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.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Essen 2008 Unwrapped: Part 1 - Introduction and Sylla

It's been a long time since I've contributed to this Journal; the last article appeared over six months ago. That's just wrong. I have been working on an article - about the "Frustration Factor" in games. However, work and writer's anxiety have been pushing it out and out and... It's a tricky thing to create an article about types of game mechanisms because the subject is so vague. Worse, any given topic seems to be so broad that I keep writing when I ought to just wrap it up. So in an effort to get the train moving again, I'm offering a sort of article that I've specifically avoided in the past. Game reviews. OK - This is not your father's game review. It's not even Schloesser or Vasel's game review. It's a game review JBD style.

1) The focus is on the game mechanics. Expect little or no discussion about the theme or components.

2) Game mechanics are described in their most essential form. There will be no rehash of all the rules, but instead a focus on the handful of mechanisms that drive the game and the decisions they offer.

3) I may provide only a passing mention of whether I think the game is good. Don't expect a buyer's guide. More emphasis will be placed on what mechanics are innovative or effective and why. In most cases I only had a chance to play the game once.
One reason I've avoided writing reviews in the past is that there are so many of them out there already. Tossing another one onto the net seems redundant. However, I had the good fortune to attend BoardGameGeek.con and had a chance to play many new games which I know there's lots of curiosity about. I'm going to limit each post to a single review. This will hopefully make it easier for people searching for information about a given game to find it, and will also keep each post to a manageable length. My hope is to publish a new review every three or four days. Here goes....

SYLLA by Dominque Ehrhard

Ehrhard used to be a
considerable force in Eurogame design, but he hasn’t been on the gamer’s game radar for a while. When they came out, I had great enthusiasm for both Condottiere and Serenissima, but those are over ten years old. Sylla is released by Ystari, and it has their fingerprints all over it. It appeals to gamers, and has oodles of features that feel familiar – competing auctions, income generating tokens, food shortages- and it offers situations where scarce resources must be carefully allocated among competing needs.

The driving mechanism is that players each start with several character cards, and will get to add another to their hand in each game turn. Each character has one to three colored symbols (red/blue/yellow) and potentially an additional special power. After adding a new character at the beginning of each game turn, players may use these in any of several auctions for tiles which grant benefits. Each auction is color coded, so a character with a red symbol may only be used in a “red” auction, while a character with all three may be used in any of them (but may only be “spent” once) – the three colors make him three times more flexible but not three times more valuable.

Among the other assets that players take – each turn and also potentially from winning auctions – are disks in any of three colors. These disks will have varying values at the end of the game. Players also earn money every game turn and also take income from certain tiles and from one of the characters.

The most original phase comes in the election to suppress bad events. Four events are dealt out, and two of them will occur each turn. Now, unspent cards with the appropriate special power (the soldier in the upper left, and the rather matriarchal looking "vestal virgin" in the upper right) may contribute to influence these events. (The first event card, on the right, may receive votes from both soldiers and Virgins, the one below it only accepts votes from Virgins.

The two events receiving the fewest suppressing votes are the ones that occur, and these may cause the values of certain chips to drop, or may cause a certain type of character card to become out of play for several turns. Finally, players may convert money into VP’s. Sometimes this is through an auction and sometimes at a fixed price.

From the description you’ll see that there is nothing glaringly innovative here. There are auctions in multiple “currencies”. The auction to control events is similar to that found in Rieneck and Stadler's "Cuba". In Cuba though, a single player selects the “laws” while in Sylla the votes are aggregated among players. The varying values of the colored chips is similarly a commonly found market mechanism.

In spite of this, I found Sylla to be greater than the sum of its parts. There are A LOT of mechanisms in play each game turn, but all are reasonably familiar so the game is easy to learn. One aspect of the game I appreciated is the fact that a given character typically can either be spent in the auction for tiles OR provide income OR be applied to a subsequent voting process. So many different sorts of needs are competing for the attention of your very limited resources. Since the special powers differ from card to card, the selection of characters becomes a strategic consideration. It is not the same as having a bunch of money and many places tospend it. Every card has only select places where it can be used. An urgent need to come up with another red dot may force you to spend a card you were hoping to hold back – for yet another urgent need.

Example of six tiles up for auction in a given turn. Note that the first two only accept "red" cards, the next two only "yellow" and the last only "blue". The winner of each auction chooses the tile to auction next.

Sylla's variety of character types and colors, its pricing mechanisms for colored discs, and its multiple distinct phases create plenty of opportunities to let players try out different strategies. Does one concentrate in order to maintain strength, or diversify in order to have flexibility? If you focus on earning lots of tiles, you may earn many discs - but if you ignore the events, then other players may drive the value of your discs way down. Another strategic decision lies in how many of your characters should be "Christian" as symbolized by the fish symbol. At the end game, all Christian cards gain bonus VP's. The down side is that certain events can cause your Christians to remain out of play for one or more game turns. An over reliance on such cards can cripple your play indefinitely.

There are also good situational issues that arise. You might expect to win a valuable tile by committing two cards. If forced to bid three, do you commit a card that you wanted to use in the event phase?

Every game turn has seven phases with perhaps ten individual auctions, but the game doesn't come off as a repetitive auction fest. For one, the types of things being auctioned tend to vary throughout the turn, and so do the methods used. The auction for tiles is a traditional sequential auction, while the bid to control events is more of a majority control type of play. Additionally, the various "currencies" are in short supply, so auctions don't overstay their welcome. Players might have at most four red cards to compete in a red tile auction, and all assets are public. The auction plays out tactically. Do I want to commit everything to guarantee getting what I want - or do I hold back a smidgen to at least drive the price up and maybe get a bargain? Each auction is over quickly and there is little downtime.

I enjoyed my one play of Sylla. The play was certainly very familiar, but while the game may have lacked focus, the variety of arenas to compete in kept the game changing and engaging. Players who have appreciated the rock solid reliability and Euro-ishness of other Ystari games such as Amyitis and Caylus are likely to welcome another recognizable member of the family.