Sunday, January 14, 2007

Behold the Dice Tower, or "I knocked the #@!!?@ tower again" (Shogun)

Woah, big box.

Surprisingly, in the big box, you'll find a regular sized game (small, even). You see, the box also contains a board game component so big and ridiculous it makes the El Grande tower seem entirely reasonable: Behold the Dice Tower.

Welcome to Shogun, the newly re-themed Wallenstein (#15 on BGG). I haven't played the original, but from what I understand, the differences between editions are minor.

Shogun - The Idea

In Shogun, players assume the role of a military leader in feudal Japan trying to become emperor. Power is primarily gained by controlling provinces and constructing public buildings, but care must be taken not to overtax the population or forget to stockpile enough food for the winter season, as that can lead to revolt.

A Brief Overview of the Mechanics

In the basic setup, each player starts with a number of predetermined provinces, as well as a particular number of armies in each (in the advanced setup, players have more control over the initial distribution). Players receive a card for each province they own and 5 bidding cards (numbered 0-4)

Each player also has an action board, which shows 10 actions + an auction space. The action board shows 10 different, specific actions, such as "attack", "place 5 armies for 3 gold" or "build a temple".

Along the bottom of the board, cards representing each of those 10 actions are layed out randomly. This will determine the order in which the actions will occur, but in an interesting twist the last 5 are placed face down so that there is some mystery
to the order of actions.

The game is played over 8 seasons, starting in spring and working through to the end of 2 winters. Each season, players must choose a province card to place on each of the 10 possible actions, and then choose a bid for turn order (it is also possible to bluff and not take a particular action, if desired).

Actions are then played out. The first action is resolved by all players from starting with the start player. Then the second, etc. Once all 10 actions have occurred, the next season begins.

Every 4th season is winter. In winter, no actions take place other than verifying that each leader stockpiled enough rice. If not, the population might revolt. Once this has been dealt with, victory points are counted. Each region controlled gives points, each built building (theatre, temple and palace) gives points and finally each player with the majority of any one type of building in an entire region gets points.

At the end of the 2nd winter, the game ends.

My Thoughts

There is a civ light/ multiplayer wargame lurking under here... but it's quite different from what you'd expect. It's wrapped by a very "German" game system (which means it's abstracted, gamey but clever). In our first playing, I found myself thinking that there are a LOT of moving parts here compared to most euros (in fact, I made the observation that this was the "Arkham Horror" of German games, though in reality I bet that comment just reveals to everyone that I've never played Caylus, Die Macher or a Splotter game). The way the system forces you to simultaneously plan up to 10 actions and forces those actions to be in 10 different provinces feels a little intimidating at first. Over the course of the game, it becomes easier, but there is definitely potential for serious analysis paralysis! Luckily, our group managed to keep a pretty good clip most of the time. The result is a game system which effectively conveys a sense of the challenges inherent in managing a large and disparate set of regions. It certainly feels different than the majority of civ building/ multiplayer wargame hybrids which normally allow much more focused decision making. Interesting indeed, but does that make a good GAME?

I'll start off by saying this: I quite enjoyed the game, but I have no idea if it works as a strategy game.

On a single turn, you have to decide a single action for up to 10 different provinces. Therefore, if at the start of the game you decides you wanted to build up your resources in a province, build a castle there and then attack a neighboring province to achieve a majority of castles in that region, it would take 3 seasons... in other words half the game. In the meantime, you've programmed up to 3 actions for 9 other provinces. Obviously, some synergy can be worked out: You could build the castle elsewhere in the region, you could move armies from a different province instead of taking a turn to build armies, etc, but you get the idea. It can take some time to get things done.

Then, you have to consider the fact that since your province cards essentially program your actions, if you lose a province to an attacking player you also lose the action (if it hasn't already occured). This can really throw major chaos into your plans.

Speaking of chaos, I haven't yet described what is certainly the calling card of the game: the dice tower. Imagine a very large square tower with various platforms inside. Whenever a conflict arises (either between players or between a player and his revolting farmers), cubes are thrown in to represent the units in combat. As cubes are thrown in, some fall out into the large plastic tray, and others stay trapped. The winner of the battle is the side who has the most cubes which fall out. Of course, the next time cubes are thrown in, some that were trapped will likely come out! (though cubes of other players never count, they are simply thrown back into the dice tower for the next conflict). This has the unsettling effect of allowing a battle to begin 2 vs 3 and end 4 vs 1, for example. The result is very interesting, and even quite fun if you can deal with the weirdness. But again, does this type of mechanism belong in a game which is otherwise asking for so much pre-planning, so much strategy, and a 3 hour time commitment?

I'm withholding judgement. Like I said, I had actually had a great time playing the game, and I'm really looking forward to playing again (it was pretty fascinating to see the dice tower in action, and how the actions all played out turn after turn). In the long term, however, I'd like to think that the game system would allow a seasoned player to actually do well and bring the chaos under control... otherwise it's hard to justify such a heavy system. The dice tower is a randomizer unlike any other, and it IS possible to keep track of what goes in there and plan accordingly. Similarly, there is probably a way to balance a conservative strategy by choosing short term, easy goals vs long term riskier ones (similar to the trade-offs you are asked to make in most simultaneous action selection games, even though they are typically lighter games such as Citadels or Mission:Red Planet).

Or, maybe it's just an adult version of Mousetrap, and we're all just watching all the pieces work together to see what happens. That can be fun, too.

For the record, Bharmer won the game. I came in a distant last, I think.

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