Some Thoughts from Stuart Dagger
The group I play with enjoy economic games of the Acquire/Shark/Airlines sort, and so when Manager (Hexagames) and Playboss (Ravensburger) were repackaged and republished in the summer some more of my money was reassigned to Just Games. I figured that while both companies were capable of launching bad games, neither was likely to publish the same bad game twice, and so the fact that these were relaunches was enough of a recommendation to justify a speculative purchase. And the verdict? Qualified approval in both cases.
The thing we tend to overlook when considering games from the big German companies is that they are no more aimed at our hobby than are the products of Waddingtons. The big market there, as here, is the family market, and families who play games will have views on what is a desirable luck/skill balance which don't agree with ours. They also won't subject the game systems to the strains that we do in our search for best strategies. So we shouldn't be too surprised, and shouldn't complain too much, if, when we buy a game from one of these companies, the rules aren't quite as we would like them. As Denis Arnold remarked in a letter last time, we are all capable of changing rules that we don't like, and so the question we should settle for asking is 'If this isn't already a game for gamers, can it be easily turned into one?'. And with these two the answer is yes.
The board features an oval track of coloured spaces round which you move on the throw of a die. Almost half the spaces are red, and when you land on one of these you may either buy raw materials, invest in machinery or computers, process some of your raw materials or sell some of your finished goods. The amount of machinery you have determines how much you can produce in a turn, and ownership of a computer cuts production costs, as well as protecting you from certain random events by ``giving you better stock control'. A simple supply/demand mechanism governs the cost of raw materials and the selling price of finished goods. The other spaces are yellow, blue or grey. Landing on a yellow one gives you an idea token: idea tokens can be used to improve the production rate of your machines, in an advertising campaign to get you higher selling prices, or as insurance to fend off the effects of risk cards (blue spaces) or general bad news (grey spaces).
It is a promising mixture of ingredients, but the game is too luck dominated and too short on player interaction for my taste. However, there is enough there to set you tinkering, and Ravensburger even start the process off for you with a collection of optional 'advanced rules'. The first two of these are the best and introduce auctions for the purchase of raw materials and tendering on sales. Adopt these and the complaint about a lack of player interaction disappears. However, you still have a game in which player actions produce small swings and die rolls and event cards large ones, and that means a thumbs down from my lot. The following is my attempt at toning down the luck aspect.
(1) Scrap the official rule about the meaning of grey spaces and replace it with 'A player landing on a grey space receives a token which may be used to modify a subsequent die roll by plus or minus 1.' Each of these tokens is a 'use once and then discard' item.
(2) On the first circuit treat blue spaces as though they were grey. (This is a game where unlucky die rolls in the early stages can be crippling. This gets round this by taking the risk cards out of play until everyone has got established.)
(3) A player selling finished goods has a guaranteed sale of one at the current market price. Thereafter the standard advanced rule procedure applies. (This is to bring the tendering more in line with the procedure used in the auctions of raw materials.)
(4) When a player is using advertising to get a better price for finished goods, the protected higher price is only available on three items. For sales over and above this follow the standard tendering procedure.
(5) Modify the rule which governs the number of raw materials in the initial set-up to '5 per player plus 5 extra'.
(6) Warehouses: A player may not hold more than 5 raw materials or 5 finished goods. (I am not sure whether these numbers are the best, but I think that something along these lines is needed. Without it the shortage of raw materials leads to too much hoarding and some very silly prices at auction.)
In sales battles the player whose turn it is wins ties caused by an unwillingness to cut prices further. The pecking order thereafter is clockwise from this player.
A few of these are over the top, and one has a very silly effect in practice -- an effect which can't be what the designer intended.
(1) Brand im Rohwarenlager: One idea token or insurance card will fend this off. However, you still pay a penalty of 100 per replacement raw material. (Think of this as having to pay over the odds for speedy replacement of the lost raw materials.)
(2) Sonderangebot: The special offer is limited to a maximum of 3 at 300. These come from the bank spares if such there be; otherwise from the on-board stock.
(3) Ihre Werbeagentur hatte eine gute Idee: As with the new rule on advertising, you can sell at most 3 at this higher price.
(4) Brand im Fertigwarenlager: The compensation paid is at the next price below the current market price. (This is the one where the version given was daft, since the competitive aspect of tendering meant that you did much better from the fire than from trying to sell your goods in the shops.)
The problem this time is not a game too dominated by luck. Indeed, unless you regard the ability to outguess your opponents as luck, the game is luck-free. It is also clever and long on player interaction. I understand that Mike is giving it a good review in this issue, and when Eamon Bloomfield played it for the first time a few months back he went into one of his 'possibly the best game ever' routines - something he doesn't do more than twice a year, and never over a game that is less than good.
The problem, as Eamon pointed out after game five or six, is that the game system is insufficiently robust. Subject it to extreme strategies and it starts to fall apart. I shan't describe the game system here, as I presume that Mike has done so in his review, but it involves buying machines to lower your production costs and setting a selling price that you think the market will bear. The result is a chain of selling prices which snaps, to the detriment of those at the top end, if any of its links are too long. If one player gets a lead of a couple of machines over his rivals, he can lower prices to the point where it becomes nearly impossible for the competition to sell anything. End of game, but not an end of the sort that the designers seem to have envisaged. The tactic can be defeated if the others form a cartel, but it needs to be a very tightly organized cartel, with an artificially high degree of trust among its members, and at that point the game probably stops being fun. I also think that there is a problem with the share market that runs alongside the production and selling mechanism. It seems to me that good early guessing by one player can cause a share to rise so much faster than its rivals as to sentence those who don't hold it to a game on the sidelines.
Eamon's suggested solution to the main problem is for machines to depreciate in value, only counting half their purchase price in the final count up, but I don't see this as working too well. The game ends when one player owns ten machines, at which point the richest player wins. What is the point of buying that last machine if you know it means an instant loss? I think that a simpler solution, which just puts an extra couple of struts into the structure, would work better. I suggest:
(1) A floor on selling prices: no selling price is to be more than 1000 below the wages bill of the player with fewest machines.
(2) Slower price rises for shares: the share price of the company with the lowest selling price remains stationary, those of the next two sellers move up one, and those of any other sellers move up two. The shares of companies which fail to sell anything in a turn fall one. This is just the official rule dampened down slightly.
On to Chaos Gaming or back to The Designer Responds....
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