What I played, Thoughts on Uchronia, and Inspiration

WHAT I PLAYED THIS WEEK

I had an opportunity to play Uchronia recently (a well-designed card game, by the maker of Glory to Rome, Carl Chudyk), with a great friend and a favorite adversary, Christian. Both of us have only a couple games of Uchronia under our belts, and most of them have been played with each other. I had picked up the game during Christmas, and was immediately excited about the streamlined mechanics from Chudyk’s previous card game, Glory to Rome. Both games share a lot of similarities, but Uchronia is its own beast, and a damn fine direct competition game. I mention my buddy because he is one of those gamers I enjoy delving into a new game with. He’s is a gracious winner, unafraid of losing, loves to try new things and test interesting ideas, and always learns from sessions he plays. I often think about how a game environment is a vulnerable space, and a great place to fail in. He helps create such environments.

I played about 5 games of Uchronia from last Friday through Monday. Christian played in three of them, and each game we tried out new facets of the game, and got to see some incredible synergy bonuses become not as useful, and more subtle ones becoming much more important in tighter games. After I taught Christian the game about three weeks ago, we have been chomping at the bit to play again and again. A real fun sandbox for shifty, fluid minds. I knew I was going to really enjoy playing this game when Christian pointed out how it reminded him of the parsed out mechanic in Ascending Empires (I shall write of the Cult of Ascending Empires, but at a later time). I will be getting at least one game in this Friday, and I can’t wait to sink in again.

INSPIRATION – PLAYING TO WIN

I enjoy seeing what happens when an adversary knows they have the upper hand, and how that manifests in the game environment. Victory is an awesome thing to watch – either your own or an adversary’s. The losing position is a fragile place to be, and I admit I have acted poorly as a loser and poorly as a winner. I think we have all been there – its not a great head space.

Its a brutal thing to accept failure, but its so worthy of doing – because doing so usually shuts up that gnawing beast of pride. And speaking only for myself, pride has only ever hinder my ability to learn important lessons in both victory and defeat. The more I experience good competition, the more I don’t believe that achieving victory means as much as seeking victory. Victory is a fleeting emotional thing – fun and exhilarating – but hollow without analysis. What is more important is playing to win. In fact, I linked to Sirlin.net in last week’s post, but utterly failed to express how important reading this has been. He talks about the importance of playing to win, and how it pushes the competition forward in new, interesting, and necessary ways. Again, the similarities to good competitive practices, such as within various disciplines of the martial arts, where adversaries are welcomed, and new ways of utilizing a set of moves pushes the collective forward.

AN EXAMPLE OF DIRECT COMPETITION – UCHRONIA (By Carl Chudyk)

So, WTF is Uchronia?! Uchronia is a very good example of a direct competition game. Players will compete to construct buildings for points, and acquire monopolies by further defining their actions within the game environment. Each component of the game is interwoven into the other components, creating a latticework of actions/consequences.

The play area has three basic parts:

  • The Forum, where resources are waiting to be taken into your stock or used to start buildings. Cards used as Actions are placed in the forum at the start of your turn – thus, cards only come into the Forum when they are used as actions.

  • The Domain (a placard that you play from, with the rules on it), where you place your ordered Action, and where you tuck cards as resources or activities, when directed.

  • The Draw/Discard piles, where players draw new cards, and where cards get discarded when buildings are started, or buildings are finished.

Each card has three basic uses: Activity, Action, or Resource (will explain shortly)

Your personal play area consists of several locations of note:

  • Buildings Under Construction are placed to the left of your Domain

  • Buildings Complete are placed to the right of your Domain, and associated text and victory points

  • The Stock (bottom of Domain) is where you tuck cards as Resources

  • Activities (top of Domain) is where you tuck cards as Activities – this is what gives you the ability to do MORE stuff in the game environment.

  • Your Hand, which is where you hold your cards you haven’t played.

Most turns will require the players to order one Action from their hand to manipulate the game environment.

  • Production. Tuck a card from the Forum into your Stock. Take +1 card from the Forum for each matching Activity.

  • Exploration. Tuck one card from your Hand into your Stock. Tuck +1 card for each matching Activity.

  • Draconians. Show one card from your Hand, then tuck one card of this type from the forum to your stock; in addition, each player who has a card(s) on their Domain must give a card of the same type from his hand, if possible. Show and take one additional card for each matching Activity.

  • Trade. Take one resource in your Stock and ‘launch’ it as an Activity. Launch +1 card for each matching Activity. (Activity limit is 2 + X, where X is the number of completed Buildings).

  • Construction. Start a new building (by discarding a matching color resource from the Forum) or transfer a resource from your Stock to a building in progress. Repeat for each matching Activity.

WHY I LIKE UCHRONIA

The card drawing mechanic seems to affect all players equally as playing cards fuels the Forum. The context of the game changes, and so must the players adapt as best they can. The point gain actions are parsed out over several staging actions. However, the staging actions can be used aggressively to control the game environment, and deny resources to other players. Its a game where the environment is in flux, and the players must keep up and outthink adversaries. Because the point gain actions are parsed out, there is a rhythm to the game. This rhythm is strictly defined by the players’ actions, and those show you their possible future actions. As such, you can attempt to block an adversary’s future moves by reading the sequence of actions they are performing. Uchronia allows several avenues to this end, and their usefulness varies depending on the current game environment.

And I haven’t even delved into all the functions that come online when you finish construction of a Building. Each building gives you either an immediate benefit, or a new exploit of some kind (usually a bonus when using a specific Action, or modifications to the Draconian/Trade actions). And your number of completed buildings directly increases your Activity limit (2+buildings completed). Your power grows the more your build it and the more activities you have. And how you leverage it depends solely on your ability to exploit the synergy of bonuses, and with the good timing.

As the game doesn’t immediately end when a player hits the victory point threshold (20 pts in 2 Player, 18pts in 3 player, and 16 pts in 4 player, and 14 pts in 5 player), but instead the game plays forward until the holder of the Last Turn card plays the final turn of the game. This is important for two reasons – hitting the Victory Point threshold doesn’t mean you win. You must STILL have more points than your adversaries (ties go to the player with the most buildings constructed).

The second part requires explanation of a vital part of the game, which are Monopolies. When a player has tucked the most of one type of Activity (e.g., 3 Production), they get the Production Monopoly (cheers! have a pint on you!). While you hold the Production Monopoly card, you get an extra +1 Victory Point for each Activity of matching type (e.g., 3 Production Activities would net 3 Victory Points). Here’s the sitch you and all the other players are in – these Monopolies will move instantly when a player exceeds the amount of Activities you have, plus one. So, in our 3 Production example, your adversary could claim the Production Monopoly with 4 Production Activities. That means the new Production Monopoly holder would gain +4 Victory Points (for 4 Production), and the player who had until recently held the Monopoly would LOSE 3 Victory Points. In this way, the holder of the Last Turn card has some unique advantages, if you can stay close enough to steal someone’s Monopolies at the last minute. Proof that the game isn’t OVER until its actually OVER.

I have played 2, 3, and 4 player games. I have had the most fun in 2 player games, but Draconians are very fun in games with 3 and 4 players. In short, Uchronia is a fun, chewy card game. It can be a pain to teach to less engaged people (choose your adversaries well!), but with the right individuals, it is a great game to sink your mind into.

Myself, Gaming, and When I Enjoy Competition

OBLIGATORY STATEMENTS ABOUT WHO THE HELL I AM

I have been gaming most of my life (age 4 and up). I think my first game was a DOS BASIC game called Depth Charge, played on an IBM back in 1984. Since then, its been a string of PC games, board/card games, RPGs, console games, and the occasional pick up game of basketball. I enjoy having to thinking within a system of constraints (or rules), then watch the patterns of play style and tactical choice emerge within that system. I seek out competitive game environments as a sort of mental martial art. And like a community of martial artists, in order to become better at what you do, you need good adversaries. For me, a good adversary is a fellow player that pushes back, hopefully harder than you pushed. The give and take. But with meeples and chits, rather than punches and kicks, blocks and throws.

For me, competition against a variety of players has given me insight into my own failed ways of thinking, and access to different models of decision making. This has helped me break down the ways in which I am a scrub, then work on making better decisions with the given and hidden information. As a general rule, I tend to gravitate towards players capable of creating and fostering a vulnerable and safe space to push each other to outthink and outmaneuver opponents.  Like most gamers, I am a recovering scrub, and have mostly left that flawed way of thinking in lieu of actually playing to win.

WHY GAMING?

I spend a lot of time observing the ways in which my adversaries think. I find games to be an elegant way to test and implement different ideas. And while a game can give you something to compete for, good adversaries have taught me how to win with integrity, and how to learn from a failure. While I am human like everyone else, I try to stay positive and not lose my cool at the table. Failures should be embraced. You can win a game through no fault of your own. But losing a game usually involves someone outpacing you.

One of my favorite aspects of competitive games is the way I can truly experience another individual’s mind through their decision-making process. A competitive game environment draws that decision-making process into sharp relief, reveals the pattern, and if you’re observant, can give you insight into your opponent (I am still working on reading things correctly).

You can literally track that process in the way the game unfolds. Decisions snowball into other decisions. Then counter moves snowball into other ways of pushing the rules to your own advantage. That exchange, the back and forth, is the pattern of the other player’s mind at work. And in a well-designed competitive game environment, you get an opportunity to both counter a player’s moves as well as their future moves, if you can read the pattern. And when I play a game with that many levels to it, it has indelibly changed the way I think – so long as I am paying attention to the lesson.

THE VULNERABLE SPACE OF COMPETITION

I love competition… sometimes. Well, I particularly like competition within systems of rules and constraints, aka games. I find competition to be a very vulnerable space to occupy, so choosing the right adversaries is a very critical task. Creating this space to be vulnerable actually produces “valuable” competition. The value is in the act of self-control, and staying positive (also, difficulties for me, as I am sure we have all experienced). Fostering an environment that promotes different modes of thinking and engagement requires being a support mechanism for your peers, and constantly seeking to dive into the deeper nuances of a game.

RIGGED GAMES VS. RANDOM GAMES

One’s application of strategic thought and innovative implementation is meaningless when the circumstances more than manipulation grant victory or defeat. Or, in other words, a game system with too many random variables, or too many hard and fast rules, actually hinders and sidetracks the competitive nature of a game environment.

I typically only play games that have direct lines of competition, whether that is a territory fight mixed with resource management, or games where you fight for position while having to track a variety of other variables that are solely influenced by the other players. Its not to say that resource management games aren’t fun, but they are not an experience that I derive satisfaction, as I would be playing against the board or rules set, rather than other players and their decision-making process.

More to come…