Designed by Valentin Herman
Published by Fanfor
Reviewed by Stuart Dagger
Last year Fanfor published X-Pasch, an abstract business game involving cards, dice and little wooden blocks and young Siggins, somewhat to his surprise, found himself greeting it with qualified approval. Anxious not to get a reputation for being a soft touch, he has asked me to deal with their 1997 offering, which is an abstract business game involving cards, dice and little wooden blocks.
At the centre of the game is a set of seven small boards, each of which represents some area of business. They have, wisely I think, not been given an artificial set of labels, but a good way to think of them would be as sectors of the retail trade. The right-hand portion of each board is the same and shows a profit chart. This chart is split into thirty steps, each showing a number in the range 1 to 7, there being blocks of each number. There is also a region next to the bottom of the ones that contains a nasty looking zero. The left-hand portion of each board is divided into four areas and again each contains a number. The actual numbers vary from board to board, but in all cases they add up to ten and they represent shares of the market. So, for example, one board has a one, two twos and a five, representing a 10%, two 20% and a 50% market share of this particular sector. The rest of the equipment consists of a set of five dice, some wooden blocks to be used as profit and ownership markers and a set of action cards which, you will be pleased to hear, are written in both English and German. The game is about taking control of, squabbling over and taking profit from market shares in the various sectors. The first two of these are a combination of dice and card play; the third a simple matter of multiplying your market share in each sector by its current profit level.
At the start of the game the number of sectors in play is one fewer than the number of players. Two more will come into play as things proceed. On your turn you can either attempt an "ousting", which I shall come back to later, or you roll five dice. Usually you roll 5 dice and that is particularly so at the start of the game, when your main aim will be to get your hands on unowned market shares. This can sometimes be done by playing an appropriate card and handing over money, but the normal method is by means of a "triplet". Three 4s among the five dice is fairly obviously a triplet, but so also is two 4s, a 3 and a 1, since the 3 and the 1 can be combined to make up the third 4. Having a triplet in your five dice entitles you to claim an empty market share area on one of the boards, your choice being limited to those containing a number no greater than the value of your triplet. To claim an area you place into it a number of your markers equal to its value. Dice that are not used as part of a triplet can be used to challenge an opponent in a sector where you are both represented, to move the profit markers up and down or to take action cards, and if none of that appeals they can even be translated into cash.
Challenging an opponent in a sector where you are both represented is a straightforward matter. You simply allocate one of your five dice, a high number for preference, and you have the option of backing this up with a card from your hand. The function of the card is to give a +1 or +2 boost to the number on your die. The defender now also has the option of playing one of these booster cards and then rolls a die. The higher total wins the challenge, with the defender winning in the case of a tie. The winner then replaces one of the loser's markers in the sector with one of their own. It is neat, it is quick and it gives you choices to make about what odds you are willing to risk. You may make as many challenges as you are willing to allocate dice. Using dice to manipulate share prices is also neat and quick: an even roll can be used to move a profit marker up one step and an odd roll a profit marker down one step. Dice left over after allocations to triplets, challenges and profit shifts can be traded in for extra cards. The whole of this part of the design has been well thought out: all numbers rolled are potentially useful, with high ones being good for challenges, low ones good for making up triplets and everything usable for manipulating profits and trading for cards. This is not one of those games where everything hinges on rolling big numbers. The cards, which you play at the same time as you are operating with your dice, are also pretty good. A couple of them are maybe a bit on the powerful side, but the rest are sensible and appropriate --- profit shifts, re-rolls, that sort of thing.
Oustings are attacks on segments where you are not represented. To launch one of these you declare your intention before rolling your normal five dice and the ousting attempt then becomes your turn. You declare a sector and an opponent. Each side then rolls a number of dice, with 4s, 5s and 6s counting as successes. If the attacker has the higher number of successes, they may replace some of the defender's markers with their own; if not, then they have wasted their turn and will usually suffer a financial penalty as well.
So much for the mechanics, how well does it play? For most of the game not at all badly. There are lots of choices to be made, lots of interaction, your turn comes round quite quickly and the opportunities for attack mean that an apparently clear leader can be brought back readily enough. There can be significant problems for someone lagging at the rear and it is easy enough to find yourself doing this if you don't get off to a reasonable start with the rolling of triplets. However, these problems are likely to be easier to overcome if you have more players (the designer says that the game is best with 5) and if you are lying last, at least you are allowed to re-roll any or all of your five dice and unless it is really not your day, that ought to help. Where the game falls down, and falls down badly, is with the ending and when I look back to Mike's review of X-Pasch, I see that this is where he thought that game fell down also. What is more, his criticism of that game is precisely the same as my criticism of this one. Both games suffer from "kingmaker syndrome". The victory target is a pre-set number of euros and what is likely to happen is that you go into what is obviously going to be the last round with some players in close contention for victory and others out of it. What those others do in the last round, and in games like this one doing nothing counts as doing something, will determine who wins. That is not a satisfactory way to end a game and to design two successive games with the same glaring fault smacks of carelessness. Victory in a game should be determined by the game system and the good play of those doing well, not by the whim of those doing badly. After two years of playtesting a couple of not dissimilar games, Fanfor must surely have run into the problem. So why didn't they do something about it?
With some games kingmaker syndrome is incurable, but here I don't think it is and, if anything, that only makes the designer's failure to add the finishing touch to what is nearly a good little game all the more irritating. 15-20 years ago there were quite a lot of multi-player combat games around that suffered from last round silliness. Players would go into the last round knowing that they could make wild attacks in a scramble for victory points, secure in the knowledge that there would be no reprisals because there was to be no tomorrow. The solution that players eventually came up with was to abolish the notion of a fixed last round. Instead you played a certain number of rounds and then started rolling a die to determine whether the round just played was the last one or whether the game was to continue. You could do the same sort of thing here. Instead of playing to a target of 200, try rolling a die at the end of each round once the leader has passed 150. If the die roll is 5 or 6, the game is over; otherwise it continues. It is not an original idea, but it should improve things. Doubtless someone reading this could come up with something better and one certain thing is that Valentin Herman should have tried.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell