Friday, August 28, 2015

Quantum: Eric Zimmerman's Work of Staggering Genius

Quantum gets very little appreciation, and I think it’s because people find it so hard to define. Like Spock flying into the heart of V’ger, there’s a lot going on. It might make sense internally, but there’s little common frame of reference. Today I’m going to try and as my assistants I will use 3 (decidedly inferior to Quantum) board games as examples.

Stage 1: King of Tokyo

Ships in Quantum are represented by dice. The face up number is the type of ship, 1 is essentially a Death Star, while 6 is a super-fast scout. The numbers in between are ships filling the spectrum of options between these 2 extremes. So the first thing you do in Quantum is randomly generate your ships by rolling dice, then rolling them again if you didn’t like what you got the first time.

The dice rolling is only barely similar to King of Tokyo. Once you’ve established your initial ships, they stay that way until they are destroyed or you spend effort to transform them.

Like in King of Tokyo, combat is encouraged but not completely necessary. Ships gain “infamy” points when they destroy other ships, but there is no penalty for losing in an attack. Your ship can only be destroyed when defending. These infamy points can eventually be used to buy a quantum cube (the victory points to win the game) and also to gain advance cards from the middle of the board (like the mutations in King of Tokyo).

Getting the advances can also be done via research, which a player is welcome to take as one of his or her actions during the turn. Research points accrue like infamy points, and when you’ve earned enough, you get to grab an advance card, this time with no quantum cube.

Stage 2: Catan

Building quantum cubes is how you win the game. The first player to deploy all 7 cubes on the board is the victor. Just like settlements in Catan, as you expand your empire you move closer and closer to winning the game. There are no victory points, and I really, really admire the thought that went into this.

You don’t gain any resources from quantum cubes, but you do get to build new ships in their proximity, meaning you really do get the feeling of an expanding empire. Building also does not require resources, instead you need a special numerical combination of ships (each planet is different) and getting these numbers together can generate the same sort of frustration as missing your wheat payout in Catan.

While quantum cubes can never be destroyed, the primary source of player conflict is in knocking opposing ships out of commission while their owner is sweating over getting just the right number combinations.

Stage 3: Space Chess

The movement of the dice is basically Chess in space. All the pieces have narrow, well-defined movement rules. Each has a special power you need to remember. And besides building quantum cubes, the primary use for ships is blocking opposing players from moving into new territory.

Also like Chess, the player needs to think a few steps ahead since accidentally leaving an opening for your opponent to build a final quantum cube is the eventual winning condition of every game.

Stage 4: The Game is Completely Original

After comparing Quantum to 3 incredibly diverse existing titles, I’m going to go ahead and negate everything I just typed by saying Quantum is like none of these games. You would never play it and say “This is just like Settlers of Catan” unless you were a weirdo committed to finding the parallels like I was. Instead, Quantum is an entirely original creation on both mechanics and style.

After playing over a thousand hands of Race for the Galaxy, I thought I had basically found my space game. But Quantum is most surprising of all to me because after spending way too much time searching for other games like RFTG, I love Quantum even though it has almost no similarities.

Designer Eric Zimmerman is a genius. I have absolutely no familiarity with his work before or after Quantum, but I’ll be doing my research. I found out about Quantum by playing on BGA, and now it's on my list to get. Do yourself a solid and check this game out. Then try to figure out why nobody seems to be talking about it anymore.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Rattlebones: Roll & Move Evolved

I love to watch a tried and true “common sense” design paradigm be shown false. If the broader board game community said the sky was blue, I would glom on to the carefully detailed report by the guy who took the trouble to actually go outside and confirm the sky is purple as it always has been.

Stephen Glenn’s Rattlebones is a completely neglected board game from 2014 that deserves love heaped on its plate. It sure wasn’t on my radar back then, and I still don’t own a copy now. But watching the latest Game Night reveals a fascinating artifact. Conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t be any good. But the more I think of it, the more every aspect of this game is amazing and alluring for that fact and more.

Roll and Move

For starters, Rattlebones is a roll and move game. Just like The Game of Life. You might think the game does something clever with the rolling, like allowing you to pick from different dice or use the same number in different ways like with Castles of Burgundy. But no you roll a die and move your pawn by exact count around a TRACK. Then you hold your head in your hands and think “Oh, no. What have I gotten myself into!”

Building your Dice

Of course there is an innovation here, in the dice themselves. You can take the faces off and add new faces you earn from landing on spaces around the track. Each player has 3 dice, and gets to select one of those die to roll. Gold pieces (which are earned by rolling the relevant die face) can be cashed in to roll more than one die, but the default is always that one lonely roll. Each die is like its own tool for the turn, you decide which one has the best chance to help you.

Being able to roll multiple dice in turn sets up devastating combos of powers. For instance: the “2X” face doubles whatever points are awarded on the other die, but it requires you to be rolling another die. If you roll a “2X” by itself, you get zero.

Soup of the Day: Determination and Luck

Rattlebones is a dense broth containing 2 contradictory ingredients. You can steer the game in a certain direction, but you never know exactly how the dice are going to turn out. And the random movement of the game means you always need to be ready to change your plan.

Slowly developing your position is all well and good…and much of this game seems to be that. But what I hunger for is the occasion JACKPOT. When the dice show exactly what you want and huge piles of points come rolling out the machine. And you can take pride in this payout because you had to both build the framework, and take the ultimate risk to get there.

You can’t really “gun” for certain abilities. Both the randomness of the die roll and the fact that the spots on the board are randomly assigned before every game mean you will never be able to develop and optimal pattern to success. Each game will have its own unique pluses and minuses to weigh as you move around the board.

Racing to the Finish

I’ve railed against set numbers of turns in games. And I respect the dedication of a designer who finds a way to encourage movement towards the end game condition just through players acting normally during their turns.

Every time you roll a 1 on any die, a “Rattlebones” character runs backwards down the scoring track. Running into Rattlebones causes the game to end, and paradoxically the person who is caught is not ritually murdered but actually wins the game. Rattlebones is friendly!

As the powers of the dice increase, players are hurtled faster towards Mr. Rattlebones as well. Earning the aforementioned jackpot of points (from the train, stocks, stars, ex.) doesn’t just make you lap the score track, it actually ends the game quicker. If you get too far ahead of everybody else, at least they can take comfort in the fact the game will soon be over.

Dr. Caligari: The Dice Building Game

I just finished a post railing on Batman for turning up the creepy clown vibe to 11.

In contrast, absolutely nothing about the twisted reality of Rattlebones seems cheap, lazy or phoned in. The board is obviously some kind of crazy carnival attraction. The player pieces are the monkeys from Wizard Of Oz wearing party hats. Rattlebones himself reminds me most of the Buick Driver only briefly seen in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8. Try to imagine another intellectual property that has leveraged any of these concepts together in this way and you would be hard pressed.

The one thing you WON’T find on the Rattlebones board, no matter how hard you look, is a scary clown. And I am so very thankful.

When Randy Buehler started tweeting that he was playing Rattlebones at the World Boardgaming Championships, it sort of sealed the deal. As a game that’s been out for more than a year the hype train should be at an all-time low. Yet to see people continue to give it press has put the game firmly in the crosshairs of my basement-mounted periscope.

Additional Reading from The Examiner

Sunday, August 2, 2015

New Bedford: No Whale Before We Sail

In a vast ocean of bland fantasy dungeon delvers and dark zombie-battling miniature games, the historically unique theme of New Bedford was like a breath of fresh salt-tinged air. It was a Kickstarter I hated to see fail. My original observations can be found here, but to sum up: New Bedford looked like a smaller, tighter version of Minotaur-favorite Le Havre, with a better less-clunky system for building ships.

With the project canceled, Dice Hate Me Games posted this final update

As most of you have no doubt noticed by now, the campaign for New Bedford has been cancelled. We did not make this decision lightly, and ultimately felt that it was what was best for the project and for Dice Hate Me Games. Although New Bedford was tracking to fund by Sunday, we felt that a relaunch at a better time of year will allow us to bring more attention to the game and, ultimately, bring all of you more added value for your pledges.

And I started to wonder just what people had not liked so much about New Bedford. Constantly evolving and growing worker placement opportunities? Random whale tile draws out of a glorious bag of mystery?

Then suddenly, quite recently, the campaign was relaunched with this updated message on the original campaign:

We greatly appreciate the support that you all lent us in this first campaign, and we hope that many of you will consider supporting us in this new endeavor. We took a good look at feedback and lessons from the first campaign, and we have a lot of new goodies for everyone this time around, including a special promotional and lots of cool stretch goals to unlock!
There seem to be a few changes. The art looks like they’ve been doing some fine tuning. And a few of the buildings have different names. The designer attributed the poor previous start mostly to timing, and the new campaign displayed confidence things would be quite different this time around.

And they were right.

With 12 days left to go in the campaign, Dice Hate Me Games has managed to raise an incredible $55,000 and collected more than twice the backers of the original campaign.

It probably has something to do with timing sure. But also it might have something to do with that glorious white whale.

White Whale, Holy Grail

The previous Kickstarter was all about historical accuracy. But this relaunch of New Bedford finally surrenders to a classic blood n’ thunderous piece of New Bedford-related fiction.

When the original whalers of New Bedford went out to sea for their next hunt, very rarely did the pursued whales rise up and devour their ship. In New Bedford, it might happen just a little bit more often than true history would indicate.

But adding Moby Dick makes for a more fun game. And gives the whales just a little more of a fighting chance. One step removed from reality, you’ll feel less like a dirty whale killer. and more like a ship sailing into a sea of myth and adventure.