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[Review] Fifth Avenue

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tomvasel
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Some of the Alea Big Box series are my favorite games (Chinatown and Ra), while others I think are merely good. But one thing is for sure, I haven’t played one that I dislike. So it was easy enough to ensure that Fifth Avenue (Alea and Rio Grande Games, 2004 - Wilko Manz) was on my “must-buy” list, as it was #9 in this illustrious series. The theme, that of building skyscrapers in Manhattan, also interested me; so I thought there was the possibility of this becoming one of my favorite of the series.

Sadly, not only is this game not going to achieve that lofty status, but it also has a high possibility of achieving the “never played” status. The odd thing is that the game actually works, with plenty of tactical options. It’s simple to understand; and while the strategies are elusive, they are present. The problem is that the game simply wasn’t fun for me; and everyone I played with, while not specifically stating their dislike with the game, sort of collectively shrugged their shoulders in a “ho-hum” sort of way.

The game board is formed of nine areas: City Hall, Central Park, an area underneath Central Park, and seven districts arranged in three columns (2,3,2). Each district is split into five building plots in five different colors (purple, brown, gray, yellow, and green). A bunch of business tiles (each showing a different ware) are shuffled, and one random tile is placed face up on one building plot in each district, with every color receiving at least one tile but none receiving more than two. Twenty businesses are then placed face up in a row above the districts, split into eight groups of three or two. Five stacks of colored cards, each corresponding to one of the five different colored plots, are shuffled and placed face-up, after one is dealt to each player. Another stack of black cards are shuffled and placed face down, after four are dealt to each player. Each player takes five skyscraper pieces of their color, placing one on a scoring track, three on the “supply space” on their summary card, and two on any empty building plot on the board - one at a time, in player order. The rest of the skyscrapers are placed in a general supply area. Two commissioner pawns and three markers for each are placed on the City Hall. One player is chosen to start, and the game begins.

On a player’s turn, they perform three different actions in a specified order. They have four different choices for their first action:
- Take three skyscrapers from the supply and place them on their summary card.
- Take a business from the supply row, placing it on any empty plot, or on one that has only one other business. The player may choose any business to place from the group (2 or 3) the business is in. If the business is the second last in that group, the last business in the group is immediately placed in the area under Central Park. After certain groups are finished, a scoring bonus may occur, according to what’s written on the board (for example, all players with at least one skyscraper in each of at least three different districts may gain four victory points.)
- Take the top card from the “black” deck, adding it to their hand, and move one of the commissioners. Each commissioner follows a set path, demonstrated on the summary cards, with an occasional choice between two districts but always moving in the direction from City Hall to Central Park. When a commissioner is moved out of a district, a marker from that commissioner is left in the district to indicate that the commissioner has been there. If the commissioner is in Central Park and is moved, it goes back to City Hall, and a bidding round occurs. Each district that the commissioner has visited has one auction apiece, starting with the first district the commissioner visited. Players then bid to add skyscrapers to a lot in the district. If they already have skyscrapers in a lot, they must add new skyscrapers to that lot. Otherwise, they may add them to any empty lot (no businesses or skyscrapers). The player who moved the commissioner starts each auction, bidding any number of cards from their hand. The cards must match the color of the plot the player is bidding for (black cards count as wild cards). Each subsequent bid (in clockwise order) must exceed the total of the previous bid, or else the player must pass, taking all cards played back into their hands. When all but one player has passed that player wins the auction, discarding their cards to the appropriate piles. The player may place 1,2, or 3 skyscrapers from their summary cards onto the plot they were bidding for, but may only place the amount on the highest numbered card they played. (For example, the “6” card only has one skyscraper on it; so if a player bids with it, they may only place one skyscraper.) If, prior to an auction, all the plots in district are full - either with skyscrapers or businesses - the winning bidder may declare a “building stop.” A building stop token is placed on the district, with the player who placed it gaining one point for every skyscraper in the district. All other players score half the victory points for the skyscrapers they have, and then all skyscrapers and businesses are discarded. Nothing can be built in this district again, and moving commissioners will skip it in the future. After each district has been auctioned, one more auction is held for the area below Central Park. The first player may bid with any color card, then all players must use the same color (or black cards). The winner places skyscraper(s) in the area under Central Park, where they will score at the end of the game.
- Score a district: A player can score a district in which a commissioner resides. Each skyscraper currently in the area scores points, depending on the different types of business in adjacent lots. If there are no adjacent businesses, the skyscrapers score one point each with accelerating points; so that if there are four different business types, the skyscrapers score 8 points each.

If the player chooses to score a district, their next action consists of drawing two black cards, adding them to their hand. If they choose any of the other three actions, however, they take two different colored cards of their choice. The player’s third action then consists of them moving one commissioner, which may trigger another set of auctions. When the last business from the supply row is placed or if two business stops occur, the game ends immediately. All districts are scored one more time, as well as Central Park. The business tiles in the park are shuffled, and three of them are chosen. Depending on how many of these three are different determines the victory point value of the skyscrapers in Central Park (2, 3, or 5). The player with the most victory points is then declared the winner.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The game is packaged in the same box as all the rest of the “Big Box” Alea series with some excellent early twentieth-century style artwork. A plastic insert in the box holds everything fairly well, although plastic bags are probably needed for the business tiles and skyscrapers. The skyscrapers are little plastic buildings that are the exact same as those used in the game Shark - but they look nice on the board and are easy to handle. The cards are of good quality, although I think they should have differentiated between the colors more; the only difference is that the numbers in the corners of the cards are of different colors. The commissioners and commissioner makers are some bland pieces that are functional but a bit drab. The business tiles are small annoying little tiles with sometimes indistinguishable artwork on them. The double-sided board (one side is used in a variant), however, looks very nice with a simplified map and some illustrations of famous buildings giving the game a nice thematic touch. While some of the components (cards and tiles) are sub-par in my opinion, the overall package works fairly well, and most folk won’t complain.

2.) Rules: If you didn’t understand my description of the rules, I wouldn’t be surprised; because to learn the game, one should really look at the summary cards and illustrated diagrams in the rulebook. The rulebook is typical Alea fare, which most people really enjoy (I find them a bit confusing) - twelve pages of full colored, illustrated rules. The game is easier to teach than learn from the rulebook, and the summary cards make it extremely simplistic for new players.

3.) Strategy: The strategy to the game is not as intuitive, however. Obviously, players are trying to get a lot of skyscrapers next to a large variety of businesses. Since one can only do one action per turn, it’s hard to set up any lucrative scoring opportunities, and one well-placed “building stop” can absolutely mess up all one’s plans. To do well in the game, a player must be able to see outside the seemingly chaos that occurs between their turns, and figure out how to force other players to move the commissioner to the spots that most benefit them. The Central Park is a nice touch, but the scores from that area don’t really seem to affect the game too much. In fact, not much scoring is done during the game, in my experience, because the commissioner is almost never where you want it to be. I found the game slightly annoying in this regard; one can do so little on their turn that it’s hard to do any type of planning. Some have expounded online that there is a great deal of strategy to the game, that it’s hidden, and that it can be found on multiple playings. Frankly, I’d prefer it to be a little more obvious.

4.) Variants: The rules include a variant for two-players, which is nice and complicated. I’d rather just get out a two-player game, thank you. The other side of the board also has six building plots per district, which allows more room. I personally prefer this side of the board, especially with four players, it gives each player a little more room to breathe. Some folk might like the extremely small board space on the “normal” board, but I feel the extra plot gives more options = more strategy = more fun.

5.) Fun Factor: I really didn’t enjoy playing this game. I understood it, I saw the strategies (I think), but I just didn’t have a lot of fun playing it. It certainly pales besides it’s bigger brothers (Puerto Rico, Chinatown, etc.) It’s not my least favorite of the series (Mammoth Hunters takes that award), but it’s close; because I simply didn’t get much enjoyment out of my playings. Yes, it all made sense, and the game mechanics all worked together well; I just didn’t enjoy them much. I consistently felt like I was working my hardest to stop others from scoring, rather than score myself. The auctions were a bit bland, and often one’s turn was frankly - boring. Sometimes too many auctions occurred in a row, and it just seemed to drag the game down into drudgery. The game wasn’t horrible, but I would pass on playing it again.

For those of you intent on completing your Alea Big Box series, I suppose you’re going to pick the game up. Other than that, I can’t really recommend it. I love the theme, the time frame, and the idea. I just don’t love the game play; while functional, it just isn’t much fun. Fifth Avenue is a prime example of a game that works well, and flows fairly seamlessly, but without a soul. There were no, “Aha!” moments, not much laughter, not much of anything. There was nothing unique in the game to catch my interest; so I can’t imagine why I would waste my time on it, when there are so many fun games out there to play.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

phpbbadmin
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

Wow....

No "Backed by Tom Vasal" for Fifth Avenue, eh? I think it's better that way since I think a lot of people feel you like EVERYTHING, it's good to see you that you do dislike some games, and you do so in a very objective manner. Of course, now more than ever I want to try China Town. LOL.

-Darke

jwarrend
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

Tom,

Thanks for sharing your review of 5th Ave with us. I have enjoyed reading your reviews in the past, and find them to be quite informative. I have a couple of issues with this review. For the record, I haven't played 5th Ave yet, and haven't read the rules, so my objections are more philosophical in nature rather than a specific disagreement with your assessment of 5th Ave.

First, it's evident from your review that you've only played the game once, maybe twice. You indicated that other gamers mentioned that some of the strategies become more apparent after several plays, but you appear to disagree with them from your one playing: "I found the game slightly annoying in this regard; one can do so little on their turn that it’s hard to do any type of planning", but yet you also said "I understood it, I saw the strategies (I think), but I just didn’t have a lot of fun playing it."

I don't think it's fair to write a review for a game that you haven't fully understood. I will grant that it's entirely possible that you'd play the game multiple times and find your initial impressions of the game to have been accurate, but I think it's unfair to assume that this will be the case, particularly in light of evidence that more experienced players have found strategic depth in the game.

This leads to my main complaint, with this sentence:

Quote:
Frankly, I’d prefer [the strategy in the game] to be a little more obvious.

As a designer, I am somewhat bothered by this sentiment, which I grant is quite common among gamers. I don't think this is a fair thing to ask of a game; a game is, in some sense, a "work of art", and you have to evaluate it on its merits. I think that asking the game to be more "obvious", is to ask for changes that might make the game less satisfying in some other way. Perhaps the depth of the game gives it more replay value, for example.

It would be more fair to say "The strategy in the game isn't obvious, and I prefer to play games where the strategy is obvious". I find this sentiment annoying, but not unreasonable: there are a lot of games out there, and I understand that to compete for table time, a game that reveals its depths more quickly is more likely to hit the table. But that doesn't mean that such games are "better"; the game with more hidden depths may have a richer strategic landscape that, once discovered, provides a very satisfying experience. Discovering these depths may not be a committment that one personally wishes to make, but it's unfair to criticize the game simply because it is "deeper" than one wishes to delve.

It's very frustrating as a designer to read publisher's submission guidelines that read like "We want games that can be explained in 5 minutes and that can be picked up by a first-time player". This is undesirable for two reasons. First, because it will lead to a homogenization of the hobby. And second, because there's a place in the world for games other than the "buzz" games that come out at Essen, you rush to buy them, you play them 5 times and then put on the shelf, only to take out the next "buzz" game. A game like "Dune", for example, would never make it in today's gaming scene -- primarily because it's too long, but setting that aside -- because it takes a few plays to get a feel for how to play each of the different factions, to see their individual strengths and weaknesses. But the investment of effort rewards you with a beautiful and deep game that is a blast to play.

Don't get me wrong; I'm certainly not saying that only deep games have merit -- some of my favorite games are pretty easy to pick up. I'm just saying that games that take a few plays to really appreciate are not devoid of merit, and I don't like reviews that imply that a personal distate for such games amounts to an objective flaw in the game.

Just some thoughts,

Jeff

Scurra
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

This is a tough one.
In our discussion of "Princes of Florence" in another thread, Sebastian declared that there was one winning strategy. However, since this strategy appeared to boil down to "earn more points than anyone else", I'm not convinced it is entirely useful. ;-) But it was noted that there were a number of ways to tackle the game, not all of which are obvious at the outset.

Likewise, any group that began with "Puerto Rico" would have (probably) independently discovered a number of what could be termed "tier 2" strategies relatively quickly (i.e. after one game) and employed them to greater or lesser success in subsequent games. What then happens is that either the group gets stuck in this rut, or the players build on them and develop "tier 1" strategies which optimize their play.

If you are designing a reasonably complex strategy game, then this is exactly the sort of path you want your players to be travelling: from an initial bemusement at the interactions, through a desire to experiment with possibilities to a proper understanding of how to play (with a hope, as a designer, that the game doesn't prove to be "broken" at that stage!)

What Tom seems to be saying (and he doesn't appear to be alone) is that although Fifth Avenue does follow this trajectory, the crucial element of "desire" seems to be lacking.

OTOH, it would of course be a dull world if we all enjoyed the same things. I happen to rather like "Mammoth Hunters", and have played it often enough to discern some of its hidden depths (but I don't have a raging desire to explore them.) I'm pretty sure that there are groups out there that are playing "Fifth Avenue" because they did have the desire to find out more about how it worked.

zaiga
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

I'm with David on this one. I have played both "Goa" and "Princes of Florence" only once, and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of all possible strategies and tactics in those game. Yet, I do really want to play them again, because I know there is so much more to discover. I don't necessarily have to grok a game on the first play to like it.

However there are also some games that I've only played a few times, such as "Domaine" and "Balloon Cup", that I have no desire to ever play again, despite the fact that there might be so much more to discover in both games.

What I'm trying to say is that liking a game doesn't necessarily mean you have to understand the strategies of that game, and understanding the strategies of a game doesn't necessarily mean you like it.

- René Wiersma

jwarrend
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

David and Rene,

I don't disagree with either of you at all, but I would like to make two points:

Whatever may be reasonable/permissable for a person to do based on his taste (ie, to not "explore the depths" of a game he doesn't like), a reviewer doesn't enjoy that luxury. You can't play the game once, not like it, and call that adequate grounds for a review, any more than you could play a game once, love it, and say "this is the best game ever"! First plays are not sufficient grounds to evaluate a game with the scrutiny and objectivity that a reviewer implies he's invested into his review.

Second, a game may lack a fun factor that would motivate a player to explore its depths, and that's fine. But the presence of depth that resists first-play mastery of the game isn't, in my opinion, a fair thing to criticize a game about. If the game isn't fun, say that. (and I note that Tom did). But don't say "I wish the strategies were more apparent", or at least, don't say that as a way of justifying an opinion that the game is not fun. They're two separate issues. That's all I'm saying.

-Jeff

zaiga
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

Jeff, I agree that a serious reviewer should play the game at least a few times before writing a review. Of course, I don't know how often Tom played Fifth Avenue, but his track record as a reviewer suggests to me that he takes this "job" seriously and therefore I assume he did play Fifth Avenue more than once.

I think it is perfectly acceptable for a reviewer to say "I don't like this game, because the strategies aren't immediate apparent and I like strategy to be a bit more obvious". A reviewer can like or dislike a game for whatever reason he feels appropriate. As a reader of a review, I can either share his sentiments or not. I know I don't mind games where strategy isn't immediately obvious. I also know our group can cope with mechanics where you have to "piggyback" on other people's scoring, so Tom's review didn't change my mind about whether I should buy, or at least try Fifth Avenue.

Besides, a good reviewer doesn't just state whether he likes a game or not. He also explains why he feels about a game a certain way. Plus, he explains the mechanics of the game, the clarity of the rulebook, the durability of the components, etc, etc. A good review is so much more than an opinion, and I think the above review meets those criteria.

- René Wiersma

phpbbadmin
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

jwarrend wrote:
David and Rene,

I don't disagree with either of you at all, but I would like to make two points:

Whatever may be reasonable/permissable for a person to do based on his taste (ie, to not "explore the depths" of a game he doesn't like), a reviewer doesn't enjoy that luxury. You can't play the game once, not like it, and call that adequate grounds for a review, any more than you could play a game once, love it, and say "this is the best game ever"! First plays are not sufficient grounds to evaluate a game with the scrutiny and objectivity that a reviewer implies he's invested into his review.

Second, a game may lack a fun factor that would motivate a player to explore its depths, and that's fine. But the presence of depth that resists first-play mastery of the game isn't, in my opinion, a fair thing to criticize a game about. If the game isn't fun, say that. (and I note that Tom did). But don't say "I wish the strategies were more apparent", or at least, don't say that as a way of justifying an opinion that the game is not fun. They're two separate issues. That's all I'm saying.

-Jeff

Jeff,

In all fairness to Tom, he did say that he played it more than once, so his opinion was based upon more than just one play. Which brings up a point, when is someone qualified to form an appropriate opinion about a game? 2 Plays? 3 plays? The basic gist from his review is that he did not like them game after a few plays, and he did not feel further plays would change this opinion. Can't someone give a movie review after one viewing? How about a book review after one reading?

I think one of the biggest problem's Tom had with Fifth Avenue is that it didn't leave him with any feeling of wanting to play again, and THAT is it's biggest flaw. I don't care if a game has infinite strategies buried under the surface, if the game does not compel the players to want to play again then it has failed at its task. How successfull would a game like Magic the Gathering be if it didn't compel people to play again?

Let me say that I do agree, a lot of times people do form negative opinions about a game based upon just a few playings (for me it's Citadels), but I agree with Tom, there are so many good games that you actually WANT to play, it's hard to spend precious time justifying a negative opinion about a game. How many times does one have to hit their head against a wall before they realize that it does indeed hurt?

-Darke

Sebastian
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

jwarrend wrote:

First, it's evident from your review that you've only played the game once, maybe twice.

He indicates that he's played it at least twice, and strongly suggests he's played it more often when he says "I personally prefer this side of the board, especially with four players.."

jwarrend wrote:

I don't think it's fair to write a review for a game that you haven't fully understood. I will grant that it's entirely possible that you'd play the game multiple times and find your initial impressions of the game to have been accurate, but I think it's unfair to assume that this will be the case, particularly in light of evidence that more experienced players have found strategic depth in the game.

This leads to my main complaint, with this sentence:

Quote:
Frankly, I’d prefer [the strategy in the game] to be a little more obvious.

As a designer, I am somewhat bothered by this sentiment, which I grant is quite common among gamers. I don't think this is a fair thing to ask of a game; a game is, in some sense, a "work of art", and you have to evaluate it on its merits. I think that asking the game to be more "obvious", is to ask for changes that might make the game less satisfying in some other way. Perhaps the depth of the game gives it more replay value, for example.

There are two basic levels of playing games - the purely mechanical (move one of your pieces), and having a reason for your moves (I'll move this piece to block that one).

Tom's complaint is that it is difficult to grasp the second part - he hasn't a clue why he's making one move rather than another. Everyone plays a load of random moves, and after about an hour of that, one player is declared the winner.

I personally have a lot of sympathy for this view. I don't want to come out of the first game the winner, but I do want to come out of the first game having a slightly better idea of what I'm supposed to be doing the next time I play it - in Goa, for example, getting the colonies better. In Brittania, holding off the Romans a bit better. In Hansa, getting more markets out. With Fifth Avenue, on the other hand, I came out of it knowing nothing more than when I first played it. The main thing that I thought would improve how well I did was getting a gullable player to sit at my left and set up scoring oppotunities for me.

Let me paraphrase what you wrote above:

Tom said 'I want to know what I'm supposed to be doing'. As a designer, I am somewhat bothered by this sentiment, which I grant is quite common among gamers. I don't think this is a fair thing to ask of a game; a game is, in some sense, a "work of art", and you have to evaluate it on its merits.

As a gamer, I am somewhat bothered by this sentiment. A game is not a work of art - it is something to be played and presumably enjoyed by the players. The merits of a game are what players get out of it when it's played. And to get played, people have to know what they're attempting to achieve. Now, that isn't to say that all the strategies have to be obvious. But you should at least have the idea that there is some strategy better than randomly choosing actions when you finish playing a game.

jwarrend wrote:

A game like "Dune", for example, would never make it in today's gaming scene -- primarily because it's too long, but setting that aside -- because it takes a few plays to get a feel for how to play each of the different factions, to see their individual strengths and weaknesses. But the investment of effort rewards you with a beautiful and deep game that is a blast to play.

And here's a great example. You don't come out of Dune wondering what happened and what on earth you should have been trying to do. You come out of Dune thinking that you should never have believed the person on your left, and that next time ... next time you will do so much better.

Sebastian
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

Darkehorse wrote:
Which brings up a point, when is someone qualified to form an appropriate opinion about a game? 2 Plays? 3 plays? The basic gist from his review is that he did not like them game after a few plays, and he did not feel further plays would change this opinion.

This is particularly pertinent when one considers the question of how often the average punter (i.e. me) is likely to play the game.

On the shelves of my house, there sit a goodly number of games. A good third of them have never been played, another third have been played once or twice, and the other third get played one or twice a year. A review that tells me that that that game is likely to get relegated to the play once or nevers is useful.

jwarrend
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

Look, I’m not saying people should play games that aren’t fun. My “art” analogy is meant more to say that I think that it’s the designer’s prerogative to say what shape the gameplay should take, and not the audience. Of course, a designer ought to keep his audience in mind, and of course, a player can decide that he doesn’t like the game the designer has designed. What I’m objecting to is a statement of opinion -- that a game is “too opaque” -- being treated as if it were an objective flaw in the game.

I object to this as a designer, because I want us all to have the flexibility to design games that we want to design, and not to have to appease a mindset that a game’s strategic landscape should be obvious after one or two playings. A good analogy here is with music: three-chord pop songs are “easy” to listen to on the first time, but they don’t always provide the same level of long-term satisfaction as some albums that are perhaps “more difficult” to listen to and appreciate the first few times. There’s a place for games with “hidden depth”.

My concern with this issue is quite practical. My game, “Disciples”, has a mechanic in which one player is secretly a traitor. Among inexperienced players, it’s quite common for the traitor to coast to an easy victory, but as players grow more experienced, the game becomes much closer and the traitor’s role becomes a more challenging one to win with. Now, the thing is, it takes a few plays to appreciate this subtlety of the game, and I’m quite concerned that players will declare the game “broken” after just one or two plays, without realizing that their play style, and not the game, are to blame. Of course, I could do away with this aspect of the game altogether and make it more “obvious”, but I don’t want to -- I’m happy with the game the way it is. And I don’t feel that I should have to rework the game just to placate people who haven’t fully understood the game’s depths, and refuse to do so. I do hope that the game is enjoyable enough to play that people will want to play a few times to the point where they get “good” enough to solve this aspect.

My example of Dune was accurate for this reason: the first couple of times I played Dune as the Fremen, I was convinced that their position was just not tenable; I just couldn’t figure out how to cobble together a workable strategy. But after talking with fellow players, and making a few observations, I figured a few things out and my third playing with the Fremen, I was much more competitive in the game. I still look forward to exploring some of the similar subtleties with the other 5 houses, none of which I’ve played much or mastered.

So my comments weren’t really about 5th Ave per se -- it may indeed not be fun enough to invest the time needed to understand it. What I am mainly concerned with is the sensibility that a game having depths and subtleties that can’t be appreciated in one playing, and that appear to render the game imbalanced or opaque or flawed, does not constitute an objective flaw in the game itself. It’s ok for a game to be deeper than it appears. You may not want to play it, but don’t call it “broken” (or whatever) unless you’re sure that it really is.

-Jeff

Sebastian
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

jwarrend wrote:
Look, I’m not saying people should play games that aren’t fun. My “art” analogy is meant more to say that I think that it’s the designer’s prerogative to say what shape the gameplay should take, and not the audience. Of course, a designer ought to keep his audience in mind, and of course, a player can decide that he doesn’t like the game the designer has designed. What I’m objecting to is a statement of opinion -- that a game is “too opaque” -- being treated as if it were an objective flaw in the game.

I object to this as a designer, because I want us all to have the flexibility to design games that we want to design, and not to have to appease a mindset that a game’s strategic landscape should be obvious after one or two playings. A good analogy here is with music: three-chord pop songs are “easy” to listen to on the first time, but they don’t always provide the same level of long-term satisfaction as some albums that are perhaps “more difficult” to listen to and appreciate the first few times. There’s a place for games with “hidden depth”.

My concern with this issue is quite practical. My game, “Disciples”, has a mechanic in which one player is secretly a traitor. Among inexperienced players, it’s quite common for the traitor to coast to an easy victory, but as players grow more experienced, the game becomes much closer and the traitor’s role becomes a more challenging one to win with. Now, the thing is, it takes a few plays to appreciate this subtlety of the game, and I’m quite concerned that players will declare the game “broken” after just one or two plays, without realizing that their play style, and not the game, are to blame. Of course, I could do away with this aspect of the game altogether and make it more “obvious”, but I don’t want to -- I’m happy with the game the way it is. And I don’t feel that I should have to rework the game just to placate people who haven’t fully understood the game’s depths, and refuse to do so. I do hope that the game is enjoyable enough to play that people will want to play a few times to the point where they get “good” enough to solve this aspect.

My example of Dune was accurate for this reason: the first couple of times I played Dune as the Fremen, I was convinced that their position was just not tenable; I just couldn’t figure out how to cobble together a workable strategy. But after talking with fellow players, and making a few observations, I figured a few things out and my third playing with the Fremen, I was much more competitive in the game. I still look forward to exploring some of the similar subtleties with the other 5 houses, none of which I’ve played much or mastered.

So my comments weren’t really about 5th Ave per se -- it may indeed not be fun enough to invest the time needed to understand it. What I am mainly concerned with is the sensibility that a game having depths and subtleties that can’t be appreciated in one playing, and that appear to render the game imbalanced or opaque or flawed, does not constitute an objective flaw in the game itself. It’s ok for a game to be deeper than it appears. You may not want to play it, but don’t call it “broken” (or whatever) unless you’re sure that it really is.

You are shifting the basis of the argument. I have no objections to games in which you need a reasonable level of expertise before they become balanced, and I would agree with you that a reviewer who claimed that such a game was broken on the basis of a couple of plays would be wrong. Furthermore, I think that it is a fine thing that your “Disciples” game takes some time to master, as indeed had no problems with Dune taking some time before players are good enough to get certain groups to win.

What I object to are games where you are forced to play any number of times before you even get an idea of where the stategic landscape might be. This does not mean that 'the stategic landscape must be laid bare' - just because you know that to win in PR you have to build buildings or ship stuff by no means tells you everything that there is to know about it. A good analogy is most music - on the first play through, you won't know or appreciate most of it - but you will know where the composer is trying to get at, what sort of feelings they're trying to invoke.

Streaching the analogy to breaking point, Tom has listened to Fifth Avenue a number of times, and even after that, still can't work out what it is beside a collection of random notes. He has thus labelled the game as opaque. The majority appear to agree with him, as while they have said that the game only makes sense after the fifth or so playing, and noone appears to have listed any particular strategies to follow.

Johan
Johan's picture
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Joined: 10/05/2008
[Review] Fifth Avenue

Hello

I like Toms reviews and think that they are informative. He likes a lot of games ;-). Therefore when Tom point out that a game is not what he expected, I will listen and probably not get that game (as people already has pointed out: there are a lot of game out there and why should I waist my time with a game that could be boring)...

Before I continue I would like to say: Tanks Tom for your reviews. They are really good. Keep up the good work.

...but jwarrends main concerns are relevant: how are the game tested and how many times. This is good to know when reading the review.

I do reviews for a paper and it will now be on a more regular bases: These are mine rules (or things that has to be fulfilled) I write a review:
- The game is always tested at least 3 times with 3 different set of people (Part of the test group can be the same but not completely).
- It will always be the full rule set that are tested, but without options, additions and error corrections (if there are an errata on the internet, that is ignored).

(When I test a prototype I just run the test once).

I have seen review done, based of the rules (they never tested the game), I have also seen reviews that is not based on the game but on some variants found on the internet and house rules. I have seen review based on the previous version of the game. Those reviews will not justify the game.

// Johan

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
[Review] Fifth Avenue

First, a clarification: Tom said on spielfrieks that he played the game twice with a group, and once as a solo-playing. One can draw one's own conclusions about whether that is enough playings to understand a game and to be qualified to write a review.

Sebastian wrote:

You are shifting the basis of the argument.

Actually, I'm not. I'm merely doing what I've been doing this whole discussion: using some of the remarks Tom made to explore a broader phenomenon that I perceive in gaming, where a game's strategies must be "obvious" after one or two playings or else it is declared flawed or broken.

Quote:

What I object to are games where you are forced to play any number of times before you even get an idea of where the stategic landscape might be.

And I'm saying that it's unreasonable to "object" to a game for this reason. I think it's perfectly ok to not like such games, and to not seek to play them. But you make it sound like there's an objective flaw with the game itself, when the only flaw is the player's unwillingness to play enough times to appreciate the strategic depth.

Again, yes, I understand that some games don't make you want to play enough to discover that depth, and yes, games with "hidden depth" aren't for everyone. But the presence of depth doesn't equate to a design flaw.

Quote:

Streaching the analogy to breaking point, Tom has listened to Fifth Avenue a number of times, and even after that, still can't work out what it is beside a collection of random notes.

I think you're putting words into Tom's mouth here. What he said was:

TomVasel wrote:
I understood it, I saw the strategies (I think), but I just didn’t have a lot of fun playing it.

Tom's complaint seems to be the lack of a fun factor, and that's fine.

Again, I wasn't criticizing Tom's overall opinion of the game, and my point was mainly to react to this one statement:

TomVasel wrote:
Some have expounded online that there is a great deal of strategy to the game, that it’s hidden, and that it can be found on multiple playings. Frankly, I’d prefer it to be a little more obvious.

Now, setting aside the apparent contradiction with his above remarks, my complaint here is that Tom is fully aware that some have found hidden depth in the game, but he still writes the game off, partially on the grounds that the depths are hidden. That's what I don't like about his review -- that he treats this as if it's a problem with the game, when really it's only a problem with his persistance.

So again, play games you like, and if you don't like trying to discover hidden depths in a game that is known to have such depths, don't bother! But don't call such a game flawed or broken; it may be exactly what the designer wanted it to be, and it may work just fine for those who invest the time to understand it!

-Jeff

zaiga
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Joined: 12/31/1969
[Review] Fifth Avenue

Jeff, I agree with your broader point: that people shouldn't be too hasty writing off a game and declaring it flawed or broken. Since I design games myself I know how much time and effort goes into balancing a game, and when I read somewhere that someone calls a published design "broken", I usually take it with a grain of salt.

However, I don't see Tom stating in his review that Fifth Avenue is flawed or broken. In fact he writes: "Yes, it all made sense, and the game mechanics all worked together well; I just didn’t enjoy them much." He doesn't declare the game broken or anything, he just doesn't like it. I think a reviewer is entitled to having an opinion like that about a game, don't you agree?

- René Wiersma

Anonymous
[Review] Fifth Avenue

It is not uncommon for a reviewer to state his opinion about a game in the course of a review. It isn't unlike an expert witness in a trial stating his opinion based on his experience and learning. However, in order for a review to be of any use, the reviewer must qualify his opinions and observations as Tom did in this review.

Not all people will like all games the same way, and that goes for reviewers. Reviewers need to indicate why a certain game did or didn't appeal to them so that others can form their own opinions. I for one like Tom's reviews more than most because he gives his opinions and then states the reasons behind those opinions. I don't always agree with them, but I am equipped with the knowledge that I need to form my own opinion about a game.

For me, it's important to know if a game will be clear to most players in the first few games or not. If not, that doesn't make it a bad game, but it will determine the type of gamer to which it appeals. I happen to be interested in Fifth Avenue because it is simillar to a game that I have worked on off and on for a few years now. After reading Tom's review, I am not unlikely to try the game, but I am less likely to seek it out and/or buy it. There are so many others that I want to buy or try that this game will be a low priority (unless other reviews and opinions raise my opinion of it).

I understand Jeff's general concern that players may write off a game that is not as obvious, but it is their tastes in games that drive such decisions. There are plenty of gamers that do appreciate games that are more opaque (otherwise Fifth Avenue, Dune et al wouldn't have made it to the published state). These gamers would read this review in particular and think that, though Tom didn't have fun playing it, they might. Thus the need for qualification becomes more clear than ever.

tomvasel
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[Review] Fifth Avenue

Whew - maybe I should write more negative reviews, they certainly generate a lot of feedback! :lol:

Without getting into the whole "how many times should you play a game before reviewing" it argument, I would like to defend my intepretation of the game.

I think that strategies in general don't appear on initial playings of the game, and neither does the fun. I really don't feel like continuing searching for either, since I have a plethora of other fun games to play. Jwarrend, you may bemoan that many people feel this way, but the fact is - they do. I can't get an average person to continually play a game they don't enjoy or "get", so why try when there are games, such as Ticket to Ride, that are both fun and understandable, yet can be played multiple times, learning new strategies.

Goa, Maharaja, and Puerto Rico are examples of games in which all the strategies aren't immediately obvious, but enough of them are to intrigue the player.

Tom Vasel

Hamumu
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Joined: 12/31/1969
[Review] Fifth Avenue

I find this an interesting discussion... where I come from, the world of computer game development, the notion that a game must be accessible (fun and playable from the getgo, no directions needed to get into it) is an absolute. Hidden depth is applauded, but a game must first have unhidden shallowness (or what laymen term "fun") to keep you going to reach it. That is the view I take - hidden depth is an undeniable positive, a very good thing that elevates a game far beyond a shallow one, but opacity, boringness, or confusion, even to first-time players, is wholeheartedly bad design.

What I'm saying is, in my view, and all I have ever studied on COMPUTER game design (which you may consider a wholly different animal), there is no excuse for not pulling a player in from the beginning. It's bad design. Whether a game has hidden strategic depths is an entirely separate concern as to whether it has some fun (which in a strategy board game can really only be strategic or tactical thought, unless maybe the game makes you laugh or something) from the very first.

It's like a graph of your entertainment value from a game. If it ever dips below the omega-point, you quit, and therefore the game was made poorly (for your taste that is. But if it's doing that to a lot of people, it's just a bad game). But it doesn't have to stay at a consistent peak - hidden depth allows the graph to arc up exponentially over repeated plays. In short: hidden depth is a fabulous bonus, but there is no excuse for a lack of fun, and not knowing what you're doing or why isn't fun.

Of course, you can also design for a niche audience. Flight simulators are grotesquely complex and unfun, as are savagely detailed wargames that last 8 hours. But only if you don't belong to the niche that drools over them endlessly. I think such a thing doesn't really apply here though, as 5th avenue is a mass market game, intended to appeal to... the mass market!

Now all of this is entirely subjective, and it's my belief that all reviewing is also entirely subjective. It is, after all, a reviewer's opinion he is sharing! I support the right of reviewers to rip on any aspect they wish, and I will always understand that this is their own opinion and not an objective fact of any sort. Keep it up, Tom! I've read tons of your reviews on Funagain and they provide way more insight than most (not to mention nearly complete rulesets).

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
[Review] Fifth Avenue

TomVasel wrote:

Without getting into the whole "how many times should you play a game before reviewing" it argument, I would like to defend my intepretation of the game.

Tom, please understand that I wasn't at all criticizing your review of the game; I haven't played yet, and it may be quite accurate, for all I know. What I was objecting to was one particular comment you made that I think is common in gaming, and which I as a designer find troubling.

Quote:

I think that strategies in general don't appear on initial playings of the game, and neither does the fun. I really don't feel like continuing searching for either, since I have a plethora of other fun games to play.

Yes, this is the common defense of this mindset, and it's reasonable. But what I don't like is an elevation of this preference into a perception of a design bug. There's nothing wrong with a game that has strategies that take a few playings to see. It may not be to one's taste, but it's just a matter of preference -- at the same level of someone who said "I didn't like [Game X] because it has a bidding mechanic, and I don't like bidding".

Of course, I don't advocate anyone playing a game that isn't fun.

zaiga wrote:
However, I don't see Tom stating in his review that Fifth Avenue is flawed or broken. In fact he writes: "Yes, it all made sense, and the game mechanics all worked together well; I just didn’t enjoy them much." He doesn't declare the game broken or anything, he just doesn't like it. I think a reviewer is entitled to having an opinion like that about a game, don't you agree?

Yes, I agree completely. Again, I was expanding on one specific point that Tom made briefly; I'm not criticizing his overall review or his opinions about 5th Avenue. Just as a reminder, here's the specific statement I'm focussing on:

TomVasel wrote:
Some have expounded online that there is a great deal of strategy to the game, that it’s hidden, and that it can be found on multiple playings. Frankly, I’d prefer it to be a little more obvious.

Later (or maybe earlier), he goes on to say how he felt like he didn't feel like he could cobble together a strategy. But obviously, it is possible to formulate a strategy in the game -- he just didn't play enough to get to that point. If he didn't want to get to that level of understanding, that's his prerogative, but it's not a bug in the game itself. I understood him to be saying that it was, but I could be interpreting him incorrectly.

So again, since it seems that some are misunderstanding me, let me be very clear:

-- Games should be fun to play.

-- You shouldn't play games that you don't think are fun.

-- Some games have depth that you can't see on the first playing. This can include apparent imbalances in starting positions or strategies, lack of strategic depth, or other things. However, if further mastery of the game alleviates these, then the game is not in any sense "flawed". It merely will only play "correctly" for those who invest a few plays to understand it.

-- There is a place in the world for games that take a few plays to understand.

-- Some people won't want to invest this number of plays with some games. That's fine. But when it becomes that no people want to do this for any game, it will be, in my opinion, A Bad Thing for the hobby, as the dominant feature looked for by publishers will be the "Gee Whiz" factor rather than the long-term enjoyment factor.

-- These effects aren't mutually exclusive, I know. Some games have readily apparent strategies AND hidden depth.

Maybe that clears things up, but I assume that's too much to hope for...

-Jeff

Sebastian
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Joined: 07/27/2008
[Review] Fifth Avenue

jwarrend wrote:

So again, since it seems that some are misunderstanding me, let me be very clear:

1) Games should be fun to play.

2) You shouldn't play games that you don't think are fun.

3) Some games have depth that you can't see on the first playing. This can include apparent imbalances in starting positions or strategies, lack of strategic depth, or other things. However, if further mastery of the game alleviates these, then the game is not in any sense "flawed". It merely will only play "correctly" for those who invest a few plays to understand it.

4) There is a place in the world for games that take a few plays to understand.

5) Some people won't want to invest this number of plays with some games. That's fine. But when it becomes that no people want to do this for any game, it will be, in my opinion, A Bad Thing for the hobby, as the dominant feature looked for by publishers will be the "Gee Whiz" factor rather than the long-term enjoyment factor.

6) These effects aren't mutually exclusive, I know. Some games have readily apparent strategies AND hidden depth.

Maybe that clears things up, but I assume that's too much to hope for...

I think that the reason that people are misunderstanding you is that:

1) You are objecting to people saying that having no readily apparant strategy in a game is a flaw.

2) You are backing up this belief by saying that a deep games are good.

3) HOWEVER, you are offering no reason as to why having no readily apparant strategy is likely to result in any deeper a game than a game with a readily apparant strategy.

Let me state my case that games with no readily apparant strategies are flawed. Which of the following points do you disagree with?

A) The absence of a readily apparant strategy does not give the game any advantage.

B) Games with no readily apparant strategies are less fun for newcomers to play, because they will need to play the game several times, basically making random moves, before they understand anything that is going on sufficiently well to have any sort of reason behind their moves.

C) If a game has an element that has no advantages, and that element causes the game to be worse for a subsection of people who play it, then this is a flaw.

I'm guessing that your point of disagreement is (A). In which case you believe that the absence of a readily apparant strategy does give the game an advantage. What is it? Answers can be generic, or apply to a specific game.

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
[Review] Fifth Avenue

Sebastian wrote:

1) You are objecting to people saying that having no readily apparant strategy in a game is a flaw.

First, there’s an important caveat -- I’m assuming we’re talking about games for which there is an underlying strategic landscape, but that it just takes time to discover. I’m not talking about a truly non-strategic game like Fluxx. This assumption is crucial to my entire thesis here. It appears to be valid for 5th Ave.

Yes, this is exactly what I’m saying. Part of the problem could be that we’re not using “flaw” in the same sense. To me, a “flaw” is some way in which the game doesn’t work; something like a runaway leader problem. It’s an objective problem with the game; all players will agree that the game has this problem (though some may still like the game). I’m saying that a game that has “hidden strategies” doesn’t have a flaw in this kind of sense. A flaw has to be something more than a matter of personal preference.

Quote:

2) You are backing up this belief by saying that a deep games are good.

I’m certainly not trying to say that deep games are the only good kind, or that all deep games are good just by being deep. I’m just saying that there’s a place in the gaming world for deep games.

Quote:

3) HOWEVER, you are offering no reason as to why having no readily apparant strategy is likely to result in any deeper a game than a game with a readily apparant strategy.

There is no such reason, and I’m certainly not saying that there is or ought to be. My argument holds whether or not there is such a reason, because it’s a statement about the nature of flaws in games, and not about trying to say “[this] is better than [that]”.

Quote:

Let me state my case that games with no readily apparant strategies are flawed.

Your reasoning doesn’t support this conclusion. It only supports the idea that you prefer to play games whose strategies are readily apparent. Maybe we should back up; what’s your definition of “flawed” with respect to games?

Quote:

Which of the following points do you disagree with?

A) The absence of a readily apparant strategy does not give the game any advantage.

I agree with this so far as it goes, but you’re already getting into trouble using terms like “advantage”. I’ll say more in a second...

Quote:
B) Games with no readily apparant strategies are less fun for newcomers to play, because they will need to play the game several times, basically making random moves, before they understand anything that is going on sufficiently well to have any sort of reason behind their moves.

I agree with this.

Quote:

C) If a game has an element that has no advantages, and that element causes the game to be worse for a subsection of people who play it, then this is a flaw.

Big disagreement here.

First, with the whole concept of “advantage/disadvantage”. The flaw I see in your reasoning is that you appear to be adding an outside constraint on the discussion -- the whole mindset that says “I only have so much gaming time, so which game should I choose to play?” I don’t dispute the sensibility of this mindset, but it has absolutely no bearing on the merit of one specific game. This is my complaint as a designer: I want my games to be evaluated on their merits; is the game fun to play, or not? I understand that you can only play so many games, and my game has to compete with the others for table time, but your unwillingness to understand my game is a problem with you, not with my game (but obviously I should take it into account since you are the customer). I’m basically bothered that the only games deemed meritorious have to appeal to people with little patience and short attention spans.

Second, because I’m looking at the situation from the perspective of having “mastered” a game (or at least understood it). So, let’s say we have two games: Game X, that takes A plays for the strategy to become transparent, and thereafter has a “fun factor” of P, or Game Y, that takes B plays (BB isn’t a “flaw” of any kind in Game X; it’s merely a fact about Game X that should be taken into account when choosing whether to play the game. If one decides that A is too long for one’s patience/interest level, that’s fine; one wouldn’t play X. But you can’t equate that personal preference to a problem with Game X, because X may be a perfectly enjoyable game if you gave it a chance -- the problem is with you, not the game.

So again, I think that trying to talk about which game has an “advantage” is misguided for the purpose of this conversation. Just because one game may be a better fit for your specific group, it doesn’t mean that the other game is “flawed”. Let’s say that I find that Hansa gives the same “fun factor” as Tigris, but plays in half the time in my group. That tells me that I’m more likely to play Hansa, but it doesn’t mean that Tigris is a “flawed” game. In that sense, you’re doing exactly what I object to -- taking your personal preference for “less opaque” games and inflating that to a statement about which game is “better”, when I claim that such an assessment, if possible, can really only be made in the presence of a robust understanding of the game.

Maybe this clears things up. Maybe not.

-Jeff

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