504

504

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.

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