X Pasch

Published by Fanfor Verlag
Designed by Valentin Herman
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

3 to 6 players
about 90 mins

I have never received a Christmas card from Valentin 'Vlad' Herman, and this is unlikely to change. I am not sure just how much he dislikes me, since I only get unreliable third-hand reports from 'friends' doubtless looking forward to fisticuffs between the critic and the criticised. Why? Because several years ago, despite having praised his earlier Hacker, I severely lambasted Valentin's WaldesFrust, a game with so little merit I was forced to bribe my opponents to allow me to stop playing. But even one of the very worst games of the decade can represent good experience for the future and now, at long last, there are positive rumblings in the Fanfor camp.

Let's get this straight from the start. X Pasch is not a perfect game. It is not even a great game. But it is a game that made a largely positive impact on me. So much so that I got very annoyed at the end when I realised that Fanfor had not gone the extra mile, given it a fitting endgame and tidied up the loose ends. For me, there was a real sense of having enjoyed it most of the way and then being told that it would devolve into a tit for tat race where any concept of skill was lost in favour of picking on the leader. But I am rather getting ahead of myself.

X Pasch comes in a video case, like Ransom, and considering the price (20 Marks, or £8, at Essen) it has a lot of bits and represent very good value for money. Sadly, also like Ransom, it doesn't fit back into the box very easily. There is a pack of cards featuring rudimentary, but serviceable, black & white clip artwork (gawd, how I hate clip art), a large number of small wooden cubes (the cheaper 'Eastern Blocs' from Poland, rather than Lorenz quality that we love and generally insist upon) and three coloured dice. There is a very well written set of rules which, in all Fanfor's new games, are supplied in both German and English. Chalk one up to The Impaler, but speak to his cost accountant immediately.

The system revolves around the company cards. These have four key pieces of information: the income they generate, the number of free shares you may place on formation, their bonus colours, and the number required to launch them. More on the latter in a moment. As you lay companies out onto the table, trying at all times to maintain a simple majority in shares, you claim in each of your turns the total income earned. So, for instance, three companies earning a total of 9 Euros (unlike me, they aren't Little Englanders at Fanfor) will be your income each turn, which chips away at the 120 required to win. I have seen income streams as low as zero (me, of course) and as high as 25 - but these gushers don't last long, for reasons that will become apparent.

Companies are launched from your hand in the same way as almost everything else happens in the game - by rolling the three dice. If the overall total, or the total of any combination of dice, equals the number on the card, that company can be activated. Some companies only activate on doubles (which is where the game title, 'Any Double' comes from) and some, usually the bigger income earners, need a high number. With luck, you will roll the right numbers and get some companies out of your hand and into play. At this point you place, in your colour, share blocks above the card in accordance with the number designated on the card. You now own the company, but have received no income, and from that point on then on it is fair game for raiders.

Another player, instead of launching a company, may choose instead to use his dice to buy shares in your company or add shares to his own. He still needs to activate the relevant card with the correct number, but this time the mechanic is slightly different. He may place on an existing company a number of shares equal to the number of dice he uses in reaching the required total, plus bonus shares if the company colours match the dice used. Clever eh? So Alan rolls Red 3, Blue 5, Green 2 and spies Dennis' company, trigger number 8 (red and blue bonus squares, 3 shares) across the table. Alan decides to use the red and blue dice to place four of his shares (two for the two dice used, one each for the bonus colours) into the company, thereby taking it over. Dennis would lose the income immediately, Alan gains it next turn if he still owns it. Alan also gains a free share in another company where he has no presence, because he successfully made a takeover, and still has a die left. He could match that to a 2 company and place a share there, if there were one, or he could use it to pick up a new card, or even to move shares from one of his companies to another where he is represented, but only one of a lower or equal income value.

And that broadly is that. Each turn you collect income, roll the dice and decide what to do. Float a new company, move in on an existing one, add to the defences of your own, redeploy investments or take new cards. This range is flexible enough to give you some basic decision making every round, but also to have you keenly awaiting your next turn. Do you float that big company in your hand in the hope it will survive in your control for a few turns? Do you collect lots of small companies or go for big ones? Do you waste any more effort on contesting that 10 income monster that is being protected by more and more shares?

All well and good, but the game would be boring if everyone just plodded onwards to victory, quietly taking over the odd company here and there. Not satisfactory. We want outright nastiness. Heinous interaction. Vile and despicable acts of corporate raiding. Which is all provided in the shape of the 'destruction' ploy. In any given turn you may forego your normal options and call in the liquidator. Cue ska music in the background and roll the dice. If the total or any combination equates to a rival company, preferably a big juicy one that has a lot of shares in it, you can eliminate it from the board. That's it. No saving rolls. Kaput. The shares are returned to their owners, who wipe a small tear from their eye and mutter insults under their breath. The downside of this universally popular measure is that if you can't hit a rival, but the dice match one of your companies, you have neglected your managerial duties and the company folds forthwith. A double edged sword of the first order.

What all this creates is a lot of interaction. If you aren't liquidating another's lovingly built up company, you are sneaking shares in, taking him over and cutting his income. To an extent the leader gets the benefit of most people's attentions, but there is scope for blood feuds and irrational retribution. Sounds good, eh? Actually, like Rette where the pain is frequent and well distributed, it doesn't feel too bad. Numbness sets in after about ten minutes anyway. Rest assured that if I can play it, the interaction is tolerable.

Each income point stolen in this way is a double whammy since it takes from him and adds to your score. And if you could just manage to get hold of that 10 Euro company you'd be the biggest revenue earner and set to stage a sneak win. And this is the key to the game. While it would appear that a leader is just going to romp home, it is entirely possible, just by acquiring a rival or founding a new, large company, that your income will grow to the point where you are outstripping the leader. And the game is long enough for this to make a difference and allow you to come from behind. Indeed, the rules suggest playing to a higher point total just to experience this race element. As good as this is, in terms of an exciting contest and close finish, I think the game is already 15-30 minutes too long so I'd recommend either the standard total or perhaps even 100.

There are games that are silent (eg SternenHimmel, Kunst Stucke), there are games that are noisy (eg Liars Dice, Career Poker, Pit, Hungry Hippos) and there are games that encourage endless kibbitzing (eg Peg Poker, Volle Lotte, Last Chance, Yahtzee). X Pasch is the kibbitzer's dream ticket - a game in which even shy and retiring types just cannot stop themselves pointing out the 'obvious' move to a faltering opponent. Worse still are those passing by - 'Why did you do that?', 'You'll almost certainly want to place shares there' or 'There is no way that you should do anything but play that big 15 card in your hand'. It even has backfire kibbitzing - where you blurt out something to a rival, but in speaking you draw attention to yourself and he whacks your company instead in a move you, and he'd otherwise, have missed. There is only one solution. Bite your tongue, resist temptation, think of Ted William's batting average and slag off the poor sod when he's finished.

Where X Pasch falls over for me is in the endgame. There are two major problems, both of which stem from the lame decision to play to a fixed total of victory points. The first failing is victimisation. As soon as one player gets close to the total required for a win, most of the other players pick on him using the liquidation tool. Chances are, especially in a game with four or more players, he will have lost a company or two by the time he next gets to go. He can either patch up his empire, or hit back. And at this point the game often spirals down into tit for tat squabbling, whines from players being picked on and the inevitable ganging up on the leader. The net effect is to slow the game up just when it should be coming to a close, and this is partly what causes the overlong playing time. The other aspect, which may well be unavoidable in game like this, is what Richard Garfield admirably termed 'Kingmaking'. This is the old problem of one player having to decide who will win. In our first game, myself and another player were about to reach the victory total. The other two players obviously had to decide who to stop, which is a situation into which they should not have to be put.

I would sum X Pasch up as a game with a lot of intriguing short term decisions and precious little achievable strategy. In that respect, as well as being quite random, it can also be quite chaotic and not a little deceptive in the control department. While you may have a long term plan in mind - build up shares in Joe's biggest company, get these cards out, up my group income to 20, etc - the dice, and other short term developments, almost always prevent, or delay, this happening. There is thus a definable friction that precludes the strategic planning that you might see in an ordered and predictable game like, say, Schoko & Co. But this is nicely countered by the engaging tactical choices. Is there enough of a game as a result? Probably not, but I feel that when you add in the slightly forced, but necessary, interaction it is not far off from a very interesting little business game. It is certainly completely original in feel - the combination of cards, dice and shareholdings on an abstract skeleton - is fresh, intriguing and at the very least a good basis for a future killer system.

Where it fails slightly is in the same areas. There is no doubt that X Pasch is a starkly abstract game and it is difficult to engage to and warm to its theme - an obstacle not diminished by the graphics on offer. The Catan Syndrome is also lurking here, and doing its ugly work in the background. If you don't roll the right dice you will not win, however well you play, and worse your enjoyment and decision making can be reduced to zero - ie you can do but one thing, so that's what you have to do. However, unlike Catan, the dice combination mechanism and alternative options (take a card, move shares) almost always allows you to do something and as the game progresses, the opportunities increase. What it hardly ever allows you to do, as would perhaps a comparable Moon or Knizia game, is to choose exactly what you want to do from a range of possibles. Instead, we are one step further towards chaos and lack of control. Whether you can handle this, and in this instance I had no problem, will be a personal matter. So how does it manifest itself in X Pasch?

You go into a turn awaiting the outcome of the player on your immediate right - the situation can change such that you will need to know what he has done.You then have perhaps one, two, three or even five options you would like to execute - some offensive, some defensive, some to establish your cards etc. You then roll the dice. The outcomes are: You can do none of those you wanted (do something else - switch shares, pick up cards - and wait till next turn); you can do but one thing (you do it); you can do some of them (in which case you choose); or you can do them all (unlikely, but again you choose). I suspect the charge levelled against the game will be that those first two outcomes will mean decisions are made for you by the dice and is thus a tad random. This is undeniable. However, if decisions do become available (and there seems to be no real shortage here) then you get to make these short term choices. What this can cause, as a side effect, is a fair bit of down time as players ponder their dice combinations and options. This is easily solved by feigning a move to the video recorder to watch Dances with Wolves, or alternatively a swift and sharp slap on the offending head.

So, X Pasch falls into that dangerous camp. A game which has problems, which works only to a point, but about which I am enthusing because it has some solid design innovations and a good, overall, feel. What that point is remains hard to define, so allow me fall back on numerical ratings. If I said X Pasch were a seven, I would not be too far wrong. If you don't like random games or those with a firm requirement to pick on other people, then you'd dock it a point, or perhaps a half. If you can happily play an inexpensive, decent game to see how it works, and how it has been designed, in the sure knowledge you won't play it much more, then up it to a brevet rank of eight and sell it when you have seen enough. And that is probably the rub. While the game is so cheap it is a can't miss, and you could always use the bits elsewhere, it isn't one that will reach five plays for many of you. The first few games are great fun, but the returns quickly diminish. Nevertheless, I see X Pasch as a beacon - an indication that Valentin Herman has some good ideas in his noddle, that he is capable of designing games taking less than three hours, and that there is always a new way of combining traditional mechanics into a vibrant, contemporary hybrid. Now all he needs to do in future is grind out that yardage, thinking about the implications of design and development laziness, and we could be enjoying some fascinating stuff come Essen '97.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell