Designed by Kramer and Rösner
Published by Jumbo
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
about 90 minutes
Much as in joint novel writing, one of the big unanswered questions in the hobby is "Who designed what in El Grande?". Did Wolfgang Kramer take an uncharacteristic departure from his recent dubious and family-based track record to come up with a decent gamer's game or did he just lend his name to one largely designed by a relative unknown? Most people, myself included, feel it was very much the middle route - that both designers contributed important elements, but we shall never know for sure. Certainly parts of El Grande have resurfaced in the dire Magalon, which may give us some clues as to who invented what. Now, old Wolfgang's at it again. Tycoon is a joint design with Horst-Rainer Rösner, a new name as far as I can recall, which again leads us to wonder if Herr Kramer is mentoring or borrowing. On the basis of the quality of this game, and the fact that I am in a good mood, we shall say no more than the partnership approach has again been fruitful.
Tycoon is out of the classic 90 minute business game mould, populated by such giants as Borsenspiel, Acquire, Big Boss, Schoko, McMulti and Dallas. It has money and loans, which most of them do, it has areas on the board in which you place holdings, and it has dividends. Inevitably, most money wins. But there are no shares, no round the board tedium or action cards, and the overall feel is pleasantly novel and original, combining a sense of Manhattan's card and positional play, an interesting movement system and an intriguing commercial theme. Your role is of an international property magnate, who builds hotels and factories in nine major cities around the world. Having a majority of hotels (or second place) in each city will produce income at the end of each of the three game phases, and having a presence in most of the cities will generate a bonus at the same time. Additionally, factories can bring in even more money if they are located in the cities with the most hotels - factory play is not dissimilar to a joker bet and their timing is vital as we shall see.
I shall describe each element in isolation, but it should be noted that the systems mesh together very well and each sub-system affects the other either financially or tactically. First, building. You can only build hotels or factories if you are in the same city as the intended development and of course, you need cash to build them. Arriving at the airport you can see the going rate for hotel builds and you can keep building as long as you stay there. Factories are expensive, possibly too expensive in all but the least risky situations.
Secondly, movement. To be in the required city, you have to fly there. A range of charter (fly specified city to specified city) and scheduled (fly to named city or a city within designated range) flight tickets are available (at a price!) and you may buy these for same day travel or in advance to plan your itinerary. You can fly as many times as you like in a turn, so to squeeze in that all important hotel contract in Hong Kong, you might fly from one side of the board to the other in three legs. The drawback is that the available tickets aren't always the ones you need (this is the most evident luck element) and that you really do need to watch your expenditure on these vital but money sapping items.
Thirdly, finance. Money is short, and remains so until late in the game. You can sometimes survive the third phase on cash alone, but more often than not you will be running loans for the whole game. These can be raised only at your home city bank so it means you have to fly home, effectively using up time and lost actions elsewhere. It therefore makes some sense to take out loans early in the phase and to try and keep within budget to avoid an embarrassed return visit to the bank manager. At the end of each round, triggered when one player has played out six hotels (this is an excellent way of keeping up pressure on the other players and setting the game pace - not everyone gets to play six in a round, just the first to do so), the income from hotels, factories and worldwide presence is calculated and paid out. You then decide whether to repay or extend your loans - extension means even higher amounts of interest payable.
Play proceeds with the rivals buzzing around the map on a variety of missions, usually building hotels and trying to contest majorities, keeping an eye on others' strategies and looking for initially good cash returns from cities (Monaco and New York are expensive to build, but profitable, the others on a sliding scale of cost/return) and, later on, big bonuses. A constant concern is that you only have 18 hotel builds all game (if you are lucky enough to be first 'out') which never seems to be enough to contest all you need to, and five factories, with nine cities to cover. So do you focus on a couple and try for majorities? Or do you spread your holdings across the world? Or a mix of the two. Strategy is determined very much in this mould, with the one twist throwing it all into confusion....
This clever twist, and one that will hopefully lead you to the same overall conclusion as me, is that the cities do not develop on an ever-improving trend. I have lost count of poor business games where you just keep investing because the inflationary tendency overrides everything else, including any prospect of a downturn - late game 18xx share buying is a prime example. Let's look at an example to show how this works. Rio, a relative backwater compared to the riches offered by Monaco and New York, has the usual twelve sites available for hotel building. The first five built push up earnings to a level of 10/5 (ie ten million dollars for first and five for second place). The sixth hotel built still increases the value of the city payout, but also 'ages' the first hotel built in that location and it is taken off the board, for optional refurbishment. As further hotels are built, the income peaks at 16/8 and two more hotels will be 'rusted' as they say at 18xx parties. Am I alone in finding that a scary concept? Finally, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and each hotel laid subsequently pushes the returns down to a close of 8/4. At this point, when the city is developed to the point of negative marginal benefit (to cobble together some economic terms (!)), worldwide coverage and the play of factories becomes very important - a city full of hotels will likely feature in the important factory payouts, perhaps reflecting environmental decline and industrial growth in the region. The catch is that there are only two factory slots available and these are grabbed quickly as soon as a city shows signs of filling up. It is also an excellent device for pulling down an opponent's holding. With tactical play (and remember you need to be in the city to do this) you can remove one of his older hotels while adding one to your total (a net swing that can make all the difference) or even drive down the return on a rival monopoly or duopoly.
The consequence of this mathematical progression is that most activities in the game are quantifiable - "if I do this, it costs me that plus the flight" type calculations. These are interestingly balanced. Often there are two, three or more options, taking into account whether you can get there, what it will cost, whether it improves your holding in the city, or overall. This never gets to the point of melting your brain, nor is it trivial. This decision making really comes into play in the end game, where you have a notion of who is doing well, and how you might catch up. I liked it. It isn't the heaviest thinking you will do in gaming, but it hit the spot for me as a mid-evening game.
It is a very rare event for Siggins to get through an entire review without a quibble or two, and this time we have two minor and one major, wide ranging issue that have to be pinned down. Failing one is that the rulebook, politely rendered in French, German and English, is a bit mangled in places. I understand why, since one of the rules (the factories pay out rule) is not exactly easy to explain, but the rule is so vague as to be almost useless. The solution, as so often happens, is in the example and I suggest you get this straight in everybody's minds before you start - it is very important and will cause annoyance come game end if you have it wrong. Secondly, there is a weak spot of rationalisation (yes, I know it is a fairly abstract business game). A plane ticket costs as much or more than a hotel or factory! I suppose one could argue that it represents overheads or something, but it is a shame. Whatever, the game works perfectly on a cost/return level, so I'll just shut up now.
The major issue, and one that might well take over the rest of the review, is that the game has a unique (yes, unique) open ended feel that I have not experienced since 1630 Something. It is a curiously loose system, that I feel I am seeing only 95% of, one that feels amorphous and somehow elusive. What the hell am I on about? Goodness knows. It's a gut thing. There just seems to be a huge hole in the system that means I don't know if it is breakable, winnable from behind, or even working properly. It is fundamentally vague with the threat of a hidden precipice. Now I have made a complete idiot of myself, the only reason I mention it is that it feels like a trap. For reviewers to say, "It's quiet. Too damn quiet". I have never felt this unsure before when playing, yet I don't know how else to describe it and words seldom fail me. You'd noticed.
Normally I play a game, come to a conclusion fairly quickly, play it again to check and then write the review. This approach rarely lets me down. But Tycoon, well... I'm uncertain and I wonder if I have finally cracked! To conclude this appalling indecision, we have played four times, had no problems so far and we have had come from behind close victories in two of the games. But the spread of results is such that these results are not conclusive, and I still feel that there is a possibility that something, somewhere is not quite right. Perhaps it is a feeling that someone will say, "Aha! I just do this and this to win" or something simple like the winner may not be catchable. I don't know why this should be so. Kramer is no fool. Jumbo are very reliable. The game seems to work well. But I have this nagging, inexpressible doubt... the mother of all hunches, a qualm without substance. I leave you with that odd thought.
Tycoon is then, as far as I have been able to ascertain (!), a good game. There is much originality here, it finishes quickly, rewards good tactical play, is close and a lot of fun. It displays the classic German approach of three game phases, has much to think about and a range of tactics have already become apparent - far more than the game would initially suggest. My only reservation, described rather than explained above, is that there could easily be a problem lurking that I haven't spotted. It may be that I am mistaken and nothing surfaces, it may be that all is revealed in the next game. So, only on that basis can I recommend the game which is a shame, but short of playing it another ten or twenty times I may never be more sure (but I will keep you posted). That qualifier should probably sit at the end of every review I write, but this one definitely requires it. So, let's say there is no hidden problem with the game - how good is it? Well, it is certainly the match of Herr Kramer's Big Boss, in quality, weight and feel, and comes in at the high seven, perhaps even low eight, rating if that makes it easier on you. It certainly helps me. I think if played by four knowledgeable players it would offer a real, tight challenge to win, tempered only by the slight luck element of being in the right place and having access to the right air tickets. It is not Medici in intensity, but then it is palpably not a Knizia design - the feel is noticeably different. A qualified recommendation then, and another pleasant gamer's surprise from this erratic source. I shall look forward to your comments on this one with interest.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell