A full day of gaming commenced Friday morning with Time Agent. This is the game that Marcus really, really wanted to play last year, but that never got to the table for a multitude of reasons, first and foremost being his very serious dedications to the duties of playing host. There was a running gag going into this year's con that we actually had played Time Agent last year, we just don't remember it because someone jumped back in time and reversed the event.
If you're unfamiliar, here's the hook: there are six civilizations in outer space, one of which is sitting on top of the heap oppressing everyone else. The six factions send their agents back through time to reverse events that are unfavorable to their own history. Once they've rewritten history to put themselves on top, they want to undo the invention of time travel itself so that the others will stop futzing with the timeline. There is hiding and searching and combat and lots of hex tiles with different pathways representing different technologies which govern movement while in the past.
It's a very fiddly thing, with lots of little bits, and some events requiring adjustments up and down for all six factions and for two kinds of points. We used a browser-based tracker that updated all this with a click of a mouse - click on event X, and the adjustments for that event happened instantaneously - which made it much easier to parse and to implement, greatly speeding up the game. It still took four hours and some change.
I played the Veneb, a race of combat-avoiding philosopher aliens. The faction card outlined a number of events that were important to my faction, and even suggested a strategy I ended up trying in the mid-game. By going into the past and uninventing the philosophy that was core to my species' identity, the civilization in the present would lose quite a few victory points but gain a big pile of resource points I could use to finance my shenanigans against other players. Once I had knocked them all down several pegs, I could then go back and reinvent philosophy, losing those resources but springing ahead in the VPs that could win me the game. All I had to do then was uninvent time travel.
Unfortunately, I misread the cost to turn off time travel - blame it on the tiny, tiny text - and my grand coup de grace turned into a fumble. Rami, a friend of Travis's who joined us on Friday, had had difficulty in the early game but ultimately proved victorious, pulling the rabbit out of the hat.
What I found really astounding about this particular game is that on paper, it sounds very dry; whatever we're doing thematically, a lot of it is arithmetic and rotating hex tiles to disconnect routes, hardly the stuff one associates with "thematic" games. But the interactions between the six factions, the ways in which they each depended on and opposed one another depending on the specific event being reversed or maintained, was really exhilarating and interesting, and did a lot of the work to deliver on the theme. We were playing the players more than we were playing the game.
Could it have been shorter and less fiddly? I mean, sure, but I think something special would have been lost in the translation. Even though there was considerable downtime while I waited for my go, what was happening elsewhere (elsewhen?) kept me engaged throughout.
But after four-plus hours of this epic slugfest, we were all of us ready for something a little less taxing. We had gotten into a discussion of Reiner Knizia games, and I mentioned one of my favorite titles in the master's oeuvre, High Society. Marcus had the fancy new Osprey edition, and so we taught Bob and Rami how to play. That first game was called early when Bob bid with his last money card, ensuring he would be eliminated at the end of the game, which would result in some very weird bidding on the part of the other players. We would play it twice more on Saturday, so I'll probably write about it a little more in part three.
Next up was three games in a row of Northern Pacific, the Winsome edition. The first game saw a lot of train movement early on, before folks could establish any kind of real board presence, which made the thing very tactical. The two games that followed were more of the strategic zipper variety - lots of cubes on the board until someone gets the train in motion and it all unravels in lovely and interesting ways. One of the things I like about this game of mine is that sense of winding it up and then watching it go, with the major decisions frontloaded, and the consequences of those decisions happening somewhat outside of your control. It's something I'm eager to explore in further games (arguably The Soo Line does this with its opening auction that does much to shape the rest of the game).
We followed three plays of that Russell design with one play of another: a playtest of my Westphalia negotiation game. Going into it, I wasn't particularly nervous - I had just had a playtest session a week previous at MDG Winter Con with a group of total strangers that had gone extraordinarily well and really fired on all cylinders. This one was less successful, or perhaps more successful, depending on one's parameters for success.
I mean, everyone was just drowning in debt and just could not find ways to get rid of it or to shift that burden. Since all victory conditions involved getting rid of debt and making gains that would offset that debt, this resulted in many players having hopeless positions. Previous tests had seen three, four, or five players win the game, but this time around only one player - Sweden, as played by Travis - managed to pull it off. This was exacerbated by the way that debt accumulates each turn; it's a function of how much debt you already have, so the worse you're doing, the worse you'll do. It didn't help that the first two out of four negotiation rounds didn't see a lot of meaningful negotiation, mostly because the values of the various things that could be traded didn't really become apparent until toward the end. There was a general feeling that a second game would go much better and have fewer mistakes, but that was the last day we had six players, so it didn't see the table a second time.
I felt really discouraged by the test, and when someone asked what we should play next, I said I was up for anything so long as it didn't have my name on it. Over the rest of the evening, and even after I got back to my hotel, I kept mentally returning to the test, trying to determine if there was something off mechanically. And I came to the conclusion that there wasn't. Getting rid of your debt and minimizing its accumulation is challenging. In fact, it is darn near impossible to do it on your own - you need other people, and they need you. In that sense the game is somewhat cooperative (perhaps more explicitly so given the natural partnerships shared by some players).
A major way that debt is managed is by Prestige, which limits the rate at which it accumulates. Spain begins the game with 4 Prestige (a pretty nice bargaining position!) and can bring more into the game via deliveries from the New World (which might be opposed by the Dutch navy). Prestige is also earned by winning battles and lost by losing them. Battles are usually triggered when you try to replace someone's territory disc with your own, as they have the option to Intercept. If they don't Intercept, you lose a Unit from your army (making it less powerful should a Battle occur later) and replace the point of territory. If they do Intercept, you have the option of Refusing Battle, retreating from the Area with your army and your Prestige intact. Battles between equal forces tend to favor the player who is defending (being intercepted).
So one thing you might do is allow your opponent to flip some territory to reduce their ranks, then pounce, and one thing you might do once pounced upon is slip away, refusing battle. In those early rounds especially, folks wanted to roll some dice - they'd intercept right away, and the other guy would always stay and fight it out - and I can't blame them for that, but it destabilized the Spanish position in particular. Spain lost almost all of its starting Prestige in the first Military round, and so instead of getting 4 Debt in the next round, they got 6. That put them into an even higher bracket in the following Debt round, so they got 8 more Debt instead of 5, and it continued to get worse from there.
So, everything that went catastrophically wrong in that game, it went wrong for a reason - because of a player's decision(s), and feedback loops, and butterfly effects, and fragility, and social dynamics. So in a way, the test was successful, because the game was working as intended - it punished bad moves and rewarded good ones. And it was also successful in that the players gave me some very useful feedback. Since we had just played Time Agent that morning, Matt (whose Dutch never quite got any Commerce Cards due to underfunding in the early rounds and bad rolls in the later ones) brought up the player sheets for that game, which gave some broad strokes hints for potential strategies, partners, and enemies.
And I think he and the others are right about that. I think that the primary focus of further development won't be so much in terms of balance or mechanics, which are right about where I want them to be, but in usability and accessibility. It's a six-player only negotiation game, so it's already not going to be broadly accessible or appealing; my job is to make it as accessible as possible to those players to whom the game does appeal. In highlighting this need, the test was much more valuable to me than it would have been had everyone managed to limit their debts, mastered the art of maneuver, and pulled off the big deals.
After the Westphalia test came dinner, and after dinner, Travis pulled out Tokyo Metro and taught Matt, Marcus, and I how to play the game. This was my first time playing a Jordan Draper game. I had heard of Mr. Draper, of course, and been curious about his work, which seemed quite distinctive. No one approaches game design or publishing quite like he does, and as someone who is likewise something of an oddball, existing off to the side of the industry proper, I often have had the feeling that if I ever met him, we would either get along really, really well or we really, really wouldn't.
I was really impressed with the look of Tokyo Metro and the feel of it, as a work of graphic design and of tactile implementation. And the game itself is utterly bonkers, with approaches to stock and train games that I had never encountered before. I'm not sure if I really actually enjoyed it or not - it was way too fiddly for my tastes, and while it was very pretty to look at, I didn't find the map and the bits to be super-functional. But have I played anything else that's quite like it? No, I haven't, and I think things that are sui generis are worth experiencing, and the people who make them are worth supporting. As the game was wrapping up, I was feeling pretty cold on it to be honest, but aspects of it still pulled at my brain, still had me thinking about it well into the night.
During a dividend of Tokyo Metro, I stepped away to the other end of the table, where Bob and Rami were setting up Brave Little Belgium (which you'll recall Bob won thanks to the generosity of C. Scott Kippen). I did a quick teach of BLB before returning to the subways of Tokyo. By the time we were wrapping up the Draper game, Bob and Rami were completing the last few turns of Brave Little Belgium. Bob was well-versed in wargames, being a passionate fan of Advanced Squad Leader, while Rami was a total newcomer to that side of the hobby. Both of them enjoyed the game, with Bob's Entente winning a closely-fought game against Rami's invading pickelhaubes.
Matt, Marcus, Travis and I wrapped up the evening with Neue Heimat/The Estates. I was familiar with the game - its once-around auctions somewhat inspired the bidding in The Soo Line, though my game doesn't have the same kind of inter-player closed economy - but had never actually played it. It's a gloriously mean and hilariously nasty little game, just unrelenting hate play and shenanigans. It was a great digestif for a full day of heavy, long, weird, and exhilarating games.