One is co-designed by a longtime TWBG member. One has dogs in hats. One is a Knizia classic. All are excellent.
Trade on the Tigris
Here's the pitch - the brilliant trading mechanisms from Tresham's Civilization, but that's the game. You down? I sure am, because this Geoff Englestein/Ryan Sturm design from Tasty Minstrel is an excellent, highly interactive game with some very cool concepts and more nastiness than some of today's gamers might be willing to tolerate.
Although true, the pitch is selling this game a little short, because there is a really solid and really kind of avant-garde civilization game here. It ain't 4x, there's no map, no armies, and no tech tree. Quit crying. There's something much more compelling here thematically, as it is really about how trade between civilizations results in the exchange of cultural, religious, and political ideas. This concept also informs the production of the game, which establishes the titular Tigris as a scale between Democracy and Dictatorship and between the worship of Marduk and Ashur. Moving your market along these paradigms is how the game models development and progress - or, in fact, regression. The further along you are on a track, the more advanced Religion and Government development cards for both are available. Should you reach the extreme end of one of the tracks, your civilization's extremist tendencies force you to return to drawing your development from the first stack again. This is a really cool idea.
But the trading is really the core gameplay here. Each turn, you produce trade good cards based on what you have in your tableau. If you have certain developments, you might produce desirable Imported Goods. With your production in hand, the game enters a timed five minute trading session where a lively, sometimes chaotic open market finds all players exchanging cards to try to gain like sets, which in turn earn Point Tokens in the subsequent Mercantile phase. These win the game, so the onus is on you to build large sets by shrewd trading.
Now, here's where it gets ugly. The rules specifically include the words "you may lie". Civilization had that wonderful bit of nastiness where you could offer a trade to someone and - hey, how'd that get in there - you'd secretly hand them a disaster card in their part of the deal. In Trade on the Tigris, this concept is expanded. Cards may have Barbarian icons- if you have the most of these during the Civic Phase, you lose points. Or, you may have cards that have Culture symbols- getting these is good, and having the most in your lot at the end of trading can give you a Golden Age bonus. But more significantly, the Trade Good cards have symbols on them that bump markers around on the Government and Religion tracks, and you may not want this to happen. Or someone may want it to happen to you. Alternately, part of trade may be cards that you want to move you in one way or another. Either way, you have to be honest about the actual goods you are trading...the rest, well, it's up to you if you don't want to tell them that you are handing them cards with five barbarians on them.
By the end of the game, players will have a big tableau of development cards and be somewhere along the two tracks, with points for position awarded. Make it to the end without hitting the extremist penalty and you get the big 15 point prize for the track. It's pretty tough to do, especially when there are five others at the table that are trying to pull your marker away from it. But you've got to trade to win, and you can't produce what you need alone. You've got to take the risks, establish relationships, develop a reputation, and form alliances of convenience to get what you need. All while the codependent nature of the game pushes and pulls you in sometimes unexpected ways.
This is an excellent, exciting, and sometimes raucous game that should appeal to fans of more active, social trading games, whether that means Pit or Bohnanza or of course Civilization. That's a pretty broad range of examples, but this is where the DNA leads. Even though it is a very modern, very on-trend tableau builder it also feels quite atavistic- most designers today are, to be quite blunt, afraid of games that allow this much player-driven volatility into their designs.
Frankly, all Forbidden Games had to do was say "Hey Barnes, we've got a simple economic game with market speculation and paper money...oh, and it's all animals instead of people" and they would already be in the three star review range. Hot on the heels of last year's Glenn Drover design Railroad Rivals, Raccoon Tycoon is another Drover design with a similar weight and depth - but I think it's a better, more interesting game. And not just because I love raccoons, which are all over this thing as you might guess from the title.
The charming, Wind in the Willows-like setting isn't specifically integral to the themes or mechanisms at play here, but as a differentiator and a hook it's powerful stuff. It may even be enough to get those adverse to business games to take a look. Once they get inside, what they are going to find is a very well done example of this genre that doesn't quite feel like anything else in its class. Much like Railroad Rivals, there's a classical sensibility to it that makes it feel closer to an old 3M game- something that those who even know what that means these days might find delightful.
The concept is that each player is an aspiring Tycoon in a land called Astoria. Starting out by speculating on commodities- buying low and selling high, ideally- the goal is to reinvest the capital earned in the commodities market in railroad companies and towns. It's not a "most money" victory condition; it's about acquiring these scoring cards.
The core mechanism is manipulating the price of the six commodities. Two of the six actions that you can choose from on your turn are associated with these markets. By playing a Price & Production card from your hand, you both take three tokens of the pictured commodities on it in the top half and then adjust the prices up on the markets pictured in the bottom half. So getting what you want isn't guaranteed, and taking what you want might result in undesirable effects on prices if you find yourself pushing the prices up on goods you aren't carrying.
But when you like the price you are seeing and are ready to sell, you can choose to Sell a commodity back to the market, gaining the current price for it and then reducing the price one notch on the charts for each token that you cash in. This is all a really simple, effective market system that at a very high level incorporates stockpiling, bear and bull markets, shortages, monopolies, and other simple economic themes. There's a bit of fun brinksmanship involved when two or more players have invested in a commodity- who's going to blink first and sell for the maximum value, and who is going to be left holding product that has suddenly become worth a fraction of it what it was going for a few turns ago?
So all of the above defines the way you make all that glorious paper money in the game, and this is how you spend it. You can turn that cash into building tiles, which offer various bonuses such as automatically producing certain types of commodities, reducing costs, or providing bonus points at the end of the game. Or, you can open an auction for one of two displayed Railroad cards. These score points at the end of the game, the amount awarded increases along a schedule as you collect multiple cards for the same company. These means that players will often be in close competition to win the cards they need to exponentially increase their scores.
But you can also use the commodities that you've gathered to found and supply Towns rather than selling them at a profit. One Town card is always on display, and buying it requires two different types of resources in quantity. These give points as well as a bonus if you can pair a town with a Railroad at the end of the game, incentivizing municipal development.
Overall, I really enjoy Raccoon Tycoon- it's the kind of highly focused, streamlined game I really like and even though I'm hardly a capitalist IRL, I love games that have actual economies as opposed to simple resource conversions. I especially enjoy watching the market fluctuations and the risk of holding out for a higher price - but I love the crestfallen feeling you get when someone beats you to the sale. I like that there are six commodities going on, which gives everyone a few options to pursue. I'm also especially fond of the bifurcated nature of this design, which splits your time between the money-making and using that money to invest in holdings that earn points.
The demerit is that with less than four, some of the volatility on the market and the auction challenges are naturally diminished. It's rated for two to five, but I think you really want to get five tabled with this. The problem there, however, is I think the game runs a little long with five. As it rounds the corner to the endgame, a sense of repetition becomes a little too apparent for my taste.
But hey- this is a game with bowler hat-wearing dogs and that lovely, lovely paper money. So far, I've liked what Forbidden Games has to offer and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more from them and Mr. Drover. I think he's found a new beat with accessible, very direct economic games.
One of my most anticipated games of last year was Grail Games' reprint of Stephenson's Rocket, one of the few "golden age" Knizia titles I had never played. It's one that has sort of an odd reputation and somewhat mixed sentiments, falling short in the public eye of some of the top Knizia designs of this era. But I mean, come on. In 1999, the Great Man put out Ra and Lost Cities practically as a victory lap after a mid-1990s run that included Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Desert, and Samurai. Not to mention the mountain of other titles he produced practically yearly back then. So this was one of the rare big-box games that kind of fell through the cracks- which is a little odd, as it fits in quite nicely with the 1997-1998 "tile laying trilogy" as well as his Acquire-like Rheinlander, also published in 1999.
Now, as I've stated in the past, one of the things I like most about Dr. Knizia is that like an artist or musician, he often returns to concepts to reiterate, reinvent, or re-contextualize them. This is one of the qualities that make him our greatest living game designer, and in fact I believe that you can trace the origins of his ideas from inception to fruition or mutation is the signifier of a true auteur. What's more, something I love about his work is that he will often take a game concept, theme, or setting and make it a Knizia game.
Stephenson's Rocket fits in squarely with both of these auteur tendencies. It's easy to see the route-building between scoring loci as a descendant of Through the Desert, for example. Or the control concepts of Samurai, or the Acquire-like consumption of aggregate bodies of played tiles- these things are all in Stephenson's Rocket as well. But what is especially interesting is that this design is essentially "Reiner Knizia does an 18xx game".
Now that is a supremely loaded statement, especially because the good Doctor has here taken out a scalpel and cut that genre down to a lean model that may be too abstracted for hardcore train gamers. But despite the fine lines, the stockholding element is here, with players vying for control over six rail lines. Anyone can extend a rail company's track, but whoever has the most shares in that company has a Veto power they bid their shares on to make sure that a rail goes the way they want it to- most desirably toward another player's Station so they can pick up a Passenger or toward a City where they've invested in its industries. There are points to be scored for running track to Cities as well as Towns.
And of course, there are mergers. When two lines meet, one of the railroads is devoured and becomes part of the acquiring company with share payouts based on the locations connected to the route. Shareholders in the dissolved line trade two-to-one for stock in the surviving business. Sounds like Acquire, right? And I'm sure the aggressive tile-laying of Tigris & Euphrates also springs to mind for many readers.
There's no money. This is all done for Prestige Points. And every mechanism - from the industrial investment to the track building to establishing stations - is all streamlined down to a "take two actions per turn" scheme, which creates of course that classic Knizia feeling of needing to do five things more than the they two you've chosen.
This is a great game, but it is also I think more of a connoisseur's game if I may risk sounding elitist. I don't think it is the first or second or even third Knizia game I would introduce someone to and I would go so far as to say that you almost kind of need to play some of his more seminal, well-trafficked designs to appreciate how he has deployed his motifs and design idioms to a seemingly incongruous and typically more complex kind of game. It's sort of like when Bowie got interested in jungle and wrote "Little Wonder", making it absolutely a Bowie song. Knizia does that here with the train game.
Grail Games' production is exceptional, some have grumbled about the board but I like that it is big and has all of the industry and share information cleanly presented. It's a more colorful, approachable look for the game than the original edition offered, which looked pretty much exactly like what you would think a 1999 game about 1800s-era locomotives in England would like (read: droll and dreary). I was a big fan of their reprint of Medici and last year's Yellow and Yangtze was also well-appointed, so I'd love to see this Australian outfit bring back some other classic - and more obscure - Knizia titles.