What a bumpy few weeks it has been. While I’ve mostly kept busy playing games and writing articles, I didn’t really get around to writing down some earlier Game Night Verdicts, which will now be lost to the aether. No use crying over spilled… meeples… let’s see what the last round of games has unearthed.
The Legend of the Cherry Tree that Blossoms Every Ten Years – Sadly, the German edition of this game, omits the cute run-on title and reduces it to the generic The Legend of the Cherry Tree. It’s rather impressive just how much charm is sucked out of playing the game for the first time simply by naming it something that interchangeable. To be fair, the game itself isn’t particularly steeped in rules that carry a lot of narrative potential, or even thematic resonance. It’s a somewhat abstract token collection game with a fairly straight-forward reward structure.
It’s still unexpectedly challenging to get into, though, as the resolution of your turn isn’t particularly intuitive. Had it been supported by some narrative explanation or aided by helpful charts in front of you, the first couple of games may have been smoother. You draw tokens, keeping some or all of them, depending on whether you’ve pushed your luck a little too far or not.
There are also 3 special abilities you may be able to use at the end of your turn. But this is actually the designer’s way of using sleight of hand on the players. Simply by being there, they draw attention to the immediate question of when to push forward and when to accept a modest draw. When in reality, this isn’t really the turning point of the game. It is almost a distraction, in fact.
The game’s core, its heart, is literally the very last decision you make in this game before calculating victory points. In The Legend of the Cherry Tree that Blossoms Every Ten Years you score VP in two ways. One is in public, and the other in secret.
The public part of the score is, well, public. Which is to say that anyone can calculate how many points you’re going to get for that part of your token collection. But it’s the hidden VPs that let the game breathe. As you play, you collect tokens behind your screen. At the end of the game you split the tokens into two piles, based on colors, and whoever has the majority in each set will score a number of points. So far, so dull.
But because two of those colors (black and white) are wild and can be added to either pile in any distribution, the game unfolds its cleverness very late in the game. Suddenly you realise that you should have paid attention to which tokens other players have moved behind the screen. You need to split your wilds just right to get the best possible score for your collection. It’s this little tweak that turns a slight push-your-luck game into something with a bit more bite to it. Unfortunately it takes a few plays to pick up on it and I’m not sure if most groups haven’t written the game off by the time the end arrives. (cf. Asgard).
Sidereal Confluence – After a laughably long time on my shelf, I finally managed to drag it back to the table. Naturally, I had forgotten about 80% of its rules leading to awkward scenes of me having to flip through the rulebook while the group waited. A big no-no for a game night, but with so much going on outside of gaming right now (hence the irregular updates), rules prep fell through the cracks.
Sidereal Confluence strikes me as a game that I would put alongside Vast The Crystal Caverns as games with an ambitious high concept design, that needed a more ruthless developer and editor. Both games are exciting and intriguing based on what they aspire to. While that aspiration can carry a group a little into the experience, it can’t do the heavy lifting of getting everyone into the right mindset.
That’s what graphic design, production design and plain strong development does. Which is not to say that either Vast or Sidereal Confluence are unplayable. Far from it. But the effort and time investment the two games ask of players to even acquire basic play competence is simple too much. It’s a similar argument I’ve made about Twilight Struggle, although here it is much more pronounced.
We all enjoy exploring the decision space of a game. Whether it’s fine-tuning our strategies or simply trying out wild and strange ideas and seeing what happens. (Personally I fall into the latter category.) But no matter your inclination, I think there’s no question you can’t really do either until you understand the rough outlines of the game; until you can tell the difference between a good decision and a bad one.
I’ve heard arguments that there is something of a spectrum that goes from memorizing the rules to developing strategies. I’m not sure I agree. But I do think that there is a step between those two points, that often defines whether a game will be embraced by a group or not.
It’s the “I think I know what I’m supposed to do” step. The moment, where you understand the game, even if you are miles away from mastering it. And that part is work. As long as you’re stuck on this level, you can’t really engage with the games incentives, objectives or finer points in its design. You’re doing the equivalent of grasping in the dark unsure if you’re touching an elephant, a cupboard or your own nose.
In this game there are simply too many moving parts and too many variables to play it on anything but the most superficial level at first. Which is basically just fast-talking at each other. In fact a great number of deals at our table happened or didn’t happen not because we actually managed to evaluate the offer and figure out which one benefited us the most. They happened because somebody spoke faster than someone else.
It’s a similar “missing the point of the design” issue I experienced when playing Modern Art. If you know what to pay attention to, you can narrow the range of sensible bids very quickly, and know when to stop. You end up with a tense game with a layer of bluffing and educated guesswork woven in. If you don’t, you might get carried away by the game’s setting and start a bidding war for reasons that are basically role-playing. Because “that’s what auctions should feel like”. Both ways of playing are fun, but the latter is notably slighter and trivial in comparison.
The same seems to be true for Sidereal Confluence. The care with which point values are printed on each technology card. The fact that every lifeform gets their own special ability and slightly changed resource demands. Even the fact that there are is a secondary economy surrounding ships that you need to invest to expand your VP engine, implies that there is a strong and robust framework of supply & demand hard-wired into the game. And all of it passed us by, because we were simply overwhelmed by the sprawling mess laid out before us.
Looking back I’m not sure any decisions I made was actually based on a solid interpretation of the game state, the objectives I should pursue and my relation to other players. Most deals were a very simplistic “fill out this card I have” and “don’t trade more cubes than I get back”. I didn’t hate doing that. But I’m reasonably certain that we’ve done the equivalent of buying a race car to practice parallel parking.
I am going to need a lot more plays before I feel confident enough to actually talk about what the game IS. To me, this is a negative. A game that’s difficult to play, hard to figure out and a time sink to get to play fluently, simply won’t get back to the table after our second or third attempt. It’s 2018. There are too many games out there, to justify spending weeks on the promise of maybe getting to a meaty game that we enjoy.
Panic on Wall Street – On the other side of the coin is this game. It’s a game where fast-talking a deal doesn’t feel like you’re wasting the game’s potential, so much as choosing one of the intended styles of play. The sand-timer certainly helps to disabuse you of the notion that you need to carefully calculate the value of any deal you want to make. Although, again, once you realise what you should pay attention to, the game feels less like a loose party game, and more akin to a tense squabble over paper money. I particularly like that the design splits into two groups, each of which gets to have a winner. It highlights that the interaction between the investor and manager is supposed to be mutually beneficial, even if you’re trying to beat your competitor. Which is the core of any practical and worthwhile act of negotiation. Multiple winners is a criminally under-utilised option with almost all trading games out there.