Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica was the last of the hot Essen ’12 release I tried. And the first time out, I wasn’t very impressed.

Especially if you’re being taught by someone else and haven’t personally absorbed the rulebook, Terra Mystica is a rather complex game – more complex than Tigris & Euprates, I think, the game that in my mind sets the bar for about as complicated a game as I want to have to explain from scratch. Terra Mystica has a lot of moving parts – cult tracks, magic bowls, buildings, towns, fortresses, favors, priests, terraforming, and so on. If someone is sitting there explaining the game to you, it is not immediately apparent why this sucker needs to be as complicated as it is. Plus, then, everyone gets their own race with their own properties and customized player mat, and at this point your head possibly explodes. Good luck if your game explainer is not particularly deft.

On an absolute scale, of course, Terra Mystica isn’t that bad. I play ASL, after all. But Terra Mystica is an abstract eurogame. When you look at it from the perspective of sitting down to play one session, as a design it seems to really only have two thematic elements: managing a diverse economy (the 5 different building types do different things and have different building/upgrade costs and produce different combinations of resources), and managing the cooperative/competitive tension of wanting to have neighbors (because it helps you generate magic, useful for a wide variety of purposes) and yet not be constrained or cut off by them (because you are managing an expanding settlement). Really, that’s about it. There are of course intricate details to all this, but in most cases they look like VP-optimizing puzzles rather than expressive game systems.

Anyway, that was my impression on first playing it, and the net effect wasn’t particularly positive. It just felt overwrought. However, my opinion of the game improved when I understood Terra Mystica isn’t really a game best judged on one playing. As I mentioned, Terra Mystica has many – 14 – different playable factions. These are not slightly different player positions. They are very different, more divergent even than the alien species in Eclipse, and this is why the game is as complex as it it is. Without that level of inherent system complexity, it’s hard to imagine how you could cleanly support such a wide array of different factions. In fact, Terra Mystica accomplishes its impressive diversity generally by efficiently parameterizing the game’s various systems, not through special rules. As a way to go, this is a pretty good one.

For me, this is where Terra Mystica succeeds: in providing a rich exploration experience. Every time you sit down to play a new faction, it’s a different game and a different set of challenges. The Swarm and the Witches and the Engineers all play very differently and exploring these different points of view can be powerfully engaging. Eclipse and Terra Mystica are similar designs in many ways (even if the end effects of those design techniques are quite different), and this is one area in which I think Terra Mystica does better.

However, embracing this extremely high degree of asymmetry implies trade-offs. Terra Mystica tries for replayability and variety solely through the different factions and their interactions. Otherwise, there is no luck too the game, no hidden information, nothing that is not on the table before turn 1. Even your faction is not assigned randomly, but chosen in player order (although random allocation house rules seem not uncommon). While some will see this lack of any variability or uncertainty as a feature, it can make it very hard for a game to retain interest in even the medium-term as gameplay can very quickly stereotype absent countervailing forces. As great a game as it is, 1830 is dead to me now because the game space has been mined out.

One question then becomes, how much player interaction is there in Terra Mystica, really? Can the very different factions produce variability through their complex interactions? Unfortunately, I think the answer is: not to the degree it needs to. The board is a field of hexagons in 7 different colors, each corresponding to two factions, only one of which can be in play. As players’ empires expand on the board, they are limited to developing on hexes of their color. Developing on other color hexes requires a process of terraforming, initially quite expensive although probably getting cheaper as the game goes on. So during the vital first half of the game, there really isn’t much competition for space. Competition could theoretically get tighter as the game goes on, but in practice factions seem to develop enough tools to go around and real resource or space competition seems fairly infrequent.

So player interaction seems fairly light (and if you think about it, that makes sense – to properly ensure some sort of balance between 14 very different factions and all their potential interactions might require a vast investment in development).  So you’re left with a faction with a specific set of parameters set in an environment locked down before turn 1 and limited player interaction. That means there is an ideal way to play that faction, more or less. You just have to figure out what it is. In a game lacking any randomness and not inordinately complex, at least the broad outlines of that perfect plan should not be too elusive.

This is not necessarily a problem in the short term, when finding those plans amongst the intricacy of the game systems can be engaging, but at the end of the day it means that Terra Mystica can only be a game of learning the right general techniques for each faction and then squeezing out fairly small efficiencies in the margins. It reminds me of the things I didn’t like about War of the Ring or Through the Ages: for various different reasons, there is really only one viable way to approach both games, and you win or lose not on strategy or tactics or evaluation, but on ruthlessly going after every small advantage you can find on the way to that strategy. Fortunately for Terra Mystica, instead of one way to go, there are 14 different ones, which will take a while to figure out and significantly extend the period of discovery.

It should also be mentioned that because learning the game’s tricks is so important, and because it’s pretty complicated, Terra Mystica is extremely punishing of experiences differences. People who have played only a few times will have no chance against more experienced players, to an unfortunate degree. Race for the Galaxy and 1830 are other examples of this sort of game, but my feeling is Terra Mystica is much more punishing and less fun for new players to play with veterans even than those games.

People who have played Terra Mystica will note that I’ve glossed over a few things in this analysis which might appear to be mitigating. For example, on each of the 6 turns, there are point bonuses available for different game actions (building dwellings, trading posts, terraforming, founding towns, and so on). These are randomly assigned before play, making the game’s initial state somewhat variable, and so could theoretically encourage different game rhythms. If the bonus for building fortresses is on turn 2, you might want to change your plan to put off building it until then and build your dwellings on turn 1. In practice, it seems different factions have different imperatives. The Giants, for example, are in a hard spot until they build their fortress and they probably need to slap it down as quickly as possible regardless. So rather than giving the game variability, the different bonuses seem instead just to give bonuses or penalties to different factions, which complicates the evaluation of which faction to pick. Once the play gets started, the factions have to do what they have to do and having to bend to accommodate different turn-to-turn bonuses just makes their job harder.

All this may sound like I don’t like Terra Mystica, but that’s not true. I think it’s more accurate to say I do enjoy it for what it does well, but even now, after only a handful of plays, the obvious limitations of the design are closing in. I enjoy the game when sitting down to play a new faction that I haven’t played before, and building the right economic base and evolving it as the game goes on is an engaging little challenge. In the short term, while the experience of the game is biased towards system exploration, there is a lot for me to like. As the balance tips away from exploration towards rote execution, I know it’s going to be far less appealing. I’m still a ways away from the point where the game becomes tedious, but I can see it pretty clearly from where I am.

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Ginkgopolis

After a bit of a drought, the last 6 months have been great for the “artful euro”. I’ve played quite a few that have kept me coming back for more: Escape, Qin, Il Vecchio, SewerPirats, Nieuw Amsterdam,  Mutant Meeples, Copycat, Panic on Wall Street (née Masters of Commerce). One of the most pleasantly surprising has been Ginkgopolis.

Ginkgopolis is one of those interesting, multifaceted games that while it’s not terribly complex it defies easy pigeonholing. The conceit is that we’re eco-friendly urban planners building a city by laying tiles onto a square grid, and we can build either outwards (urbanizing by adding tiles to the edge) or upwards (adding new floors on top of existing tiles). Where you can play is driven by your hand of 4 cards, drawn from a deck which contains all the visible buildings in the city plus 12 border spots for urbanization. Each turn players secretly and simultaneously play a face-down card and optionally a tile, which fully specifies their action for the turn, and then resolve in turn order. Each action gains you resources: more tiles to play, victory points, building ownership markers, or cards to add to your tableau which may provide bonuses to future actions or endgame points.

There are multiple strong tensions which affect every decision you make in the game, which is what gives Ginkgopolis its immediate pull. One familiar one is the tension between building an engine, scoring points, or gaining needed resources. Whenever you Build a Floor – play a card for an existing build to put a new tile on top of it – you get to take the card you played and add it to your tableau. The card can give you bonus resources when you take one of the three categories of action in the future (Urbanization, Build a Floor, Exploitation) or endgame points, depending on the card’s rank – low ranks provide powers, high ranks provide conditional victory points. The game system then makes it harder to grab those high-valued cards, because it costs points to build lower ranked floor tiles on top of a higher ranked one. The cards and tiles rank 1-20, so if you have the card for one of the starting buildings ranked 1-3 in hand you can play it along with any tile ranked 4-20 to add a floor, taking the 3 card for your tableau (it lets you draw an extra tile draw any time you add a new floor to a building). Say you play the 15 tile; the card for the 15 building will then be fished out of the reserves and added to the deck on the next cycle.

If you subsequently see the 15 card, if you want to add a floor on top of it and snag the 15 card for your tableau (it gives you 3 points at the end of the game for every building you own of height 3 or higher), you’ll need to play a higher-value tile to do it without penalty. You can play something lower, but then you’ll need to pay victory points for the difference, which can be painful in a game where victory points are relatively tight.

This leads to another of the game’s key tensions: when do you play the powerful, high-ranking tiles? If you have a 20 tile you can use it to add a floor to anything without penalty, so you want to use it to grab a cool, high-valued card. But opportunities are made available by the random flow of cards and tiles, so are hard to predict. As the ranks go down (what about an 18? a 16?), it becomes trickier. You need to get something, you can’t sit on tiles or any other kinds of resources forever without using them, and the perfect play is elusive.

For those big tiles, the ideal play may not necessarily involve snagging a good end-of-game scoring card. There are also big points at stake for controlling districts, groups of adjacent like-colored buildings. Getting high-valued tiles onto the board may be valuable for creating or joining up districts, or making them more painful to break up (because they are harder to build over).

While the Building a Floor move is the flashiest and most novel mechanic in the game, the other actions are just as important. Urbanization involves playing a letter card which matches an outside point on the city along with a tile, and it expands the playing field. While it doesn’t allow you to add power cards to your tableau, it does score you resources (tiles, points, or ownership markers) to fuel your continuing growth, which Building a Floor does not by default. Exploitation allows you to play a card alone for some resources. All the actions can be buffed by cards in your tableau. In a recent game, one player built an Exploitation engine which turned what is superficially seems like the weakest action (it’s really not, because unlike the other actions it doesn’t require a tile to power) into such a strong victory point generator he could use it to clobber us. Crucially, Exploitation allows you to bury high-valued cards when you can’t economically grab them because you don’t have a good tile. After your turn is over, you’re going to pass the rest of your hand to the left, meaning they get a good crack at any cool cards you didn’t use.

I think one of the reasons people have found Ginkgopolis appealing is the remarkable elegance with which the game systems blend. For a game with 60 tiles (1-20 in three suits), 60 matching cards, 12 border tiles and cards, and three different actions types (Urbanization, Exploitation, and Building a floor), there is a lot going on here and there is real design elegance. While it will be baffling for a turn or two because it is basically abstract, once it clicks it really clicks. Players will ask rules questions (“what happens if I add a floor to a building that has already had a floor added this cycle?” “what happens if I have a card I can’t play?”) and I usually tell them to think about it for a second, and it becomes clear that these tricky situations simply can’t occur – my preferred way for handling them. Everything in the game seems to work the way it does because that’s the way it needs to work.

Thematically, Ginkgopolis is nominally about building cities in harmony with nature in a post-resource-exhaustion future, but it’s mostly theme through nice art. This is not a terrible way to go, has worked before, and I think it works here. The nod to the unusual and distinctive ginkgo tree, a living fossil, is a nice touch and is effectively used in the art design. It’s not a lot – the tensions in the game don’t particularly make me think of urban planning – but you can’t have everything all the time. It’s because of this relative thematic abstractness that I wasn’t sure how well Ginkgopolis would go over with my friends. It’s been a pleasant surprise how well everyone has liked it, even those normally skeptical of lightly-themed abstracts.

While I think Ginkopolis doesn’t quite fall into the same general box as the true classic eurogames (El Grande, Modern Art, Settlers) because of this relative abstractness combined with not immediately intuitive mechanics, this is still an old-school meaty euro in all the best senses of all those words. Streamlined systems, crisp gameplay, lots of tension, chaotic enough to provide replayability and ever-changing problems, and an elegance of design all point towards this have real staying power amongst hobbyist gamers.

Tales of the Arabian Nights

I’ve been really enjoying this new game from Z-Man. You get to wander the world of the Thousand and One Nights, encounter strange people and customs, and try to make your fortune. There is a whole genre of what I think of as “experience games”, games where you play to watch the stories unfold as much as anything else. Games like Arkham Horror, American Megafauna, maybe Britannia and Republic of Rome. A surprisingly large number of wargames, like Paths of Glory or Successors, and arguably a lot of games which are too huge to realistically play to actual conclusion, like Case Blue or Guderian’s Blitzkrieg. I also feel many of GMT’s games where you wrestle far more with rules and processes than you do with actual decisions fall into this category; Fields of Fire certainly, and games from The Burning Blue to 1805: Sea of Glory and PQ-17 also feel to me like they get filed here.

So anyway, back to the topic. I think what appeals to me so much about Tales of the Arabian Nights, apart from the great flavor, is that it is an experience game which actually works. Yes, the stories it generates as you have your adventures are usually great fun and the real reward of playing. But you also have to actually play the game. You can’t just do stuff because it sounds cool or you want to see what happens; you have to play to your character’s strengths, trying to use the skills you’ve been given or have earned to their best advantage. Courting the Wealthy Princess may sound cool, but if you don’t have the Courtly Graces or Seduction skills, it’s probably not a percentages play, either from the point of view of winning or generating an interesting story. You have to play to your strengths.

With this in mind, I think a key to enjoying the game is the right attitude. You can’t come at it either trying to “generate cool stories” or getting too hung up on winning. I think you have to realize that the game is pretty random, and even if you play the best game possible you may well get hosed. On the other hand, if you don’t play to win, you aren’t going to generate the most (or even any) interesting stories. So take Knizia’s advice to heart, and realize that you do have to play the game to win, but the actual winning itself isn’t the important thing.

I’ll finish with a couple more concrete tips and observations.

Firstly, on the question of how to choose your victory conditions of story points vs. destiny points: This is a tough call and it’s unfortunate that the rules don’t give you a little guidance on this, since it’s an important decision that you make up-front with little to no information. My sense has been that Story points are a little easier to come by than Destiny, so that argues for favoring Story a little bit. A possibly more important factor, though, is that there is a fairly common status, Scorned, which turns all your Destiny points into Story points. There are also a few other fairly common Statuses that allow you spend Destiny for some effect, and Crippled (which doesn’t seem that common) doubles your Story points. On the flip side, Story Point losses, spends, or conversion to Destiny seem very rare (I haven’t seen any, but they could be out there). It’s still a bit of a shot in the dark, but I think it pays to favor Story points. Scorned seems to come up a lot, and if your objective points are split close to 50/50, it can be a real back-breaker.

Secondly, some folks I’ve played with have griped a little bit about the early game, a gripe with which I am not unsympathetic. The first phase of the game seems to involve wandering around a bit a trying to make something happen, looking for a break. You’re comparatively unskilled at that point, so it doesn’t feel like you are able to exert that much control until you’ve gained some experience. Thematic, but it can make the early game a little unsatisfying. We were pondering minor variants you could use to tweak things a bit, and I think we hit on a good one: just allow the players to pick 4, or even 5 skills at start instead of 3. It seems like it would do no fundamental violence to the game and it would give you a better shot at managing the encounters in the early game, and would let you fit more action in to the same game length. We had a discussion about whether you could get one starting skill at Master level for the cost of two skills, but were undecided. Master level skills are a significant advantage in terms of guiding your destiny, and it seemed like something that should have to be earned. Regardless, personally I don’t mind the early game of wandering in the wilderness, but I can see that overall this might improve the game for a lot of folks.

Lastly, keep the player count on this game down. The box advertises up to 6, but that just seems nuts. I’d say you should cap it at 4, and 3 is probably preferable. While you aren’t the current player or the reader, Tales of the Arabian Nights is almost pure downtime. There is only so much fun to be had listening to other players’ stories. Some, certainly – enough for a 4-player game, I think – but add more players and it gets pretty attenuated.

Parthenon

Parthenon is a new game from the newly-prolific Z-Man Games; it’s yet another civilization-building type game, this time with a vaguely Settlers-esque appeal.

Each player becomes the leader of an island in the Aegean, attempting to make their name in the world. Unlike in Settlers or Civilization, there is no map – everything is handled abstractly. You start with a couple villages that produce a single basic good (Grain, Grapes, Olives, Wool, etc.) automatically at the beginning of each turn. The rest of your building options are represented by a handful of cards, and include a couple more production villages, workshops, temples, ports, marketplaces, etc.

The immediate thing that you realize about this game is that given the goods you produce on your home island, you literally cannot build anything beyond your first couple production buildings (several costs are, in fact, expressed in terms of “goods you don’t produce”). Of the 6 basic goods available, you will have villages for only 3. Of the 4 rare goods available (tools, pottery, spices, and papyrus), you will be able to produce only one.

So, to do anything at all, you’ll need to trade. This involves either finding a compliant fellow-player to trade with (each of the islands produces a different selection of standard or rare goods, so this shouldn’t be too hard) or journeying to neighboring lands, which function much like the ports in Settlers, giving you various X:1 trading options. The journeying process is neat but fairly random, as you load up your goods and protective cards on ships and then draw cards to see what hazards they face, with nearer locations (Athens, Sparta, Ionia) being a lot less risky than further ones (Egypt, Carthage, and Rome), but the risker destinations also offer much better trade rates, as you would expect.

Whenever I play new games from a company I don’t have much experience with, I always find myself reading the credits – mainly looking over the playtesters, seeing if it’s anyone I recognize, seeing if a developer is credited, etc. On perusing the Parthenon credits late in the game, I saw something unusual – the game is derived from a game used as a team-building exercise, presumably for corporate customers. As I read this, everything became clear to me. The game forces you to trade with your fellow-players to do anything at all, because virtually all of your own resources are useless to you. The huge randomness of the trade expeditions and the brutal and somewhat arbitrary random events that pop up each turn might actually be desirable in such a game, as the players are forced to “pull together”. Unfortunately these things just don’t make for a terrifically compelling social game (and, I should say, if I wanted a team-building game at work I’d think that having everyone round for a game of Lord of the Rings might work better). Anytime you are forced down a certain approach to the game it’s not good – compare to Settlers, where you can either do the best with what you’ve got, or try to do better by trading. And the large and essentially arbitrary effects of the events is going to be frustrating and a turn-off for most serious gamers. We’re not talking events that force you to lose half your cards if you’re holding too many; many events wipe out your entire inventory.

There are a couple more minor gaffes here as well… one of my rules of gaming is that a game should end while you still have choices. One of my complaints about Advanced Civilization, for example, is that it will typically end with one or two players acquiring all the Civilization cards. For the last few turns of the game, these players are just “buying out the string”, acquiring whatever they can afford rather than making real choices about what they need. Compare to Settlers: Cities and Knights, where players are making choices right until the end. In Parthenon, the victory conditions involve just buying up everything in your inventory. Combine this with the fact that only a few of these buildings are very useful at all, and things seem off.

I’d really like to give Parthenon a passing grade (say, a 3 out of 5). The theme is great and well-realized. The graphics are very nice and evocative. I think the whole journeying mechanic for visiting foreign lands is well-done and fairly well-balanced. But ultimately I can’t do it, and it ends up being rated around a 2 for me. This is a game with a high price point ($50 retail) and long playing time (2+ hours), and given that, there just aren’t enough choices, the game is too constrained, the event cards are too random, and ultimately too many balances are out of whack. I think if Z-Man had been able to cut the price point back to under $30 retail (there are a truly excessive number of cards in the box) and the play length to 60 minutes, things would be better. But at the current price point, it’s very hard to recommend.