Wednesday, April 1, 2009


April 1st, so of course the internet is split between April Fool's Day jokes and people ranting about how much they hate April Fool's Day jokes on the internet. There is no middle ground-- choose the form of your destructor.

Last night we played a strange board game called Phoenicia. I'd traded an old issue of Strategy & Tactics for the game which had decent scores on Boardgamegeek (a hair short of a 7). The game itself has decent components--plastic pieces rather than the typical wooden ones you see in most games. The author, Tom Lehman, wrote a couple of other games I sort of liked To Court the King and Race for the Galaxy. The rules, however, deliberately obfuscate the game. I ended up finding a rewritten set on BGG and printing those out.

We had our first play-through last night with three players-- the game can support up to five. That's a strange spot for games we've found out. If a game can take five+ players and you play with three you often end up with some imbalances-- essentially the two stronger players wait for the weaker player to make a mistake. Whoever can take advantage of that can often gain a significant edge. We had that effect last night, but the problems we saw in the game went past that.

Phoenicia intends itself to be a light civ building game-- with development of cultural advancements in order to gain both victory points and production. The first problem arose as I went through the rules. The game has several clever mechanics but they don't make a whole lot of sense in the larger context of play. It also has a couple of 'exceptions' where an action you can take is handled one way in one phase and in a related but slightly different way in another. That caused confusion. As well it handles money oddly-- imposing tight storage restrictions combined with two forms of cash. That's important as there's a strong auction element to the game.

So we had somewhat confusing rules (even after being rewritten for clarity), problematic mechanics and our first time playing. Within the first few turns we saw that one player (me!) had leveraged himself into a position that the other players would have a hard time knocking him from. The game supports the runaway leader strongly-- good choices are usually good on all fronts-- at least that's the way it looks at first blush. If you can get ahead in money you can run the auctions and deny other players cards they need to get back into the game. As Mark put it-- a few plays and the game would end up being based on luck--since we'd know the obvious good choices it would depend on when certain cards came up. It also reminded me of the Alhambra Dice Game, which I really like, but crushes newcomers when playing against people who have a sense of the game as a whole. Until you've played that game a couple of times you can't really see the importance of particular choices. That's true in all games, but some absolutely require players not to screw up their choices or else find themselves sitting in dead last.

I think our overall impression of Phoenicia was negative-- but we'll play it at least one more time to see if having a better sense of the game will make a difference. I'll also go back and review the rules and the comments on BGG to see if I'm missing some major part of the game.

On a related note, regarding board game mechanics-- I'm thinking about the necessary structures for a particular kind of board/minis game. This would be a skirmish battle, eventually with possibly several figures per side, but for the moment, imagining two figures, one per player. I've played a number of "arena" games-- old Melee and Wizard, Arena of Death, and Gladiator; some modern mini games support this kind of conflict-- the Shadowrun large scale figure game IIRC.

So I'm trying to imagine what the key factors in these kinds of games are and here's what I've come up with:
-Customizable Characters
-Balance of Tactical Choices
-Isn't over with one good hit

Now assuming that we want a game which can be played in less than an hour, I've been trying to think of some mechanics that handle that while a) being simple and b) not simply being a case of the person who rolls better wins. So any system has to have easy to manage tactical decisions. I also want something which stands out from other like systems.

I had a couple of related ideas--
The first would be some kind of dice pool, moving between attack and defense. You've have the ability to wear the opponent's pool down. You'd also have the ability to float some rolls between rounds. My only problem with that is if you scale the game up, with players controlling several figures. Then suddenly you have to manage multiple pools-- unless, of course, the pool is shared between figures on a side.

My other idea, and the one I'm leaning towards is something based around a standard deck of playing cards. Each player gets a deck. They'd start with a hand limit and draw to that. Actions would be rated by the cards played-- so a move action could move you up to the value on the card's face. Maybe you could move and attack, but you'd have to play a face card for your movement. Attacks would be compared against defense cards, with a trumping mechanic for suits or for colors (red trumps black on attacks).

The other part of this would be taking actions to focus to increase your hand size, to flush cards out of your deck, to cycle and redraw, etc. So there'd be a strategic element to hand management. You'd also be redrawing fairly consistently in order to keep your hand at a minimum size. Players would alternate playing cards/actions.

The other thing would be that, assuming you have say eight different character archetypes, each character would have a set of special moves. You could only trigger these moves by playing a special set of cards: a pair, a three of a kind, etc. The harder to put that together, the more impressive the effect. Everyone would have five "moves" (with like requirements) but what happens at each level would vary between characters. Individual characters would also vary based on weapons, armor, stats, HP-- nothing too complicated, but enough to create some difference. I'd use the idea of the shared pool for scaling up the number of figures each player controls.

Ideally this would be something that would only require 4-6 pages of rules, plus character templates. Still in the gestation stage, but I think there's something interesting there.