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.