Friday, April 03, 2009

I want Money. That's what I want. (Chinatown, Chicago Express, Pit)

Bharmer made an appearance this week, so it was back to a fivesome(?)

Despite providing Luch with a number of suggestions for games grouped by theme, he stuck to the oldest trick in the book: Let's play something new.

Chinatown, Chicago Express and Pit are all games I purchased recently and were still unplayed, and those are the ones he picked. I was happy to oblige.


I've mentioned a few times that I still have a soft spot for Monopoly. I don't really want to play it, but I miss the negotiations. Sadly, I haven't really played a euro that really excelled as a negotiation game, despite trying several (Traders of Genoa, Quo Vadis?, Settlers of Catan, Bohnanza, Intrige, Mall of Horror, Cosmic Encounter, etc). Many of those are really good games, but there always seems to be something in the system that prevents a wide range of negotiating techniques from being affective (There are too few bargaining elements in them to construct more than a handful of different types of trades. Of the lot, ToG comes closest: between cash, goods, cards and action chips there is some richness in what can be proposed. It's hard to pin down the reason, but the tightness of the economy forces most transactions to be short term and low value). I had high hoped that Chinatown would be the pure negotiation game I was looking for.

The game couldn't be simpler. The map depicts a few streets of New York's chinatown district. Each building is identified with a number. Each round, players get a number of cards indicating which buildings they own, and draw a number of tiles representing various stereotypical businesses which can set up shop. The player COULD choose to place those tiles onto the buildings he's been dealt, but far more money can be made by putting a number of identical business tiles adjacent to each other. So before placing, a round of free for all negotiations occurs where players attempt to secure adjacent buildings and multiple tiles in a few businesses. The process is repeated over six rounds. It's worth noting that items do not all have to be placed each round, so they can be carried forward to later rounds in the hopes of finding a better deal.

Chinatown actually comes very close to being my ideal trading game. Deals can be constructed around money, locations or businesses. They can be between two players, or they can involve a number of them. The nature of the deal can be concrete or speculative (i.e. it's possible to trade for future consideration). In short, it's very flexible and there's lots of possibilities. There were downsides, however.

The first, somewhat minor point is the lack of structure around the actual negotiations. Although in many ways it's a strength, with five players throwing offers across the table at once it became a little... noisy. If three people wanted Bharmer's tiles, three people found themselves trying to get his attention at once. In a way, I occasionally wished that offers could only be made by or towards a active player (but of course that would lengthen the game significantly).

The bigger problem is that the value of a trade can often be calculated perfectly. Particularly towards the end of the game, you know exactly how much money any particular transaction will yield. In Monopoly, players are forced to speculate on the value of a trade, based on the probabilities of players landing on their properties. Although purists might disagree, I feel that negotiations are more interesting when you don't really know how much income a trade will ultimately provide.

Although I'd be perfectly happy to play Chinatown again using the existing rules, I can't help but to try to come up with a variant that would introduce this aspect. My first idea was to introduce a probability mechanism such as Settlers of Catan, where two dice I rolled and that the some shops would pay out more often than others (probably several would pay out for every range of number, to reduce the large swings of luck). My second proposal, which I ultimately think would work better, is to take a cue from El Grande and introduce a roving element which impacts the value of the shops: the chinese dragon parade. It moves from one space to another adjacent space around the board randomly (or, similar to Santiago's canal, the path is determined through bidding/ negotiation/ blind auction). The value of a shop is determined according to it's proximity to the parade on a sliding scale (-$10 000 per intersection between business and parade, for example)

A number of variants have been proposed at BGG. One is to make it a condition that a business be street facing for it to make income, which would differentiate the value of some of the buildings and potentially add a further dimension to the trading. My fear with this one is that it would increase the effect of the luck of the draw, giving a substantial advantage to players that get street facing tiles. The other variant is a deck of cards that randomly assigns bonuses to certain businesses every round (this variant was included in the original Alea release). This type of bonus doesn't really appeal to me, because it's 100% random, giving advantages to players for dumb luck. I much prefer when a player can play the odds, or attempt to manipulate the outcome.

During our first game, I was very lucky to manage a 6 tile restaurant by the second round (I drew 4 of the six tiles, and only had to negotiate for two business tiles and a few restaurant tiles). It should have won me the game, but never underestimate the ability of Agent Easy to undermine his own position...

Actually, I did ok. Properties seemed to be valued above business tiles overall. Shemp and I were frequent trading partners. Bharmer seemed to often have the tiles and cards other people wanted. Kozure seemed shut out of much of the trading... not sure if that was a result of poor luck of the draw or lack of enthusiasm (or predilection) for the game. In the end, Shemp came out on top with over $1 000 000. I came in a close second, though.

A very good game, and another sign that Alea is the company to beat when it comes to excellence in contributions to quality german games. Glad to have added it to the collection.

Chicago Express

From one game with a reputation for packing a lot of game in roughly 1 hour to another. Chicago Express is a recent game put out by Queen (in the STUPID HUGE BOX FULL OF AIR that Thebes also uses). It's very interesting because it reduces the complex 18XX railroad games into a short, simple experience.

There are four railway companies at the start of the game, and each has a different number of shares for sale (3-6, I believe) and a different number of track markers. On a player's turn, they must decide if they are going to auction a share of a company or develop a company they have stock in (either by extending the track or developing an existing section to a higher level). So, there are really two things going on:

1) Players are buying shares of a company, giving that company money to develop itself. In exchange for giving the company capital, it pays dividends at certain intervals. Logically, the more shares are sold, the more the company payout gets divided.

2) Extending the reach of the company forces it to spend the money invested through the sale of shares. The value of the companies increase as they serves more and more regions, and as those regions develop. This increases the dividends the company can sell to it's shareholders.

So, you want to buy into the companies that are doing well, but buying into it means that all the shares are devalued. You want to develop a company, but the increase in value is shared by a number of other players. When I read the rules, the strategy seemed rather impenetrable despite the simple ruleset. Luckily, in actual play it was a little bit clearer.

Upon first inspection, it seems to be about taking a stake in a few companies and investing in them equally (giving little bits of improvement to other players, but more to yourself) and putting up shares for auction as much to dilute the shares as anything else. ClearClaw at BGG writes extensively about this game, and although I haven't read it all it's clear that he feels this way of looking at things is the newbie way... that the game becomes much more about subtle strategic positioning, partnerships and posturing as experience is gained. Whatever, time will tell (I don't really even *get* the reference to posturing).

In our game, none of the companies made it anywhere near Chicago, so the Wabash did not enter play. I'd say we were mainly focused on purchasing shares in companies that seemed valuable and developing them to make them more valuable. At one point, I took out a share in a company even though it was to my disadvantage because I wanted it to have cash to develop tracks. My plan was to cut off the red line to the north that 3 other players had invested in. It didn't work, because since there were three players interested in the line, it grew too quickly for me to be able to contain it. Oh well. Luckily, I was doing quite well with the yellow line as the sole owner. On one of my turns, I put up a share for auction and Luch pointed out that I was ending the game... it snuck up on me to the point that I had no idea that we were so close! I decided to stick to my plan and the game ended. I thought my chances were decent considering the yellow cash cow I had going. Sadly, I was forced to accept second place again, because baron Kozure had the most cash at the end.

It was an interesting game. I am not sure how I feel about it, because it's so short that it's difficult to say whether my mixed feelings stem more from misunderstanding what to expect from the game or what. For now, I'll say that I enjoyed it but that there seems to be a layer of understanding missing between me and loving the game.


I'm not going to discuss this one at length. Suffice it to say that it's an old classic (that is still new to us) meant to recreate the feeling of a stock market trader. Each player is trying to gather together all cards from one suit (corn, barley, etc) by yelling trade offers such as "I've got two! Two! Any takers for two??!!", while other do the same. Cards get exchanged frantically until someone completes their set and rings the bell kindly provided in the deluxe edition. Each hand lasts about 5 minutes, but players are meant to play to a set number of points.

This is the card game equivalent to Jungle Speed. From me, that's high praise. There is no depth here, but the process is lots of fun.

Kozure started off strong with a few wins. I was dealt 10 card hands in the first few rounds (due to the way the card numbers split up) and missed a number of times when I had the nine cards I needed but didn't realize I didn't need to make the 10th card match. Meanwhile, Luch was sinking like a rock. As the time was 11:15, we figured we would call it a night after one last hand. It was mentioned by Kozure that Luch could technically win if he won using the Bull and a 9 card set. That's what he did. I guess you're never truly out in Pit.

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