On Caverna: Big isn’t Beautiful

The acclaim for Uwe Rosenberg’s recently released Caverna: The Cave Farmers interests me. It’s a very conservative design, from an increasingly conservative designer. It offers very little innovation, but the cult of the new have fallen hard for it (with Tom Vasel vocally proclaiming that it has displaced Rosenberg’s 2008 megahit Agricola in his collection).

The relationship with Agricola is a deep one, so it is understandable that Vasel should talk about Caverna as a replacement for that game. When word of Caverna first emerged, back in 2010, it was known as Agricola: The Cave Farmers, and the moniker Agricola 2.0 has stuck to the game since. 

Caverna adds mining for ore and rubies to the farmyard management of Agricola in a way which is thematically peculiar, but mechanically unspectacular: ore and rubies can each be collected through ordinary worker placement (i.e. place the worker, take the item), much like any resource could in Agricola (be that resource a building material, a crop, or livestock). Building mines can mean collecting more ore or rubies from the action spaces in question, but, ultimately, little distinguishes either from, say, stone, or other resources which had existed in Agricola.

The bigger change Caverna makes is in swelling elements which already existed in Agricola, and bundling multiple actions on a single space to create abundance. A clear example of this is that fencing a space, collecting animals and building a stable would take three separate actions in Agricola, but can all be achieved through one space in Caverna. Everything else in Caverna is scaled up accordingly. Where each player board in Agricola has 15 spaces, each board in Caverna has 24. Filling the extra space is no harder than filling up one’s smaller farm in Agricola, however, given how much more each Caverna worker can accomplish. Harvests – during which family members must be fed – come more rapidly in Caverna than Agricola. Again, however, feeding in Caverna is no more challenging than it is in Agricola (indeed, it’s commonly felt to be easier). Caverna has five kinds of animal to the three in Agricola. In effect, Caverna can be said to come from the school of thought which sees Monopoly: The Mega Edition  or MEGAcquire as useful items. Everything is bigger (even the box) for the sake of being bigger.

Caverna's gargantuan box

Caverna‘s gargantuan box (photo by Tinwë)

I’ve only played Caverna once, and I don’t offer this as a review of the game. In honesty, I enjoyed the experience, though I found the array of rooms I could build bewildering. It’s more an expression of confusion that anyone, particularly anyone who owns Agricola (or has access to it), should feel the need for Caverna. I can understand why some might find its changes positive, but I can’t understand why the relatively limited adjustments should be considered worth the investment Caverna requires (both financially, and in terms of the time required to adjust to its slightly altered engine).

Caverna is, ultimately, little more than Agricola slightly zoomed out: each action feels bigger, but only because the scale of the composition is different. That your farm board has more spaces doesn’t really mean you can achieve more – it means that everything on it is slightly less valuable relative to its Agricola counterpart (just as each point is less valuable, because more are available).

In a sense, Caverna offers the board game equivalent of  the reskin of the latest iOS. It provides changes hard to define as improvements, changes which seem to exist simply to expose the previous generation as old (until the launch of iOS 7, my first generation iPod Touch, which is still ticking along, was basically indiscernible from a more recent product). Of course, some will prefer Caverna to Agricola, just as some will prefer a gold iPhone to a black one. Don’t think of Agricola 2.0 as an upgrade, however. Indeed, if you have and enjoy Agricola, probably best not to think of Caverna very much at all. Why focus on the game you don’t have? After all, expanding the scale of a game doesn’t mean expanding the fun.

2013 in Review

From a board game perspective, for me this year has been one of disciplined spending and less disciplined blogging. In the whole year, I’ve spent over £10 on only a single game – Samarkand: Routes to Riches (a 2010 train game in disguise, designed by David V.H. Peters and Harry Wu). Additionally, however, in the year to date, I’ve only made 15 posts on this site prior to this one.

In part, the two are connected: I feel diminished need for novelty in the games I’m playing, and have less immediately communicable novel thoughts to put here. There’s a lot of pleasure in learning something new from a game on the fiftieth time playing it: that thing, however, tends to be pretty nebulous – after all, it resisted pinpointing in the first 49 plays. When that game is one which tends to be dismissed as trivial by most regular board game players – Ticket to Ride, for instance – any post about such a nuance is not likely to find the audience which would appreciate it. Getting that kind of nebulous thing into words is a lot of work, and the incentive isn’t there.

Returning to my buying habits, I have purchased a few expansions during the course of the year: indeed, most times I’ve felt inclined to reward myself with something new, I’ve bought an expansion rather than an entirely new game. Among these have been the first and third volumes of the Ticket to Ride map collection series (Asia and Africa respectively), a couple of the Cosmic Encounter expansionsand the Wisdom and Warfare expansion for Sid Meier’s CivilizationThe Board Game. Don’t expect reviews soon for any of these: I’m playing each frequently with two, but I know I won’t be able to convince my board game club to play any one of these enough for me to feel qualified to pronounce judgement.

I don’t feel any hunger to nominate a game of the year, for broadly similar reasons. Maybe Zooloretto: The Dice Game. But in my affections it’s nowhere close to Kakerlakenpoker Royal (my favourite from last year). I don’t feel this has been a stellar year.

In terms of my personal most rewarding gaming experiences, I particularly enjoyed taking Hanabi on a visit to my parents – they ended up asking to play each day of my week long stay. After I left, my mother even ordered a copy to give her friends for Christmas (and presumably play with them). Based, in part, on this experience, I’m excited to introduce my parents to Ticket to Ride via the team play variant the Asia expansion introduces. I think it’ll suit their quiz game derived proclivity towards playing as a partnership.

I’ve also stumbled into designing a card game, and that’s brought a fair few kicks so far with the private, unexpected moments of enlightenment it has provoked. At the moment, it only exists as a couple of hundred index cards with scribbles on them: however, preliminary playtests with the game in this form have me thinking there is something there worth building upon. The game is a trading game set in the world of today, and features very liberal trading and deal making (sneaking out of the room to forge a deal in secret is encouraged: eavesdropping on such trades is also highly endorsed). The game also features, I think, a couple of neat twists on action selection which should promote both the formation of contingent alliances and suspicion of the partners in those alliances.

The game, codenamed Trust, is something I’ll be posting about here in the coming year. Hopefully, however, someone else will also produce something to excite me and get me raving here. Few games may have really excited me this year, but I’ve not lost my hunger to seek excitement in games.

A Question of Time: A Review of Starship Merchants

Starship Merchants is a game of timing. It uses a board which is, effectively, a large rondel of four spaces: you buy and equip a fleet of starships across the first two spaces, collect goods on the third, and sell them on the fourth. if you cannot take an action on the space you currently occupy, you must move to the next (you may also move on electively). From this simple core result some teasing situations.

This turn I have to move to the market, where upgrades to ships are sold, and pilots hired. I am unable to take an action at the shipyard, which I currently occupy: I already have the maximum number of ships, and as a result I cannot buy another. However, as I enter the market there’s a decision to be made. I can, optionally, discard one of the two cards on sale there at this point and draw the top card of the deck to replace it.

Currently, there are no extra cargo holds on offer, and I really want one of those. If I flip a new card with just this in mind, that would be hope guiding me rather than expectation: the deck contains too many cards to have any confidence in seeing a card of a particular kind. Some cards, naturally enough, would be much better for my opponents than for me. The pilot who rewards delivering cobalt, for instance, would favour the blue player, who has specialized in that resource, and who will also have to enter the market next turn.

Ultimately, I decide to expose a new card: probably in large part for the reason that it’s more fun to do so than not. I discard a survey robot and flip a replacement; grapples – effectively an extra hold, but costly to fill. I choose not to purchase this equipment, but nonetheless I find myself exhaling in relief. After all, curiosity did not, on this occasion, prove my undoing.

Purple in the Market

Purple in the market

Teasing tricks of timing define Starship Merchants – a pick-up-and-deliver game themed around asteroid mining, designed by Tom Lehmann and Joe Huber. Luck is part of of this tease in certain cases: on occasion, a player might find himself or herself powerless to avoid leaving a plum card for an opponent who happens to be there to take advantage. The whim of the game can mean a run of gifts for a given player. More central to the outcome of a given game of Starship Merchants, however, are the tricks of timing of which it avails players.

The structure of Starship Merchants is such that players must themselves actively focus upon their own timing (and keep an eye on the timing of other players). A player circles between the stages of a business cycle in a fixed order – buying ships, equipping them, collecting goods with them, and finally dropping off those goods for payment. Even if a player does not wish to carry out one of these processes on a given turn, he or she must pass through the sector in question, and spend a turn doing so. However, a player does not have to stay in the same rhythm as others: while any given sector cannot be skipped, it is possible to remain in a sector for more than one turn (as long as the player can take a legal action there). Thus, it’s possible to stay in the marketplace buying equipment for multiple turns, or to buy more than one ship at the shipyard on successive turns. Through doing so, a player can establish his or her personal pace – and spring surprises on opponents.

The most substantial traps in Starship Merchants are those that a player operates to squeeze his or her fellows, rather than those the game generates by itself. The question of when to buy a new ship is considerably more important than the question of whether to buy equipment because it can have a direct effect upon other players. In particular, when a player purchases the first ship of an advanced generation it will leave an older generation obsolete – and therefore unable to operate. While the rules of the game dictate when obsolescence occurs (the first generation of ships always becomes obsolete when the first ship from the third generation is bought; the second generation becomes obsolete when the first ship from the fourth generation is bought), only the purchases of other players drive this process: nothing in the game itself directly advances it. As such, getting to the shipyard almost always provokes considerable rumination: working out, say, whether a given ship might be profitable if it is only run once before obsolescence, and second guessing, who, if anybody, might buy the ship if I don’t (and what the consequences of that might be). Even if a purchase I make does not directly trigger obsolescence of a generation, it does bring that event closer.

Fans of the 18xx family will recognise that the mechanism of obsolescence derives from those games. However, Starship Merchants poses novel questions with respect to the device. Because it does not mandate all players perform a phase simultaneously (not all players will occupy the shipyard at once, or the asteroid belt at once), the timing questions around obsolescence are distinct from those in 18xx games (at least those of which I have knowledge).

Further, players can exert control over the timing of the game’s end. A player with sufficient funds when he or she ends a round is able to make the discretionary declaration that this round will be the last for all players (if a player has more than 100 credits he or she may declare the round the last; if a player has more than 150, he or she must do so). A player might, therefore, scupper the plans of his or her rivals by bringing a given game to an unexpectedly early end – denying a ship an expected second chance to operate. Pleasingly, it is equally the case that letting the game continue might also be the best means to thwart rivals.

Questions concerning the buying of ships and the end of the game naturally interact. A player might refrain from buying a ship which he or she could afford if it looks likely the present round will be the game’s last. Though all players will have chance to pass through the asteroid belt and earn money once the game’s end is declared (each player can work back to the dock in as many turns as desired), a ship is unlikely in a single run to earn enough to recoup the investment made in it.

Those moments in which playing Starship Merchants feels the most stimulating are those in which one jerks against the flow of play at short term expense, hoping either to wrest control of an aspect of the game’s timing, or to be better positioned to weather the flow. When a player is in the asteroid belt, for instance, each ship must be run on a separate turn. A player might, very seldom, forego the chance to run a ship in order to reach the dock more quickly. There could be a variety of reasons. Reaching the dock before a player who intends to end the game means being able to pass again through the shipyard, market and asteroid belt, implying, potentially, significant extra earnings. Reaching the dock more quickly also means reaching the shipyard more quickly – perhaps making it possible to drive a rival’s ships into obsolescence at an especially inconvenient moment. Defying expectations can be valuable in a game in which a great deal rests upon reading the plans of others.

Other questions Starship Merchants poses relate to the balance between long-term planning and opportunism. Three resources exist in the game to be mined and sold: cobalt, deuterium and ice-9. A player can set himself or herself up to extract benefit from focusing on a particular one of these – perhaps by recruiting a pilot who gives bonus credits for selling one of those goods. This focus may very well be tested, however. While goods tokens brought into the game do not ever leave it, those a player has in front of himself or herself, waiting to be mined, might – for a price – be stolen by another player. If I’ve amassed a large quantity of ice-9, say, and have many inducements to continue to focus upon it, other players might start to see value in taking tokens from in front of me. Indeed, other players might gain incentives of their own to mine ice-9. Though a permanent claim can be put upon a particular token (again, for a price), this can only happen once per round. Thus, any specialisation is ever vulnerable.

A Fourth Generation Scout Loaded with Ice-9

A fourth generation scout loaded with ice-9

Timing is again, however, important in this aspect of the game. Resources currently loaded onto a ship cannot be stolen – and, as such, reaching the asteroid belt at the right time is significant. If I’m eyeing up resources in front of another player, beating him or her to the belt might not be a bad plan.

However, while Starship Merchants has much to offer (and as it’s playable in 2ish hours it’s not too dense for an evening), it is tough to recommend without certain caveats concerning its production. Though its 50s tinged sci-fi artwork is charming – albeit not top level – other aspects of its production let it down. Information is misprinted on certain equipment tokens and cards (and, in one case an equipment card and the token contradict one another). The files section of the game’s page on Board Game Geek does have FAQs, card clarifications and errata, but this mitigates, rather than removes, the impression of a sub-standard production. At a game session, it’s tough to get new players to trust in an unfamiliar game from an unfamiliar company; if they do agree to play Starship Merchants, the frequent need to warn about printing errors can reconfirm what should be unfounded scepticism.

A less significant problem, which again could easily have been avoided, is that money tokens of different values are very similar in colour. It makes collecting payment, which should be a quick job, a bit of a chore. It also makes it rather difficult to read the financial situation of other players, necessitating repeated enquiry as to how much respective players possess.

Given the number of great board games in existence, there’s little need to invest oneself in anything which is less than stellar, in production as well as design. Starship Merchants is a first rate game with second rate production. The extrapolation of a certain charitable instinct, nurtured in many of us from childhood, might compel us to try and love an essentially strong game like this in spite of its surface flaws. I won’t say that instinct is entirely a faulty one. Find forgiving playing partners, be forgiving yourself, and there’s a tense and instructive experience to be had here. If, however, you are inclined to that suspect you, or those you play with, would be distracted by this game’s frustrating production, I wouldn’t blame you for avoiding it: enough games exist which don’t have barriers in front of their better qualities.

On Playing Well, and its Relationship to Reviewing Well

In November, the UK qualifying tournament for the Agricola World Championship takes place not too far from me. I toyed with entering, but ultimately don’t think I would very much enjoy the experience. My game play is foremost social and playful; I certainly play to win, but through play I’m ultimately aiming either to establish or strengthen relationships, or to learn something. I don’t think I’d enjoy the kind of play the tournament environment necessitates.

What keeps the idea live in my head, however – what keeps me thinking about a tournament I’ve decided not to enter – is the meaningful knowledge it would bring. Agricola is a game I believe myself to play pretty well. But I don’t have solid evidence upon which to base this suspicion.

When playing with my most regular playing partners, certain facts suggest to me that we play to a pretty high level. For example, my playing partners and I have learnt to recognise certain sequences of moves as potentially indicative that a particular occupation card is about to be played – the steps which suggest an opponent is preparing to whack down, say, the Lover. Such familiarity with the game allows for pre-emptive defensive manoeuvres: the collection of food necessary to pay for the Lover could be frustrated, for instance, by yoinking the food from the Fishing action space a round earlier than might normally be considered justifiable.

But, because I tend to play with players from the same small pool, I’ve little context by which to measure what we do. What appear sophisticated strategies to me might show serious flaws when tested against strong opponents with whom I’m unfamiliar. I wouldn’t fancy myself likely to win such a tournament, but the frame of reference for how good I really am would mean a lot.

And there’s a thing. A while ago, I put a review of Agricola onto this site. A little later, I also put up a piece offering some thoughts about strategy. Because it ranks well in a Google search for ‘Agricola strategy,’ that article continues to be my most read, receiving more hits on almost any given day than anything else on this site. In effect, then, I’m informing a great many people how great Agricola is as a mental challenge, and how best to play it, each without any substantial grounds to be confident I’m a capable player myself.

To write a strategy article of some kind does in inself imply that author believes himself or herself to have a depth of understanding of the game in question. I guess, with respect to Agricola, the fact is that I believe myself to be good at the game, even if I do not know that concretely. To write a review of a game without necessarily being good at it is a rather different case, and in many respects, I think, poses more interesting questions.

Much criticism of board games obfuscates how capable the critic is as a player (or how often the critic has won or lost – which is related, but not analagous: a win in a game of Agricola is a rather more reliable indicator of skill than a win in Fluxx, say). Most reviews which I’ve read or watched, or to which I’ve listened, do not disclose how well the critic plays the game in question, or how often he or she has won or lost.

This is also true of most reviews I’ve written. I restrict my commentary on this site based on my familiarity with a given game (I haven’t written a review of a game I’ve played less than five times – most I’ve played considerably more than this before writing about them); I do not, however, restrict my commentary based on my ability at a given game. I’ve reviewed games at which I seem to be particularly bad (Kakerlakenpoker Royal comes to mind), and I guess I’ve also reviewed games at which I’m particularly good. Seldom have I highlighted how well I seem to play in the review in question. In the case of the Kakerlakenpoker Royal review, I did note my poor results, but this constituted an exception.

Witholding information about one’s results might partly be a critical defence mechanism (both in my case, and in the case of others): I’ve certainly seen negative thoughts I’ve offered here dismissed as the sour grapes of a loser. I think I’m better than that – I believe myself to be level-headed enough to offer commentary which doesn’t project the flaws in my own play onto a game. The fear, I guess, is that making clear how much I’ve won and lost might appear to confirm these dismissive assumptions about me as a critic. In other words, admitting I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve won (which probably should be the case with many multi-player games) might be taken as a licence to read my thoughts as bitterness.

I can also conceive how the reverse might operate – that positive thoughts be seen by a reader as the fruit of pleasure in winning, rather than pleasure in a game itself. This seems a less likely reaction (and isn’t one I’ve seen expressed with respect to anything I’ve written), but doesn’t feel purely a hypothetical possibility. And, in truth, my experience is that a number of games do offer a dramatically better experience for the winner than for any other player.

In a bigger sense, however, the pretence of objectivity is a critical conceit which board game criticism has retained from more developed forms without necessarily recognising the particularity of the game as material for a review to address. In criticism at large, imitating objectivity, however false that imitation rings, is a necessary device to make critical comment valuable. The music reviewer or film critic brings a lifetime of experiences to bear in asserting his or her inclination towards or against a particular work, but must to a large extent mask this to comment usefully. A film reviewer might be disposed to like a particular film because he or she is especially fond of sci-fi. That reviewer fails to act as a critic if his or her comment is only ‘I like sci-fi, so I like this film.’ He or she must point to concrete facets of the film for his or her comment to be useful to the reader: praising an aspect of the plot or lauding the costume design act as points through which a reviewer grounds his or her expression of an opinion. Though knowledge of the reviewer’s tastes is a contextual help, the review cannot operate solely on the level of expressing like or dislike.

The reviewer as a person is biased, but does not act as a reviewer through the expression of these biases alone. The protest of the besotted Justin Bieber fan that the reviewer is biased fails to be cutting not because it is false, but because it happens to be entirely banal as an expression of the truth.

However, the board game – and indeed the video game – each offer a distinct challenge to the critic pretending objectivity: the experience these offer is largely generated by the players. Playing Agricola or Kakerlakenpoker with me is a different experience from playing with anyone else. My tells when playing Kakerlakenpoker are particular to me; my style of play, and of table talk is mine alone. The game reviewer therefore relies on his or her readers, viewers or listeners to exert a greater faculty of translation than does the critic reviewing media which do not offer user-generated experiences. If I praise Kakerlakenpoker for the laughter it generates, the reader has to recognise that this is a feature of the game as my play group and I play it, and not fundamentally a feature of the game in itself. The reader, in effect, has to deduce through the evidence the review offers whether he or she and his or her play group would be likely to gain the same experiences.

Nonetheless, throwing away the pretence of objectivity  does not seem to be an option. Even if qualitative assertions are grounded in play experiences not innate to a game, there still needs to be that grounding in evidence for a review to be more than an empty expression of favour or distaste.

Being good or bad at a game is probably important as part of this evidence. Whether I tend to win or lose is a valuable clue for a reader translating my thoughts. I declared Kakerlakenpoker Royal my favourite game of 2012 – it’s possible the fact I’m not that great at it (though improving), perversely contributes to my enjoyment of it (which I guess is why I felt it important to mention in my review that I’m less than a brilliant player). Structurally, the game is such that a bad player is active more often (failing to bluff successfully, or to call a bluff successfully makes a player active next turn), which does mean, unusually, a fuller game experience for a player who loses.

Winning or losing can, therefore, be seen both as experiences in themselves (and I don’t think anyone needs a reviewer to describe how winning or losing feels in itself), and as the triggers for other experiences (in which case a reviewer’s history of victory or defeat becomes pertinent). An economic game might be a game of wild gambles for a losing player risking all to get himself or herself back into contention, while for a winner, conservative play might be more fit. By contrast, a game with hidden victory points might not be substantially different whether one is heading for victory defeat (depending on how readable one’s current position relative to others might be). A nod to how successful a player the reviewer is therefore would probably constitute a useful tool for readers, viewers, or listeners, even if an objective statement of the reviewer’s ability is, more-or-less, impossible.

Find that Soul: A Review of Carcassonne: The Discovery

In a general sense, it’s easy to credit board games with a purity. In contrast to a number of other cultural products, the board game does not directly require technology to use, and therefore feels less removed from nature. A board game is very often the work of a single auteur and can thus be felt to manifest a clarity of vision which a contemporary video game produced by a sizeable, sub-divided team might not.

It’s not necessarily the case, however, that individual games are approached in such fashion – as means of experiencing purity – by either players or producers. Board games are often in major part sold on the quantity of components they provide; expansions adding even more pieces and extra rules are craved; the hobby at large tends to afford greater value to longer and more intricate games. Of the current top ten on Board Game Geek, only Android: Netrunner is recorded as taking less than 90 minutes to play.

Moreover, among those top ten games Agricola employs nine game boards, 360 cards, 303 wooden pieces and 102 cardboard tokens (if I haven’t miscalculated). It also has 14ish expansions to date (some large, some small – I haven’t included individual promo cards). Eclipse has seven boards, 84 plastic pieces, over 300 wooden pieces, and over 300 tiles. It also has, to date, six expansions of various sizes. Neither is atypical in these respects. Shorter though a given game of Android: Netrunner may be, its monthly expansions mean ever greater complexity, ever more stuff under which to bury oneself.

Even games not typically thought of as heavyweight are frequently sold on similar terms. The recent Z-Man Carcassonne big box proudly boasts on its enormous packaging that it includes nine expansions. Partly, this is achieved through the inclusion of seven mini-expansions. Nevertheless, the implication is that more is better: more expansions, we should understand, mean more possibilities and therefore more fun.

However, there’s credible evidence that Carcassonne is improved not by addition, but by subtraction. This is provided by Carcassonne: The Discovery, one of a number of stand alone titles which was added to the Carcassonne family in the middle part of the last decade (it was released in 2005). Some, such as Hunters and Gatherers (2006) and Ark of the Covenant (2003) rethemed Carcassonne and added rules similar to certain of those used in expansions to the main game. The Discovery, by contrast, aimed to purify – to reduce rules, to use less components. Its success in this is considerable, albeit not total. A terrific game (as, it should be said, is Carcassonne itself), it is also an instructive example of how great the gap can be between what the hobby of board gaming celebrates in itself, and where its real virtues lie.

Carcassonne: The Discovery

Carcassonne: The Discovery features wonderful faux-naive art from Fabio Visintin

As a simplification of the Carcassonne system (designed by Leo Colovini, and not by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede who designed Carcassonne itself), The Discovery seems mostly to have been approached as beginner friendly alternative. This is not fundamentally unreasonable. There are fewer different ways to score points in The Discovery than regular Carcassonne, reducing the amount of information a new player must absorb during a first game. The Discovery also includes player aids for the scoring of each of its features, an innovation which could and should have been adopted by now by regular Carcassonne. However, this view sells The Discovery short. There’s a great deal here for players familiar with Carcassonne to enjoy: The Discovery is a game with fewer automatic decisions than regular Carcassonne, and fewer instances in which the lucky draw of a particular tile decides a game.

The simplifications The Discovery brings all, in one respect or another, relate to the means by which points can be scored. In Carcassonne itself there are four different kinds of feature on which a meeple might be placed: cities, cloisters, fields and roads. In Carcassonne: The Discovery, there are three: grasslands, mountains, and seas. The bare number is a little misleading, however. What is most important is the structure of these features, and the possibilities for their expansion.

In Carcassonne, each feature is distinct not only in how it scores points, but also in the possibilities for its expansion. A road is linear: it enters a tile through a single edge, and either leaves through another edge, or terminates on that tile (since junctions end all roads reaching them, roads do not branch, though a finished map might give the impression that a complicated road network exists). A city, by contrast, can fork: when a tile has a city encompass three or more of its edges, it allows that city to be expanded in multiple directions concurrently. The cloister, meanwhile, does not expand in itself, but is developed to score more points through the placement of other tiles adjacent to it. Fields, like cities, fork. They differ in being able to co-exist on an edge with a road, making their expansion particularly complicated to control and to monitor.

These differences have impact upon good play. Blocking the development of cloister is achieved through very different means from those needed to block the expansion of a city. Ensuring control of a field is very different from making sure one retains sole possession of a road. This is fine; this is flavour; there is nuance to managing the intersection of unalike structures.

In The Discovery, by contrast, each terrain more closely resembles the others: each, like a city in regular Carcassonne, might occupy a single full edge of a tile, two edges, three, or even four. Thus, each terrain can fork, and blocking the growth of a given feature of each kind follows broadly the same process. The distribution of tiles feels broadly even, such that approximately a third of the final map will be covered by each.

Partly this is another quality of The Discovery which makes it more penetrable to completely new players than regular Carcassonne, but, perhaps more importantly, it gives the game a greater sense of focus. In regular Carcassonne a map reading challenge sits on top of the game of placing tiles in the best furtherance of your interests. A good deal of the mental effort required to play Carcassonne well is spent on watching the expansion of fields, on reading whether given fields might connect, and, indeed, simply counting and recounting how many meeples belonging to each player occupy any particularly large field. I don’t hesitate to assert that most experienced players will have lost a game through failing to notice that two fields had connected and control changed. Certain pleasure can come from this part of the game, but there’s a lot of mental investment for limited reward.

The Discovery, by increasing the clarity of its map, allows players to spend less effort to properly understand the game state. Thus, placing tiles well can more fully be the focus – as it probably ought to be. In The Discovery, only mountains are made especially particular with respect to the scoring method attached to them, in that a completed mountain range can gain in points if neighbouring areas of grassland have cities depicted within them. It takes a certain portion of mental resource to follow, but a relatively small one.


A more readable map makes Carcassonne: The Discovery a purer experience than Carcassonne itself

The Discovery also gives each player fewer meeples to manage than does the base game: in regular Carcassonne each player controls seven meeples, in The Discovery four. In itself, this supports a logic whereby fewer possessions means greater value to each: on the majority of turns in a regular game of Carcassonne, one will probably place a meeple. This is not the case with The Discovery. In standard Carcassonne, the feature any given meeple is placed on may or may not yield a significant amount of points: one is encouraged to experiment – to start something on the off-chance it might grow. With seven meeples, some failed projects can be made up for by the success of others. With only four meeples, however, this approach is not possible. If one of four meeples gains few points, it constitutes a significant problem in terms of attempting to win the game. Thus, players need a clearer sense of how a given feature will become valuable.

Connected with this, furthering the value of each meeple, is the greatest innovation to The Discovery. Meeples are not automatically returned to a player when a feature is finished. Instead, each turn the active player may, after placing a tile, either add a meeple to that tile, or remove a meeple from an existing tile, whether or not it occupies a finished feature (unfinished features yield less reward). Cheap points in The Discovery are, therefore, not cheap. It is often possible to place a meeple onto a feature which is immediately completed, but that meeple is not immediately returned, as it would be in regular Carcassonne. Thus, this kind of opportunistic play is less often worthwhile, since the meeple used cannot be reclaimed until a future turn (and, of course, the chance to place another meeple on the turn in question is sacrificed).

The Discovery, then, favours those virtues many board game players flatter their hobby as possessing. It strips back and simplifies, allowing for a purer focus on pleasurable exercises. It also exhorts players to value fewer possessions more dearly. The right thing, then, would probably be to replace standard Carcassonne in my collection with this. Instead, I have both. Make of that what you will.

Voice of Experience 2.0

Exciting news!

The second annual Voice of Experience review contest has been launched on Board Game Geek. The contest asks reviewers to provide critical analyses of games they know well – that they’ve played at least ten times. The winning review will be more than a mere rule-book re-write: it’ll be a pleasure to read, and offer the kind of insight only real familiarity with a game can offer.

This year, I’m especially looking forward to the contest since it focuses upon lighter games. All games reviewed should have a Board Game Geek ‘weight’ rating of 2.0 or less. (For context, Carcassonne is rated 2.0 exactly, Ticket to Ride, 1.9.)

Last year saw over 50 entries, many of which I’d consider to be among the most valuable contributions to Board Game Geek that I’ve seen.

I’m delighted to have been asked to help in judging the competition. I genuinely cannot wait to see what people contribute. I’d be especially pleased to see readers of Painted Wooden Cubes submitting pieces. I won’t be too partisan. I promise.

There will be prizes.

Go here to find out more, and go here for a list of all entries (at the time of writing none have yet been submitted, but do subscribe to that page to be notified when reviews arrive).

That’s about all for now. Except, while I have your attention, I’d like to say thanks for being patient while Painted Wooden Cubes is running quietly: it’s sadly necessary while I’m finishing my thesis. Two months to go. Hopefully.