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.

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.

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.

Caverna

Agricola hasn’t come off the shelf in ages in my game groups. Interestingly, it seems like the game feature that gave it its initially high replayability (the vast array of occupation and improvement cards) is also the feature that eventually killed it, aided and abetted by PlayDek’s excellent iOS implementation. Playing quick games on the iPad – especially the solo challenges – by removing all the physical hassles of setup, moving bits around, and idly waiting for other players, makes it really apparent just how big a deal getting a good hand of cards is and how completely screwed you are by a mediocre hand. There is just no way to get the points you need to advance in the solo challenges if you didn’t get good cards. Using a draft to build your initial hand can help amongst highly experienced, similarly-skilled players, but it’s not a panacea.

Still, even though Agricola was always about a 7-rated game for me, I still had  fun with it for a while and it’s easy to understand why most gamers enjoy it. Building a farm is fun. The game understands the rules of Hamlet’s Hit Points and does a good job of maintaing tension throughout. The large number of cards do provide a lot of exploration fun. For several years it was a constant table presence. So I was onboard for Caverna when it came out.

If you’ve played Agricola, you basically know how to play Caverna: use your family members to plow fields, fence pastures, and get animals. Now, though, half your player board dedicated to mining and tunneling, which work how you would expect. There are action spaces for digging tunnels and caverns, furnishing rooms, and mining ore and rubies. Since we’re representing a family of dwarves now, there are also spaces for turning the ore you mine into weapons and going on adventures to pillage stuff (uneventful adventures admittedly, as they are completely risk-free, but still).

Although the decoration of both the physical components and the game systems are quite different between the two games, there are really just two big, fundamental differences.

Firstly, the harvest/feeding cycle has been both accelerated and made slightly more forgiving. You now will have to feed your family after most turns, so that’s tricky. On the other hand, most of the mechanics for turning stuff into food have either been eliminated or greatly simplified. Vegetables and animals just turn into food without the need to acquire fancy stoves. There is no “bake” action; if you want a better food exchange rate you just build a room in your cave (say the Brewery) that helps and it just does its thing without having to take an action. So there is substantially less time and fewer resources spent with the mechanics of producing food, which leaves more time for other things (mining and adventuring mainly).

Secondly, the hand of 14 cards you were dealt at the start of Agricola are gone. Replacing them are a tableau of 47 distinct furnishing tiles, rooms you can build in your cave. These all give either special powers (improving food production, animal husbandry, or mining operations; making weapons or other furnishings cheaper; and so on) or endgame victory points.

On the good side, the game feels more open, like the players have more flexibility to follow interesting and varied strategies without always being under the hammer of food pressure. In Agricola traditionally the first third to half (or more) of the game is mostly about establishing a food engine, which is mostly about playing the hand you’ve been dealt and/or trying to find an underexploited niche in the strategy space and is honestly not all that interesting. If you can do this you get to be a meaningful participant in the later portion of the game, where you try to diversify. Because you aren’t quite so constrained by food (although food pressure is still considerable), and the mechanics of food production are less involved, Caverna lets you spend more time on development, from an earlier point. With a number of additional ways to go now (adventuring, tunneling, mining for rubies and ore), as a player you feel more in control of your destiny. It’s also possible to do well, or even possibly to win, with a relatively small family.

Unfortunately, for me these good things are more than outweighed by the negatives. The main thing of course is the gargantuan level of up-front complexity. In Agricola you had to figure out what to do with 14 cards, a good number of which could be easily eliminated as impractical or only useful with synergies you didn’t have. Even this is not particularly easy. Caverna has 47 distinct furnishings on the table from the outset, very few of which can be easily dismissed. It’s extremely daunting, and possible to fully process only through repeated play (which creates the problem of making it exceptionally difficult for less experienced players to compete with veterans, to a  significantly greater degree even than Agricola). It’s also problematic that these small furnishing tiles have their text in small, low-contrast fonts that are unreadable at a distance and so there is no really good way for most of the players to access this vital game information. Imagine the 10 major improvements from Agricola, but now there are 47 of them and they’re printed on small tiles.

The other major issue is that Caverna, unlike Agricola, is a 100% open-information, completely symmetric worker placement game with limited randomness (and what randomness there is, is global, not individual). This raises all sorts of red flags. With every action space worth the same to everyone (because positions are symmetric), it becomes about system exploits – finding the under-costed or overpowered furnishings or combination of furnishings and figuring out which strategic paths (mining, farming, animal husbandry, adventuring) enjoy the most system support. While it’s true that there are other players playing the game and it may be better to follow a weaker path than compete with everyone else for a stronger one, and since all buildings are unique it’s possible for others to block you by snagging the key combo furnishing you need even if it doesn’t help them, nonetheless this adds up to puzzling, not gaming. Puzzling with insane analysis paralysis potential.

While it’s true that Agricola could be viewed the same way – as more about figuring out the puzzle of the 14 cards you’ve been dealt – it had the saving grace of being asymmetrical and having hidden information. So it was possible to have to guess about other players’ motivations, and be surprised from time to time. Likewise with everyone pursuing at least slightly different strategic paths as suggested (or dictated) by their cards, the worker-placement game of evaluating each space’s comparative “hotness” could be interesting. By contrast, in Caverna everyone is staring at the same options and the same board state and the only way to be surprised by what anyone else does is if you aren’t really paying attention (or can’t be bothered).

Because Caverna is complex, and because it does share many appealing features with Agricola (vicarious enterprise building, the constant pressure of feeding your family, exploration of a complex game environment), I did enjoy it for a few games. I burned out very quickly though, and after fewer than 5 games I don’t really have much desire to play it again.

High Frontier Colonization

High Frontier is one of my very favorite games of the last 5 years, and I realize that somehow I’ve never written anything about in my blog. With the expansion out, it’s time to rectify that.

Four of us sat down to play the Colonization for the first time. It begins much the same as the classic game, with players starting on Earth with a bit of money and grand ambitions, trying to acquire the exotic speculative technology required to explore and economically exploit the solar system. Some of the most esoteric pieces of tech available are the game’s two solar sail thrusters: lightweight and requiring neither fuel nor propellant, but slow-ish and unable to carry much mass in a game that’s mostly about hauling around heavy robotic prospectors and refineries. Also, a major premise of the game is that on-site water is key to exoglobalization. The solar sails are primarily useful for exploring sunwards; as you may have noticed, the sun is hot and so there isn’t much water to be found in the inner system. For all these legitimate reasons, everyone else usually rolls their eyes when these come up, but me, I’m a sucker for a challenge. I snap up the Photon Kite Sail nobody wants, attach it to a Solar-pumped MHD Excimer Laser orbital prospector and start putting together a mission to Mercury. While   proximity to the sun makes most the planet brutally hot, Mercury is believed to have significant amounts of water near the poles, where the Sun’s rays never reach due to quirks in its orbit and axial tilt.

The problems with Mercury, like most things in this game, all revolved around gravity. The sun is massive, which makes maneuvering so close to it very difficult. Mercury is also large (on the scale of the asteroids that are the typical targets in High Frontier anyway), so it requires a lot of thrust to land on and take off from. The solar sail solves the problem of getting there by harnessing the solar wind for thrust, but is unable to move that much mass and the tech required to do prospecting is heavy. So it requires two missions – one to put a prospector in orbit, and a second to bring a refinery (I was lucky and got the CVD Molding refinery, a relatively light one). Then you’re presented with a new problem that the sail doesn’t help with at all: getting all that onto the surface. Unlike Mars or Venus, Mercury has no atmosphere to assist by allowing aerobraking. The only thing for it is to bring a powerful thruster or a lot of propellant (i.e., water). Mercury has too much gravity for any of the basic thrusters to land on without the ESA beamed power, and the ESA isn’t in the game, so I’ll need to bring 200,000kg of water to use as propellant for landers instead. So that’s a third trip in and of itself. This is all hugely expensive – I estimate the trips took 4 years each and a total weight of roughly 500,000kg of equipment, fuel, and propellant with a total investment of 20 WT (water tanks), the game’s unit of currency. Each WT represents 40 metric tons of water in LEO. Assuming the cost of the water itself is basically zero, the cost of this mission is roughly that of getting 800,000kg into LEO. By way of comparison, the ISS is about 450,000kg. Wikipedia estimates the cost of the ISS at $150 billion. There is probably a lot of politically-driven waste in there, but nonetheless, it gives you a sense of what these missions would cost given the current technology for lifting mass into LEO. It’s hard to imagine my Mercury mission coming in at less than $200-250 billion, all with no prospect of any return at all for 20 years. It’s outside the realm of possibility in the immediate future, but it’s not unimaginable. Apple alone almost had that in cash lying around at one point.

Anyway, despite a solar flare wreaking havoc with one mission and pushing the total duration out to about 15 years and causing a 20% cost overrun (yet another hazard of operating so close to the Sun), I got a factory set up on Mercury. This is now where the magic starts to happen. Mercury is a comparatively rare V (Vestoid)-type world, and the metals you can find there can be used to build some fancy high-technology thrusters and refineries. I finally dip into the expansion technology to pick up a Levitated Dipole ^6Li-H Fusion reactor to power an incredibly efficient thruster capable of reaching the outer planets (I’m eying Jupiter) at relatively low cost; its rate of fuel and propellant usage in game terms rounds to zero, although the amount of thrust generated is relatively low (making journeys longer and landing on large bodies difficult). My Mercury factory can also produce a Biophytolytic Algae Farm refinery, so I’m in good shape – only the prospecting tech needs to be manufactured and lifted from Earth.

One of the cool things about High Frontier is that it really gives you a sense of just how vast our solar system is, and how difficult it is to get to many places (and conversely, where the comparatively low-hanging fruit might be). As you look at Jupiter or Saturn and start counting burns and orbital transfers and how much propellant you need to get there and how much thrust it takes to land, you really feel just how difficult interplanetary travel would be with any technology that is currently at all plausible. Then, once you get your hands on one of the powerful reactors/thrusters in the much more highly speculative expansion,  you can feel the options opening up, that maybe, just maybe, you could set up on a moon of Uranus or Neptune, or make the fantastic voyage to the TNOs – things that seemed utterly impossible with the basic tech.

Anyway, once you get a high-efficiency thruster, you fully enter the Colonization phase of the game. The extraterrestrial manufacturing premise of the classic game requires a leap of faith, but not a huge one. It’s much harder to figure out a near-future scenario in which sending people into space makes any sense at all, given the truly enormous costs and risks and the fact that robots are so highly capable. So we need to do some satisfactorily plausible handwaving. The handwaving High Frontier Colonization does is to speculate that there is research that you could do at an extraterrestrial lab that you couldn’t do on Earth for whatever reason – either due to local conditions (vacuum, microgravity, something cool about Io), politics on Earth, or the fact that you’re screwing around trying to create a black hole or a massive fusion explosion and people get nervous when you try do that on or near to the only human habitation in the universe. Given how speculative the game becomes at this point, and the possible political and long-term technological benefits of having off-planet colonies, this works well enough. So the goal becomes setting up a personed lab at a remote science site, typically an exotic moon of Saturn or Jupiter or a comet. People require water, so places like Europa are attractive, but if you really want to support lots of people you’ll want to get to fantastically remote TNO’s where water is plentiful. The Bernals in which people live are heavy and hard to move – at about 600 tons (with needed generators and radiators) far heavier than anything in the classic game – so in most cases to even start to think about this you’ll need one of the gigawatt thrusters from the expansion.

Which, thankfully, I’ve now got. Like the base game, Colonization opens up a lot once you get a decent exofactory. Planning a mission to Europa is easier now I have a stepping stone on Mercury; the thruster and refinery fuel up and boost off from the factory there and rendezvous in LEO with a prospector built on Earth. The bernal itself has a mass driver, so it can make its own way for a little bit stopping off at tiny but accessible rocks like 65803 Didymos and loading up on dirt for the next “short” hop. On arrival at the Sol-Jupiter Lagrange point, the fusion thruster takes over navigating the gravitational complexities of the Jovian moons, parking the Bernal in orbit around Europa and landing a factory in the Conamara Chaos.

Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. The Bernal around Europa becomes a lab, and the Islamic Refugee colonists in residence there (really, you probably don’t want to ask) can upgrade my gigawatt thruster into a Dusty Plasma terawatt thruster which is even lighter, more efficient, and faster, putting impossibly remote sites in range of exploitation. More importantly, it activates a Future, one of the victory conditions that makes Colonization quite different from the classic game: the Mass Beam Future. I honestly have no idea what this is beyond something that beams potentially a lot of power, but it requires factories on Mercury, Venus, and Io as “push factories” that can send power to remote spacecraft and outposts. Fortunately I’ve already got Mercury, and Io is reasonably accessible to Europa where I can build the technology (a Quantum Cascade Laser) to prospect and industrialize the waterless Venus.

Fulfilling this future and its very large chunk of VPs (12) is well within reach, but after 4½ hours it becomes apparent that Colonization has added a lot of time to High Frontier, and we are done. In fairness, the time required to play classic High Frontier is brought down dramatically with only a little bit of experience; my first game with just the basic rules was 4-5 hours, but after only a few games it settled in for us at about 2 hours or so for the 3-player game even with most of the advanced rules. We were a bit rusty on even the basic High Frontier rules after not having played in maybe 6 months, and I would expect experienced Colonization players could do the game in 4-5 hours, which is honestly pretty good given its vast scope (one of the other players was working on the Footfall future, which involves attaching a terawatt thruster to a synodic comet and pointing it at Earth, forcing the other players to turn their orbital prospectors into laser platforms and put warheads on their missile prospectors). But given the time commitment involved in learning the game, how many people are going to be able to become experienced players?

I love High Frontier, but after playing it about 20 times between the classic basic and advanced games, it had gotten a little bit tired. As strategies were explored and played out, it developed that asteroid exploration (usually Ceres or Vesta) was the way to win – consistent with the premise of the game, but it meant it ultimately lacked variety. Anything that would open things up again would be welcome.

So for me, playing Colonization was incredibly entertaining. No longer do you have to just get a couple factories to win, but you probably need to work with Bernals, colonists, high-power and high-efficiency thrusters, and transports, all of which have very different tech requirements from the traditional “cheap exploration-blitz” strategies. Moons of the outer planets, with their lab potential and rarer spectral types, become central to development in the midgame. In the classic game an early factory on a small, common C-type rock might be enough to bootstrap you to victory; now, although the game has become longer, its tableau is also vastly larger and encompasses a much wider variety of legitimate infrastructure bases.

It also does a few key bits of streamlining to the core game system, including an automated way to cycle the technology cards, less restrictive and much easier-to-play rules for factory products, and doubling the value of the income operation. While seemingly minor, these significantly improve the playability of the game.

Also worth mentioning, High Frontier Colonization will probably – like many Sierra Madre Games – benefit from a little bit of seasoning to taste with house rules. While I like the new event model and the politics rules now seem to work much better than they did in the original expansion, I’m not a huge fan of the occasional glitches and pad explosions and we may house-rule those particular events out at some point. In the classic game we ignored the combat and politics rules, and I think you could do that in Colonization also, although a couple futures may require combat. Shimzu’s and the PRC’s faction powers can be a little bit annoying, and tweaking them very slightly is unlikely to hurt (we play that you can only jump a if you immediately industrialize it, and I’m thinking about making Shimzu’s hand size larger but not unlimited). We also disallow tie bids for anyone except the auctioneer. Anyway, High Frontier is a game that supports modifying a little bit to adapt to your group’s tastes and play style, but – as always – you do want to make sure you know what you’re doing before you fiddle too much.

All in all, I felt like High Frontier Colonization is very successful at doing what it sets out to do. It’s longer and more complicated, and there is absolutely no way you should try to tackle this without a number of games of classic High Frontier under your belt (if you have a friend who absolutely insists on throwing you into the deep end, play the solitaire scenarios a few times first). But for fans of the original, Colonization is  worth it and, if you’re like me, it will help renew this endlessly fascinating game.

You can get the High Frontier Colonization expansion here. The base game sadly appears to be out of print, although I hear there may be another printing in the works.

Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it’s not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You’ve got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character’s personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode’s Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character’s deck using cards you’ve acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can’t just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren’t particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players’ attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it’s possible to do great work this way. But it’s also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn’t have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it’s designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it’s hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia’s highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You’re going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that’s all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as “the right way” and the random event firehose as “the wrong way”, in truth it’s a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror’s “go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason”.

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder’s time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they’re on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.