The focus is on game mechanisms - what makes a game exciting and why. How did the board game designer make his game fun? Components and theme are secondary. The play's the thing.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 3 - Cavum

by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling

In Kramer and Kiesling's new "Cavum ", the designers offer a new "gamer's game" that reflects the unique sensibilities which have given us games from "Torres" to "Maharaja". As is typical of this team, they present us with a wide ranging menu of choices each turn and enormous freedom to manage our strategies. For some, this freedom lets players fully manage complex strategies, while for others, the freedom only means confusion and headaches. What is especially interesting is how the designers' style is expressed in a new way - disguised but still unmistakably Kramer and Kiesling.

Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have been working together as co-designers since 1995, but they came to the attention of many gamers with the release of Tikal and Torres in 1999. In both of these games, players had free form turns in which they could choose from a menu of actions - moving, building, exploring, creating new pawns - each of which required the expenditure of some number of "Action Points" which were limited every turn. Tikal was followed by Java in 2000 and Mexica in 2002, and these games are regarded as a trilogy - for their obvious use of this shared system, for the use of masks on their box cover art, and also for the graphic design used in the games by artist Franz Vohwinkel. Depending on how you felt about these games, the "AP" trilogy either referred to "Action Points" or "Analysis Paralysis" because such freedom could lead players to get stuck managing the details of each game turn.

With some subsequent games such as "Maharaja", "Australia", "Bison", and even "Sunken City", this system got stretched in different directions, but what remained constant was the use of a menu of potential choices confronting players that allows them to manage their turns with great flexibility.

Cavum is a relatively complex tile laying, track building game in which the designers place their stamp in a new way. At the beginning of the "phase", players fill their player mats with the 12 assets shown above. Each represents an action he'll be able to take once. Four of them are ordinary tiles to lay, although each one has a different amount of track (or in this case, "tunnel") One has a piece of track with a big ol' piece of dynamite on it. The three cubes are stations - and these are the only pieces that a player truly owns. They will serve as starting and ending points for paths the player will trace in an effort to claim gems, and they will also block other players' paths. The gray tile with stones on it represents a "vein" which the player may place and "discover" - and will be a source from which all players claim gems. Then there are two wild tiles which may substitute for any of the above, and finally the symbol for prospecting. This will always be the player's last action in the turn, when he traces a path between any two of his stations, crossing through any quantity of tunnels, in an attempt to pass through previously placed veins, and pick up as many gems as possible.

Here is where I think the designers really show their true colors. During a phase, a player is going to engage in all twelve of his actions. However, the phase is broken up into any number of turns. During a player turn, he must select between one and four of his actions to perform before passing his turn. So these twelve actions might be distributed among as many as twelve and as few as three player turns per phase. Each phase always culminates in the prospecting action. So one player might choose to rush with his actions, to ensure that gems are still on the board when it's time to prospect. Another might proceed very slowly, forcing all players to take their actions so that he may use all the resources out there when he finally prospects.

With such flexibility, it is easy to see why this is very much a gamer's game - and one which can succumb to Analysis Paralysis in the wrong hands.

I wonder to what degree Kramer and Kiesling were inspired by Martin Wallace's "Age of Steam", as they seem to have created a sort of negative image of the Wallace classic. In Age of Steam, players are tracing paths with cities as the end points, running through as many towns as possible. In this case, players own the tracks and the cities are public. In Cavum, things are reversed. The paths are public but the end points - the stations - are what is owned by the players. In Age of Steam, goods begin on cities and get removed as they are used. In Cavum, the goods that are removed appear on the veins - which are the equivalent of Age of Steam's "towns".
Age of Steam paths colored for clarity

There is an important consequence of having players share all the "track" in Cavum. They need to be interconnected with lots of junctions so that one player can trace from his stations, through various veins, and back to another of his stations, while another player can use much of the same track, use many of the same veins, but return to his own station. In Age of Steam, where players own each piece of track exclusively, the paths don't interconnect as much and tend to be simpler.
Can you connect a path between any two blue stations (cubes) that pass through as many gems as possible without passing through any red or yellow stations? Can you do it before other players get impatient?

This tangled web is what can make Cavum more than a little brain-burning.

What about that dynamite? Each turn a player must place at least one tile with dynamite on it. It is possible to cover up those pieces with normal tunnels in order to delay their destruction, but at the end of the turn, all exposed dynamite tiles get removed - and also take out all top tiles in the six adjacent spaces. In a four player game, it's possible for 28 tiles to go to heaven! Some have characterized this aspect of the game as very nasty. Incredible as it sounds, I don't think this rule is there especially to add a "take that" element to the game, and in my playing it didn't come off as mean. Rather, the board can get so dense and locked in, I think that the designers put in the dynamite in order to insure that the board continues to change after each phase. The game is not that nasty because once a player has created a path, it is difficult to obstruct that path until after he has collected his gems. The dynamite doesn't blow until the very end of the phase. Additionally, although stations block other players' paths, they can't be played on existing track. Even if someone places a track tile in your way, you may be able to promote it by placing another tile on it - as long as the new tile has more connections. The only way I know of to to mess with an existing path is to promote it with a new tile that changes its connections. Note that unlike Age of Steam, all existing connections do not need to be preserved.

The way that the designers stray from their Action Point menu and instead specify the particular actions a player must allocate during each phase is a very clever way of directing game play. If this game were from the AP trilogy, it is possible that each action would have had its own cost. A simple tile might cost 2 AP, one with all connections might cost 6 AP, tiles with dynamite could have their own cost, as would stations. The game would have been even more free form, perhaps more strategic, and certainly more maddening. Instead, each player gets a series of 2/3/4/6 branch tiles and they all must be used. Any tile may promote any other tile with fewer branches. There becomes a natural flow and strategy to the phase. Try to start out with the simplest tile possible, and as opponents mess with you, hold back the more complex tiles to play on top and rescue yourself. Or else, use your six early on, secure a complex path - but leave yourself vulnerable if another tile you were relying on gets rerouted. I think that with this method, Kramer and Kiesling have struck a nice balance between freedom and structure in their use of an action menu.

Where things seemed to spin out of control was in the paths themselves, which need to be twisty and often difficult to visualize. Indeed, all players tend to be creating paths which all cross over the same terrain, and it seemed difficult to create a master plan that brilliantly snatched lots of gems. Rather, you're more likely to feel like an idiot if you don't get lots of gems. I suspect that experienced players will learn to visualize the board better, make more strategic use of stations, and reduce the apparent chaos. But in my playing, understanding the board was a little like tracking a single strand of spaghetti as it winds its way around the meatballs.

If the game were just about laying tunnels and grabbing gems, it wouldn't be a Kramer / Kiesling game. On top of all this, there is a modest economic system to value the gems that you do get. At the beginning of each phase, you can take order tiles. It's exactly what you think. Taking the one pictured is a commitment to acquire and trade a light blue, a dark blue, a green and a red for 26 points. Fail to do so, and you lose 2 points. The risks aren't great, but neither are the rewards because you can still sell gems back to the market - potentially doing even better. In the example here, eight of the yellow gems are either still on the board or in people's hands. A reverse auction is held starting at "8" and going down, and the lowest bidding player could sell as many yellow gems as he owns at his bid price. So there are two ways to collect points for your gems, and which is better will depend on how many players own a given color and how aggressive the bidding gets.

The ability to sell gems either to the market or by completing orders struck some of us in our session as a little odd. It watered down the tension. If players must complete orders, then a player has pressure to get the right combination, knowing that not getting the last gem is a big loss of potential points. Such high stakes would provide a natural bomb in the game as it does in Alan Moon's Ticket to Ride. Alternately, forcing players into the market would have created a more economically oriented games in which players must monitor which gems are valuable, jockey for those, and close opponents out of them. By providing both alternatives, players are most likely to go for orders - but relax knowing that the market provides something of a safety net if plans go awry. Perhaps the "all or nothing" game created too much chaos, but this is so obviously a gamer's game, it is surprising to see it made a little more family friendly. I'd love to speak with the designers to learn what they were thinking.

I enjoy path laying games and I especially enjoy the complexity that Kramer and Kiesling bring to their best gamer's games. Given the history of such games, I am not convinced that paths laid by Cavum make the most satisfying use of the choices the genre has to offer. The use of actions in the menu in which players may order and group their 12 actions in any way they like - seems to have enormous potential and I hope to see it in a future game. The actual tile and path creation seemed overly involved and counterintuitive. I look forward to future playings to see if I'm able to wrap my brain around this game, or whether the game proves to be the stronger and wraps itself around me.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 2 - Dominion

by Donald X. Vaccarino

If Sylla was a blend of old wines in a new bottle, Dominion is a tasty young wine which seems unlikely to mature greatly.

Dominion has become an overnight hit, and so many readers have already played it to death since its recent release. I've played it only once, but what stands out about it is its originality despite its simplicity.

The goal is to collect the most and best victory point cards into your deck. Each player has his own deck of ten cards - seven with (1) gold and three with (1) VP. He draws five cards from his deck and can use the gold cards to buy either more gold, more VP's or any one of ten special power cards ("kingdom cards") which are arranged in a display. Cards so purchased are placed into his deck for future draws. After the player has used a power from one of his special cards and purchased a card using his gold, then both used and unused cards from his hand are placed in his discard pile - to be recycled when his draw deck has been used up. In this way, players are consistently drawing five cards, taking actions, buying new cards, and then drawing more. Cards used - or not - are continually being recycled, but at a slower pace as his deck grows in size. When sufficient cards have been purchased, the game ends and the player with the most points in VP cards wins.

This feature of continually drawing and renewing one's own deck, and building that deck on the fly is very original and the game plays like no other Eurogame. Because a player must, as a default, draw exactly five cards a turn and work with only those cards at any given time, the game requires a player not to maximize his assets with the most extensive display of powers possible. Instead, the game is about concentration. How can a player build a deck such that a random assortment of any five cards at a time be most powerful most consistently? What we see is that the cost of adding gold cards to his hand is disproportionately high with higher values of gold. Gold cards valued at (1) have no cost; those valued at (2) cost three, and those valued at (3) cost six. This seems counterintuitive until you realize that normally a deck consisting of all (1) value gold cards could never buy anything costing more than five (and then only rarely), while a deck of (3) value gold cards can much more easily accumulate brawny values used to purchase big VP cards or strong powers.

In any given game, there are ten different kingdom cards to choose from, but the game comes with 25 unique decks, so that the smorgasboard of choices may be different with each game. Examples of powers in the set I used were ones that gave players extra actions and/or extra opportunities to buy cards. There were powers which allowed a player to add three cards into his hand (remember, they all recycle, so this is an alternative way of concentrating your hand), and ones which permitted gold cards to be upgraded to the next higher level.

Player interaction is very limited and from what I saw came in two forms. One is that there are a few cards which enable a player to "attack" others, for example by forcing them to discard down to three cards, and other cards which enabled players to defend against such attacks. In my game, these were used sparingly because they don't really help you advance your agenda, and even a defensive card needs to "just happen to be" in your hand at the time of an attack for it to do any good. The other form of player interaction concerns the pace of the game. A strategy which relies on gradually building up a killer hand and then collecting VP's can be counteracted by a strategy which attempts to buy lots of cheap cards and end the game quickly. In practice, I don't believe that players gain from building up large decks because their powers are not cumulative. You're still drawing only five cards at a time. The value of a large powerful deck is that it is less diluted by VP cards. But an opponent cannot surprise you by ending the game. If other players switch into "collecting VP cards" mode, you can shift gears quickly.

Certainly, the dynamic deck building of Dominion is original. Adding to the freshness of the game is the way that 25 distinct decks of kingdom cards can be mixed and matched to create unique situations for the players. However, many players have compared this game with Tom Lehmann's "Race for the Galaxy"- with many fans stating their preference for the latter. If Dominion is unique - is the comparison reasonable? Looking at the ways that each game works sheds some light on what makes each game special - and also how very different mechanisms can be brothers under the skin.

Like "Race for the Galaxy" and its predecessor "San Juan" by Andreas Seyfarth, Dominion is an economic game based entirely in cards. Each player collects cards which enable him to buy yet other cards, which add to a player's collection, giving him new powers and more victory points. One glaring difference which drives different approaches in each game is that in Race for the Galaxy, players are purchasing cards for a permanent display in front of them, while in Dominion, purchased cards simply enter a player's deck. The Race for the Galaxy player has assets which are continually growing, as each purchased card accumulates powers on top of those already present. Every new asset is a good thing. In Dominion, only a few cards are operating at any one time, and then they are quickly recycled and the player moves on to another set. It's good to have lots of kingdom cards because a hand dominated by VP's can't purchase anything new. It is also possible to select a variety of cards which are likely to interact in productive ways when they show up together. But the effectiveness of any deck is going to max out quickly as the best you can do is to get a handful of productive interactions and then move on to the next draw. Dominion requires a new kind of thinking - one in which more isn't always better.

In Dominion, players begin the game by selecting ten different decks of power cards and those become the fixed choices throughout the game. In Race for the Galaxy, there is a single deck used in all games, but players must make choices from the cards they randomly draw throughout the game. The argument for replayability in Dominion is that with ten out of twenty five possible cards being used in a game, there are 3.3 million different possible combination. In Race for the Galaxy, there's only one. Yet Dominion has a hidden weakness. It lacks sufficient ability to surprise the players and force them to react to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. When a game forces a player to keep on his toes and potentially change his strategy substantially, I call it a Nervous System. In Dominion, the experienced player can survey the available cards, map out his strategy, and execute it. The degree to which cards interact in his hand will force tactical decisions, but not generally a rethinking of the plan. In comparison, Race for the Galaxy has only about 100 cards, but they are all (or nearly all) different, and their appearance at any time is entirely unpredictable. A player can set off down a particular path... and discover opportunities in his cards which tickle him into straying down a new path. Furthermore, because the player's actions depend both on his own choices and those of his opponents, he may find himself with unexpected opportunities to exploit.

Dominion is a sufficiently short game that it isn't crippled by the lack of surprise. You can lay out a set of ten cards to start with - and for the next thirty minutes, maybe that's all the surprise you need. But it is a limitation that's in the game's structure. Like a mechanical dog which has dozens of interchangable parts, there is lots of potential variety, but after a while I suspect that players may find that underneath it all, it still always barks to the same cues. Time will tell.