Friday, December 17, 2010

Vegas Baby!, Yeah! (Lords of Vegas, Boomtown)

I'm always searching for a great negotiation game. Although Monopoly has it's flaws, I still haven't found a game that I think does negotiation better. I think that ultimately it boils down to the fact that I find negotiating more fun when there is latitude to deal and returns are based on speculation. This means that I inherently prefer negotiation games that have an element of luck, games where a calculated risk can pay off or go bad. The problems with Monopoly are numerous, but unfortunately all the euro games I've played since starting this hobby solve many of the mechanical problems but also strip the negotiation aspect of much of it's interest.

The three games that I have played that came closest where Traders of Genoa, Chinatown and I'm the Boss!. ToG is a great strategy/ negotiation game but it's too heavy for most and there is little financial latitude in most cases. Chinatown is a nice, pure negotiation game but the value of a trade can be calculated and that sucks some of the fun out of it. I'm the Boss is a lot of fun, but it's almost a party game.

So, how does Lords of Vegas fare in the field? First impressions are quite good.

Lords of Vegas

Lords of Vegas has a few surface similarities to Chinatown. Both feature a gameboard showing city blocks that are organized into labelled grids. Both see players drawing lots at random, thus seeding the board and giving everyone a starting point for negotiation. Of course, this is a vegas game, so it makes sense that risk and reward figure prominently in how the game actually plays out. And dice. Lords of Vegas has lots of dice.

Each turn, after a player draws his/ her random lot, the game pays out a small amount to anyone who has unbuilt lots in play and a larger amount to anyone who has built portions of casinos matching the colour of the drawn card. Next, victory points are scored by the players who are "the boss" of the casinos that paid out. Clearly, the aim of the game is to be the beneficiary of as many pay outs as possible and be the boss of casinos that will generate victory points!

With the unbuilt lots as a starting point, players have the following options:

1) Build casinos on lots: Players choose to build a section of a casino on a lot he owns. There are several colours of casinos that can be built. The colour is completely up to the player (as long as pieces are available). The choice of colours depends on two things; a) two casinos of the same colour that grow into each other merge, and b) you can see which casino cards have been drawn so far and therefore which casino colours are likely to pay out in the future (there are only 9 of each colour). The lot will have a picture of a die with a number on it. The player will take one of his dice and place it on the space with the appropriate number facing up. This is important because if two casinos merge, the player with the highest number is the boss.

2) Sprawl: Players can expand an existing casino into an adjacent lot. This is beneficial because casinos generate VPs based on size. This is risky because if a player later draws that lot, he immediately becomes the owner. Not all cards come out, though, so it's a gamble.

3) Renovate: Change the colour of a casino. This can be a defensive move to prevent a merger or an offensive move to create one.

4) Reorganize: Any player that owns at least one section of a casino can "shake up the establishement" by re-rolling all the dice in that casino. Whoever has the highest numbered die after the re-roll is the new boss. Obviously, this costs money so it can't be done on a whim, but it is a way for a player to take a risk and try to take over a casino that was previously someone else's.

5) Gamble: Any player can go to someone else's casino and gamble. They place a sum of money on the line and roll the dice. If the roll the right numbers, they double (or triple!) their money FROM THAT PLAYER'S MONEY. If they fail, they give the player the money.

In addition to all this, players are encouraged to negotiate at all times. Don't like the lot you drew? Trade it with someone else. Create a deal to free up some yellow tiles so you can renovate your casino and merge with the one next to you, becoming the boss in the process. There are a lot of possibilities.

The fact that so much of this is dependent on speculation is just icing on the cake. You can expand you casino to increase you VPs, but how long will that investment pay off before it's taken away from you? You can pay a princely sum to get that last red casino tile and anticipate scoring big when it comes up, but what if it doesn't?

The one last item I didn't mention is that players MUST be bosses of ever growing casinos in order to win, because the VP track does an interesting thing where bigger and bigger casino VPs are required to advance a single step. This single design decision provides all the incentive necessary to keep players from sitting on single tile casinos forever.

Overall, Lords of Vegas does everything I wish a trading/ negotiation game did. In our first play I had some concerns about the pacing (due to all the options available on a player's turn, even a quick player can take a little while). Chinatown definitely has the edge as far as feeling like a pure negotiation game, but I see this one having longer legs because it merges interesting boardplay with negotiation and speculation. We'll see after a few plays.

In our game, we started trading early and I was able to consolidate a couple of casinos early. Before long, I had a large one developing in the center of the board and Shemp and Chris found it difficult to stop me. I think in future games, we will all be hanging onto our lots a little more strongly! Along the way, there were some interesting upsets through reorganizations, and a couple of critical merges that swung control of the casinos involved. We also gambled a lot, and it was observed that gambling has strategic opportunities as well by reducing that player's ability to do actions on his turn.

Chinatown should start sweating right about now...


I won't go into much detail, but Boomtown is a card game that mixes auctions with the resource production of Settlers of Catan and cards that are reminiscent of Bang! You have to bid for mining prospects in order to generate money, or try to get cards that can help you or hinder you opponent. One clever mechanism I hadn't seen before was that whoever won the auction picked first and selection proceeded clockwise but the winning bid was distributed to players counter-clockwise. In other words, if you got last pick, you got more money. It's an interesting balancing mechanism.

I enjoyed the game, but it's not stellar. I'll try it again with a different crowd and see how it goes. My only concern is that auction games don't tend to fare well with people who don't game enough to be able to evaluate such things.

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