Firefly: the game

fireflyI found Firefly spectacularly disappointing.  It’s a game which epitomises the idea that complexity and depth are definitely not the same thing.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing it – I did.  In a similar way to the way I enjoy eating a bag of crisps or a giant chocolate dessert – the taste is quite nice, but halfway through I start feeling a little gross, and afterwards I realise that what I just did was actively bad for my health…

So, the good bits:

Component quality.  The components in Firefly are pretty solid; the minis, the cards, the cash, the dice, and the board are all well-turned out and agreeably presented.  The chits for fuel/passengers/parts are a bit wanting though.  And you can tell that a lot of work has gone into the art and the graphic design, it has a lot of great little details to notice, more if you happen to read (I think it’s) Mandarin.

Theme.  You definitely can’t fault it (much) for theme.  It ticks all of the Firefly boxes well, for the most part, and includes all of the in-jokes from the ‘verse that a dedicated fan could wish for.

Play time.  It’s at least short enough to play in an evening, or at least, it has been on the occasions we’ve tried it (and I’ve heard criticism that it can really drag, which given the randomness of it doesn’t surprise me).  But I couldn’t help but feel that just… watching the show… would have been a better way to spend the time.

Aaaand the bad:

Endless, unplannable, mostly uncontrollable randomness.  Everything in this game is drawn from one of no fewer than THIRTEEN random decks (though you can choose from visible discards when shopping for goods/crew or missions, they’re usually discards for a reason; very rarely will anything worth having end up in discards for long) or rolled for with random dice, or both.  It makes the whole game feel extremely arbitrary to me – which is fine if what you want to do is shoot the shit in a Firefly-themed pseudo-RPG for an hour or two and not care how well you actually do.  But when you want to… win… it becomes next to impossible to actively do anything to improve your chances other than trust to luck.  You can’t improve your likelihood of drawing the right cards (unless, as noted, you are lucky enough to get something good in discards), you can’t improve your likelihood of arbitrarily bypassing misbehaves or missions with keywords except by randomly accumulating more of them and hoping for the right draws.  Worse, on many of the win conditions, if someone gets lucky and gets ahead it’s functionally impossible to claw them back unless they happen to randomly lose (mostly by drawing and/or rolling badly, though I gather one of the expansions does go some way to fix this… by adding PvP which is something I dislike). It also has a major mechanical issue in that not being able to repeat the same action twice in a turn means you can easily find yourself in the annoying position of having to waste your second action – in a game where you might only get single digit numbers of turns and only double the number of actions – because, of course, of randomly failing a thing (usually a misbehave, sometimes a travel or shopping attempt leading to the wrong thing) which is super-painful because it’s half your entire turn you can’t do anything with.  It feels really anticlimactic to just… try, and fail, with no control and no recourse.  It feels especially irritating to botch a mission.  Doubly so when you flew halfway across the system to pick up the mission, then flew most of the way back to attempt it.  Then failed irretrievably in a manner over which you had no control.

As noted above, this is a prime example of the adage that complexity isn’t the same as depth.  There are, as noted, no fewer than thirteen decks of random, unique cards, which you more-or-less randomly might need to access, and might be able to access depending on how some other cards randomly screw or help you when travelling or attempting to do jobs or shopping.  Some of these decks randomly interact, so a bit of luck getting a keyword out of one of them will give you a free pass on one card in another, but you have no way of easily controlling access to that free pass, nor of drawing the specific, unique cards it works on.  So as a result, it’s a very complex game; most components are unique, things interact in a lot of fiddly, unpredictable ways.  But because they’re unpredictable and random, there’s no way to plan for them or optimise them unless luck is in your favour, so it feels shallow, like a complicated game of snakes and ladders with better theme.  There’s nothing for the engine-optimiser in me to enjoy, at all.  It’s nice when a combo comes together, but not satisfying in the same way it is in Dominion or Dungeon Lords or Caverna, because you’re not in control of whether it works, and you haven’t taken positive actions to make it work.

Oddly, I’m going to put theme in here as well.  The theme is good and the cards are well-designed and have nice quotations from the show and a LOT of well-thought-out little details in their artwork, but there are a lot of thematic issues for such a thematic game: It’s weird that all the ships are Fireflies, despite Serenity being the only Firefly that actually appears in the show.  Albeit it’s implied in the show and stated in the expanded ‘verse that they’re fairly common ships, I’d really expect to see some other models on show, and they might add a little to the tactical elements of the game if you could choose between a fast light ship with little room, and a large slow ship with a tonne of space, for instance.  It’s weird that half the captains featured… weren’t captains, and quite a lot of the characters and items don’t really have any business being put into spaceships, let alone spaceships doing mercenary work and/or trading and/or crime (a lot of the items and crew are people/belong specifically to people who were firmly planet-bound in the show).  And things like Jayne’s hat and Kaylee’s dress showing up are completely meaningless to the wider ‘verse, though they’re instantly recognisable to fans, and add to the slightly… desperate feel of the theme; the writers seem required to include every single little thing from the show in the game, rather than designing a strong game that happens to be set in the ‘verse.  And it’s very weird that at least two of the captains (neither of whom were ship captains in the show) were dead before the end of the first (and of course, only) season, and never went into space that we knew of except as passengers.  It’s weird how easy it is to steal other captains’ crew when they’re disgruntled, despite the fact that family, and trust, and not screwing over your crew at a moment’s notice were core themes in the show.  It’s weird that you CAN freely trade crew during burn movement in empty space when you’re going in opposite directions (if I work, burn, then burn, work on two subsequent turns, and someone else does the same in the opposite direction, we can trade crew and things, despite us travelling at full pelt in opposite directions.  Accelerating and decelerating are THE most expensive things to do in space…  And I know, I’m very much of the opinion that games which ignore realism in favour of mechanics should be lauded, but… the freeness with which disgruntled crew can be bought is just another point where the randomness of failure within the game is problematic, because disgruntling is easy, re-gruntling is hard (and usually takes place in a different location), and losing the crew you’ve put a tonne of work into gaining is both easy and almost impossible to avoid if you’re unlucky enough to get them grumpy, so in this case this is managing to be both thematically AND mechanically bad!  So the theme, whilst it’s strong, feels tacked-on and ill-thought-out in places.  And at the same time, the theme is almost nonexistent in most of the missions – they’re frequently ‘got to $planet and misbehave to win’ regardless of what the flavour of the mission actually is.  Which often leads to the misbehaving being entirely irrelevant to the purported theme of the mission (because misbehaving, of course, involves doing a random thing drawn from a random deck, then rolling random dice to see how well you do), so you might find yourself trying to deliver a VIP to a planet and… getting into a bar fight.  Or having to break into a building.  And having a sniper rifle-wielding crewman make it easier.  Or a case of explosives.  Or a fancy hat.

Win conditions.  I found it really off-putting when halfway through my first play of the game having mostly enjoyed meandering around the board trading and doing merc work and missions and misadventures a fair amount, I realised that I was irretrievably in second place, and unless the person in the lead got unlucky, I had no way to catch up.  I really didn’t like the feeling that the game was punishing me for enjoying it and not really paying attention to the entirely arbitrary win condition – though, on the other hand, I had been paying at least some attention to the condition, and working as fast as I could to fulfil it whilst making sure I had a decent chance at success if I did, but I was still at least a turn behind the winner.  It felt a lot like it needed multiple win conditions, or a single generic endpoint condition (maybe that might be ‘someone fulfils the win condition’) with ‘most money/missions/points/rep/some combination of the above’ then deciding the victor afterwards.  It felt like despite having been fairly successful in the end at space trading and mercenarying, I still hadn’t actually succeeded at the game, which was disappointing, and the people who came in third and fourth were still further behind.

Basically, the question I found myself quickly asking after playing it, was ‘if it wasn’t for this being Firefly, if it was just a generic space or even high seas trading/piracy game… would I have actually enjoyed it?’.  The answer I quickly came to was ‘no, I wouldn’t’.  Even the funniest bits of the games we’ve played (such as completing a mission to blow up a party on Niska’s space base then immediately going and picking up a new mission FROM Niska in the same turn) were only really funny because of the references to the show.  If instead of Niska it had been ‘generic space mafia dude’ it would have been a lot less amusing.  It could be house-ruled to be better for me, but it would more or less involve rewriting the game to have stronger, more carefully balanced mechanics and dramatically fewer and less-mixed card decks and die rolls, less-random win conditions, and probably multiple possible win conditions so that there’s some semblance of chance for people who are behind, to actually work positively towards winning.  And when you’re basically reconstructing the game from the ground up… why not just play something better, then watch the show afterwards?  Although having a genuinely GOOD space-trading game would be lovely, because there really aren’t that many, and those there are are generally very flawed in one way or another, and I really like scifi games.

So, if what you want is to shoot the shit and reminisce about the show for a couple of hours, and for some reason you don’t want to just… watch the DVDs… this game might be worth the cost.  It’s not without its charms in that situation.  If, however, what you want is a balanced, mechanically strong, optimisable space trading/mercenarying game, look elsewhere, and don’t even glance at this.  It’s really not a well-designed game from that perspective.  I’d probably play it again but I would have to make a conscious effort to avoid thinking too hard about playing well or to win.  So for me, it rates no more than a 4 out of 10.

Or, to put it another way… why was I playing this theme-heavy mechanics-light super-random game when my preference is almost the exact opposite? (spoiler: because one of my group bought it and wanted to try it out)

Tzolk’in – the Mayan Calendar

I can’t get enough of Tzolk’in.tzolkin

Wait, you want more of a review than that?  But I’m in the middle of a game on BGA.

*30 minutes pass*

OK, fine.  Here goes.

Tzolk’in, by Czech Games Edition, grabbed me when I first saw it.  The ‘it has GEARS’ factor was a strong driver for me to try it out.  I knew nothing else about it other than that it has gears.  That appealed to the engineer in me, as well as the model/miniature painter, though I don’t yet own my own copy so I’ve not painted the gears yet.

Tzolk’in has not let go.  From the first play I saw the huge potential it holds for interesting strategic and tactical decision making, for the sort of action and engine optimisation that really appeal to me as a gamer one who was brought into this hobby via the unrelentingly addictive crack that is Dominion, and for nail-bitingly hard moments of critical importance.

So, it’s a worker placement game, which is a big box ticked for me.  Its theme is reasonably strong, from what little I know of the Mayans.  It has cool, well-made, high-quality components.

Speed – even playing a slow, rambly, somewhat poorly-explained (by me) learning game, my notoriously slow group got done in an evening.  Once we all know what we’re doing, the 90 minute on-the-box play time seems plausible, which is very rare for us.  We usually estimate between 1.5 and 2 times the normal play time.  It’s also a very quick game to set up, which helps it a lot (get the board out, shuffle and deal buildings, monuments, start tiles, pile up resources, done).  Online, it’s even quicker, with a two player game on BGA taking less than an 45 minutes in most cases.

Limited bookkeeping – because the accumulations of stuff are handled by the cogs pulling the workers up to higher spaces, rather than by needing the players to restock the board as in Agricola, Caverna, Le Havre, or many other similar WP and bidding games, the game mostly takes care of the bookkeeping by itself.  It adds to the speed of play significantly, and limits mistakes in accumulation.

But the real reason I like it is that I can see where I’m going wrong, when I’m going wrong, and find out where I could have done better; there’s always room to improve even when I’ve won.  Could I have got that building earlier, could I have stopped my opponents from getting that crucial monument, could I have picked up more of those cool crystal skulls somehow…?

On to the issues… the base game is perhaps a little unbalanced, with one particularly strong strategy being basically mandatory in two player against high skill level opponents – but the expansion goes some way towards fixing this issue.  It’s also perhaps a little samey after a few replays – but again, the expansion helps there.  The tribes add a lot of variety, and the prophecies add even more, albeit reasonably balanced, difficulty, plus a fifth player which is often very useful for my gaming group, good 5-player games we all like being somewhat few and far between.

First player advantage (and correspondingly, the potential for last player disadvantage) is a real problem.  To the point where the first player, unless they get a very specific and VERY good set of starting tiles, or in a two or three player game, the dummy players are located awkwardly, with basically always open with the same placements (0,1,2 on the Uxmal cog) as a very strong opening.  And similarly, the fourth player in a four player game has the potential to start off unable to place workers anywhere useful, which can really throw off the rhythm for the whole game, since this is a game about building synergies and momentum and rhythm.  It took playing it in person for me to notice this, though (I started online) and I’m still not 100% convinced that it’s a problem that needs a mechanical fix, although one does stand out (giving the last, or possibly 3rd and 4th, players some extra corn, or maybe just picking and revealing starting tiles in turn order).  But as it stands, it is potentially an issue.

Its biggest issue, to my mind, is its difficulty curve – or should that be mountain?  My first few plays on BGA were just DIRE.  It took a long time and not a little research to grasp the long-term strategies available in the game, and a lot more practice to get to be any good at even one of them – and I’m still not even approaching high levels at the most important two-player strategy.  I think without having done that research and being able to practice online, I might just have abandoned it.  Let’s not mince words; this game is hard.  It’s got a relatively short timeframe, with relatively limited numbers of actions available, and even more limited options on a turn-by-turn basis due to the pull-or-place mechanic, plus several points of critical long-term decision-making which take serious thinking to understand what resources are needed, especially when using the corn:resources trade action.  And unusually, and perhaps its biggest selling feature for me, is that it has a rhythm to it, it almost has a heartbeat.  That’s perhaps what’s most difficult about it, really grokking that rhythm.

It also helps a lot that it has online implementations.  BGA is good for live play, whilst BAJ is great for asynchronous play.  Both have their strengths, but add to the stable of games which I’m very impressed that CGE have made available for free online.

So… stick with Tzolk’in.  Even past its gimmick, it’s a very strong worker placement game, with a unique, interesting mechanic backing it up.  Once you get into the swing, once you get the rhythm, once you find its heartbeat… it can really start clicking.  A hearty 8 pyramids out of 10, unless I anger the gods this time round once too often!

*tabs over to BGA*

Hanabi

HanabiHanabi is a beautiful little game; its incredibly simple gameplay leads to high quality and good replayability, and bedevillingly, bafflingly deep levels of skill and player involvement.  It’s a perfect example of how very simple rules can lead to emergent complexities.  The first play seems very straightforward, almost easy – I just have to tell my compatriots what to play or discard, how’s that hard?  And then you score 17 or 18 and realise that the trick is to give information-rich clues that allow multiple discards or ideally multiple plays with one clue.  And then you realise that every clue has not only positive information, but negative information as well – if that’s a 1, that means these aren’t… And then you realise that cards age in your hand, and the longer you’ve had something the more likely it is to be useless.  And then you realise that you might be able to give a clue to someone two seats away on the table that allows the person in between to play as well… the list is near-endless.  And then, once you’ve got all that and can routinely score high… you add the multi-coloured suit.  We haven’t gotten to that stage yet…

There are a few issues though: firstly, rules inconsistency – some versions, including the original, allow the giving of 0-thing clues (i.e. you have no 5s) whilst others don’t.  I like the ability; it adds to strategic depth without making the game significantly easier, but it’s potentially a problem if you’ve learned at one table and try to play at another, and it’s a really strange thing to change when doing a translation.

Secondly, components – it feels like a game that desperately needs card racks, which you can get in some deluxe versions, but I think they ought to be included in all of them.  We use the ones from Hab und Gut, so we didn’t need them, but it feels like a real missing element in the game, when you can’t put your hand of cards down between turns, because everyone else needs to see them but you don’t.

Thirdly, a more subtle one: this is a game that gets deeper and more interesting the more you play it, but at the same time has a strong potential to get less enjoyable the more you play it with the same group – because you wind up coming closer and closer to developing outright Bridge-style artificial conventions, wherein saying one thing means something completely different, agreed in advance, or where how you give a clue implies something (if I say ‘this this and this are 3s, it means they’re all playable, whereas if I say ‘these are all threes’ it means you can get rid of them, for instance), or where you assume a discard order from the start even before any information has been given.  These seem outside the spirit of the rules and get more and more difficult to avoid doing the more you play with the same group, because inevitably you discuss your score and your performance and way to improve.  For instance, one of my group adamantly maintains that ‘you have no 5s’ means you don’t have anything playable, purely by logical deduction; I just don’t see that, I can think of a bunch of situations where ‘you have no 5s’ would mean something else, mostly depending on them having previously been given other information.  There’s a simple test for them, I sometimes think – if you’d never played with someone before, could they understand your conventions without you explaining them – are they logically deducible from the game state, or not?  But, this causes issues in itself, because some things are logically deducible from the game state, but it’s highly unlikely that a new player would grasp them without explanation, so maybe it has to be someone who’s played a decent amount, but then, they’re much more likely to know some of the more logical near-conventions that feel uncomfortable.  It’s a difficult problem to work around.

But not too difficult for me.  I really like this game, I love how quick it is, how cerebral it is, and how animated it makes everyone in the group, especially when it’s all crashing down around our ears because someone forgot something, or someone said or did something they shouldn’t have and gave something extra away by accident.  I enjoy co-ops, which certainly helps.  And what I really like is that it really inspired me to think about what else mechanics like this could do – the hidden information mechanic really feels like it would lend itself to a mystery or whodunnit style game, it makes me feel like I’m a detective using incomplete information to deduce who killed Colonel Mustard; equally it feels like it could be some sort of Lovecraftian eldritch thing trying to build elder signs to summon Cthulhu.  It has a lot of potential.  Plus, it’s small enough to toss in a backpack, but long and re-playable enough to last in that context. Heartily recommended.  Eight fireworks out of ten.