Classic Games. And Caylus.

I first got into German games around 1995 with the release of Settlers of Catan – I still have my 1st Edition, pre-Spiel-des-Jahre-logo copy, although it’s been replaced with the very nice recent Kosmos version with plastic bits. I had played Avalon Hill’s Adel Verpflichtet (before it got renamed By Hook or Crook) extensively even before that, but Die Sielder was the game that spurred me to the acquisition of German-langauge games from Germany, and I quickly followed up with Modern Art, El Grande, and Quo Vadis. In my current Friday night gaming group, most of the folks actually started playing these games even before that, back with games like Ave Caesar and 6-Tage Rennen.

And so there is a certain fondness for a few older Knizias, including Medici and Auf Heller und Pfennig, and so they still come out from time to time (Medici a lot more than Auf Heller, to be sure). As much as I love recent Knizia games like Beowulf and Amun-Re, it’s amazing the degree to which these older games really don’t work for me at all.

Medici is a game I have always played because my friends like it. It’s not in my top 100 games, but it’s tolerable. It’s Knizia, so you can count on it being well-balanced and with interesting scoring tensions. But I just find the game completely soulless. The theme is a total paste-up, with even the pasting not being very effective. And I think the auctions are simply not reliably interesting enough. The game is all about evaluating how much to bid on each lot of goods, but it’s too often that you are simply not interested in them and are either playing the spoiler by bidding purely defensively (to prevent someone else getting them too cheaply) or watching for the game to be truly engaging. And the players have too little control over the lots being auctioned, resulting in too many uninteresting lots. All this is combined with symmetrical starting positions and completely open information which means the game can degenerate into massive analysis paralysis for too little payoff given the lack of control in other areas. I think that given what it is, Medici is a skillfully executed game, it’s just that what it is really isn’t very interesting. I will probably play this game again because many people like it, but I will resist it more strongly in the future.

Auf Heller und Pfennig suffers from one of the same problems – again we have a theme that is weak even by the standards of paste-up jobs and a lot of open information combined with difficult scoring resulting in an excessive level of calculation for a light game. I have been known to complain about games like Carcassonne where the level of work required is too high for a minor payoff, and Auf Heller would be a poster child for this problem. Even I found myself staring at the board playing at this game, completely locked up by so many indistinct options – and at this point in my gaming career I have a strong propensity to move quickly. And the scoring! How complicated is the scoring in this game? You need a calculator. Without one everyone will need to add up the scores a few times each round until they get the same number twice in a row. All this for a game with comparatively little control, screaming out “I need to be light!”.

Now, it’s true that Quo Vadis and Modern Art, both great, highly-playable games with good themes that I rate amongst Knizia’s best, are contemporary with Auf Heller and Medici. So it didn’t take him too long to get going. But it’s interesting see Medici and Auf Heller which, to me, look like missteps on the way to his later greatness (along with a few other of his early efforts, like Vegas, Res Publica, and Digging). The games are still executed with skill generally, it’s just that they seem to feature an awkward mix of properties.

By contrast, breaking out Adel Verpflichtet again reminded me of what a wonderful game this is. I first played it in 1993 I think, when it first came out in the US, and we played it a ton. There was little else available at the time that could pack that much gaming value into a 45 minute package. The game is simple, playable, fast, and with no downtime to speak of. It’s got interesting strategic choices (going for art accumulation vs. exhibits) combined with a few interesting tactics (stealing vs. doing something more constructive) combined with the excitement of the simultaneous card-play. It’s a game that can be enjoyed by casual gamers, who can get the excitement of the bluffing game, and serious gamers, who can enjoy the tactical details, at the same time without them stepping on each other. And it has a really well-done theme. Adel Verpflichtet is as good as anything coming out today.

Except for that new name. Hoity Toity? Good grief.

I’ve played Caylus a few more times recently, and find that my opinion of the game has been going sharply and rapidly downwards. Like Medici and Auf Heller und Pfennig, ultimately I find the game completely soulless. OK, it’s got the classic German-style game thing going on: the competition for, acquisition of and transmutation of resources, and then the cashing them out for victory points, sometimes in competition with other players.

But how many things are seriously out of whack about this game? How many buildings are being built just to get their victory points, with no serious thought of ever using them? How many people have ever advanced on the “cubes” favor track? Has anyone ever not immediately built the “production” stone buildings as soon as they got the chance? How many people have screwed themselves because they didn’t work out the implications of a worker placement 12 steps down the road because they felt it was important the game not screech to a complete halt? And how often has a three-hour game been decided by king-making with the Provost or Bailiff or whoever the heck he is, or maybe a worker placement? And are you absolutely sure you’ve never forgotten to pay a gold to operate a building, or give someone their victory point for the same thing? I thought Auf Heller was gratuitously complicated and gratuitously hard, but Caylus is many times worse.

I can respect what Caylus is trying to do, I think there is a core of interesting stuff going on, and I think it does succeed at some of the things it attempted. I think Caylus is an early rough draft of a good game, possibly a very good game – although it’s also possible that more refinement might reveal that Caylus relies on its obtuseness for its tension, and that if you boiled away all the excess, uninteresting stuff the remaining game would be boring. Regardless, Caylus is simply not the kind of game I can enjoy anymore. Maybe I would have gotten a kick out of it 15 years ago, before I played Adel Verpflichtet, Modern Art, or Settlers of Catan, but today I crave something artful, something well-crafted, and something that is actually fun. And something that provides the intellectual and psychological challenge without making me do this much gratuitous, and fairly boring, work.

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Nürnburg Roundup, plus Railroad Tycoon

Blue Moon City: I’ve played this about a half-a-dozen times now, and think that it’s a really interesting game. Like Beowulf, it was good for an immediate second, then third play. For my wargaming readers, when explaining the rules to Blue Moon City, any Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage fans in the audience will get a chuckle: the game is driven by a deck of cards, valued 1-3, most of which present a choice between using its value for influence (well, technically assisting in the construction of a building) and using its special power. The management of these cards is the heart of the game.

Like most of Knizia’s recent games, Blue Moon City eludes easy classification into a familiar genre (auction, area-control, tile-laying, etc). But for the sake of the argument, we’ll call it an area-control game, not unlike the Blue Moon card game. Each building has 1-4 bricks that need to be built in a color matching one of the 7 suits in the game, and rewards. Once all the bricks in an area are built, it pays off for eveyone who built something there, with the player who built the most bricks getting an added bonus as well. The clever thing is that once a building is built, it flips over, and then adds a bonus to the baseline payouts for all adjacent buildings. This makes for the first unusual thing about Blue Moon City, that as rewards escalate, the bonus for being in “first place” in an area become minor (although not trivial) compared to just having contributed.

As interesting as that is, though, the real game here is in card management. With 7 different colored buildings, 8 suits (including one wild suit), 7 different types of special powers, and a wide range of payouts for building buildings, no two hands of cards or tactical situations are the same. And when I say this, this is not just a garden-variety “every game is unique blah blah blah”, this is a huge range of very different possibilities that presents a wide variety of problems and solutions. You have to look at your hand, figure out your options, and come up with a plan, not just for this turn, but probably for the next couple as well, and maybe even going forward after that. The mix of suits and powers on the cards feel richly enabling, rather than being restrictive (like the dice in War of the Ring can often seem). I think fans of We the People or Hannibal will find a warm place in their hearts for Blue Moon City, if they can live with the comparative lightness and lack of violence.

Knizia may not be doing as many true “gamer’s games” as he has in the past, with seriously heavy stuff like Amun-Re and Taj Mahal becoming somewhat less common (although in fairness, he never made a huge number of them). But still, I think Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Tower of Babel, and Beowulf represent some of the best work he’s ever done, simple and playable yet with depth, shorter but challenging, systems that are wonderfully clean with no pointy bits and yet remain thematic, well-balanced and perfectly-executed, beautifully produced, with a blend of strategic and tactical skills, and with excellent fun factors. They are perfect blends, providing something for everyone, and to me absolutely represent what good, serious but social games should be.

As an aside, I actually find Blue Moon City to be thematically quite similar to Blue Moon. Both games present you with a hand of cards, most of which have special powers. Both combine work-a-day problems (how do I accomplish some simple task?) with the sometimes extraordinary possibilities of sometimes-complicated card combinations. Both are highly tactical. Both involve guessing your opponent’s intents at some level. Both heavily emphasize good timing. In Blue Moon City, many of the card suits have special powers that mimic the flavor of their decks in Blue Moon (the Mimix are good in pairs, the Khind – wilds in Blue Moon City – are weak individually but very valuable in bunches, the Flit allow you to fly around rapidly, the Hoax are highly flexible). No question that Blue Moon and Blue Moon City are rather different games when you get down to brass tacks, but I find the flavor of the two comfortingly familiar.

Great Wall of China: This is a new small-box Knizia game from Kosmos and, sometime maybe, Fantasy Flight Games. Players are likely to notice immediate similarities between Great Wall of China and the classic Samurai: each player has their own, identical deck cards of values 1-3 with a few specials; these cards provide influence in one of a few (2-4) active competitions to win victory points; and there is even a Cavalry card that works the same as the Cavalry in Samurai (a free play in addition to your regular play). Great Wall of China’s cards can be played as matched sets if desired, but that doesn’t seem like a huge difference superficially.

But the games play totally differently. Samurai is all about being oblique, about setting yourself up while not setting up your opponents, trying to not over-commit early while still being there the lastest with the mostest. Great Wall of China is about direct, head-on, brutal competition and in some ways is a game of chicken. You score before you play, and there are no limits on how many cards can ultimately be played in an individual competition, so there are no sudden swoops to lock up points – you have to play your cards and hope they are strong enough to hold up until your next turn. If you’re going for a high-point competition, you need to get enough strength down to deter anyone else from competing with you, otherwise you can get into a spiral of tit-for-tat which will bleed both players dry. This is not a game for anyone who doesn’t understand the sunk costs fallacy. Unfortunately, playing strength (usually by playing more than one card in a turn) fatally undermines your ability to compete later in the game, as the card replenishment rate is only 1 per turn regardless of how many cards you played, so your hand size shrinks and your options become limited.

Another detail here is that the competitions have a For Sale like pain to them, as the rewards for first and second place in each are picked randomly from a pile of chits valued 1-8. So sometimes you get an 8-7 competition, which isn’t too painful – both first and second come out quite well. Then you sometimes get an 8-1 split, which is brutal and likely to see severe pain for someone.

I’ve played Great Wall of China a number of times now, and I really like it. It’s a simple, short, clever game with all the usual Knizia features – tough decisions, interesting trade-offs, judging the tendancies of your fellow-players, and tensions that are sometimes painful. But it achieves all this without being gratuitously complicated, analytical, or tactical, and so offers little deterrent to the less hard-core or casual gamer.

Some of the folks I’ve played it with have not enjoyed it quite as much as me, though, and I think that’s because of the whole sunk costs thing. It’s really easy to get into a slugging match in a big competition where neither player is willing to back down, and both put down ten or more cards. Someone is going to eventually walk away with the points here while someone else is frustrated. To me, the sense that every conflict is a potential quagmire is part of the charm of the game (one fellow-player suggested this game should be re-themed as “The Iraq War: The Card Game”), and the game is short. Like the best Knizia games, Great Wall of China can be psychologically challenging. I like it. But some won’t.

Um Krone und Kragen: This is Yahtzee with special powers.

Still there?

Each turn you get dice. Start with three of them. Throw them. With each throw, you must reserve one or more dice. Repeat until you can’t throw again. Then claim one of the rewards on offer, based on your roll (X of a kind, straights, full houses, large sums, etc). These rewards then allow you to manipulate subsequent rolls in future turns in various ways: roll more dice, change dice, move pips amongst them, etc. Some roles are plentiful (the Farmer, who requires a pair and gives you an extra die), while some are scarce (the Astronomer, who allows you to change a die to anything you want). First person to get a seven of a kind triggers the endgame, with each player using the powers they’ve accumulated to that point to try to get the best roll.

I would normally try to offer you some bit of analysis here, but I imagine the above description should tell you whether you’ll like it or not. I’ll just offer a couple tidbits. #1: Yahtzee is underrated (this is not saying a lot, given the contempt it is widely held in by hobby gamers, but there is definitely a somewhat interesting game there, albeit perhaps not a highly replayable one). #2: I know you’ll have trouble believing this, but there is a fair amount of luck in Um Krone und Kragen. Second game I played, I played terribly, making poor choices throughout the game and getting a mediocre range of powers. In the endgame, though, my dice all of a sudden got outrageously hot, and I racked up 8 5’s to win over my much more competant fellow-players. Don’t play this game if that sort of result is going to bug you. If you found the luck of the risks in Beowulf unduly frustrating, for example. But you hardly need me to tell you that.

My only real criticism of Um Krone und Kragen is the downtime. With all the rolling, re-rolling, and parsing out the large numbers of rewards available, it can be a while between turns, especially with larger numbers of players, and there is absolutely nothing to do while you’re waiting except to kibbitz (Can’t Stop’s legendary taunting dynamic isn’t really present here, which is a notable loss). Also, there is an odd start-player rotation rule, which has play going clockwise but the start-player rotating counter-clockwise, resulting in double-turns and sligtly greater gaps. I assume this was an attempt to compensate for the first-player advantage, but it’s awkward, and given the luck in the game I’m not sure it’s worth it. The downtime with 4 was manageable, but just, and it discouraged me from trying the game with 5 (the max). The first couple games will see more downtime as players wrestle with the available rewards, but will also be more amenable to kibbitzing as players help each other work out the options.

At the end of the day, I found the process of playing Um Krone und Kragen to be pretty fun and so the downtime didn’t bother me unduly. It’s not a game you can take too seriously, but for a dice game, there are a lot of intesting choices, and the dice feed those choices, making the randomess serve a useful game purpose. The tactics of the interacting powers and when to use them are far from trivial – you are likely to make a lot of mistakes and overlook opportunities your first couple games. You have to balance what powers you’d like to try to acquire with what the dice are telling you to go for. And the game is deceptively short, only 45 minutes or so even for early plays. I think there is enough fun factor in playing Um Krone und Kragen, and enough feeling of control, to make the occasional upset due to outrageous bad or good luck palatable.

There is a category of games that I feel are popular in large part due to their comfort level, their underlying familiarity, their similarity in feel to classic games with which we are all familiar, even if that similarity is somewhat remote. This includes games like Ticket to Ride (Rummy) and Carcassonne (Dominoes or puzzles). Um Krone und Kragen certainly has the potential to do something similar for category dice games (admittedly a smaller slice of people). It’s somewhat more complicated than Ticket or Carcassonne I think due to the array of powers and roll categories, but it has that same underlying familiarity, with a tactical richness that will appeal to hobbyists. And rolling dice is fun.

Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame: I’ve played this a couple more times since I last blogged about it, and as a game it’s gone over pretty well with my friends – much better than Age of Steam did. It seems to retain most of the interesting bits while getting rid of the gratuitously punishing elements.

It’s still a game that is frustratingly lacking in the finishing touches, though, and while there is good stuff in there, the overall feel is still amateurish. The Tycoon cards are a mess, and I’ve come to strongly agree with the readers who have complained about them. One game I played was three-player, and the three player version seems bizzarely truncated with its much-reduced number of cubes in play at start. The map is so huge, but most of it remains unused as non-viable for development even in large games. And the pace of the Operations cards is odd, with a huge slug of head-spinning options at start that are replenished at a trickle, a trickle that is independant of the number of players, and leaves that element of the game atrophied by the end. Plus, to be honest, most of the Operations cards are boring and could have been deleted. There are many that are either small variations on existing actions you can already take by default (there are two cards that directly parallel Urbanization) or just variations on a cash handout (the Government Land Grants that gives you free track). And don’t even get me started on the Railroad Executive card. The number of interesting cards – cards that reward you for developing longer routes or making specific deliveries, cards that allow the game to develop in interesting and different ways – is fairly small.

Close, but at the end of the day, it’s a classic modern American-style game: nice idea, spotty and incomplete execution.

Carthage

Carthage has, along with its predecessor Rise of the Roman Republic, been sitting on my shelf, occasionally calling out to be played, for about 3 years. Despite the appeal of the period, and the interesting system, and the lack of competition, it has remained unplayed largely because it has the appearance of fairly high complexity and because basically everyone I game with has if not an outright aversion to, at least a healthy skepticism for Richard Berg games.

But I finally got to play after all these years. Cool.

What? Oh. You want to know how it went.

Well, it’s hard to say, actually.

We played the Hiero, Hero, or Gyro scenario (get it?). This is just the first two years of the First Punic War, played without the political and manpower rules. Rome has a couple legions in Italy, and Carthage and Syracuse have armies in Sicily. You want to control cities in Sicily to win. To do this, the Romans have to cross the Straits of Messana, probably against an opponent dug into the city.

I was impressed by the core system of Carthage just on reading the rules, and playing it was not disappointing. Every leader in the game has a certain number of markers in a cup. When you pick a marker, that leader gets to do something, ranging from marching and attacking through laying siege, recruiting, and sending out embassies. Every time you do something, you can roll to see if you get to go again; if you roll less than your campaign number (which is usually 5-7), you can take another action. This uncertainty about when your leaders are going to get to move and how much they can do feels both realistic in its managed uncertainty and gives the game a nice tension. Most leaders have a high enough campaign rating that you’re usually going to be able to do a few things, but never as much as you’d like. I particularly liked how siege operations are handled: you’ve got choices between doing the dicey assault, spending time to wear down the walls and/or defenders, or trying for a lighting-stroke using guile (leaders have a wonderful “guile” stat which they can use in a few decisive ways, but the main one seems to be trying to take a city by treachery). Siege operations seem modeled at just the right level, with interesting player choices, at a nice balance point between playability and detail, and they fold into the chaotic land campaigning very nicely. Overall, we definitely struggled with the rules the first time out, but once we got going things started to play pretty smoothly. The core rules for the various actions (moving, fighting, sieging) are pretty clean, with the possible exception of the naval rules which felt a touch choppy.

So what’s the downside here?

The problem is, this particular scenario is stupid. It’s all about getting across the straits and fighting a battle in the Messana hex – if the Romans win that battle, they’ll win, if they don’t, they won’t. The frontage over which they need to do this is, in fact, just the one hex wide straits. They need to roll a die to determine if one of their two armies can leave Italy; if they blow that die roll, their forces are cut in half. They need to roll dice to do the crossing. They need to get their markers picked before the Carthaginians/Syracusans pile in. There is no game here. It’s nice to familiarize yourself with the system, but it’s not a game.

The other two small scenarios (Agathocles and The Mercenary War) are not very appealing either. The Mercenary War doesn’t look very interesting, and both have a reputation of being very unbalanced, a reputation that is enhanced both by the designer’s own comments in the scenario descriptions and by the history of Berg’s (along with Mark Herman’s) other ancients series, SPQR (any takers for one of the scenarios from Veni, Vedi, Vici? How about Tricameron?).

So having been tempted by a play of Hiero, Hero, or Gyro that, while it wasn’t technically “fun” per se, definitely made me want to play a “real” scenario, I am now facing down the 1st Punic War scenario. It looks cool. I think it would add even more interest to the game to be able to recruit my own legions, armies, and fleets, and to wrestle with the Carthaginian and Roman political rules.

It’s 24 turns. It’s threatening to consume 16+ hours of my life. I think I’d rather enjoy it.

I also think that it’s unlikely to come to pass anytime soon, for the usual reason that most games that long don’t get played: they take a really long time to play. I was rather taken with the Carthage system, even given the complexity (which, I should say, is only out of hand in a couple spots). If there were scenarios that were 6 hours to play, maybe 8 turns or so, I’d be all over that.

But there aren’t. It’s either the short scenarios that are toys or have every sign of having significant balance problems, or the monster. Which is a shame.

Addenda: I’ve griped about the rules differences between Rise of the Roman Republic and Carthage online, but I realize in retrospect that this may be unfair. My two favorite “operational” games, The Gamers Operational Combat Series and Avalon Hill/MMP’s Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, both went through massive rules turmoil before finally settling down to be the great games they are today. Compared the differences between OCS 1.0 and 2.0, the differences between The Ancient World Vol. I and II are not major.

Here I Stand, and big decks

I have this hypothesis about GMT’s card-driven games: while the individual cards in these games were designed to evoke period flavor, the number of Strategy Cards included is essentially arbitrary, and dictated by production issues rather than game-design or pacing questions. Here is my evidence:

GMT Games that just happen to include 110 Strategy cards: Here I Stand, Twilight Struggle, Wellington, WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin, The Napoleonic Wars, Thirty Years War, Paths of Glory, For the People.

GMT Games that have some number other than 110 cards: Wilderness War (70), Empire of the Sun (165), Sword of Rome (156).

In addition, the two games of this type on the P500 list, Kutuzov and Unhappy King Charles, are already slated to have – you guessed it – 110 cards.

I would consider it a monumental coincidence if all 10 of these games, from two-player single-deck games to two-player individual-deck games to multi-player games, covering conflicts from the Reformation to the Cold War, with game lengths running from 3 to 20 turns, all just happened to have worked out such that they really required 110 cards to work properly. I find it far more likely that the designers were told, “you’ve got 110 cards to work with on the press sheet”, and they used all these slots up by picking their 110 favorite events from the period and figuring out how to express them in game terms. Don’t get me wrong here, these designers are all smart guys and I’m sure every reasonable effort was made to fill these 110 slots in a sensible manner with interesting cards. It just seems pretty clear to me that not every game of this type is going to function best with 110 cards, and I do wonder if issues of what deck size will produce the best pacing, tension, and level of chaos have been thoroughly considered in all cases. Hannibal, for example (which I think we can all agree was a pretty good game despite its near-total lack of exactly 110 Strategy cards), had only 64 cards, despite dealing out, over the course of the game, 142 cards – 71 per player. Successors had only 56 cards in its deck, of which each player will see 25 in 5 turns. By contrast, Here I Stand has on average about 70 cards in the deck for the first 5 turns (trying to weight for additions and removals), of which each player is likely to see 20 in total (some will see more, some less, but not by a huge amount). Not a vast difference from Successors, but still, the deck is 25% larger while players receive 20% fewer cards. For a much starker example, in Wellington players will see maybe 24-30 cards from the supply of 110 over the course of the game. So the deck size has almost doubled while the number of cards players see over the course of the game has increased only slightly.

The problem here is that more cards means more randomness, without necessarily improving historical flavor. As we have learned from Betrayl at the House on Hill, randomness isn’t really flavorful, it’s just random. For randomness to impart flavor, there has to be at least the outline of structure to the chaos: players need some feel for what’s coming down the pike, but for it to show up in surprising and interesting ways.

In your average card-driven game, some of the events in the deck just add some light, thematic flavor to the game. Then some more are events that are important to the underlying mechanics of the game (like the Force Marches and Campaigns in Hannibal). But a number are also critical cards in terms of driving forward the “story”. For these cards, a reasonable level of predictability is desirable, because they represent the game’s momentum, its direction, its “soul”, if you will. In Hannibal, it’s cards like Syracuse Allies With Carthage or the various Allies Desert; in For the People, it’s the Emancipation Proclamation; in Here I Stand, it’s a number of the Mandatory Event and “remove after play” cards like Master of Italy, the English monarch cards, or many of the Reformation/Counter-reformation cards. In Hannibal, you realize Syracuse’s loyalty is sketchy, it’s going to switch sides at some point – probably an inconvenient point, if you’re Rome – and this factors into your game plan. The modestly-sized deck, large numbers of cards dealt out over the course of the game, and somewhat limited reshuffling gives the randomness some structure and predictability. In Here I Stand, though, a key card like Master of Italy (which gives VPs for dominating the Italian scene) may or may not come out at all over the course of any given 4 hours of play – so how do you plan for it, or is it just a basically random 1 or 2VP bonus to a player who is otherwise pursuing a specific strategy anyway? And if you’re England and through bad luck are saddled with Mary, who cripples your position by giving half your card plays to the Pope, are you going to be happy about the fact that progressing to Elizabeth I (the best monarch in the game) is a bit of a crap shoot? At that point in the proceedings, she’s 1 card in 80 or so. You’re only likely to be dealing out 25-30 cards per turn, and if you don’t get it this turn, the odds won’t improve much for next turn since you reshuffle between every turn. And that’s for a mandatory event, which anyone has to play if drawn. If you, as England, are looking for an important historical event like Dissolution of the Monasteries, you’re only drawing 4-ish cards to get it from an 80-ish card deck.

This was my main difficulty with Wellington. With the huge card deck, 4 players, and a comparatively small number of cards dealt out over the course of the game, there is no sense of direction at all. It’s a lot closer to Munchkin than Hannibal (in fairness, I kind of liked Wellington and would even play again. It’s short. But as a design, it really felt slapped-together to me).

All this raises further complications for cards that provide the game’s flavor or plot in multi-player games, because not only do you need to deal out these cards in the first place, you also need to get them in the hands of a player who will play them, plus you need more of them, tailored for more positions. Here I Stand at least partially approaches this problem of “misallocation” of cards (having a card dealt out, but to the wrong person) through diplomacy and deal-making. However, this seems only partially successful because in practice it’s hard to properly reward someone else for playing one of “your” cards on your behalf. For a specific example, take the Sale of Moluccas card. This card allows the (one) player who has successfully circumnavigated to draw two cards; it’s a 3 CP card. If I’ve drawn the card and you’ve circumnavigated, we can make a deal: I play the card on your behalf, you draw two cards; enabling this sort of deal will help events find the right players. But the math is tough. I give up 3 CPs to do this. You get two cards, which, on average, nets you about 5 CP-equivalents. So in order to make this deal work, you need to give me stuff worth exactly 4 CPs. We would then both come out ahead by 1CP. This is hardly worth the effort of figuring out how to do it. Maybe two cards from the deck are worth a little more than 5 CP, on the chance that it might be a cool event for you which is worth dramatically more than its CP value, but this really is not a great bet. Regardless, this is a very small profit margin for either player, and, given the risks involved in a blind draw of two cards and the difficulties involved in getting the deal to work within these narrow parameters, probably not worth the amount of time it will take to work it out. So deal-making is at best a partial solution to the problem of “misallocated” cards, unless the upsides for both players can be made more significant (in some cases in Here I Stand they are; this is just an example of a card that’s going to be tough to play except for the fairly rare case of being dealt to the right person at the right time).

So, while intuitively you might think that more players would argue for a larger deck of Strategy cards in this sort of game, because so many more cards are being dealt out in total and you can make more cards tailored for each individual position, it’s not clear to me that this is true. The fact is that individual cards will have a harder time getting to the players who can use them, and each individual player is usually drawing fewer cards (if only for practical playing-time reasons). This would actually seem to argue for smaller decks as numbers of players increase – and Successors does in fact have a smaller deck than Hannibal.

All this is a long way of coming to the point that I played Here I Stand again. I still like it. I’m much more comfortable now saying that while the rulebooks is long, the complexity isn’t too bad. But I have the feeling that the card deck is still a bit too chaotic with not enough focus. It’s leagues better than The Napoleonic Wars or Wellington, but it still falls very far short of the mark achieved by Hannibal or Successors. Most of the events that actually get played are the comparatively generic ones (Mercenaries Desert, Treachery, Foul Weather); the events that push forward the game’s “story” seem hard to play because the odds of the right player having them at the right time are not great and deals are hard to strike because of their narrow parameters of profitability. And so some of the flavor that is the game’s great strength is not as effective as it might be.

I had two thoughts about how this might be addressed.

The first idea I had was to fiddle with how the cards come out. Perhaps add a new category of cards, maybe called “key” cards. Cards that reflect important, highly-specific events that should have a reasonable probability of happening in a timely manner, something less than a Mandatory Event but more than a generic event. At the end of the turn, any of these events that were played for CPs (i.e., not played as an event), are re-shuffled into the deck. Then instead of reshuffling all the cards each turn, you just keep drawing until a specified “reshuffle” card is played (maybe Treachery, that’s a highly-distinctive event). This would then be combined with more “remove” events; a number of the events in the deck seem like reasonable one-timers (Fountain of Youth, for example), but are not. As it is now, too many of the “remove” events are hard to play and so the deck starts to bloat with the large additions of cards on turns 3 and 4. The idea would be to keep all the existing cards, but combine a greater rate of card removal with a quicker cycling of key cards to give interesting cards a better chance to be at the right place at the right time.

This, though, would require non-trivial re-tuning of the design. It might be a promising idea for the next game, but retrofitting it would be too much work.

The easier answer is just to thin the deck. So that’s what I decided to experiment with.

The goal was to target two kinds of cards for elimination. Firstly, cards that are generic and weak, such that they are unlikely to ever be played as events (because the ops are generally more useful) and their loss is unlikely to be missed in any event; and cards that are so highly-specific that getting them into play is a once-in-many-games kind of thing. I realize that sort of very infrequent event has a certain appeal, but if there are too many of them, they’re crowding out the important stuff and making the game more chaotic without a payoff in “normal” games. I think that with the multi-player games, for all the reasons so far discussed, a harder line has to be taken against low-frequency cards. All this has to be combined with maintaining the current CP balance in the deck.

In summary: keep the CP distribution the same, but “punch up” the deck by removing low frequency-of-play events. This will (hopefully) make the individual events more attractive because we’ve both a) made it more likely that specialized events will be in the right place at the right time by reducing the probability that they are sitting in the deck undrawn, and b) made it more likely that a player’s hand will contain useful events. All this will also help with c) making the appearance of individual thematically-important events come out in a somewhat more reliable manner.

So, the core deck has 10 1-CP, 20 2-CP (including 4 mandatory events), 21 3-CP, 7 4-CP, and 6 5-CP cards. My idea is to remove 2 1’s, 4 2’s, 4 3’s, one 4, and one 5. This isn’t quite ops-neutral, but it’s close. It would remove 12 cards from the core deck, taking it from 64 to 52. There are heavy additions to the deck on turns 3 and 4, but we’ll deal with those later; most of them are “remove” cards, so a smaller deck going into turn 3 will see more of those cards played as events and removed, which will hopefully prevent the deck size escalating too badly.

Before continuing, I should say that this wasn’t quite as easy as I expected. When I went through this same exercise trying to trim down the ridiculously bloated card deck in The Napoleonic Wars, finding 20 cards that I felt should be toast was trivial. In comparison, in the main deck for Here I Stand, there were really only a few no-brainers. But I think thinning the deck would have enough salutary effects to make it worthwhile to remove a few of the non-obvious ones.

Anyway, here is what I came up with:

  • 1: Arquebusiers – Not a terrible card, but a couple 1’s needed to go, and this card was the least interesting, and who’s going to miss it?
  • 1: Venetian Informant – Most games have a variant on this card (except Hannibal and Successors). The chances of it being useful in Here I Stand are rather remote, and removing uncertainty is not necessarily a good thing anyway. If the Channel 4 News Team has a hard time accurately predicting Foul Weather, I’m not turning to a Venetian Informant.
  • 2: Tercios – Tiny probability of play and, as a combat card, it is very weak compared to more general combat-related 2-ops response cards like Foul Weather, Surprise Attack or the Mercenary-related cards, cards that aren’t restricted to a single faction. This is a no-brainer.
  • 2: Scots Raid – This is a little gratuitous, I felt, and it has a frequency of play that’s a bit too low. The English already have enough incentive to crush the Scots; the presence of this card just makes it almost mandatory. If the timing is bad on this it could be devastating to the tiny English hand early in the game; but otherwise, Scotland is likely to be conquered. This is the card I am least comfortable in suggesting be removed, however.
  • 2: Fountain of Youth – One of these exploration-hosers seems enough given the deck-thinning we’re doing, and Search for Cibola is the more general card. Also, the exploration process is already very random, and the Hapsburgs rely on their explorers to make up ground in points – this card is really a straight VP kick in the teeth for them. Not just that, but it potentially lowers the number of VPs which they can possibly achieve during the game, which seems much harsher than the other hoser cards. The Hapsburgs already have a lot of problems.
  • 2: Mercenaries Grow Restless – The hazard of this whole enterprise is that I’m messing with the game balance, possibly seriously. In this case, the putative removals are changing the value of mercenaries vs. regulars. The deck is being thinned by a little under 20%. There are four mercenary-hosers in the deck. So I selected the weakest one with the lowest frequency-of-play to remove.
  • 3: Threat to Power – This card is gratuitously violent. Remove a minor leader for the entire game? Aren’t these second-in-commands really just generic, in that the ruler would just appoint someone else? Permanent removal of any of these leaders seems a bit harsh. Removing this one is a no-brainer.
  • 3: Fuggers – This effect is uninteresting and very minor. You get a card you would have gotten next turn anyway. It’s a no-brainer to play for the event, but why bother?
  • 3: Ransom – A nice capability to have available, but it has a tiny frequency-of-play.
  • 3: Sale of Moluccas – This was already discussed.
  • 4: Foreign Recruits – The presence of this capability does add an interesting variable to the game, but the yo-yo effect of Sprint Deployment/Winter Return means its frequency of play seems just too low (certainly the English, Protestants, and Papacy would virtually never have any cause to play it). The capability would still be present with Charles Bourbon, a rather more interesting card.
  • 5: Diplomatic Overture – This had the distinction of being the most narrowly-focused 5 card, so it gets axed. It’s actually not a bad card which I wouldn’t mind keeping, but other game mechanics seem to cover the same ground. It’s just hard to use to do something you couldn’t do normally with a deal in the diplomacy phase, and has some of the same problems.

Considered but rejected:

  • 5: Sack of Rome – The frequency of play on this sucker is going to be really low. How often is this going to be a) available in someone’s hand, b) playable, and c) worth giving up 5 ops for? Hardly ever. But it’s a hoser for the Papacy, of which there are few it seems. And it’s a nice historical event.
  • 3: Pirate Haven – Again, a rather low frequency of play. It would have to be drawn a) after the Hapsburgs have actually taken Algiers, not a trivial undertaking, and b) by someone who is willing to spend 3 CPs hosing the Hapsburgs, c) when the Ottomans aren’t winning if the Ottomans don’t draw it themselves. This would easily fall below my frequency-of-play threshold, but it seems like you need some sort of backup if Algiers actually gets taken by the Hapsburgs/Papacy. It’s also an interesting self-referential problem: the existence of this card makes going after Algiers not a great option, meaning that Pirate Haven itself is unlikely to ever get played.

Cards that are added to the deck later are predominantly “remove” events with decent frequency of play, so trying to work out some to cut doesn’t seem to have as much upside. Still, Lady Jane Grey seems like she has a ridiculously narrow application (even though a game on the period seems like it needs a card for her), and Halley’s Comet is fairly specialized although with a decent payoff if you can set it up. But more of these cards seem like Dissolution of the Monasteries, which is a fairly nice card. It’s similar to Sale of Moluccas (in that one specific player draws two cards), but has a much better shot at getting played because it benefits two players (the Protestants also get three reformation attempts, which benefits both them and the English) and it has significant enough upside for all concerned to be worth dealing for. I wish there were more cards like this and Cloth Prices Fluctuate, which affect multiple players and so are both more likely to be played and could more easily be used as the basis for diplomacy.

What is the result of this whole thought experiment? My initial impression of the Here I Stand deck was that there were just too many cards, and as a result not enough interesting and flavorful events were being played. My first couple games have seen very few of the “remove” cards played, resulting in a huge draw deck by turn 4. Having now pored over the deck, I have to say, it looks better on close inspection than it did from a distance. There are lots of good events that should see fairly regular usage, the core at-start cards seem to have found a nice spot, generic enough to be generally playable but specific enough to have flavor. But I still do worry that it’s too hard to play a lot of the core thematic events (typically, the non-mandatory “remove” events), resulting in a big deck that doesn’t thin that much, aggravating the problem when more cards are added. It’s close. But I’m pretty convinced that the Here I Stand deck should be at least a bit smaller.