Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Witch's Brew

Most people are familiar with the game "rock-paper-scissors." Certainly it's not the most fascinating way to spend one's time, but it is a useful method for deciding something arbitrarily on the playground, like who gets to play first base or who has to sneak up and depants Jay Durham in front of the girls. Gamers call this "simultaneous action selection," and it's a mechanism that is often used to drive what happens in a game. It allows there to be uncertainty and surprise, but with a bit more player involvement than just the rolling of dice. Ideally, the various possible outcomes will be more interesting than the all-or-nothing nature of rock-paper-scissors, and ideally players will have different goals and motivations that must be deduced. If players can make educated guesses as to what the other people at the table want to have happen, there can also be a fun/agonizing element of second guessing: if so-and-so knows that I want to do X, shouldn't I surprise him by doing Y instead? But won't he know that I know that he knows that I want to do X, and so block that move instead? But in that case I could go ahead and do X with impunity! Or...or...or....

Many well-known board games have utilized this mechanism to good effect, including Adel Verpflichtet, originally published in Germany in 1990 and later published in English as By Hook or By Crook and Hoity Toity; Roborally, published in 1994; and the classic Diplomacy, published way back in 1959. Adel Verpflichtet is an interesting case because it is a relatively abstract game and yet there is a wide variety of possible outcomes depending on the choices that the players make; players can exhibit collections of Meerschaum pipes and advertising placards for points, they can try to steal objets d'art from other player's collections, they can set a detective to catch thieves, et cetera.

Last night at Matt L.'s Tuesday night game group I got to play a brand-new game which utilizes this mechanism, namely Witch's Brew, published by Rio Grande Games here in the U.S. In the game players are trying to brew up various sinister potions and vile tinctures to score points, and there are many different ways to accomplish this goal: there are bubbling cauldrons, eldritch incantations, and mysterious alchemical procedures. If all else fails, you can just beg and steal.

What's interesting about Witch's Brew is that instead of players revealing their choices simultaneously, there is a turn order element. Players each have identical hands of twelve role cards, and each round they choose five of these that they are going to play. The player who "leads" will lay down one of the role cards, which might say something like "I am the alchemist!" Going around the table, any other player who has the alchemist card in their hand can say "no, I am the alchemist"—and, at their discretion, some epithet like "punk" or "sucka." The last person to play the alchemist card gets to take the role and all the other pretenders get bupkes... except every player with an alchemist card after the first has the option of playing conservatively and saying "so be it!" In this case they bow out of the fight and accept a lesser reward, but one which is still better than nothing. In these instances is it usually not appropriate to say "punk" or "sucka."

Mark, Donna, Alan and I played a four-player game, and we had a pretty good time with it. Early on Mark was a thorn in my side, always choosing the same cards as I did and one-upping me, but his luck soon changed and he found himself poorly prepared to perpetrate potions. Alan's performance, I regret to say, was somewhere between hapless and disastrous. It was like watching a freight train go off the rails, tumble down a hillside, crash into a molasses factory, continue on through a large, dirty hen house, and finally come to rest, steaming and defiled, in the middle of some Main Street just at the moment that a parade was scheduled to pass through. If you want you can pause in your reading and take a few moments to close your eyes and picture all that in detail. Don't forget to include a group of teenage girls dressed in majorette uniforms huddled in a group and saying "ewwwww" for maximum embarrassment.

My potion-brewing abilities, however, were simply astounding, dare I say breathtaking. Donna made a game attempt to outpace my juggernaut-like success, but I spanked her down as I would any impudent pup. Can you overmatch perfection? Can you defeat destiny? No, you cannot, Donna. Not even hardly.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I lucked into the win.

And, to be sure, there is a fair amount of luck involved in the game, though smartness and savvy play a part as well. Moreover, even if the game is not a pure strategic contest of wits, it makes up for this by providing a lot of opportunity for groaning and cheering and all other manner of carryings-on. In fact, afterwards the other table informed us that we were behaving very noisily. We blamed it all on Alan.

1 comment:

frunk said...

Just noticed your Blog Joe. Good to see you posting, even if you do show up too infrequently to gamenights.