Homesteaders and math

(image by UnknownParkerBrother @ BGG)
Lurking behind most boards games is mathematics. Card and dice games are build around probability, the foundation of many games; others rely on geometry, pattern recognition and complex formulas. Any discussion of balance is really a discussion about the math behind the game.

Some games certainly do a better job than others at hiding its math from players. Reiner Knizia’s Kingdoms is all about addition, subtraction and multiplication while players likely never consider the balance of features on the tiles while playing Carcassonne. I don’t think it is always necessary to disguise math in a game – Kingdoms is a personal favorite. However, math can be problematic when it surfaces as analysis paralysis – a player’s inability to make a decision as they attempt to work out the ideal move. Some players and games are far more prone to analysis paralysis and will often lead to frustration at the table due to downtime for other players and increased game length.

Players in Homesteaders are settling the Western frontier, helping build a new city. A Vegas Showdown/Amun-Re style auction for land grants drives the game and players need to build their economic engine to make bids and gather the resources to construct new buildings. The theme is not exactly pasted on; in fact, auctioning off the land grants zoned for different types of buildings really works well and the different buildings certainly evoke images of the wild west. There’s just little covering up all the math you’ll be doing over the course of your ten turns.

Here’s a quick look at exactly what makes Homesteaders tick:

(image by absurdjohnny @ BGG)

Specialization – I’ve found I am not a fan of games where you need to be a jack-of-all-trades; I much prefer choosing a specialized strategy and making it work (adjusting as need be). Homesteaders has a lot of different buildings that work together in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s not only satisfying to see your buildings work together but to also look around the table and see how your opponents’ strategies and buildings differ. There’s something extremely gratifying about getting money and resources from your buildings, exchanging them at the market and using it all to outbid your opponent and get the building you need when you need it.

Trade chits – There is one resource that everyone needs: trade chits. You may buy and sell goods at the marketplace but each exchange requires you spend one trade chit. They aren’t particularly difficult to acquire but you rarely have quite as many as you’d like. They put a practical limit on how much you can do each turn and also require you really plan out your resources appropriately. Some strategies will rely on these more heavily than others but everyone will find a use for them, especially at the end to make your less valuable goods worth something. It’s a nice implementation of the market concept that I haven’t seen used before.

Components – I love the wooden resources. Steel I-beams, apples for food, wooden planks and the cows are even painted with spots and eyes! The cardboard quality is not as impressive though, especially the auction mat. Everything is cleanly designed, easy to understand and functional if not a bit dull in appearance, especially when compared to the wooden bits. I certainly appreciate the clean design but I’m not sure I would have paid the game much attention had I not played it first.

(image by absurdjohnny @ BGG)
Money is tight – Rarely will you find yourself with too much money; bids are often lost by a single dollar raise. It adds some delicious tension to the bidding portion of the game as you need to heavily weigh how much you can afford to spend just to get a building. Passing is always an option and will net you a small something. Sometimes you are better off passing and setting yourself up for the next turn. Unfortunately this decision making can lead to…

Analysis paralysis – It is very easy to get stuck over-analyzing every choice in Homesteaders. Money and resources are tight and trade chits are limited so you naturally want to maximize each turn. Often you’ll find yourself running through all your options, calculating exactly how much you need to get the building you want and then how much you have leftover to bid with. There’s no limit on how much debt you may take so you also must consider taking debt and then figuring out how or if you can pay it off before the game is over. It’s amazing how often a single dollar raise causes someone to have to sit and reevaluate their turn.

Even though the game can get exceedingly mathy towards the end I’ve really enjoyed Homesteaders. The auction mechanic works well and really forces you to carefully manage your money, especially with debt always an option. Watching your buildings activate every turn and form a strategy is very satisfying but you’ll also look at your opponents and become jealous of how their buildings are working together; before the game is over you will already be thinking about new building combos for the next game. It’s easy to over-analyze the game and get bogged down with analysis paralysis but even then the game will last at maximum a couple of hours, probably less. There’s a lot of great decision making to be made in a relatively short amount of time. I’m especially impressed at how satisfying the economic engine you build is given how few turns there are in the game.

It may look a little unassuming at first glance but Alex Rockwell and Tasty Minstrel Games have crafted one of the most enjoyable Euro-style games I’ve played recently. It packs the depth and decision making of other more complex games into a fast, fun, easy to learn package. Given enough plays I suppose certain building combos may reveal themselves to be more powerful than others, but I think the small amount of randomness combined with the auction mechanic should be more than enough to give the game some serious legs.


(image by ColtsFan76 @ BGG)
Sometimes I hesitate a bit when non-gamers ask me about the games that I play. I’m certainly not embarrassed by the hobby but it can be challenging to explain where the fun is in a game about trading goods in the Mediterranean. I have no doubt the oft-dry themes on designer games are a serious barrier to entry even if a fantastic game lies underneath.

Container is a great example. Here we have a game that essentially emulates the retail chain from manufacturing to consumer. At first glance it looks like ECON 101 but turns out to be one of the most surprisingly enjoyable games I’ve played.

Players compete to have the most money which is earned by producing, purchasing and reselling goods. You may build factories which produce crates of five different types of goods and purchase goods to put up for sale in warehouses, hoping to turn a profit. Then you may load your ship with goods from warehouses and send them to the island where they are sold for hopefully an even larger profit. Finally, your end-game score is the value of the crates you own on the island plus your cash in hand.

On paper Container sounds unbelievably dry. To my surprise the game turned out to be a lot of fun for a few reasons:

(image by Toynan @ BGG)

Simple rule set – Container is one of the easier games to teach. Everyone can quickly understand the concept of producing, buying and reselling goods to turn a profit. The only tricky part is making sure they understand how end-game scoring works but a quick example clears it up. Container’s barrier to entry most certainly is not the rule set.

Limited actions per turn – Each player may only perform two actions per turn. This gives the delicious tension of not always having enough actions to do everything you’d like. On top of that you may purchase as many goods from a single player as you want for a single action. Maximizing actions is important so you may be willing to pay more for a good from another player if they have more available. As a seller, finding the sweet spot between profit margin and exploiting your opponents’ needs is key.

Hidden end game goals – At the start of the game each player is dealt a card showing how much each color of good is worth to them at the end of the game. This represents the supply and demand for their consumers and is going to be different from all other players. In a twist you must try and get a little bit of each good but have the most of your lowest-valued good since you are forced to discard your most populous one (think of it as having saturated the market for that good, rendering it worthless). It ensures demand varies from player to player and if you can figure out what someone needs you can really cash in big.

(image by MikeBwithoutadot @ BGG)
Player run economy – Container’s economy is entirely in the hands of the players. Most money generally changes hands; new money is introduced only when goods are sold at the island via a blind bid. Here the seller earns the highest bid plus an equal amount from the bank in government subsidy. It takes a few turns of producing, buying and reselling goods before ane island so it is quite possible for everyone to spend themselves dry, grinding the economy to a standstill. On the other hand if people grossly overbid during island auctions it adds a massive influx of cash to the economy. Each game seems to play out differently due to how players approach the game and forces you to read your yone ships to thopponents and follow the flow.

Container really surprised me. I really thought it looked like it would be an incredibly dry economic game but it has good “gamey” elements while keeping control completely in the players’ hands. You can go into each game with a general strategy and do well but you also need to be reactive to how the game plays out. There are a couple of small issues with the game, though:

Components – Bad components can really hurt an otherwise good game and Container suffers a bit. I like the ships and the container bits but the colors are atrocious. There is not enough contrast between the crates and it can be really difficult to tell them apart across the table. Even worse the player mats and ship colors don’t even come close to matching, especially white and blue. It really takes away from an otherwise good looking game and constantly confusing colors can make for a frustrating gaming experience.

(image by Raid1280 @ BGG)

Nickel and dimed – Container can feel like a game of pennies. You have a small range of values to select from when pricing your goods; margins will be tight but will add up over time. Once you settle in on a basic strategy you’ll spend most of the game iterating on it. Your small doses of income can make it really difficult to get a feel for your progress compared to others at the table. As such some players may feel like they really didn’t do much over the course of the game. Timing is also crucial and if your timing is poor you will miss out on your money-making opportunities. It is very possible for a player to completely doom themselves if they are not paying attention.

If you can deal with the color problems and incremental gameplay, Container has a lot to offer. The rules are incredibly simple and trying to work out your strategy, pricing and timing of purchases and sales is great fun. Container’s player-driven economy is really what makes the game tick and gives it a different feel every time, forcing you to adapt. It does not generate the excitement and thrills other games deliver but is one of my favorite economic games.

Vegas Showdown

(image courtesy Shadowen @ BGG)
I’ve previously talked about Nexus Ops, an Avalon Hill game that should not be judged by its cover art. Clearly Avalon Hill needs some new artists because Vegas Showdown falls into that exact same category. The box and even the components are very lackluster but the game itself turned out to be a real surprise.

Vegas Showdown is a game of making the best hotel/casino possible. You will be bidding against other players for new rooms to place in your building. These rooms bring in more income, allow for more guests and ultimately earn you points. Each turn some new rooms get placed out if the bidding table has open spots, players earn income and take turns bidding on the rooms up on the auction block. Winner pays for their new building tile, places it on their building mat and play continues until one of the stacks of buildings is exhausted or one player completely fills up their building.

(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

The auction system in Vegas Showdown is extremely simple. There are bidding tracks next to each tile that is up for sale. On your turn you place your bidding token on one of those tracks. If someone else is already on a track you must outbid them and they get their piece back to rebid when their turn comes around. Once everyone has placed their bid token you pay for your tiles, place them, adjust your income/capacity/victory points accordingly and do it all over again.

That’s pretty much Vegas Showdown. It really is that simple. There’s a pretty healthy dose of luck as to which tiles get turned over and what special effects kick in when new tiles are revealed but the player that paces their purchases and picks up the right tiles at the right time will certainly do well. Unpurchased rooms drop in price each round so there’s also decisions to make on how long you wait for something to drop in price before jumping on it. What really impresses me is that I’ve seen people win using very different strategies. Some of the rooms may only be placed if you have the prerequisite room and the quantities are limited so you also have to decide which rooms you really want to battle over.

(image courtesy ronster0 @ BGG)
What impresses me most is that there are several different paths to victory. You might shoot for the very nice rare rooms, build out lots of smaller rooms, focus on rooms that nicely fill out your building mat or just go for the really good deals. The rules are very simple – you can likely explain the entire game in under five minutes – meaning you can dive right in and the fun is immediately apparent. There’s enough depth to the game and interesting decisions to be made, though, so the game feels interesting every time. Placing rooms in your building also has a very nice puzzle aspect as you try and maximize your available building spots and points earned.

If you do pick up Vegas Showdown, be sure to have a set of poker chips handy. The game does technically come with chips to represent the players’ money but they are really cheap, thin plastic chips. Using a nice set of weighted poker chips goes a long ways towards adding to the Vegas feel of the game and just makes the game more enjoyable. Unfortunately the other components are on the cheap side as well: player mats are glossy paper instead of boards and minimum bid discs tokens are small red discs that slide around too easily.

I’d love to see a premium version of Vegas Showdown released sometime with upgraded components. The game is well worthy of a re-release and deserves the royal treatment. If you can find a copy, be sure to pick it up. You won’t be disappointed.