Wednesday, February 10, 2010

You get what you play for

Plus ça change?
Saturday night party animal Gav being the last of yesterday's five to arrive, I foolishly left Andy, Dave, Donald to decide what the filler would be while we waited. I say "foolishly" because I'd finagled Andy's agreement to a game of Ivanhoe before Donald's appearance; and I just knew that given the choice, Andy and Donald would gravitate to a different game. And so it proved, as we sat down to Fluxx.

It's not that I don't like Fluxx; far from it: Fluxx remains for me an exemplar of conceptual ingenuity and clarity of rules exposition in games design, and a lot of fun to boot. I just rather prefer the cut and thrust of Ivanhoe to the chaotic antics of Looney Labs' best seller.

That said, I confess I am enjoying the recent spate of regular appearances by Fluxx at the gaming table. This is because of the challenge of developing strategies for a game whose very nature can make it appear immune to strategy. Of course, no card game in which hand-building is an intrinsic feature of gameplay can be immune to strategising, no matter how opaque might be the essential strategic parameters of play specific to the game's systems.

I say "specific to the game's systems" because all cardgames of this ilk share one essential strategic parameter: deck knowledge. Beyond this universal prerequisite each game's own rules are what determine the necessites of hand-building and cardplay which are the primary considerations of strategy. So much so obvious I guess.

And as for strategy in Fluxx? Of this particular work in progress all I can say just now is this:
  • The #1 strategic consideration is control of the draw and play rules:
  1. The sheer novelty of the changing nature of these rules means that many players find it very attractive to drive up the draw and play values so that the game becomes utterly chaotic.
  2. Therefore learning to reset them to normal- or to open and close them before others can exploit them, is an important way of building your own hand while restricting your opponents' options.
  • Beyond all that, the key issue is learning how to use the other new rules with malice aforethought instead of just randomly- to attack opponents in strong positions and so on.
What went down
Andy snuck in a tidy wee victory in Fluxx's classic 'out-of-nowhere' fashion.

You what?
Sadly so 0:-/

Plus c'est la même chose
The choice of main game fell to me. I pondered briefly before deciding that it was time for another visit to the depths of depravity (AKA. close to the knuckle satire) that is War on Terror, the Boardgame.

What went down
Some whimsy inspired me to set up my 2 free at-start villages in Latin America, a mistake I quickly came to rue as I realised that the avenues of expansion of my Empire were thus very limited. I was eventually able to recover to some extent thanks to a Regime Change which allowed me to nick someone's development and expand from there. Elsewhere, Gav had started that land war in Asia of ill repute; Andy was working his way northwards from Australasia; Dave was trying to make his mark in Europe; and Donald was clearing up in North America.

The game's first big whack came when Gav- who by then enjoyed the favoured Evil Empire status, hit Andy with a terrorist outrage (Plane Hijack IIRC) with the result that Andy had to shell out several hundred millions of his moolah. This left Andy on the verge of bankruptcy. All that was needed was one little push into outright penury to force Andy to turn terrorist. For some reason we were all merciful, leaving Andy to limp on for many turns with an economy on the brink of meltdown and oil resources which stubbornly refused to deliver.

Sunday's Triumvurate of Evil
While Andy bemoaned his fate Gav's Asian expansionism continued apace; Dave's grand Eurovision proved irresistable to the denizens of the erstwhile enlightened continent; Donald tried some secret diplomacy to dissuade me from taking the only logical line of advance out of my Latin American fastness- Mexico; and I ignored Donald's petty pleadings as my Bolivarian revolution swept northwards.
Soon Donald was the Empire to watch- his 8VP put him within easy reach of victory; a position he didn't enjoy for long as terrorist attacks and other finkery cut him back down to size in short order. Undaunted by Donald's fate I too crawled my way to the top of the imperial heap only to be mercilessly laid low in identical fashion
The familiar WoT long haul by now well established, Andy decided enough was enough. His entry into the terrorist camp was enough to reawaken the same spirit of idle whimsy that had animated me at the start of the game, and I promptly joined him. And it really was the exact same spirit because the timing of my decision was every bit as poor, strategically, as had been my initial setup. D'oh!
For a brief moment the fate of freedom-loving humanity hung in the balance:
  • Gav was almost persuaded to join us for a terrorist victory; until he spotted that his turning terrorist wouldn't prove to be an instant victory.
  • Andy and I contrived a mass outbreak of terrorist activity across great swathes of the globe which looked pretty impressive- perhaps even irresistable, even though I say so myself.
Unfortunately the Empires' peacekeeping operations proved too effective. In a couple of turns the map had been cleared of all terrorist units; and Dave, Donald and Gav declared World Peace.

Peace of the grave 1
Peace-loving peoples 0
This play of War on Terror left us all with the same mixed feelings I talked about the last time we played. The specific issues we discussed around the table were:
  • The ease with which players can be completely knocked down can make the game not just lengthy but a long-player in which there can seem to be no apparent end in sight.
  • Though interestingly open-ended, the turn sequence requires an array of decision-making that can make play drag out even without the dreaded Analysis Paralysis.
  • This results in a lot of interturn downtime.
The net result is that WoT left us wondering if it's a game that is less than the sum of its parts.

All of that said, it is entirely possible that we were just playing the game wrongly; that is to say: we were playing it too much like Risk. What I mean is that we'd all focussed too much on our private development strategies as you would do when playing Risk. For example, there was no significant wheeling and dealing in a game whose rules state that pretty much anything goes when it comes to trading game resources.

The upshot was that we all agreed that while War on Terror, the Boardgame might not've established itself as a favourite, there is still more to the game than we've uncovered in our 2 plays, so that it remains too early to pronounce final judgement.

Roundup windup
Dave, Donald and Gav played a couple more games of Fluxx while I was getting the dinner ready, so the day's final results were:
Dubious Dave 2
Gory Gav 2
Devious Donald 1
Unexpected Andy 1
He who must not be named 0

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