much more visually engaging than the totally generic Mediterranean civilization-building veneer or 7 Wonders. The game mechanisms themselves aren’t very evocative in either game, so it’s nice to have playful and interesting art.

The scoring transparency of Fairy Tale is also a huge win. In 7 Wonders you are often left to guess what the composition of the various decks are, how the tech trees are going to work out, and so on. Fairy Tale’s scoring is at least as nuanced and interesting, with a variety of scoring rules, but the distributions are always spelled out explicitly on the card. So the “Fairy Tale – Chapter 4” card is worth 9 points if you can get “The Fairy Queen”, there is exactly one of those in the deck of 100 cards, and this is nicely spelled out at the bottom of the card so you always know what you’re dealing with. The only slight difficulty is that in this case The Fairy Queen card itself doesn’t let you know that it activates another card – cards only tell you what other cards they require, not what cards depend on them – but it’s fine. It’s much cleaner than 7 Wonders’ baroque and involved scoring while being more nuanced and interesting.

I also like that defensive drafting is a more interesting proposition in Fairy Tale than it is in 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders, where you play every card you draft, it’s very expensive to draft a card just so the player on your left/right won’t get it and, in practice, only rarely worth it. In Fairy Tale, you draft a hand of 5 cards and then play 3 of them. Keeping an eye on your neighbor and making sure not to pass him or her an important card is much more interesting when the opportunity cost is not so inherently high.

I also like the lack of phased decks. In 7 Wonders the different character of the 3 different epoch decks bakes a lot of opaque complexity into the game, punishing new players and requiring several go-rounds just to get a handle on the texture of the game and know what cards are available when. In Fairy Tale, you just have a deck and all the distribution information is listed on the bottom of the cards and it’s far easier to play competently your first time out. You aren’t fighting with a bunch of information you can’t possibly know. Fairy Tale can be taught to new players in 5 minutes or easily learned from the rule booklet at the table.

I’m pretty much done with 7 Wonders at this point, but I enjoyed Fairy Tale. I think when it first came out, my context for drafting games was Magic: The Gathering and other CCG draft formats, which honestly annoy me. With 7 Wonders and Lost Legends recontextualizing  the genre for me, I was able to really enjoy it. It captures all the good stuff from 7 Wonders without the hassles, and with a much more colorful backstory.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Cover image courtesy BoardGameGeek

There are a fairly limited number of core go-to backdrops for games: railroad building, renaissance Italy, Imperial Rome, the Age of Exploration, and trading in central Europe between 1500 and 1800 are the usual suspects. Generic Tolkienesque fantasy and generic sci-fi round out the mix. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a refreshing break, chronicling as it does the struggles of a marginalized people against oppression during a particularly disgraceful period of American history.

Players take on the role of abolitionists in the northern United States from 1800 through the beginning of The War Against Slavery (1861). They have the dual goals of freeing slaves from southern plantations and smuggling them into Canada, and building the financial and political support required for the eventual destruction of the institution of slavery in the United States. Each turn, players free slaves from plantations and move them along the Underground Railroad, stopping in American cities before eventually finding freedom in Canada, all while trying to dodge the slave catchers who are moved randomly by the game system. Along the way, the presence of freed slaves can generate cash and support political fundraising. That cash can then either be used to further the operations of the Underground Railroad (buying conductor tokens, which power all this movement in the first place), buy the political support required to win, or activate historical Abolitionist personalities and organizations made available from a deck of cards. If the players can free a target number of slaves and gain enough political support as indicated by the number of players and difficulty level, they win. If time runs out, or if too many slaves end up on the plantations, they lose.

As a cooperative game, this all works quite satisfactorily. Players have different roles (Stockholder, Preacher, Agent, Conductor, Station Master) which give them special powers and some individuality. Cash is held by the individual player, not the group, and can’t be transferred, so there is a need to balance keeping each of the players’ options open as well as furthering the interests of the group. The tactical game of moving slaves north while dodging slave-catchers is a little more about chess-like evasive maneuvers than it is about risk-taking or pushing your luck, which seems a little inauthentic – but there is still enough depth to engage the multiple minds and spark interesting discussions as the players seek optimal moves. The flow of historical personalities, organizations, and events provides some nice historical touchstones. The base difficulty level is probably a little easy for the hobbyists who will be the primary audience for this game, so I do recommend the harder victory conditions to start. I also think the game’s playing time probably exceeds its range of experience unless you are really smooth cooperative game players, but it’s not by a lot. Freedom certainly isn’t on the level of the classics in the genre (Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Forbidden Island, maybe Robinson Crusoe) when it comes to tight pacing and keeping all the players constantly engaged, but again, you can’t play those games all the time and Freedom does attempt to cover a real historical period where not just real lives but the soul of a nation was at stake. That is Freedom’s most important and distinctive feature.

After my first play, I admit my impressions of how well Freedom succeeded in this were negative. It felt like it over-promised and under-delivered. The box art promises adventure, giving you a picture of a family of escaped slaves sneaking to freedom through the dark, armed and surrounded by unknown threats with nary a white person in sight. The game’s actual narrative, though, is the moral crusade of the mainly white, privileged northern abolitionists. The (escaped) slaves themselves don’t have a point of view in the game; they are just cubes being moved around at the players’ whims. The real pressure the players feel in practice is not to free as many slaves as possible, but instead is to raise as much money as possible to fund operations and buy all the support tokens which abstractly represent political clout. The event and personality cards tend to work in broad strokes (reducing the cost of buying tokens, moving extra slaves cubes, bonus cash), and so are a little flat except that some (Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas) are better than others (John Greenleaf Whittier). This is a frustratingly common pattern, trying to tell the stories of the oppressed not through their own eyes, but through the privileged white outsiders trying to rescue them. In this case, it’s a game not about the people on the Underground Railroad but the people financing the Underground Railroad. Attempting the former would be something unquestionably worth doing. The latter, while set in an important historical period, feels pretty much the same as every other game out there: tactical positioning and resource management by privileged white Europeans, primarily men, designed by and for those same people.

My attitude softened with time, though. I played with a couple guys who never realized that slaves had to get all the way to Canada to be free, so I got to explain the Fugitive Slave Act and its importance as one of the causes of the Civil War. Prominent black and female abolitionists are well-represented in the abolitionist deck, and are nice touchstones that give the knowledgeable some conversation material, and the whole presentation can spark the curiosity of an interested player. The flavor text on the cards is in too small a type size to read under game conditions, but the historical illustrations and photos are nicely evocative. One shouldn’t allow the excellent to be the enemy of the good; just because Freedom had a real opportunity to try to push the gaming envelope in an overwhelmingly white, male hobby but decided to play it safe and by-the-numbers instead shouldn’t necessarily lead us to judge it more harshly.

So after my initial disappointment, I came to like it. I think a key to appreciating the game for me was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals, which inspired me to try the game after my initial so-so impressions. The book covers not just Lincoln and his cabinet but also focuses on the balance Lincoln had to maintain between the hard-line anti-slavery forces (represented in the book by Salmon Chase primarily and, indirectly, William Seward’s wife Francis) and the anti-immigrant and sectarian factions (who might be against the spread of slavery but were not abolitionists and for whom it was not a voting issue) in the Republican party. For me, coming into Freedom with a little knowledge of the fundamental, complicated, and lethal social conflict in this period of US history gave me the leverage I needed to enjoy the game for what it is. It’s too bad it doesn’t stand on its own a bit better, using the gaming form itself to more strongly convey a unique narrative viewpoint. But the fact of the matter is that Freedom tries, and while perhaps it doesn’t achieve everything one might hope for, it is still at the very least a qualified success, and does make a strong statement. It’s surprising to me how few games do.

Freedom: The Underground Railway is designed by Brian Mayer and published by Academy Games.