xxxx xxxx

Age of Discovery / Zeitalter der Entdeckungen
Author: Alfred Viktor Schulz
Publisher: Phalanx Games
Year: 2007

review by


Somewhere, hidden by the dense foliage of old, solemn trees, lies the noted Game Design Academy, its impressive entranceway framed by a hedge of buxus plants forming a Kramerleist. Registering is not possible, the candidates must try to find the institute to qualify for the study, and the search is part of the learning process. Once arrived they form part of a select and ambitious group of which only few will have remained at the end of the course.

The day starts with a dive in the Fresh Ideas Pool, after which a shower with Connecting Elements is taken. Unlucky stragglers get extra lessons with ‘Persevere!’ as topic. Regular subjects cover topics like ‘Dice and Cubes’, and in general money and fame is respected highly. The teachers wear Roman gowns or pirates costumes; a sole dissident has dyed his hair purple or is dressed in a safe black colour. Fellow believers meet each other in the odd hour on the playing ground behind the timber workshop where broken games are repaired. At the gate pushers of AmeriTrash hawk their plastic - the candidates skirt by hastily.

A first work order shows: 'Site Plan & Start, Goal & Mechanics, End & Conclusion'. Various lectures treat themes like ‘Move Over when Your Move is Over?’ or ‘Randomizing: In One Roll’. Outside on the sports field a group is practising the advanced Taiji figure ‘Looking For the Obvious’. The annual excursion with assignment ‘What to Do when Skipping a Turn’ is always very popular, especially among the extravert and evermore chatting idly participants. Somewhere in a classroom the following scheme is drawn on the blackboard:

Scattered through the building plates are hanging on the walls with sayings printed on them such as ‘All Participate’ or ‘Playing is Learning’. You do your utmost, and after a tough final exam and after completing your final papers you get your degree. You may choose one of the plates on the wall if you replace it with a new one. You decide to take the moving ‘The Start Is The Beginning’, and replace it with the student-like ‘A Game Lasts A Given Time, A Player Must Be Given The Time’. So there you are, with your Game Degree. Smartly educated, with lots of ambition, and a lot of ideas. What will you set about: the Romans, the trading dynasties, or something more up to date, something to do with the environment? However, the influence of your tutor prevails: you pick a historic component, where, similar to your own situation, new horizons are opened up: the many famous discovery journeys by ships.

Good-tempered you set yourself to work: you draw a flow chart of money, trading houses and expeditions, earning the necessary points for victory. Twelve discoveries can be made before the game ends, but wait, for scoring two score cards are mixed among the ship cards. Well, the end of the game is settled with this. These ships that can be bought: five of them are turned open and available for purchase, and, very nice, we throw in a second row of five cards behind the first row, so players see what kind of ships are getting available once a ship from the first row is bought. The scoring cards must be shuffled through the ship deck in a special way, so behind the second row is a third, blind row of ship cards in five separate piles.

Money! Stupid! The players must be able to earn money; we distribute a small amount at game start to begin with. During the game they must try to earn their money by means of the trading houses, by committing ships of the corresponding colour to them. Oh, didn’t I mention it? The ships have their price of course, but they also have a distinct colour to be matched at the trading houses and expeditions. Lastly the ship cards show a number that represents the capacity of their ship’s hold. This capacity can also be found at the trading houses and at the expeditions where, many a little makes a mickle, they can be put to action.

The trading house cards also cost money, albeit only one coin, before they produce money by means of the commitment of ships. A set of four open cards seems enough, with the blind stack next to it. When a trading house card is played, it must be supplied with own ships of the right colour, matching the trading house capacity.

At the same time we decide how many turns we would like to dedicate the ships to the trading house: from one to three turns, because it will earn a player more money if he supplies the trading house for three turns. By means of two cubes in the players colour this choice is marked. With this money we are able to buy new ships; all is right till now, and those ships can be placed at an expedition and score two times in a game, scoring more if the ship has the same colour as the expedition. Oh my! How do we know whose ship it is?! Happily this can be arranged quite easily: we just place a cube in the players colour on it!

Also nice: all players get three special cards with which they are able to reserve a ship in the row when they lack sufficient funds for buying it, or just want to block it for a turn from another player. The two other cards allow placement of a ship at an expedition with a different colour. And now it gets real tactical: at the start of play each player gets an assigment card; they now have different interests of in how many expeditions to participate, and with how many ships.

Done! That could have been worse! A successful game! What? Inconvenient? Much ado? Is it really?

What went wrong then? All necessary elements are present, are they not - and these even extensively?

After setting up the game the table is sown with cards of all sort of sizes; the space these cards take roughly add up to the the size of a gameboard of the ill fated Eagle Games, known from mammoth releases and gameboards with the size of a billiard table. Especially toward the end of the game the overall picture gets lost when the table is clotted with various ship cards and it gets difficult to see which expedition is completed - we put a coin on the expedition cards to indicate it, but this is additional information on top of the many colours and sometimes subtle frame colours of the cards; the overall impression is that of a parakeet cage!

The player who anchors his ship for the full three turns on a trading house card and thinks he will get more money by doing so, is deceived in two ways: the difference in income is neglectable. But more importantly is that each completed trading house card is a multiplier for the number of accomplished assignments at the end of the game. The more trading cards a player has completed, the higher this factor gets, and they dramatically can boost a players score. So why would a player want to commit his ships for more than one turn, especially when all the other players free theirs after one turn to commit them on a next trading house card?

What is wrong with the game then? Everything works, but it is much ado, with minimal interaction and little atmosphere. The game is stuffed with all sorts of mechanisms, a display of cards to choose from, scoring cards, assignment cards, special cards, but it doesn’t really get together, nor does the inclusion of all these single elements present a smooth and compact game, nor does it give a good feeling when playing. We have seen all of it before - it feels like some leftovers*. The fiddling with the cubes feels very artificial; the whole feeling is that of playing the beta version of a prototype. This is especially expressed in the trade house cards regarding the revenue and the assignment cards that are not equally difficult to accomplish; the varying points awarded for the different assignments do not reflect this enough. Has there been any playtesting on this, or has some bookkeeper just filled in a chart?

It all should have been compressed, not only regarding the game components or the space it takes, but particularly the game as a whole. And then maybe something with a mapboard would have showed up somewhere in the process; now we are saddled with a wafer-thin scoring board and ditto expedition cards - because of this it feels as if the game is being produced on the cheap. And despite repeated swift and driven play, the stated gameplay of 45 minutes is grossly understated - why do they do that?

So where did it go wrong? The author is not much to blame - an original but not quite perfect game still can be improved and further developed, together with the editor.

Maybe the publisher had to be more binding on this project, and with a more critical view this could have led to a better product, publishing a better game. It really is a pity that Phalanx does not have much luck on this lately.
© 2007 Richard van Vugt

Age of Discovery / Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, Alfred Viktor Schulz, Phalanx Games, 2007 - 2 to 4 players, 10 years and up, 45 minutes