Thursday, January 18, 2007

Beowulf and Ideology

Two games tonight: Beowulf and Ideology

Beowulf is a game I've been curious about for some time, but couldn't justify the cost... opinions were simply to varied. Still, many people on the internet who's opinion I respect said it was great, so when I saw it on clearance I decided to take a chance.


The idea: The players are all accompanying Beowulf on his adventure, vying to impress him in order to be named his successor.

The components: The presentation of the game is very reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings. The layout of the cards is almost identical to that game (illustrations + a 1-4 symbols in the corner). The board, which is a very odd "L" shape, has a meandering path reminiscent of the scenario boards in LOTR. Of course, all the art on the board and the cards is by John Howe and this further increases the resemblance. A plastic figure representing Beowulf and various good quality cardboard components (treasures, fame points, wounds, etc) round out the package. One complaint: the graphic design could have been better. The text on the board is far too small, and the symbols for auction results should have been 10% bigger to accomodate the place markers. Definitely a case of form over function.

The mechanics: The game is structured around a linear path containing approx. 30 major and minor "episodes" from the book. Players will have to manage their hand of cards and compete in auctions along the way. Ultimately, the goal is to acquire the most laurels, but there are many paths available to obtain them. A second preoccupation is that players can get wounded or cursed along the way, and these can potentially reduce a player's score.

Major episodes are the main focus of the game. Each is an auction of some type, and a number of results equal to the number of players are on offer. The winner of the auction gets first pick, 2nd place picks next (and so on). It's worth noting that while certain items are definitely going to be worth more to one player than another (according to the strategy they are pursuing, for example), some of the results are simply better than others. This means that there is definitely incentive to to do well (and often definite incentive NOT to do poorly), but the value of the options will often be different for each player.

Minor episodes are typically opportunities between the major episodes to acquire or convert resources in order to better face the challenges ahead.

Risking: A central concept in the game is "taking a Risk". In many circumstances, a player can flip two cards in the hopes of turning up one or two particular symbols. If they succeed, there is a beneficial result (such as adding the cards to the player's hand, or contributing the cards to the current auction). If they fail, they get a "scratch".

Scratches and Wounds: Scratches are most often acquired as a result of a failed "Risk", but are also quite common the result of placing last (or second last) in an auction. 3 scratches equal a wound. 1 or 2 wounds do not affect your score, but 3 wounds or more come with an enormous penalty.

Thoughts on the Game

First of all, comparisons to LOTRs are superficial at best. Other than appearances, and some of the hand management mechanics, this is a totally different game. It's also been compared to RA, but ultimately I think it reminds me most of Taj Mahal. Both games revolve around a linear path of auctions (though the initial setup in Taj is random). Both have, as principal challenges, to manage a hand of cards in such a way as to have what you need, when you need it. Both require advanced planning in order to look down the road, choose the fights you want to win, and those you are willing to lose. Both offer various paths to victory, and the relative worth of the items up for auction changes according to the paths you are taking.

Also, like Taj, the game can initially seem uncontrollable (or, more accurately, that card draws are controlling you). However, there are enough hand management opportunities that I don't really feel this is the case. If you want to conserve cards for an auction which matters to you, don't get drawn into spending them on those that don't !

Obviously, the specifics differ quite a lot (there is no board play in Beowulf, and nothing equivalent to "Risking" in Taj. Auctions are handled completely differently), but it would be interesting to see if a player inclined to do well at one would do well in the other.

The linear,static layout of the board makes me wonder if the game will eventually get repetitive, but ironically it's cited as a strength by those who like it. I imagine the idea is that players can begin to know what is important, what to anticipate, etc. I wonder if this means that eventually the game would boil down to playing against groupthink? (i.e. everyone has decided that auction A is not worth fighting over, but auction C is crucial. Do you go for A because it will be easy, and let others waste resources fighting over C?). Hard to say. Would Taj Mahal be better if the layout was the same every time? Another bone of contention is the "Risk" system. Does it introduce too much luck? Again, I didn't think so. The system adds a level of excitement to the game, and yet punishment for over-risking is real. I'd be curious to know if a player who chose to never risk had as much chance to win as someone who risked at every opportunity, or whether the optimum strategy lies somewhere in between. Knowing Knizia, all three are viable in some way!

Because of all the dissenting opinion at BGG, I really expected this to be a "Love it or Hate it" experience. It really wasn't. I found the game to be good, but not great (a little like Tower of babel before it... the game works, it's enjoyable, but not overly compelling). Still, it seemed to be generally well received by the rest of the group (Shemp declared it to be "roughly a million times better than Lord of the Rings"). Since repeated playing are said to be necessary to really appreciate the game, I'll definitely be picking it again next week to see if it gets better.


I played horribly my first time out. I acquired 2 cursed (-2 score markers) early on, and did not manage to get many laurels along the way. I think I was focusing so much on a few auctions near the end that I ignored the rest (being happy to just avoid scratches and wounds). I did have a spectacular "Risk" where I played a special card which allowed me to turn 5 cards instead of 3, netting me a starting bid of 5! Surprisingly, Kozure and Luch still made me work for 1st place in that auction, but it cost them far more cards than it did me. I had plans to accumulate enough treasure to get the All iron shield, and then hoard cards to win the dragon battle and the highest number of symbols at the end. Somehow, I lost track of all that and limped into the end of the game in last place. Along the way, Luch distinguished himself as the largest Risk taker (getting hurt early and often, but managing to heal himself enough to avoid serious detriment). Kozure did very well and came in a distant first.


This was our 3rd or 4th playing of Ideology, but our 1st with 5 players. As the communist, I had the much feared "Iron Curtain" ability. It's a powerful advantage, and with it the red army has won every game we've had save one (our last game, when everyone wised up to the danger and made sure Russia didn't have a chance). Lucky for me, time has assuaged these fears, and I was allowed to play as freely as the others.

As far as Ideology games go, this one was rather straightforward. Most people concentrated on their own goals, and conflict over countries was mostly left to the end of the game. I brought Russia to 6, took over Central Europe and Scandinavia... bringing me to 10. Shemp's capitalists stole Central Europe away, but luckily Vietnam became available and I grabbed it. With the capitalists and bharmer's Islamics all reaching the goal of twelve on the same turn as me, I purchased a weapon of mass destruction giving me the win with 13 points.

Ideology continues to be a fun world conquest game. It's obviously a great opportunity to ham it up and role play the stereotypes, making for a lot of laughter... but the game system is compelling as well. I keep feeling that there is potential for a never ending cycle of "bash the leader" at the end of the game, but only one of our sessions have had this problem so it's probably just in my head.


  1. Beowulf definitely bears additional playing. I enjoyed the game (helped that I won, of course, but that's not my main goal). I can't see how anyone would hate it after one play, but maybe they got the critical risk rule incorrect.

    Your analogy to Taj Mahal is very insightful. I actually wouldn't have made the connection, but once you point it out, I can definitely see it. The auction mechanic is more interesting in Taj Mahal, but comes at a price of increased complexity.

    Ideology seems to me to be a bit of a hidden gem, though after 5 plays the Communism ideology does seem somewhat unbalanced in comparison to say, Imperialism. I enjoy it a lot, and it improved with five players, rather than becoming more onerous. I'm going to search at BGG and see if there are similar comments about Communism there.

  2. I agree that the auction Mechanic in Taj Mahal is more interesting than Beowulf. The withdrawal mechanism is really interesting, and I can't think of anywhere else it's been used. Beowulf might turn out to be a really great game (maybe), but it won't be on the strength of groundbreaking design.

    Ideology exists in a crowded genre of world domination games. Oddly, no game in that category has been a home run with me (Risk, Civilization, Conquest of the Empire, etc). Still, Ideology stands out from the crowd for it's interesting point of view and original game mechanisms. I always have a good time playing it, and it's not terribly long for this type of game. Definitely a hidden gem. Oh, and it's got the biggest box size to game table requirement ever!