Home > general, review > a games roundup, part II

a games roundup, part II

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

This is a continuation of a games roundup, part I.

Next up:  Chicago Express.

Chicago Express is a short and very tight game of railroad-building.  Again, players aren’t tied to a specific company, but are instead invested in a number of different companies.  And again, if a player is invested in a given company, then she can build track for that company when it’s her turn.  Sometimes a player wants a company to do well (when she has a lot of stock in it), sometimes she wants it to do poorly (when she doesn’t).

There are several big differences between Chicago Express and Paris Connection, though:  first, stock shares and track are kept separate, with different markers for each.  This keeps the money end of the game separate from the building end, and I think on the whole that’s an improvement.  Both have their advantages (Paris Connection is a bit lighter and easier to teach to newbies), but separating out the two functions means that each aspect of the game can be tweaked (by the designer) independently — i.e., the designer has more control over the gaming experience.  And that’s usually a good thing.

The second big difference is that the board itself has more texture — there are cities you definitely want your railroads to get to, if possible, since big payouts occur when they do.  Conversely, of course, you want to try to prevent the railroads belonging to other players from getting to those same cities.  This tends to give the game a bit more tension, a bit more drama.

And the third big difference is that stock shares are auctioned, not claimed.  So the accurate evaluation of stock is crucial, which again makes Chicago Express less accessible to newbies.

On your turn you can do one of three things:  build track for one of the companies you own stock in, auction off one of the remaining shares of stock (of any company), or upgrade a hex tile (to increase the value of any companies with track in that tile).

Simple choices, but the game is anything but simple.

For example, you might auction off a share of stock if you wanted to:  (a) buy the stock yourself (so you’d have more of it), (b) encourage someone else to buy it (so they’d want to help you grow the company), (c) prevent someone else from auctioning a share of stock (you can choose an action and then fail to do it), or (d) give the company more money (the cost of building must be paid by the company, not the player doing the building).

There’s a lot to this game, in other words, even though each turn is short.  The game is all about manipulating the incentives of other people, and that can obviously be quite tricky.  I haven’t played it enough to claim even a basic understanding of the strategies, though I’m beginning to get a pretty good idea as to what doesn’t work. :-)

What do I think?  It’s a meaty game, and fairly short.  While superficially similar to Paris Connection (discussed in the previous post), it’s much heavier.  That doesn’t mean it’s better, though — different strokes for different folks (and different moods).

Next up:  Container.

Container is one of those games.  It had been on my radar for several years, but I didn’t buy it for two reasons:  (1) reports of unfortunate component choices (ships made out of some weird resin), and (2) a delicate economy that could come crashing to the ground if mismanaged.  On the other hand, I had heard that it was one of the most organic games out there, that the economy was quite realistic, and that it encouraged very interesting player interactions.  Eventually my interest in the game overcame my reservations, and I bought a copy.

I’m extremely glad I did.

Why do I like it so much?  It’s very open-ended, and very interesting.  The rules that govern player interaction are minimal.

How does the game work?  Players can either produce goods (represented by containers of different colors), buy produced goods from other players to put in their harbor stores, buy goods from the harbor stores of other players and load them onto their ship, use their ship to take goods to the island, or sell goods on the island at auction.

Simple enough, right?

Sort of.  The thing is, any time you’re selling goods (either when you’ve just produced them or have put them in your harbor store), you can price them however you want.  Price them too low, and you don’t make any money; price them too high, and other sellers will undercut you. The game is all about margins.

But it’s not just about making more money than the next guy, since the economy is (nearly) a closed system.  All players in Container are inter-dependent, and it’s impossible to do well if other players are doing poorly.  In this sense the game is a good example of coopetition — what goes around comes around.

While the economy is nearly closed, there is a wider world (bank).  The amount of money in the game can (and does) vary quite a bit, with large consequences for gameplay.

Money leaves the game in two situations:  (1) when players upgrade either their production facilities or their harbor stores and (2) if a player ever buys their own goods at auction on the island.  If too much money leaves the game, the game slows considerably.  Everything gets cheaper, but no one can buy anything.  The economy becomes depressed.

Money enters the game, on the other hand, when players buy someone else’s goods at auction on the island (government subsidies kick in, and the seller gets an equal amount of money from the bank).  This is good, because money makes the game go ’round.  The more money there is in the game, the more players can charge for their goods and the more things will go for at auction. Which in turn brings even more money into the game and causes inflation.

See how organic it is?

As I suggested earlier, some folks have complained that the economy is too delicate.  And I don’t really think that’s the case.  The first time my game group played, the economy got tight.  We all agreed that we needed to scale things down for a while, price things more cheaply, and help the economy get back on its feet.  After just a couple turns, things were ticking along nicely again.

My only beef with the game is the way the goods are handled on the island.  There it becomes a set-collecting game of sorts, where you get points for goods based on this hidden chart in front of you (you can see the chart, but no one else can).  So for one player, yellow goods might be worth 10 each, and for another player, they might only be worth two.

Also, you don’t get points for a given color if you have more containers of that color than any other.

So the end is a little fussy, and there’s a bit of hidden information, too.  I haven’t played the game enough to know why these choices were made, but I can’t help thinking at this point that a simple scoring system (not unlike the system for Ingenious) would have made the game tighter, more focused, and somehow also more pure.  I’m willing to give the designer the benefit of the doubt, however — I’d love to design a game this good.

And the resin ships?  Who cares?

And finally:  Imperial.

In Imperial, players become, to all extents and purposes, war profiteers — players are trying to make as much money as possible off World War I. If the theme bothers you, then you obviously won’t like this game — but if you can get past that, or maybe find a way to channel your inner Machiavelli, then you’ll likely find Imperial to be a deep and rewarding experience.

It’s been a little while since I last played, so I’ll stick to the basics.

The idea is that players own bonds in various countries.  And if they own more bonds than anyone else in a given country, then they get to act on that country’s behalf when it gets a turn.  They can use the country to attack their enemies (countries they aren’t invested in) or to defend their friends (countries they are invested in).  They can increase the country’s treasuries by levying taxes or can bleed the country dry by having it pay them dividends.  They can have the country pay to build up its armed forces, or they can deliberately kill off their own troops so as to avoid having to pay them at tax time.

Yes, it’s a deeply cynical game.  Possibly even jaded.

But it is also, in its own way, fascinating.  It’s basically a share-holding game with a war  theme, but that is, in and of itself, a pretty interesting idea.  All the standard share-holding concepts still apply (emergent alliances, gauging and manipulating the incentives of other players, running a country / company into the ground deliberately, &c.), but now you’ve got direct conflict to factor into the equation, too.  One “company” can literally attack another — crippling their military, reducing their tax base, and all but destroying their ability to make money.

Imagine a train game where you can blow up the track belonging to other companies, and you have at least a vague idea of what’s going on, here.

Check it out if you get the chance.

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