Copycat

Friedemann Friese’s Copycat was my favorite game coming out of BGG.con 2012, and I picked it up at our local game shop as soon as it came out. It’s a very clean, elegant design with a lot of variety. The game premise, ostentatiously ripping off the mechanics associated with top-rated games and repurposing them into something new, was designed to appeal to me – I’ve always said it’s not mechanics that matter, but how those mechanics are assembled, calibrated, weighted, and balanced to create an effect. Copycat presents us with nothing new mechanically, but the way the different pieces are blended is quite skillful. Unless you’re an insider, you can easily miss all the cameos and inside jokes but still enjoy the game.

Sadly, like many Friese games, Copycat didn’t quite make it. The obvious reason seems to be a simple one of game balance: the game’s action cards that let you draw more cards seem too powerful, especially the Sauna with Colleagues and State Dinner. As long as each player gets a share of the available versions of them, it’s not too bad, but if through luck, skill, or opponent’s negligence one player manages to dominate this category, they will tediously roll to victory. It’s not a complete deal-breaker, but Copycat isn’t short and once you figure this out it’s not great.

I think Copycat has a more fundamental problem though. At its heart are two mechanical bits: deck-building (from Dominion) and worker placement (from Agricola). Deck-building is something I tend to like, and many of my favorite recent games use the idea (Thunderstone, Ascension, Nightfall, Trains, Core Worlds), and I tend to enjoy even the more workmanlike games in the genre (Arctic Scavengers, the various Cryptozoic games, Dominion*). Worker placement, on the other hand, is one of my most-disliked mechanics and I can count only a handful of games over its entire 10+ year history that I find consistently entertaining: Pillars of the Earth, Lords of Waterdeep, Tribune, Agricola.

I think these two ideas are working at cross-purposes in Copycat. Deck-building games generally want to be short: early game decisions tend to weigh heavily, and as advantages quickly accrue you want to end the game before it gets tedious. Nobody’s going to stage a late-game comeback off an inefficient deck built in the first half. By contrast, worker placement games tend to run long. There is a lot of downtime inherent in the system as choices have to be constantly re-evaluated and it’s hard to plan ahead. Where worker placement games want to be incremental with lots of similar choices that evolve over time, deck builders want decisive choices which can play out relatively quickly. Worker placement games tend to need lots of open information to work. Deck-builders by their very physical nature hide a great deal. Worker placement games tend to be chess-like evaluation games, while deck-builders are games of probability and statistics.

It seems to me that Copycat gets caught in-between. It’s a quick deck-builder bolted to a slow, contemplative worker-placement, so it ends up taking 90 minutes and being decided by the decisions made in the first half. It’s a game that requires analytical look-ahead while hiding too much information.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the powerful strategy that breaks Copycat is the one that short-circuits the deck-building: you want to remove the statistical element by aiming to draw your entire deck every turn. Then you can play a pure worker placement game and not worry about the vagaries that make deck-building interesting.
Copycat may still find life for me as a 2-player game, which we’ve tried and enjoyed – the balance seems better and it’s much harder for one player to get the run of the card-drawing cards. The problem with this is that the space for longer two-player games is pretty tough, and I’m not sure what Copycat adds that I’m not getting from Ascension, Ora et Labora, Agricola, Catan Card Game, and so on.
Still, I enjoyed the exploring the space of the game, and it’s a clever idea. Fun while it lasted.—

* I realize putting the Spiel des Jahre-winning Dominion in the “workmanlike” category may seem a little unfair. You have to give Donald X. Vaccarino credit for coming up with a great idea that seems an obvious extension of the collectible card game concept only in retrospect. But just as the great mechanical ideas in We The People would have to wait for Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage before truly delivering on their promise, to me Dominion wasn’t a complete package – it was “just” a very good pure game mechanic.

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