Friday, February 24, 2012

Outpost 20th Anniversary Edition: Board Game Review

Economic Engine and Auction games are two of my favorite styles of games. Assessing value and build a competitive advantage is skill important within economic games. Add in the auction element complicates matters because price structures become more variable given current market availability and demand; however, the toughest aspect of auction games is to keep the ego in check. Winning auctions does not always translate in winning the game.

Last year I managed to purchase an OOP copy of 2038, an 18XX game, set in space designed by James Hlavaty and Tom Lehmann. My favorite thing about 2038 is the randomness of exploring hexes on the board, which is a novel twist to the 18XX formula which usually is highly deterministic and lacking luck. By now you are wondering, "What's the point with this 2038 tangent?" Stowed away in my 2038 box were mail order instructions on how to obtain the advanced rules for another game called Outpost.

In previous posts I have shared space themed games are among my favorites.  I have fond memories of watching Star Trek: TNG on Sundays with my dad. Maybe that's why I like space so much. Therefore, I will use a space theme for my review of Outpost, by using references to a space themed cartoon show and favorite of mine: Futurama. Though I must admit I do not like the post cancellation episodes. They strive for mediocrity and have delusions of adequacy. Now, moving onto the review of Outpost.

Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Good news, everyone. Tomorrow, you'll all be making a delivery to Ebola 9, the virus planet. 

Yes, good news indeed. Stronghold Games recently released Outpost: 20th anniversary edition, a 2-9 player game, is a reprint of a classic James Hlavaty game originally printed and released by TimJim Games in 1991. TimJim games while not visually most attractive games by today's gaming standards are quite fun. They are a good buy on eBay or conventions especially since TimJim Games folded in 1998. 

My Outpost game play experience has been limited to games with six players. Though, I suspect I would not want to write a review about playing 2 player game Outpost. This version of Outpost is played with the advanced rules from the 1st edition and includes optional game play cards designed by Tom Lehmann known as the "Kicker" cards from Kickstarter. 

Bureaucrat Number 1.0: D-D-D-D-Don't quote me regulations. I co-chaired the committee that reviewed the recommendation to revise the color of the book that regulation's in. We kept it grey.

The original artwork was pretty close to military grey or ocean grey and had plain spartan white cards with black print. The new edition includes space themed artwork and color. The upgrade in art is roughly tantamount to when Hollywood starting using Technicolor. 

Zapp Brannigan: Brannigan's law is like Brannigan's love: hard and fast.

Outpost is not the fastest game, but is it rewarding. The first time playing my gaming group managed to play Outpost between two and three hours, closer to three. The game was lengthened by ten minutes after people could count their cards correctly and the resultant mockery.

The basic premise in Outpost, each player controls a planetary upstart colony and races to build an empire. Each player begins the game with 3 factories and 3 workers. The factories manufacture production cards or the currency used in Outpost when run by either humans or robots. The resources are drawn from matching factory type deck. Each card has a number value and these cards are used to purchase upgrades. The upgrades can earn players victory points and ends when a player is the first to reach 75 victory points. 

Managing game variables within Outpost is key to winning. At the start of the game players start with:
1. Hand Limit of 10 production cards
2. Maximum of 5 human workers. This is known as Colony Support.
Purchasing upgrades can expand your hand limit or number of workers. Some special production cards do not count towards your hand limit.

The basic turn order is quite simple (these are not the rules in entirety):
1. Determine Player Turn Order. This is done by player VP's
2. Replenish purchased colony upgrade cards. This is accomplished by dice rolls and changes the cards available for bid. Sometimes multiple cards of the same type are available for bid.
3. Distribute Production Cards: Collect money from your factories. This is what makes the game fun because the draw deck for each factory has production cards with an average value. Players draw cards corresponding to the factories they run. Sometimes high cards are drawn other times players are stuck with low value cards and could not even afford a small can of Slurm let alone being able to competitively bid.
4. Discard Excess Production Cards
5. Perform Player Actions: This is the core part of Outpost. In turn order a player, starts an auction for an Upgrade Card or Kicker Card. Additionally, they may Buy New Factories, Buy additional workers  (Colonists or Robots), and finally assign what worker operates each factory.
6. Check for Win: Check to see if a player reached 75 or more VPs.

Moon Rover Ride Narrator: No one really knows when, where, or how man landed on the moon... 
Fry: I do! 
Moon Rover Ride Narrator: ...but our Fungineers imagine it went something like this. 
Fry: That's not how it happened. 
Leela: Oh, really? I don't see you with a Fungineering degree.

The rules are quite straight forward and don't require an advanced degree. After a few rounds every player should know what they are doing and won't require extensive rule referencing. Printed on player’s game boards are the names and the average production values each factory manufactures. Additionally, when new upgrades come into the game to be bid on players can simply reference what is printed on the card. Basically, RTFC. Though, I thought the print was too small.

In my first time playing I wasted at least one bid because I expanded my colony support or maximum number of workers too high. I never maxed out on factories, in effect wasting money I could have used else. I safeguarding in case I wanted to have extra production. It was the wrong bet.

This game is not like 18XX games where holding onto excess money is a wasted opportunity because held money produces no income. Holding onto money in Outpost can be a strategy for buying higher VP cards. As an example, in our first game for more than half the game I was behind by at least 20 VPs, but later in the game I bought a top-end factory (Moon Ore which produces production cards with an average value of 50) and then purchased the Moon Base for 200 and earned 20 VP's. Everyone thought I was way behind until performing this action.

In addition to upgrades giving players VPs, they are prerequisites for players to be allowed to buy upgraded factories and the upgrade cards also grant purchase players discounts for future purchases for certain types of cards. One fun upgrade card is the "Wiley Trader" this allowed a player who owned the card to choose a player trade them a card and take a card from them of the same type, but a higher value. Hate play can be fun.

Bender: Bite my Shiny Metal Ass

Lost my first game of Outpost and worst yet the guy who had to leave for work would have won the game that day. He was utilizing the titanium strategy to win. Producing small victory points each turn. I came in second and possible first if I didn't screw up discarding some cards I should have held onto due the hand limit exclusion rule. 

Thumbs Up:
Tense Auction Game; combines the fun of St. Petersburg and Power Grid.

Tight game mechanics.

Thumbs Down:
Plays a little long and auction games with fewer than three players usually not that much fun.

Not much bad about Outpost


Advertisement:
Available for purchase from my friends at Funagain Games and under $50. Orders over $75 ship free. 
Outpost English Rule Book




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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Silverton Board Game Review

If I had to choose a film title to reflect my experiences of the past week, it would have to be "There will be Blood."

Earlier this week, I had to stop at the BP in order to ensure my car wouldn't run out of gas. The station was located in downtown Detroit. It was one of the only gas stations between the hospital and highway. 

There was a group of teenagers at the side of the road near the BP. With a bus stop nearby I thought little of it until a fight broke out. "I hope no one breaks out a gun," I said to the stranger pumping gas at the reverse-side pump. Not even finishing my sentence I turned around to see some punk-ass teenager holding a black hand gun side-ways, a la Menace II Society styleThe crowd quickly dispersed. 

My Sympathetic Nervous System activity elevated, I freaked out and ran for cover around to the other side of the pump. Taking five seconds to calm myself I knew I had to immediately leave. With only $7.56 of gas, I would risk running out of gas on the highway. While in the car I dialed 911 and was informed they already had a car dispatched to the location. 

The next day my mentor told me to never get gas downtown and proceeded to share a story where he was once the victim of an attempted car jacking in another part of downtown. I would like to have a higher opinion of Detroit, but the city reminds me of English Political Philosopher Thomas Hobbes' State of War, as mentioned in The Leviathan:

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of War, where every man is Enemy to every man....consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Despite the hidden gems and progress of Detroit in recent years, overall the city resembles the Hobbesian state of war. Detroit struggles to provide essential city services, suffers from the lack of urban planning, and is still plagued by racial tensions all while an impending fiscal crisis is the city closer to bankruptcy.  

I shouldn't have to worry about stray bullets while leaving my research job. Luckily, no shots were fired that day.

The day after that and the argument which makes my case of "There will be Blood," was I had my remaining wisdom tooth extracted. I'm usually more afraid of the dental bill than the dental work itself. My lower left wisdom tooth was pulled pain-free though at some points my mouth was stretched open to the limit. As a physiologist, I can say the lidocaine was effective. The lidocaine, a Sodium channel blocker, was preventing the depolarization of my nerves; thus, preventing the transmission of pain. Light bleeding persisted for about two days, but swelling lasted longer. The prescribed drugs combated swelling and pain, but I did not feel like doing much for the past several days.

This brings me to today’s review of Silverton. This edition released by Mayfair games in 1991 which includes the New Mexico expansion. Silverton can play between 1-6 players. Unlike most train games which involve buy and selling stock with one stock round followed by two operating rounds, Silverton has players compete by building track, buying mines, selling commodities with smart market timing to generate profits and by establishing passenger routes between cities. Unique to Silverton is that each turn represents a season and during the winter occurs every fourth turn. During winter only certain actions remain available.

There are some things I do not like about Silverton. Not being lazy or simply complaining to complain I cannot find some of the cities on a map. The game board is small and has some print. A stereotaxic microscope would be handy to find some of the cities. Further complicating matters, the euro-mechanism of adding cubes to the board, to represent build track, makes it harder to find cities mid-game because the cubes can obscure view. The mine claim cards try to assist players in finding cities, similar to Pandemic, with the bull’s eye locator on the cards, but it is still a struggle to find some cities. A BGG user has posted a file of a large printable Silverton map, which can be mounted. This addresses this common complaint.

Although, this game can take anywhere 2-9 hours depending on a pre-determined end game: set money amount ranging from the short $6,000 to long $20,000 or 20 turns, it is probably best not to play the long gameThe short game is still enjoyable.

There is no oil prospecting in Silverton like in There Will be Blood, but there is prospecting of copper, silver, gold and coal mines along with the oddly named "lumber mine".  At the start of the game Turn Order Cards are dealt and randomly dealt after each round. Depending on the number of players, each players starts in a predetermined city: Denver, El Paso, Salt Lake City, Pueblo, or Santa Fe. In games of two players or more, two players start in Denver. Tracking building in some areas on the board is similar to Ticket to Ride where players can double build between two cities, but for the most part only one player may build track between cities. To a degree starting location does play a role in style of play, which I will discuss further in my review. 

Players win the game by accumulating money in three ways: 
1. Selling the rare (copper, silver and gold) commodities at current market prices produced at your mines. These commodities are delivered via built freight track lines.
2. Build track between two cities and purchase a passenger route for reliable income.
3. Purchase a mine nearby another player’s track, negotiate a profit sharing agreement to have that player ship commodities to market.

Each method has its advantages. Passenger routes are purchased and produce reoccurring income. However, it typically takes at least two turns to break even. Mines have the potential to produce massive profits especially if it is a gold or silver mine, but profit is tempered by the cost of building track to the city to be able to deliver to market. Mine speculation by scooping up mines near opponents can be a way to make money, in our play session typically arrangements have always been 50-50; however, it can cause a cash-flow crunch and impair building track. Purchasing a mine is also a risk in itself. Mines can become depleted. 

I have only played one 4 player and one 5 player game of Silverton. The basic overview of the game is as follows (this is not the rules in entirety):
1. Deal Turn Order Cards
2. Place Prospector/Surveyor Tokens:
Each player may place prospector or surveyor tokens to claim a mine/passenger route or build track. Players each have two prospector and surveyor tokens and may use one or all of them. 8 face up mines and 8 passenger routes are available in addition to the top of the mine deck. Players can compete for a same passenger route, mine, or track segment by placing their tokens at the same location to be resolved during the dispute phase. 
3. Resolve Disputes: Players roll 2d6 and add modifiers to determine who wins dispute. Disputes occur when players want the same mine, passenger route, or track section on the board. 
4. Buy Mine Claims and/or Passenger Routes: Some mines are better than others! Some mines produce more profitable commodities, are cheaper to purchase, and are less risky to mine.
5. Build track: Pay the cost of the track shown on the map. In a game with 4 players or less, players may build consecutive track. The second track section requires a successful dice roll. In 5 or 6 player game, players can build two tracks, but not consecutively. Also, players cannot build certain track segments during winter.
6. Operate Claims: Mines require an operating cost to mine the commodities. The number of commodities received is determined from a 2D6 dice roll. Mines are depleted when a player who operates them has a low dice roll. A player can reap rewards of high production with a high dice roll. For instance, a 2D6 roll of 1-4 will deplete the mine, 5-7 will produce 1 goods, 8-9 will produce 2 goods, and 10-12 will produce 3 goods. Like a casino, the payouts vary.
7Agreements: Make agreements with other player to ship your goods.
8. Collect Passenger Revenue: Passenger routes generate regular income.
9. Deliver Goods: Commodities can be sold at current prices. Copper, Silver and Gold have only one market price; however, lumber and coal have variable market prices depending on the city they are delivered. Also, players cannot ship on the snowed out track segments during winter.
10: Determine New Market Prices: Like most games with stock market mechanisms, commodities are sold through current valuations. 
11. Replenish Cards: New Mines and Passenger Routes if purchased earlier are restocked.

The first time I played Silverton, in a four player game, it was fun. Though we had no dispute resolution rolls, the dice rolls depleted player mines frequently, which is fun to watch and a bitch when it happens to your mines; you can't help but smile when another player who just invested in a mine watches it deplete after one turn. 

In my opinion the 4 player version of Silverton plays better. The 4 player game was fun and felt like that New Year's many years ago when I was freely drinking libations and doing Jello-shots. It was fun.

However, the 5 player game was like the St. Patty’s Day bendor I went on a few years ago when I woke up in a hotel without my glasses. I almost had to call the front desk to send hotel staff to my room to find my eye glasses. The 5 player game of Silverton became "What that hell happened? Why does my head hurt? And this was a mistake." When my group played the 5 player version we ended calling the game off after 3.5 hours. Returning to my complaint of the 5 player game, players cannot build consecutive track this gave the impression of the game slowing down. I suspect the rule change is to encourage players to buy up mines nearby other players or increase the amount of player agreements to ship goods. Overall, I do not like the 5 player game because of this and the added downtime.

If you are also adverse to doing math, avoid this game. During a turn players calculate track costs, mine costs plus any operating costs, adding potential upcoming sales and passenger revenue. It is not much of a problem for my group because we occasionally play 18XX train games. Money in the game is kept secret until certain monetary goals are reached and then becomes public. My group debated paper money vs. poker chips use. Though we used the paper money included in the game the poker chips could speed the game up by making it easier to distribute money during revenue phases. Additionally, there are excel apps, which can assist in determining new market prices, thereby making the game flow faster and smoother. At the end of each round 13 dice rolls are required to establish new prices. We had a system where one person would roll the dice while another would move the price marker cubes to speed game play up.

Returning to starting locations, to a degree a starting location does play a role in style of play, the mines tend to appears more frequently in the northern part of the map. This makes it easier for players in Denver, Pueblo, and Salt Lake City to ship commodities to market while players in the southern portion of the map have some better opportunities to establish passenger routes without competition. The game seems to have balance here; however, with only 2 plays I cannot pretend to be an expert player.


Lastly, if the 2-9 hours game time were not enough game play, Silverton includes several variants such as the introduction of trains and snowplows. Players use the trains to calculate how much commodities they can ships given the strength of the train engine to transport goods. The snowplows can help remove snow from impassible sections of track during the winter season. Finally, players if they have their druthers, can choose particular combinations of prospector or surveyor tokens and determine what buffs are added to them. The buffs add values to the dice during dispute rolls.

Thumbs Up:
Dice Rolls add Luck to a Train Game; fun market timing

Fun watching other players have their mines depleted

Multiple variants for added game-play options

If you have no friends, there is solo-play


Thumbs Down:
In 5-6 player games: Expansion of track is slow.

Slow Game Play: John Henry could build transcontinental railroad before finishing Silverton.

Slow market pricing system; 13 dice rolls. A BGG user posted an excel macro for download.

Slightly dated feel: Small Game Board; Bland but functional cards. Mayfair Games should seriously consider re-printing the game with an updated board and cards. Is there market demand for a new edition? Who knows? Roll 13 more dice.

P.S. I can not post the rules as usual. Mayfair does not want the pdf of the rules to be distributed.

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