Dale Yu: First Impressions of 504

 

504

  • Designer: Friedemann Friese
  • Publisher: 2F / Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 30-150 minutes*
  • Times played: 5 (less than 1%) – with designer’s prototype as well as with review copy provided by Stronghold Games

504 box

504 is perhaps the most innovative game* that I can remember in a long while.  But, perhaps it’s better to refer to 504 as a game system instead of a game – because as the title alludes to: 504 is actually a box which provides you rules and components to play 504 different games!  In this piece, we will review the system as a whole.

The design of the system is based on nine different modules – representing some of the more common mechanisms in gaming:

1: Pick up and Deliver – using your trolley to deliver things (goods/people) to certain places

2: Race – being the first to reach a location or the first to gain something

3: Privileges – small and special improvements that players vie for

4: Military – fighting against your opponents

5: Exploration – revealing portions of the world through the course of the game

6: Roads – connecting different cities or things in the world

7: Majorities – having more things in possession or more people in places than your opponents

8: Production – making goods from the resources available

9: Shares – financial involvement and expansion through ownership of companies

The way that you can play 504 different games is that the players will choose three modules for each game that will combine in a unique manner.  The first module chosen will determine the game ending condition as well as the main way to score VPs.  The second module chosen determines how you generate income in that game.  The third module chosen adds some special flavor based on that module.  Thus, there are (9 x 8 x 7) different ways to play the game.  1-2-3 is the first game introduced in the game, and it will feel fairly similar to 1-2-4: each of those two games will have the same scoring and income features, with only slight changes from Privileges to Military.  On the other hand, 1-2-3 and 3-1-2 would be completely different.

There are two different sets of rules included in the box.  The first one is a 32-page stapled booklet which includes the manifest and outlines the overall rules for the system.  This book also includes a two-page summary of rules for each of the 9 modules.  The remainder of this rule book also provides examples of maps as well as a glossary of terms.  If this were the only rulebook in the box, it would be possible to figure out how to play all 504 games.

CameraZOOM-20160102144434717

The second rulebook is the Book of Worlds.  This is a spiral bound book with “pages” that are cut into three sections.  There is a “page” for each of the three modules, but you can flip each section to the chosen module and view all the rules for your chosen game at one time.  Again, the topmost section will outline the game end/VP scoring, the middle area shows how you earn income, and the bottom section shows you the “extras” for the game.

CameraZOOM-20160102144446638

The ingenious part of the Book of Worlds is that this hybrid two page setup pretty well explains all of the rules needed to play the game, and seems to answer most of the niggly questions that might come up.  For me, that may be the most amazing thing about the game (putting on my game developer’s hat) is the way that each module in each position seems to have been considered in all 56 (8×7) situations that it might be found in.  In fact, interspersed in the rule sections are not only the general rules for that module in that place but additionally any extra or special rules/rules changes that need to made with certain other modules in play.

here in the closeup, you can see specific rules changes depending on what other modules are in the game

here in the closeup, you can see specific rules changes depending on what other modules are in the game

What comes in the box

So, this game is chock full of stuff – as you might expect – with components for each of the nine modules: map tiles, meeples, share cards and company boards, settlements, money, VP tokens, turn order cards, goods tiles, privilege cards, etc.  The game probably weighs close to 6 pounds!  The Book of Worlds will let you know which components you will need for any particular game.  My box is filled with more than 20 different baggies of components so that I can try to pull out the right stuff when needed.  It definitely takes a bit more time to put things away, but the time saved in setup is well worth it.  On a curious note, the game does include a boat token which the rules say “(currently needed in 0% of all games)” – I suppose this portends some future expansions or promos that will use this.

bags and bags of bits

bags and bags of bits

examples of the hexes

examples of the hexes

How does it play?

Well, I’ve played 5 or 6 different versions of the game thus far, the first 3 with Friedemann or Henning (the game’s developer) at the Gathering of Friends.  The game is certainly easy to setup and figure out the module rules with them around.  In my experience with the actual rule book, it’s also turned out to be fairly easy to figure out what is going on as well.  As I mentioned earlier, I am in complete awe of the way that the 2 pages of rules account for just about any question that I have had.

It’s hard to evaluate each of the 504 game options here though – as I’ve only played each scenario that I’ve played once (and only 5 total thus far).  To be honest, I have yet to play a world which knocked me off my feet nor have I played a scenario yet where we wanted to play it directly again.  From talking to other gamers and reading session reports online, I think that this is a common feeling with this game.  (I had been scouting out online and personal sources to try to find the “best” worlds to play – and I have yet to find any one single world recommended as such…)  That being said, my love of experiencing new games still draws me back to the system.

The beauty of 504 (for me, at least) might be the chance to take a common game system and set up a new world each time that I play – and then the challenge becomes identifying how to play that particular setup as best as possible.  Obviously, some worlds are going to be better than others – I’d expect myself to enjoy games with Racing and Road Building to be more suited to my liking than Military or Privilege games, but the system provides something for all likings.  For a “Cult of the New” gamer, this is a treasure trove of new game ideas to play.

 

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (6 total plays; 1 with published game): 504 is one of the most brilliant innovations in board games I’ve seen.  I thought it audacious of Friedemann to try, and am truly impressed that he managed to get the game to the point of publishing it.  I also like the implied commentary, that a lot of games are really nothing more than piecing together a few different mechanisms.

 

The difficulty, for me, is two fold.  First, the game would be significantly better if every copy of the game came with Friedemann, to teach you the rules for the module.  Until my most recent play, I’d always played with Friedemann present, whether playing or teaching the game.  Not having him – slowed the process down.  We got through everything, in the end, but the game really does benefit from having an expert on the system present.  But the bigger issue for me is inherent in the system – the games are inherently abstract in nature.  This won’t make a difference for many, but for me it limits my enjoyment.  I’ve always been amused by the description of games as “thematic” on BoardGameGeek, because it clearly means something different there than what I mean – which is that the subject of the game, the theme of the game, and the mechanisms in the game align.  And, for me to enjoy the game, that the subject is one of at least passing interest.  In 504, the mechanisms clearly and obviously come first – there’s no attempt to fit mechanisms into the subject and theme because there can’t be.

 

And so, in the end, I’m left with a system that I truly admire – but with games I’m happily willing, rather than anxious, to play.  The good news is that every combination I’ve tried has worked, such that I’d be open to trying whatever scenario someone had picked out as their favorite.

the rule book with different sections opened up

the rule book with different sections opened up2626

 

Mitchell Thomashow (3 plays in one session)

I think the problem with writing about 504 is that to handle it fairly requires an enormous time investment. You can’t just play a few games. You have to think deeply about the entire system. Early assessments of the specific games don’t seem to be very good. So who wants to spend so much time learning a system that has limited rewards?

I mention this because I had the game for over a month. I perused the rulebook without studying it, and until recently I’d been unable to muster the energy to research the system and all that it entails. It seemed that the reward in doing so is the idea of the system and not the games themselves. The time investment seemed much too great with all of the other wonderful games we have to explore.

My lack of interest wasn’t the metagame concept itself, but the daunting task of sorting through something that might not be sufficiently rewarding. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring, but if someone like myself (who loves the idea of game systems) is unclear as to whether to do so, what does that portend?

Finally I had an opportunity to pull 504 off the shelf. A friend and I spent almost eight hours immersing ourselves in the system. Getting to know 504 is a huge time commitment. You’ve got to punch out the copious game components. And you have to read the rulebook thoroughly. We proceeded as the instructions recommend. We played the lackluster 123 introductory game. Then we read the two pages of rules that pertain to the entire system. Although we are both experienced rules readers and new game players, it took us awhile to fully grasp what to do and how to use the modular flip book. For our second game we chose 758 as it received some positive comments on BGG. We found the game tedious and slow. For our third try, I chose three modules that reflect some of my favorite games—roads and networks, pick up and deliver, and racing. So we played 612. That, too, was unexceptional. The only modules we didn’t try were 4 (military) and 9 (stocks) as they seemed the most time consuming to learn. We wondered whether the games we played were unsuitable for two players, or whether another pattern was emerging. In the spirit of first impressions, here are our tentative conclusions.

Although 504 promises an extraordinary variety of game options, the three games we played all seemed like the same game with some subtle tweaks. There are transcending “mechanics” pertaining to movement, money, and victory points. And then there are foundation “mechanics” pertaining to each module. These are generic Euro-game mechanics and really offer nothing new to the experienced gamer.

I desperately wanted to enjoy 504 but sadly after playing these three games and putting almost a full day into learning the system, I think I’ve had my fill of 504. I love the idea of the game, but I found the execution uninteresting and the gameplay flat and often tedious.

Like many other commentators, I have great respect for both the designer and his vision. 504 is a great idea. And although the games that I tried in the package didn’t work for me, I’m glad I had a chance to spend some time (perhaps not enough) with the system.

Now that my personal “first impressions” are out of the way, I’d like to make a few philosophical comments, and suggest why 504 is an important concept for the future of Eurogames.

I’ve written a book The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (MIT Press, 2014) that outlines a modular, but comprehensive system for campus sustainability. The nine elements are divided into three categories: Infrastructure (Energy, Food, Materials), Community (Governance, Investment, Wellness), Learning (Curriculum, Interpretation, Aesthetics).

When I visit a campus I suggest that people find three of these “elements” and fit them together depending on their role on campus. That way they can explore many different approaches to sustainability in a modular, but integrated fashion.

My clients (colleges and universities) can be intrigued by the system, want to learn more about it, and invite me to discuss it before they actually “play” with it, or even read the book. However, the book will reveal helpful details in an emergent way.

504 is absolutely similar. You can review the whole system, choose the modules that you find most interesting, and then explore them, knowing that they are tied to a comprehensive system. The point isn’t to find the one “gem” of a game, rather it’s to see how the modules (elements) combine so you gain insight into the whole game design system. As you explore it more deeply, you can tinker with it so that the game works for you. There’s a finite structure, but lots of flexibility to find your own way. Players who focus too much on the specifics of the rules in relationship to the modules are missing the point. Figure out what works best for you.

My specific concern with 504 is that in its efforts to integrate the system it has become too scripted. That is, the specific games are directive and force you into understanding the rules protocols. Yet it’s much more interesting to think about the modules themselves and the best way they might interact. However, the structure of 504 doesn’t lend itself to such an improvisational approach. Rather it winds up being a convolution of variants, based on a scripted template.

And yet it still holds so much promise as a way to think about games. If I were to design a game in my field (environmental studies and global environmental change), I could see using 504 as a template for a very interesting modular system, one that would follow Friedmann’s approach. So roads could be energy networks. Military could be prey-predator relationships. Privileges could be species characteristics. Exploration is migration, and so on.

What an interesting assignment for an undergraduate or graduate ecology or evolution class.

You could pick other topics and do the same thing.

So 504 is a template for game design in a way that builds on and transcends the common Euro, and perhaps gives us a whole new way to think about games.

Hence I greatly admire the experiment. It is boldly innovative. But the games themselves are just not that interesting. I’m not sure what that means, but readers might wish to explore the 504 system if they are willing to spend unlimited hours doing so. I’d rather play one of my favorite games, while admiring the potential of 504 for the future of board games.

 

Chris Wray (3 Plays):  Going into Essen, I was skeptical of the game system.  I bought a copy because I admired the ambition of the idea, and I’m a fan of Friedemann Friese, but I fully expected gameplay to fall flat.  In short, I thought I’d either get (a) 504 minor variants of 1 game, or (2) 504 games of varying quality (which would, on average, be mediocre at best).  I did end up striking my first concern: this likely is 504 different games, or somewhere close to it.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell anything about the quality of the other 501 games I haven’t seen.  My favorite combo so far is the first one I played, #163 (Pick Up & Deliver, Roads, and Privileges).

 

Friedemann Friese (and Stronghold Games) deserve serious props for taking on such an ambitious project.  But I think I’m going to start holding out for the (inevitable) Geeklist summarizing the best combos.

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers (on 504 as a game system)

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Joe H.  John P
  • Neutral. Chris W., Larry L, Jonathan F, Mitchell T
  • Not for me…

 

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2015, First Impressions. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Dale Yu: First Impressions of 504

  1. Fascinating stuff. It reminds me a bit of “sandbox” video games where developers create the world and players create their own fun inside, whatever that means for themselves.

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