Saturday, November 26, 2016

Board Game Review: Harbour

Two players contemplating their next move at Harbour. Both are sitting at a table looking at the components of Harbour, which are spread out before them.
Are you ready for a surprisingly great find? A friend introduced me to Harbour a couple of weeks ago. It's a game about owners of shipping companies building structures on the harbour to increase the amount of goods you can purchase and sell. That sounds really lame, doesn't it? And yet, between the humorous artwork and card text, the innovative mechanics, and the robust, competitive game play, this game turns out to be extremely enjoyable.

Don't believe me? Just look at the ratings:
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Useful
Average Length of Gameplay: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

Harbour consist primarily of five items:

  • A central play mat - This has spaces to represent the current market value of each good (meat, stone, wood, and fish)
  • Individual play mats - Each one has a basic building and a commodity track to monitor how many of each good the player has.
  • Two decks of cards - one of various buildings, one of four cards showing bonus point conditions
  • Wooden blocks to represent commodities - there's one for each good per player, as well as one additional per good to go on the central play mat.
  • Meeples to represent each player - These resemble orcish sailors.
This does not include things like player aids or the 'Harbour Master' card.

The central play mat, as well as the deck of building cards, are placed in the centre. The starting value of each commodity is determined randomly by placing a block for each good at random on the commodity track. Five buildings are dealt face up in the centre. Players choose a colour and place their meeple next to their play mat. In the advanced game, each play mat represents a different character with a special ability, but in the basic game, all play mats are turned to the basic side, which are all identical. They choose three goods to start the game, and arrange their commodity blocks accordingly.

I'm going to pause here to describe the commodity blocks, because they're really kind of ingenious. Rather than having a bunch of tokens or other game components to represent the various goods, each player is given one block for each good, and moves it up and down along the track on his player mat to indicate how many of that item he possesses. Thus, in the image below, we see that the red player has two each of wood, stone, and fish, and currently has no meat.

A player mat. This one represents the 'Travel Agent' character. Most of the mat, which measures about 3 inches by 6 inches, is taken up with the character's quote and special ability. The upper left corner has the art, a portrait of the character, which resembles a female orc in standard witch's clothing. Along the bottom are six spaces, each with a different number of crates marked on them, from one crate in the space on the left to six crates on the space to the right. A red meeple sits on the character portrait. Three square wooden tokens sit on the 'two crates' space: a blue, a grey, and a brown. The brown one, on top, has a sticker to indicate that it represents wood. A red token with a sticker showing a cow and a pig, sits beside the board.

This limits the amount of components needed to play the game, as well as keeping costs down. Furthermore, the central play mat has a similar track, but instead of showing how many of each commodity there are, it shows the current market value for each one.

A track of eight spaces in a sideways U shape. The top four have arrows indicating that pieces move from left to right. The top left spaces is marked with 2+, the next with 3+, then 4+, and the top right space is marked with 5+. All four spaces on the bottom are marked with a ship, and have arrows indicating that pieces move from right to left. The bottom left is labelled $2, the next one is $3, then $4, and the bottom right is marked $5. An arrow on the left indicates that a piece on the bottom left moves to the space on the top left. Currently, the 2+ space has the grey stone token, the 3+ space has the brown wood token, the 4+ space has the red cow and pig token, and the 5+ space has the blue fish token.

When a player sells goods, he moves the token on this central play mat down to the ship space below it. This grants that player the appropriate amount of money. For example, in the photo above, selling fish would grant that player $5, whereas selling stone would only grant him $2. Goods are not sold on a cost-per-unit basis; that is, selling two stone does not grant you $2 per unit of stone sold. Instead, you gain that amount of money for your entire supply of stone. You must have at least the amount indicated on the play mat to sell that item. In other words, in the photo above, you have to have at least two stone to sell it at all. Having more does not grant you any benefit; if you currently have six stone and you choose to sell it, you lose all of your stone and still only get $2.

Once a player has finished selling his goods and spent the money he gains from it, all tokens are moved along the track, following the sideways U path indicated by the arrows on the mat. All tokens are move as far along the track as possible. This means that any time a good is sold, it decreases in value, and when two or more goods are sold at once, they are reversed in worth.

So, using the photo above, let's imagine that a player is selling all of his fish, meat, and stone at once. He moves those three tokens straight down onto the ship space beneath them. This grants him a total of eleven dollars ($5 for the fish, $4 for the meat, and $2 for the stone). Then, because the wood is the only one still on the top, it is moved all the way to the right, now occupying the 5+ space. The stone is the next furthest along the track, so is moved up to the 4+ space. Then the meat is moved to the 3+ space, and finally, the fish is moved into the 2+ space. Thus, the wood, which was not sold, has now jumped in price. What was formerly the most expensive item is now the cheapest. And so on.

So, now that we understand that aspect of the game, let's look at how the game is actually played. On a player's turn, he moves his meeple to any unoccupied building. This can be one of the cards in the centre of the play area (these being unowned buildings), one of the cards in any player's play area, either his own or an opponent's (these being the buildings owned by individual players), or the building represented on a player's play mat (again, his own or another player). 

Three cards: the Lumber Yard with a picture of a treefolk fighting three other characters, with icons indicating that the card lets you gain one wood for each anchor you possess; the Trader's guild, with art showing a cloaked figure holding a chicken trying to trade with a goblin leading a giant chicken, and icons indicating that it lets you gain one wood and swap the places of two goods on the market on the central play mat; and Golem Crafters, with art showing a wizard and a stonemason building a large statue, with icons indicating that it allows you to convert three meat into five stone.
After moving your meeple to a building, you may take the action described on that building. The two most common actions include purchasing a building and gaining commodities. Usually, you simply gain a commodity (or multiple commodities). For example, in the cards shown to the right, the Traders Guild grants you a single wood in addition to swapping the places of two items in the market on the central play mat. 

The purchase icon (which resembles a building next to two dollar signs) allows you to sell your goods as described above, and use the income to purchase one of the cards available in the central play area. This does not prevent other players from using that card, but unless a player has a card with a top hat icon (as seen for example on the Lumber Yard card at right), he must pay you any one good of his choice as a toll for using your building. But the important thing is that you gain victory points for each building you purchase.

The game continues until one player has purchased four buildings. Each other player gets one final turn, and then the player with the most victory points takes a selfie with the Harbour Master card and is declared the winner.

This game is surprisingly robust, with a lot of careful consideration being given to every action. Yet it's still quick and easy, with a lot of humour (look at the artwork in the cards shown above to see what I mean). I really enjoyed this game, and even though I've only played it twice, I'm impatient to own a copy so I can share it with others!

Anyway, that's it for this week. I'll see you back here next week. Until then,

Game on!



Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Followup to Last Week's Entry

Last week, I posted an entry about Kickstarter. Specifically, I was talking about how some projects are on there because it's a new company (or perhaps just an individual) who has no way of bringing their idea to fruition without crowdfunding. Other projects are there as a way of gauging interest; some creators put their ideas on Kickstarter to see how many people are willing to back it, and if the project doesn't reach its goal, then it's probably not a viable product.

But there are quite a few people who use Kickstarter only as a way of funding a project without having to spend any money themselves.

By the way, for those of you who are curious, Conspire managed to get funded with just hours to spare. They finished at 101%, beating their goal by a mere $101. It was close; I wasn't sure it would make it. I was actually checking in every 20 minutes or so to see how they were progressing.

Anyway. Whether or not a creator truly needs the money is only one consideration in deciding to back a project. Another factor is the stretch goals (for those of you who don't know, a 'stretch goal' is an extra something that will happen if the project reaches a certain goal). A perfect example is the Order of the Stick Reprint Drive. Rich Burlew, an independent artist responsible for The Order of the Stick webcomic, wanted to get his older books back into print, but didn't have enough money to do this on his own. He wanted to reach a goal of just under $58,000 to bring volume 3: War and XPs back into print.

I already owned a copy of volume 3. There was no reason for me to back the project. The first stretch goals was that if they reached $97,000, he would also be able to reprint the print-only prequel book, On the Origin of PCs. I already owned a copy of that book as well.

But once the drive hit $150,000, he would reprint volume 2: No Cure for the Paladin Blues. That was the only book I was missing from the collection. I suddenly had a reason to back the drive.

Finally, and I think in some ways most importantly, there's one other consideration in deciding whether to back a project: past performance.

I've heard from a friend about one company (I don't remember which one, nor the game they were attempting to fund) that he supported on Kickstarter. The project was quite successful, and in addition to the main game, several expansions were unlocked. However, the company chose to ship the rewards to the backers all at once. This meant that they were going to wait until all of the expansions had been published before sending out any product at all.

As a result, the main game and the first few expansions are already available for purchase by the general public. But John can't buy them (technically, I suppose he could, but it would be silly to do so) because there's a copy already marked to be sent to him at some point in the future. In some ways, one of the benefits of backing a game on Kickstarter is to be amongst the first to receive a copy. But this company has subverted that for their backers.

Anyway, I suppose some people are so excited about being the first ones to get a product that they're willing to back a project even if it doesn't really need to be backed. Patience is not a virtue that some people have, after all...

But for those of us who don't mind waiting a little bit, there are other considerations to keep in mind when deciding to back a project. To review:

  1. Does this project really need money to get published? Or is the creator just unwilling to put up the money on his own?
  2. What are the stretch goals? Do they make the project worth backing?
  3. Has this creator made any other projects before? If not, does he or she seem like they could use the support? If so, are the backers of those projects satisfied with what they got out of it?
That's what I was thinking about as I sat down to write this entry. Maybe I was influenced in part because I attended a meeting of people who are tired of ideology and irrational decision making have such a large effect on the course of life for so many.

I will end there for now. See you back here next week! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Kickstarter

I was talking to a good friend recently about backing new games on Kickstarter. He brought up an interesting point. He described the criteria he uses to decide which projects to back. The way he described his approach, he would back games from new producers who looked like they have the potential to become something noteworthy. If it's a producer's first game, he's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Subsequent projects will be judged on how he felt about the first project.

But one thing he said that was really interesting was that he won't back projects from big companies.

This is of particular interest to me, as I watch people going crazy for the new game from The Oatmeal. The game is called Bears vs Babies, and is currently sitting at nearly 25,000% funded.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Bears vs Babies is a bad game. I'm not even saying that the previous game, Exploding Kittens, was a bad game. I've played it, and enjoyed it, and am not averse to playing it again.

What I am saying is that people are going insane over this game. With a goal of $10,000, they're already at nearly $2.5 million with five days left to go. Yet from what I can see, the backers of this project will get exactly two things that will not be offered to people who did not back it: a single promo card and some officially branded Bears vs Babies condoms.

And given how well the previous game Exploding Kittens did, I find it hard to believe that they need to crowdfund their new game.

Contrast this with the project Conspire. This is a storytelling game in which players keep their roles hidden from one another as they tell a story together about conflicting loyalties. It looks like it follows in the great tradition of Fiasco and similar games. It's the third project from Cherry Picked Games. Their first two projects were (barely) successful games; the first was a roleplaying game called Catalyst set in the modern world, in which characters must fight off a demonic invasion from Hell. The second is a party game called Drink.

All three of these look like good projects. And this is a new company, a small company, and there's really no way they can get these games published without the support of their fans. But at this moment, they are just under $1,500 short of their $10,000 goal, with only 21 hours to go.

This is despite the fact that they have some really good backer levels. Some higher ones allow fans to influence the art in the rulebook. So there's some good reasons to back this project instead of waiting for the game to be published to buy a copy. But because the company, and the games they've created so far, are so unknown, they don't get the support that games like Bears vs Babies do.

It's like the old YouTube celebrity phenomenon. People have a limited amount of attention to give out, and aren't likely to go looking for new channels to support. There can only be one Freddie Wong or Lindsey Stirling. Even if there are other creators out there, they're so likely to be overshadowed by the people that get all the attention that they probably won't be able to continue doing what they want to do.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is this: be more discriminating in the projects you back. Try to look to see if the company (or the individual) who's proposed the project really needs crowdfunding support. Will you get something as a backer that you wouldn't get if you waited to purchase the game once it's published? Has the project already been funded, indicating that you don't need to back it to get it?

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about lately. What are your thoughts? How do you decide which projects to back? Leave your ideas in the comments. I will see you here next week. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Board Game Review: Terra Mystica

A game of Terra Mystica in progress. The board, made up of a series of hexagonal spaces, each representing a different terrain type, some with discs to indicate that it has been changed to a different terrain type, is covered with wooden pieces of various types, some of which have cardboard tokens indicating that they've been turned into cities.
I recently got to learn a hefty game called Terra Mystica. Being the dedicated game reviewer that I am, I will now review it for you. As always, we start with the numbers.

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 5
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Average Length of Gameplay: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

Terra Mystica is a heavy and fairly complex game. Players take on the role of a faction. Many of these factions are a fantasy race, such as elves, dwarves, halflings, or giants. Others are classifications, like chaos magicians, witches, alchemists, or engineers. Still others appear to have been created wholecloth, like the auren or the swarmlings. Regardless of which faction you choose, you take the appropriate player mat, which details all the options, costs, special abilities, etc, for your faction. This mat also provides a place to organise your pieces.

In the centre of the playing area is the game board. This is comprised mostly of hexagonal terrain spaces, including mountains, deserts, wastelands, plains, forests, lakes, and swamps. Rivers separate some of these hexes. Each faction can only settle in one terrain type; for examples, merfolk can only live in the lakes, whilst nomads can only settle the desert, and so on. Players start by placing two dwellings on the board, in any hex they are allowed to settle.

During a player's turn, he may take any one of a list of eight actions detailed on a handy player aid. In some ways, the most important action is to build or upgrade dwellings. This is done by paying the listed cost (usually one gold and one worker cube to build a dwelling; six gold and two worker cubes to upgrade a dwelling to a trading house, etc. Note that trading houses may be upgraded either into a temple — which can be further upgraded into a sanctuary — or into a stronghold). And this is where the unique and interesting mechanic of Terra Mystica comes into play: whenever you build or upgrade a structure, any players who occupy adjacent hexes gain power.

Power is a strange little beast. On your player card are three 'bowl of power.' These are purple ovals on which you place markers representing your mystic power. You start the game with some tokens in bowl 1 and some in bowl 2. These tokens are effectively worthless until they are in bowl 3. They may be spent from bowl 3 by moving them to bowl 1 in order to take a variety of 'power actions,' which are generally detailed either on the game board, your player mat, or one of the various tokens you can receive throughout the game.

To get power tokens into bowl 3, you must move them there from bowl 1. However, you cannot move tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3 if there are any tokens in bowl 1. You must first move all tokens from bowl 1 into bowl 2 before you can start moving any tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3. Normally, tokens are moved as a result of other players building or upgrading structures on a hex adjacent to one of your structures. Each power gained in this manner allows you to move one power token to the next bowl. Occasionally, you will gain power as part of your income, or by advancing on a cult track (more on cult tracks in a moment). The only time you're allowed to move power tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3 when there are still tokens in bowl 1 is if you take a free action to sacrifice (that is, remove from the game entirely) an equal number of tokens from bowl 2.

When building a new dwelling, you must place it adjacent to one of your existing structures. But, as it is rare to have two of the same terrain type adjacent to one another, this means that you will have to terraform. There is a terrain conversion wheel on your player mat; the further away from your native terrain an existing terrain type is on this wheel, the more difficulty it is to convert. You must use a number of spades (spades are normally obtained by turning in worker cubes, but can be acquired in other ways as well) equal to the number of steps you move along the conversion wheel in order to terraform hexes. Once you have transformed a terrain hex in this way, you place a marker on it to indicate the type of terrain that it has become.

In addition to building and upgrading structures, actions include:

  1. Upgrading your shipping. Most factions start with a shipping value of zero, but this can be upgraded during the game. Your current shipping value determines how many river spaces away a structure can be and still be considered 'indirectly adjacent.' Although indirect adjacency does not count when building new structures, it does count when determining how many connected hexes you control at the end of the game when determining victory point for largest controlled areas.
  2. Decrease the exchange rate for purchasing spades. At the start of the game, most factions must spend three worker cubes per spade, unless using a power action or other special benefit. Taking this action decreases the cost.
  3. Send a priest to a cult temple. There are four cults in Terra Mystica: one each for earth, air, fire, and water. The different factions start with zero, one, or two points of influence in each one (for example, the darklings start with one each in earth and water and none in the others, whereas the witches start with two in air and none elsewhere). By sending priests to a temple, that faction moves two or three spaces further along the track for that cult. Standing in a cult is worth victory points at the end of the game, and you can gain power from moving along the tracks as well.
  4. Take any power actions or special actions available to you. There are some power actions listed on the game board, and special actions may be made available to you as a result of actions you take during the course of the game (for example, once the Witches have built their stronghold, they gain the option of a special action that allows them to place a dwelling on any unoccupied forest space). Power actions and special actions may only be taken once per round (even if it was taken by another player; so once a specific action has been taken once by any player, no player may take that action again until the next round).
  5. Pass. Once you are unable (or no longer wish) to take any more actions, you can pass. When you pass, you turn in your current Bonus Card (which grants you resources, points, special actions, or some combination of these) and select a new one to use on your next round. In addition, the first player to pass on a round becomes the first player on the following round.
Once everyone has passed, you proceed through the cleanup phase, which involves resetting the once-per-round actions, gaining cult bonuses, and so on. Then the next turn begins with the income phase. The game lasts for a total of 6 rounds. At the end, the player with the most victory points wins. Victory points are rewarded (and can be spent!) in a variety of ways. 

This is just the briefest overview (and it's already quite long!) There are a lot of details I've left out (for example, I haven't even mentioned founding cities!). So you can see why I rated the complexity of this game at 5.

The first time I played this game, I lost very badly. I don't normally mind losing, but in this case, I felt like I simply had no real clue what was going on. I had trouble remembering what the iconography on the game pieces meant, I had trouble working out what options were available to me on my turn, and this left me completely unable to devise a strategy. The second time I played, it was better, but I still feel I need to play a few more times to really get a grasp on how this game works.

The other problem I have is that this game has a strong economic aspect. The more structures you build, the more income you receive. But of course, it can be very expensive to build structures. It's the old 'you have to spend money to make money' trope. And for whatever reason, I've never been very good at that. Games with a strong economic component like this are hard for me.

I don't know. I think I'll give it a few more tries before I write it off completely. But I also think it will take me two or three more plays to really get the hang of it. Which is a shame, because several of my friends really like this game. I'd hate to think I'm missing out on something good just because of a bad introduction. So I don't want to just give up on it. But I fear it will take a few tries before I can get it right, assuming I ever do.

Anyway. That's my impression. What are yours? Please let me know what you think in the comments below, and I will see you here again next week. Until then,

Game on!