Game Night Verdicts #7

Some post-worthy games have been played since the last round of Game Night Verdicts. So much to talk about, if only there was a way to record my blathering for people to maybe listen to on their commute to work! But that kind of technology is still years away for sure.

Twilight Imperium 4 – One of the things that I appreciate about Twilight Imperium is the sense of epic scale, that I haven‘t quite seen replicated in any other board game. I‘m sure there are wargames that might dwarf it, and Mega Civilization might be an even more overwhelming experience for the amount of work you need to devote to it. But for all the criticism that TI3 used to get for its length, it was one of the facets that made every play of it such a momentous occasion. When the first details about TI4 and especially the changes in comparison to TI3 went public, I was underwhelmed. It seemed so very similar to its predecessor. The changes seemed mostly cosmetic. Less of an evolutionary jump to update a decade-old game, and more of a remastered stereo mix of the original tapes. It looked slick. The rules were cleaner and crisper, ditching the many variants that FFG used to throw at you in the rulebook. But TI4 seemed to be pretty much the same game as TI3. And while that statement is fairly accurate, it does gloss over the some of the smaller changes that reverberate throughout the entire play experience.

TI4
Setting up what will later be known as the ascension of (space) turtle power!

The most notable one being the changes in the objective deck, specifically the secret objectives. Those are now no longer uphill battles, that you have no way of completing, without accepting heavy losses in the process. Not to mention that they usually took multiple rounds, if an opportunity presented itself for them at all. Instead they are scaled down in difficulty, allowing for up to three to be held and/or scored during the game. This change really goes to the heart of the game, and readjusts the very elements that make Twilight Imperium so unique in the gaming landscape: the objectives.

Twilight Imperium is ostensibly a game about racing to gain victory points. But once you play, the flexible and visible nature of the objective deck does more than just give the group a direction to play towards; in the way that victory points structure and give order to the Rubik‘s Cube of rules combinations that characterize most mid-weight to heavy strategy games. Instead you are presented with a checklist of achievements. You can complete them in any order you choose and hopefully in an adroit enough way to make it past the design‘s deliberately placed bottlenecks. TI works because it gives you freedom and a sense of self-determination in how you want reach your achievements, while on the other hand situating you in a rules corset, that purposefully has obstacles hard-wired into it. The afore-mentioned bottlenecks are less of a design oversight or flaw, but an important part of why Twilight Imperium feels epic. They are fixed obstacles you need to deal with, but you can reliably prepare for and take into account.

By slapping a central event such as production of new units to the end of your main action (the system activation), of which you usually only have barely a handful each round, the game’s flow shifts dramatically. Instead of having everybody produce units simultaneously, your individual choices determine the pace and volume of your production. They are tied to your actions, and they come with the additional cost of being unavailable until the next round. It slows down the game‘s pace, admittedly, but also means that the huge mass of plastic ships isn‘t indifferently chucked onto the board, but placed deliberately by players with an eye on their potential use in a later round. It‘s a great way to subtly guide players into long-term thinking and strategic play, while not simply withholding payoff for their decisions. Cleverly plotting out your activation needs, their order and how those tie into getting you closer to fulfilling objectives is what Twilight Imperium encourages you to do.

For all the randomness that the dice-based combat and the action deck (sadly a mess, that the changes in the new edition just manage to amplify) inject into the game, the ways in which the game‘s design slows down expansion, makes every game end with a sense of achievement. Any objective you‘ve reached is testament to having successfully overcome the game‘s challenges. It‘s not the objectives themselves that make the hours feel like a worthwhile investment. It is also the freedom that TI grants you to pick the objective you want. It‘s such a simple thing, but it‘s so effective in stopping the game from fighting over turn order, round after round.

Since every player can score any objective fully, regardless of whether they are first or last to do so, the game’s pace is dictated by player action and not how close the game is to the end. Again, a huge benefit to making the game feel like scaffolding to highlight player action as opposed to a cage within which we fight each otehr. I could go on for another thousand words about this game, about the flaws of the action deck, the strength of the strategy cards, the emergence of diplomacy as the game progresses and so on.. But I’ll stop here for now. With a little luck, I’ll manage a second game of this before the year is over and TI4 will be featured here again. Twilight Imperium is still a unique and amazing game, and I feel bad for people who are missing out, because their group can’t make it work.

Automobile
Maybe Gary Numan was singing about something else?

Automobile – I haven‘t played a lot of Martin Wallace games. I‘ve heard his name bandied about with a sense of respect and occasional reverence. And I know of a group of people in my extended social circle, who will buy any Martin Wallace game sight unseen. They may not love all of them, and might even sell them later. But if his name shows up on the box, they‘re sold on it. Automobile was recommended to me as the most „thematic“ of his games, which isn‘t as much of a selling point to me as people seem to assume. But, to be fair, yes, the game‘s theme is well chosen and allows for quick and easy undestanding of the rules, and the way things change through play. For the most part, the game putters along quite nicely. You build factories, produce cars in them and then sell them, hoping to not end up with stock that an oversaturated market has no interest in.

The game handles demand well, by giving each player a glimpse of what part of the market will look like at the end of the turn, with some general rules hinting at tendencies during each of the four rounds. This is a great way of avoiding players having perfect information over the game state. But it still allows for enough inference that the game runs the risk of devolving into an exercise in numbercrunching. As much as it may seem „thematically appropriate“ in an economic game to spend your time calculating market demand and expected profit margins, it is not as the kids say „fun“. There seems to be the common misconception, that a rule that has a thematic explanation attached to it, not only makes the game more thematic but also entertaining. Both of which are not true. Theme does not enhance the rule of a game, it‘s actually the other way around. A good rule will elevate the thematic experience. Whereas a bad rule with a thematic reasoning behind it, is still a bad rule. As elegant as I find the way Automobile handles market demand (second only to Power Grid in my mind), actually selling cars is very anticlimactic. It‘s the reveal of the one bit of hidden information each round, that pushes the game forward. Everything else is either math or jockeying for turn order, which by now I believe is commonly accepted to not be the great eurogame experience people hunger for.

It was only towards the end of the game that my enthusiasm for it dipped. You see, you start off with a budget of about $2000. You invest this into new factories, expanding those factories, producing cars and then selling them for a profit. Opening factories and closing them is just simple action you can take on your turn. Selling cars does not involve your input. And any unsold cars are scrapped and when the game ends, any factories still on the board are converted back into money. So in the end, the game comes full circle by comparing your starting capital with what you‘ve ended up with. But what‘s missing is a sense of achievement. All the calculations, investments and bold predictions fade away into irrelevance.

The Flow of History – I wouldn‘t call myself a typical Kickstarter backer. After my beginner‘s phase of backing games I wanted to see made based on little more than a salesman‘s pitch; I‘m now part of the group that tends to back kickstarters for games I‘ve already played and that are either returning to print or are going to be released in a glitzier and fancier version. This was the case with The Flow of History. A civilization building game with a bidding mechanism at its core. Not some fancy movement of armies across a map to invade colonies, since neither exist in this game. You‘re just bidding on cards, adding them to your economy and plotting synergies and combos with the tableau in front of you. Since the game‘s economy is closely tied into how and what other players bid, you have a vested interest in keeping an eye on them. Their potential decisions will factor heavily in the likelihood of your strategy working out. Despite that, The Flow of History is a surprisingly confrontational game, with sudden military card purchases triggering devastating attacks on other players. It strikes a nice balance between focusing on maximizing the efficiency of your own cards and anticipating other players‘ decision. The game is good, and the polished presentation makes it feel meatier than a plainer color palette would have. Future plays will show if a more intimate knowledge of the deck will lead to the game becoming scripted. Since you‘re basically running through the entire deck each time you play, the only variation you‘re likely to see is when particular cards show up. Combos may become entrenched, dominant strategies may emerge. If the game doesn‘t offer enough beyond finding effective combos in a limited deck, that‘s an issue. So far, every one seems eager to give it another go.

say bye
In classic Japanese fashion we wait stoically, until we whup their asses.

Say Bye to the Villains – Following Love Letter, I became fascinated with Seiji Kanai games. I‘ve picked up Cheaty Mages, Mai Star, Lost Legacy, Eight Epics and this game solely on the basis of his name on the box. I‘ve enjoyed all of them to some extent, but the one game I continue to be positively suprised by when I return to it is Say Bye to the Villains. It‘s a cooperative card game in which you set up duels between players and villains. There are (thankfully) no attempts to curtail quarterbacking in this game. Not because quarterbacking is good, but because such attempts inevitably harm the core gameplay and quarterbacks are likely to seek ways to circumvent those rules any way. But not caring about quarterbacking isn‘t the reason why I like this game. It has more to do with the way the game turns the screws on players by not allowing them quite enough breathing room to „solve“ the challenge. In each duel, the villains stats will be changed by face down cards. Some make them stronger, some make them weaker. One even changes the winning condition of that duel. As players coordinate and play their cards, they need to make a decision how many of their actions they want to spend on knowing what‘s ahead, and how much of it on preparing their character for the fight. What‘s great about this, is that this puzzle can‘t be solved. It is always a question of gut instinct and hoping for the best. You‘re always just a hair‘s breadth away from knowing everything you need to know to make the perfect choice. But the further you push yourself to get there, the more you minimize your chances of winning the duel. But if you spend too much time beefing up, it might also blow up in your face. Not to mention that other players might need your support as well.

It‘s a game that hinges entirely on you accepting that you need to do the best you can, even when you don‘t have all the facts. For a hobby that is so focused on selling the illusion of control, of your choices shaping your destiny; that promotes the fantasy that superiour „skill“ crowns winners and that victory is a reward for merit… I can not help but love any game that thumbs its nose at such preposterously juvenile notions.

Say Bye to the Villains is a game, where it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life. [/ Picard]

 

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