Saturday, 3 January 2015

7wonders XX ^C +B

Let me tell you about 7wonders. It's a drafting card game designed by Antoine "Hanabi, Takenoko and Ghost Stories" Bauza. It was released in 2011. I played this game a ton last year. I'll be playing it likely just as much this year.

The game flow is pretty simple. Each player is dealt 7 cards. They each draw a card from their hand, place it face down and pass the remaining six on. Everyone then reveals what they've taken, picks up the hand passed to them and does it again. When there's two cards left, one is taken and the other discarded into the center of the table. After this draft, each player fights the two on either side and gain victory or loss tokens. This is done with three hands of cards and then scores are added up based on what you've taken.

The complications primarily come from cards having prerequisites in order to be taken. You resolve these by having previously taken the appropriate resource cards, or in the case of one requiring a previous other card, simply owning that will do. If you don't have the resources but one of your neighbours does, you can give them money to essentially borrow their resource cards' effects.

The cards all have different coloured backs to indicate what type they are. These are as follows:
 - Brown. Resources such as wood, clay, stone or metal.
 - Grey. Manufactured resources such as cloth, glass and papyrus.
 - Yellow. Financially oriented cards. Discounts to paying for the right to use a neighbour's resources, gaining money based on your own, and so on.
 - Red. Military. Whoever has the most military icons as indicated on the tops of the cards wins when fighting neighbours after each draft.
 - Blue. Simply give points, but not much use for helping acquire other cards. Some later blue cards can be built for free if you have the right earlier game blue.
 - Green. Science. There's cards with tablets, compasses or gears. If you have one of each symbol, you gain 7 points. Two of each symbol 14 and so on. On top of this, for each of a symbol type you have (such as 3 tablets, 2 gears or what have you) you also gain that total number squared. This means science has the potential to give exponential growth and completely destroy games. There's also some military cards in the third draft that can be built for free if you have the right science.
 - Purple. Cards that give you points based on what your neighbours have. These can be potent wild cards.

The first Age is mostly about gaining resources and money to help you build the cards you'll want in order to win later. Purples only appear in the third draft, where you can see what sorts of builds players have gone for and whether they'll benefit more or you.

In order to help you being forced to give neighbours cards they really want, there's two ways to remove cards from play. The first is to simply discard a card for 3 money instead of building one. The other is your nation's Wonder. What you do here is simply place a card under a slot on your cardboard Wonder and ignore what was on the card. Instead you gain whatever effect is written for that slot and have to make sure you meet the requirements to build it. In other words, each player has some unique cards that they can swap one out for in order to hide tools that would benefit opponents.

On a first time playing where there's people getting a feel for the flow and deciphering the efficient but slightly obtuse graphical information on cards, the game will take at most 40 minutes. When people know what to do it's about 20. It's a great pace for trying out builds, finding ways to steal victory from opponents and exploring the metagame. I cannot recommend this game enough.

However, with the base release, I've found that the optimal build to go for is pretty much one of two things:
1. Go for as much science as possible and win by a gigantic margin.
2. If science is getting spread too thin or blocked, Blues backed up with the late game Yellows (points and money for resources held, Wonder stages built, yellows owned etc.) or Red will win.
The game's relative simplicity winds up hurting the creativity somewhat.

Mr. Bauza's a smart fellow though and realised this would happen. So naturally an expansion was released. 7wonders: Leaders. Before the first draft, there is now an additional draft to gain Leader cards. Before each draft you can spend some money to build a Leader who provides all sorts of effects. Some allow for cheaper trading. Some give money. Some give extra military. Some eliminate the requirements to build an entire category of cards. Some give victory points.

This opened up your options a ton. Xenophon gives you money for every Yellow you make. Midas gives you extra points for every money you have. Imhotep reduces Wonder production. Bilkis means you don't have to worry about gaining as many resource cards and can instead spend those turns building up other areas of your game. Plato can turn a wishy-washy build that didn't commit to anything into a 14 point bonus. The game even put in a new Wonder built around building extra Leaders to gain even more cool effects!

Then another expansion was released. It added an entire new colour category: Black. These are varied in use but can be devastatingly powerful. Naturally this means they cost more. Some give universal discounts. Some give far more military than normal. Some simply give more points. Naturally, there are then Leaders who can buff the power of these cards even more!

Free Black cards? Damn straight Caligula's grinning.

 These expansions illustrate what's often called power creep. All these new options naturally come with buffs to existing options and so while in the base game you'll often win with a score around 45, I have seen games with Cities that broke 100.

So then last November, Antoine released Babel. The entire point of this expansion is simple: debuffs. In addition to your own Wonder, you can discard cards to contribute to a Tower of Babel that affects everyone. Want to give free Wonder stages for yourself? Giza's going to jump on that. Want free resources so you don't have to give money to people? Hope you didn't need money yourself. Want to force that military build next to you to run out of money? Play that Taxes on Red tile.

Babel is actually two expansions. The other places a single project in the center and whenever you build a card of the same colour, you can pay taxes to it. If you do so and the project completes, you can gain incredible benefits like free Wonder stages, large piles of money or extra points for your science. If you don't contribute, there can be potent consequences. Like losing cards. Or your money. Or being unable to use a certain resource.

These are gigantic game changers that I'm still nutting out how to best play with. They certainly tie into the game's system, but aren't simply here's another card you can build in the draft". The game takes a bit longer to play and is a great deal more mentally taxing. Some of my friends who I play games with really like what's happening here. Others feel it has hurt the core of what makes 7wonders fun by operating so differently.

I've gone over this content pretty quickly, but it's not the same as experiencing a game for yourself. When teaching newcomers to a game, I like to play with the base set first, then add the expansions one by one. It's important to avoid information overload, and thanks to the entire way board game expansions simply add content to a game, it's very easy to do this. It just means I have to sort the darn cards out again.

Now then, let's look at another game I like. Funny enough, it's Guilty Gear.

When Guilty Gear X was released in 2000, this is what it looked like. It was a fighting game that worked like this:
 - You have four buttons. PKSH. You can chain them together starting from P and ending with H if you want.
 - S+H is an overhead that launches. 2S+H is a sweep.
 - You gain meter by moving forwards. You can spend it on supers, knocking someone away while you're guarding or completely removing the recovery on a physcial attack that's been blocked or has hit. Or by Faultless Defending (read my Defense article if you don't know what that is.)
 - If you block, it fills up that little pinkish bar under your health. The more it's filled, the more damage you take if you get hit. If it's high enough, it'll flash. That causes a guaranteed counterhit that'll lead to big damage! (See my Combos article)
 - If you knock someone down, you can pick them up with any move that hits their crouching body, but for a quarter of the usual hitstun and damage.
 - You can run, double jump, airdash and superjump (see the defense article)

And that was pretty much it. More complicated than Street Fighter, but not really more obtuse than games that had come out over the couple of years beforehand. Things like Vampire Saviour, Marvel vs Capcom 2, Mark of the Wolves or Street Fighter Alpha 3's ludicrous resets, guard crush options and infinite combos involving a painfully dull series of j.MK over and over.

Like any game starting out, it had issues. Johnny's mist recovered so fast that every knockdown led into an inescapable, unblockable attack that knocked down and set itself up over again. Guard cancels couldn't save you from Zato's pressure once Eddie was out since the attack would just hit Eddie while Zato blocked it and hit you for Six anyway. On top of that, it turned out that since S+H was classed as a normal that could be chained into, you could chain Heavy normals into 4S+H. You know, the input for Faultless Defense. Thus, you could chain normals into blocking. Which meant that for barely any meter you could remove absolutely all recovery from the slow recovery normals. Thus on block, you could crank the guard bar to max for no effort. If you hit, characters would simply combo [5H, 4S+H] until the opponent was dead. Thus, the game quickly became legendary for not just its fast pace, but its incredibly busted gameplay.

So then XX was released in early 2002. Here's what it looked like.

Straight away you can see that things are changing. At least one new option has been added. Refer to those bullet points above for GGX's rules and add these:
 - Launching Overhead and Sweep are now tied to a fifth button, Dust!
 - If you press Dust and any other button, you will perform a Burst. If done while you're in hitstun or blockstun, it will flash blue and knock the opponent away! If done in neutral, it will flash Gold and should it hit the opponent, you'll gain full meter!
 - In addition to the Roman Cancel, you can now spend 25 meter to cancel a move in a specific window of the move. This can be done regardless of whether you make contact with the opponent or not.

With the context of GGX, you can understand exactly why these rules were added. A fifth button resolves chaining into Faultless Defense. So does tying any button + Dust to a move that has a separate resource requirement. The new Force/False Roman Cancels allow for a more versatile fireball game, new combo options if you don't yet have 50 meter and a bit more safety in the neutral game. That's handy to have in such a relentlessly fast game.

There were some hefty balance issues in the first release of XX, so a year later Guilty Gear XX #Reload was released. It shipped with some catastrophic bugs that forced a product recall and came out for real a month later with the colour of the #Reload changed from red to blue so arcade owners knew they had the right board. There were no hefty rules changes here though. If X to XX is like 7wonders to Leaders, then XX to #Reload is like Cities. It added a new character and tweaked move properties, but there were no real system adjustments to shake up the game.

#Reload is when the game was at its height of popularity. It was this brave new world of fast movement, potentially safe reversals, terrifying buzzsaws and a Robot who could take nearly 90% of your life if he landed that command grab at the right time. A land where some characters would do 16+ hit juggle combos and others would deal the same damage for two hits. A world where newcomers could go toe-to-toe with heavyweights like Daigo Umehara and win since everyone was working out exactly how the rules of XX operated with a much more viable roster of characters.

Two years later, 2005 saw the release of a new revision of XX simply called Slash. If #Reload is Cities, then Slash is the Wonder Pack. Once again, there no new system changes, but further tweaks were done and new characters added. It was ultimately the same game as before, and so the playerbase didn't really gain new blood. While players like Koichi were able to really make I-no shine, general fighting game legends like Daigo packed it up and went back to Third Strike. There was no English release for the game, so the American community suffered from difficulties in running events to boot.

And then at the end of 2006 came Babel. I mean Accent Core (^C). Fresh off the completely nutso mechanics testing field that was the Hokuto no Ken fighter came a new iteration of XX. Character buffs abounded! New moves were added! Hit... properties were added? Whoa, what? Let's see what new rules came into being!
 - S+H now inputs a Slashback. Essentially a parry that costs 2 tension.
 - Some moves now cause you to stick the wall!
 - Some moves now slam you into the ground so hard that you can pick them up without the usual penalty!
 - You can now spend 25 tension on entirely new moves! Potemkin can perform his command grab in the air! Zato can make his dreaded giant drill whenever he wants! Testament gets yet another overhead! Jam has a fully invincible Puffball that's safe on block and combos into itself! Slayer gets an uppercut that hits super hard!

The game people understood had now changed drastically. Slayer transformed from Mr. 2-hit Combo to someone who could link a kick into itself five times and flip around in the air for a million years. Axl gained an instant overhead that start combos. Potemkin became an absolute monster. Testament's traditional blind spot became the most dangerous place to put yourself against him. Learning how to pressure Baiken had to be started all over again. Zato gained even more unblockable setups. Bridget achieved Orbit of the planet.

The thing is, it was pretty much the same playerbase as Slash. More people joined, but nowhere near the initial influx of XX. So why bother making this iteration if it's just for an existing playerbase?

It's because people like to explore. Once people feel they have learned something, they want more. If they can't find any new mountains to climb, they'll move somewhere they can. Both Babel and Accent Core shake things up super hard so there's new mountains. So you feel like you're barely playing the same game you started out with. So you can take the experience you've gained  and apply it in whole new ways. It's great to start out with something simple, but if you really enjoy it, you'll probably enjoy it even more when there's more to sink your teeth into.

Of course if you're a newcomer and see people with a gigantic table full of cardboard or some Sol bouncing people between walls with fire punches that only work correctly if he hits them in the neck, you're likely going to be intimidated. There are people who see something of complexity and want to jump in straight away, but not everyone wants to run before they can walk. And you know what? That is fine.

The board game expansion model is super great because you can physically remove the later complications and start people off with what you began your journey with. In a world of DLC upgrades and information posted on transient social media, it can be somewhat harder to bring things back down to ease people into a new fighting game. This is part of why sometimes you need a Street Fighter 4 or a Guilty Gear Xrd to bring things back down in a new way. So that the veterans have to rethink some ideas and the newcomers have less information to learn. But at the same time, the veterans can use their past experience to pass on their knowledge in a simpler framework and help the newcomers improve.

So my take-home conclusions are ultimately these:
 - Simplicity is great, but can get a bit boring if it is optimised too quickly.
 - Designers who love their game will inevitably devise new systems or options in the interest of balance or simply shaking up the metagame and providing new forms of self expression
 - If you want to teach people a game of any kind, start off with the basics. If there's a simpler version of the game, opt for that first so they can build a solid foundation of knowledge.
 - Accent Core Slayer is one of the coolest dudes ever.

(oh and for the sake of completion, the upcoming Armada expansion looks to be adding a new card colour type, making it similar to a #R or Slash. Thus, Armada is the Accent Core +R of 7wonders.

and Sushi Go! is the Xrd. Give it a shot too!)

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