Thursday, October 28, 2004

Betrayed by Bugs, Snakes and Bad Art

Last night, at a special Holloween edition of WAGS, we tried out two new games... Betrayal at House on the Hill and Modern Art.

To the tune of an eclectic (and sometimes only tenuously related to Holloween) playlist handpicked by Shemp, we gorged on the scariest food of all: Arby's, Twinkies and something... else (which was white and stretchy but otherwise unidentifiable). It is worth noting that Kozure's "Extreme Baked Potato" probably ranks as the single scariest part of the evening...

The first game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, had us all exploring a haunted house toghether. As each room is revealed, we would find items, witness unspeakable events and uncover terrible omens. Each omen revealed makes it progressively more likely that one of the players' character will go insane and betray the group (which is called "the haunting"). When that happens, the traitor reads a text which describes the nature of his insanity/ transformation, as well as his diabolical mission. Similarly, the remaining good players read a different text describing their objectives to get out of this mess.

Our first session saw Luch transform himself from a kid who feared nothing skeleton related, but was terrified by bugs, to... a... Bug Lord. Suddenly, giant insects filled the mansion and the rest of us were left scrambling trying to concoct a bug spray we could use to kill them all. Sadly, we didn't even come close. (Although, we had a very "movie" moment when Shemp came rushing down to rescue Kozure from a giant beetle with his very sharp axe, only to have it THUD into it's hide and then get eaten.)

Our second session had us exploring a house which was almost entirely basement. This time, Shemp turned on us by turning into a giant two headed snake. The rest of us where supposed to rush to cast a spell so we could destroy the heads before he got too big. Unfortunately, we forgot the rush part and pretty much just let him grow to full size. Obviously, he won (and I had the distinction of being the only character eaten alive that game).

All in all, this game was fun, but not as much as I had hoped. For some reason, most of these "exploration" games seem to have a problem with pacing. I had read that the first game would be the best, because you didn't know what to expect and the flavour text on the cards and rooms would be new. I didn't feel that way. Having to stop and read the text all the time ruined the momentum for me. In our second game, the first exploration phase went more quickly becasue we were breezing through most of the text, and I enjoyed it more. Once the haunting begins, we hear the only flavour text which matters... the transformation of the madman. This is when the real fun begins (although having to stop the game to absorb our goals and set up the board with the monsters also breaks up the pacing). In the two scenarios we played, I was impressed by how different the game felt due to the nature of the haunts. If they can be equally "fresh" across all 50 scenarios, I would be impressed. I look forward to experiencing more of them!

Next up was Modern Art. This is an older game by Reiner Knizia (Tigris and Euphrates) in which everyone plays art dealers, trying to make as much money by buying and selling paintings. The mechanics are nice and simple, yet there's enough variety and surprise to keep it interesting. Essentially, you put up a painting for auction and have everyone bid for it according to the auction type on the card (free auction, sealed auction, once around, fixed price or double lot). The winner of the auction pays the player who put it up (unless the auctioneer himself gets it, in which case he pays the bank). The game goes on for 4 seasons, and at the end of each season (concluded once any artist sells five paintings) the artists are ranked by popularity (most paintings sold). The top three are worth money and the others aren't. At his point, the players sell their all their purchased paintings back to the bank and hope they turned a profit. The trick is that which every passing season, a mechanism allows buyers to capitalize on an artist's earlier fame. In the end, the most money wins.

We played two games of Modern Art. As with any bidding game, the first go around is difficult because you really don't know what things are worth. Still, since the game has simple mechanics it didn't take us too long to get into it. We drastically overbid everything the first time, but in the end Kozure (House of Tokyo) came out ahead. The second game had us all bidding lower than our first game (but, still too high,I'm guessing). Lucky for me, I made a KILLING by banking on an artist who had placed first on the first two rounds. Everyone else thought there wouldn't be enough cards left to have him place highly again, but I had three in my hand. I payed next to nothing and he came in first for a third time. I won that one by a large margin!

Modern Art was lots of fun. It was quick, simple and still had us very involved. I could see quite a few different types of people liking this one, and I think it will come out quite a bit. I was thinking about the transactions last night on my way home. It occurred to me that when we look at an artist which is likely going to make, say $40 000 per painting that round, if we pay another player $37 000 for it then we make only $3000 while the seller made $37 000!!! (in other words, paying money to give another player a big lead). Seems obvious now, and maybe everybody but me figured this out last night, but considering this fact I'm surprised we weren't bidding closer to HALF of what a painting is worth rather than near it's total.

We'll see next time...

Betrayal at House on the Hill: 6
Modern Art: 8


  1. OK, I''m probably going to do this as a couple of different comments, but last things first - Re: bidding in Modern Art, and Easy's mathematical epiphany: Yes, you've given the other player a lot more money than you make, but you are still ahead of where you would be otherwise. You fall behind relative to the player making the sale; you also move ahead relative to the other players. It seems to me (and I think I'm agreeing with you, here) that what we neglected to do is take into account WHO you are buying from, and attempting to estimate if that person is ahead of you or not. It's another factor to that would need to be considered in order to become a Modern Art Master Player, but can probably be skipped without doing too much damage to your game.

    I really enjoyed Modern Art, and basically give it a "what you said." Definitely a game that anyone could enjoy, except for the EXTREMELY math-phobic, and maybe rigidly ideological Communists. And maybe even some of them would enjoy. You never know.

    I'll rate this puppy as a 8. (As always, subject to revision on replay)

  2. Having played Betrayal at House on the Hill twice with Tili before playing it last night, I can say with authority that the many minor glitches and squeaks are not isolated to a single game or haunt. So far the record is two wins for the traitor and one win for the heroes, so it's too early to call for side balance.

    Despite these drawbacks, however, the game is fun, with a few slow spots.

    I'll give it a provisional 6, with room for improvment in subsequent plays.

    Modern Art I enjoyed, even though it's the type of game that I'm typically not good at. Bidding and speculation are just not my forte - I was pleasantly surprised to find I had won the first round.

    It's a great combination of game depth and simplicity - that ideal combination where game theme is flavorful enough to make it more than just an exercise in math and prediction, but not so complex that the gameplay sags under the weight (which starts to be the case with Betrayal at House on the Hill). Tigris and Euphrates and Princes of Florence are similar in this balance of theme and gameplay. Personally, I tend to enjoy games which err slightly on the "theme" side of the equation, but as I play more games, I recognize the elegance of Knizia's designs.

    The two games are an interesting study in contrasts. I would look forward to playing Modern Art again: 8.

  3. And as far as ~ the Revenge of the Haunting of the Betrayal of the Ghosts at the Hill House on the Hill: The Bloodening ~ goes, I say: Meh.

    I don't know, this just didn't really do it for me.

    As far as game mechanics go, there were a lot of interesting things going on; that may have been the problem - a game too enamoured with clever mechanics. Streamlining is called for, in my opinion.

    The theme is okay, but spooky ANYTHING is very, very difficult to pull of successfully. Especially written down on little cards, and read out loud. I think the games authors made a reasonable effort at something that would require a superlative effort to really sing.

    The mechanic of the "Betrayal" is way too clunky, and stops the flow of gaming dead while everyone searches for little pieces of cardboard. The blatant break also makes the first half of the game seem irrelevant. I understand that it is intended as an opportunity to pump up the stats of the characters, but in our session it didn't seem to function that way.

    No comment on the balance of things. I agree w/ Kozure that that would require several more plays to assess.

    As is widely known elsewhere, the manual is also error stuffed, and could have been proofread playtested and edited much further.

    Then I can start nitpicking the design - cards the same colour on both sides, resulting in easily being boxed, symbols that don't read well on some room tiles, and plastic number indicators that are ambiguous also point to a game that was rushed to market. I felt a little like WE were playtesting it.

    Really kind of suffered compared to the considered elegance of Modern Art, even though they are entirely different games.

    In summation: Too cludgy. Wizards of the Coast needs to let this one bake a little bit more. I was going to give this a five, but in the course of writing the review have become more annoyed than I was. A provisional 4.5, although I am willing to give it another shot.

  4. It's like this: We don't need the bad parts of role-playing to be grafted onto what could be a neat little tile-laying game. There are enough bad role playing games out there as is.

  5. Because we could play Call of Cthulu instead, eh?

  6. Shemp,
    I agree with you on Betrayal. The production problems don't bother me as much as they bother you, however (although for the price of the game, I would have expected better).
    This one stands as the first game I've purchased which I would probably return if given the chance (well, I'd probably return a few of my Duel of Ages expansions as well...). I liked it enough to play again, and in fact I'm really looking forward to learning about more of the haunts (a pretty neat idea, and th e highlight for me).
    Still, I'm with you on the "usefullness" of the first half of the game. If I could come up with a way to eliminate it, I would probably give it a try.
    I'm also with you on the text. I think the game wil improve once we stop reading it, and just "know" what everything is. The "scary" bits aren't scary because they aren't relevant. The only text that matters is the transformation.

  7. I wonder if this would work:
    The house is layed out one tile at a time (going clockwise, one per player) until there are as many tiles with "omen" symbols as there are players. Each character gets one piece of equipment, and one omen card. Place the characters in the room with the omen symbols (again, chosen clockwise). Randomly determine who's card will set off the "haunt". Game proceeds normally (except that the original revealed rooms will never produce any items, events or haunts... just as though they had been revealed earlier in the game).

    This way, the haunt is pretty much revealed FIRST... not ruining the pace of the game. Also, I think that being forced to explore the rest of the house during the haunt would make the whole thing more tense and exciting (but clearly harder for the heros). Who cares? They are supposed to die!

  8. Might have to go with two omens tiles per player, and then choose locations clockwise. The house should be small, but my original way would probably be TOO small.