Sunday, December 10, 2006

Die Macher Night at Chris's

Christ hosted a game day at his place on Saturday, with a session of Roads and Boats in the morning (with Wes, Michael, and Eric), and two games of Die Macher in the evening hours (with Ken, his son Brandon, Chris's son Jacob, Chuck, Mike, Hazmatt, and myself). The first four played on Chris's board, the last four on mine.

Of all of the players, only Chuck had actually played before, so I took a stab at explaining the overall arc of the game with his help to everyone at once. Theoretically, each segment has a relatively small number of rules, and the idea was that Chris could cover all of those as they progressed through the game. We all opted to play the shorter 5-turn version in the interest of time, which turned out to be a good idea. We all used the reprint edition of the game, which has it's plusses and minuses.

First, a word about the reprint. One of the big problems that our group had with the game (and the reason I refused to play) was ambiguity about whether or not you could reverse your party's position (going from pro to con) with a single card play. The new rules make no mention of any limitation in this regard, although there is a rule enforcing a more gradual change when it comes to the state and national mood. I found the rules to be extremely clear in most cases, although the exact process for determining who can be in a coalition is somewhat more difficult. We ended up playing that the first player can choose and/or force coalitions, moving around the table afterward. I'd like to see this clarified from an official source, but the Engish rules are otherwise quite clear on all points.

The big problem, however, is the position cards. Several of the icons used are very similar (nukes, industry, and terrorism), and the small icons on the popular opinion cards are very difficult to read. Against the light cream background, the containment tower on the nuke card becomes virtually invisible. Also, the use of up/down arrows vs check boxes (and the fact that the industry popular opinion and party platform cards don't even match), when all that is needed is a color, just adds to the confusion. This sort of thing is completely unacceptable in a reprint, and I'm considering making up my own cards as these are so difficult to parse on what is already a very busy board. Very poorly done, Valley Games.

Die Macher is a very sequence heavy game, and you have to be very very very very careful not to miss any segments. Which we did, almost immediately with serious consequences. In our case, we ended the first turn neglecting to get external money, which nearly killed both Mike and myself as we hadn't done well in the first election. We didn't catch the error until after the Shadow Cabinet phase of the second turn, which hurt me quite a bit. We ended up playing the cards after the Shadow Cabinet phase, but the damage was done to me trying to kill Matt and Chuck's stealing of that election with their coalition.

To make things worse, I'd bid for table position not realizing that I could be beat by a coalition, so there was more money wasted. In the third turn, I learned that you could have multiple coalitions, which came a little late in the game as well. I suspect that this game is very harsh to new players, as almost every decision you make ties in to a future decision or situation later on, and not having a thorough understanding of how everything fits together can produce quite a bit pain. I ended up being in strong position to win a couple of elections early, only to get beat because I didn't understand the coalition rules as well as I might have.

The capper was when I had the chance to change the popular opinion in the third election, and it was strongly suggested that I make a particular play that hurt me, but that also hurt Matt. When all was said and done, I ended up with 48 votes instead of 50, costing me 3 seats, which wouldn't have happened had I just left the opinion as it had been originally. The person suggesting the move had also missed the implications, but it's an object lesson as to how tightly built this game is. Clearly not a game for wimps!

That was the end of my whining for the game, fortunately. While I didn't do particularly well in the fourth election, I was well placed to finally win the fifth and final election, which also was for the most seats of any election in the game (36, which is relatively small compared to the 80 you can get in Berlin). I also did quite well in matching the National Opinion, but my population sucked and Matt ended up winning the game by a good 50 points over me. Chuck came in third 20 points behind me, with Mike trailing another 50 points behind him. A big part of Matt's success was adding 12 population early on, which gave him an extra $24,000 to work with over the course of the game (although most of us had bumped up $4 or $8 at start). He ended with well over 50 population, quite a large amount.

I really like this game, although it's clearly not the kind of game you pull out on a whim. It requires constant attention to not only what is going on in the various states, but also on the National Opinon board and what your neighbor's platforms are. Given that this element is the one component quality disaster in the game, the game is actually made more of a brain drain that it might otherwise have been. It's bad enough that Valley Games should seriously consider providing replacement cards for these two decks, they are that bad.

The game, however, rewards thinking ahead and managing a complex situation. There are a few luck elements - what cards you draw to adjust your platform (which has been improved from the original game), how well you roll when you take external money (or not) and decline to release opinion polls, and whether or not you get the opinion poll you are hoping for. However, the opinion poll comes under the heading of "you knew the job was dangerous when you took it" as is the external money mechanism. Of all of these luck factors, I could see the platform card draws as having the ability to sink a game without any ability for a player to recover, although it would have to be a pretty poor set of draws. A longer game would tend to average out the results from such pulls, and create more change over time to the national mood, so I suspect the short game is only really valuable if time is an issue or if you are playing a learning game (as we did).

Overall, I'm looking forward to another playing of this game, preferably soon to lock in the many (painful) lessons learned in my first game. Our playing time, including my initial 'splainin', took about 3.5 hours, and we had very few rules questions that couldn't be answered quickly (although I did have very scary moment when I thought that there might be *four* possible positions on an issue rather than just two, but it was just the bad components).

I've said it twice, I'll say it once more - Valley Games, you blew it big time on the Popular Opinion and Party Platform cards, and you should fix this problem. I know you are a small publisher, but these are critical components that have a huge effect on the game. It is far too easy for a player to confuse two of these symbols and make a game-ruining decision. Do the right thing and at least make replacement cards available at your cost. Otherwise, the game is a classic, so treat it with the respect it deserves.

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