Thursday, April 17, 2008

Beauty and the Beast (Shogun x 1 and Phoenicia x1)

Clever Production Design vs. Poor Production Design in Games

Phoenicia and Shogun were the games of choice this week. We've tentatively adopted a new format where we play one game from the previous week each week, so as to allow a better exploration of the strategic depth and other subtleties of the game.

Phoenicia on second playing has improved in terms of speed and smoothness of play, but, for me at least, some of the initial interest has worn off. Although it seemed intriguing at first, this system seems to suffer from a marked runaway-leader aspect, a sameness of play and a inevitability of a certain winner which I can't really see any remedy to without major rules changes.

As mentioned in the previous review, the person who leads each auction is the VP leader from the previous round; in case of tied high scores the first player marker (in this case called the Overseer) is passed to the closest tied player to the left of the current Overseer. The benefits of being the auctioneer are that if you have the money, (which you often will, if you are leading in production) you can buy what you need right away without much interference from the other players. Since you control the auction until you give it up, you can conceivable buy a number of low cost items all in your turn if one or two of the other players already have bought an item or are otherwise out of cards or coins.

If you are the last player, you can often buy the one (or choose from the cards remaining) and buy it at cost. However, at that point, your selection is usually so limited as to severely limit your tech path options.

If you get the right combination early and grab the VP lead, you can more or less race to the end and leave the other players wallowing in the 18-24 point range.

Then again, maybe my two wins were a fluke… I'm not certain. I recently read a criticism of Agricola ( )which, although I cannot comment on the accuracy of it in relation to Agricola, I can apply some of the same criticism of specific feelings about the game to Phoenicia here.

To quote the review:

"There is a whole class of games where the opening setup determines the likely winner. Card games. They have a few other characteristics (at least for good ones): 1) they are short, 2) you play many hands to reduce the luck (or determine the better player). Good players will win more than their ‘fair’ share of games, but won’t win every hand.

Agricola is a single deal card game that takes 90+ minutes to resolve."

A good game should take as long as required to determine the winner, and no longer. Bridge (a great game) would be farcical if you spent 30 minutes playing a hand. Agricola is chess between even players where you may be randomly up a knight or down a queen, but don’t know until halfway through the game."

In Phoenicia's case, although you aren't dealt a secret hand of cards for asymmetrical player ability purposes, once one player pulls away, it seems to have a definite snowball effect. The winner seems to be determined early. Add to this the fact that attempting to block another player's strategy by purchasing the card he/she most likely wants is often either impossible or not viable as a strategy. If you did, you'd most likely torpedo your own strategic path, so the prospect of blocking another player by spending your own much-needed resources to stop her/him from getting it is the gaming equivalent of suicide bombing: you may (or may not) stop your intended target, but you'll almost certain kill yourself in the process.

Given that the only direct player interaction is the auction and everything else is player mat optimization, you're left with a game where everyone is left doing their own thing. If you buy the right card combo (often by virtue of where you're sitting for the first auction) early on, you win by snowball effect and the outcome seems pretty fixed. Though I do think I made some savvy choices early on, and shifted production strategy (from improved hunting to improved mining) at the right time to maximize my returns, it really didn't feel tense after the third or fourth round. Once I had money coming in, it wasn't much of a stretch to get more.

Specifically, getting the tracker allows improved hunting, which is a pretty cheap production path for points and production, (tools 2 vs. farming 5) and also affords reduction on the caravan, which is a great boost for points and production. I then gunned for the shipyards (and bid high), which gave me increased hand size, VPs, production and discounts on future improvements. Moving from there to Fort, Smelter, Shipping Fleet and City Walls just sealed the deal.

Easy's observation that the second and third seat players seem to have a definite disadvantage in the auction set-up also seems quite accurate.

Combined with the well-documented graphic design problems (shared VP/production track, poor iconography, low visibility for some critical icons and values) and poor rules-as-written ruleset, this makes for some very difficult obstacles for the enjoyment of the game. However, and this is a big however, it still seems worth playing again for some reason, at least one more time. Faint praise, but one feels like playing Phoenicia because it's a simple, relatively quick playing civilization game with some modicum of theme and tech development - not overlong like the sprawling Civilization or Through the Ages games, but not overly abstracted like Vinci or Tempus. At the same time, it's not a very good quick medium-lightweight civ game, it's just that there's not many successful ones out there. Even Antike, which is in my mind one of the more successful medium-weight civ games, is quite long by comparison.

Does Phoenicia just boil down to a straightforward auction game with tech tree and resource optimization? Pretty much, but it's quick. It lacks other components which (to me) are important to a successful-feeling civ game - exploration/discovery and direct competition. Plus, the art and iconography are mediocre at best, and confusing at worst.

Compared with Phoenicia's graphic layout, Shogun seems positively sparkling. Cleverly thought out balancing factors and a number of very interesting mechanics - cube tower, turn planning, bluff, hidden auction, etc. - remind one what a well thought through system can feel like by comparison to one which feels both graphically and mechanically unpolished. In Phoenicia's defence, Shogun has had one previous incarnation (as Wallenstein) to work out kinks, so it's like comparing a concept car to the fifth or sixth year version/model of a proven car design. The polish of Shogun's art and design definitely makes this the "beauty" of this pairing of beauty and beast.

Shogun balances powerbase-type strategies by awarding points for building types spread across several regions, allowing for players with scattered region cards to benefit. The cube tower also mitigates randomness in attacks and defense that might otherwise result from dice or table-based combat. Overall it is a nicely balanced game, but it still fails to engage me on some level - there isn't much "movement", if you know what I mean.

Last night's game has also underscored for me the concept that it's often better to focus taxation/rice unrest markers in one well garrisoned province rather than trying to spread your forces thin to quell potential unrest across your holdings (the old "You can't make all of the people happy all of the time," maxim). It also reminded me of the possible combination punches of getting reinforce, move and attack orders during a turn.

This game was much closer, and it was near to impossible to predict the winner. It feels like you're more in control, but there is much less movement. One minor criticism I have of this game is that it seems to end just as you're getting going - despite the fact that "getting going" has required 90 minutes already.

I like Shogun, but it remains a game that I don't really look forward to playing when it's selected. I don't dread it, or groan when it's mentioned, but it's still not something that I look forward to playing, like Railroad Tycoon or many of my other highly rated games. I did enjoy this game, as it was pretty close and required attention and careful strategy, but perhaps for the lack of dynamic movement that I previously mentioned, it's never quite as exciting as some other of my favourite games - it lacks as many highs and lows.

One day we'll find a civ game and a waro (weuro) that I like. For now, the search continues.


  1. Anonymous11:20 PM

    Great post.

    Phoenicia: I didn't share your initial enthusiasm for the game, but held out hope that the first game was "not great" due to bad rules/ bad presentation. This week, with the rules problem out of the way, I was at least able to get a good sense of how the game should play...

    I'm a little confused about the turn order advantage, though. As the overlord, you get to choose which cards to auction, but I don't understand in what way that gives you an advantage. You get to pick the card, be we all get to bid on it. I mean, it seemed like there is an advantage because I intuitively felt like I was at a disadvantage being second. Oddly, I can't figure out why that is.

    Anyway, I knew up front that this was a "snowballing" game. The idea is to build an engine where success builds on success. I suppose that by definition this SHOULD lead to a runaway leader problem... I'm just not sure if that's a good thing. Then again, it's entirely possible that if we were better at the game we'd be able to mitigate the issue, or even catch up on occasion.

    As for the civ thing, the theme, etc. It's not there for me. I'm fine with a game working on a purely mechanical level as long as it's a good game. When I'm playing Phoenicia, I'm quite literally just looking at the production and victory point icons and seeing which ones will get me furthest ahead. Puerto Rico doesn't really fare much better in this regard, either.

    It's worth noting that many civ games suffer from the same flaws as Phoenicia but on a grander scale. "Snowballing" is often viewed as a desirable characteristic (learning bricklaying leads to master mason leads to architect, etc). However, the result is often similar: run away leader. Rich getting richer. Games where income (gold or resources) are reinvested into such a system, which in turn gives even greater yields, are normally the worst. What keeps these games from devolving into the cakewalk for the early leader that Phoenicia appears to be is the war or politics subsystem that allows weaker players to gang up on the leader. Then again, that gets us into the problem of leader bashing. In other words, it appears that a good civ game is a tough nut to crack (abstract or otherwise).

    Anyway, one more play is in order.

    Shogun: I actually like this game. Still, I think you nailed one of my major problems with this game... lack of movement. For such a long game, and despite the enormous amount of moving parts, the individual parts only act a maximum of 6 times. The other issue is the enormous chaos. The impact of the various possible combinations can swing things dramatically one way or the other.
    Some examples:
    - a player happens to attack the province you were going to draw your rice from (or, worse, your income)
    - The difference between losing a province to revolting farmers and ... not losing ... can be huge.
    - starting a round without money and seeing the income card get placed near the end can mean you essentially sit out 1/6th of the game.

    Luckily, all these items can be mitigated to a certain extent. You can't escape the possibility of getting seriously hosed by the luck of the draw or some unfortunate combination of cards or events, but careful play should shield you from much of it.

    I mostly enjoy watching the events unfold, seeing if my program made any sense. It sounds a lot like Roborally, doesn't it? RoboRally crossed with Die Macher, maybe.

    I was quite surprised when I won the game. I certainly didn't feel like I was doing particularly well. I endured my fair share of good and back luck (taking over and immediately losing Kozure's province would be examples of both). It seems that province growth amongst players is more or less equal so timing and placement of the buildings (as well as a strategic takeover or two) is probably the deciding factor.

    I'd say it's another one that needs to be played a few times in close proximity to really grasp fully. Unlike Phoenicia, i'm looking forward to playing this one many more times.

  2. Anonymous11:25 PM

    Never mind, I thought about the turn order thing in Phoenicia and I think I've got the answer:

    The player who is the overlord, by definition, is the furthest along on the VP track. While the two aren't necessarily related, it seems that being far ahead in VPs usually comes with being far ahead in production. Therefore, while it's technically a disadvantage to bid first (since it's the only time you are bidding against all the other players), you likely have the most money and can pretty much just take what you want through brute force. If you are last, the advantage is that despite the fact you are forced to pick from what's left, you are guaranteed to get it at minimum bid. The player who bids second is determined by seating order, not success on the VP track. Therefore, that player can quite possibly end up with the double-whammy of not having much money AND being forced to bid against all but one player.