Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ticket to Ride: First and Last Journeys

A few days ago, in a fit of ludomania I tweeted this message.

Out of all the current titles under the Asmodee NA board game octopus (aka Bogactopus), the best game I could come up with was First Journeys, essentially Ticket to Ride "Junior".


There is a certain psychosis that pervades the hobby of board game collecting (and occasionally playing).

It goes like this:

If I buy the right game, people will play with me.

So you end up spending 50% of your board game budget trying to get inside the heads of your family members and friends, trying to figure out what would be an attractive sell to get them in the hot seat on the other side of the table.

It can be a pitfall. A real pitfall. Especially if you're not good at understanding other people, or if those other people just aren't very interested in board games.

Ticket to Ride: First Journeys wasn't for me. It was for my kids. One kid actually liked it, which makes it a roaring success. It might not just be the First Journey, but the Best Journey.
Are you ready to ride this train?
Reducing Train Paralysis

First Journeys junior-izes Ticket to Ride by removing the selection of face up train cards. Now you can only draw from the face-down discard pile. It also removes victory points, making each route worth exactly one "point" when it is completed. Both of these changes together turn a 60 minute game into a 15 minute game.

Do they reduce complexity? They do.

Do they make the decisions uninteresting? No, no they do not.

I was inspired to think about the face-down cards because of a comment made by another designer, Thomas Lehmann. In designing Race for the Galaxy, Lehmann made the unusual choice to have players discard face-down. This removes some strategy, because people aren't able to see what cards other people are discarding. But according to the designer diary I read (and I have no idea which one, because it was a long time ago) discarding cards face down also speeds up the game, since people no longer have to process that information every turn.

I'm wondering just how fast the Ticket to Ride might go if you discard face-down as well.

Settlers of Routes

Making each route worth a single point is another decision I keep thinking about. Settlers of Catan did this, making each Settlement worth a single victory point. The trick in Catan was of course finding the most efficient and quickest way to build that settlement.

Doesn't it seem like the same considerations should be made for a train route? Maybe train route builders shouldn't get MORE points just because a route took more effort and resources to build. Maybe they should be trying to build the quickest routes, and use those routes to daisy chain together the larger routes.

I'll tell you one thing, it's wonderful (especially playing with kids) to not have a scoring phase at the end of the game. When you place the last winning route in First Journeys you win. The game ends. And it moves right into let's play again.

I would happily play the "adult" (giggity) Ticket to Ride with the same rules. There might be some necessary modifications I'm not predicting, but I certainly don't see any less-interesting gameplay on the horizon.

As for Last Journeys, the only thing that would make this game better would be a space theme. Maybe I need to make a Martian board? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dungeon of the Apes: A Primate-centric look at Clank! the Board Game

Well, this is going to be interesting
My favorite fantasy stories carry a common plot twist.

You've adventured high and low, discovering secret knowledge and ancient treasures. But the final reveal is this:

You've actually been exploring Earth all along!

This unfamiliar Earth has been distorted by war, the clash of empires, deadly radiation, the rise of new ancient magicks, and more. Yet nevertheless this is all that's left of home.

Something about this seems familiar

What drew me to Clank!? Certainly not the theme. Adventurers exploring a dungeon and looking for treasure? I've been to that well before.

When I first heard about Clank! I was downright disinterested.

No, I crashed the first game of Clank! I even saw in action because people were pulling wooden cubes out of a mysterious  bag. I'm a voracious pulling-stuff-out-of-a-bag'er. My hunger for such things is insatiable. I had to see more.

What I found made me earnestly regret my original disinterest. 

The bag even has a deadly dragon on it

When I originally saw people pulling cubes out of bag, I was actually seeing DEATH in action.

In Clank!, characters are on a strict health-based timer to find treasure in the dungeon and then get the heck out.

Every time you draw a new hand of cards, some of those cards are going to add cubes back into the bag. And there are precious few ways to "heal" your character once these blocks have been pulled back out again. You run out of health in Clank!, you die.

Yes, this is a deckbuilding game with player elimination. And its awesome.

You have to carefully weigh each turn, doing a classic "press-your-luck" evaluation. Hopefully you get just enough points to solidly be in the lead. But simultaneously planning your escape as early as possible to catch the rest of the players flat-footed.

I have played quite a few hands of the original Thunderstone. It was my original fantasy-themed bar against which to set other similar titles. Clank!, I've found, is ahead in every area, using lots of ingenuity to keep the game exciting each turn and pushing the game along to a definitive end.

But IS Clank a true fantasy theme? I'm reminded a bit of the more recent Thunderstone expansion Numenera. The aged crust of supposed "fantasy" reveals a high tech center: full of magic and myth which is really just science advanced enough to be perceived as magic.

I got all the clues I needed by studying a subtle motif strewn throughout the Clank! dungeon. A repeating theme that kept coming up again and again.

There's something familiar about this deckbuilder.
It was the apes.

I'm not some kind of ape-loving fanboy. But I've seen the original Planet of the Apes and I understand the basics.

In the past, humans got too full of themselves. They started a game of Global Thermonuclear War that they couldn't finish. And the result was hyper-intelligent apes swooping in and picking up the pieces.

In Planet of the Apes we see a feudal society built from ape culture, with apes taking the place of humans in establishing a new civilization on Earth. It is assumed these apes are just as smart as humans once were, and will continue advancing technologically into the future.

Imagine a world of scientific, industrialized apes. We caught a quick glimpse at the end of the remake.

Ape Lincoln
But humans and apes probably share the same broken, selfish morals that originally led to humankind's downfall. It's indeed easy to imagine this new breed of Ape researching atomics and developing their own hideous weapons for global annihilation.

After careful thought, Clank! is quite certainly a new Earth born from yet another cataclysm: this time involving the hyper-intelligent apes. And now who gets to swoop in? Those humans who've been lurking in the wings this entire time.

Exhibit A
All the relics are ape themed. There are strange mechanical ape devices you can add to your deck. Lots of subtle signs point to a strange ape-centered civilization now reduced to ash and ruin.

This is no ordinary adventure.

If you are tired of fantasy themes, just remember  Clank! is NOT strictly fantasy. Instead, it is a new world swept clean by apocalypse, where humans aim to reclaim a long-lost heritage and hopefully do things right this time.

Delve deep into the dungeon. Hire some mercenaries. Grab that sweet, sweet ape gold. Just make sure you can get out alive!