Larry Levy: My Gathering Impressions (Prototypes, Part 1)

In my last article, I gave you my thoughts on the published games I played at the Gathering; today, I’ll talk about some of the prototypes I checked out. All of these games have been placed with publishers and are scheduled to be released sometime this year.  I’ll focus on the games that I enjoyed in this writeup, while my next article will be about the ones that didn’t do so much for me.

There are usually at least a couple of prototypes that really grab me each year, but this time around, there was only one.  So let’s lead off with that one.

Baseball Highlights: 2045 (2 plays) – I’ve been a fan of Mike Fitzgerald’s games since I stumbled across a copy of Jack the Ripper 15 years ago.  I really like all of the Mystery Rummy games, as well as some of Mike’s other designs.  But this one may be his best.

The backstory for Baseball Highlights: 2045 (and let me see if I can be the first to assign it the hopefully trendy nickname of BH45) is that in the future, baseball is played by cybernetically-enhanced humans, robots, and the rare non-altered flesh-and-blood player.  The game deliberately avoids being a simulation of the sport; instead, we’re playing through the highlights of each game, similar to what would be broadcast on ESPN’s SportsCenter.  It’s principally a 2-player game, although there will be rules in the box for 3 and 4 player games, as well as a solitaire variant.

Each player begins with a standard deck of 15 player cards.  6 are chosen at random for each game.  Each side alternates playing cards one at a time.  The easiest way to explain how this works is to go through an example.  The visiting team begins by playing one of the player cards from their hand.  Most of the cards show a list of potential hits.  Let’s say this card lists a single and a double.  So the visitors are now threatening to start things off with a couple of hits.  Next, the home team plays a card.  Some of the cards can affect what your opponent is doing.  So, for example, suppose this new card says that it Cancels one hit.  Naturally, the home team chooses to cancel the threatened double.  But that still leaves a single for the visitors, so they put a man on first base.  We also take note of any threatened hits on the home team’s first card and then see if the visitor’s second card alters them.  This continues, with each player alternating playing cards until all 6 are played.  Each team maintains their own baseball diamond, with runners on first, second, and third advancing on base hits and scoring runs just as they would in the parent sport.  Whoever has the most runs after all the cards are played wins that game.

There are some other effects on the cards (including double plays, stolen bases, pickoffs, and clutch hits that can’t be defended against), as well as some other rules, but that’s the basics of the game.  Each hand, representing one baseball game, takes as little as 5 minutes to play.

But that’s only the beginning.  After each game, the players can upgrade their teams.  There is a deck of Free Agent player cards, each of which is better than the starting player cards.  Every card generates a set amount of revenue and both teams total the revenue from their played cards to buy new players from a display of Free Agent cards.  The values are such that you can grab one or two players with improved abilities and use them to replace starting cards.  This way, you can tune your deck however you like.  The new players are placed on top of your deck, so you’ll be able to use them in your next game–nothing like instant gratification!

There are a number of ways you can play BH45, but the standard method is to start with three “regular season” games, following each with a buying round.  The teams then play a best 4-out-of-7 World Series, with the player who won the most regular season games starting the series as the home team.  Each World Series game is also followed by a buying round, so by the time it reaches a climax, the players will have dramatically altered their teams.  The first player to win 4 World Series games wins!

Back when I was a teenager, I played a lot of baseball simulations.  I went whole hog, including keeping a scorecard, maintaining statistics, and all that stuff.  I loved it back then, but it’s not something I have any interest in today.  Instead, I’m looking for something much shorter and more strategic, something that resembles baseball without having to deal with the whole play-by-play grind.  And I finally may have found it with Baseball Highlights.

The game itself is quite clever, with the card interplay and the deckbuilding working very well.  But the best thing about it is how much it feels like baseball, in spite of not remotely being a simulation.  It’s a little bit like Cwali’s StreetSoccer in that regard, which also maintains the feel of its parent sport, despite very simple rules.  BH45 gives you the feel of the National Pastime in a short, snappy package, and that’s quite an achievement.

Another nice thing about the design is how tense and dramatic games tend to be.  Fitzgerald has arranged things so that most games come down to the last card, with dramatic finishes being the quite common.  Getting to play a bunch of 5-minute hands, most of which come down to a nail-biting conclusion, is wonderful bang for the buck.

I got to play this twice at the Gathering.  First, Jonathan Franklin explained the rules to me late one night.  We only had time to play a couple of hands, but that was enough to get the rules down pat.  The next day, I taught it to Erik Arneson, who, like me, is also a big baseball fan.  We played a full game, culminating in a World Series, and we had a blast!  He won all three of the regular season games, which made me doubt my playing and drafting abilities.  Then we moved to the games that counted.  And I swept him in four straight!  Each of the games came down to the wire, including walk-off home runs and game saving defensive plays.  We were both totally into it!  It really was the best game I played during the whole Gathering.

Baseball Highlights 2045 is still a prototype (several of the cards we used had Mike’s handwritten changes on them), but it will certainly be published this year by Eagle Games.  It’s already had a successful Kickstarter campaign and is scheduled to be released during the third quarter of the year.  The only quandary I have is figuring out who I’ll play it with!  My 2-player gaming is limited as is and finding a prospective opponent who also is a baseball fan might prove difficult.  (Even though the game is good enough to play by those who are indifferent to baseball, I think understanding and appreciating the parent game really adds to one’s enjoyment of the design.)  But there’s still no question I’ll be picking this up.  I like supporting Mike and the game is just too good.  So I’ll anxiously await the final version of this sometime late in the real baseball season.  It’ll sure be nice to be able to experience a World Series in a fraction of the time of the real thing!
My rating:  I love it!

Loop, Inc. (2) – This is the only game I’ll discuss which isn’t yet scheduled to be published.  But Eagle is taking a good hard look at it and they gave me permission to talk about the game as long as I emphasized that it’s still in development.  Loop, Inc. is designed by Scott Almes, who has had recent Kickstarter success with Tiny Epic Kingdoms and Kings of Air and Steam.  This time, he tackles the paradoxical world of time travel.

Briefly, each player has a time travel machine and there’s a timeline of past events that earn you VPs when you visit them.  In the first round, you carry out three actions, most of which entail adding the items to your machine that are prerequisites for visiting events.  At the end of this, you send your machine back in time, earn some VPs, and then travel back to the beginning of the same day you left to begin round two.

And here’s where it gets interesting.  You now (try to follow the internal logic) have two time travel machines:  the one that just came back and the one that hasn’t left yet, because you’re reliving that same day!  Plus, since there’s now two of you, you have six actions you can take, including three new ones by the new you.  But the other three actions have to be the same ones you performed in the first round, in the same order (since you can’t alter what’s already happened).  You can intersperse the new actions between them, but otherwise, they have to stay the same.  And that can be problematic, because items and action cards are limited and there are penalties if you can’t complete a programmed action.  The hope is that you can send both of your machines back in time to legally visit events.  And then there’s a third round, in which you have three machines and nine actions, six of which are already set!  Yeah, you could say it’s just a little bit of a brain-burner!

I love the premise, I love the internal logic, and I loved the challenge of trying to wrap your head around all of this.  By my second game, I was doing a better job of figuring out how to work the system, but I might have enjoyed things more when I was holding my head in the first game, just to keep my brain from dribbling out from my ears!  It’s still early in the design process and I can’t be sure what the final result will look like (and how replayable it will turn out to be).  But I saw so few truly original ideas that got me excited during my week in Niagara Falls that I wanted to make sure I talked about this one.  Very interested to see what Eagle does with this, assuming they actually decide to release it.
My rating:  I like it.

Mythotopia (2) – This will be the next Treefrog game.  It’s Martin Wallace’s attempt to correct the dominant strategy issue with the otherwise excellent A Few Acres of Snow.  Like that earlier design, this combines deckbuilding with boardplay and is essentially a light wargame.

I played the prototype for the first time two years ago and liked it quite a bit.  However, some problems were found and it’s taken a while to solve them.  So what I played this year is essentially Mythotopia 2.0.

It has a generic medieval setting and uses the same card-driven system as Snow.  Wallace addresses the potential dominant strategy issue in several ways:  make the game multiplayer; include different, randomly chosen objectives each game; and provide a random set of cards that can be used to build your deck.  These seem to work well and should ensure there isn’t a Mythotopia Mauler killer strategy.

The game I played this year lasted a little longer than I’d like.  I was also a little disappointed that it focused so much on warfaring activities; my recollection was that the game I played previously had at least a little bit of a developmental feel (although that could simply be due to the objectives and special cards that were used for that session).  And several of my opponents weren’t happy that the setting was so bland, with very few fantasy elements.  But overall, I like the system (I think it works considerably better here than in A Study in Emerald, which also draws its mechanics from Snow) and the random objectives and add-ons should keep it plenty fresh.  I’m not quite as enthused about this as I was two years ago, but I’m still looking forward to this coming out.
My rating:  I like it.

Five Tribes (1) – Five Tribes, from Bruno Cathala, is slated to be the next Days of Wonder game.  The most interesting part of it is the central mechanic.  The board consists of areas arranged in a grid and during setup, each area is seeded with units from each of the five “tribes”.  On your turn, you choose an area, gather up all the units, and “walk” from there, dropping a unit in each area you pass over.  If the area where you drop the last unit has at least one other unit from the same tribe (this is the key rule), you get to do the ability associated with that tribe–and the strength of that action is proportional to how many units of that type are present.  In essence, this is two-dimensional Mancala, a potentially wonderful idea.  The quality of the game now comes down to how well this idea is implemented.  Given that this is a prototype, I can’t be sure how it will turn out, but I’d say that Cathala and DoW are off to a good start.

That said, there were a few things I had issues with.  The first is the name.  I rarely give much thought to game titles, but this time the disconnect between the name and the theme really bugged me.  We are not dealing with “tribes”, but rather groups of professionals like Assassins, Merchants, and Viziers, all straight out of a quasi-Arabian Nights setting.  “Tribes” makes me think of American Indians or wandering nomads.  When the game was first explained to me, I was very surprised at the theme and I imagine there will be other folks who will be bothered that the setting doesn’t match the title.  It makes me wonder if we’re dealing with a dodgy translation of a French term that doesn’t covert well to English.  In any event, I hope that DoW comes up with a different title for this one.

A more significant potential issue is the pacing of the game.  At the beginning, with all the spaces fully occupied with units, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the options available to you.  Since you remove all the units used in an action, the complexity rapidly decreases, until there are only a handful of legal moves available at the end.  Going from what might be too many possibilities to what might be an anticlimatic ending gave the game a somewhat peculiar feel to me.  I’m sure it won’t be quite as jarring in my next game, now that I’m aware of the issue, but I wouldn’t necessarily mind it if they figure out a way to better even out the choices over the course of the entire game.

Finally, I wonder if DoW is the right publisher for this game.  Not for the reasons you might expect, but because of how they’ll do the components.  You can easily wind up with 5 or 6 units in a space and in my game, it was pretty tough to identify the contents of all the spaces.  Now, you know that DoW is going to create some wonderfully elaborate molds for these units.  The trouble is, that could really exacerbate the identification issue.  I know it would kill the theme, but what might really be best for this game is just a bunch of colored cubes.  That way, you’d at least have a shot of taking in the board at a glance.  Going with cubes might also make the game more accessible to the color-blind.  Sure, the molds would all look different, but when things that large are squashed into a confined space, it’s next to impossible to use anything other than color to distinguish them.  If, however, you used cubes, you could just put a different geometric figure on each side and use that to help color-blind players.  The only reason I bring that up is that DoW probably puts as much effort in making their games color-blind friendly as any publisher, so I’d think this would be important to them.  Hopefully, they’ll figure out a way to make the game gorgeous, thematic, and functional, but right now, I’m a little concerned about it.

That’s a lot of negativity I’m tossing around, but I’m actually quite interested in checking this game out when it gets released.  One thing I’m very encouraged by is that this is definitely more complex than the average Days of Wonder game.  It’s not a heavyweight by any means, but DoW has always focused on the family market and for them to think about releasing a game this thinky is something I’m quite excited about (particularly since their last release, Relic Runners, was also closer to being a gamer’s game than most of us expected).  It may not be a trend and I’m sure the publisher will remain true to their roots, but a little variety is always a good thing, so the occasional gamer’s game from a company of DoW’s quality will be very welcome.  I hope that Five Tribes (or whatever they wind up calling it–hint, hint!) will turn out to be a big success.
My rating:  I like it.

Akrotiri (1) – This two-player game from Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim (who combined on Belfort and other recent titles) is still in the early stages, but here are some basics.  The theme is discovering ancient temples and you do so by playing cards to narrow down the possible locations and then traveling to the appropriate spot.  Kind of like Tobago on massive steroids.  In fact, this borders on the edge of being too brain-burny, but once we got familiar with the mechanics, we enjoyed the challenge.  It’s definitely interesting and the best thing I’ve seen from the two designers.  It’s slated to be released from Z-Man sometime this year.
My rating:  I like it.

Those were the prototypes that I was most impressed with during the Gathering.  Next, I’ll finish this series of articles off by describing the proposed titles that didn’t work as well for me, including the game that was my biggest disappointment of the con.

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4 Responses to Larry Levy: My Gathering Impressions (Prototypes, Part 1)

  1. Larry: since you referenced one of the best board games that get the FEEL of a sport right (StreetSoccer), you automatically are excused for loving some of those boh-RING! cube-pushers you usually tout. :-)

    While I haven’t had the chance to play BH45, it looks exactly like you described – which makes me happy I backed the KS.

  2. I’m also excited about the other non-Wallace games you talked about… is our agreement a sign of the impending Apocalypse? :-)

  3. huzonfirst says:

    If the Apocalypse is coming, Mark, at least we know what games we can play together while society burns around us!

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