Saturday, January 21, 2006

Broads and Ruts

Roads and Boats is one of those games that has achieved legendary status, pulling down well over $300 on eBay for a used copy. The funny thing is that I suspect that few of the people who want to get it have ever actually played it, putting it in the same category as wargamers who want a copy of Pacific War or Wacht am Rhein.

With many of our group off at the Gamestorm special session, Mike, Eric and I sat down to finally give this title a try (at least for me). I will admit, this is a game that intrigued me, but the price tag even when it was in production and available at retail lost me completely.

I won't go into the details of how the game works, other than to say that it falls quite firmly into the category of "create this to grow that to take here to build this to do this other thing that gets you points". This kind of game is pretty much a Maybe Something Good, Maybe Something Bad experience. What is different is that the game is deep. There are a lot of choices once you get going, and the number of "Doh!" moments, at least in our first game, were something to behold.

We played the symmetrical map with the three rivers coming out of a central group of mountains. This map is supposedly easy on beginners, it certainly was fair as everyone had exactly the same amount of stuff to work with. We all started out with the standard Woodcutter/Sawmill/Breed Donkeys opening, and we all went for the Clay/Stone Factory pairing. Then it all went vaguely pear shaped.

I had a lot of trouble with remembering exactly what the heck I was supposed to be working with to build various things. For example, I built a paper mill in the central mountains, thinking that this was somehow a good idea, mainly in order to get the ability to build carts or rafts on the tech tree. You don't need the tech tree to build either carts or rafts, of course, so I found myself wondering just what I would buy on the tech tree. The wrong thing, as it turned out, as I got Big Mines which let Mike get a bunch of free gold off of me. Then, of course, I build a raft factory, when I should have done the rowboats and built a rowboat factory. Sometimes, I am dumb as a post, and this game brought that feeling out in spades.

It went on like that. Realizing I had wood instead of lumber, or that the oil derricks did indeed need research when I had seconds ago researched new shafts. I also managed to figure out about 3/4s of the way into the game that I could keep Mike from stealing my stuff if I build a freakin' wall. Ugh.

About three hours in, I realized that we were all hopelessly slogging around the board doing one dumb thing after another, although I do admit that I had a pretty good truck factory going on the far bank of the Sea of Dug where no one could reach me. Getting fuel back over to make coins out of gold, that was the tricky part, especially as I didn't have a good place to do this. Of course, getting the oil derrick helped, but by then I couldn't get gold out of my big mine because the first five pieces out were iron.

You get the picture. It wasn't pretty.

By the end of the game, at least while we were all still making more than a token effort (the last few turns were for formality alone), it was taking quite a while to think out what had to go where, what had been moved, what hadn't, what we really should have done, and it was a mess. I understand there are some suggestions for tracking these things, and I wish I'd used them more often. Still, figuring out your optimal move led to barely tolerable downtime stretches for all involved.

This game feels a lot like the computer game Civilization (the earlier versions, I hated III). I can spend an entire day starting from scratch with that game, and then it gets to a point where it feels like work. I almost never finish any of the games I start, which is mildly frustrating as I always loved to get the spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Same with this game. The early part is a blast, with managable goals and interesting puzzles and I really like it. The late game was just too much.

This is all stated with the caveat that this was indeed, in every sense of the word, a learning game. Learning the rules (we screwed up several), how the various elements interact (Doh! Doh again!), and what you have to do to keep from giving away the bank. I'd be very interested in playing with two, or even solitaire, as I think this game is a great puzzle (although I'm not really into $300 puzzles, to be honest). I don't know that I'd play with three again, certainly not with four, unless everyone could play briskly once things got hairy. The problem, of course, is that with such a long game, and so many interesting long games that my group likes, and the rarity of this particular title, I don't see it coming out enough to warrant the effort. Perhaps at a Sunriver retreat if Dave and I are doing two-player games for an evening.

Regardless, thanks to Mike for hosting. I'll miss the next regular Tuesday (it's a bit too far away for my road rage to handle), but the following week I host and then off to Mike's for the annual Super Bowl party. Go Seahawks!

Damn, now I've jinxed them. It don't take much.

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