Vanished Planet, Innovation, and the luck-swamping problem

From the gaming front, I report one nice surprise and a couple of disappointments.

My interest in that old standby Puerto Rico was rekindled by the World Boardgaming Championships tournament a few weeks ago, in which I made quarter-finals only to wash out in a game with a mere 4-point spread. Friday night at our gaming group I scored 56 points with a factory/fast-build strategy finishing with Residence and Guildhall, 6 points ahead of a tie for second. Nothing remarkable about the play, but I’m becoming convinced that if you’re running that strategy it’s vital to never skip a build opportunity even if it means you have to settle for a smaller edifice than you really want – otherwise you lose control of the game tempo and shippers get time to blow past you.

I won the Power Grid game after that, too, starting with Wien on the Central Europe board and successfully scoring the 30 fairly early (3 Garbage -> 6 cities). The Wien discount was very helpful after that. I believe that low-balling to buy the 3 in the initial auction in order to place first and grab Wien + Bratislava is the strongest opening on that board – besides locking in the garbage discount and enabling you to build nukes, it’s also a central placement that makes it difficult for other players to box you in.

I’ve been less successful with Innovation, an unusual and initially appealing card game themed around cascading technologies to build up the tech level of a civilization. The game is full of interesting ideas and novel mechanics, and I had a pleasant win streak when first playing it. But my wife and I have been playing it nightly as part of our end-of-day ritual, and having mastered it we’re both noticing the same problem. There are a relative handful of power cards (Code of Laws, Democracy, Metric System, and a few others) and given two players who know what they’re doing the one who melds more of them earlier will generally run away to victory.

The dominating strategy seems to be to go for card splay as fast as possible in order to become immune to the dogmas on attack cards like City States, Pirate Code, Skyscrapers, and Rocketry that could otherwise be used to stop the leader. This is disappointing. We’re hoping it’s an artifact of the two-hand game and that the runaway effect is decreased in three- and four-hand games; our limited experience of those suggests it might be so.

This is reminiscent of something I noticed in the Commands & Colors: Ancients Tournament at WBC. I’ve been competing in that for three years now, and most of the players including myself are masters of the game who know every trick and tactic. Perversely, in this tournament environment skill seems to be almost nullified – if neither player makes a gross error victory is determined by dice and card luck. I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Richard Borg, C&C:A’s designer, at this tournament, and he essentially admitted that this is an issue he knows is an issue with C&C:A. Neither of us had a magic fix for it.

This is a disappointing thing to learn about one of my favorite games. It is not invariably a problem in games with a random element; I don’t experience it, for example, in the Conflict of Heroes WWII tactical games. The key seems to be that while CoH uses die rolls, the deviation of outcomes is smaller (fewer analogs of critical hits and fumbles) so tactics dominates luck.

(I made a point of describing CoH to Borg in some detail. As I told him, I want to see what happens when his designer brain absorbs the lessons of that game, which I think is hands down the best tactical WWII game to come down the pike in many a year.)

Since realizing that C&C:A and Innovation have similar problems, I’ve been trying to invent a one-word term for games with this flaw. Ideally it should be self-explaining, or nearly so. The best I’ve come up with so far is “luck-swamped”, which may do.

Now for the good surprise: Vanished Planet. This is a co-op game for up to six players, the single product of a tiny games company located here in Pennsylvania. In fact the copy I played with was delivered to the door of my friends at the House of Chaos by the designer of the game! He happened to be in our neighborhood on the way to a family event.

Vanished Planet has been out since 2003, and I’d seen it played at conventions; it piqued my interest. I’ve seen reviews describing it as like Settlers of Catan, but it’s a lot more like a co-op version of Twilight Imperium (which I reviewed recently). Same big hexagonal board scattered with star systems and maneuvering fleets; same focus on a central planet (vanished Earth replaces Mecatol Rex); same sort of per-species quirks; similar issues with resource management and integrating tactics with grand strategy.

But this is a co-op game – player fleets aren’t fighting each other but a hyperspatial menace that has swallowed Earth and is extending tentacles of doom towards the player homeworlds. Another marked difference is playing time; while it’s not short, it’s half that for a Twilight Imperium game. I played twice, once in a 3-hand learning game and the following day 4-hand; both completed in about four hours.

Both games were a lot of fun. Your ships run around the board tagging planets, nebulas. trade stations, asteroid belts, and research stations to generate basic resources: Colonists, Energy, Ore, and Research. These are then combined in various ways to build personnel (Soldiers, Doctors, Scientists, Engineers, Diplomats) and technologies like Fusion Reactors, Meta-Translators, Dimensional Shifters, and so forth. You use these things to fulfil missions which give you goal points – a typical mission is, say, build a Meta-Translator and take it to the Alien Ruins.

The challenge is to complete enough missions (5 goal points per player) before the hyperspatial menace destroys all homeworlds. This isn’t easy, and the players must cooperate effectively to achieve it by trading resources and developing complementary strategies. As the menace’s tentacles grow longer, movement between the board segments gets more difficult, and players must eventually spend most of their capacity building space mines to keep the tentacles off their homeworlds. The finish is likely to be a nail-biter.

This game exceeded my expectations. The mechanics are simple, the play challenge is very well balanced, and overall it’s quite satisfying. I think it will stand repeated play well, and there are ways to up the challenge level for experienced players.

18 thoughts on “Vanished Planet, Innovation, and the luck-swamping problem

  1. Have you tried playing Innovation where you and your wife each runs two separate players? That trick often balances out games that are theoretically playable with small numbers of players but actually suffer from it.

  2. Is the problem just that the game has a low skill ceiling that many players have reached? If everyone is about as good as everyone else, then of course, luck determines the winner. The solution? Play more interesting and deep (better!) games.

  3. In order to end up in a case where luck doesn’t make a determination at the margin, I think that you need a game where luck can’t be involved. Something like Go or Chess, where all players have the same abilities and options. The only luck-based input is who goes first; games like Go already account for that in scoring, others can be played multiple times to validate.

  4. >Is the problem just that the game has a low skill ceiling that many players have reached?

    Not in the case of C&C:A. Genuine understanding of tactics is important for that game, and this is not a trivial skill.

    Innovation may have this problem, though.

  5. “But my wife and I have been playing [Innovation] nightly as part of our end-of-day ritual…”

    Interesting to see that my husband and I aren’t the only people who do this. Many of the games you discuss on this blog take too much time for a routine evening game; there is something to be said for a less-than-perfect game that is playable for two in the course of a short evening.

    We tend to go for cribbage and canasta, but there are plenty of other options traditional out there. What other games in the strategy genre would be suitable for this space — fun, doesn’t need too much time to play, and quick to learn even when you’ve been working all day before playing?

  6. >The key seems to be that while CoH uses die rolls, the deviation of outcomes is smaller (fewer analogs of critical hits and fumbles) so tactics dominates luck.

    There’s another critical element — some sort of feedback element. In poker they call a “luck swamped” scenario “high variance”, but in that case everyone still gets two cards, which means in the next hand they’ve got the same chance of winning. In a strategy game a lucky roll can give you more resources, which means you’re more likely to win the next encounter, which gives you even more resources.

  7. >What other games in the strategy genre would be suitable for this space — fun, doesn’t need too much time to play, and quick to learn even when you’ve been working all day before playing?

    The games currently in our regular rotation are Lost Cities, Quirkle Cubes, and Innovation. We may drop Innovation for reasons described in the OP (also it’s a bit long), and might bring back Race for the Galaxy.

  8. Eric, are you at making the Quirkle Cubes game fair by wearing a blindfold and identifying the stickers by taste?

    Not that Cathy would, in any way, shape or form, attempt to bollix up your pattern matching skills by kissing you to distract you…no, no. She wouldn’t do that at all…. well. Not to win a game. :)

    (I think I can hear the cackling from the east right…about….now…)

  9. First off: thanks for the info about Vanished Planet. I highly suspect my playgroup will love that one, and plan to pick it up after having looked up a little more about it. As for the term for a game overwhelmed by luck, especially at the high levels, perhaps “luck-biased”? We often use the terms “card screw” and “dice screw” to describe the amount of negative effect luck has had on the game, but a term for the games themselves is a little harder. Also, I found Race for the Galaxy to have a pretty low skill ceiling, and mostly to depend on card draws with players of approximately even skill, rather than skill differences. It was mostly replaced in my group’s rotation by Dominion, which we tend to play without attack cards that alter an opponent’s deck (Spy is fine, things like Ambassador, Witch, and Saboteur can ruin games), which my group perceives to have this problem as well, but a little less than RftG.

  10. >It was mostly replaced in my group’s rotation by Dominion, which we tend to play without attack cards that alter an opponent’s deck

    A couple of the play groups I’m in have developed a custom I like: Draw ten cards at random. Each player gets one veto, in which case the card is replaced. Cards like Witch and Saboteur don’t tend to survive.

  11. > A couple of the play groups I’m in have developed a custom I like: Draw ten cards at random. Each player gets one veto, in which case > the card is replaced. Cards like Witch and Saboteur don’t tend to survive.

    I’ve done it that way as well, actually, when playing with other play groups. Most of my most common playgroup has very similar ideas about what they like and don’t, so usually we just throw out the ones “no one likes” rather than doing specific vetos… we also tend to correct for cost spread. I actually enjoy far less correction than most of my playgroup, but still hate curse-throwers and Saboteur. We also often have been nixing Chapel on account of “the game is a different game if played with Chapel”. It’s not really an unfair one, just a different one… and one that not everyone enjoys.

  12. @esr:
    “The games currently in our regular rotation are Lost Cities, Quirkle Cubes, and Innovation. We may drop Innovation for reasons described in the OP (also it’s a bit long), and might bring back Race for the Galaxy.”

    I looked up reviews of Lost Cities and Race for the Galaxy. Lost Cities sounds like a perfect fit. Race for the Galaxy sounds like it has more than a bit of a learning curve, but once you figure it out it seems to fit.

    Do any of the other posters here have suggestions for quick evening strategy games?

  13. You really prefer Qwirkle cubes, with its higher luck factor, to the original Qwirkle? It seems to me that the cubes version is about 50% luck, while the original game is only perhaps 30% luck.

  14. >You really prefer Qwirkle cubes, with its higher luck factor, to the original Qwirkle?

    Dunno, I’ve never played the original Qwirkle.

  15. You should try it. It’s a lot more like Scrabble, significantly more skill than luck. (I actually call Qwirkle “Scrabble for illiterates”…)

  16. I now have something to contribute to this thread. I recently spent a weekend more or less continuously playing Dominion (only the base set) with a few friends… first time I’d ever played the game.

    There are people who LOVE the Witch (no, I’m not kidding). Also I am ashamed to admit that ‘Bureaucrat’ (*anything* called ‘bureaucrat’, eek) may be my favorite card.

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