With nothing arriving for ages and then three coming at once, Rostherne Games seem to be closely emulating the No 12 bus that runs past my office. David Watts has finally delivered on all those promises and Winchester, Send and Bus Boss are now available at around £6-7 each. I have all three under David's 'reviewer's incentive scheme' but have not yet had a chance to play Bus Boss so you get two reviews this issue and one next. The problem I have is that I am obliged (and obviously would like) to review all three games but Winchester, as a semi-abstract game, really isn't my cup of tea. This is an awkward situation, so I'll simply run quickly through that one and avoid passing judgement beyond saying that I didn't like it much but I am sure others (my opponent included) will find it highly playable. OK?
Winchester is a race game for two to five players, the idea being to get your team of pawns round a rectangular track. The track is covered with squares, some of which have randomly distributed obstacles that prevent movement. The overall visual effect of the squares is like a small chessboard which is useful because that is exactly how the pawns move. Each turn, a player rolls a special chess dice to determine which chess move is available to all players. Each player then moves, say, a bishop's move with any one of his pawns. These moves are restricted in length only by the edges of the board or the obstacles, though a knight's move can jump the latter. That is it really except for the important fact that if you manage to 'take' an opposing pawn, he swaps with you by going back to the square from which you departed. Quite neat, the game takes around an hour or less (longer and more fun with more players I suspect) and is very simple to pick up and play.
Send! is a product rather more in the Rostherne mould. It is a deceptively simple game about distribution by road, though I can't say I rate the title that highly. Basically, each player (again, 2 to 5) has a factory where he makes 'items' (quickly termed widgets or doobries here) which must be delivered all over the UK, presumably by the company's lorry fleet. To improve this distribution network, it is possible to build depots which can store widgets and be used as a remote base for deliveries.
The game is played on a map of England, Scotland and Wales (in fact the same map as used in Slick and Big Steel but with a big Send sticker in the corner) which is divided into regions. Some of these regions have a chance of receiving several deliveries (eg London) while others, such as mid Wales, never get any. Obviously there's no demand for widgets in Snowdonia. The idea is to locate your factory and depots to optimize deliveries to these areas as, logically, the further from the destination you are, the less profit you make.
Location of your factory is initially chosen from eight sites known only to you and deliveries are determined at random by the turn of a playing card in each round. We all plumped for a central location in the North Midlands but it was the astute player going first who realised that a depot in London would be a useful asset. After everyone had copied him, we checked the rules to find that each area can have only one factory or depot so the latecomers were forced to relocate to Essex and Sussex to the sound of smug giggling.
The turn sequence is quite straightforward. A card is turned up to indicate a special event that can be specific to one player or have a general effect. The card also shows the price of producing widgets that turn and the price at which they can be sold. Next, a playing card is flipped to show which area is the destination for that turn - the areas each have a little suit symbol and a card number. Each player then decides whether they will supply one widget to that area. If only one player wishes to deliver, he can sell two widgets. This decision is based on the player's willingness and ability to move a widget from his factory or depot to the area - the cost is two points per area traversed.
So, for example, the Strathclyde area needs two widgets and the selling rate is 22 this turn. Albert can supply from his factory three areas away, Bertie is eight areas away and Cecil luckily has a depot in Strathclyde. Albert would get 16 for his widget (22 less 3x2), Bertie 6 (22 less 8x2) so he decides not to deliver (as widgets cost at least that much to make) and Cecil gets the full 22 for being on the doorstep. If both Albert and Bertie didn't supply, Cecil could deliver two for an interesting 44 points.
The rest of the turn involves moving widgets from the factory to depots (at a cost), building new depots and finally an option to produce up to two widgets at the factory at the prevailing cost level. Each player performs each of these steps in turn. Most of these latter options are quite straightforward, but all involve forward planning. You need to decide stock levels at all your branches, depots must be built a turn ahead and they need to be kept supplied in case they are needed to supply next turn. Strategic building of depots should be carefully considered with costs, geographic location and long term benefit to be taken into account.
The influence of the chance cards, while mainly light hearted and trivial in cost terms, can in turn be devastating or highly beneficial. The 20% tax on cash in hand is particularly severe if encountered late on and in fact cost me the game. Nevertheless, I suppose once you know it is there it's a good incentive to keep investing rather than sitting on your cash. Others, such as the silly swapping of depots and moving stocks seem completely out of place in Send, which is in fact a fairly serious game when played by adults. It is not much fun to have carefully planned a network of depots or to have secured the vital London depot site only to have some lucky player draw a card and shunt you out. That said, I guess Send! may be targetted at a slightly younger or less analytical audience and in that respect the cards could be considered acceptable, but there does seem to be some confusion as to where the game is pitched.
As a simple system to simulate the problems of distribution, Send works very well. I especially liked the price/delivery cards system which is clever, simple and neatly designed. The turns (around 30 or so) go quickly and if you are not bugged by slow play and have a numerate banker, the game takes just over the hour. As a game to appeal to game groups, I would think it is a bit light for repeated play but postally and for children (at school?) it looks ideal.
My thoughts after playing the game were basically that it could work very well with more players (we played the three player game) and that it was just missing that little spark which would make it a winner. Both my opponents concurred with this latter point. Send also features a lot of straightforward bookkeeping (we discarded the superfluous cash early on and poker chips are too fiddly) which I personally dislike, but I can't see any easier way of keeping track of the cash.
Overall, Send is a surprisingly tactical game and because it is so evenly balanced, there are plenty of important decisions along the way. The chance to make a delivery has to be weighed up against likely future returns and the chance of preventing an opponent delivering two of his widgets. The concept of opportunity cost has to be borne in mind at all times, particularly in the end game when each delivery has to be compared to the value of stocks and buildings at the finish. Compared to the earlier Slick, which is admittedly a different type of game, Send has a lot more action and I felt much more in control of my gameplan. I also felt I was doing something that influenced the game rather than just being a part of the game system.
Production quality on both games remains a sticking point. Both are tubed, which is fine with me (until such time as all my tubed games decide to log slide onto a sleeping Siggins), but the components are still decidedly amateur. I assume David makes a conscious decision (on price grounds) to supply a certain standard of components but they don't do a lot for the game's image. Breaking this down, both maps are clear and workable but are lacking that professional design touch (as are the logos, labels etc), the counters and pawns are cheapies and the wooden blocks supplied in both games are terrible. They are made of cheap, grainy wood (not unlike balsa) and the colours are far from inspirational. Compared to the German bits, there is no contest, but then perhaps we have been spoilt in recent years.
The rules for both games are written in typical Watts-ese. Everything is there if you look closely, but the overall effect is a little vague and disjointed. I still don't know how to put my finger on the problem, but it's definitely there. Unlike most rulesets, I have never been able to pick up Rostherne rules and play quickly. It always takes at least two readings. Even the latest edition Railway Rivals rules suffer from this strange obfuscation. Mmm, good word. I hope I'm not alone in this?
These new releases from David are actually quite impressive as games and easily qualify as a domestic challenge to the simpler German fare. I am certainly looking forward to playing Bus Boss. One hopes they are taken up by a big company at Essen this year where no doubt David will be quietly selling his socks off. Where Rostherne Games still fall down though is in presentation and that final polish. For this batch, I can point to the fuzzy rules, the average artistic design and the standard of the wooden blocks. All of these are small points that wouldn't take too long to put right but while they persist, I still see Rostherne on the game kit level rather than as true professional games. This, to me, is not a big problem (a decent game design is the overriding factor) but I still wonder whether Rostherne will ever make it big this way?
Sumo - Mike Siggins