So, I don’t speak much of boardgames even though I do play them on occasion. I went to a get together Saturday where I failed to complete a single game.
We started a game of Vinci, four players. I think I had played it before a long time ago and had a vague idea what it was about. For such a simple game mechanically, we had a lot of questions. We called the game when the other group was done playing something (11 people total for the event) both to mix people up and because one of my friends just didn’t find it interesting, feeling that it had too little going on.
Actually, I just think the game is too subtle for his interest with the game mostly being about planning what to do when you go into decline. That combat never hurts the attacker actually is pleasantly different from the wargames and warboardgames I’ve played where attacks often go horrendously for attackers to where the player is discouraged even if the position isn’t untenable.
I would have been fine playing more, especially with how my second game went. I’m fairly sure I have a strong interest in seeing games to completion, even if only to better understand endgames.
Through The Ages
Today, I looked at its boardgamegeek.com ranking – #4. I’m somewhat surprised, though I think people on BGG suffer from short term memory far too often as newer games get ranked way higher than they should be.
The reason I’m surprised is that I think it’s an awful game. Now, one 5.5 hour learning game called 1.5 hours or so before it would have ended if played out is hardly a depth of experience. I’m sure the game is far more interesting to people who know what the cards do. I’ve read some of the forum threads on it to see if there was something major I was missing. Neither that nor our postmortem on the game leads me to think that it’s a desirable game to play for people of my ilk or for my usual boardgaming crowd.
Why awful? Let’s start with things that others complain about that don’t bother me or bother me trivially.
1. Duration, length of turns – I can be mightily drained by long games and there’s a fundamental problem with games where you can be disenfranchised early that last longer than a couple of hours, but I wasn’t bothered by people (four players, one who knew how to play, one who had some familiarity) taking 5+ minutes since we were learning. For one thing, the game is incredibly nonintuitive in core mechanics.
2. Atrocious rulebook – I don’t really learn games from rulebooks. While it would be nice to be able to find answers to questions, especially for a game with this many parts, I assume people will figure things out with the help of online resources eventually.
Moving on to what does bother me:
1. Complexity, nonintuitiveness – I’m not, in general, a fan of complexity in boardgames. As a CCGer, I can hardly argue against complexity per se. But, CCGs are inherently inelegant and prone to high levels of complexity followed by increasing complexity as more mechanics and cards get added. Boardgames can afford to be more elegant. Actually, the complexity in TTA is not that high, it’s that it’s nonintuitive. How population becomes workers becomes things, by itself, is fine. How resources move back and forth to supply, by itself, is fine. Together, they are awkward (nevermind “happy”), something that we newbs had a hard time managing quickly several hours into the game. Of course, there are many other things going on. That some cards can be played right away and some not, that some actions take one type of action versus another, that there are a number of tracks with actual VPs being disengaged from a lot of what else is going on, that certain cards go away at certain times, etc. are the sort of features I’m talking about. While not unintuitive, the number of cards that you need to know adds dramatically to the complexity for people new to the game. I had absolutely no idea that Napoleon + Air Force + big Tactics card was an important thing to be concerned by. Of course, I didn’t learn that military strength variance gets absurd until late in the game.
2. Variance – Talking both about card strength variance and military strength variance. I have a tendency to ignore military strength in any game where building it is an option (rather than being the primary element of the game, or whatever). Early in the game, military strengths were similar and I knew I was behind in production (due to newb mistakes), so I didn’t bother. Then, others got so far ahead, I continued to not bother. While an apparent problem with the game is that it encourages picking on the weak rather than dragging down leaders, that’s a different issue; we called the game when one person could generate 81 military to someone else’s 68 … when I had zero. Then, there are the key leaders – my two leaders did pretty much nothing for me (Julius Caesar pacifist strategy is not effective, just saying), the openended military cards, the late game VP scores (which I only heard about rather than actually saw, with what I heard sounding a lot like Age of Empires III’s endgame cards which I think contribute a lot to that game being obnoxious).
3. Military – Apparently, the game has a prey on the weak incentive, which is insipid for obvious reasons. Taking variance into account, there was talk of capping the openended military beatdowns, but I actually thought the real problem was how much military strength could vary to where I never played a defense card because they wouldn’t have done anything.
4. Uniqueness – Now, it’s very possible that the game has a lot more variety in how your civilization develops than in similar games, and it could just be that the game is more abstracted in how your civ is represented, but one thing I find kind of dull about all games like this is how you don’t tend to end up with really goofy creations. Yes, I jumped from bronze to coal, with no iron, and Caesar had the Hanging Gardens built, where the Kremlin was built next door centuries later, but I still felt like I had to pursue the same core strategies as everyone else – maximize stone, maximize food, maximize light bulbs (science), get harps (culture – VPs), build a respectable army. As I understand it, there are known strategies that focus; one is Napoleon’s Air Force, another is superscience, another harptastic, Cook’s territories, Michelangelo’s happy, etc. There are certainly plenty of cards to do different combinations. I just felt like I needed to grow a very specific way, much like how Outpost, The Scepter of Zavandor, et al require that you not screw up your engine.
I don’t hate the game. There are some interesting concepts. I very much like the idea of building a civilization, though I find that the boardgames that do it are often much less interesting than the concept and often the end results are wildly unbalanced games. I just don’t really see the point of TTA. The amount of effort required to learn it followed by the effort of playing it does not seem to be justified given how unenthralling the actual play is and with how lopsided I would expect results to be.
Is it fair to pan a game based on a single experience? I’m not actually trying to pan it, even if calling it awful is pretty much doing so. It’s not really the game, but that the game is so newb unfriendly that there are better things to do. But, then, I could see someone saying the same about virtually any CCG, with V:TES being one of the worst offenders. So, to each their own – I was running through a list of boardgames and there are plenty I wouldn’t want to play again.
It was still enjoyable to try the game out, and it’s always interesting to try out games that I won’t know I’ll hate until after I’ve played them.