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Monday, September 19, 2005

Wei-Hwa's take on New England

One of my gaming groups played New England quite a bit when it came out. Part of the reason was that it was one of the few Eurogames that one picky member of the group (I'll call him Jim) would actually play (Jim prefers trick-taking games and two-player abstracts). Throughout the sessions, we got to be pretty good at the game, especially Jim.

I think the main reason that the game feels boring to some is that unlike a lot of other growth strategy games, the growth in NE is linear instead of quadratic. What I mean by that is that every turn, the number of resources you get is about the same; you don't get twice as much stuff because you have twice as much stuff. (Compare with a game like Settlers of Catan, where someone with twice as many settlements tends to gets twice as many goods.) There's no feeling
of a "snowball effect" where you get bigger and bigger and feel like you can take over the whole
world if only the game wasn't ending.

Another factor is that the scoring is so balanced that the optimizations you make have a very teeny tiny effect on the final results. Let me do some number crunching to demonstrate this.

Let's suppose you're playing a "domino" 3VP card. It will cost you 2 actions to get the land, then 1 to get the card. 3 actions to get 3VP = average 1VP per action.

Next, let's suppose you're playing a "triomino" 6VP card. 3 actions for the land, then 1 for the card. 4 actions, 6VP = 1.5VP per action.

Finally, the red "2x2" 10VP card works out to be 5 actions for 10VPs = 2VP per action.

So, obviously the last one is a better deal, right? Ah, but we're forgetting that the players start with a "free" domino tile in each color! If we figure those in, then we have:

1 action to get 3VP = average 3VP per action
2 actions to get 6VP = average 3VP per action
3 actions to get 10VP = average 3.33VP per action

These are very nearly identical! What does this all mean? This means that early on in the game, players are all getting VPs at approximately the same rate (as long as they're all getting actions they can use). It isn't until most of the initial bonuses are spent that the disparaties between the different strategies start making a strong difference in the score -- and even then we're talking something like 0.5VPs per action here. That means a good player is gaining on the medium-strength player something like only 1VP per turn, which sure doesn't feel like much. Not to mention that the player going for the 10VP card might be getting a better payoff, but only if they manage to do it before the game ends, which isn't a guarantee.

Playing New England well means that you have to be able to pay attention to tiny optimizations, because among players who don't make horrible moves, the game tends to be really close; often won by one point or even on tiebreaker. It means that timing the last turn is critical; if you're investing in something and you don't make it pay off before the game is over, you've lost. Not only have we had games that were decided on the last turn, but we've had games where on the penultimate turn we could calculate the exact probability that a player would win (because it all hinged upon the luck of the last draw).

But I think what this also means is that among casual gamers, the game doesn't really feel that exciting. Your moves rarely have giant repercussions. Often it seems like there isn't much difference between most of your options -- because there isn't! Playing well is about seeing those tiny differences and getting enough of them to win over your opponents.

I can see why a game like New England can seem exciting to a player like Jim, who loves analyzing the effects and values of individual moves, and not so very exciting to those who
are more about theme and story, and expect their games to have more "oomph".