Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Lawyers, bombs and money

Using money in games as a way to keep score may be a bit too close to real life, but it's also a good mechanic for keeping a running tally of players' progress. Money often doubles as a costing system for game effects as well, introducing an additional layer of strategy as players are forced to manage their resources and decide whether paying (essentially losing points) is worth it for a particular game effect or advantage.

Many of prolific designer James Ernest's games use money in this way, so much so that I suspect that a lot of his card game designs start out as poker variants, eventually reaching a level of variation where they can no longer be played with regular playing cards.

U. S. Patent No. 1 is described on the box as "The Novel and Elegant Time Travel Game," and to a large extent it is exactly that. It has all the hallmarks of the best games in James Ernest's Cheapass line: clever mechanics, sharp humor, and excellent graphic design involving creative use of historical (and copyright free) clip art.

The premise is that all the players have invented a time machine, and they are in a rush to travel back to opening day at the U. S. Patent Office so they can be the first to register a patent on time travel. The board is made up of spaces representing different time periods, with opening day of the patent office in the center. Each player must trick out their time machine with a weapon, shield, chassis, and power plant, and then take a number at the patent office, waiting a randomly generated number of turns before they can register their patent and win the game.

Money isn't really used to keep score, but it is a resource that players must use intelligently in order to manage and manipulate the cards, which represent the different parts players need to win and can be either bought or discovered by visiting other spaces on the board, and players need to balance the power requirements of their shields, weapons and chassis with the power output of their power plants. All the parts have unique game effects, and there are bonuses given for matched sets, such as having a power plant and a chassis with the same numerical rating.

Throughout the game, players can attack one another if they've fitted a weapon card to their time machine, and this is really where the game falls apart. As soon as a player gets all four parts to his time machine, he has to move to the center of the board and then "take a number," that is, wait a randomly generated number of turns before he can win. There is a bit of risk-taking strategy in taking a number before you're ready, and then hoping you can make it back to the center before your number is up, but in any case, whenever a player gets close to winning they find themeselves under attack by the other players. This will cause the player to lose parts from their time machine which they must then scramble to replace, and it makes for a somewhat long and tedious end game.

Apparently the world agrees with us, because this game has vanished into the mists of time, not even rating an appearance on the Cheapass Games website's print and play page.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) Witty and clever at the beginning, but the end game is a slog, so much so that it often seems better to stop playing than to finish the game.

Date played: November 3, 2014

Unexploded Cow is probably the most successful of the Cheapass Games "cards and money" games, and was certainly the most fun for us. Cards, money and a single six-sided die are used to great effect, creating a fast-paced game that involves a fair amount of both luck and strategy, but not too much of either.

Players control herds of mad cows from postwar England, which have helpfully been sent to the green pastures of France to help find unexploded bombs left over from the war. Each player starts with a fixed amount of money, which they use to purchase cow cards. These cards are played in a row in front of the player, and at the end of each player's turn a die roll determines which cow explodes, resulting in a payoff for that cow's owner.

Other cards represent effects that add an element of both strategy and chaos to the game, and all cards must be paid for in order to be played, with the money going into a pot in the center which is paid out from when a cow explodes. a second deck consists of 12 city cards that are earned when a player's cow explodes on their own turn. The city cards usually offer either a payment or a game advantage such as extra card draws, and the game ends when all the city cards have been claimed. The player with the most money is the winner.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) A well designed game that offers a reasonable amount of strategy, but is fast paced and simple enough that just about anyone should be able to enjoy it.

Date played: November 11, 2014

Witch Trial isn't quite as elegantly designed as Unexploded Cow, but it was more entertaining for us, as it contains a lot more of the clever wit that James Ernest is known for. Players are trial lawyers, either prosecuting or defending eccentric defendants accused of crimes such as atrocious manners, card playing, or the dastardly wearing a hat in the theatre.

All the players get to act as both prosecutors and defenders. On their own turn, players accuse by match crimes to suspects, and then call for defense. Another player can volunteer to defend the case, earning a small amount of money in the process, or, if no one volunteers, a public defender is randomly chosen from among the other players. Each crime card specifies an amount of money to be put in for court costs.

During a trial, each player plays evidence cards in an effort to move the jury value either up or down (it starts at a fixed number based on the severity of the crime and the guilt of the suspect). After both sides have played their evidence cards, the dice are rolled and added to the jury value to determine the suspect's guilt or innocence, and the winner of the trial earns the court money. The game ends when the deck runs out, and the player with the most money is the winner.

The game play is pretty basic, with the only real strategy being in matching the right suspects to crimes and deciding when you have enough evidence cards to try a case, but sly jokes on the cards make Witch Trial a great game for table banter, resulting in a highly entertaining game overall.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Witch Trial gets by on theme and humor, and is definitely more than the sum of its game mechanics.

Date played: November 16, 2014

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