Larry Levy: My Gathering Impressions (Prototypes, Part 2)

This is my third, and final, article discussing some of the new games I played at the Gathering.  This time, I talk about the prototypes that I felt only so-so about…or worse.

Alchemists (2 plays) – This CGE prototype was my most disappointing game of the week.  Not because it’s a bad design–far from it.  But because it didn’t turn out to be the game I wanted it to be.

This is a shame, since this really sounded like a title that could have been one of my all-time favorites.  I adore deduction games–the more challenging, the better.  (That’s why I made Deduce or Die the most difficult deduction game I could imagine.)  And the idea at the center of Alchemists really is brilliant.  Each of the eight ingredients is assigned a relatively simple symbol (composed only of three colors and plus and minus signs).  The symbols are constructed such that combining any ingredient with each of the other seven yields seven unique results.  Best of all, the players can work out the result of combining two symbols in just a few seconds.  This is one of the cleverest ideas, in either gaming or mathematics, that I’ve seen in a long time.

On top of all that, CGE’s execution of the basic ideas is amazing.  Their use of smart phone technology to yield answers to deductive queries is not only uber-cool and groundbreaking, it solves a longstanding problem with deduction games, which is guaranteeing that no mistakes are made when providing answers.  The process is also essential in Alchemists, since that game requires that players receive information without revealing which ingredients they’re testing, and the phone app does just that.  CGE has always pushed the bleeding edge in gaming technology, both in terms of published products and in creating prototypes, but this is their boldest and most exciting example yet.

So why the sad face, bunky?  It’s not because I’m unhappy that the game includes other elements than deduction.  Just like I prefer deckbuilding when it’s only part of the design (as opposed to being the entire game), there’s every reason to think that a title that uses deduction as just one facet of gameplay would be great.  Unfortunately, Alchemists is not that game–at least for me.

The crux of my issues with the game stems from my experiences with deduction.  Traditionally, players in deduction games gather information, eliminate different possibilities until only one remains, and then make their claim.  You might guess at the answer if you have only a few possibilities and you think an opponent is on the verge of solving the game, but that’s usually as far as it goes.  CGE’s intent for Alchemists is very different.  Their goal is to produce a game where the players are forced to proceed with uncertain information and to make educated guesses at most stages of the game.  I understand their reasoning, but I’m just not sure it’s the game I want to play.

The emphasis on limited data affects the game in multiple ways.  The most obvious is that you have to had made some guesses about the identity of ingredients at early stages of the game or lose points.  So even if you haven’t come to any definite conclusions, you’ll have to take your chances on what information you do have.  Another design choice is to limit the number of ingredients you can select from each turn.  Ideally, you’d like to be able to focus on a small number of ingredients, so that you could use them in tests and identify at least one of them.  But with only a small display to choose from, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to do that.

I want to emphasize that these aren’t poor or random design choices.  CGE has a blueprint for this game and they’re following it in appropriate ways.  But since I want the title to be primarily a deduction game, I found I was frustrated by the inability to do the tests I needed to do, as well as the need to announce uncertain conclusions.  What served as features for other players were all bugs for me.

It also seemed as if these design decisions led to a higher luck factor than I thought the game would have.  In one of my games, one player made a couple of early guesses for ingredients, both of which had approximately 50% chances of being right (based on the data he’d gathered).  As it turned out, both guesses were correct.  This not only had a significant effect on how the game played out (there are lots of points to be gained if you successfully challenge another player’s guess), but also led to him running away with the game.  If both those guesses had been wrong, he probably would have been in serious trouble.  It certainly felt as if the difference in those two outcomes came down to luck.  There’s also luck in which ingredients appear in the display; since there are so few available each turn, there’s a sizeable difference if they’re the ones you’re trying to get information on or if no such ingredients appear.

The deductive element of the game works great.  The mental gymnastics necessary to identify ingredients are challenging and quite stimulating.  It takes a lot of work to figure things out, but that’s what attracts a true fan of deduction games.  However, it’s pretty deflating when all that work goes down the drain when you realize that an opponent’s guess two turns earlier turned out to be correct, or when the ingredients you desperately need to get that last vital piece of information refuse to show up in the display.

I haven’t given up on the game.  CGE is still making changes and there’s plenty of time between now and Essen, when the game is scheduled to be released.  It’s still a very exciting idea, so I’ll be sure to give the final version a fair shot.  But it was sad that a design that held such promise turned out different than what I hoped it would be.
My rating:  Neutral

Subdivision (1) – This was actually more of half a play, as I played it with a couple of friends while they waited for a scheduled game of theres to be set up.  This is a design that Bezier Games will be releasing from fellow OGer Luke Hedgren.  It’s an unusual take on city-building, with somewhat mechanical scoring and a die roll that determines where each new tile must be placed (you can pay cash to place the tile elsewhere).  It felt a bit too abstract for my tastes and the die roll bothered me a bit, just because I’m wired that way.  But the central idea has potential and I’d like to give it a full trial instead of just half a game.  Nice job, Luke (and Ted), and I hope to be able to try out the final version in a few months.
My rating:  Neutral

Chimera (1) – This is a 3-player Climbing game, clearly designed to fill a perceived gap for Tichu-like games for 3.  If you ever finished up a game of Tichu and said, “That was okay, but what I really want is a game that’s even more complex”, Chimera may be the design for you.  Those words will never be uttered by me, though.  I acknowledge Tichu’s greatness, but what I would prefer is a game that achieves its depth while being less involved and more elegant.  (As a rule of thumb, I tend to like lots of moving parts in board games, but prefer the elegant approach in card games.)  Chimera is obviously the product of a designer who feels that the choices in Tichu just don’t go far enough.  There’s a price to be paid for that additional complexity, though.  For example, there are no fewer than 14 different legal card combinations you can play and all of us were constantly consulting the player aid to determine which idiosyncratic combination served us best.  Then there’s the special cards, different kinds of games depending on how the players bid, some unusual scoring rules, and on and on.  I have to admit, it had my brain spinning.  I like difficult card games, but I’d prefer the difficulty to come from figuring out optimal plays, rather than struggling with a weighty rule set.

When it comes to Climbing games for 3 players, I prefer Haggis.  Still, Chimera has some appeal and figuring out how to best play a hand was reasonably interesting.  It’s not a game I think I’d seek out, but if my buddies really wanted to play, I wouldn’t mind indulging them (which, to be honest, is kind of the way I feel about Tichu as well).
My rating:  Neutral

Black Fleet (1) – This is a gorgeous looking Sebastian Bleasdale prototype from Space Cowboys, which just released the gorgeous looking Splendor.  Guess they intend to produce gorgeous looking games!  I thought this looked better than it played, however.  Each player controls a merchant ship (which tries to deliver goods), a pirate ship (which tries to steal from merchant ships), and a Navy ship (which tries to sink pirate ships).  Movement is card-driven and nicely designed.  But there are also lots of special powers which seemed pretty unbalanced to us.  The luck factor is also fairly high.  Finally, the game overstayed its welcome; I would have been happier if it had lasted half as long as it did.

It’s clearly aimed at families, so I can’t be too critical.  However, it’s kind of involved for casual gamers, so I’m a little concerned that it might be over-designed (and over-priced) for its principal audience.  I do expect that gamers looking for eye candy and pirate-themed designs will grab it, so it should do alright.
My rating:  Neutral

Diamonds (1) – My favorite game of the Gathering was a Mike Fitzgerald design and I’m sad to say that my least favorite one comes from Mike as well.  This is a fairly basic trick-taking game where each suit is associated with a special ability.  The abilities all revolve around crystals which yield victory points:  either putting them in your Showroom, where they can be stolen; putting them in your Vault, where they’re worth more and are safe from theft; or stealing a crystal from another player’s Showroom.  You get to do a suit’s action when you win a trick in that suit or when you don’t follow suit (because you have no cards in the suit led).  You also get some bonus actions if you take more cards of a suit during a hand than anyone else.

That’s the whole game.  Your success during a hand seemed strongly dependent on the cards you were dealt.  Get dealt cards of the wrong suit and there’s just not much you can do.  On the other hand, there’s no trumps, so if you’re dealt a hand with a long, strong suit (particularly one with a good suit action), you’ll clean up.  There didn’t seem to be much scope for skillful play at all.  It was also frustrating to get a suit action, but not be able to take advantage of it (for example, getting to move a crystal from your Showroom to your Vault when your Showroom is empty).

I’m probably being harsh here, but I’m a big fan of trick-takers and there’s so many interesting and clever ones available to play.  This isn’t one of them and it doesn’t even serve as a particularly good introduction to the genre.  I just found it tedious, with hands that absolutely played themselves.  Sorry, Mike!
My rating:  Not for me.

So that was my Gathering.  There were definitely some good games, although not as many as I usually find.  But I still had a blast and can’t wait to do it again next year.  And you know I’ll be filling you all in on how things go in 2015!

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2 Responses to Larry Levy: My Gathering Impressions (Prototypes, Part 2)

  1. I had very much the same reaction to Chimera.

    Additionally, when will publishers of these sorts of card games stop relying on players to memorize the abilities/uses of singular cards represented by abstract Chinese-styled monster art? Is it too much to ask for a little text or some icons to help us remember what these cards do?

    Publishers of trick taking games should take note of what North Star Games did with Clubs. There’s no question about how those cards work.

    Coupled with the Tichu-on-steroids complexity, Chimera’s presentation is actively discouraging to new players. It’s a beautiful, opaque screen, hiding a decent game.

  2. rprasadusa says:

    I feel similarly about Alchemists. I really enjoyed the game play, even playing it twice during the Gathering. But in its (then) current state, there seemed to be too much luck relative to the length of the game, not only in those early guesses being right but also in the initial distribution of ingredients players get, and how those happen to match that first hero seeking potions: an early lead in gold really helped players the rest of the game. But as you said, CGE is great at fine tuning and presumably these things will be better in the final game. That does nothing for the lucky early guesser, of course, if that is part of their design goal!

    Chimera, on the other hand, I enjoyed quite a bit. I’m not sure that it’s more complex than Tichu. It certainly felt that way to me, but that may simply be because Tichu is pretty deeply ingrained by now. I’d guess that someone new to both games would be about equally lost! It would be nice, though, if the Pi Ya (what the heck is that? Even Wikipedia doesn’t know!) had some memory aid. And if the cards were smaller. Of course, that was a prototype copy ….

    I wanted to like Black Fleet, and played it twice to make sure: I did not! Too long, too random, and too unbalanced — just as you said.

    Diamonds was better, but I agree: didn’t really stand out strongly over other trick-taking games. That other trick-taking game that was getting a lot of play (the one with the peppers), for example, made an impression not only because of the weird rules, but also because it seemed so impossibly difficult to predict how many tricks you’d take! Diamonds, on the other hand, was pretty straightforward and not as interesting. Of course, maybe in a mass market setting, it would fit better?

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