Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sweet Jane Loves Sheep

Then came a terrible fire. It turned out Liliana had built the 3 children's bed rooms of some sort of flammable stone, and the place died with an awful sound... actually the sound of 3 little girls being burned alive. Sweet Jane was distraught! Maybe she even became slightly unhinged... maybe there was some sort of madness gene in the family. They were left with nothing but sadness, a two room wooden hut, and three burned chunks of meat.

Jane and Liliana were left with no choice but to start again. Liliana built a fireplace and then a cooking hearth, and took night courses in wood carving. Sweet Jane gathered wood to build new rooms. On the very day that Liliana built the new rooms, two babies arrived in the mail from Magnus Spiele - Jane had been shopping! They named the two girls Marianne and Nina.

Magnus Spiele had had a sale on on baby lambs, as well, and Jane bought some of those. They were called Fluffy, Floppy and Lumpkin. Floppy was very tasty, but Fluffy and Lumpkin were kept as the girls' pets and slept in their beds with them. With Sweet Jane's tender care, Marianne and Nina and Fluffy and Lumpkin grew to be big and strong. Liliana set them to work, gathering clay and reeds, going fishing and sowing vegetables.

Time went buy, and Magnus Spiele had another sale, from which Sweet Jane bought a baby boy called Rumpelstiltskin and some boars called Snorky and Snumpy. Liliana still hadn't finished fencing the pastures, so Snorky and Snumpy lived inside as well. It was all very cosy. Eventually Liliana did get around to fencing the pastures and made the animals live outside... just on the same day that some cows called Buttercup, Daisy and Lakshmi arrived in the mail.

What a house they had! Animals and children in every bed! Faeces of four different species in every corner! Fortunately, Sweet Jane was born for that sort of work, and she was an excellent mother to all of these little mail-order orphans. Admittedly, every now and then one of the babies ended up on the dinner table, but you would have done the same in their situation.

Life was good for Jane and Liliana. Rumpelstiltskin built a basket weaver's workshop when he was 4, and they all lived happily. For a while.

Editors Notes: K Deck, Sweet Jane played by Wet Nurse and Animal Keeper. Score 62 points (target 55). No minor improvements - Wet Nurse doesn't work well with them.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Ballad of Sweet Jane

Those of you who've been reading my blog since December may remember the story of Sordid Johan, a particularly demented individual who made several careers in farming. Let me tell you about his cousin, Sweet Jane. Those of you who know me in real life may think you know which Jane I'm talking about, but you're wrong. That one probably doesn't even have a sordid cousin.

Sweet Jane was a caring soul, who lived in a small wooden shack with her partner Liliana. They'd met at university where Liliana had been studying forestry and Jane had been looking for a husband. An alcohol-fuelled night on a field trip showed Jane that she didn't really want a husband at all, she wanted Liliana. Together they set up house.

Times were tough. Jane hadn't graduated, and wasn't qualified for anything. Liliana grew trees, but had trouble with anything edible. One desperate day Jane went fishing and Liliana "found" some sheep and slaughtered them. The empty plowed fields outside the hut seemed symbolic of an empty future.

One day Jane said to Liliana, "Why don't we put some of this wheat in the ground, instead of just keeping it lying around the house?" Liliana's botany lessons suggested such a thing might work, and while she was out planting forests the next day she did just that. Astonishingly, the wheat seeds turned into wheat plants.

Whilst continuing to eat sheep, the future was looking brighter for Jane and Liliana. They harvested some of Liliana's forests, and made plans to experiment with putting vegetables in the ground to see what would happen. Jane's rock garden had grown ominously large, which gave Liliana an idea... she built an oven and baked the wheat to make bread. No more lamb! The future was bright indeed! Yet, still, Jane felt unfulfilled... she needed something Liliana couldn't give her.

Babies. Sweet Jane dearly wanted babies. Lots of them. One day while Liliana was working hard on building their house, Jane secretly visited a nearby village where there'd been a horrible massacre. Coincidentally, it was the village where her cousin Johan lived. Apparently the parents of three adorable triplets had been horribly murdered, and the words "red right hand" were written on the walls in the victims' blood. Late that night Jane returned home carrying three baby girls.

She named the girls Hilda, Hattie and Holly. Jane nursed the babies so they grew up big and strong. By the age of two the girls were going fishing and sheep-rustling by themselves, which was just as well because Liliana couldn't cope with the excess work of feeding three new mouths. The girls worked furiously hard, and many improvements were made to the house - a pottery, a joinery, and stone walls! Sweet Jane was happy.

Editors Notes: K Deck, Sweet Jane played by Wet Nurse, Liliana played by Forester. Score 56 points (target 50). No minor improvements. Hilda, Hattie and Holly appear courtesy of "Song of Joy" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Yes, it's likely all of my Agricola stories will be in poor taste.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I'm In Love With Bombay

I recently bought a copy of Bombay, the game from Ystari which obviously has the wrong name. I obviously wasn't hung up on the Ystari thing because I disliked both Caylus and Mykerinos, and haven't bothered to try the others. However I do love Bombay.

It's essentially a pick-up-and-deliver game, with the sex appeal coming from the elephant miniatures which can actually carry two little cubes of "silk". I was just explaining to my boss today how good interface design in games prevents you from doing the wrong thing - nobody will accidentally have 3 bales of silk in Bombay. Players have 3 action points on a turn with which they may move, purchase silk, sell silk, build palaces, or, if there's nothing better to do, just get some money.

The market mechanism is quite clever. There are 17 silk cubes in total - 5, 5, 4 and 3 in 4 colours. Each phase you draw 9 of them to place on the markets, and the most common get the cheapest price. This means that if you know the colours - purple is 4 and yellow is 3 - you can buy uncommon colours at good prices. Obviously if you have 2 yellow still on your elephant when 9 are drawn from the bag, yellow is not going to be the cheapest colour and that's quite an asset you have there.

The action points and movements are not quite so inspiring - it always seems to be just a bit too far to go to achieve quite what you want. Restricting yourself to what you can achieve profitably is part of the art of the game. More interestingly, once a player has built a palace on an intersection, if another player passes through there the owner of the palace gains a rupee. Going out of your way to avoid other people's palaces often isn't feasible, so building palaces can be quite lucrative. If movement was easier, that wouldn't work, so the designer has balanced the movements and actions nicely to support the palace toll.

There are 4 cities on the board - Bombay, Indora, Nagpur and Hyderabad - and each demands 3 different colours of silk. With these sets of colours allocated randomly, and the locations at which you can buy each colour allocated randomly as well, the starting conditions of the game are different each time. The best move for the first move of the game depends on how far it is to the silk vendors, how far it is to the cities that demand those colours, and what colours are available. Furthermore, there may be multiple excellent moves - the first player may buy the only yellow, the second player may buy an orange which is in demand nearby, and the third player may rush to build a palace on the intersection the others need to cross. Sometimes there really is nothing good to do, and that's when you can take a rupee.

There are bonuses at the end of the game, and they're extremely important. The person who has the highest combined total of palaces and clients (loose women collected along your travels) gets a large bonus, with smaller bonuses for the minor placings. Players who've sold at 3 of the 4 cities get 4 rupees, and if you've sold at all 4 you get 8 rupees. These bonuses make the palaces and tolls strategy, and the buying and selling strategy approximately equally viable. What combination of those strategies you choose depends on the tactical considerations along the way.

It's common on BGG to say that the game is weak because it's a viable strategy to never do anything and take a rupee each time - in particular Tom Vasel said this in his video review. I mentioned this to Scrabblette who pointed out that if one player did that in a 2 player game it would be equivalent to the other player playing solitaire. Of course I couldn't resist, and sat in bed playing the game. I played twice and scored something like 26 and 29, whereas the recalcitrant player only scored 18. In the 5 player game I played I scored 33. I think one of the players scored less than 17 (which is what you would score by doing nothing, as each player gets one less turn in a 5 player game), so he would have been better off doing nothing... but chances are he got screwed over a few times. Yes, some players might score better by doing nothing, but they won't win.

Finally, Bombay plays astonishingly quickly. In our first game Scrabblette and I were amazed to discover after a few minutes that we were a quarter of the way through. I think our first game took 30 minutes, the 5 player game maybe stretched as long as 75 minutes, and the solitaire games were about 15 minutes including lots of thinking. It's an impressive achievement to fit this much room for thought and strategy into such a small time.

Overall, I'm very impressed with Bombay. It has great bits, multiple ways to win, player interaction, all the things that people say they want in games except for Daleks and an interminable playing time. It's currently rating 7s on BGG, which astonishes me, as this is a truly great design.